SOURCE: Based on IFL Science, 25 Sep 2023, “The Stonehenge Altar Stone Didn’t Come From Where We Thought It Did,” as used in the post Stonehenge’s altar is not like the other stones.
This was meant to be the October song, and the process here was kind of weird for me. I started with the altar stone discovery: the center of Stonehenge way in the south of England had somehow been hauled there from… Scotland? Maybe even the Orkneys? It weighs somewhere upward of 30 tons, and this was a society without diesel engines. So for a song, I decided, OK, let’s borrow a structure from something I’d have heard on a pipes-and-drums album growing up. Fine. I put that down.
At the same time, I’d been listening to a bit of two not-very-similar bands in October – The Ophelias, currently active, from Cincinnati, and Fairport Convention, especially various renditions of “Farewell, Farewell” by different elements of the Fairport family, not as currently active, and from 1970s Britain by way of the Middle Ages. The melody owes something to Sandy Denny and the strings (and maybe the bridge) owe something to The Ophelias.
Most of that was all in place last month. What I didn’t have was lyrics. I was halfway thinking it would be something about devotion and spectroscopy, the altar stone as a cipher for the human heart and its mysterious movements. But that didn’t come together at all. Finally, on I think the 24th or 25th of October, I had an “a ha” – if it’s going to draw from the Fairport melodic well, why not look to a medieval folk song structure? Make it a call and response. What are they responding around? Well, hey, Stonehenge is a calendar, among other things, so make it a “How much longer?” kind of song! And with that, it all sort of fell into place. It was a day later than I could really squeak it in and pretend it was on time, so I recorded those words at leisure. I tried not to be too fancy with them, and even de-clevered them a little. What I indulged it this time was trying to get the mix right.
I am not a good mixer. I think part of the issue was in the early days of 4-tracks, I would have a lot of lucky accidents in which layering tracks would create all sorts of interesting phasing and other sound artifacts (in one song, a guitar riff spontaneously emerged from some kind of interference pattern between two or three rhythm guitars – an arpeggio emerged though I never played it, and wasn’t even playing individual notes). So as soon as I get a song like this one – with three drum tracks, three vocals, two basses, two strings, an organ, and a rhythm and lead guitar – my instinct is to just let them go and be noisy. The thing with audio production is doing that actually makes each track stand out *less*, which can make what should be the most impactful part – when all the players are playing at the same time – sound less impactful, and sort of bland and mushy. So for this, far more than I ever usually do, I spent hours EQing each track differently (so frequencies boosted on one would line up with frequencies lowered on the others). I’m not positive it all worked though. I tend to like things I record to be trebly and over-bright just as an aesthetic thing, and I have basically had less hearing in my right ear than my left since a bad blast of feedback from an amp too near my head in the year of our Lord 19-hundred and 89. When listening back to songs, I tend to flip headphones wrong-way-around and back again to try to get the balance right.
But this song, I worked extra hard on all that stuff. If I had my druthers, this would be a duet, with the lead voice belonging to a lady asking the questions, and a gruff man answering with the times on the calendar. (If it’s not obvious, he’s describing each of the solstices and equinoxes in the four verses before the bridge.) Man, I do love the way the bridge works in here – the folkiness all drops away for a few seconds while the asker and answerer contemplate what it’ll be like when the stone is in place and the henge is completed. Because that should be impressive, right? Whoever hauled this stone from so far away must have counted a lot of days and spent many months dreaming of what would finally be accomplished… which is something us in the far, far future are only now beginning to figure out.
How many miles must our stone travel yet?
And how will your hands yet hold it?
Till noontime sun on the longest day sends shades and pain far, far away.
And how many months will our stone travel yet?
And how will ropes yet bind it?
Till harvest moon and setting sun spin beams that balance one to one.
And how will you know the stone’s right road?
And how will shoulders lift it?
By stars that shine on the longest night, by marking time, by spirit’s flight
And when will we meet and how shall we know
The stone’s place in our circle?
When spring sunrise meets darkened eyes
When our same skies will make us wise
And sarsens stand like bluestone hands
Making plain a guiding plan
And so I’ll bring this fine altar stone
For months and miles I’ll travel
Until our circle round is done, Until our road has brought me home
Until our road has brought me home