Wednesday, February 28

What's Intelligent?

So, Simon Reynolds and gang are slowly drifting away from the hauntology discussion and beginning to riff on "hipster metal." I have noticed an increased metal presence on the intertubes lately, but I really don't feel like it's a full-fledged phenomenon at this point. Most of the discourse appears to revolve around the band Sunn O))) and the occurrence of one influential DJ mixing metal with dubstep. What really caught my attention was Reynolds connecting "hipster metal" to something he calls "intelligent drum'n'bass." Now I can't help but think of "hipster metal" as "intelligent metal." I am, of course, influenced by my own too-long immersion in IDM, or "intelligent dance music." The IDM tag stirred up plenty of discussion, with most people ultimately agreeing that it was a bad genre name, but feeling stuck with it anyway. As soon as you stick "intelligent" in front of something, aren't you implying that the genre is inherently "stupid," yet you are going to be enlightened and fix it? In the case of IDM, the fixing arrived in the form of an increasingly nerdy prog approach (some felt that IDM was the new prog), until the genre collapsed in on itself and the component bits scattered to the wind. So if there is such a thing as intelligent metal (can we call it intelligent black metal, or IBM?), maybe we can look forward to the same artistic trajectory. Autechre have already worked with Hafler Trio. Can an Autechre/Sunn O))) collaboration be far behind?

To be honest, I have almost no knowledge of metal. When I hear Sunn O))), although I can sense the metal references, the first thing that comes to my mind is dark ambient and goth--something more akin to Lustmord maybe. Of course, Sunn O))) use guitars, so they're more likely to get a free pass from indie hipsters. And yet, hasn't there always been a close connection between goth and metal? Look at a band like Sisters of Mercy, who sounded very metal in their early days, and whose last album was chock full of metal riffs. Are Sunn O))) intelligent goth rock (IGR)? How about intelligent dark ambient (IDA)?

Thursday, February 22

The Ups and Downs of Volume

I've been on a somewhat of an ambient music bender lately. I honestly don't know how exactly how it happens, but sometimes I just end up focused on a particular type of music for some indeterminate length of time. In this case I think it's related to my sudden decision to follow up on some particular artists and labels. I always find it difficult to explain just what draws me to specific ambient works; it's not easy discussing music composed without melody, harmony, rhythm, or words. That leaves you with timbre and texture--not the easiest aspects to write about without resorting to extended metaphors or purple prose. If someone were to ask me what I think makes good ambient music, I'd most likely just say I know it when I hear it.

I have been thinking about another aspect of ambient music, although one imposed by the listener, not the composer. I doubt most people give much thought to playback volume. You turn the volume up or down depending upon your immediate circumstances. Make it louder so it can be heard over the car's engine. Make it quieter so it doesn't disturb your dinner conversation. That volume knob (slider?) is purely functional. But stop for a moment and think about how you're actively altering the artist's work. You are completing the final step in the compositional process.

I've been listening to Harold Budd for about twenty years now. I first discovered him not through some interest in ambient or avant garde music, but through his collaboration with Cocteau Twins. I was caught totally by surprise recently when Samadhi Sound sent me an email announcing a new download-only live Harold Budd recording. Perhaps captures Budd sitting at a piano and improvising for 70 minutes. Call it ambient jazz, if you like. Each piano note is like a Go stone carefully placed onto the game board seemingly at random, loosely defining a territory, and yet part of a greater strategy known only to the musician. Taken one way, the sparse sound particles and tone clusters create a lattice full of open spaces through which your imagination can wander. With Budd, the sounds and the silences are equally important. I found the album most effective with the volume turned down low. Without any concrete structure demanding attention, the music disappears into the ether. But then you briefly stop focusing on your task, or the room around you goes suddenly quite, and there's Budd's piano floating in to fill the emptiness. It's as if the music somehow knows when it's needed.

Far away from the intimacy of Budd there's As Lonely As Dave Bowman, the new Sam Rosenthal ambient project I mentioned a few days ago. Pod is massive, humming, continuous sound. This music doesn't want to hang around and fill in your empty spaces, it wants to become your entire space--a huge sphere of sound. But for that to work properly, you're going to need to turn up the volume. This album does not function properly at low or moderate sound levels. Play it loud, though, and the machine expands and expands until it pushes everything else aside and becomes your reality. It's not a quiet, meditative ambience, but it's still a place where you can hide for a while.

Tuesday, February 20

Of Hoaxes and Context

As I write this, the Joyce Hatto scandal is rocking the classical music world. In case you haven't heard, this is the story of a late British pianist, whose CD recordings released by her husband's label, have been unmasked as a hoax. It seems that someone loaded one of the discs into iTunes and the Gracenote (CDDB) database identified it as someone else's disc. This would at first appear to be a simple database error, if not for the interesting fact that Gracenote identifies CDs using a unique "fingerprint" derived from the durations of the tracks on the disc. You can read more about the story over at Gramophone and track the extent of the hoax on Hatto's Wikipedia entry.

But I am most intrigued by something New Yorker critic Alex Ross wrote on his blog. He wrote, "You have here the beginnings of an excellent case study in how reputations and mythologies affect musical perception."

I think it's fairly obvious how Ross's point extends to all genres, not only classical music. And I'm not at all certain that it's a bad thing. Yes, reputations and mythologies affect how we perceive music. So do physical appearances, costumes, makeup, music videos, CD packaging, and a dozen other things I'm probably forgetting. Are we really so naive as to think music comes to us in some pure form, as if it materialized from a parallel dimension in an unmarked box? We should never lose sight of how much context informs our perception of music (or any art). Doing so not only denies present reality, but also, I think, sells short the complex way we engage with music.

The music is not just the music. It's the the dialog the music has with the sleeve art. It's the way the songs lyrics interact with the band's back-story. It's how the band playing this music looks when they play it. And it's how their music bounces off our own experiences and feelings. The best artists realize all this and leverage it to their advantage. This is how we experience music, and it leaves us exposed and vulnerable. I don't like the idea of being played for a fool, but I sure don't want to live in a world where music comes in a plain brown wrapper.

Thursday, February 15

Wanted: More Failure

During lunch at a local sushi bar yesterday I was treated to some of Queen's greatest hits. Once that disc finished, KLF's The White Room started playing. After a couple of minutes, one of the young assistants behind the bar asked to nobody in particular, "What is this we're listening to?" And then a few moments later, "Is this the KLFA?" I should probably just be grateful that he recognized the music at all. Listening to "What Time Is Love?" I was struck, as I am each time I hear this music, how utterly banal this record can sound when heard in the context of background music. Of course if you're at all aware of the KLF's wacky situationist antics, their Illuminati fixation, or their satirical (or is it?) guidebook, The Manual, then The White Room isn't simply banal, it's gloriously, amazingly, brilliantly banal. The pop genius of the KLF was the way they assembled an audacious postmodern stew of (pop)cultural references, context, images, samples, and pranks, until the music itself could contain as much or as little meaning as you desired to find, depending on how close or how far away you want to get to it. Was there really a time when postmodernism was actually fun like this? It feels like a million years ago.

Last night on my way to see Eat Drink Man Woman I listened to The Divine Comedy's 1998 album, Fin de Siecle. I've been catching up with the band lately, working my way backwards from his newest album. Last week I finally got to hear Casanova. Here's what I've decided: Neil Hannon is one crazy, cheeky bastard. I'm predisposed towards orchestrated pop, but I had no idea how dramatic and over the top his records really are. He's included everything necessary to annoy the hell out of anyone looking for authenticity or sincerity: huge orchestral crescendos, showtunes, literary references, spoken word, pop-sociology, and approximately forty-two other ideas. How many times while listening to this music have I found myself asking, often aloud, "Is he out of his mind? Did he just do that?" Is he serious? Well, he's serious about being ironic, irreverent, and in your face. He's taking the piss and not taking the piss at exactly the same time. Which is to say he's seriously ambitious.

Lately, I've found myself thinking a lot about ambition as it relates to music. Or rather the lack of ambition. And the cynical how-dare-they appraisal (or at least confused head scratching) of any band that dares to color too far outside the lines. Don't you have to take the big risks if you want the big rewards? I'm sure there's some wildly inventive music going on out there somewhere, but mostly what I'm hearing are meager rewards from people playing it safe. When was the last time you heard an album that was absolutely horrible because the band tried something daring and failed? I wonder how this happened. Could it be related to the increased scrutiny allowed by the internet? Maybe artists were more willing to take risks when they could work on music in relative seclusion, without people tracking their every move and spewing instant opinion pollution. Maybe it was better when we couldn't preview every piece of music before making a purchase decision. What we need are more glorious failures.

Monday, February 12

Dreams Made Flesh

Sam Rosenthal, founder of Projekt records and leader of goth/darkwave group Black Tape For A Blue Girl, has a new ambient solo album out under the name As Lonely As Dave Bowman. The music was inspired by his son's love of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Well, nobody ever went wrong exploiting my love for that film. In a recent interview, Rosenthal described the music as sounding "like what you would here if you were a stowaway in the nuclear reactor of the Discovery’s motor."

Mike McGonigal, author of the new 33 1/3 book on My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, becomes not the first person to liken the band's extended guitar drone during the live rendition of "You Made Me Realise" to the sound of sticking your head inside a jet engine. In this case I can honestly say I was there, and he's right.

I remember reading a review several years ago that described Microstoria, the collaboration between Oval and Mouse On Mars's Jan St. Werner, as sounding like being inside a computer's hard drive. Another review described it as the sound your computer makes when it's switched off and dreaming. I might conflate and enhance the two descriptions and say Microstoria sounds like what you would hear if you were a stowaway inside a dreaming HAL 9000.

I'm sure you've heard this "It sounds like being inside a..." metaphor used plenty of times before. It seems like the more amorphous and less structured a piece of music becomes, the more people reach for structural metaphors to pin it down. No doubt plenty of ambient musicians would describe their works as attempts to create a sort of space. On one end of the spectrum, this might mean a mental space. At the other extreme the metaphor becomes more concrete and sometimes specifically architectural. The relationship between ambient soundscapes and architecture was perfectly clear several years ago with Caipirinha's Architettura series, in which Deupree/Ysatis, Tetsu Inoue, and David Toop took on the buildings of Toyo Ito, Nicholas Grimshaw, and Itsuko Hasegawa. (Has anyone heard these albums? I haven't.)

Last night, I finally got around to pulling down a couple of Microstoria CDs and giving them a listen on my new-ish headphones. I'd been wanting to do this for a while, thinking that the headphones would do serious justice to the detail and texture of the music. While listening, I was thinking not about how it sounded like I was inside a computer, but that it sounded like a tiny computer was inside my head. Headphones will do that--make sounds feel like they're coming from the center of your head. This places the music into a completely different context. Instead of transforming my immediate surroundings into an imaginary space, my body became the vessel for the music.

Thursday, February 8

Bloc Party: Marketing 2.0

The new Bloc Party album has been bending my brain for the past couple of days. I was planning to write some thoughts about it, but then I found myself in the position of almost totally agreeing (he's a little overly harsh towards the end) with Nitsuh Abebe's Pitchfork review. Reading other reviews and comments, I get the feeling people don't know quite how to take the album. And it is indeed a strange album. I know it's not what I was expecting, and I can only imagine it's not what many fans wanted. Right now, I'm more fascinated by the album's existence than by the music itself. What could have been going through their head when they wrote and recorded this album? If the lyrics are anything to go by, there's nothing calculated, pretentious, or cynical here. They are just a band that's, you know, actually trying very hard. It's a little disarming.

Here's what I want to make clear: Bloc Party went and made a contemporary prog album. Okay, maybe I'm using the p-word for shock value--let's at least agree to call it art rock. It's a concept album with a narrative arc. The songs have rhythmic change-ups and hyper drumming. There's all manner of vocal effects, choirs, and cut-ups. With the exception of "I Still Remember," there's really no hooky pop songs. And there's zappy laser sounds!

The only way they could have made the album more prog would have been to release a double album. Oh, wait, they actually did. You see, the most interesting thing about A Weekend In The City for me right now isn't the music, it's the marketing and release strategy. If you do a little hunting, you will discover no less than eleven(!) non-album tracks floating around the internet. These extras are comprised of b-sides and various retailer and download shop exclusives. There's nothing unusual about a band recording a bunch of extra tracks to eventually use as single b-sides. What is unusual is for all those tracks to appear at once. And these are not throwaway demos or noodly instrumentals, but completed songs that essentially make up an entire second album.

Think about this for a minute. This isn't a case of a record label being forced to deal with the internet and so-called leaked tracks. This is total marketing genius, and the first time I've seen anyone truly leverage (manipulate?) the contemporary reality of downloading, and MP3 blogs in particular. Certainly the people involved are aware of both Hype Machine and the fact that no matter how "exclusive" these extra tracks supposedly are, they will all end up online within a couple of days. I truly believe this entire scheme is intentional; they have purposefully released two albums. Right now bloggers are tripping over themselves to be the first to collect and post all the extra songs. It's like an internet scavenger hunt. Gotta catch 'em all! And it's far better promotion than the predictability of bloggers posting tracks from the regular album. This second album has already been unofficially named Another Weekend In The City, and someone has made cover art for it. But of course the best part is that people are already claiming to like this virtual album more than the proper album. That's not hard to understand, considering most of the extra tracks are much closer in sound to Silent Alarm. All that's left to do now is sit back and wait for the inevitable CD release of this bonus album. I wonder if it'll have any bonus tracks.

Tuesday, February 6

A Genuine Fake

After a friend posted the video for "Life In a Northern Town" on his blog, I decided to track down a copy of The Dream Academy's debut album; I haven't heard it in about twenty years. Along with Propaganda's A Secret Wish and ABC's The Lexicon Of Love, the Dream Academy album made a huge impact on me when I first heard it back in the mid-80s. Some people have The Velvet Underground, or Bowie, or The Beatles. I have Trevor Horn and Nick Laird-Clowes.

It's a little ironic being nostalgic for an album that itself is wrapped in a blanket of faux '60s nostalgia. I can't recall, but when I was sixteen I probably took the album's sound at face value. Later, when I became too serious, I probably rejected it for being overproduced or some such nonsense. Now when I listen to it I hear the production as Laird-Clowes's attempt to create a sonic setting for his stories, much like a writer creates a world for her characters to inhabit. Sure, you can call it fake. But it's a real fake. Am I being too postmodern here? In an entertainment landscape where we're often presented with what seems like a copy of a copy of a copy (nothing inherently wrong with that), a first-generation simulation starts to feel almost genuine. Or maybe I'm just being generous because this is my nostalgia.

I'll tell you one thing: this Dream Academy album is practically it's own trivia game. It's produced by David Gilmore. Band member Kate St. John was in a band called The Ravishing Beauties with none other than Virginia Astley, and she's since recorded with Roger Eno. Gary Langan, of Art of Noise/ZTT, engineered parts of the album. Peter Buck (!) plays guitar on a track. Peter Saville designed the sleeve. And I had no idea that Nick Laird-Clowes himself lead such an interesting life.

But the thing that's interesting me most right now is the psychoacoustic memory trick the album's played on me. I believe that people don't really remember things, so much as they remember things the way they want to. What I mean is, your memories aren't some collection of objective facts, but rather a collection of those facts somehow blended and layered with your emotions and subjective impressions of the various events. Over time that mix becomes what you think of as your memories. In my mind, I held a memory of this album being lushly arranged with full orchestrations. Looking over the liner notes I was a bit shocked to find that no orchestra played on the album; it's just Kate St. John on woodwinds, a cellist, and some timpani. The rest of the "orchestra" is filled in by synthesizers and spacious recording techniques. By using just a few recognizable acoustic sounds, they tricked me. Not that I mind at all.

Monday, February 5

Language Is a Virus

A few days ago my wife and I were having discussion about comics. I was claiming that while both traditional superhero comics and Fantagraphics-style hipster comics both appear to have their own fandom communities, there doesn't seem to be a similar community for the rapidly growing sector of comics in the middle, by which I mean titles like Y, DMZ, and Desolation Jones. My argument is that while there's some chance you might be introduced to superhero comics through movies or cartoons, and you might find about hipster comics from your indie music or graphic design friends, there's no equivalent way for non-comics fans to get introduced to the those titles I mentioned. So I suggested that someone simply needs to group those types of comics under some catchy genre name. That's the thing about language, right? You can't have an idea or a discussion about an idea until that idea is manifested in a word. It helps if the word is catchy. It needs to, as they say, "resonate" with people.

This language strategy works pretty well for music. I started thinking about it again yesterday in relation to the recent-ish buzz around hauntology, a sort of virtual genre tagged by Simon Reynolds and picked up by several other bloggers to describe Burial, The Focus Group, The Caretaker, and several other artists past and present. It felt like just by naming the phenomenon, an entire new genre materialized from the ether. I'm not complaining about pigeonholing or chicken/egg issues here; I believe the genre tag has been very helpful in fomenting interesting discussions. Instead, I've been wondering about the effect this hauntology meme has had on my listening. Now that the thought virus has been planted in my brain, am I starting to hear it everywhere?

Yesterday, I finally got around to listening to Max Richter's latest album, Songs From Before (yes, I am that far behind). In short, the album is stunning--certainly one of the very best releases from last year. The album features Richter's beautiful neoclassical piano and string arrangements intercut with snippets of crackling ambience and Robert Wyatt reading bits of Haruki Murakami texts. Sounds haunting, no? I've only read Murakami's Kafka On the Shore, but I can hardly imagine fiction more haunted by...something. And the Richter album has a spectral, blurry image on the cover, which is no doubt influencing my impression of the music.

The there's Johann Johansson's IBM 1401, A User's Manual, also released last year. Here we have a sort of concept album about a vintage computer, where sweeping orchestration meets old recordings of someone reading bits of the machine's maintenance guide. I should probably mention that the album was inspired by reel-to-reel sound recordings of the mainframe made by Johansson's father over thirty years ago. Even the album's own website describes Johansson's music as "hauntingly melodic."

So, should these albums be admitted into the ever-expanding hauntology catalogue? I'll leave it to you to decide if I've gone too far. I'm not at all sure this represents a new musical trend or genre, or if we've just come up with a useful way of discussing music--a way particularly suited to our time. I'm starting to think that maybe all music (all art?) is somehow haunted and that we're really just dealing with a matter of degree.