Category: Music (page 1 of 2)

500 Words on Grunge

Courtesy Easybranches

When I was growing up, and going through some bullying and shunning in junior high, grunge was on the rise. Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden… these names were surging through the airwaves, videos playing on MTV, the sound was all around. For my part, I listened, but I found it difficult to really interface with the content of the songs. I was much more engaged by faster-paced acts like Green Day and the Offspring. I wasn’t quite ready to fully examine the meaning and thrust of grunge; the more obvious punkish sounds underscored my unexpressed frustrations and anger. It felt, at the time, more cathartic. I didn’t know what I was missing.

Since moving to Seattle, and especially in the last year, many of these bands and their music have come back into my life, and I find myself having a newfound appreciation for their messages and meanings.

Chris Cornell’s sudden and inexplicable death struck a melancholy chord deep within me. I feel that I missed some great opportunities. The more I listen to Soundgarden, Audioslave, and his side projects and solo work, the more I can see parts of myself and my inner struggles in what Chris conveyed in his words and his singular voice. I find myself in another situation where I feel I didn’t appreciate the influence and power of someone enough until they were gone from my life; now, I can’t deny a desire to say and do so much more, to this person and on their behalf, because they made the world, and my life, better for their presence; both are now the poorer for their absence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ve handled my head weasels and the ways in which I’ve been pushed around by my errant thoughts and rampant emotions. While it’s good to know I’m not alone in this, it also breaks my heart at times — why would a thinking, feeling human being wish these things upon another? When I listen to grunge with the ears I have now, I find myself understanding the music and its motivations so much more, and wishing peace for those who feel the same, from the artists to their fans.

Mental illness is not something to be taken lightly. Even when things seem ‘okay’, the victim may simply be projecting an illusion of normality. Worse, something may appear out of nowhere to tip the scales into disaster — one unanticipated phone call, one bit of bad news, one pill too many. When these are conveyed to us, in speech or in song, we cannot take it lightly; we owe it to those we love too imagine them complexly, and offer love and support whenever we can.

We have the music of the artists who’ve left us; we have the good memories of the loved ones we’ve lost. There have been so many casualties — Kurt, Layne Staley, Andrew Wood, Ian Curtis, and now Chris — but we can hear them, and we can remember.

On Fridays I write 500 words.

So. Good Grief.

Courtesy Virgin EMI

In case you weren’t aware, I am a huge fan of the band Bastille. Their first album, Bad Blood, continues to be a part of my regular CD rotation in my car. (Yes, my car still uses CDs when the radio’s not on, I need to re-install my head unit.) Specifically, ‘Pompeii’, ‘Icarus’, ‘Flaws’, and ‘Things We Lost In The Fire’ are particularly emotional for me, to hear or to sing along with (Do you understand that we will never be the same again? / The future’s in our hands, and we will never be the same again.) It’s soil rich for planting our own experiences next to the thoughts and feelings conveyed in the music, and reaping the benefits of a more complete, more complex, more satisfying understanding of where we are in the world.

So let’s talk about the first single from their follow-up album, Wild World, simply entitled ‘Good Grief’. It’s an example of Dan Smith speaking as if he’s rooting around inside of my brainpan. I’m going to break it down from my perspective and try to explore why it’s hitting me so hard where I live.

  1. Much like their first single, ‘Pompeii’, Bastille perfectly juxtaposes an upbeat, even bouncy tune with quite serious and introspective lyrics. You can easily dance to ‘Good Grief’, but if you stop and listen to the words, you almost feel abashed for doing so. It sounds happy, but it isn’t. This is going to be a classic and exemplary song of Bastille’s.
  2. From the very start, and throughout, is the notion of “watching through [our] fingers”. It’s something terrifying in front of us, and we don’t want to see it, but it’s still something we have to face. We’re scared. We’re confused. We want to hide, but we can’t run. So we do what we can. We cry into our hands and we keep our face hidden, but we watch. In horror, in curiosity, in a desire to hold onto as much as we can, we watch.
  3. Grief is grief is grief. It’s something I’ve learned the hard way. It’s difficult to tell if the singer is going through the process of mourning the death of a loved one, or trying to survive a particularly bad break-up. Memories and feelings linger on, even if the person in question has ceased to exist (or we want them to). So things like old photographs where the person is not missing, their favorite song… they trigger those feelings and memories, and we do irrational things, like dancing at a somber funeral, or drinking until we lose control of our words.
  4. The way the last syllable of each repeated line in the verses feels like the singer is trying to get their thoughts and feelings out, but can’t quite see it through to the end. They lose their strength before they reach the end of the line. So much energy is being devoted to just staying alive, getting through another day, just fucking breathing, that it’s difficult to even speak completely. Sometimes you can’t even get out of bed in the morning. How can you be expected to complexly imagine your situation and find your way through it?
  5. “What’s going to be left of the world if you’re not in it?” This is such a powerful line. Our worlds change drastically when a loved one dies or a lover leaves us. We have to realign ourselves with our own hearts and our own goals, and we can easily lose sight of that because of the upheaval. We cope in different ways – casting our beloved as dastardly villains or shrieking monstrosities, denying anything bad actually happened, curling up in a dark corner wishing the world would go away – but in the end, we come back to questioning what is going to happen next in our world. And this is the question we need to face… even if we’re watching it through our fingers.
  6. Every minute we miss those no longer with us. When we stumble or make a mistake, we want that person there to either laugh with us through the foible or support us in picking ourselves back up. It underscores the loss, makes it more powerful in our minds, strains our hearts, and we miss them more.
  7. The burning clothes is either a reference to cremation for the dead or the catharsis of burning items connected to the lost partner. This is not always done by angry ex-lovers; sometimes, it’s part of a calming, cleansing ritual, part of an attempt to move on, at least in some measure. A Viking funeral for a love that was followed with audacity and fought for with bravery until the weight of the world crushed it. … Did I mention I’m a hopeless romantic? Which is an odd turn of phrase considering when you’re a “hopeless” romantic, you hold onto hope a lot more than some others. … Where was I?
  8. The female voice feels like an outside perspective. It’s interesting that Dan chose these lines from Weird Science. While it seems like it could be echoes of whomever was lost, it feels to me more like this is a current partner or friend or family member, trying to get the singer out and about, to re-embrace the life they’ve felt they’ve lost due to their grief. We all need friends like that.
  9. Grief isn’t just limited to us. It spirals out from the source of the loss and touches so many people. More than we might expect. Faced with the scope of the tragedy, be it an accidental one or the result of a choice, falling into the embrace of something like alcohol can be easier than dealing with all of these conflicting, devastating thoughts and emotions. We can get drunk, be foolish, lose control of our senses or our words, but in the end, we are put back in our place. And much like the interlude returns to the driving chorus, we come back to feeling that loss, seeing the ghost of the one we’ve loved, and every minute of every hour, we miss them. We miss them. We miss them more.
  10. The video. Oh, the video. The video is so brilliant. There are memories, dreams, and more that begin to have their narratives blending into one another, so many routes to escapism. But we keep coming back to Dan, wandering and alone, trying so hard to reconnect with whatever he’s lost in the real world. Watch the way the color palettes change. We want to be happy. We want to escape. But the real world keeps pulling us back… putting us in our place.

This is seriously one of the very best songs I’ve heard in a long time, and it’s going to be in my heart and on my mind for a long time. I’m hoping that taking this time to ruminate on it, as well as the general upswing in energy I’ve been feeling, will help me carve out more portions of the days ahead to get more writing done, be it here or in ways that push me past tomorrow.

It’s good to be back.

Of Nations, Elephants, Skies and Keys

Courtesy The Black Keys
Proof positive that good music still comes from basements.

In both bearing down on the end of the year at the dayjob and trying to get myself in motion as a writer, music plays a key role. It evokes imagery, makes me think, gets my blood pumping… sometimes, all three. I’ve tried to branch out into new artists and ways of hearing music (that’d be Spotify) but some artists have yet to lose their touch and keep bringing me back.

I just saw VNV Nation in concert this past weekend, and those guys haven’t lost a step. When I first heard the new album, Automatic, I wasn’t sure what to think. It felt a lot like a return to the days of FuturePerfect rather than maintaining the martial feeling of Judgement and Of Faith, Power and Glory. It just didn’t feel as strong. The more I listen to it, however, the more it grows on me. From the statements of individuality in “Space & Time” and “Resolution” to the Praise the Fallen stompy drive of “Control” to the heartfelt inspiration of “Nova”, the album runs a gamut of modern emotions and motivations rather than focusing on a particular time or sentiment. In other words, it’s far more “steampunk symphony” than it is a call to arms. It may not be as strong as their other recent work, but it’s no less meaningful or touching.

“Day[9] made me do it” is a common excuse for StarCraft 2 players dicking around to give him Funday Monday content, and it’s also the reason I’ve been listening to Blue Sky Black Death. The album Noir is full of evocative electronica that reminds me of VNV’s instrumental work mixed with the moodiness of New Order or even Depeche Mode. It has a texture to it that’s hard to describe. It’s fantastic writing music, as there are no lyrics to distract you from what’s going on in your head. They’re unlikely to be as known as the other artists I mention, but you should definitely give them a listen.

Jonathan Coulton has gotten himself a studio album, how about that? No longer just recording songs in his garage or on his iPad or whatever, Artificial Heart has the crisp sound of professional production. He’s never really sounded bad, per se, but there’s a cohesion to this album that speaks to an artist going into a production with a specific plan in mind. Instead of playing it safe with nerd-friendly songs about evil geniuses and furniture stores, though, JoCo plays on themes of loneliness and abandonment. It’s a very mature sound, reminding me of the early albums of Billy Joel. Now more than ever, Jonathan sounds like someone I might know and would want to share a beer with as we get our troubles out in the open.

In an age where auto-tuning and overwrought post production can make anybody with even minute talent a pop superstar, I find myself yearning for more earnest, bare-bones rock music. Enter Cage the Elephant. I can’t recall if I first heard “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” on the radio or in the opening of Borderlands but it definitely made me sit up and take notice. It’s been a while since a new voice has risen to evoke the rebellious days of the Ramones and the Clash, or perhaps Green Day and the Offspring. Their debut album’s very straightforward and catchy, while Thank You Happy Birthday boasts more range and nuance. I’ll be watching (and listening to) these guys.

I also need to get caught up listening to The Black Keys. Two guys from Akron have been cranking out impressive music that’s equal parts hard-nosed rock and heartfelt blues. I picked up their latest album, El Camino, practically on the crunchy catchy merits of “Lonely Boy” alone and found every song to be just as well made, if not better. Brothers is also quite good with cuts like “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ For You”. There’s quite a few more to listen to, and I’m sure I’ll be doing so in the very near future. They have a sound that harkens back to days of simpler music and are about as far removed from the pop scene as you can get.

What VVVVVV’s Music Says

Courtesy Souleye

One of the best things about indy platformer VVVVVV is its infectious chiptune music. It compliments the story of gravity-flipping Captain Veridian’s quest to rescue his crew from the 8-bit perils of the mysterious other dimension. Souleye, the composer, brilliantly uses the tools available in a minimal environment as much as the game itself does, building mood and driving the actions of the player without extraneous bombast. But more than underscoring the action, PPPPPP (the soundtrack) carries messages all its own, illustrated by the game and reaching beyond the screen into one’s life.

This sort of thing could simply be a case of me reading into things more deeply than I should, but it’s nonetheless interesting to me that this music worming into my ears has more to it than rhythms to which one taps the action button.

Pushing Onwards

As much as bits of this iconic tune of VVVVVV are borrowed from other themes, the message it conveys is clear in its title. As this music plays, the Captain is learning the ropes of the levels, flipping from floors to ceilings and back again, often running afoul of the hundreds of spikes littered throughout the corridors. Thanks to the checkpoints, however, Veridian is never stopped for long, unless you as the player pull the plug.

In other words, the only thing stopping you from pushing onwards is you.

Considering this is the first tune we hear in VVVVVV following the accident that strands Veridian and his crew, it has to immediately set the mood, as we don’t have voice acting or deep sound effect design. More than just creating atmosphere, however, Pushing Onwards gets us into the groove. It dares us to live up to its soars, to defy its lows, to overcome the obstacles before us and go further than we have before. Who couldn’t use a little bit of that sort of motivation in their daily lives?

Potential for Anything

The tools that produce this tune may be the same as those used throughout the game, but Potential for Anything moves at a slightly different pace, a more lyrical lilt than the straightforward grooviness of Pushing Onwards. It’s a bit more mysterious, a little esoteric. Like Pushing Onwards, the reasons are there in its title.

In the context of the game, it’s difficult to say what to expect as the player moves Captain Veridian from one screen to the next. It could be a straighforward dodge-the-spikes setup, or a wrinkle could be thrown in with disappearing platforms, or the word LIES may get in our way. It’s clear that Terry Cavanaugh saw this dimension as one full of potential, and he used it to create just about anything he could to present us with new mind-bending challenges. But again, I feel the music transcends its origins.

The fantasy bookstopper novel, the hand-drawn masterpiece, the epic hero on a harrowing quest – they all begin with a blank page. The same pulpy construct used to generate TPS reports, account audits and letters of termination also yeild escapes to our dearest fantasies or exploration of our darkest fears. A blank page holds, quite literally, a potential for anything.

These are just two examples from this surprisingly deep soundtrack, and both tracks are audible in the free demo of VVVVVV available on Kongregate & Steam. Check out the game, listen to the music, and make up your own mind.


If you’re unfamiliar with OverClocked ReMix, you should do something about that. The concept is simple: take your favorite video game music, remix or rework it into a different genre or with different music, and post it on the site. The results are many and varied, as you can see here:

Chrono Trigger: Schala’s Theme

Final Fantasy VI: Locke’s Theme

Mega Man 2: Dr. Wily Stage 1

The Legend of Zelda – A Link To The Past: Dark World

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