Walking into a someone’s home is one of the best ways to learn about who he truly is: What he has hanging on the walls, what liquor is in his cabinets, what movies and books are on his shelves — all of these tell a tale.
In the case of Matt Ogden of Cincinnati Electronic group Black Signal, the fact that’s he’s linked every conceivable piece of home technology into an Amazon Alexa hive-mind shows visitors that he’s really, really into forcing machines to do his bidding.
It’s probably a good thing the machines are complicit in this subjugation, as it allows him to turn YouTube on with a few words. It has also allowed him and his bandmates to craft Parallels, a masterful five-track Synthwave EP that builds on their already diverse output.
With Ogden as the only constant presence, Black Signal has been around in some form or another for almost a decade but has gone through multiple mutations throughout its lifespan. It first hit Cincinnati’s local music scene properly with the release of 2013’s single Lions and 2014’s demo Naudem. At the time the group was a two-man operation featuring various guests, with vocalists like Jess Lamb and B-Rad from the Breeze lending their talents to recordings.
But in July 2016, change was yet again afoot and Joe Thompson of Cincinnati Noise Rock crew Mala In Se stepped in full-time on guitar, a first for the heretofore all-electronic act. Longtime contributors Von Claire and Eugenius also joined the lineup along the way, although they may not even know — Ogden and Thompson hastily confirmed their membership during a recent interview. For a band like Black Signal, nothing has ever truly been set in stone.
From the beginning, Ogden had always envisioned the band having live instruments to accompany his synths and other Electronic staples, so having Thompson involved in the creation of Parallels was a dream come true. But it came with some unexpected nightmares, as well.
“At this point I consider the computer to be the unofficial fifth member so to have live drums and guitar and transition into this live element is super awesome,” Ogden says. “But then to take these songs that we have and love, we completely had to deconstruct them and make room for new drum riffs and new guitars,”
That approach is where the EP title came from. The musicians tasked themselves with taking older tracks and reworking them to incorporate Thompson’s guitars as well as the voices of Von Claire and Eugenius. The group took Black Signal favorites like “BLONDE DOG,” “Control” and “Wax Heart” and rebuilt them into something that, while still familiar to fans, is more in line with the contemporary vision for the project. (Listen to BS's previous work here.)
This led to some clever solutions, stitching old and new together by doing things like using Eugenius’ new verses in “BLONDE DOG” while still incorporating B-Rad’s original chorus. But the biggest shift was the amalgamation of Thompson’s guitars; though fans of Mala In Se may be expecting spastic, discordant riffs, Thompson actually had to learn what and when he could play in Black Signal and, more importantly, when to let the other elements breathe.
“It’s a lot of me trying to sound like a synthesizer while playing guitar,” Thompson says.
Even how the songs were written was untraditional. With the many sonic layers involved with a typical Black Signal song, a jam session just isn’t feasible. More often than not the band members had to build upon each other’s work and understand when to back off if another member had a stronger contribution. Usually Ogden sits down at a computer and puts together the skeleton of a song, then brings it to Thompson to stitch together a Frankenstein’s monster of a track, a process punctuated by a lot of trial and error. Thompson will take Ogden’s initial output and keep “hitting the space bar” (i.e. restarting the recording software) until he lands upon something that he and Ogden are happy with for each individual section of a track.
This odd writing style is made even odder by the fact that Ogden sometimes can’t even be fully present during a session. A realtor by trade, there is no such thing as a 9-to-5 schedule, something evidenced by the track “WINDBRKR 83.”
“When my phone rings, I have to answer my phone. I got a call in, someone put an offer in on a house, and I was like, ‘Shit, I’m not going to be able to have practice today, Joe,’ ” Ogden says of the song’s creation. “’So just keep going through this.’ (As Joe jams) I’m up here thinking, ‘This is great, this is great!’ Every once in a while I’d yell down (to the rehearsal space), ‘Yeah, Joe, that!’ ”
When Black Signal was ready to enter the studio, they yet again made an unexpected choice, deciding to work with local recording legend Mike Montgomery, who’s known primarily for his Rock sessions.
“We’re a pretty complicated band and being in that studio I don’t think Mike Montgomery knew what to do with us,” Thompson says. “We were his first guinea pig into going into the Electronic realm, so it was a learning curve for both of us.”
Once Montgomery was finished recording and mixing the EP it was passed over to local Electronic musician and producer Daitek for the final mastering, ensuring that even the record production’s final step reflected Black Signal’s dichotomous nature.
The band plans on releasing Parallels with one final left-of-center idea. Rather than drop a physical release that will quickly land on a shelf to collect dust (though some CDs will be available for the die-hards), a download code is being attached to a bottle of hot sauce handmade by Ogden and Thompson. Available in a habañero or ghost pepper variety — and each accompanied by an image of Ogden’s helmet or Thompson’s visor, part of the longtime futuristic uniform staple of Black Signal’s image and live performances — the unique marketing concept rounds out the theme of the unexpectedness running through the entire Parallels release.
And why shouldn’t the EP be released on some hot sauce? Black Signal is a band defined by carefully calculated instability. They are constantly evolving and shifting to fit a mold that they alone can craft. They do things the Black Signal way and that way shows no signs of being locked in anytime soon.
As Ogden put it, “Download codes on hot sauce, man… fuck it.”
Black Signal hosts a release-party concert for Parallels on May 31 at Southgate House Revival with special guests including Skeleton Hands, Ampline, Sleepcrawler, Near Earth Objects and more. Visit southgatehouse.com for tickets and show info and facebook.com/blcksgnl for more info on the band.