Friday, July 31, 2009

The Guitarist's Lament

I am a guitar player.

This should be read as if I were saying "I am an alcoholic", admitting to a problem that impairs one's ability to view the living world. Guitarists (and drummers too, but despite my best efforts, I am not also one of those) very often lose sight of music and what makes it music. Let me explain.

Most guitarists start playing guitar after being inspired by a band or artist whose music was guitar based. Very often these bands featured guitar players whose guitar playing was rudimentary, or, just as often, plain ham-handed buffoonery. The Ramones, the Clash, Nirvana, even the Rolling Stones - the guitar playing is as simple as dry toast and just as effective for the butter of rhythm and the jelly of energetic vocals.
After eating this delicious aural breakfast in the morning of their musical day, guitarist then tend to take the early morning bus of guitar lessons until reaching the grammar school of rudimentary competence, after whi(THUD).

OK, it's several hours later, and after acquiring a painful and somewhat unwelcome haze of consciousness, I found a note explaining that any more continuation of the metaphor above would result in unanesthetized and unsanitary bowel surgery. I will take it under advisement.

Anyway, the little bastards get pretty good at guitar and start to realize that the guitar parts in the music that inspired them are way too simple for them now, and they need to find a new challenge. Enter: hard rock and metal.

To be fair, many guitarists are inspired from the beginning by more complicated heavy metal masturbation, but the trap still has the same result for most people (boys especially): they begin to confuse the guitar part for the whole of the music.

I mean, that IS how metal works too: the rhythm, mood, and melody are all in the riff, not in the voice or even in the overall harmonic structure of the parts. Whereas rock always had riff songs, some damn good ones too ("Louie Louie" of course, with "Sweet Jane" in second, and "Satisfaction" pulling up third) those songs all used the rhythm of the riff vs the vocals vs the drums. In metal the guitar part dictates and defines, rather than plays against those aspects and points our young impressionable guitar players in a dangerous direction musically: single minded guitar player numbnutsification.

Play for a guitarist something awesome that has guitar chords, any song you can think of outside of guitar-y metal sludge. They'll hate it. "This is just three fucking chords, anyone could play this!" Yeah, dickweed, except you before you started taking lessons and ruined your ability to enjoy music!

Guitar players never would have been inspired to pick up their instrument in the first place if it wasn't for Good, Simple Rock Music; and, being so inspired, they accidentally set out to kill their God-given ability to appreciate beauty; eliminating the purity and innocence to love Good Simple Rock Music! Everything they wanted out of guitar was made to seem childish and simple by the poisoning of musical education!

I think someone ought to pass a law stating that you can't learn to play guitar until you're 18. Then someone might actually retain the ability to enjoy and appreciate music for what it is, even as a filthy guitar player.

- If the music is dead, give it an autopsy and sell the video on ebay.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Compression Wand

Ok, so you might be a fan of Good music (Bob Dylan) or Bad music (Michael Bolton) but you're likely to not be a fan of most current radio fodder (if you are, go back to bed! This is a school night!). You may be wondering why people who can like both the awesome (The Mekons) and the awful (Rush) can all agree that something like Linkin Park is terrible. It's not being old or failing to relate. It's something more important.

I loved Nirvana, but I'm going to call this one their fault (it's not really, but someone has to take the blame or this'd be boring). A big part of what made "Smells Like Teen Spirit" a hit can surely be attributed to Kurt's passionate vocals, the fantastic lyrics and the loud-soft dynamics. These are sound (as in solid, dummy) parts of the music that make listening to the song enjoyable. But there was something more sinister and subliminal at work too.....
The first thing you realize when you compare Nirvana to any of Mr. Nirvana's heroes (honestly does anyone else know what Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl listened to?) is that everything was smoother and easier to hear in Nirvana's most popular recordings. To those with limited knowledge of musical equipment or recording studios, the machine that makes everything so magically hearable and close in volume is called (technical info, click at own risk) a compressor. That allowed extreme shifts in dynamics to be far more musically effective at a lower volume than before. Rather than having to listen more closely or turn it up, everything was presented at maximum-or-close-to-it volume, making life easier for the lazy music listener.

Compressors and compression had, of course, been around long before Nirvana, but it was the first time in mainstream music where compression allowed the music and composition to exist in a form that sounded realistic, but artificially changed the music to allow for greater-sounding dynamics. Which is all well and good, but soon the spice began to overpower the meal.

Any good song has natural dynamics, even played solo on an acoustic guitar there's still a rising and falling of the singers voice and the strumming or plucking of the guitar. These were all natural aspects of the composition and then would be highlighted or enhanced with other instruments/production. The problem with the compression wars that took place after Nirvana became popular is that as bands tried to top their dynamic extremes and the shifts between them, compression settings were getting more and more ridiculous to keep it all sounding reasonable on the average human's stereo (Robert Plant impression:"does anyone remember stereos?").

You could argue that the mp3 is the reason for the oppressive compression in today's recorded music, producers trying to make recordings not sound like they're coming from the bottom of a well(with cellophane over it) when digitally compressed by the format itself. But my copy of Robert Johnson's Complete Recordings still sounds fine when compressed to empty3 format, and that was recorded in the 1930's. That's not the issue.

The issue is this: since Nirvana waved the compression wand over the forehead of the music industry, the idea that dynamics can sell a song better than songwriting or content has become near-ubiquitous. Modern (and yes, I think of modern in this sense having the same connotation as baby-eating nazi used car salesman) producers and songwriters now have a backward and poisoned view of how to create music: production first.

First comes the bassline: how to make it roughly 75% of the audio band and how to emphasize so that it feels like even more than that. It's about the bass being held back for dramatic effect, and being the loudest thing when it's on. Second comes the "other". In Pop it's usually background singers and in rock it's a wall of distorted guitars. Then they write a verse, carried on as limited a musical support as possible, to create tension while everyone waits for the "other" and bass to really kick in. At this point, they finally have to be bothered to create a melody for the song and then lyrics.

In other words there is no real music in modern music! It's not about creating a melody and lyrics that have intrinsic power, but creating an image of power from production. It's like one of those painted turkeys you see on a box of coldcuts: painted to look like it was cooked better than you could ever really cook a turkey, but raw on the inside, and will give you salmonella.

So there you have it friends, the reason the Dylanite and the Boltonite can find common ground in hating modern radio sounds: they both like music.

-If the music is dead, give it an autopsy and sell the video on Ebay.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Round and round

"Hypnotic rhythms". "Drone" also comes to mind. Why is modern music so based around the same thing repeated ad infinitum? I know, I know, groove, right? Feeling da ridim mon. But is everyone's attention span so short that they can't remember something unless it's repeated four hundred thousand times or is everyone who gives two quarters of a shite about music so stoned that they just want to get their brains lost in the same thing repeated for what feels like a quarter of a lifetime?

I'm not talking about songs with a groove that repeats slowly over time (45 seconds to a minute per rep) but songs where a four-to-ten second phrase is repeated throughout the whole goddamn thing! I mean thousands of rap songs, pop songs, and rock songs have fallen into this pattern, and I find it wholly unsatisfying. Songs should tell what feels like a story (not a literal story, that's why the Police blew ass) but an emotional one, through dynamics, changes, and pacing.

I mean a great example is comparing Alice in Chains "Hate to Feel" to Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused". Might as well call it the same riff. Same tempo. Completely different stories musically! Despite both about being stoned enough to enjoy four-to-ten second loops repeated forever.

I write this to bring attention to a personal bugbear of mine: the band Tool. What the fucking hell is it with these guys? I live in New England and work in a music store (that will remain nameless) and almost everyone there is dropping 1/8th to 1/4 of a weeks pay to see these guys next month. And they're the never-ending-loop champions. Hip-hop, R&B, pop, those loops are monotonous, but the songs only last four minutes. Tools songs are, like, nine. HOW ON EARTH DO PEOPLE LISTEN TO THIS CRAP FOR NINE MINUTES?

Sorry, I'll remember to drink more wine next time I post. A friend of mine said that he could see me dismissing Tool far more efficiently than I have here with the following phrase: "Tool. A band you can set your watch to." Now, I love that, and the fact that he attributes this to me as something I might say is a pretty good compliment, but it misses the issue here: Why is this band popular?

Any Tool fans out there with some ability to tell me what it is? To Shine a Light on this issue and explain why the New Pornographers can write a sublimely catchy song, with a transcendent tune, in three parts ("Sing me Spanish Techno", yeah the video is terrible but if you don't like the song you have no soul), while tool can play the same riff for ten minutes, with no counterpoint or much variation, and have an audience roughly six hundred times bigger? I mean, I don't even notice there's music playing when someone puts them on in the store! They're that hypnotic!

- If the music is dead, give it an autopsy and sell the video on ebay.