Tuesday, April 5, 2011

In Praise Of Vini Reilly: Post-Modern Guitar Heroism As Forefather

Part One: In Praise Of Vini Reilly

I first became aware of the Durutti Column when I was about 16, coming across their entry in the old-fashioned paper edition of the All Music Guide. It sounded, at the time, like something I’d be interested in later, once I'd successfully gotten around to finally hearing all the great records that were on my "essentials list"... in part because it sounded like they'd fit my sensibility, but were clearly more in the "esoteric intelligentsia" category of pop music... something I strove for, but hadn't arrived at yet.

Of course, the review of their initial album mentioned something about the original pressing's sandpaper sleeve (meant to destroy the records around it on the shelf), and I loved the idea of experimental guitar music in an immediately post-punk context. My limited worldview had already exposed me to things like Joy Division and some of their Manchester ilk, and while I loved the rock-crit approved UK Post-Punk Scene, it wasn't exactly easy territory to wade through... especially outside Cincinnati, Ohio…. for a perpetually broke 16-year-old.

Once I hit college, I eventually heard some of their stuff, and even picked up that first album, The Return Of The Durutti Column, when it got remastered. It was likeable, agreeable stuff, but apparently not dark or challenging enough for my taste at the time. Despite the early presence of mad genius producer Martin Hannett, it wasn't obviously and immediately boundary-pushing, so I filed it back under "seems like I'll dig it later". The same thing happened after seeing the portrayal of Durutti frontman/founder/constant Vini Reilly in the film 24 Hour Party People -- it made for a great running gag about his agreeablity in the face of no visible encouragement, but he was more a comic relief. The music was something I'd warmed to, but as I'd been digging into the pop music that immediately followed Reilly's initial work, it had the effect of hearing Big Star after you've heard the Posies – a diluted impact, squelched by decades of descendents. It was still interesting, though I didn't fully get the appeal at the time.

After devoting myself to the pursuit of more experimental music, I needed to make a conscious effort to go back through my record collection and assess some more of the "pure guitar experiments" -- Fripp & Eno, late-period Slowdive, Neu!, etc. When I finally got around to a few Durutti Column albums, what surprised me most when I really listened to it was just how STRANGE the music was, but with a spirit that was inviting. It's as lopsided and unpolished in many ways as the Fall, but it's aim isn't to shake the listener out of a comatose humdrumity through jagged noise and repetition... it's as music, to PLAY, to make sounds, to act as a soundtrack to life. However, while most music under the “ambient music” tag often makes the effort to become almost inaudible, supporting the natural webwork of sounds that make up white noise, Reilly seems as though he's trying to camouflage his music... not make it blend in, but with production choices and rhythms that could almost be mistaken for music from another room, or a car passing an open window. It's not an attempt to hide the fact that it's music, nor are the sounds TRYING to explicitly mimic real-world sounds (for the most part... those "bird" synths that start off the album largely blow that argument to hell), but to make you hear music and natural sound in the same manner. If you listen to this and drone music long enough (hearing the sub-harmonies skitting around once your brain resets its "baseline silent") you'll start to hear music EVERYWHERE in weirdly synchronized rhythms. It's eerie. You'll eventually have to cleanse your brain with some early Prince records, and when that statement is true, something has skewed wildly. But that's another musing for another column.

Punk allegedly got rid of the guitar hero. Post punk was built on a framework that largely rejected that “big rock show bombast” mentality as excessive, showy, and unnecessary. What makes post-punk identifiable musically is that it's music is clearly built on a foundation of punk rock... you needed punk to have happened to make it. And that close to it chronologically, guitar "heroes" were few and far between... the stigma and shame simply would have been too much to bear for any forward-thinking axe-slinger. It wasn't until three or four generations after post punk that many of the American underground bands would bring traditional technical values back into the vocabulary with bands like Dinosaur Jr and the Meat Puppets. In late-70s England, however, there were a few players who didn't agree with the "guitar is outdated, synths are the way forward" outlook. Rubbing against the times, people like Vini Reilly decided that the guitar wasn't dead, it just hadn't been explored in every direction yet. Taking the blues out, taking the sexuality out of the "rock god" allowed players to use the instrument in not necessarily new, but non-traditional ways (at least, in the rock context). The difference between Reilly and his brethren is that he was often concerned with sounding pleasant.

Speaking generationally, Vini Reilly could be considered (bear with me here) the Eddie Van Halen of the UK post-punk set. Both players attempted to push the limits of their genre (experimental pop music/heavy rock) with new technologies and sounds. Eddie used super-high-gain amplifiers and "hot" guitar pickups to get that blasting, crunching sound that allowed him to innovate by using double-tapping and other tricks of technique (prodigious talent likely didn't hurt). Reilly used tape delays and primitve synth circuits to re-shape his guitar tones and atmospheres into something that the mainstream hadn’t really attempted yet, beyond gimmicky novelty tracks. Led Zeppelin and Beethoven may have given birth to Van Halen, but Brian Eno and John Cage were the fathers of the Durutti Column.

Part Two: Solipsistic Soliloquy

While recording the other night, the thought occurred to me that my latest method of composition is recording a series of what some might call "micro-loops", and layering them until a common composition reveals itself. For example, 8 seconds, while a long time for a single musical phrase, is still a very short amount of time. Using recording equipment, I've found myself layering these loops over each other for hours. Each loop is only roughly 8 seconds, but when 50 of them, in various keys and rhythms and tones play at the same time, something else tends to emerge. Practically, it's simply the law of averages... the loudest notes to emerge will be the ones that were played the most times at a synchronized point in the loop. If I hit "E" more often than any other note, you'll hear "E" pop out of the din more often. But there's usually no set destination to the compositions as they're being recorded, and while my ear is trained for music, it's not trained for theory.

But sonically, what happens when the layers are stacked up over and over and over is a strange effect... one I'm certain that musicologists have studied, but one I hesitate to investigate, for fear it will kill the magic. What happens is that melodies that you never played begin to appear through the sonic haze. Repeating melodies, due to the simple technology that's being used to record these looping musical phrases. Since each note in the phrase could recorded at a different time -- a different point in the layering process -- it likely has a different technique applied to the actual guitar playing, or has an entirely different tonality to the guitar, or a differing "sonic space" due to more or less reverb on the surrounding notes in the composite phrase. These phrases begin to make themselves heard after enough layers mesh that it's hard to hear specific phrases on their own in their entirety... somehow another layer was recorded louder, or with a more distorted tone, drowning it out, taking over the melody, before a chorus of seven layers of guitars glide over a single chord, or bend and sway sickly under the thrall of a vibrato dip. To put down the instrument and hear the ghosts inside the music composing melodies and songs that I've played but never ACTUALLY PLAYED... it's somehow magical to me. Haunting. As though these melodies were already there, floating through the air, waiting for someone to rip open the air and pluck them... tuning into some frequency beyond my control.

Standing there, listening to the recording playing back, a symphony of guitars - moaning, singing, crying, laughing, screaming... all humming underneath a haunting melody that no one ever played. But it's there. It exists. Sometimes it's even beautiful. But no one played it to make that sound. It's truly collaborating with the technology, rather than using it to my own ends. I'm not enough of a technically accomplished player to perform the melodies in my head. I'm not enough of an expert on the electronics and technology to know exactly what effect that turning one knob on my effects bank will do. German electronic composer Klaus Schulze once laughed and told an interviewer that no matter how he tried, he wouldn't be able to replicate the beautiful analog synthesizer sound he was making for them the next day. There's an element of chance, an element of danger in recording and performing without a net, without playing established music in an established genre. Gang Of Four spoke on the “Sound Opinions” podcast recently and confessed that their earliest songs were punkier than the music they later became lauded for, and in their estimation, there's a safety zone to learning how to write a song that goes "verse/bridge/chorus, verse/bridge/chorus, key change, out"... but they point out that in a way, that's not playing in a style, that's playing in a genre. Everyone has to start with genre, that's how you learn. My genre was punk. Some people start playing and play country. Some play classical. You play to a form, a format that inspired you. It’s a latticework the vines of your musical tomato plant grows up. But according to bandleaders Andy Gill and Jon King, the goal is to attempt to stretch beyond genre and reach beyond it to where the art is being created free of genre restrictions, be they form or tone (i.e. punk has to be angry) to really SAY something, be it lyrical or making a musical statement. Now, rather than tying myself to the pop music genre restriction, I'm working toward a different and new (to me) method of composition, one that allows for a percentage of chance and intuition to work simultaneously, rather than polishing my abilities to succeed within form. It's the very essence of coloring "outside the lines" -- it's dangerous, but can be rewarding. It can be just awful sometimes, but you never know if you'd hit a progression that moves your spirit if you don't take that gamble. It's the essence of jazz, applied to quasi-melodic (OK, "not entirely dissonant") electronic experimentation with a good old wood and steel contraption generating the sounds. Primitive human technology filtered through cutting-edge technology has a magical way of forcing the humanity of the "driver" through to the end result.

The beauty of the process is the crafting of each track live... listening to the looping, loping melody, adding a spare, interlocking part, attempting to tentatively integrate into the whole, in and out of what's already there, and then once successful, moving on to new sounds and ideas. By relaxing a mentality of absolute control over what I INTEND the end result to be, and simply letting it develop naturally (not predicting a fatalist, it's allowing me to create melodies in an automatic fashion. I provide the impetus, the ghosts in the machine tell me how it's supposed to sound when it's all done.

It's completely uncommercial, equal parts inspiration and chance, but it's something very, very pure. In fact, the last time I watched 24 Hour Party People, I even got a little choked up when the film's version of Durutti Column supporter/benefactor (and Factory Records head) Tony Wilson attempts to lift Reilly's spirits after a spartan Tuesday night crowd (ok, an empty room). It's a moment that stands as a testament to Wilson's belief in the power of rock and roll, and why we're all here in the first place. He puts his hand on Vini's shoulder and assures him, "Whatever we acheive, the important thing is that you make... wonderful music." And really, isn't that what making music should really be about?

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