Mediocrity in Music Rejected: January 2001
The only problem with those who attempt to make their act more exciting by uniting music with an inspiring image is that, for every band that succeeds and subsequently takes music to another level, there is a plethora of bands that fail to match their wacky / trendy / atmospheric / other (delete as appropriate) image, with a decent sound.
What bothers me is that if a band is going to attempt to do something as potentially entertaining as coupling musical sound with an exciting image, then before it even thinks about the latter, it needs to make sure that the former is already in place. Possibly what made the recent Silver Ginger 5 shows such a spectacular experience, for me, was that an album was already recorded, the songs were already there (and sounding brilliant), THEN Ginger started to care about how his band looked. Since there would have been nothing exciting about going to the Scala, or the Astoria a month later, to watch a man in leather stand in the middle of a lot of fireworks, one can only conclude that the fundamental appeal of these two gigs was the music itself - the rest was just window dressing.
In general, I have found that it is outside the rock/pop genre that artists are most successful at blending sound and image. I was particularly moved by the musical, Notre Dame de Paris, which is currently running at London's Dominion theatre. The sound, generally, was percussive, which allowed for some intense dancing and acrobatics, making the whole show a visual and aural spectacular. What impressed me the most was that both sound and image contributed to a truly dark, gothic atmosphere which persisted throughout, while the actual nature of the songs varied from almost spoken recitative, to murderous chanting, to desperately expressive love songs, and a similar variety was on display in the dancing. There is something wonderfully expressive about dancing, which seems to amplify the effect of the music itself. It is as though, on its own, music elicits an emotional or principally mental response, and dancing allows the emotional power of the music to break free from its mental confines and really come to life.
Also of great inspiration to me in this respect has been Disney's original 'Fantasia' film, which I recently saw for the first time in several years. I had not realised before just how cunning Disney have been with this film. What struck me the most was that, for years, Disney have been releasing films where the music has been composed in order to describe what is happening in the animation. Here, however, Disney have taken pieces of music which already possess descriptive qualities, and have almost mapped onto paper the effect of those musical sounds. A good example is their setting of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. This is the only Beethoven symphony which explicitly attempts to describe anything - by using sounds which are associated with bird song, or dancing shepherds, or storms, Beethoven creates a mental image with his music, and somehow tells us a story using sound. In 'Fantasia', Disney have adapted those mental images for their own purposes, translating Beethoven's image of real rural features into mythological ones, with cherubim, unicorns and the like taking to the stage. The 'storm' passage of the piece becomes a battle between the gods, with Jupiter hurling his bolts of thunder. In fact, the more I think about the relationship between sound, the mental image created by that sound, and the actual image presented by Disney on the screen, the more I think that only by bringing together the various aspects of the creative arts can music or art really achieve the sort of wonderous spiritual impact that I crave.
Although 'Fantasia' was a sort of experiment in animation, I assume that another of its purposes was to make some of the highlights of the classical genre accessible to an audience which might, otherwise, have missed out on what only this type of music can achieve. It is tempting for people brought up on rock or pop music to look at the snobbery present in certain aspects of the classical genre and to instinctively reject that style of music. Personally, I feel that one cannot replace the other - rock music does to me what only rock music can, but the same is applicable to jazz, to show music, to romantic piano nocturnes. I frequently find classical music less immediate - it takes longer to penetrate, but as a result the rewards are plentiful. With 'Fantasia', Disney are providing a motivation to work at those sounds and make yourself love them, because through animation they are showing you what that music is capable of doing to you.
All of this relates, in part, to what I find so mediocre about the music press at the moment. I have previously criticised the likes of Kerrang! and NME for their absolutely appalling descriptions of songs (with terms like 'melody-driven', 'harmony-drenched' and the like coming up time and time again), but I have recently suspected that the reason most of these critics fail to describe music in an adequate and interesting way, is that it is almost impossible to portray, in words, what music does. Moreover, if it were possible to directly translate music into words, what would be the point in having the music in the first place? The power of music is that it is unique, and therefore any attempt to analyse or explain it in words will deaden its effect. Because I am a writer, however, and because music provides much of my motivation to write, I am constantly looking for ways of avoiding this deadening effect of words on music. It seems to me that the only way to even come close to achieving this is not to describe the musical sounds themselves, but to depict the effect that they have on the imagination, in terms of the images that they create. Of course, by following this to its logical conclusion, one can easily conclude (once again) that reviewing music is effectively redundant, because what might instil the most engaging images in one person's mind might do nothing but numb that of another person.
Purely for interest's sake, then, I have conducted a small experiment. When I first listened to DNA Doll's debut 'The First EP', I closed my eyes, allowed myself to be transported and, when I came back, wrote down exactly what had happened to me.
At first I was by the sink, brushing my teeth rhythmically, letting the foamy water go everywhere as I prepared to go out. A video camera was darting around, and everybody was singing into it. Out on the street, a colourful girl walked gracefully along, while her admirers paused in a sort of supernatural unity. I could feel a love which was impossible to define, and whose object it was impossible to identify, but I knew that somehow it all had to do with the end of summer exams, open car windows and sunglasses. Walking through a watery tunnel, I suddenly thought of a long ago event, made vivid again by music. Up on street level, the crowd marched in colour, but down here, the factory carried on as ever, with products going down the line and falling into the ocean at the end. I was waking up in a strange world, looking deep into my hot chocolate while fireworks fell down around me. Suddenly those fireworks became bits of life, or possibly memorabilia flung from the stage by a star. Uniformly, everybody marched in a long line up stairs which ended somewhere in the sky. There was a great sense of this being the end: the last day of school perhaps, I thought, as I looked at an array of objects and people which were about to leave my life for ever. This fact gnawed away at me, as I gnawed at my punk rock breakfast. The feeling of irreversible change continued as the whole world, like a big clock, clicked onto zero - a new millennium, a new start, everything was erased and I was jumping through space. The sky was colourful with a quiet storm. A ballerina twirled through it, and I felt as I do at the end of a really bad film which somehow makes me cry anyway. I could feel that a struggle had taken place - I was standing out on Scout Camp, as all those uniforms spun around me.
Now, obviously that was a very personal response to the EP, and would probably be of little use to anybody trying to decide whether they would like it or not. However, what did interest me when I read the account back to myself was that it contains not just images, but images with emotional significance. I automatically identified the musical sounds with familiar emotions, which were personal to me, and somehow (even though I am well aware that many of the images and ideas in that account are clichéd and conventional) that made it far more colourful than a traditional description of the record, which would undoubtedly have contained phrases such as "sing-along chorus" and other old favourites.
Where all this leaves me, or you, or music in general, I cannot decide. Already on this website I am beginning to see examples of music critics who are successful in describing musical experience in an accurate and thought-provoking way, so to some extent we must put the failures of Kerrang!, NME and company down to sheer laziness. But the more I look around and see bands doing the same old thing, and getting the same old response as a result, the more I look in other directions for musical and spiritual enrichment. The sort of thing achieved by Fantasia and Notre Dame de Paris has not yet (to my knowledge) been done in the rock or pop genre, and I am extremely interested to find out whether or not it is possible.