'Window to the World' Part Two - the one watching
Last time, I got to grips with the opening three tracks of ‘Window to the World’. However, these first three songs may be difficult to appreciate if you are not an avid fan of the intimidating, claustrophobic and general evil that enters into the sound of a lot of modern metal (a band which exemplifies this approach to sound are the Australian death metal outfit Portal). When I listen to the former half of ‘Window to the World’, I almost feel as if oxygen is gradually being sucked from the music, so that soon there will be no fresh air to breath and I will be unable to remain in the narcotic wasteland that has been carved within the music. Fortunately, much of the second half is pure melodious oxygen, fulfilling, magnificent and blossoming with a totally different character to the first.
This metamorphosis of sound begins with ‘The Sanest Sentence’, which is probably the most in-depth song on the album compositionally. It begins very gently, as though it is barely there at all. The development of the music is like what you might see at dawn on a cold morning from within a wood: the light slowly penetrating the foliage. It is rather like a revelation, of sorts: a new corridor within the synaptic networks of the mind is being explored by this gentler, more graceful side to the bands work. Unlike many of the motifs and riffs which have gone before in this album, it has a strongly rooted harmonic structure. The chromatic, jarring style of the earlier parts of the album, which resembled classical composers such as Stravinsky or some of Shostakovich’s more aggressive compositions has been replaced by something more akin to Ravel or Debussy. The immense beauty and simplicity of pieces like ‘Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte’ or ‘Prélude à l’ Après-midi d’un Faune’ display a similar character to the opening of ‘The Sanest Sentence’, as do certain themes from video game soundtracks, especially those composed by Nobuo Uematsu (the Final Fantasy series is the most famous of his game soundtracks). This style of composition is firmly placed within the Impressionist movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, where, rather than trying to convey a clear story line, composers would merely hint at a certain mood or atmosphere, leaving the purpose of the music open to wide interpretation. While the likeness with the Final Fantasy soundtrack somewhat contradicts this claim, I feel that the sound is in strong juxtaposition to the video game comparison within the first half of the album. Despite the strong influence of Impressionism here,the band have taken the train of thought that these composers pursued and bent it to suit their own devices. This is something that all innovative musicians do as they progress.
The beauty of ambient music and the feelings that come with if for the listener are the huge sense of flow that you can gain from it: the broken chords that enter at 1:30 are a simple yet very communicative way of moving the song to a higher stage of development. Another is shown at 1:15, where the leading A is sustained, then suddenly injected with volume (one might call it a sforzando). Combined with the rise is dynamic of the underlaying chord, the music takes on a whole new character. Staying with the theme of woodland and nature, it’s a bit like waking up in a serene, beautiful place cut off from the rest of the world, with no companions to speak of. You feel excited, yet slightly tentative, unsure of what the future holds for you. The place seems uninhabited. Suddenly, so see a footprint: a sign of another, someone to share this fabulous experience with. You move onward through the landscape, searching excitedly for this presence. And, at 2:13, the figure for which you have been hunting appears in front of you. An aurora spreads from them. The moment is at rest; the forces are balanced. In short, wu is held within this place, at this time. It is impossible not to bask in this exquisite sea of sound, its luscious texture falling about your consciousness and drawing you into the world; but now, rather than decaying, it’s blossoming. You are on the sunnier, greener side of the window. The overall mood now is one of total serenity, pristine and glimmering in the sun, like early morning frost on a cold day. The slow trill and hum of a flute-like synth patch throughout reminds me of the constant background noise present within nature, such birds chorusing, insects buzzing and unknown creatures rustling in undergrowth. The slow-paced lead melody which starts at 2:56 has a very natural, conjunct flow about it, similar to the work of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in pieces like ‘The Lark Ascending’ or the first of his ‘Three Suites for Viola and Orchestra’. There is absolutely no rush to do anything, as though you are in awe of the new landscape you find yourself in. Each breath of ambience is measured to perfection, and is brought out brilliantly by effortlessly dynamic and smooth production. The harmonic rhythm is very slow, with the chords changing roughly every two bars. This separates the track from the former half of the album, and it shows why music is such a good form of communication: a simple slowing down of the whole song has made it seem like this music came from a different planet.
I do, if fact, feel as though I am on a different planet when I hear the jubilant entry of the full ambient ensemble at 4:56. It’s as though someone has just turned off gravity, and I have been set free to roam among the clouds, looking down upon the magical happenings on the land below. I say I feel like I’m on a different planet, but actually it’s still Earth; but the earth is still pure and unadulterated. Everything co-exists without conflict. This is an image of what the world should be like, as was ‘Phobon Nika’ in 'Måsstaden'. The amazing brightness of the first note here is similar to that created by the use of the dominant chord in the track ‘Finale’ from Uneven Structure’s ‘Februus’. It gives a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction to the music which more musicians should learn to deploy effectively. The use of a minor third (and a tonic triad to large extent) across the harmonic and melodic structure is an incredibly effective tool for creating an amazingly mellow sonority, and the use of pedal notes to maintain harmonic stability and create a calm, ordered atmosphere is very idiomatic of ambient music as a whole. Porcupine Tree’s Steve Wilson and Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt spring to mind as musicians who have been able to use classical composition techniques and wide ranging musical influences in a similar way to write groundbreaking, individualistic music, and ‘Window to the World’ is nothing if not individualistic!
At 6:00, the mood suddenly darkens, as though a cloud has passed over the sun. The burst of white noise makes it feel like a switch has been thrown, and the amazing vision of what could be has been vanquished. The chords are a lot more bleak and withdrawn, but they are still very beautiful. The overall sound is similar in texture and melody to something that the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke might have written very late on in his career, though slightly less dark and brooding. The guitar shimmers vaguely, and brings to mind the feeling of spotting a faint glow of light at a great distance: perhaps the spring sun setting, perhaps a warming fire on a cold night. The steady drip of water in the background reminds me of the feeling of sitting in a cave, and the simple guitar chords hover detachedly in the space of the cave chamber, like a bat hanging from the wall in hibernation. You feel as though you could sit here and listen to the slow washing of the musical tide that this song is forever, without growing old or feeling pain, cut off from everything around you.
This style continues even after the dripping stops, but it is somewhat changed. At 8:43, I feel as if I have awoken from a deep slumber, and crawled out of the cave to view the outside world. Little of my presence is felt, and yet the dynamic rising and falling of sound in the mix is able to convey so much more than any of my words can. It’s rather like when you see a certain space from different angles: the diffraction of the light creates new shadows, causes new patterns of dust particles to dance in front of your eyes, and brings to life even the most sterile air. At 9:23, I feel almost as if the sun is shining directly into my eyes for the first time when the piercingly high screech splinters my ears, as if it has just arisen from behind the shadow of a large mountain. And now, the song is truly growing into a broad finale: each melodic step has a fresh sense of purpose. The scraping ghost notes at 10:10 rather remind me of the opening of ‘Benblåst’ by Vildhjarta, except that the mood is not at all ominous, but rather one of truth, because, once it has past, you know that a final resolution has been reached. Another startlingly satisfying and natural melody unfurls itself, this time in B flat minor, and this one sounds very similar the central motif of the song ‘Cold’ by The Cure, taken from arguably their bleakest album ‘Pornography’. However, despite sounding similar, the two songs share precious little other common ground. The nihilism in ‘Cold’ is palpable: the music is almost totally bare of life, colourless, a monochromatic blackness that presses in on you from all sides. The repetitive oppression and gloom give a feeling of permanent torment: in short, it is the epitome of hopelessness. ‘The Sanest Sentence’, on the other hand, drifts between chords as freely and unregimented as a bird soaring upon the thermals, before the song gradually diminishes to nothing. The very last chord is something of an anticlimax: being chord four of the key signature, it sounds rather like a short, unexpected blip, making the music sound oddly incomplete. It is minor, so it’s not totally out there, but the flattened third is very quiet, so it is not totally defined modally. This makes the exit very calm and unobtrusive: there is no loud announcement to the ending of the song, as there would be at the end of a classical symphony, but just a fading of noise and structure, leaving the listener satisfied yet also slightly unsure of what will come next.
What they get is ‘Antitune’, a blaring piece of surrealist visionary bursts placed higgledy-piggledy upon one another: in contrast to ‘The Sanest Sentence’ or ‘Who Are You?’, it has no such willingness to follow paths well-trodden by other musicians and feels like a huge torrent of silliness that was kept at bay when composing the more ‘serious’ songs of the album. When I hear this music, I feel as though I’m in a restaurant at the end the universe and I’m looking at all the bizarre extra-terrestrial life that could exist all eating and conversing with each other. Many of the restaurants other patrons are moving about in other dimensions meaning that my tiny insufficient brain cannot comprehend many of their seemingly impossible proportions and movements in space-time. Such is the disorientation of hearing an ‘antituned’ composition: the music forces your ears into places they are not used to.
‘Experimental’ is a good word to describe the music on this track: it implies that the writer of the music knew what people are used to hearing and knew what rules usually apply to musical composition, and deliberately chose not to use them so as to create a certain feeling of freedom within the sound. However, ‘experimental’ sounds very clichéd, as does ‘contemporary’. I do not think that anything as satirical and tauntingly contemptuous as ‘Antitune’ can be emblazoned with a label, because that would be exactly what any right-thinking person would do. This song is not aimed at those people. Moreover, the controversy and adversity surrounding such music as this does not need to be earned by people calling it ‘experimental’. Some people have told me that they find the song to contain ‘unlistenable rubbish’. Others have said that it was ‘like taking free drugs’. If you can make music that provokes responses like this, then you don’t need a classification to fit into.
One musician whose work is very similar in its unrestricted yet also rather focussed approach is the singer-songwriter Tom Waits. In the 1980s, Waits abandoned much of his earlier work, which primarily featured piano and guitar and songs written in the style of a ballad, and began to use numerous other instruments, many of which he had never played before, in his work. His reason for doing this was to avoid writing music where “playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places.” His songwriting showed influences from many different cultures and musical styles, but the one aspect which I am reminded of most on this song is ‘vaudeville’, which was a style of entertainment common in America from 1880 to 1930. The manic, warped polyphony within the overlapping ‘tunes’ (for want of a better word!) in the organ synth patches make me think of some of the twisted freakshows and animal tricks which would amuse American audiences in the late 19th century, along with the crooning, shrill rantings of the vocals, which sound a little like Mikee Goodman’s poetic vocal tracks (‘Mermaid Slur’ and ‘When Will the Forest Speak?’ are good examples), only more about the noise than the words. The riff which enters at 1:49 has a strong edge of Vildhjarta to its attack, but feels rather more sleazy and less remorseless than ‘Eternal Golden Monk’, for example. The latter, more electronic half of ‘Antitune’ is more psychedelic than outright weird, although the keyboard line above the reverberating drone still sounds far from stable or commonplace.
Another musical similarity to ‘Antitune’ is the polystylistic work of Alfred Schnittke. A composer of the former Soviet Union, Schnittke has in his compositional career made use of more different compositional techniques and methods than most, often turning them inside out or ripping them apart in the process. A brilliant example of this is his Symphony No.1, the first movement of which alone features more musical contrast than can be heard in the whole careers of most composers. You can hear elements of military fanfare music, fuelled by nationalist propaganda that was rife in the Soviet Union until only 20 or so years before its composition (many of Schnittke’s earlier works, including this symphony, were still effectively banned by the Composers’ Union), some very jazzy and virtuosic sections for individual instruments (this style is described as aleatoric, meaning that part of the composition is determined by the performers alone, with no written guidance in the form of sheet music, allowing a new degree of spontaneity to enter the music), and a lot of odd twists upon and references to Viennese classical music: the end section of the symphony features some descending arpeggios in the strings and huge, thick chords similar to the symphonic works of Beethoven or Mahler, both composers far ahead of their time (this Viennese influence derives from his childhood spent there, and is present in many other pieces: his Viola Concerto, for example, features a section in the second movement which can only be described as a bastardised waltz!)
This style of composition is very disorientating, and does not appeal to many patrons of classical music. However, this is not where the similarity to ‘Antitune’ stops. The main likeness between these two styles of composition is their very satirical approach to the music they have written. I’m not sure whether Schnittke was as lighthearted as Maybe That’s Why Human’s Drink the Darkness That is Coffee, but he definitely tries to rebel against convention and the beurocracy of Soviet Russia in his music: the virtuosic approach from individual members of the orchestra is a scornful stab at the socialist, collective societal approach that was the basis of the Soviet Union, and the more festive, fanfare-ish motifs are a nod in the direction of Shostakovich, who expressed his relief at Stalin’s death by writing bright pieces such as his Festive Overture. ‘Window to the World’ is also a rebellion of sorts, because in no way at all does it limit itself artistically: I don’t know of very many artists who would embrace this amount of variety merely because it was available to them.
Of all the tracks on ‘Window to the World’, ‘Who Are You?’ is probably my favourite, though it is very difficult to say. This was the track which surprised me the most when I first heard the album, and because of this it took a little longer to sink in than others, but now its firmly embedded in my brain as the sound which I think defines Maybe That’s Why Human’s Drink the Darkness That is Coffee the most accurately. One of the words which has been used to describe the bands sound is ‘ambient’. I understand why this word has been used: ambient music generally refers to anything which creates a peaceful mood. Calm like an ocean, the music washes over you and is given meaning and musical feeling not by a wide range of notes, but by the tactical and effective use of dynamics. Artists like Solar Fields are the epitome of this style of music, which is predominantly electronic. However, though this is similar to a lot of the work on ‘Who Are You?’, it is not a full description of the sound. The sonic texture is much more varied than that of typical ambient music, and it does not feel like a drag to listen to at all, because the theme remains fresh through the use of a number of simple compositional techniques.
‘Ambience’ means “a pervading atmosphere that is characteristic of a place”, and this is true of most of ‘Window to the World’: it creates a very strong image in your head, and the image it creates is very subjective and open to interpretation. However, the ‘ambient’ sections of the music feel a lot more as though a classical composer than an electronic artist has written them. I am frequently reminded of the work of Philip Glass during ‘Who Are You?’: the melody is very simplistic, and continually adds layers to its texture and features elements of minimalist compositional devices such as ‘additive melody’. The comparison to minimalism is somewhat untrue however: the sound is much less aggressive than most minimalism, and features very expansive harmonic language, whereas most minimalism much more like the sound of an engine or steam-powered machine at work, turning cogs and juddering at a uniform rate. Although Philip Glass is often described as a minimalist composer, that is somewhat misleading. He has definitely contributed to the movement, and taken a great deal of inspiration from it, but he is still predominantly a composer rooted in the classical legacy of Bach, Schubert and Mozart. This is noticeable in his later works, such as his score for the film Koyaanisqatsi or his second string quartet ‘Company’. These pieces, whilst having a strong sense of rhythm and a very repetitive and minimalist structure (complete with additive melody and more), also manage to convey a lot of freedom and have a quality of flow about them that most minimalism doesn’t have. A good way of describing it is to say that the actual oscillations of the notes produced by the instrument sound free, not forced or rushed. This is definitely the case with ‘Who Are You?’.
The entry of the drums at 1:26 gives the song a bit of go-forward, dragging it out of a self-obsessed cycle of chords, and the harmonic rhythm picks up significantly at 1:46, indicating that something is about to happen. The thing that does happen is a roar from the depths of some dark place within the earths mantle at 2:30, something of the scale of Mount Doom in The Lord of The Rings. The dramatic rise in dynamics takes the listener totally by surprise, and sounds like a sudden bellow from a leviathan creature, like a dragon perhaps. The broken thirds and decorative chords from the flute-sounding synth on top again remind me of a video game, but the mood here is rather different. Rather, I feel that this song is built around one concept, which is contained in its title: ‘who are you?’. The song up until 2:30 has a very inquisitive feel about it, conveyed in large part by the echoing reverberations of choice chords in the progression of the song which bring out a lot of character and emotion, sometimes more than could be done by changing the pitch of the notes. The chord which is emphasized in the three-chord motif changes each time over the first 4 beats, which to me brings out a restless and questioning character about the music. In addition, the music rises and falls rather suddenly, as though it is trying to outwit the listener by springing the question on it unexpectedly. For example, the attack that can be heard on the chords from 0:35 provides them with a somewhat persistent edge, suggesting an impatience from the questioners perspective. At 2:30, the victim of the interrogation suddenly replies violently, leaving the questioner rather stunned: so much so, in fact, that the music audibly retreats into its own small shell. The bass solo that comes after adds a slight mystique to the whole song, and gives the song a rather subdued feel: to have a melody line moving in such low frequencies, below the harmony of the music, is an unusual approach, which again is what makes the song that much more memorable and unique.
The section around 7:00 is full of deft composition: take, for example, the repetition of the chords above with the bassline changing their harmony from beneath. This is a simple technique, but it is used only fleetingly which gives the song an ever-changing freshness, which is rare in such a long song as this. The gentle slowing of the tempo (also known as ritardando) from 7:35 really lulls the listener into0 peaceful equilibrium with the music surrounding their ears, as the song drifts gradually away into nothing, with a final passing stab of melody at 9:06 which leaves you hanging on, waiting to hear if there will be more.
‘Glowing Stars’ is the last track of the album, and it feels like it. From the start, its clear that the band have left off where they started, returning to a more traditional, guitar-orientated sound that was pioneered most on the first three tracks. It also has the most lyrics of any song on the album. The main riff is very simplistic, and rather blatantly syncopated: another sardonic stab at the foundations of the djent sound. The song has the distinct harshness about it that all black metal forces upon the listener: the guitar tone sounds like a knife tearing through flesh, and the vocals truly resemble a secluded hermit, spitting his regrets at the empty world around him.
The ambience that accompanies it is one of the most effective, yet understated, textural features of the album: it is quite low in the mix, but it is very avant-garde and abstract. The sheer density of tones and the amount of different notes all placed on top of each other, overlaying such a simple riff, has quite a mind-blowing effect. There is so much going on that it suggests a rejection of concept and subject material: after all, how can so many different things be drawn together to represent only one thing? The title of the song is a fitting one: when I’m looking up at the stars at night, all I see are tiny pinpricks of light hung upon a vast sheet of nothingness. Even though I know that the stars are actually huge, sizzling pots of churning plasma undergoing endless chemical reactions, I can’t seriously comprehend this, because I have never been to a star, in the same way that I can’t comprehend the tremendous distances between them. In this way, the imagery created by listening to the song is an act of denial towards such seemingly impossible ideas, leaving it to be a blank page. This abstraction and abandonment of convention is probably one of the most disorientating things about the album: the utter uncaring vagueness in the message of the music will be hard to accept for most people, in the same way that religious people find it hard to accept that there may not be a god. The scale of this album suggests that there must be something deeper, some higher order (or plot) dictating the sound. But what if there isn’t? The rasping screech of the vocals appears to mock the listener, who ultimately does not know the music’s true purpose: “There's something hidden in the stars, a letter, a promise.” Ultimately, whatever we think is true could be wrong.
The lyrics also hint at this from another perspective: stars were once thought of to be immoveable, fundamental entities of the universe, fixed within their celestial spheres rotating around the sun. This, however, has since being dismissed as incorrect. How long will it be before we reveal that the stars hold even deeper secrets about the universe, that tell of something even newer and less believable than current scientific knowledge? The phrase “the judging eyes of fate” also hints at something more human within the concept of the album: mortality. There is only one constant that we know of; one thing that is certain, and that is Death. Within an album as abstract and diverse as this one, there must be some kind of central theme or focus to make it even close to listenable, or even writable to an extent. Because the album is so all-encompassing in its magnitude, the only possible candidate for such a concept is Death.
The heavy gravitas of the ambience continues long after the ‘song’ has faded to nothing, which may suggest that the universe will continue even after we have passed on. Things will continue to die, until everything ceases to be. By this point, some form of purpose will have been accomplished, and we can stop listening and move on to newer musical pastures. But the sound continues. By around 4:40, it sounds like some heavenly chorale, a gaze down a corridor of sound towards another existence offered briefly by some higher power. The glitchy drums in the background are rather Bulby, and offer yet another new sound to the huge scope of the album. The purity of the sound at this point is in very sharp juxtaposition to what has gone before in the song, which is what has been making the whole album interesting to listen to.
The last two minutes or so of the album keep you guessing and on edge: the constant shifting in focus of the sound makes it feel like the whole thing is building up to something, but what it will be you can’t think. Surely the band have run out of ideas by now? And, in a sense, the ending confirms the opposite: it is probably the most ambiguous part of the entire album. The way it breaks off with such definite totality is quite a shock. There is no neat resolution to the album: like all great minds, this band abhors the easy answer. This, above all else, is what makes the album so convincing and appealing to the active mind: in reality, easy answers rarely present themselves so readily.
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- Ulises Marquez