To Kill a Serpent - Composing for Sisyphus Unchained

Whadya mean another demo?

After the fantastic, yet exhausting journey we all went through in Andromeda Software Development creating The Legend of Sisyphus I wasn't expecting us to be creating another demo for a little while. That's why it came as a surprise when Navis told me, 20 days after Assembly had finished that he's onto a new demo, possibly for Revision.

I always held the main demoparty in Germany very close to my heart. I've never been to Revision (really wanted to be there this year, alas I couldn't work out the financials), but I've been to Breakpoint many times, and I have so many fond memories from it. So the prospect of releasing something at Revision made me super excited.

First Screenshots

I was holding tight, waiting for the first screenshots of what Navis had in mind this time around. Time flew by, so did the Summer, so did the Fall and so did half of Winter and by the end of January I got a flurry of screenshots and videos. Navis baked the entire thing in the span of a single week.

Time Flies Like the Wind

February went by like it was nothing, but at the end of it Navis paid me a visit (which is always a treat as we live in different countries and I get to see him once a year at best) and we sat down with beers and caught up on Real Life™ and talked a bit about the direction of the demo. The concept and the story are simple this time around. We'll pick up where The Legend of Sisyphus left off with his tormenting loop and have him escape it.

  • Sisyphus dies
  • He thus escapes the loop
  • He gets resurrected
  • He lives happily ever after

Oh.. and we're releasing at Revision... I had about a month's worth of coming up with a track.

The visual style and the direction of the demo would be totally different from the previous one. The only connective tissue would be the Sisyphus and Merope models, the backstory and the fact that all in all it would also be presented as a music video instead of just a demo. This presented a challenge, as at the time I had no idea what style of music I'd write for it. I was getting strong Monty Python and Sledgehammer (Peter Gabriel) vibes from the visuals, and Navis used Michael Jackson's Leave me Alone as inspiration for syncing (yeah, we've got a weird way of collaborating between visuals and music). I was so confused about the direction I wanted to take with the music, to the point where mid March came and I still had nothing.

First Attempt

Mostly being influenced by that Michael Jackson tune, and the fact that I'm heavily into funk and disco this period of my live as it's my bread and butter in the band I play with, I decided to go for a groovy disco song. So I wrote about 1:45 of it and sent it to Leviathan for comments. Leviathan loved the groove, and since he had the time to collaborate with me for this demo this time around we'd be going at it together. I sent it to Navis the same night, but he didn't like it. Found it too light for the visuals.

That's probably the very first time ever that Navis dislikes a piece of my music 😲!

I explained that it's an early draft, that it leaves space for vocals (as I had every intentions to add vocals to the tune) and we left it there.

The next 10 days I was stewing over the track. Trying to think of vocal melodies, lyrics, verses, choruses but nothing I came up with made me happy. 10 days went by and there was no progress. Finally, on the last Saturday of March, less than a week before Revision and right before I went for a live gig with my band, we get into a call with Leviathan trying to figure out what we're gonna do with the music. It wasn't a long conversation. Essentially I told him that no matter which angle I look at it, the track doesn't fit the visuals. We should scrap it and start anew.

Leviathan then said: "Go do your gig, leave it to me".

The Final Countdown

Monday, 4 days until Revision

Woke up, rather late, to a new track waiting for me. He whipped up his old trustworthy .rns base file that we used to compose Lifeforce 17 years ago and went to town with it. Out of a total of 4:35 running time of the demo, he put in about 2 and a half minutes of the new track. He sent me the track, and a video of him playing the guitar parts over it. I loved the ideas and I also loved how nicely they fit with the visuals. It's prog metal again, but punchier! Great! We haven't composed in that style for a while, so I jumped at the opportunity!

Up until the 1:40 minute mark. After that the ideas became chaotic and didn't leave any room for vocals, so I decided to put them on the side for the moment.

But first, we had to do something for the dated sounds and structure used in this almost-of-legal-drinking-age reason file. When it was first composed together, Reason didn't even have the elaborate mixer it has today with the FX sends and buses and all that jazz. Back then it was a huge spaghetti thing with instruments and then a big chain of effects underneath that eventually brings the CPU to its knees. First I had to move all primary effects like reverbs, and choruses and unisons to the effects chain, and then route everything through the mixer. Then it was time to treat the basic structural elements of the song. Drums and Bass. Different sounds, different plugins, different dynamics and intonations. Then it was time to get down on the synth sounds. This is actually how Leviathan and I complement each other. He adds the chug, rhythm and the punch magic, and I add the synth, atmosphere, soundscapes and sound sculpting.

With everything now in place, I could get into actually composing. So far we've got the pre-intro, the intro, The sequence that might sound like a verse but it actually isn't™, and the main riff part. We're at 1:40, so it's high time to kick the verse in. It didn't take long. Probably around 10 minutes of trying piano chord progressions on my Arturia and the base verse was ready. I had to start thinking of the vocals, both on their melodic line and the lyrics before I went any further.

In the previous Sisyphus demo, the lyrics conveyed both a connection to the visual's (aka what Navis had in mind) concept and at the same time an additional layer of messages. And this time it wouldn't be different. So the main plate is Death -> Escape -> Resurrection -> Resolution (Let's call it DERR for short).

As I started trying various lyrics on the ideas I was singing in my head, this DERR sequence fit very well into another issue, the one of domestic/relationship abuse (physical and emotional), its tricks and tactics, and the reluctance of its victims to escape it or talk about it. Death is perceived as both allegorical and actual way of escaping an abusive relationship. The suffering leads to slowly dying inside, and the inability to escape could very well end up into escalating into actual death. Escape is the actual waking up/decision making moment to defy and get out of the relationship. Resurrection signifies the completion of the healing process, while Resolution dawns a better era for the escapee who now has the strength and courage to talk about it.

Following that concept, the lyrics for the verse came up relatively easy and fast

can bend

The secret hope that the hardships in the relationship can ease a bit to become bearable. Restrictions refer to the ones imposed by the abuser, and addictions refer to the Stockholm Syndrome nature of such relationships. At the same time, Sisyphus with the same lyrics dreams that his endless loop will also become easier.

my sorrow
should mend

Expressing the hope that somehow the trauma the victim and Sisyphus have suffered will have a chance to heal. Both the first two verses are sung in a monotonous, lamenting tone to exaggerate the defeat in the victim's soul.

my torment
this moment
will end

Another glimmer of hope that the unbearable torment might end up soon

My turn
by dying
my destiny

Darker thoughts of futility that maybe both the outcome and the release will come through death, which also acts as a wake up call. Those last two verses escape the melodic monotony to express a questioning nature and hope for release. The final syllables would go high in pitch to build up to the chorus.

I sung the verses as a vocal guide (I knew that I wouldn't be the one to sing this), but decided to add some effects on my voice (making it sound as if played off a portable radio, echoes and lots of reverb) for shits and giggles, as well as correcting pitch drift and timing.

All that accompanied by a sweet sweet bassline, that I can't stop listening to. If I weren't a pianist/keyboardist, I'd totally be a bassis*!

It was already stupid o'clock, around 4-5 am dawning Tuesday, and I sent what I had written, which accounted to 2:48 minutes of track time to Leviathan. The whole thing gave him strong Dream Theater vibes, but he loved it. He had however been exhausted from the composing effort up to that part so he went to bed, asking me to see if I could also come up with a chorus.

It looked like that bedtime was still far away from me. I kept listening and re-listening to what we had already in the hope that an idea for a chorus would jump at me out of nowhere. And it did! Because Leviathan had already (unknowingly to both of us) composed the chorus, what I referred to earlier as the "main riff part". It's punchy, it's heavy, it leaves room for angry vocals, and it's memorable!

So all it took was a couple of copy pastes and TADAH! We have a chorus. We're at 3:20. So we got only 15 seconds north of a minute to fill. Which is both good and bad. Good because we're getting there, bad because we can't fit a traditional form of a song into the time we have left, i.e. a break, a second set of verses, another chorus, a bridge (or a long bridge akin to prog metal standards) and then finally another chorus and an outro sequence. So I opted for a small break, a bridge and the chorus again. For the bridge I decided to again use what has Leviathan already written, namely "The sequence that might sound like a verse but it actually isn't™". Took the chord progression and its base elements, added some traditional aMUSiC arpeggio like bleeps (they're actually performed live, but then quantized :P), a bit of atmosphere and well.. we now have a bridge, and room for an emotional Leviathan guitar solo, reaching 03:56. Just enough room for one more chorus, and then a quick outro to finish it up. I also added a rough idea of the vocal melody in the chorus using one of the pre-existing instruments in the track. The clock proudly showed 8am, but we had a full length track. I sent it over to both Leviathan and Navis and went to bed.

Incidentally, Navis had messaged me earlier on that the previous Disco track had started growing on him. The sudden change of direction must have come at a shock to him.

Tuesday, 3 days until Revision

For some reason I couldn't really sleep. Twisted in my bed, while listening to the track on repeat on my earbuds, all I could think was what lyrics I should write for the chorus part. I tried different ones but nothing really stuck with the melody I wrote. I then thought of scrapping the melodic line for a simpler one, but put it on ice for the moment, while at the same time I started jotting rhyming words on my phone's notes app. The time was 10am and Navis was awake, so we discussed the track with him for a bit. He also told me that he'd be leaving for Revision on Friday morning, so our time limit for finishing up the track was until Thursday night so..

Tuesday, 3 days until Revision
Tuesday, 2 days until Revision

Navis loved the new track, so it was my turn to add a few tidbits to the overall demo design. I didn't have much to add, but I had the idea since Sisyphus Unchained looks more like a video clip rather than a demo, to add a super near the start of the demo that displays the "Song Name and Artist" much like they did back in the days on MTV. We did a bit of research in old youtube videos, and I whipped up a sample of what I had in mind, and for shits and giggles I added an MTVfied version of the ASD logo next to the super.

Needless to say, we ended up using that exact mockup in the demo. We're still having a good laugh about that.

When Leviathan woke up later in the day, he got immediately into fixing the basswork and drumwork so that it would fit better with his ideas for the guitar, as I didn't have a guitar track up to that point and Leviathan still needed to record and compose more of it for the additional parts. While he was doing that, I went back to the drawing board to come up with the chorus lyrics. This time it wasn't as serendipitous as the last time. I went back and forth many times and scrapped a lot of ideas before coming up with one that stayed, a process that took about 12 to 14 hours.

The verse covered the "Death/Lament" part, so the chorus had to deal with the Escape/Healing/Resolution parts. Since the chorus is highly energetic, the vocals and lyrics had to follow suit. In the end, I came up with staccato, short and punchy ones.

I'll use Sisyphus as the protagonist of the lyrics for the purpose of this writeup, but he actually personifies any victim in an abusive relationship.

I gotta disappear

Having his plight invisible to the outside world, and also being emotionally drained out of the abusive relationship, Sisyphus realizes the severity of the need to escape at all costs.

The life you stole from me

And by doing so, the healing process can begin, coupled with finally expressing accusations to the perpetrator/Hades

Could never hide in shame
Making amends for the crimes you commit in my name

References abusive behaviors of the perpetrator, such as gaslighting and isolating Sisyphus from his social circles. At the same time, Sisyphus has the daunting task (now that he's able to) of explaining why he has distanced himself from friends and family and whose fault it really is.

I'm shrinking in my mind

More abusive behaviors and the result they have on Sisyphus' psyche, leading him to introversion

Nobody left behind

Revolution and reaction to the abusive effort by mustering up the courage to speak with other victims of abusive relationships and finding support in each other to help all of them escape

don't wanna be restrained

Expression of disdain and escapism towards even more abusive behaviors

I’m free of this prison so
watch me I have been unchained

Finally taking the step and moving away from the abusive relationship, having conquered his fear.

During the writing of the lyrics, I also came up with alternative words that rhymed, and polled them with Leviathan and Aggela (the singer in the final version). They were all tough choices, so I decided to also keep the alternate words and use them in the second chorus.

Grabbed the microphone again, and growled the lyrics into the song. Again, corrected the pitch drift and timings, added generous amounts of chorus, unison and distortion and it ended up being one really angry chorus! Made an export and sent it to Leviathan, and he absolutely adored it!

The plan was always to use my vocals as a guide and have an actual singer perform them. I don't have a bad voice per se, but I'm no singer by any stretch. However, my vocals this time came up rather good and fitting. And after tens if not hundreds of times both Leviathan and I listened to the track, we got so used to my voice, something that got us worried that when we actually record the female vocals, the song would sound totally alien to us and far from what was being conveyed already. But more on that later on.

Leviathan sent me a the guitar track of what he had recorded so far, namely everything up to the verse at 1:44. While I tend to record stuff directly into reason's audio tracks, Leviathan takes a different approach. He exports the song as a backing track, and then records the guitars in reaper, a process that he does twice, as he doesn't like relying on VST plugins for creating stereo separation effects on the guitar. He plays the same thing twice, one for each channel, so he makes sure his playing is on point, and he's very OCDish about it, as not even the slightest detail can escape his sharp ears and musical perception.

I put the guitar track in reason, and then spent quite some time fiddling with the mix, and also copying over the chorus guitar part to the actual choruses and sent it back to Leviathan. But he wasn't happy with it, as he noticed that the guitar was not on point with the rest of the track. In fact he thought that it was delayed by a few milliseconds in conjunction with the track. I argued that this is next to impossible as I synced the guitar track exactly with the beginning of the song, and that I had no effects or plugins that would introduce any delay to the replay of the guitar.

He was adamant however about the guitar not being in place, so we spent a few good hours on looking for solutions and searching for potential culprits. And after a while we managed to find it. Since there was nothing that fiddled with the guitar on the Reason side, the problem must have been on the Reaper side. Leviathan shared his screen with me and started eliminating things and debunking suspicions. My suspicion was that somehow, he didn't align Reason's exported track to the absolute beginning of Reaper's timeline, as I found it very unlikely that Reaper would somehow fiddle with the replay delay of imported tracks. I asked him to zoom way into the beginning of the backing track to make sure that the track is placed correctly and then we were astonished by the discovery. The exported track had an additional 25ms of silence introduced to its beginning! After a bit of google-fu, we found out that if you export a song in reason directly to mp3, this 25ms silence is always introduced. No idea why (maybe something to do with headers, or metadata). Leviathan had very little storage on his hard drive, so he exported to mp3 instead of wav to save up space. After pinpointing it, we quickly resolved this and everyone was happy.

Everyone except Morpheus, as it was 6am again on Wednesday, and I had been up since Monday noon. Sent the track and lyrics to both Navis and Aggela and just crashed into bed.

Wednesday, 1 day until Revision

Leviathan would dedicate the day into composing and recording the rest of the guitar track, as well as fixing all the little tidbits he nitpicked. I figured I wouldn't be of much help on Wednesday given the midnight oil burnt, but I woke up on my own at 10 for no reason and couldn't get back to sleep. So I found the chance to talk with Aggela, who loved the song and arranged for her to hop over at my place on Thursday night and record the vocals.

Other than that, I spent most of the day adjusting the mix and fiddling with the instruments, adding sound effects, and also layered some more ideas with violins and French horns, which both I and Navis loved, but Leviathan hated with a passion. Since they were on a part that he wrote, I respected his wish and removed them (in fact in the end we removed quite a few things to thin out the soundspace so it doesn't sound convoluted). He insisted that I should play a keyboard solo instead, an idea that I wasn't so keen on as that particular place felt like a traditionally guitar part, but I gave in and wrote a bit of something, and now I'm happy I did that!

The rest of the day, we had a lot of back and forth with Leviathan trying various things in the mix and making the first tests in mastering, and discussed what I had in mind for a guitar solo in the bridge part. Late at night he sent me that part, which I included in the track and then went to bed, and spent another couple of hours in it fiddling a bit with the lyrics, swapping words around and solidifying the second chorus, before succumbing to sleep.

Thursday, 0.5 days until Revision

We're at the final stretch. Navis had already synced the demo with the track (we had solidified the parts and the timings since Tuesday either way), and he informed me that he'd be leaving for Revision on Friday morning, but before heading for the airport he'd have a bit of time to record a video of the demo for YouTube, and submit the demo to the Revision orgas. Great, we've got a bit of an extension.

I spent the day fiddling more with the mix, as Leviathan was recording the last remaining guitar part (the verse one), which he had ready by the time Aggela joined me for the recording session.

Needless to say I was nervous. The singer and I have been working musically together since the beginning of the year, both as a duo performing piano/vocal gigs at restaurants and as the lead singer in Jetlag, our party cover band. Aggela Sidiropoulou is an excellent singer already having her own discography and actress as well as an amazing person... but.. she's never sung a metal song before. Progressive or otherwise.

And with no time left to rehearse the song, or spend copious amounts of time on recording boatloads of takes, plus the fact that we already had my vocals engraved in our ears from listening to them so many times, I was scared that I'd be forced to actually go with my vocals in the end, and from my previous experience, the sceners are not really partial to them :P

We started recording about 10pm, and were done at about midnight. I can't stress out how professional Aggela is, open minded and willing to go the extra mile for the end result. Always prepared, quick to adapt and so cheerful having a good time doing what she loves. She recorded multiple takes in various styles. Octave up, octave down, clean vox, growling vox, psycho vox, breathy vox, jazzy vox. In the end I had a metric fuckton of stems to choose from. She also liked my vocals as well and suggested that somehow I could combine both, which I ended up doing.

We had tons of laughs during recording the crescendo of the verse as it fell out of both our regular vocal range and we had to fake it, and constantly mishearing "Maybe my torment" as "Maybe my doorman".

She left after that and I got back to work mixing and matching stems to make the final vocal track. Still scared of how it would sound along, properly mixed into the track I did all the necessary steps, correcting pitch drifts and timing, adding reverbs and other effects and.. I was astonished with the end result. It came up much much better than I've ever hoped for. And both Leviathan and Navis were on the same page.

So, thank you Aggela for your valuable contribution to this project! You rock!

The rest of the night was spent performing the final mixing touches and mastering. We finished up at 6 am on Friday..

Friday, no time left until Revision

Navis was awake at 6am when we sent the final track to him. He recorded the demo with it and put up a YouTube video, and submitted the production to Revision. But after listening to it a few more times, we were not happy with the mix and the mastering. Navis had a few more hours before leaving for the airport, but both Leviathan and I were collapsing from sleep deprivation. Navis wouldn't be packing a computer with him for Revision, so he wouldn't be able to submit an updated entry.

Fortunately, Revision's CMS app for entries submissions is available online, and the deadline for submitting a pc demo was on Sunday. I got tasked to resubmit once we were happy with the mix and master. The next couple of days were spent fiddling with details and lots of back and forths, getting the tracks to fresh ears of people who are skilled in audio engineering for feedback and making the relevant adjustments.

The final track was included in the zip file and submitted to Revision on Saturday night.

Random Tidbits and Thoughts

Are we happy with the end result? As a track, composition wise absolutely. Despite the extremely limited time to go from zero to a full Progressive Metal track, I believe that we ended up with a catchy and powerful track in our hands. Could it be better? Naturally. Mixing and mastering could definitely be better, as well as the vocals could benefit from a more meticulous approach to them. Still, we're ok with it given the limitations we had both in available time and equipment (sorry excuses for home studios, with totally improper monitors, in non-soundproofed rooms full of reverberations and idiotic motorists outside who love the sound of their monstrous exhaust pipes etc).

While the demo was shown on the big screen, a fellow scener (sorry, I can't recall your name) noted that if mellow vocals follow a long intro of a progressive metal song, then the song is bound to be at least 8 minutes long, giving a forecast for our demo's duration. I chuckled at that point, thinking on the one hand that he'll be surprised that the demo is only 4,5 minutes long, and on the other hand that he's actually right. We dubbed this version of the track the "Radio Edit", and we have in mind to extend it to its proper duration as a standalone track, with all of the verses and choruses and the crazy prog bridges. This time hopefully utilizing proper studios for recording and mixing.

While the mastering of To Kill a Serpent is not pristine by any stretch, I believe that it is our best mastered track to date. None of us is an audio engineer or have experience with mastering. But we're getting better at it.

Speaking of mastering, I must have spent probably over 200€ on acquiring mastering related and other VST plugins for this project. A tad on the hefty side, but totally worth it.

And speaking of "To Kill a Serpent", one might wonder why we didn't opt for the obvious track title "Unchained". Leviathan came up with "To Kill a Serpent" as a working title, being religiously inspired. I found that allegorically a serpent that needs to be killed could very well be the abusive relationship the lyrics talk about, so in the end its fitting and as such, the working title became the actual track title.

It's been a pleasure and a blast working with Leviathan again in composing together. While we are in a band together playing covers (Kings for a Day) we haven't collaborated on a track since For your Love in 2018. 6 years is a long time. During those 6 years we fought off a pandemic, we released 4 demos (where I've composed music for only one of them), and we grew and matured as people. We faced challenges, hardships, disappointments and heartbreaks, but like Sisyphus we managed to escape from that loop. As such, we have a mind to capitalize the momentum we acquired with To Kill a Serpent, and go about composing a full length prog metal album outside the confines of the demoscene and ASD. If you're a fan of our work, stay tuned!

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