Sunday, 26 August 2007

A Turquoise Chord

Written for my old blog in 2006, I found this musing on music while sifting through and decided to publish it once more. Sat in my drafts folder since summer 2007, this article was finally published online at on 20th February, 2008.

Update 2nd May, 2009 - this post has now been endorsed by Rob Dougan :-)
“The art form of an album is seriously under attack. Everything is becoming very fast. People are looking for the big hit, going onto iTunes and picking the one track that they want off of an album, refusing to listen to the whole thing. I know that the art form of an album will always exist but I think it’s a shame that music has become disposable. I don’t like to see music dissected.’
-- Kate Bush, Talking With Kate, BBC Radio 2, Saturday 5th August 2006

A long, long time ago (around 2002), I can still remember how a piece of music used to make me smile. And though the critics, given the chance, used to lump it under ‘dance’, there were classicists who were happy for a while. I refer to a particular moment in my favourite album ever, Rob Dougan’s Furious Angels.

It’s an unusual album I admit. There’s the atypical fusion of classical music and recorded bass and percussion, taking the groove of dance and creating crescendos with a 100-strong orchestra, like Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy but on a much greater scale. There’s the complete immersion into Rob’s world of darkness; the theme of death is omnipresent, none more so than in the world-famous Clubbed To Death. But more than that, there’s the intensity – the record is so intense, so concentrated, you get near the end and you’re gasping for breath. Lucky for the listener then is track 13, the aptly named Pause, thirty-three seconds of… nothing.

That’s not to say the listener is being given a run for their money. Pause is so pivotal to the record, Furious Angels would be incomplete without it. It prepares us for the chilled out aura of One and the Same, the album’s coda. The moment when the credits roll.

Yes, credits. Furious Angels is the perfect example of an album as an art form, a model too often forgotten in today’s hurried music scene. An album is more than a collection of songs. It is a set of songs based on a moment, a feeling or just a feel. It’s why U2’s Joshua Tree trumps everything else they’ve ever done (even Achtung Baby); it’s why Faithless’ No Roots is so vastly superior to their back catalogue, despite not sounding remotely like Faithless; it’s why the Californian bluegrass trio Nickel Creek sound all the better for not giving in to percussion (at least on their first two albums).

It doesn’t have to be a topic or theme. It doesn’t have to be a sound. It has nothing to do with banality or quirkiness in the lyrics – John Denver sang songs of the Earth where Kate Bush sings songs about washing machines – it is just a feeling. It is well thought out; it takes you on a journey. It is a record you cannot dare to pause, because that would be like waking up in the middle of a dream, like leaving the cinema before the essential plot twist that tells you that the killer was in the room all along. It can never be appreciated when incomplete.

Furious Angels is the perfect album because, for me, it tells a story. As the opening titles fade out from Prelude we get the beginning action sequence in the title track, not making sense but whetting our appetites for what is to come. The scene is then set in Will You Follow Me? Here we visit our hero’s home (it could almost be the Shire), a brightly coloured and triumphant scene before the first betrayal, Left Me For Dead, and our first frenzied wail of rejection in I’m Not Driving Anymore. And from there, we keep digging, the scene getting darker and darker and more and more intense until we can take it no more, when the orchestra is abandoned and the black and white visuals of the story so far make way for our hero sat at a piano alone in the corner of a smoky bar with half a dozen whisky chasers behind him and his dreams torn to shatters and all he wants… all he wants, is to kiss her lips and weep.

I refer to Drinking Song. This is the moment from a long, long time ago (around 2002) when a piece of music used to make me smile. It not only tells a story, but in fact Rob’s voice actually takes the role of our character. With each lonely piano note you long for the heroine to return and complete our hero’s list, to carry the traveller his last mile, to be with him to cherish that long, last look of the swallow preparing to fly east.

Needless to say, I love this song so much. When I had it blaring out in the car last week and some birds actually fluttered up around me on the second the strings take flight, a tear actually came to my eye. Sometimes music really can soothe the savage beast.

If you’ve come with me this far, and you, like Kate Bush, long for the art form of the album to have its time once more, then you might like to read this quote from Rob Dougan himself. Posted on his own portion of a fan site last summer, he brings only good news:

“I'm […] working on 2 new albums of orchestral work, one classical, and one orchestral pieces of my own. The classical one is some gems (often obscure), favourites and pieces that I like a lot. The orchestral one is pieces that I have written. With the classical one there are some (two) pieces I am waiting for permission to arrange, and that and other permissions has kind of delayed it a little, and that and the task of getting the team's timetables together (yes I work with a team! I don't do it all myself) and getting the orchestral sessions fixed is a bother (and driving me a bit mental) at the moment. After that I'm going to do the final recording for the next album.”

Two new albums in 2007. I’m an excited monkey indeed.

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