Kate Bush: Hounds of Love (pt. 2)

katebush

Dear Matthew:

I thought you told me this album was going to be weird.

OK, I mean, it’s a little out of the ordinary. The second side did get a little out there. (The brief highland dance interlude definitely blindsided me.) And Bush’s voice is certainly not a typical pop star voice. But mostly I was just like, yeah, I could get into this.

As I thought about it, I realized that’s because I already am.

Seinfeld (stay with me on this one) is widely considered to be one of the best, most successful, most groudbreaking television programs of all time. The so-called ‘show about nothing,’ following the often bizarre adventures of four borderline-sociopathic residents of New York City, completely revolutionized the world of primetime TV. But if you were to take the average middle school-aged kid today in 2015 and show them a random episode of Seinfeld, you’d probably get a response along the lines of: “This isn’t funny.” (Or at the very least, that it’s not particularly original.)

Of course, it’s not that Seinfeld isn’t funny. Rather, it’s that Seinfeld was so funny that everything about it has been imitated by its successors to the point that aspects of the show that were once groundbreaking (the unlikable cast, idiosyncratic language, the dissection of the quirks of polite society, etc.) are now a standard part of the genre. Seinfeld changed TV so fundamentally that, to someone with a cultural tabula rasa, its explosive originality is essentially invisible.

This phenomenon crops up in other media all the time. I’m sure this hypothetical middle-schooler would be completely nonplussed by Die Hard, and would tell you that Final Fantasy VII is a category-five cliché storm dressed up to passingly resemble a video game.

I put it to you that Kate Bush is the Seinfeld of female art-pop stars.

Bush has this apparent reputation for weirdness, but taken alongside contemporary acts like Björk, Fever Ray, or even someone like M.I.A., she’s really not as out there as I’ve been lead to believe. But I expect that this is in large part because she was the prototype for this particular type of act. Hell, even Lady Gaga owes some portion of her success to Kate Bush.

This was a fun listen. Plus, I now have some interesting new ideas for future assignments. But that’s all yet to come — I still need to rub your face in some punk rock first.

— Matt

Kate Bush: Hounds of Love (pt. 1)

katebush

Dear Matt:

In honour of this blog having gotten weird already, allow me to introduce you to Kate Bush.

Bush is one of a long line of British artists who constantly gets called “eccentric,” but also periodically enjoys massive mainstream success. (See also, Lewis Carroll, Monty Python, Bush’s occasional duet partner Peter Gabriel.)

I’m at a loss to explain why Kate Bush is popular. But, I do feel like I can pin down part of what makes her connect with her most devoted fans: she possesses a seemingly supernatural amount of empathy.

Bush writes deeply personal songs, but they feel like other people’s personal songs. She’s written lyrics from the POV of Houdini’s wife, a man contemplating fatherhood, and a curiously articulate fetus, among others. These ultra-specific psychological portraits can be alienating, before you find your footing.

Maybe you’ll agree with me that pop music is generally contingent on the listener’s sympathy: you’re meant to identify personally with what’s being sung. That’s why there are so goddamn many love songs. But, Kate Bush’s best songs work differently. They can make you feel empathy for a person to whom you are entirely dissimilar — even if, like me, you don’t normally possess much of that.

I think this is probably why Hounds of Love is Bush’s most beloved album. It’s a mix of genuinely personal songs with some semblance of universality (“Running Up That Hill” became Bush’s second-biggest hit) and tracks that entreat you to work past their alienating strangeness and come to an understanding with their protagonist.

This latter approach comes to the fore on the album’s second side. Much like our perpetual favourite reference point, 2112, one side of Hounds of Love is just a bunch of unrelated songs, and the other side is a sprawling conceptual epic. That epic, subtitled “The Ninth Wave,” is as narratively ambiguous as Deltron 3030, but there’s a nominal throughline involving a woman who (nearly?) drowns following a shipwreck.

I adore this side’s first track, “And Dream of Sheep.” It’s based on the ingenious premise (Kate Bush songs often have “premises”) of relating the inner monologue of a personified lighthouse as it falls asleep and inadvertently causes a tragedy. Of all of Kate Bush’s massive, Wes Andersonian cast of eccentrics and quietly tragic figures, this lighthouse may be my favourite.

But, Bush’s all-time greatest feat of empathy lives on side one: “Cloudbusting” is told from the perspective of a child — the son of dissident scientist Wilhelm Reich. The narrator’s inner monologue seems as alienating to an adult listener as it probably should. And yet we feel for him. “I hid my yo-yo in the garden,” he sings to his imprisoned father, “I can’t hide you from the government.”

Sometimes, manipulating symbols doesn’t affect reality at all.

The album’s sound is of its time. It’s got some badly dated synths, and it’s full of that awful 80s drum sound. But, I don’t care. The songs are strong enough to push through that.

I could go on for thousands of words about all of the reasons why I adore this album. But, ultimately, it comes down to this: Hounds of Love is an album full of feelings. In stark opposition to Bush’s image as an alienating, eccentric figure, Hounds reaches out and makes the effort to connect.

I have no idea whether or not it’ll connect with you. I hope so. I hope it knocks that impassive facade of yours clean off. I want to see waterworks, Meuse.

But, either way, this is what all the fuss is about. Now you know.

— Matthew

Deltron 3030: Deltron 3030 (pt. 2)

deltron3030

Dear Matt:

Thank you for starting me off with hip hop, rather than Black Flag or some other thing that’s going to alienate me. You are a kinder blogmate than I.

You were right in predicting that I would love this album. It has all of the properties that I love in music, nowadays. It is deeply idiosyncratic. It is full of ostentatious displays of craftsmanship. It contains a reference to Armorines. ARMORINES, dammit!

And, it’s a concept album. At the risk of starting a turf war: concept albums are my domain. I’ve always felt that you can trace them back to classical genres like opera and the program symphony, which were amalgamated into jazz by people like Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, and found their way into pop music through psychedelia and its twin offspring, prog and glam. This is territory I’m comfortable in.

But, I’m the first to admit that there’s something distinctly adolescent about most classic concept albums. Tommy. Ziggy Stardust. The Wall. Dear god, 2112. (Even I can only stomach about seven minutes of that album.)

And, I don’t think that Deltron 3030 entirely escapes from that legacy. Any science fiction epic about dismantling a totalitarian state with rap is at risk of lapsing into that same earnestness you detect in Godbluff, Fight Club and Japanese RPGs. And, for the first few tracks on the album, I thought that’s more or less what I was dealing with.

But that was before I realized that Deltron 3030 is a magical incantation.

*Ahem.*

Allow me to indulge in a little light conspiracy theorizing.

One of the central tenets of magic (and I do mean magic — not illusion) is that you can manipulate reality by manipulating symbols. (Allow my current hero to explain more fully.) So, the practice of drawing a picture, telling a story, or spitting a verse can have a profound impact on the material world.

On ‘Time Keeps On Slipping,’ Del gets straight to the heart of this by noting how he can “convert energy into matter instantly with a pen and a pad,” and puts a finer point on it with the bold claim “I remake my universe every time I use a verse.”

This clearly positions the whole of Deltron 3030 as a spell. Naturally, Del doesn’t frame it this way, because it wouldn’t fit the SF aesthetic he’s going for. Instead, in ‘Virus,’ he equates his verses with computer code — a language with a long history of being equated with magic. As game scholar Jeff Howard writes: “Simply put, programmers and magicians both master a grammar to make things happen.”

With the cyber-magic of his lyrical talents, Del’s character Deltron Zero wins rap battles, which are portrayed as causing actual physical damage to his opponents (remember: manipulate the symbol, manipulate reality) and structural damage to the status quo of his oppressive universe.

So, this album is no mere adolescent anti-authoritarian fantasy. It is the most profound kind of subversive creation: it is an act of magic in practice. Del’s sci-fi incantation may have failed in its aim to bring down the government, but as you note, the album’s popularity has grown substantially since its release. Give it time.

Wow. This blog got weird way faster than I expected.

— Matthew

Deltron 3030: Deltron 3030 (pt. 1)

deltron3030

Dear Matthew:

Last week, you had me listen to some goofy, epic, over-the-top prog rock. In that spirit, your first assignment is probably the closest thing the hip hop canon has to prog: Deltron 3030.

Deltron 3030 is a supergroup consisting of MC Del the Funky Homosapien, producer Dan the Automator — both hailing from the San Francisco Bay Area — and DJ Kid Koala, from Vancouver. They’re all prolific and celebrated in their own niches, but this record is, in my opinion, the best distillation of everything the three bring to the table. Remember Gorillaz’ first single, ‘Clint Eastwood’? That’s these three guys plus Damon Albarn, a year after Deltron 3030 came out. (As far as I’m concerned, ‘Clint Eastwood’ is a Deltron 3030 song. Hell, they even do it as their encore when they play live.)

Deltron 3030 is a concept album. The year is 3030, and times are tough for Deltron Zero and his sidekick Automator. Hip hop is outlawed, corporations rule the galaxy with an iron fist, and Deltron is on the run from a corrupt military-industrial complex — or at least that’s been my interpretation. Unlike a more classic concept album like Rush’s 2112, Deltron 3030 doesn’t have a clearly defined narrative arc. Instead, it’s more of an exercise in atmosphere and world-building. There are some set pieces here and there, but a lot of it is just Del — an MC renowned for his ability to freestyle — riffing on post-apocalyptic sci-fi imagery and technobabble over Automator’s gritty, stripped-down beats. (It may interest you to note that Dan is a classically trained violinist, and many of the samples on this record come from the music of contemporary classical composer William Sheller.)

The result is utterly captivating. There is no other rapper in the world who sounds like Del. And more than anything, this record really seems to capture this feeling of the ‘used future’ of something like Star Wars or Alien — a future that feels dirty and diseased, run-down and as far from the shiny idealism of Star Trek as it’s possible to get. The universe of Deltron 3030 is in rough shape.

This album is very much a product of its time, of course. The various skits and vocal cameos are a who’s-who of 90s alternative hip hop. Released in the year 2000, it shares a cultural moment with other similar sci-fi classics like The Matrix, The X-Files, and even Final Fantasy VII. It definitely feels like an album that came out in 2000 — but in a good way. It has aged extremely well (how scarily prescient is the track ‘Virus’?), and I think a lot of that has to do with how it just sort of sprung into the world fully formed. Like a lot of cult classics, there wasn’t a lot of hype when it first came out, and it’s only in the following years that it amassed its legion of fans. (In 2013, the band released a long-awaited followup, Event II — which is a good album too, don’t get me wrong. But unless you’re Death From Above 1979, it’s hard to get that sort of lighting to strike twice.)

Obviously, I love Deltron 3030. And I know you have a taste for MF DOOM and Madlib’s Madvillainy, so I think you might too. I am very much looking forward to your thoughts on this album.

— Matt

Van der Graaf Generator: Godbluff (pt. 2)

godbluff

Dear Matthew:

Oh dear. What have I gotten myself into?

I’ll start by saying that your hodgepodge of adjectives was spot on — this album is certainly bombastic, dramatic, and more than a little bit camp. But I think you and I might be operating on different definitions of the word ‘lean.’

Here’s a not-very-surprising confession: I don’t like prog. But it’s not the seething punk-rock hate I had for it in high school, more as a knee-jerk contrarian reaction to my peers discovering and loving it than anything. Instead, it’s now more that I just don’t really rate it.

I think there’s a sort of window in which you have to first be exposed to certain genres of art and culture, and if you miss that window, some things won’t ever really grab you. Take high fantasy, for example. If you don’t get really into swords and dragons and all that stuff before you graduate high school, you probably never will. (HBO’s shameless attempts to titillate notwithstanding.) I think it’s probably the same with prog, and as I mulled this album over thinking about what to write, I think I have a theory as to why.

It’s because these genres are all, at their core, very silly.

But it’s more than just silliness. It’s a sense of epicness and grandiosity — underpinned with an often endearingly naive worldview — operating on a sense of scale that’s just so different from the modern Western rat-race nine-to-five wage-slave life we see around us that we find compelling at that age. Rush’s 2112. The Star Wars films. Iron Maiden. Japanese role-playing games. Anything Tolkein. Fight Club. Are you kidding me? Pissed off teenagers eat this shit up.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not trying to devalue prog or sci-fi or fantasy by calling them childish or anything like that. These things are widely loved and bring a lot of joy to a lot of people, and there is a pretty clear societal value in their existence. I’m just saying that I think I missed this particular boat.

What’s confusing me, though, is what I alluded to earlier: I didn’t really dislike Godbluff, either. I almost wish I had, because that might’ve made for more entertaining reading. Instead, I was just kind of nonplussed. And the more I try to articulate why, the more it stresses me out that I can’t.

Which is ludicrous, when you think about it. Here’s this guy wailing about epic battles and this music rising and falling and all of this virtuosity and energy all but jumping out of my speakers and smacking me upside the head — and yet it just doesn’t do anything for me.

Maybe I’m still not doing a good job of approaching the music on its own terms. Maybe I’m desensitized by hearing bands like the Mars Volta take things even further off the sonic deep end. Maybe pop music has ruined my attention span. But whatever the case, I’m determined to get to the bottom of this. If this project doesn’t end up opening my mind to new music, maybe it can at least help me figure out why.

And you’re right. That man really can’t play the saxophone.

— Matt

Van der Graaf Generator: Godbluff (pt. 1)

godbluff

Dear Matt:

So, here we are. The first stop on our Matts-ical Mystery Tour of Mattvillainy. I’ve chosen your inaugural assignment as a sort of mission statement for my half of this project. As you know, when I’m not living in the 19th century, my tastes tend strongly towards the more ambitious and grandiloquent music from the years of about… oh, let’s say 1965–1979. So, you’re probably going to be getting a lot of art rock, ropey old psychedelia, and classic prog — with frequent dalliances into more unexpected territory.

With that in mind, this week you’ll be listening to Van der Graaf Generator’s Godbluff.

This is not an orthodox prog recommendation. I could have given you Yes; I could have given you Rush. These are bands who are seemingly more central to most prog fans’ musical experience than Van der Graaf Generator is. But, because of that, they are also the bands who most closely adhere to some of prog’s more ludicrous tropes – the extended solos; the circuitous, fantastical lyrics… After all, Yes and Rush are among the bands most responsible for those tropes.

So, it’s all too easy to hear popular opinion bubbling away beneath the surface when you listen to these bands. (Even for me, and I adore them both – along with Genesis, ELP, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, etc.) I’m hoping that by assigning you something a small ways off the beaten path, I might be giving you a chance to see past the tropes and hear the music on its own terms.

Van der Graaf Generator, especially in this period of their development, was the rawest and most energetic of the major classic prog bands. Their singer, Peter Hammill, shrieks and grunts as much as he sings. He’s accompanied by a jazz drummer, a guy who built his own organ (though that’s not the one he plays here), and a man who cannot play the saxophone but does anyway. Godbluff is loud, shouty, and lean (at only 37:29). But, it’s also bombastic, dramatic, and more than a little bit camp. So, it has the potential to alienate prog fans and prog non-fans alike. Needless to say, I love it unambiguously.

I almost hope you hate it. I almost hope that, because it could make for more interesting reading – but also because the thing that attracted me to this idea in the first place was the opportunity for my rapidly calcifying musical tastes to be expanded and called into question. And that doesn’t just mean hearing a bunch of new, unfamiliar music. That means having my deeply-held musical value system come crashing into your entirely different deeply-held musical value system.

So, be truthful. Be forthright. And, Matt, don’t disappoint me.

— Matthew