09 10 2009

SUNN O))) in The Guardian

The instrumental touch

Instrumental music is the neglected child of rock and pop - but it's the absence of a human presence that can make it so interesting

Jude Rogers
Thursday 8 October 2009 22.10 BST

Remember Sufjan Stevens, the American singer-songwriter who chronicled the loveliness of Michigan and Illinois, before promising to write music about each of his country's other states? He's been rather quiet of late, and his next project sees him getting quieter still. Music for Insomnia, written and recorded with his stepfather, Lowell Brams, comes out this December, and Sean Michaels suggested this week on the Guardian's music website that it sounded like "his most boring [project] ever", having very "little to do with his voice". The absence of Stevens's tender vocals is a pity indeed, but that is no reason to dismiss his new project entirely. After all, instrumental music is the sad, neglected child of pop and rock, and it rarely gets the props it deserves.

That wasn't always so. In modern music's early days, instrumentals were every bit the equal of songs written to be sung. Acker Bilk's deeply peculiar Stranger On the Shore and Joe Meek's space-rock homage, Telstar, showed the world what magic could be made when an unforgettable melody met a sequence of unusual sounds. No list of the pioneers of rock'n'roll would be complete without a trio of guitarists best known for playing instrumentals – Duane Eddy, Link Wray and, from this side of the Atlantic, Hank Marvin. But as the record companies worked out how to sell pop and rock, the emphasis fell on the lyricists and singers, who embodied rock's cult of personality. The boys in the band became the footsoldiers of the singer's army, a process hastened by rock's journey from dance music for teenagers to an artform that would be studied intently.

All that is understandable, of course. The basis of pop and rock stardom is the presentation of people like us doing incredible things. That is heightened by the direct connection lyrics provide – the singer addressing "you" directly through the speakers. It's easy to work out how you feel about a song when you have its lyrics to hang on to. And that is also what makes instrumental music so troublesome. It doesn't deal in words, but sounds, things that can only be written about technically, or metaphorically. So if the job of pop and rock is to provide reflections and amplifications of our human experiences, it's no surprise that it's easiest to look to musicians who literally speak our own language, or that music writers concentrate on the writers of the three-minute stories to which we relate. In these circumstances, music that is harder to describe – like instrumental music – misses out on the attention it deserves.

Some of the most interesting and exciting records have been instrumental recently. Take Fuck Buttons's Tarot Sport, a sputtering, juddering album that sucks from the roots of early techno, acid and shoegaze to make something euphorically, ecstatically gargantuan. Or the warped woodwind and drones used in Alice, the last track from Monoliths and Dimensions, the latest album by the doom metal duo Sunn 0))). The Hungarian throat-singer Attila Csihar has been added to the rest of the album, but Alice is the best track on the LP – the absence of an identifiably human presence in the mix giving our minds freedom to roam into darker, murkier places.

That's the key to the power of instrumental music lies, whatever the genre. Its absence of a story told in our own language gives us room to impose, and create, our own interpretation. Pop and rock writers should take this lead, too, and write about sound as well as lyrics more thoroughly – just as so many jazz, classical and dance music writers already do. Read the recent wonderful review of Led Bib by this very paper's John Fordham, Tom Service's excellent classical dissections, or Simon Reynolds' participatory pieces from the 80s and 90s for examples. Then look forward to Sufjan Stevens's upcoming excursions in sound, and think about the stories that might magically spring from their sounds – as well as from you.

From: guardian.co.uk
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2009


ideologic.org | ©2018