Running into a brick wall

Shut that NOISE!

Music is so subjective.  Why is it that when I hear a sustained note on David Gilmour’s (of Pink Floyd) guitar it brings a tear to my eye, and yet when I hear the repeated loops and processed vocals of any song in our current top 40, I want to repeatedly run into a brick wall to the cadence of the electronic drums?

I admit to not being that up to date with what is the latest and greatest musically.  In my older age, I am finding it harder to memorize band names that choose random letters, rearrange them, and add a “featuring some domestic animal (ie Pit Bull)”.  It is much easier to remember names like “Beatles”, or “Queen” than Ty Dolla $ign.

I want to repeatedly run into a brick wall to the cadence of the electronic drums

Looping Ad Nauseum

I started realizing how out of touch I was with about four years ago. My gym shut down and I was forced to sign up with the Good Life. I would hit the gym at 5:30 am, and the same songs were cranked through the airwaves.  It was electronica on steroids!  The beats did not motivate me. In fact, it made me want to run from the gym screaming!  What was even worse is that these beats became “ear worms”.  They stuck with me for the whole day!!

I am not sure how this type of music moves people emotionally, except, maybe to talk louder, become more agitated,  and to make more noise over the din.  Repetitive looping is popular in our iTunes generation. Though it is rhythmic, composing music has migrated from writing albums, to singles for iTunes, then to the new reality where single bars are composed that are repeated and layered. If you can talk rhythmically and cannot sing, you can always use auto-tune! If you don’t believe me, install Songify. You can write a catchy song by saying a few words and let the software do the trick!

If you cannot sing, you can always use auto-tune!

Ever go for a walk in the mall?  The stores blare “loops” to try to entice shoppers.  Ever hear house parties in the neighbourhood? Loops are blaring on outdoor speakers for all to enjoy!

Yesterday was Canada Day. I walked briefly around the neighbourhood to see what the denizen were up to. There were lots of house parties, all playing “house” music with those same repetitive beats and loops.  In fact, the looping started as early as 8 am. The only activity planned at that time was a senior’s breakfast. I can only imagine how well that music went with eating pancakes and sausage first thing in the morning.  Sausage grease aside, the music alone would give me indigestion!  The songs were so similar, in fact, that the variety of loops just blended into each other creating a weird dissonant harmony.

It All Sounds the Same

My walk in the ‘hood demonstrated how similar modern music is.  You would think with all the variety of notes, tempos, chords, and timings there would be an infinite number of different songs available.  Especially when you break things down to the “bits and bytes” level. Is it possible to run out of new music? Well, technically no (as illustrated in a fun 10 minute youtube video on this subject, which gets a little geeky), but it sure feels like it.  There are literally billions and billions of musical variants and possibilities. Reality, though,  we tend to gravitate to certain patterns we like more than others and are influenced by what came before us.

Is it possible to run out of new music? Well, technically no, but sure feels like it

This also applies to lyrics. There is a notion called “common poetic meter”.   Emily Dickinson was known to use this rhyming scheme in most of her poetry.  It is why the songs like Amazing Grace,  House of the Rising Sun, and Giligan’s Island can almost interchange the lyrics with the melody.  Speaking of which, the song “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island”  takes the concept and stretches it a bit

One thing that has not changed in musical history is the nature of popular music.  If something sells, the market will get saturated with it.  How many ripoffs of the Beach Boys were there in the 60s?  The artists all looked like the Beatles too!

What Changed?

If what history demonstrates is true, that humans gravitate to certain musical patterns that have some influences from what came before us, then our tastes should always be evolving.  It seems, though, in my case, that my tastes are evolving back in history, and not keeping up with the times.  I am now appreciating the songs I did not like on AM radio. Disco no longer sucks! At least there is a band playing! I am regressing, not progressing with the musical times!

Disco no longer sucks! At least there is a band playing!

Growing up, I only had access to an AM radio that had a few stations. There was only really one radio station that played music, so it was “genre agnostic”.  Your listening ears really perked up when you heard John Denver following a great kick-ass Van Halen song.

The nice thing about listening to music like that is that you never knew what song was coming.  If you did not like a song, you would not pay much attention to it as the next song may be better. If you liked a song, you would buy a 45 to repeatedly listen to it, or maybe purchase the album if you wanted to deeper explore that sound.  Admittedly, I bought several albums I am embarrassed to admit owning (do any of you have Barry Manilow or Abba in your collections?).

We tend to gravitate to certain patterns we like more than others and are influenced by what came before us

As there was only one or two stations, everyone in the house heard the same songs. Whether we liked them or not, we knew them all. The household participated in the music.

There came a point where the music became less household and more personal.

Turn That Noise Off!

Music sometimes shows the division between the generations. I recall my parents liking some of the music I listened to, like the Beatles, or some of the current bands of the 70s.

In the early 80s, I started to listen to FM radio. FM offered music radio stations catering to a certain style. As my musical tastes refined, I gravitated more to rock.   I bought my first rock album, Rush’s Exit Stage Left, and started to play it with Geddy Lee’s screeching vocals. It was that album that triggered the first “What is that you are listening to” response from my parents. The fact that Rush earned the Order of Canada did not matter. I think most teens and parents have had that experience. Do you remember yours?

Rush was the first band that my parents asked me to turn down the volume when I listened to music! The fact they earned the Order of Canada did not matter.

If the axiom of musical gravitation holds true, that we gravitate to patterns we know, then there was likely nothing that Rush offered to my parents that connected them to their musical experience. For me, there was a natural evolution of Beatles, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and Rush. There is a connection of musical influences.  Listening to Rush without any musical context can be tricky, especially if one’s context may have stopped at Frank Sinatra.

My Musical Context Has Not Changed

I can listen to some popular music.  There are some artists, like Lady Gaga, who have musical references to my 80s influences. I think that is a general rule for any artists who is in a “super stardom” zone. They speak to all generations musically.  There are a handful out there.  I tend, though, to gravitate to what I know musically, and look to see modern twists on it. Of late, Joe Bonamassa has got my ear. He is a blues guitarists who has lots of progressive rock influences.  That appeals to my musical upbringing. Some long-lasting and well-established bands, like ACDC, Rolling Stones, and Iron Maiden, have multiple generations attending their concerts, all by choice. Justin Beiber have parents attending because they have to for their kids. This may be  bi-product of music being passed down from one generation to another.

Ever since the age of AM radio has stopped, I have seen my musical tastes getting more and more limited as I do not naturally search for styles I don’t gravitate towards. I did not have to listen to country, or rap, so I did not try. In the 90s, radio was becoming more and more refined to genre, and my genre of choice was not well represented.  Rap, house, and sampling became the dominant art form, and as I had no real connection to it, I could not appreciate it. To me, rap and house were pop music purgatory.  For those raised on the evolution of dance and rap music, modern looping is much more natural expression (though I don’t get the gangsta appeal in predominately white suburbia).

Some long-lasting and well-established bands, like ACDC, Rolling Stones, and Iron Maiden, have multiple generations attending their concerts, all by choice. Justin Beiber have parents attending because they have to for their kids.

Music De-valued

Looping music is the easiest form of music to put together. You do not need to play an instrument. You just need a good computer and some knowledge of sound engineering to make “quality” music. If you have a bit of rhythm, you do not even have to sing. It is like reading rhythmic poetry, while talking through a megaphone.

The digital world has made music very easy to put together. Access to streaming services and peer-to-peer networks (like Napster) has dramatically reduced sales. The only way a musician can make money is by touring and branding themselves (KISS is iconic in rock, but music aside it was their ability to sell themselves that was their real talent).

You just need a good computer and some knowledge of sound engineering to make “quality” music.

By looping, the production costs go down. You don’t have to hire musicians, pay money for studio time, and it can be done in a basement.  The focus has shifted to writing a good album, to writing a handful of loops.

The experience for the listener has changed. Once I would intentionally put an album on my record player and listen for 20 minutes, then actively change the side! The artwork and liner notes were interesting to look at while I listened. Now, an album’s art work may be a pdf file that accompany some iTunes purchases. Leafing through a pdf is not the same experience as I play my library of several thousand songs randomly in the background. Music now is background noise, or is used to block out the noise of others. Music has become a passive activity. I now can turn on my Google Music streaming service, enjoy what I am listening to, without actively knowing anything about the artists behind the music. Sad, but true.

Music has become a passive activity.

Even concerts are more about sound, light, and spectacle with less emphasis on musicianship.

Bringing it Home

If music is a household experience, then all the different genres could represent family members. For me, looping is the “Uncle Ralph” that no one wants to talk about because he is obnoxious, says the same stories over and over again, is loud, and does not know when to stop talking.  When Uncle Ralph is at family gatherings, no one wants to get cornered by him.  Most families have an Uncle Ralph. When Uncle Ralph does not attend the family gathering, there may be relief that he is not there, but there may be an underlying feeling that his presence is missed. The family is not really the same without him.

I can say safely, I would not miss Uncle Ralph. My musical home has not evolved to appreciate what he brings to the table.

Things to look at:

On youtube: Kirby Furguson: Everything is a remix

A tale of three and a half, singers

Rock bands frequently undergo changes to lineups.  Some of them, go through so many changes that they are far recognizable from their original lineup, but they are able to continue because the one or two key members that give the band its essence are still present.

Part of that essence is the sound that defines the band. Often, if a lead singer leaves, the band can recover if they replace them with someone who sounds similar.  Usually, the new lead singer needs to have a lot of charisma to win the fans back to the band.  No matter how good they sound like the original, fans will miss the original singer.  Sometimes works better for the band.  Genesis is a prime example. Phil Collins gave the band a new lease on life after Peter Gabriel.  Journey replaced Steve Perry with a vocalist who sounds similar and are experiencing a revival of sorts. AC/DC had continued success when Johnson took the helm.

Sometimes, a band has to redefine its sound in order to try to win back the fan base.  A different sound of vocals can inspire a different creative direction. At times, a different sound in vocals can force this direction.  Van Halen is an example. When they had Sammy Hagar, they changed their style to be more in line with Hagar’s. They did win a new fan base. Some old fans were screaming for David Lee Roth, some liked both.

I love concerts. This year, all the key acts I saw had a change in lead vocals somewhere along the way. Van Halen, Iron Maiden, Journey, Kool and the Gang, Kamelot, and Nightwish.

Kamelot opened for Nightwish. They  got a much younger lead singer that sounded identical to their previous singers.  His age and strength of voice easily won over the crowds. Nightwish is another story. Not only did they change singers, they did it three times, all in the same tour!  That is unheard of.

Nightwish is a symphonic metal band. The trademark of the style is a very dark, heavy, and fast sound usually fronted by an opera singer. Their original singer, Tarja Trunen, fit the mold perfectly. A few years ago, Nightwish fired her, disclosing the reasons in an open letter published on the internet.  They hired Swedish singer Annette Olzon to replace her.  It was pretty obvious that the new singer was vocally very different, more of an Abba/pop sound. The fans must have been shocked when they heard her for the first time in concert.  You can see for yourself in the video spliced below between the two singers. The song, Nemo, is the bands most “accessible” song during the Tarja era.  Accessible, in that it can be liked by most people no matter what musical interest they have.

Singer comparison: Nemo


Depending on how you stand musically, you can make a case for both singers on this song. That said, a lot of the older Nightwish material depended on the thick operatic tones, which Annette does not deliver.  To accommodate the new vocalist, Nightwish’s next two albums had more of a pop undertone which suited the new vocalists voice better while maintaining their overall tone and feel. Generally, it worked and fans accepted it. But despite the musical strength of the albums,  they craved the old style better.

I happened to see them live September 19 in Montreal. Almost a week later the band was in Denver and Annette Olzon was hospitalized. Most bands would cancel the show when a key member is unable to perform. Not Nightwish. Enter singer number two, Elize Ryd, the backup singer for opening act Kamelot!  With lyric sheet in hand for most of the evening, she took Annette’s place. Even though Elize fronts her own band and was touring with Kamelot, I am not sure how I would have reacted seeing this last minute substitution.

Singer 2: Note lyric sheet on second song

Instead of cancelling any shows or the tour, the next night, Nightwish fires Annette.  They call in Dutch singer Floor Janson, who hopped on a flight from the Netherlands to join the band in Seattle the following night.  Floor is a return to the Tarja era, and is completing the tour with Nightwish.  Nightwish shuffled the set list a bit to include some older material that they probably could not do with Annette.

Nemo: Floor Jansen

Floor will complete the tour with them, but who knows if she will stay on with Nightwish or  the musical direction of this band, but one thing is for sure, at this stage, it does not matter who sings for them!