Friday, November 25, 2011


Well, I'd hoped to do a post a day during this break, but I didn't quite manage that. Oh well, nothing to do but press onward.

It's pretty rare now because of the way I listen to and consume music, but the first moment of listening to something new used to be quite the experience. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, as I start to consider what might be on an end of year list for me music-wise. I've heard so much this year (I can see arguments against both of them, but for me, 2010 and 2011 have been great years for music), but I can't specifically remember hearing it all for the first time. When I was in high school we'd just got the internet, and I spent hours on Allmusic, Pitchfork, and other websites reading, researching, and imagining what things sounded like (I even spent some time in music chat rooms on Yahoo!--speaking of which, I'm very intrigued about what relationship could be drawn between chat rooms and social networking as it exists in 2011). Pre-YouTube and high speed internet, it was still really difficult to hear any of the music that I was finding out about (krautrock, post-rock, IDM, basically all the references someone with "good" taste should get), and I had to make guesses as to what something could sound like when based on reviews and descriptions. After all the reading and guessing, then, to hear the actual music was an enlightening moment. Was I ever disappointed? Oh yes, all the time. Most of the time, though, I was able to come to love what I heard, even if it was only years later. Sometimes, I'll come across a song or band now that sounds like what I expected some of those genres to sound like before I'd ever heard them. For example, Mouse on Mars' "Tamagnocchi" sounds like what I expected Neu! to sound like, and what I've always kind of resented Neu! for not sounding like.

Anyway, there are a couple first listens that I can remember with particular intensity. I first heard Loveless, for example, late in the afternoon on a weekend (I have a feeling it was a Sunday, but that could be a projection based on other things). I remember the colour of the light and the way that even though it was right about the time on a weekend afternoon when I tend to get the kind of ennui that Douglas Adams' called the long, dark tea-time of the soul, Loveless was strange enough, different enough, new enough to cut through all of that. It's hard not to pay attention after the first five seconds of "Only Shallow."

The first listen that I remember above all others, though, is my first encounter with Verve's (pre-The) A Storm in Heaven. I'd read about it for weeks (months?): "the group's 1993 full-length debut, A Storm in Heaven, was based on buoyant, extended psychedelic passages. Looking back today, it was an interesting and original musical direction, since at the time, angst-ridden Seattle bands (and their many copycats) were all the rage." That was the sum total of my knowledge prior to hearing the music. I knew "Bittersweet Symphony" and "Lucky Man" obviously, but those were, I was told by the review, a different animal altogether from A Storm in Heaven and the early singles. And those singles! Oh, the mythology that was built up in my mind around them based on their reviews was immense:
"One Way to Go" and "Man Called Sun," however, show off their tendency to groove, building moody songs out of repetitive phrases that are the perfect backdrop for Richard Ashcroft's acid-tinged lyrics. With its minimalistic, echo-laden guitar, droning bass and heavy backbeat, "Man Called Sun" is the first Verve classic."
The band truly comes into its own -- Richard Aschcroft sings like a man possessed and Nick McCabe's guitar is positively oceanic, producing tidal waves of drone which crash and break over the hypnotically liquid rhythms of SImon Jones and Peter Salisbury. . . . [A] dreamlike beauty, tapping into an energy just outisde the realm of consciousness -- it's music which transcends space and time, with a purity unmatched by anything else in the Verve catalog.
"Gravity Grave" finds Verve augmenting their echo-drenched, fuzzed-out guitars with harmonica and flute. Underpinned by a pulsing bassline and heavy backbeat, the end result is euphoric, mind-blowing psychedelia.
It didn't hurt that the covers of their singles and albums--designed by Brian Cannon and Microdot--were amazing pieces of work. They had just the right mixture of surreality and menace to appeal to a teenage me. There's an NME feature with cannon talking about many of these images alongside his other work with Oasis, Suede, et al. Reading through his descriptions of the Oasis sleeves, you really get a sense of how they were the nostalgia mode. Everything is based on rehashing a rock and roll myth that had already become cliche. That one of their members was named "Bonehead" and suggested many of the ideas seems only too fitting.

A Storm In Heaven, front, back, and interior

"Gravity Grave"

Incidentally, it took many years--until YouTube appeared--for me to actually hear the full version of "Gravity Grave," despite the fact that for a number of years, if pushed, I would've said it was my favourite song (Now? Who knows? My stock answer for was Bark Psychosis' "Eyes and Smiles," but I don't know if I'd still say that). Knowing there was more to it that I hadn't heard actually helped its cause, really. The fadeout made me want more, made me need to know what was missing, and preserved the mystery of something that I already found inscrutable--what does "To me you're like a setting sun / You rise and you're gone" mean? I listened to "Gravity Grave" for the first time in a few years the other day and was taken away again. It was glorious. If there's one thing that I really long for from music it's transcendence, and early Verve delivers that in spades for me.

Anyway, this is supposed to be about my first encounter with A Storm in Heaven, so I guess I should talk about that. Sitting on the floor, staring at my stereo and flipping through the booklet (Ashcroft looking not quite of this world in his photo--you can really see how he sort of got away with his faux-messianic thing to start with; shame it all went to shit), as "Star Sail" begins. That first chord, like "Only Shallow," is immediately captivating.* But rather than the violence that follows "Only Shallow," a fade back out, an opening of immense spaces, and finally "Hello, it's me..." That guitar solo (it's like some god's vacuum cleaner in the best possible sense). The feeling that you really are hearing a transmission from somewhere out in space. I was changed. I've been looking for anything that sounds feels like "Star Sail" since that moment, and never really found it ("Gravity Grave," in my opinion, is even more captivating, but not in the way that "Star Sail" is). There are other high points: "Already There" and its alarm clock feedback in the chorus, "The Sun The Sea" and its wonderful horns (courtesy of the Kick Horns, whose contributions to Radiohead's "The National Anthem" had already blown my mind), "Butterfly" and its barely-keeping-it-together vibe. The real gem of the album, though, after "Star Sail" is "Virtual World." Again, that sense of unending space, of Ashcroft coming to you from somewhere else, and a return to the flutes that helped out "Gravity Grave."

It's no so much that I'm nostalgic for that kind of experience (or rather, I am, but it's not only that), but I do think something is lost in sitting in front of my computer, browsing online while an album plays. Much of this is on me, obviously, and I recognize that fact. Nevertheless, how can I remember the first time? How can I change my listening habits and adapt to this new mode of listening? How can the current listen have meaning without a memory of the first listen, even if that memory is a myth? Perhaps it needs to be a myth,  a personalized fiction of listening, in order to develop personal significance, personal resonance? This seems, somehow, related to music and atemporality. I need to think about this some more.

*This is something of an anachronistic reflection. When I heard "Star Sail," hearing "Only Shallow" was still a year, if not two years, away. They're two of the most striking album-opening chords I'm aware of though, so I tend to group them together.

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