Listen to this track by laptop-totin’ Oxfordian rock quintet and era-defining post-rock flirters Radiohead. It’s “The National Anthem”, a deep cut off of their 2000 album that confounded many a music reviewer, Kid A.
That album was the follow up to their 1997 album OK Computer, a work that stirred up the stagnant waters of the rock scene in Britain as Brit-Pop was beginning to become somewhat bent with age. But as it turned out, Radiohead had not arrived with that record in terms of their ambition as a musical unit. They were on their way upward and inward to the degree that when this new album Kid A emerged, it was not just in the public eye because it was so long-awaited. It was a bona fide news story.
Before its release, it was rumoured that there were no guitars to be found on the new record! It was an electronic record full of bleeps and blips instead! Judas! Even today, 15 years (!) later, there continues to be a misconception that Radiohead abandoned six-stringed noisemakers completely on this record. They hadn’t. There’s plenty of guitar on this album. There just aren’t any solos or prominent riffs. There are other textures that simply took precedence on some tracks. With this one, it was beats and synthesized washes of sound, plus brass, of all things. Radiohead had changed their gameplan.
But, what they hadn’t changed was their interest in the direction culture was headed, especially on a newly dawning century. If we listeners were all distracted by how different the sound of the album was compared to what they’d come up with before, then on first listen, we may have missed what had stayed the same, coded into the music; a mistrust and fear of where the future was taking us, and the tenuous threads on which civilization itself hangs. Continue reading
Listen to this track by former pop synthesists turned minimalist orchestral art rock concern Talk Talk. It’s “Ascension Day”, the second track from the band’s last (to date, although I wouldn’t hold your breath, kids) album Laughing Stock released in the autumn of 1991.
The record was the final gasp from a band who were on a unique artistic parabola thanks to their critically acclaimed (well, eventually) but not-well-purchased 1988 masterpiece Spirit Of Eden. That album was a work that was a dramatic departure from their pop music origins, led by singer Mark Hollis and collaborator Tim Friese-Green. Since its creation and in the aftermath of its release, they lost bass player Paul Webb and their contract with EMI with whom they were in some conflict over the “not well purchased” point regarding said masterppiece.
So after pursuing their art and following the muse against the slings and arrows of outrageous record companies, you’d think they would make a more mainstream-friendly record to reset the balance, right? Well, no.
But, what they did do is create yet another masterpiece, well represented by this track. But, it was a harrowing ride. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Scottish downtempo post-rock duo, and National Film Board obsessives Boards of Canada. It’s “Dayvan Cowboy”, a track that appears on their 2005 album The Campfire Headphase as well as the follow-up EP that appeared the next year, Trans-Canada Highway.
This track was the lead song of the whole record, released a few weeks before to give listeners a taste of what was to be the band’s third release. With their previous releases, they’d become known for heavily treated instrumentation that obscured the original sounds of the instruments used to create the parts.
The result was pure analogue electronic texture that translates into warm atmospheres with a sense of spaciousness, and an ineffable nostalgia for the hazy memories of childhood. That’s their genius.
But, on this track and on many of the others, they changed their tack a bit.
Listen to this track by post-rock influencers and musical landscape artists from Chicago, Tortoise. It’s “Djed”, the epic opening track to their landmark 1996 record Millons Now Living Will Never Die. When I say epic, I really mean it; this piece is over 21 minutes long, friends. But, it’s not like it has that many verses, as if we were talking about a pop song. It moves, and changes in a way that pop music can do on a smaller scale. But, it doesn’t play by pop music’s rules.
This is perhaps why this music was called post-rock; that it goes past the rules set in place by traditional rock music, and exists as the result of ignoring the barriers, and simply having differing goals while using the same tools.
So, where did an approach like this come from? Was it simply inspired by what technology could accomplish by the 1990s? Or is this less about technology, and more about something that has always been a companion to innovative musical movements; the unexpected.
Listen to this track by former Talk Talk creative honcho and minimalist composer Mark Hollis. It’s “A Life (1895-1915)”, what he considered to be the centerpiece of his only solo album, Mark Hollis. The record was released in 1998 without much fanfare, since its author asserted that “fanfare” of any kind didn’t really match with the material on the record. That meant no gigs. It would be an entity of the studio only, a one-shot deal.
The approach wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary for Hollis, who wasn’t your standard frontman in a not-your-standard band in Talk Talk. One-off records by former frontmen are often associated with contractual obligation, particularly when there’s no follow-up. But here, there is a definite sense of artistic continuity. Like his work under the Talk Talk creative umbrella, the use of space plays a pretty big role on his solo record and in this piece. And to Hollis’ point, it would be hard to really take this music in while in a live setting. Imagine how many intrusive conversations, clinking glasses, and inebriated guffawing it would have to cut through.
Another aspect of this is the sources where this material is derived. To my ears, the first one that leaps to mind is late ’50s Gil Evans. Minimalist composition in a classical context also seems to be the general sonic neighbourhood here. But, despite my feeling that it’s hard to attach the word “song” to this piece of music, it really is one. But, what is it about?
Listen to this track by primo rock deconstructionist quintet from Oxford, Radiohead. It’s their 2001 single “Pyramid Song” as taken from their second release of that decade Amnesiac, a record that served as a sister album to 2000’s Kid A.
The song and the album off of which it comes had tremendous impact even after the previous tremendous impact of Kid A. That album certainly subverted expectations, much to the delight/revulsion of many at the time. Shedding guitar-driven tunes as established on Brit-pop era The Bends and on the neo-prog watershed OK Computer, and instead embracing laptop technology and treated sounds was the stylistic shift that stole the headlines at the time.
Even still, during this period in the life of the band, that shift was too simple to be the whole picture. And “Pyramid Song” helps to fill in the gaps, with those computer-generated textures being tempered with sumptuous and hypnotic strings, disorienting time-shifted piano lines, wordless vocal backing (a sign of the song’s origins, inspired by Charles Mingus’ “Freedom”) and with Phil Selway’s fantastic jazz drumming.
But besides a number of musical ingredients out of which they were fashioning the sound of their newest single using the latest technology, the band was also exploring some very old, and eternally pertinent themes while they were doing so.
Listen to this track by electronically-inclined indie-rock band New Hands. It’s “Tulips”, an outlier song to their planned full-length lp, currently in gestation.
The album is scheduled to be released next year, as the five piece band and their producer Michael Keire (Apostle of Hustle, Wildlife, Dark Mean) take their time to bring the music to its full potential in the studio.
Such has been the approach for this single, a tale of relationship vulnerability (“Shake your head and hold my hand, say I’m still important “), punctuated by sound that mixes rock instruments and post-punk synths.
The pitfall to this approach, if not seeking out a cold and alienated vibe, is losing the balance between a precise, cut-glass sound that this strain of rock music requires, and a warm recording that invites a listener into it. To my ears, and probably yours too, the band has managed to achieve that balance.
New Hands’ bassist Evan Bond explained it to me, via email. This is what he said: Continue reading