Thursday, October 15, 2009

Singing Without Lyrics, or At Least That's What it Sounds Like

I often feel like I don't listen enough to the words. When I take in a song, I absorb its melodies, its textures, and its structure. It's just what my ears/brain naturally do. This is probably the reason I ended up help creating and hosting an instrumental radio show for 4+ years on the local college station in town. At the age of 20 when I had discovered modern instrumental post-rock, ambient, neo-classical, and bedroom electronic music, I didn't understand why any of it wasn't as popular as the trendy indie rock bands of the time, who I also appreciated, but trust me, not because I thought they were all brilliant poets. Some of them were, for sure, and those ones I loved even more, but I was often too busy investing my time in the instrumentation and orchestration of the songs I loved, not the lyrical content thereof. Having grown as a music lover in this particular way, I have recently delved into a certain type of song that I hope satisfies those who enjoy (need?) vocals in their music, but can take a second to appreciate the atmospheres and pure ecstasy of patterned sounds. Here are my ten favorite songs (right now) that feature vocals, but no discernible (to my ears, anyway) lyrics. Enjoy.

First we start with the song that inspired this post, which I listened to today when I suddenly had an urge to hear something a little crazy, a little serene, but something neither calmly instrumental nor aggravatingly poppy. "Goth Star" by Pictureplane was the answer to my strange desire. I don't know anything about this artist, but I happened to grab the track earlier this year and while I merely mildly enjoyed it at first, now I could keep listening to it on repeat for the rest of the night without complaint. The vocals cut in and out like a jittery trance song, but it's all looped too blissfully steadily for it too come off as annoying or forced. Likewise, "Sugarette" by Bibio is a piece that's fragmented in its hip hop beats and bleeps, but also manages to waft breezily through the headphones, never sitting still, but also never inducing a headache. Chipmunk pitch-shifted vocals teeter in the background and pulse forward on the beat intermittently, but what he's saying, no one knows, and the song's all the better because of it.

The gorgeous electronic chaos of tracks like these dips its toes into shoegaze with "Nights in Kiev" by Port-Royal, where cut-up glitch is covered up with a sheen of washed-out antarctic synths. Heavily reverbed whispers lilt in and out throughout, but the stars of the show are the careening plasticine melodies that don't duel so much as frolic. It sounds sad, but the notes soar and climax with such hope and longing that it feels revitalizing to hear. In "Clear Skies Above the Coastline Cathedral" by Manual, another epic dream-pop track, the voices are even more subtle (but somehow covering both lows, mids, and highs of the song), just peeking slightly out over the grand canyon electro beat and contemplative guitar swells. And as those acoustic/electric guitars sprinkle into each other more and more as the song progresses, with every riff becoming more and more It's so exhausting and uplifting to listen to, I feel like I need to pause for a minute before I do anything after the song ends. Good thing it's over eight minutes long, otherwise it would just feel like a tease. On the other end of the shoegaze spectrum is "Ashes Maths" by A Sunny Day in Glasgow, in which the vocals are incredibly overpowering, but so heavily processed and elliptical that you can't tell which end's up or how the hell these loops were even created. It's magnanimous and ominous, but just as gut-wrenchingly beautiful as anything else on the list.

Ululations from the larynx are also quite prevalent on "Leyendecker" by Battles, which starts stepping even further into rock territory, but also remains firmly in the electronic camp as well, with its precise keyboard tinkling and angular drum patterns. I suppose the same pitch-shifting that Bibio used in the aforementioned song is going on here, but it sounds less forest animal and more dungeon gremlin, which makes this track sound creepy (it is), but it's also downright fierce and pristine, making it indelibly delicious. Similarly, "The Devil Bends" by The Dead Sea gets a little mean, but this time moving things more in the gritty and ramshackle direction. The reversed and affected lyrics make almost every word save "devil" unrecognizable, and it completely makes the song in this instance. Most of these tracks get their strength from their layered instrumental complexities, but The Dead Sea instead deliver a prodigiously straightforward guitar and drums track with wispy and wandering vocals sprayed atop to sculpt a soundscape that is uniquely frustrated in two distinct ways. And the combination is what makes it so satisfying.

Things start getting even more minimal and ghostly with "Glory Gongs" by Forest Swords, which sounds to me, by all accounts, like a blues song. Sure the only evidences of this are its wilting guitar licks and quietly aching lumbering percussion, but what else do you need? How about two somber but pleading vocal riffs that sound like they're recorded and played back on warped vinyl through a phonograph, and repeated whenever there's an open space for hurt to be heard. And of course what would hurting be without a little bit of screaming? "Sweet Love For Planet Earth" by Fuck Buttons proves the UK duo to be the masters of melding together dense mosaics of fuzz and brightness, muddy noise and effervescent minutae, throaty scuzz and lullaby ambience. If that sounds effed up beyond comprehension to you, that's because it is. The story and/or mental process behind how they came up with this aesthetic is either terrifying and/or unexplainable, and thus, we shan't hypothesize here. Just listen to believe it. Yells from the belly and the bowels of hell are also used with finesse and aplomb in our final track for the playlist, "Aves" by Gifts From Enola. Like the penultimate, this one takes its sweet time to get to the meat of it all, but it's well worth it. It's a prime example of post-rock done right: just enough pretentiousness to make it ethereally cryptic and epic, but enough accessibly rocking sequences to make it alternate between wondering you with its elegance and gutting you like a fish. And when those bellowing snarls rise up from under the raucousness and the WTF tapping guitar and insane drum rolls come pouring throuhg, it's like you've won an aural lottery, my friends.

And it just keeps getting better if you keep exploring more artists that specialize in this kind of unique song, such as Holy Fuck, WZT Hearts, Julianna Barwick, and Irepress. Surely there's others out there too, and I wanna know about 'em! Share, please!

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