Thursday, November 24, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are floating in space....

I spend too much time thinking about my music collection. I have over 13000 songs, some belonging to my wife (but not statistically significant enough to parse out the numbers here). It's 1100+ albums. It's 40 days of music. Not too bad, though I've certainly had more than that total -- some albums haven't made the long journey into my 30s. (Metal Church, I loved your screechy vocals and silly, Satanic lyrics, but I don't need you on my hard drive anymore. Though, I will look you up on Spotify and deal with the embarrassment of it posting to my Facebook wall later.)

One thing I've been thinking about recently is the way certain albums open. Not the opening songs per se (though I have a Spotify list of great opening songs that you're free to enjoy). I'm also not really talking about the opening chords or riffs.

No -- I've been thinking about great opening moments. The stuff that happens on some albums before the opening song itself starts. For instance, the gloomy-sounding woman's voice that declares "Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space" at the start of Spiritualized's nearly perfect album from -- eek! -- 1997. The hypnotic, pulsing, overlapping vocals and music of the title track that follows this quote bursts forth with the same monotony that colors the woman's voice. It's masterful and I think of that quote almost as often as I think of my favorite moments on the rest of the album. It's a fun thing to say, but would it be as fun lost in the middle of a song or between songs? Strange, that question, but compelling.

It seems like an out-of-touch, old-man type complaint that iPods ruined the album (something I think is only partially true), but the fact that I listened to most music on cassette tapes for the first few, key years of my music-loving life may have a lot to do with my interest in albums as cohesive experiences that sometimes kick off with standout, nearly non-music moments. CDs made skipping things easier, but it seems like I had already been programmed to start albums at their beginnings by the time I was financially capable of buying CDs and a portable CD player. In fact, portable CD listening emphasized the opening moments and tracks even more because the memory function on players didn't come along until later. (at least not at my price point.) Thus, I often heard the opening tracks of CDs more than other songs. On tapes that wasn't the case, but something else required me to start most of my tapes at the first sone on side 1 no matter what. (I did a bunch of rewinding and fast-forwarding in those days, a skill that translated to nothing else in my life, sadly.)

I guess this post could become one of two things, then: a minor rant about how music that isn't in a physical format lacks a sense of cohesion or just a call to appreciate and share those opening moments of albums that are not simply about the opening song, but of the first sounds one hears when embarking on a musical journey.

Dean Venture learning about the links between science geniuses and Prog-rock before he unwittingly falls into a Floyd-hole. 

Here are some great album-opening things (Are they moments? pulses? sounds? None of those seem right. Let's go with moments just cuz.) In no order:

Sepultura's classic album Chaos A.D. starts with a recording of the in-utero heartbeat of the drummer's son; the volume rises on the heartbeat like a little, fetal coronary is happening -- and then it is replaced (and almost matched) by the rapid, frantic drumming of the opening track, "Refuse/Resist." Not a bad way to exploit your kid.

Alice in Chains classic album Dirt -- about the fun of being a heroin addict (note the sarcasm there, kids) --  doesn't even have a lead-in pulse. The deceased Layne Staley shouts at us with his raspy, Texan "Ah!" -- there's no time to sink into this album, and yet as it progresses the songs excrete the kind of rusty, muddy, grimy feeling that you'd expect a junky to sing about. Those opening shouts can easily be of joy or the shock of being pricked with a needle. It works in terms of theme and energy.

Badly Drawn Boy's Mercury Prize-winning debut, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, begins with a lovely violin and horn piece that sets the mood for the album. It's about a minute and twenty seconds and then gets taken over by a slightly peppier guitar before the lead singer's semi-husky voice comes in. "The Shining" might be the greatest song Badly Drawn Boy will ever write. Which is both a compliment and a sad-but-true comment about how I feel about the rest of his output.

The Beastie Boys know the power of starting with something odd -- while Check Your Head has the mocking quote: "This next one... is the first song on our new album" to kick off the song "Jimmy James" it's the dog bark/howl that kicks off  Ill Communication that I tend to remember more often. Something about that canine noise shifting right into "Sure Shot" works too well to be something created by humans.

On When Your Heartstrings Break, the now-defunct Beulah start things with a coin dropping into a machine. I assume it's a jukebox because "Score from Augusta" has a beach-inspiried, pop-rock feel to it, though they probably deserved to earn a few more coins during their brief career.

Björk's excellent Post has that strange machanical-comet-descending-from-the-heavens to kick off "Army of Me." It leads right into a fuzzy-bass sounding riff that shouldn't go with her voice at all. And yet, Björk!

Pink Floyd's haunting, wind-howling "One of These Days" on Meddle cannot be described except to say that if you sync the song with the opening of Kubrick's horror classic The Shining, it's nearly better than the already awesome music Kubrick has in the movie. (Also, "Echoes" syncs with the last 25 minutes of the movie. Trippy Pink Floyd + hedge maze + snow + ax-wielding Jack Nicholson yelling "Dannnnnnyyyy!" = holy crap.)

System of a Down (to get back on the heavy metal tip) starts their album Toxicity off with a hard shot to the drums and then lets the anticipation boil over before kicking into the song proper. It's almost like the drummer accidentally started playing and then everyone else had to get ready; but that's the point.

Vision Thing by Sisters of Mercy has a weird metallic cough at the start, which I think matches the very treble-friendly mix of this otherwise awesome goth-after-dark rock album. "It's a small world and it smells bad." Yes it is and yes it does, Andrew Eldritch.

Anyone that knows me is simply waiting for a Radiohead comment, so here it is: The Bends. That opening was both awesome and maddening to me. As a metal-head transitioning into a wider scene of music (i.e., not heavy metal), I always found myself interested in 1 of 2 types of songs in the mornings before school. Either really fast, loud music or very slow ballads with awesome guitar solos (see: Pantera's "Mouth for War" for the former or Testament's "Return to Serenity" for the latter). But "Planet Telex" has this mysterious, etherial, computer-y sound that starts the album and, of course, hints at the greater sonic but still commercially friendly playing around the band would release on Ok Computer. When I think of opening moments on Radiohead albums, this one comes up first because I used to skip the song to get to the title track or "Just" because they were more immediately appealing. Eventually I would grow to love those opening noises and the song where Thom Yorke wails: "Everything is....broken. Everyone is....broken." Delicious melancholy replaces the rage of the metal head.

One of the other reasons I thought about this strange, seemingly pointless topic, is Pearl Jam's debut album, which opens (and closes) with a slow, squeeze-box fade-in of drums and ghost-guitar noises and Eddie Vedder moan-mumbling. Who doesn't love the jarring juxtaposing of the out-of-the-ether intro with the scratchy kick-off of Stone Gossard attacking guitar chords to kick the song off. Just as the band's singer seemingly came out of nowhere, the album comes out of the misty sounds of nowhere. Perfect.

Is this just weird to pay attention to this stuff? Probably. Let me know if you notice these things too!