Sunday, 11 April 2010

Viva La Vida: C'est Du Massacre...

This past week I have been in France on holiday, and by some horrible twist of fate -- because he only usually listens to French 80's pop ballads -- my dad had bought Coldplay's latest installment, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends. Consequently, and to my great regret, it became something of a 'soundtrack of the week' as it was played almost exclusively on a loop for the whole trip. I therefore had to do something about the thoughts nagging at me as I heard the CD again and again, hence this rant, which I promise to keep as informative and un-cathartic as possible.

So many things simply do not work in Viva La Vida, which can in short be described as Chris Martin et al.'s embarrassingly mainstream take on an arty concept album. Several features point to an attempt at edginess. There is the title itself, which purports to be an intriguing dualism, and the album cover (a painting by Eugène Delacroix), which suggests that the band are now somehow late 18th century French revolutionaries. We also find cross-referencing of musical material between songs (Life In Technicolor - Death And All His Friends), songs that flow into one another with no interruption (Life In Technicolor - Cemeteries Of London, Viva La Vida - Violet Hill), and the recurring inclusion of 2 separate songs on the same track, which happens overtly on Lovers In Japan / Reign Of Love but secretly on Yes and Death And All His Friends. In the latter, which is the final track on the album, the second song, or part, repeats the very opening of the album (which is a sample from Jon Hopkins's Light Through The Veins and is also probably the best part of Viva La Vida) but concludes it differently, this time with some murmured words about 'and in the end'. I was immediately reminded of the conclusion of the epic Abbey Road medley ('And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make'), and shuddered at the thought of Chris Martin seeing himself as some sort of modern day John Lennon. Ugghhhhhh. Enough of that.

By far my favourite of all the wacky things about this album, however, is the fact that it was recorded 'in a bakery, a nunnery, a magic shop, a church'. The band write this in the first page of the album sleeve, in what I think is their own new font called Smuggy Mc Smug Smug. One is left baffled at the reason for recording in a bakery if it comes out sounding like you recorded in a state of the art studio with an engineer who tried his best to make everything sound like U2. I know this comparison is frequently made, but honestly, listen to Lovers in Japan and tell me you aren't surprised not to hear Bono singing. See? Told you.

Coldplay: 'Lovers In Japan / Reign Of Love'

To go back to the 'double songs', in Lovers In Japan / Reign Of Love we have a track that is clearly identified as being split in two. Fine. Why not. Why always have one song to a track, right? In Death And All His Friends we have a 'secret' ending that goes back to the opening, unifying the album thematically, which actually works quite well. But the really perplexing one is Yes. In deliberately not identifying that the track is split in two the band are effectively creating another 'secret' part, and I can't help feeling that this dramatically undermines the poignancy of the final number. Having one secret ending would have been very effective indeed, surprising even. But why oh why sabotage your own punchline by telling the joke again just a few minutes before? It just all seems like a big mistake.

The other answer is to interpret both Yes and Lovers In Japan / Reign Of Love as ambitious 7 minute prog beasts, which might have been what the band thought they were making. What weak animals these would be however, seeing as they are made up of two completely different songs, with no musical relevance to each other, that are simply juxtaposed on one track. If the songs had been musically linked, or if their content was at all surprising or out of the norm, we might be praising the album for its structural ingenuity. But instead we are just left wondering "what's the point?". Coldplay have just got to be more honest with themselves -- and when they are, the results are far more convincing; indeed the single Viva La Vida is (perhaps ironically) the most successful song on the album, albeit due in part to some expressive string arrangements by Davide Rossi.

To conclude, Yes (the second part of which is finally to be identified as Chinese Sleep Chant, further obscuring what the band actually wanted to achieve with the track) expresses in a microcosm the overarching flaw with Coldplay's approach, which is that of a middle-of-the-road band masquerading as innovators. If you're going to make an epic art-prog-rock symphony then do it. But don't write two bite-sized inoffensive pop-rock songs, complete with full-on trademark chord progressions (I think we can now talk about a 'Coldplay Vadd4'), paste them together and call it a 7 minute piece. If nothing else, your listeners are going to feel a bit cheated. And if in doing so you are spoiling the most inventive thing about your whole album, well then you're a bit of a douche.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Bonfires on the Heath: why the rhythm?

So I listened to the Clientele's new album, 'Bonfires on the Heath', and there's one thing that really annoys me about it. It's not the lap steel glissandi and the Pink Floyd chord progressions, which, in the song Bonfires on the Heath, are a reverse of the hallmark Breathe In The Air / Any Colour You Like Im7-IV7 (the band quickly rectify this error in the next song, Harvest Time, by playing the sequence in order for the whole song). I also quite like the treble-heavy, half-whispered, half-strained vocals.

No, in terms of timbre, I think the Clientele have something not too bad (although a few more songs not drenched in MacLean's clean reverb guitar parts would have been good). The problem I have with this album is the reliance on one particular syncopated rhythm, again in the guitar part, in about half the songs on the album:

I think bands can almost get away with playing the same chord progression for half an album (as there are so many ways of articulating harmony), most albums have the same texture throughout, and many songs will use the same instruments, keeping the timbres in a straight-jacket, not to mention the fact that they will be structurally identical. But if there's one element in pop that is guaranteed to give you that 'same-y' sound that grates on the listener, it is rhythmic invariability across half an album. Rhythm and tempo dictate 'feel', 'vibe', 'swing', 'swagger', and whilst dance genres exploit the furthest possibilities of such ideas, pop cannot successfully do so without sounding, well, same-y.

Otherwise I had quite a good time listening to this album.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

George Benjamin: not afraid of the major triad

George Benjamin.

When the Second Viennese school outlined the tonal limits of Western harmony in the early 20th century by creating a sound world where each of the 12 semitones was of equal importance, it was something of a nail-in-the-coffin moment for tonality. Pure major and minor triads, inextricably linked to tonality in expressing tonic and dominant chords in their purest forms, correspondingly suffered something of a genocide. Only in the ever-optimistic music of Messiaen were they to be found extensively - as pure sensual phenomena rather than tonal units.

Lush: 'Louange à léternité de Jésus', movement five in Messiaen's 'Quartet for the End of Time' (1941).

The elimination of major and minor triads from the modern composer's palette was concomitant with the increasing complexity of modes of expression witnessed in the 20th century. For it is one of those wonderfully inexplicable things that the neurons in human brains react in some way to the combined frequencies of a major triad so as to give us the impression of happiness. And the impression of sadness for minor triads. It is these very simple chords that give rise - although not exclusively of course - to the two simplest emotions, and the further harmonic language goes from them, the more abstract the music becomes. It is the preoccupation with complexity and abstraction as a means of innovation in modern composing that has estranged major and minor triads to the point of non-recognition. And perhaps it is due to my personal education, but I get a feeling that there is a very real sense of fearfulness towards the major triad amongst modern composers, as though writing one will immediately make you derivative and unoriginal, a naive fool who still thought that such a simple mode of expression existed.

Boulez: 'Le Marteau sans Maitre' (1955). Ain't no major triads in here.

On Sunday at Queen Elizabeth Hall there was a moment that stood out, therefore, as the London Sinfonietta played George Benjamin's 'Palimpsests' (2000), during which the brass play two very loud chords, a major triad followed by a minor triad. Amid a sea of ableit very carefully thought out atonal harmony, this sudden consonance of the highest - and simplest - order was incongruous to say the least. (In an interview on the guardian website Benjamin even mentions that he never thought he would write a passage like it.) A similar moment occurred during the 'Piano Figures' (2004), at some point near the end of the collection of ten miniatures, where there featured a passage of exclusively consonant harmony, using only major sonorities with added 6ths and 9ths. Again, the seasoned atonal listener in every audience member jumped up in his armchair, startled.

After a century of atonal classical music, now that every composer and modern music lover's ear is accustomed to the sonority of total dissonance, it seems as though, ironically, consonance has become the new diminished 7th or Neapolitan 6th, the shock point before the end of a fugue. Or are we starting to come through the other end of the atonal tunnel? Either way, it seems as though Benjamin has overcome the fear of the major triad.