Acquiring the taste

Thanks for your interesting comments on yesterday’s post. The results are… completely inconclusive. But that’s OK. A broad spectrum of responses probably better represents reality than everyone marching in mental lockstep.

Someone asked in response whether my affection for the music I hunted for years ago, when the hunt was difficult, was shaped in large part by the effort I poured into sourcing it. I’m going to have to go with, “No, not really.” No doubt the gems I found seem all the more precious for the experience surrounding them, but I don’t think I’ve ever deluded myself into buying something terrible and thinking, “Yeah, man, this is awesome. Ugh. Yeah, I (barf) love this.”

I wasted plenty of money on terrible albums by good bands, on experimental side projects that fell flat, on poorly recorded bootlegs of rare material whose scarcity didn’t make them any more listenable. For all that I enjoyed Emerson Lake and Palmer’s early albums, when I finally managed to come up with their hard-to-find contractual obligation album Love Beach, I listened to it once and sighed in disappointment. I listened to Roger Waters’ Amused to Death while I was stoned out of my main on dental drugs following my painful and difficult wisdom teeth extraction and liked it, but when I listened the next day in the cold light of sobriety I wanted to smash the disc against the wall for being so grindingly dull and self-important. And let’s not even begin to dwell on ventures like GTR and 3, prog rock side bands by talented musicians that failed to demonstrate any of their talents.

There is one exception, though: The band I continue banging my head against in a determined effort to like them. But this doesn’t come from a desire to make good on money wasted; I only bought a single album by them in high school, which cost me $10, and I happened to stumble into it before really beginning a search for their catalog. That one album fascinated me, but I also found it borderline unlistenable. So I circle back around it every now and again to see if I like it. Sometimes I do; sometimes, though, I just stare in disbelief at the cacophony.

The band in question was Peter Hammil’s Van Der Graaf Generator, which I’ve mentioned here before. And now, as then, my feelings toward them wax and wane. Sometimes they lay down a groove in my ears and I get what they’re about. Sometimes, I marvel that they weren’t kicked out of the studio.

I think the on-again, off-again nature of my interest in them has everything to do with the spartan nature of their sound. Like a lot of bands in that time and genre, VDGG eschewed standard rock arrangements for lengthy musical exercises that pushed electric guitars to the side, in this case preferring pipe organ and saxophone — not really the classic rock combo for lead instrumentation, you know? On top of that, the sax sound tended to be shrill and forceful while the organ often laid down wavering fields of low-frequency sound. Add to all of this Hammil’s rather unique approach to singing the lead melody (namely, it wasn’t usually very melodic) and you have a strange, unsettling combination of audio density and sparseness.

Yesterday I decided to give the band another go and listened to their two arrangements of Refugees a back-to-back go. Refugees represents one of their rare attempts to dabble in the mainstream, so there’s an “original”cut….

… and a radio cut….

Which only really differ in length and arrangement. The original edit includes a pop string arrangement, but the radio version pushes the orchestration to the front, and the results are practically two different songs. Buffered by a more tangible and traditional melody, Refugees sounds pretty accessible — cut from the post-psychedelic school of ’70s prog, to be sure, but lush and energetic (albeit crammed with inscrutable lyrics).

Take that away and you can still hear the underlying tune, but it’s harder to “feel” because the band otherwise provides so few pointers. And the original cut of Refugees sounds far fuller than pretty much anything else in the band’s catalog at that.

So I’m a little torn. The radio cut is a pretty nice song, but it kind of betrays the band’s underlying ethos and sound. On the other hand, that ethos totally alienates me half the time.

So I guess what I’m saying is, who wants to embark on a Van Der Graaf Generator/Chrono Trigger mash-up remix Kickstarter project with me???

10 thoughts on “Acquiring the taste

  1. While I don’t think I’ve ever forced myself to like a band just because I spent a lot of effort in hunting down an album, I do feel that it made me more open to give an album a chance that I often no longer give new music I discover.

    Maybe I’m just odd, but most of my all-time favorite bands are those that I wasn’t really that into on first (or even second and third) listen. It’s not that I forced myself to like it, just that I grew to appreciate it more and more every time I heard it until I fell in love with it. On the other hand, bands that I hear and instantly like are usually the ones I get bored with after listening to the album two or three times.

    Nowadays, I might pop up a youtube video for a band I heard about, listen to a song, think “meh,” and then forget the band existed. Since I didn’t spend any time (or money) in the search, I often don’t feel the urge to listen to other songs, or even the same song multiple times, before I dismiss the band as one I won’t like.

  2. Hearing this song I totally get why folks relate Fish to Peter Hammill. Old Marillion definitely comes across as if Peter Gabriel and Peter Hammill happen to be the same tall flamboyant Scottish dude.

    This is way more listenable than “The Black Box” is (my only other exposure to PH).

    • The liner notes for Fugazi even name-drop Hammill — Fish said Assassing was inspired by a bunch of Muslim recordings that Hammill lent him.

  3. Sorry Jeremy, don’t know how else to contact you but that past 2-3 weeks about every response posted to a comment is always overlaid on the previous comment making it impossible to read. I’ve cleared browser cache and done the whole 9 yards, but it’s still an issue. I use Firefox.

  4. The Van Der Graaf Generator/Chrono Trigger mash-up remix Kickstarter seems a steep goal, but yeah it sound cool.

    You reminded me of the best and the worst in my personal music mementos, after reading the second paragraph. The worst being the moment I received a copy of Poison Idea, Feel the Darkness, after such CD exchanges I mentioned in my comment yesterday.

    What a nasty piece of music, I still have the CD just as a reminder of their wickedness. I don’t know if the band or the musicians persists in their music careers.

    My best moments were when finding live performances of my favorite artist, specially one from The Pixies.

    What the world really needs is an Empire Records remake.

  5. If all media is at your fingertips, the best way you can overcome oversaturation is to broaden your taste into other mediums or hobbies. Once I cleared my backlog of I’ll-see-that-someday movies through Netflix DVD rentals, I slowed my subscription and filled my time with… game demos? Running? Music? I’m not sure.

    I’m not sure I agree that scarcity makes things more enjoyable. In 1998 I was lucky enough to buy Panzer Dragoon Saga for $40 and after a friend and I played through it a few times, I sold it to somebody else $40. I’m happy to be one of the lucky few who never had to deal with that game’s extortionate markups, either as a buyer or a seller. Most Saturn ports of its ilk are now selling on XBLA for a mere $15-20, and I think we all agree that’s a good thing.

  6. Here’s another angle on it: If there is a thrill in the chase and finding of something rare, then the internet has moved the thrill from consumers to producers. It’s people like you, Mr. Parish, who get to enjoy making your work stand out from the ever-expanding crowd. What’s it like?

  7. I hate to waste money on an terrible album, but I generally don’t feel obligated to listen to it afterward. If I find a song distasteful, there’s a good chance it (and possibly the album it came from) will be permanently dropped from my playlist. Some examples include Gentle Giant (I get my prog rock whimsy from Caravan, thank ‘ya very much), Faust (oh god no), Univers Zero (OH GOD NO!!!), Art Zoyd (is this even music?!), and Opeth (me want cookie!).

    As for Van Der Graff Generator, I’ve got decidedly mixed feelings about those guys. I dig Yellow Fever in a Cat’s Eye… it offers the kind of nail-biting neurosis you don’t often hear in this genre of music. Everything else is a pass for me, and from what I’ve heard so far, Peter Hamill’s solo work is even less palatable. It’s like Van Der Graff, yet somehow worse.

  8. I just wanted to give my tuppence on your question from yesterday:

    I think the problem is not the search or lack of it, but rather the massive oversaturation. As many people have stated, you hardly have the time to get to dig more “difficult” music, because if you don’t like it at first you just put it aside.

    It has to do with the internet, of course, but also with the massive pecuniar deflation of cultural products. A CD cost the equivalent of 20 1993 dollars 20 years ago, now it costs between 5 and 10 2013 dollars (at least here in Europe), meaning that we can afford so much more. When I bought Life force in early 1991, I paid more than 70 dollars for it, and I used about 2 weeks to get past the first level (not knowing the Konami code at the time…). Because of the huge price (probably something like 4 months savings!) I had to keep playing it, practising forever until I got the hang of it. I then learned the Konami code (but with a day of practise I could probably finish it without it now) and the game really opened up, being one of my top five games ever.

    My point is that with the endless amount of content available, you never have the time or inspiration to confront more challenging pieces. Which is a damn shame.

Comments are closed.