Time for some musical thoughts. I got four albums for Christmas, and luckily they’ve all turned out to be keepers and are currently a regular feature on my iPod, if for very different reasons. Certainly, I’m slightly surprised that I’ve ended up liking ‘The Resistance’ by Muse as much as I do. Muse and I have had a slightly spotty history – they were one of those bands I was aware of for a while, but didn’t really like – they just seemed a bit too rock, a bit too whiny, a bit too angst-ridden for my tastes. A friend of mine actually bought me one of their early albums, and I’m ashamed to say that I never made it all the way through – simply because it just wasn’t my thing at that time. And then, the album ‘Black Holes and Revelations’ happenned – or, more particularly, the song Knights of Cydonia happened, and the accompanying video ended up lodged in my head (and here it is, in an official and surprisingly poor Youtube form):
I’ve always had a thing for narrative music videos – I grew up in the early eighties, when the first music promo boom happenned, and watching Top of the Pops could often be a downright psychedelic experience for a young boy with a feverish imagination. There’s something about those early videos and those very simple and often eerie effects which quite captured me at the time (even if plenty of them are, looking back now, kind of dreadful), and I’ve always loved music videos that manage to create a world, or a specific atmosphere, or simply feel as if they exist beyond the confines of the song. And Knights of Cydonia does that wonderfully – it’s a great track, the OTT rock song that Ennio Morricone never wrote, and the idea of crafting it as some kind of lost Seventies cult movie is brilliantly executed. The tone is weird at times – with the lead actor, I’m never quite certain exactly how much of it is deliberately dreadful and how much isn’t – but I love the whole atmosphere, the way it manages to fit in an entire arc (even encompassing the traditional “Hero is defeated, shamed, goes off to train, and then comes back to face the villain” storyline), and the way it plays with film iconography (referencing everything from The Lone Ranger to nutty cult Seventies Western El Topo). I even love the way it almost feels like there’s a very odd story going on behind what we’re seeing (in the world being told in the film) – it’s a tremendously layered piece of work, and combined with the song, it ended up staying with me. The album itself is pretty damn good, although it’s one of those albums where the first four tracks are really good, and the last track is really good, and everything else does tend to blend together.
And so, this brings us to ‘The Resistance’, which in certain tracks is absolutely traditional stomp-rock, and yet also serves up a three-part ‘symphony’ entitled Exogenesis that’s all about mankind colonising the stars, homages to 1984, major league Queen references, a very specific riff on the Doctor Who theme in album opener ‘Uprising’ and some moments that can only be described as utterly bonkers. It’s not quite a concept album, but there is a kind of emotional through-line – in certain ways (if you were being incredibly eccentric), you could regard it as an oddball cousin of Green Day’s American Idiot album (which is also a loose concept album, as well as featuring two lengthy tracks that are essentially mini-rock operas). There’s lots of stuff about rebellion and the evil of Fat Cats (particularly in ‘Uprising’) that are pitched in the kind of nonsensical way that you’d expect of twentysomething multimillionaires (it features, I kid you not, the line “Their time’s coming to an end / We have to unify and watch our flag ascend’, which makes me giggle every time with its utter rock pomposity). And yet, while it’d be very easy to mock ‘The Resistance’ for its moments of sheer camp ridiculousness (like in the utterly Queen-esque track ‘United State of Eurasia’, which turns into a chant of the title which goes “United States of… Eura-SHA! SHA! SHA! SHA!’), and yet it actually pulls them off. I’m surprised exactly how much they seem to have been influenced by Queen here, particularly the classic album ‘A Night at the Opera’ which ‘The Resistance’ resembles more than you’d expect. It doesn’t have the barmier moments or the gleeful victorian vaudeville of tracks like ‘Seaside Rendezvous’, but there is an understanding that there’s an essential ridiculousness to this kind of rock – it doesn’t need to become a joke as a result of that, you just need to acknowledge it, and carry it off with the right level of self-belief. Sincerity is everything with this kind of music, and ‘The Resistance’ goes to some admirably barmy places, but for the most part pulls off the camp as well as the moments of all-out stomp, veering from sensitive symphonies to tracks that reference Scissor Sisters’ first (and far superior) album. It’s a bizarre, barking mad melange, but one that’s well worth sampling.
Going from Muse to the dreamy strangeness of Bat for Lashes should feel like a complete left-turn, and yet it doesn’t. Two Suns, second album from singer/songwriter Natasha Khan is an expansive, weird and goth-centric ride. It’s also another concept album, in the more serious, chin-stroking use of the term, all about duality, the city and the country, and giving Khan the chance to dress up in a blonde wig and create an alter-ego named Pearl. Now, this could have been pretentious, overdone and too precious for words, but it works superbly. It’s the kind of album that slides from one track to the next, managing to be reminiscent of Bjork, Tori Amos, Portishead and a whole load of other kooky female vocalists, and yet still possesses its own distinct, weird and oddly enchanting voice. My favourite track is probably ‘Moon and Moon’, for its gorgeousness and its simplicity – it’s atmospheric in the right way, an album that feels like a genuine album rather than five singles with some filler welded between them. The version I got is the ‘special edition’ – an interesting phenomena in the music world, which is becoming the equivalent of the DVD double-dip, but is also sensible – offering extra stuff and nicer packaging to off-set those who are getting it via download (or not bothering to pay for it at all). I’m still old-fashioned enough to like my media to be physical, and I like funky packaging – and the special edition is very nicely done, although it’s one of those packages that hasn’t quite thought through making the discs easily accessible (It’s like a gatefold LP, but CD sized, with a booklet crammed in with one of the discs). The DVD documentary on the making of the album is interesting, although the live footage is better than the interviews, which do prove that it’s very difficult to talk sincerely and seriously about music without an echo of Spinal Tap-style ridiculousness. The extra tracks are more than worth it, however- a mix of seven alternate versions and live performances, including a cover of ‘A Forest’ by the Cure which fits in with the album’s mood perfectly.
And then we have two massively influential albums which have shaped pop music in gigantic ways for the past four decades. The problem with trying to say something about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles is that so much has been said already. It’s one of those albums whose reputation has grown to such an extent, it’s almost difficult to look beyond it and remember that it’s not some kind of edifice that’s been there forever – that at one point, nobody had actually heard anything like Sgt. Pepper, and that it was a fairly daring experiment. Thanks to the recent remasters, I’ve been slowly dipping my toe into the Beatles back catalogue – I started with Revolver, which is a thoroughly impressive album, and it’s interesting hearing the albums back-to-back – I think Revolver has the more impressive high points (Taxman, Eleanor Rigby, Tomorrow Never Knows), and yet Pepper is the more adventurous album. Revolver is very much a progression from the earlier albums – it’s taking the sound of Rubber Soul further, and adventuring into pure psychedelia for the first time, but you can still hear that this a more advanced version of the same band who three years earlier were knocking out traditional guitar pop like Please Please Me and I Wanna Hold Your Hand. (Another thing to bear in mind – the Beatles had only been properly releasing albums for four years when they made Sgt. Pepper, four years in which they’d already released seven albums and two movies, and somehow found time to tour constantly. And break America. Even for the time, it’s an amazingly prolific output.) And then you hit Pepper, and the production goes nutty, and the songwriting gets even more ambitious and weird in a way that nobody was doing then. Nobody had even attempted to make soundscapes as dense as this before, and I can’t imagine what anyone thought sitting down for the first time in 1968 and listening to this – particularly when you get to the creepy, utterly cosmic vortex sounds of A Day in the Life. The remastering has cleaned the whole album up, and while it’s absolutely a piece of its time, you can admire Sgt. Pepper for what it is – an album that expanded the horizons of what pop could do, and which rewrote the music production rulebook.
On the other hand, there’s the glacial and elegant electronica of Kraftwerk, about the only band that you could say have had an equal (or, possibly, greater) influence than the Beatles. Having grown up in the early Eighties (and being a Doctor Who fan, and thus exposed to plenty of nutty sounds from the Radiophonic Workshop) I’ve always had a love of electronic music, but it took me a while to find Kraftwerk. I knew of them, but the fact that their output dwindled to virtually nothing after the mid-Eighties meant that it was only the albums, and it took me until the early 2000s before I truly indulged – and immediately fell in love. Kraftwerk’s sense of opaque mystique and minimalism is right up my street, and tracks like Trans-Europe Express truly laid down exactly what dance music would eventually turn into. They essentially created electro, and their work still sounds incredibly modern – there’s a lot on Autobahn that sounds like it could have been recorded last year, which is amazing for an album that’s as old as I am. They’re also not the most approachable of bands – my friend Tris is heavily into electronic music, yet he hasn’t quite clicked with Kraftwerk; his taste is more in the dance and Tangerine Dream end of electronica, which is absolutely fine, but I think one of the reasons why is simply that to get the most out of Kraftwerk, you have to actually listen to it. Kraftwerk are capable of great, classic pop (The Model being a case in point), but their albums are designed to be experiences, not the kind of thing you just put on in the background as a nice accompaniment. You have to actively engage with the music, and that’s certainly the case on Autobahn, which carries over much of the experimental edge from their earlier albums (There were three ‘unofficial’ Kraftwerk albums before they essentially discovered their Electro mojo here). There’s certainly a healthy dose of prog-rock in the fact that the original version of the track Autobahn is a whopping 22 minutes, taking up a whole side of the original LP release, and there’s a number of surprises here (most especially – flutes! Actual flutes! And a piano! On a Kraftwerk track!), but there’s also a graceful elegance, a sense of sparse majesty… hell, I could exhaust my supply of slightly pretentious adjectives and still not get close to the ineffable nature of what Kraftwerk do at their best. In essence, they’re Kraftwerk. And even if they’ve rarely equalled (or bother to equal) the work on their classic Seventies-Eighties run of albums (Trans-Europe Express, The Man Machine, Computer Love), there’s still the sense that even now, the rest of the music world is trying to catch up with what they acheived.