[Progotronics Special] AVANDRA: Dealing with Inner World

Christian Ayala

Progressive Rock/Metal project from San Juan in Puerto Rico, Avandra, is a brainchild of guitarist, composer and producer Christian Ayala formed in 2011. Over the past few years, Ayala worked on what has become Avandra’s full-length debut album ‘Tymora,’ and although he has been dealing with issues such technology (or the lack of it), the album was finally launched through Bandcamp few weeks ago. 

Following an appearance on Progotronics 4 (available now from Bandcamp), Christian spoke for Prog Sphere about the beginnings of the project, ‘Avandra’s’ creative phase, influences, future, and more.

Define the mission of Avandra.

The feeling of something lacking when shuffling through your iPod, CD or vinyl collection was how Avandra came along way back in 2011. I thought to myself “if I can’t find exactly what I’m looking for in the music that I’m hearing, then I’ll just do it myself.” It sounds selfish, but it’s how many artists begin their creative processes. I find that this is also the most honest way to give people a better listening experience. If you write just to please certain groups of people, sooner or later, you’ll: 1) feel empty as an artist, or/and 2) people will easily get bored at the veil you are throwing over their eyes. So, when writing for I try to be as honest as I can and to let that honesty take form through the music.

Tell me about the creative process that informed your debut album Tymora and the themes it captures.

Avandra was always kind of a vessel between concepts and imagery that have influenced me throughout my life, and their realization through a musical journey. That’s why I try to stray a bit from the uber-technical side of things, and concentrate much more on all the instruments working together to create ambient pieces that appeal to your emotional and reasonable sides. I sometimes liked looking out of scenic overviews at night, with the city lights floating below me like stars hanging low in the sky, and that would inspire me to write a very space-y and ambient song (one of the inspirations for “Alma Matter’s” mood, for example, was one of these lookout points that’s like a 20-minute drive from where I live).

What is the message you are trying to give with Tymora

This is a tricky question. I feel like I could too easily become preachy, but I will say that the inspiration for a lot of the lyrics were based on my own disillusionment with our modern society, especially in my native Puerto Rico. Here you have a fairly modern society clashing with a very antiquated culture. By society I mean the economical technological dimensions, while culture has to do with the “bodies” that compose that society. We are, after all, values incarnated, and when such an archaic culture meets such a modern society, you get things like people taking extremely suggestive pics with their phones and uploading them to Facebook with captions that read “I love you, God. Without you I am nothing” or quoting random bible verses. All in all, most of the lyrics are critiques of the world, as I see it, with one (“Alma Matter”) nursing an introspective feel to it; dealing with the inner-world.

How did you document the music while it was being formulated?

The framework and skeleton of the music was all documented using guitar pro. I would make a riff, then write it down in guitar pro. I know a lot of people use their iPhones now-a-days to record riffs they come up with, but I’ve been using Guitar Pro for 16 years now, so it’s my go to place when I feel like something is worth documenting. Sometimes I’d just play keyboards on top of of whatever riff I recorded and have the midi saved on that particular project, and so on.

Avandra - Tymora

Is the dynamic flow of the pieces carefully architected?

I would say it’s source is my stream of consciousness. I would most of the times write a song and simply “let it flow.” There were days when I couldn’t begin writing a single riff. Then, suddenly, I would think of one and “the rest—as that Porcupine Tree song goes—will follow.” I’d sometimes be writing a song on guitar, and as I’m writing it I’m simultaneously thinking of the strings that will go above or below it, it’s dynamic qualities, the bass line and its melody, and so on.  But it was never calculated. I have a lot of time signature and tempo changes throughout my songs, but they were never pre-written. A riff just happened to be 7/8 going into a 9/8, but it wasn’t “pre-structured” or framed that way.

Describe the approach to recording the album.

When starting out, I really had no approach. I didn’t know how to record at all, so I spent a long time (the first year being the most intense, for obvious reasons) scavenging through the various forums, looking for recording tips, and troubleshooting everything I was doing. Essentially, learning through trial and error. As I learned, what little I could call “my approach” began shifting to better accommodate to my newfound knowledge. I learned how to use (or rather, how to not use) compressors, for example, and so I would tweak those things that had compression on them to better fit what I had learned. Same goes with pretty much every other recording element. My approach to recording is still molding itself (I doubt it’ll ever stop), but I feel more confident now for when I begin recording the second album.

Oh, and drink coffee.

How long was Tymora in the making?

Though I started this project in 2011 (Avandra was first named Project Geneva… dodged a bullet there), I really didn’t start recording for Tymora until 2012 or so. Now, you might think “this guy takes as long as Tool to release an album”, and it might appear to be so, this is not the case. I went through 3 different iterations of Tymora before arriving at the third (and last) one. First time I had to essentially re-record all of it, was because I found out about the existence of the Axe-Fx. I had gone to this site which had all these amazing sounding demos, that sounded better than some of the fully produced albums I loved, and the common factor was the Axe-Fx. Worked, saved up and bought it. Second time I had to re-record was because of a dead HD. But there’s always a silver lining to each one of these events, which in my case was that I had time to learn and sharpen my skills, not only on the guitar, but production wise as well.

Which bands or artists influenced your work on the release?

I have what I call the Holy Trinity: Opeth, Porcupine Tree (SW), and Kevin Moore-era Dream Theater. There are many, many bands that come and go in terms of quick influences (like Russian Circles, which was the band that actually got me to start recording this album in the first place, and though I still love them, don’t get as much play time as they used to), but those three bands are foundational to my music, and just to who I am in general. A band that came in late to the game for me, but that is becoming as foundational as the other three, is Anathema. Weather Systems and now The Optimist must be two of my favorite albums of the last five years.

What is your view on technology in music?

Like with most things, to have a Manichean view on them is rather foolish. Those arguments of digital/analog, real/samples, physical products/digital products, are just false dichotomies spewed by people who could easily be labeled as “dogmatic.” In any case, if you look at the Axe-Fx or the Kemper, you have an example of how close digital is to mimicking analog in ways that to tell the difference, is almost impossible. The drums on my album for example were done by Superior Drummer (even though now I have a real drummer who can play all this). But it wasn’t a preset that I loaded and moved on. I sent the MIDI files to a friend of mine in Brooklyn who had done a lot of MIDI stuff while at Berklee—where he studied—and who was a wiz in it. He painstakingly tweaked the crap out of the MIDI files, to give every hit a human dimension, dynamic, and feel. I wouldn’t advocate using ONLY digital drummers, if the resource is available to you.

Which brings me to my second point. Before even starting to record, I searched for a real drummer. And though there were many interested and excellent candidates, a lot of them were trying to make it with their bands, and so just didn’t have the time to learn the songs. I also didn’t have enough money to pay for outside help, so I had to find a way around all of this. I could have either said “the hell with it, I’m not doing the album” or “the hell with it, I’ll use what I can to make it.” You can either see the obstacles to your goal and let them defeat you into submission, or just concentrate on the goal itself and find ways around the obstacles.

Do you see your music as serving a purpose beyond music?

Hopefully the lyrics are thought provoking enough to get people thinking. I pay close attention to lyrical details precisely because of this. For some people lyrics are secondary. But they are just as important to the music as any guitar riff or drum fill might be. Music is free from physical representations and that’s why I believe it is the highest art form, but lyrics can take it to another level, if you intertwine them in ways that create new experiences for the listener, by changing their perspective of the world or creating a new one.

On a personal level, I also want hope that this project gets people interested in other stuff that’s going down in Puerto Rico, in the music scene and beyond. There are a few great bands down here, that with the right exposure, could make it big.

What are your plans for the future?

The second album is already written, at least as far as the skeletons of the songs are concerned. With this newly formed band, I hope to add more outside details to give it an even more diverse feel. As for the immediate future, we have a few shows lined up, with more to come.

Tymora is available now; order it from Bandcamp. Follow Avandra on Facebook. “Threshold of Evolution” from Tymora is featured on Progotronics 4 compilation, available now on Bandcamp. You can vote for the song (and 20 other) in our app starting June 1st. Prog Sphere app is available for free on Google Play Store.

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