What I Am Listening To, January 2021

I am celebrating the start of 2021 by enjoying some new music to hopefully spark new ideas and refresh my creatively. The first CD I checked out is the raucous album Somewhere Far Beyond by Blind Guardian.

This album exists very far outside my musical comfort zone and I have enjoyed it all the more for that reason. The Tolkienesque theme reminds me of Argus by Whishbone Ash which set the standard for combining high fantasy and electric guitars. What is different about Blind Guardian’s effort is its total lack of restraint and the wild musical aggression which is characteristic of most of the songs. I find this complete lack of what would conventionally called “taste” refreshing and something I have always admired heavier music and Metal in particular. I have always thought that genres like Metal that exist far away from the mainstream have often attracted the most open minded musicians and audiences. Heavier music has consistently pioneered new technology, namely: distortion, seven string guitars, larger drum kits and many other innovations. Of course, it must be pointed out that amongst Metal fans there are certainly a fair share of idiots too.

On this CD Blind Guardian utilize an impressive instrumentation that includes bag pipes and church bells. These elements combined with the usual rock instruments create a interesting combination or archaic and new. One minor complaint I have is that on the 2011/2012 remixed version I am listening to the vocals are at times lost under cacophony of guitars and drums. Also, as is often the case at in Metal the bass is often inaudible as so much low end in present in the guitar and drum sounds. Overall, I really enjoyed Somewhere Far Beyond and will certainly be listening to it again in the future.

Next is the soundtrack from the third season of Battle Star Galatica.

I remember enjoying the show just after I had graduated from University it was fun to revisit this chapter in my life via this album. It has much in common with my previous choice as again there is unusual instrumentation: Japanese drums, strings and a variety of wind instruments are all used by the composer Bear McCreary to great effect. The most notable track is probably the heavily modified version of All Along The Watchtower McCreary’s treatment of this classic song gives it a fresh eastern flavor. I also like the very unhendrix solo at the end of the song, there is no slavish tribute here. Further, the use of strings on this album avoids cinematic cliché, the strings do not dominated the soundscape plenty of room is left for the other instruments to shine. However, is the creative use of percussion that sets this soundtrack apart from generic sounding rivals. That said, there are moments on this CD that remind me of every film that has ever been made that has American soldiers exploring a war zone somewhere in the middle east. This is the only real criticism I have to offer.

Aside from this minor the flaw the album is full of powerful (at times demented) emotional highs especially on Storming New Caprica. By contrast, there are also many tender moments too, an example being the celtic sounding Admiral and Commander.

It was a great surprise when I discovered the new TV series having only known the very kitsch original. The soundtrack was an inseparable part the new aggressive direction the new version took the basic ideas of Battle Star Galatica. I think this CD is enjoyable to listen to even if you have never watched the show. This is a testament to the strength of the music it is not merely background padding for the action on-screen, it stands by itself. Having enjoyed this soundtrack so much I am eager to check out what else Ben McCreary has done.

Recently I have been taking a trip to the past and revisiting some past favorites. One of these being Vicarious by Tool:

I have previously written about Tool’s most recent and lackluster effort Vicarious is such strong and powerful track it is hard to believe that the same band that wrote this had anything to do with Fear Inoculum. Vicarious is a study in songwriting each section flows seamlessly into the next. With great patience Tool build the musical tension gradually approaching a fierce climax. The lyrics confessing any addiction to other peoples suffering that does not just reflect on the individual but a society fed a constant stream of news that mostly consists in suffering of one form or another. There is something clinical and pornographic in the way the news is served up to us without remorse, without anything being left to the imagination. In some cases perhaps this can justified as it may spur people to action against injustice. But does not the constant stream of media which we are bombarded with also cast a spell of passivity over the viewer. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno expressed this idea in their essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception where they reflect that one of purposes of mass media in America, one of them being, to keep the population in a state of perpetual distraction and stupefied compliance.

On the other hand, surely being uninformed can equally engender a state of passivity? As surely one cannot change what one is ignorant of? Perhaps what is to be avoided is what the sentimentalist philosopher Martin Heidegger called “idle talk” in which topics are discussed according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “…in a critically unexamined and unexamining way about facts and information while failing to use language to reveal their relevance…”. When we fall into this mode of discourse that is shallow and lacking in authenticity.

Returning to the music, I think writing these post has taught me is that there is always more to discover and enjoy. I look forward to more musical adventures in 2021.

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