Sunday, July 23, 2006

In which Sam attempts to be a music critic

For the last few years, I've been sort of drifting around the musical spectrum. At first I didn't like anything much, then I thought 89X (the local Detroit 'alternative' rock music station) was God. I got into a few bands along those lines, Creed among others. Then I got into progressive rock through a metal-loving friend that drove me to school junior year playing Dream Theater and Symphony X. He played Judas Priest too and other more mainstream metal too, and they were okay; he played Cradle of Filth and death metal, which was not, but I loved Dream Theater and Symphony X. I then started listening to a prog rock internet radio station, which was mostly modern stuff, and I learned about a lot of prog stuff.

Since then, I've been getting into older prog and more proggish pop, primarily Genesis, as well as more indie stuff - Garden State, Frou Frou and Imogen Heap, among others, that I got from my then-girlfriend, Amelia. Okay, that sounds weird to say. And currently, I'm looking into techno - which I need to get from my friend Jordan - and even some country, I downloaded some stuff by Eric Church. Anyway, I thought I would compile a rough list of my favorite songs, and try to analyze why I like them (please forgive any overambitious pretensiousness):

Liquid Tension Experiment - Hourglass

This is an instrumental track, soft and melodic, played by a finger-picked guitar, with occasional piano background. Each melody is soft and sliding, something definitely emphasized by the two instruments picked. Petrucci and Ruddess use just a few melodies, repeating them with great effect; occasionally, they will just as softly and calmly wander off the main themes, but then gently return to orginal melodies. The fact that it slides between finger-picked guitar and piano adds no tension, but rather just enhances the calming effect. It seems to reflect the wandering mind of a calm person in its wanderings and returnings, and in the end wanders off into a silent sleep in the same relaxing tones.

Peter Gabriel - Signal to Noise

The first song I heard by Peter Gabriel (not counting Genesis songs) was his classic "In Your Eyes" while watching Say Anything with Amelia. This much less happy song, however, makes my list of favorites because of its profundity. It is one man's struggle to understand and be understand, as he sees that "all the while the world is turning to noise." He laments:

Oh the more that it's surrounding us
The more that it destroys


and cries:

Turn up the signal...
Wipe out the noise!

The song is pervaded by background music that is, to say the least, tense. The dark, foreboding sounds are long single notes succeeding each other in a circular rhythm. They almost serve to emphasize the degree to which the situation is hopeless; when they stop, they are succeeded by a circular drum pattern that is no more hopeful. In the beginning of the song, Gabriel's voice is occasionally accompanied by a babbling sound that is somehow beautifully and for some reason reminds me of the folk sounds heard for the last couple minutes of "Aerials" by System of a Down. Representative of the noise to which Gabriel refers, the babbling adds an element of beautiful tragedy. The babbling is replaced later in the song by a high, circular melody evoking Gabriel's hopes fading away, which eventually drowns out Gabriel's repeated, resigned plea:

receive and transmit
receive and transmit
receive and transmit
you know that's it
you know that's it
receive and transmit
you know that's it
you know that's it
receive and transmit

Rush - "Limelight"

It's hard to pick one song off of Moving Pictures, their best album. Each songs contains a story or some wisdom. And Rush's music is filled with action, with guitar lines that keep the music fast and full of energy. My favorite lines are the chorus:

Living in the limelight
The universal dream
For those who wish to seem
Those who wish to be
Must put aside the alienation
Get on with the fascination
The real relation
The underlying theme

I like to think the last few lines are a jab at Marx - Objectivism (Ayn Rand's philosophy) is one of Rush's major influences, and thus it wouldn't be unfathomable. But even if the intention isn't there, I still read it as such: that the world is at bottom a deeply fascinating rather than inherently alienating place. And the song's existentialist themes are also insightful:

All the world's indeed a stage
And we are merely players
Performers and portrayers
Each another's audience
Outside the gilded cage

And while this may seem somewhat depressing, Rush is able to exude exuberance and display that life can be shallow "for those who wish to seem" while at the same time showing it can also be wonderful "for those who wish to be."

Sarah McLachlan - "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy"

As Gabriel's "Signal to Noise" is the last message of a man drowned out by forces beyond his control, "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" is moment of self-assertion, of a woman deciding to face up to the truth proudly:

And if I shed a tear I won't cage it
I won't fear love
And if I feel a rage I won't deny it
I won't fear love

The part that most strikes me is the quietness of the woman's determination; she seeks but "peace, on the way to peace; comfort, on the way to comfort," something which the song's tone and volume reflect. It is not a bombastic anthem of defiance, but a simple, humble self-reflection, perfectly expressed by McLachlan's voice.

Simon and Garfunkel - America

This one barely beat out "Homeward Bound" to make my list - I'm only going to have one per band. I think of Simon and Garfunkel as America's bards - as in Homer rather than Shakespeare. The story is of a man and his girlfriend, hitchhiking and catching buses around the country for no other purpose but to discover. It is a lyrical vignette, sung in deep and rich tones, that details a search - perhaps futile - for some essence of America, and the trivial details that make it worthwhile. Its romanticism and simplicity remind me of what was perhaps a better time, but certainly seems a happier view of life. For happiness is a state of mind, and even if Simon is unable to achieve it in "America," he seems to be avidly looking.

Lifehouse - Chapter One, The End Has Only Begun

It's sort of hard to prevent myself from putting Lifehouse's entire self-titled album on this list. In this song - as in most of the others on this list, come to think of it - mix their emotional drinks, combining hope with sadness. The singer, addressing a person who seems to have be a past love who he still has feelings for, sees uncertainty ("who's to say where the wind will blow" is a repeated theme) and a dark situation, yet is still able to see a bright future. Though all he sees "is struggling on the way," he is still able to conjure hope from hopelessness

What happens when all your dreams are lying on the ground
Do you pick up the pieces all around?

It reminds me to a degree of Eliot's query to a world gone mad: "Shall I at least set my lands in order?" The singer knows that his life is dark and gloomy, yet he still commits himself to try to fix it. In the end, the singer's advice to his addressee seems to summarize life: "Take your chances, turn around and go." In "The End Has Only Begun," he implies that a happy life is possible for her (So stop counting the hours/Live out in the world) yet not for him (Cause I've been chasing the answers/And they don't want to be found). And yet his drive to find these answers continues unabated; and though he'd "give anything to see the light of day" in the end of his search, he cannot find answers.

But it's the last two lines that just kill me. After all this selfless urging on of his addressee to happiness, and description of his own unhappiness, he utters a profound piece of wisdom that is perhaps his own redemption:

These times where the world falls apart
Make us who we are...

Mae - Goodbye, Goodnight

My cat just looks at me as I sing, "We're at the beach; we're throwing sand." I like that about this song - it is eminently singable. Of course, it's far beyond me to analyze what goes into a quality like "singable," but I think it is largely because it is somewhat of an anthem. Mae's lead singer blasts his heart and lungs out at his love. He exudes determination - to live and to love, to be happy ("I'm not going to waste this time/This light that burns will keep on fading") though his love turns him away. His wistful rememberance of times past (this is where the throwing sand part is) and sorrowful thoughts of a relationship fallen through seems to echo universally. And there of course is a happy ending - she rejoins him, and they ring out with the happy folly of youth:

The waves are crashing on and on,
We're running even if we're wrong,
This force is driving me to test the speed of light
Good night....

Nightwish - Ghost Love Score

This is the song I listen to on 2:00 am on a late Palo Alto night when I feel that I still have miles to go before I sleep. It's certainly not a very good one for productivity, but it prevents me from falling asleep. Nightwish is an interesting attachment of mine. I, um, lack the frame of reference to actually believe in their lyrics, like the chorus here:

My fall will be for you
My fall will be for you
My love will be in you
If you be the one to cut me
I`ll bleed forever

But again, their songs have a very singable quality. Perhaps it is the grand, mystical quality of the lyrics. ("Into the blue memory," "A siren from the deep came to me/Sang my name my longing"). My sister says that one of her friends, who has had a lot of problems with depression, often tried to express herself by saying things like "I feel lost in a world of darkness." There's something about suffering and misery that lends itself to grand tragic expressions. Perhaps this is simply an outgrowth of our modern age, what with its tendency to romanticise that sort of stuff. But in any case, Nightwish is certainly a band for such grand bombastic tragedy, especially with an opera-trained singer as vocalist, and its energy-filled laments. It leads me to sort of ignore the content, I have other songs for that.

IQ - Harvest of Souls

The epic nature of this song goes far beyond that it runs 24 and a half minutes. Peter Nichols' deep, melodic voice ranges from the depths of self-doubt to acendant triumph to bitter recognition of reality, at times from one line to he next. It is a story rather than a vignette; a tale of one man's observation of and interaction with his society. At least, that's my interpretation, which I just fully thought a few minutes ago - and note, I've listened to this song at least ten times, which makes four hours. Did I mention that "Harvest of Souls" was rather complex?

Technically, work is a masterpiece. Okay, so I'm not even remotely qualified to pass judgment there. Oh well. Nichols' beautiful voice perfectly complements the bass and other lines, and the instrumental sections are well done and completely in the tone of the story. I'm sure it does so with some awesome and cool time signatures, but both not having the music in front of me and being musically competent, I don't know any of them. So I'll just pretend that I can say something more insightful that, "Wow, it's really harmonious and cool-sounding" on that front.

Getting back to the story, there are two main, interwoven storylines: the story of the author's life and the author's commentaries on society. The technique by which IQ does so is quite interesting. The story opens with sorrowful reflections on a better time and a past love. The speaker is full of doubt and loneliness ("Now I barely stay afloat/Balance out of order/With every sympathy worn away/Who can I return to now?"). But then, he abruptly switches to a proud, unquestioning triumph of America ("We've got right on our side, we're in pole position/So praise the Lord and raise the ammunition high") and a military march, and then just as abruptly switches back to a personal perspective.

I wondered what was up with that for a while. But then I exmained the speaker's words afterwards more carefully: he is bitterly reflecting on having swallowed lies, probably to compensate for his loneliness:

And once in a while without the will to carry on
Hours held me too long in one location
And old familiar tale, a glory to behold
A work of genius, the greatest story ever sold
As you sign on the line, as you do what you're told
All you sell is your soul

Afterwards, the speaker is much more self-reflective, and expresses his truths much more humbly. He wants to regain his old glory, to "shine," to "walk on water," to "cut through the smoke and the noise." He both fears that "we enter an age of permanent doubt," where his hopes are doomed, and constantly doubts himself, creating tensions that run through the song.

But even with all of these, I'm torn as to why I like this song so much. Sure, piecing together Nichols' eloquent testimony to insecurity and self-questioning is pretty interesting. But the little pieces, the beauty of some of the lyrics ("Why does the world continue to spin/When everything around me grinds to a halt") are really superb. And the overall sound of IQ - the guitar, bass, and drum lines, the way they perfectly complement the vocals in this song, and move from one to another smoothly and effortlessly, makes the lyrics even more powerful. Of course, I don't mind not being able to choose - it just means the song is that much more powerful. Shifting tracks somewhat, that might be because it could possess either or both of the qualities that make poetry and lyrics universally applicable: (a) some insight into common human truths, and (b) vagueness. Consider my favorite part, the ending:

And when the eyes of children
See past the ones left standing
Then the time has finally come
To understand who we are

Slowly the fires are burning
Bearing their silent witness
And the living past returns
To reap the harvest of souls

You decide which it is.

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