If you’ve heard the ATTN podcast Crucial Listening, you’ll be familiar with my interest in important listening experiences. There have been a number of occasions when I’ve heard an album that has triggered, or accompanied, a profound change in the course of my life. Perhaps it rebuilt my notion of what music is capable of. Perhaps it swooped in during a decisive life event, cementing itself as the soundtrack to a particularly protrusive memory. I’ve decided to catalogue the listening experiences that have imprinted themselves upon my personal trajectory up until now. The article will be updated over time, so keep checking back.
John Coltrane – A Love Supreme (March 2017)
It was my lunch break at work, and I decided to take a walk around the nature reserve that stretches out behind my office. Throughout the morning it had been snowing. I shuffled precariously over tree roots and frozen puddles in a flat-soled pair of trainers. I put A Love Supreme on the headphones – which I’d listened to a few times previously, yet never fully connected with – and took a slow walk through the woodland, feeling Coltrane’s saxophone map itself upon the jagged lattice of bare branches, hearing Elvin Jones’s cymbals collapse upon themselves like matted blankets of leaves.
On previous listens I’d had the record playing the background while working. I quickly realised that I’d never truly listened to it until now. I started to understand that A Love Supreme knows when I am listening and when I am not listening; if I reduce it to a mere wall dressing, it reciprocates my investment by exhibiting a mere passable pleasantness. Yet if I push my listening deep into sound of the quartet, slipping between the strings and sticks and valves, feeling the jets of response and collaborative inquiry fizz past my ears, then the record starts to elevate itself and take me with it. I begin to appreciate the telepathic unity that must be in effect in order to generate a dialogue of this intensity, picturing it as a lattice of connective lines shooting between eyes and hands, allowing bassist Jimmy Garrison to become an appendage dangling beneath McCoy Tyner’s piano, which in turn saddles the cobbled undulations of Elvin Jones’s rhythms. All the while, Coltrane’s saxophone becomes a light beam rebounding against a multitude of precisely-angled mirrors, cutting diagonals through my clouds of winter breath.
The energy is always gathering, from the mantric beginning of “Acknowledgement” through to the ferocious somersaults of “Pursuance”, the saxophone screaming over the snare rolls as the quartet climb higher, leaving the anchorage of that opening piece behind, drawing increasingly exaggerated zig-zags that send the group swerving away from their point of origin until they only have eachother by which to orientate themselves. The paradox of A Love Supreme resides in its handling of time. On one hand, the now has never felt so slight. Each note evaporates and is replaced, every moment so full of conviction that it fills up my mind all at once and rinses away all residue of the moment prior. I exist in a flip-book succession of present tenses, of meaning and its immediate eradication. Yet I’m also viscerally aware of the album’s overall arc, and I feel the energy brimming in my bones as it swells up through the music. Each moment is obliterated without a trace, yet the album is also scorching itself permanently into the ribbon of passing time.
This was the day that asserted the importance of John Coltrane in my life. I went on to fall in love with works such as Giant Steps and Olé, and in the past few weeks I’ve been devouring the live recordings from the last couple of years of his life (when the likes of Rashied Ali, Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane took the music toward a state of ecstatic cacophony). It was also the day that I decided to start taking saxophone lessons. About six years earlier I’d inherited a soprano from my grandfather: a woodwind musician who played in military bands throughout his life. Yet it had sat neglected in the corner of my room the whole time, leading me to put the instrument on eBay just a few days prior to my winter walk to A Love Supreme. As soon as the closing notes of “Psalm” melted away, I pulled out my phone and quickly scrambled to cancel the sale. I’m still learning the saxophone today, squawking my way through major key scales for the first time since I learned the keyboard at aged 10. It’s humbling to be terrible at an instrument, and I’m both eternally buoyed and disheartened to have A Love Supreme reminding me of what the saxophone is capable of in gifted hands.
Boards Of Canada – Geogaddi (Summer 2006)
As the days become longer during summer, I inevitably start listening to Boards Of Canada again, as though the burden of prolonged sunlight activates an instinct to which I eventually succumb.
My love for Boards Of Canada was forged when I finished secondary school at the age of 16. That summer holiday seemed to stretch on forever, commencing as I wrapped up my exams in late June and concluding with the start of my college A-levels in September. I had nothing to do for three months, which seems like an absurd amount of spare time from the perspective of adulthood, where “spare time” now manifests as fleeting week-long pockets of respite. Much of it was spent walking. Or meandering, rather; leaving my estate and taking a path through the suburbs of Basingstoke, paying no thought to direction or destination. This allowed me to disappear into the music playing on my headphones.
Over time, my recollection of that entire summer has been condensed to a solitary experience. Tree branches cutting through the sun as I stared upward (not ahead). Geogaddi playing on repeat. Wandering aimlessly gave me the bandwidth to question every aspect of the record. I pressed my listening into the tiny modulations of the drum loop on “Gyroscope”, which rolled passed like the debris of a budget military march. I anchored myself to the bass pulses on “Alpha And Omega” as the synthesisers whirled in circles above my head, like clasping a lamppost during a cyclone and feeling my legs leave the ground. I recoiled from the bubbling voices and wailing children on “The Devil Is In The Details”, during which the record’s sinister energy starts to ooze through its shimmering, kaleidoscopic facade.
Through these endless listening sessions, I put together a picture of the record in my head: an obsessive conspiracy wall chart, with chalk lines drawn between mathematical equations and the work of 70s meditation gurus; gigantic pentagrams scratched into plastic video cases, containing hours of seemingly inane daytime television; scrawled equations featuring the names of mythic spirits beside gigantic question marks. The same elements recur: voices (either backmasked or altered by FX), recited numbers, juxtapositions of dexterous and beautiful electronic music and undercurrents of unease. Everything is connected. Geogaddi is driven by the same collision of evil and the inane that might litter your cartoons with subliminal flashes of death, or sprinkle broken glass into your breakfast cereal. The monster never steps into view, evident only through the subtle possession of the most innocent and playful corners of human culture.
The other day I listened to this album from start-to-finish for the first time in ages, as my wife and I drove home after a holiday in Cornwall. My wife remarked that she didn’t recognise this Boards Of Canada record, despite the fact that I play their music around the house all the time. I admitted that this is the one BoC record that I reserve for private listening. The record was too dark and uncomfortable to be wafting through my home on a Sunday afternoon. Those old summer walks had left me feeling that conscious interrogation – the unyielding scrutiny of an attentive listener – was the only way to keep the Geogaddi demons at bay. Who knows what horrible subliminal energies we might absorb when the mind is unguarded?
Jesu – S/T (Summer 2006)
Listening back now, I’m astonished at how much clipping there is on this record. Bass frequencies bleed outward in all directions and cause the guitars to blister. Keyboards crackle as they collide with their own delays. By traditional standards, it’s a mess. I never noticed this when I first fell in love with the album at the age of 16. At the time I was being similarly reckless when making my own music, overloading the mix until everything splintered. It wasn’t a deliberate production technique so much as a symptom of music-making naivety, and I never noticed the thick layer of crackle that covered my music until a few internet forum users pointed it out.
It’s not just a coincidence that both my own music and my favourite record were oversaturated in this way. Being the pubescent cliche that I was, my emotions were incredibly volatile. I felt everything in excess. I had a crush on a girl in my class and it was too much to bear. That sense of yearning, along with the frustration at my own inaction, tore through me on a daily basis. I was very shy, and the weight of my social inhibitions was unbearable. These feelings were all and strange unfamiliar, and they were amplified internally as I tried to make sense of them. And so it makes sense that I should be drawn to a music of raw, unbounded sentiment. The sadness on Jesu is a wild and uncontainable strain, dragging at the base of distorted power chords until the bottom falls out, smearing the choir pads into a fog of upset, disorientating instruments so that they whirl and collide with eachother. All the while, the mix is fracturing under its own excess, with crackles running the surface of the songs like trails of tears.
The first track, “Your Path To Divinity”, was always my favourite. I still get shivers at the same point each time: 6:38, when Justin Broadrick’s voice unravels into an open vowel that melts into the keyboards, lifted out out the dirge like a spirit escaping the weight of a miserable body for a mere moment. The keys have a sombre glisten to them. They flicker like a dying light, shifting between chords that feel withered and uncertain. Back then I felt a profound resonance with the anxiety I experienced internally, and somehow, listening to this piece of music both plunged me deeper into these feelings and hauled me out of them.
One particular listening memory comes to mind. I went on a school trip to Germany in Summer 2006. For some reason I was drummer for the school steel band (I was dreadful at the drums), and we’d been booked to play a few shows in town squares and villages across Cologne. The first leg of the trip was a coach journey from the school gates to the airport, which left the school at 5am on a Saturday morning. I left my front door at 4:30am and put Jesu on my CD walkman, walking slowly through the empty streets and silent playgrounds, feeling the soft pressure of an overcast summer morning, cast in a liminal grey that precisely matched the headache of waking up so early. The album was the first sound I’d consciously listened to that day, and while I was still tired, I absorbed these songs in their entirety. The situation felt fatefully exact: I was alone and tired, walking down long and empty paths, listening to a record that felt like an anthem for the fretful and dejected.
Hey, I was wondering if you could tell me if there are any age restrictions for the Supersonic Festival this year?
To: “Jack Chuter”
Subject: Re: Age restrictions
Date: Wed, 31 May 2006 18:32:41 +0100
will double check with the venue, how old are the people wanting to come?
From: “Jack Chuter”
Date: Wed, 31 May 2006 18:49:21 +0100
Subject: Re: Age restrictions
I’m 16-years-old, and I think I’m the youngest that will be going.
To: “Jack Chuter”
Subject: Re: Age restrictions
Date: Fri, 30 Jun 2006 14:10:21 +0100
I’ve spoken now to the bar owner and what we can do is put you on a paying guestlist, and then mark your hand when you come to collect your ticket on the day.
Please send me your full name so I can put you on a list the ticket will still be ?25.
Hope this helps
I still vividly remember Supersonic Festival 2006, largely because my dad and I still talk about it all the time. I was too young and broke to venture to Birmingham solo, so my dad offered to drive there and accompany me at the festival for the day. This was the first of several similar such trips between 2006 and 2008, which led my dad to rack up an enviable list of live music experiences in a short space of time: Neurosis, Isis, Broadcast KTL, Oxbow, Made Out Of Babies, Capricorns, Justin Broadrick, Alexander Tucker, Joe Preston, Circle. He isn’t a fan of experimental music but his reaction to these live experiences was always one of excitement and inquisition, which I’ve always been grateful for. To this day I still hear him recount to friends over dinner, in dramatic and perplexed tones, the experience of hearing Justin Broadrick’s 50-minute laptop drone set and watching his own son become lulled into an altered state.
There are numerous performances from Supersonic 2006 that I remember fondly. The dungaree-clad krautrock of Circle, with a bleating harmonica leading the charge. The terrifying vocoder of Joe Preston, which sounded akin to a robot choir with light beaming from their mouths. Perhaps the most special performance was Hanne Hukkelberg, whose songs felt like handmade sculptures being winched carefully into the air. Little droplets of glockenspiel and guitar, bound by the delicate twine of accordion and voice. And that voice: swooping like idling bird flight, effortlessly lifting to the higher registers as though carried on an updraft.
She had an upturned bicycle wheel on stage, which occasionally she spun to produce the clack of the spokes. It felt so apt for songs that seemed themselves to be freewheeling, guided by the gentle gestures of inclination. And yet there was something profoundly odd about Hanne’s music too. Occasionally there were little dissonances – little jolts in the mechanism – that made these intricate songs feel slightly precarious. A cog tumbles out of place, yet the watch keeps ticking somehow.
Sunn O))) – White2 (Summer 2004)
I was 14 years of age: beginning to understand the excitement of music, peering out over an uncharted landscape of revelatory live performances and records. Every other record enlightened me to another new sensation, blasting open hidden doorways that revealed subcultures like underground cities, each carved by pathways that led to strange and wonderful extremities. The jolts of new discovery were relentless. Each month brought me to a new epiphany within sound.
I read a review of an album in a magazine. Even during this period, when all my assumptions about sound were being torn down, the claims in the text seemed outlandish. “This is an album that fucks with the fabric of time. Nine minutes pass and you’ll swear that you’ve only been listening for three”. The rest of the review was vague and offered no further clues, yet I couldn’t stop thinking about this particular section. Was it really possible for music to tamper with my connection to time itself?
Devoid of any means to actually listen to the record straight away (this was the era of 56kbps dial-up, when the music of the internet was little more than low-bitrate 30-second clips), I had no choice but to seek answers within the imagination. The review was included in the magazine’s “Metal” subcategory, which led me to thoughts of electric guitars and drums sliding against eachother like tectonic plates. I imagined the tempo to be changing constantly, so that instruments melted out of alignment and then slotted back together again – sort of like a sludge metal band forced to play while eternally dizzy, staggering into eachother while they tried to adjust to the sway. This is how I initially envisaged White2 by Sunn O))).
It was Wednesday, which was a school day. I wouldn’t be able to visit the record store until Saturday. In the meantime, I continued to build upon my imaginary incarnation of this record. Every slump into classroom daydreaming instigated another stint of construction: guitars solidified into riffs, with giddy verses gradually bridged into nauseating choruses. By the end of the week, I’d verged on writing a couple of songs in their entirety, with all elements adherent to this suggestion of a metal music that scrambled my notion of passing time. Ultimately, I knew that this imagined record wouldn’t bear any relation to the actual record. I knew that this version of the record only existed in my head, and that it would vanish the moment that I heard the record for real; like a brittle and quivering matchstick house, crushed under the irrefutable weight of corporeal experience.
Thanks to the likes of Spotify and YouTube (links to which are often embedded into reviews themselves), I now have the ability to source an immediate answer to the question of, “what the fuck could this record possibly sound like?”. There is no longer a need for imagined albums to assemble themselves, floating as hallucinatory placeholders awaiting their own obliteration at the hands of the real thing. Untempered by the practicality of performance and recording, these imagined records were often more vibrant and stranger than any album in reality. They burst beyond the limits of stereo, defying the structural inhibitions of human limbs. The knowledge that they could only ever be temporary – phantom entries in the discography of actual bands – made these hallucinatory sounds more urgent, with the ambiguous sentences within reviews carried to their most extreme, fantastical consequences. The luxury of ubiquitous music streaming has eradicated this liminal dialogue between yearning and listening. It no longer needs to exist.
When Saturday finally came, I went into my local music store and plucked the CD out of the record rack. I handed it over the counter and asked if I could give it a listen. The store assistant pointed to a pair of battered headphones hung up on a pillar by the door, so I put them over my head and waited. There was always a few seconds between donning the headphones and the album’s commencement, during which I only perceived the slight muffling of record store ambience; the soft clacking of plastic as people thumbed through the stacks of jewel cases. I’ll never forget those anxious delays at the listening station, waiting for the album to be transmitted to my ears after days of gathered anticipation.
White2 started. A gigantic, low guitar chord rumbled into life. It rung out for 10 seconds. 20 seconds. I waited for the song to gather shape, bracing for the drums that played such a prominent role in my imagined iteration of the album. Yet the change never came, and I spent two minutes inside that rumbling chord before hanging up the headphones in disappointment. Not only was this not the record I had hoped for, but the version I’d constructed in my mind had also been ruthlessly bulldozed.
Of course, another consequence of the ubiquity of streamed music is this: just as the imagined record is crushed before it can materialise, there’s no longer any need to reflect upon post-listening disappointment. I can immediately seek a more reliable form of fulfilment, skipping between experiences with the numb indifference of a customer thumbing briskly through the CD racks, before landing on something that fits snugly into the shape of my current craving.
This modern tendency ignores the complexity of post-listening disappointment. As I left the music store back in 2004 feeling dejected, I found myself scrutinising this sensation. Over time, I could see that this disappointment didn’t originate from my belief that the music wasn’t any good. I came to realise that this disappointment was actually the ache of my deficient understanding. The problem was that I couldn’t comprehend Sunn O))).
It took several weeks of burrowing into this peculiar feeling, but eventually I decided that I wanted to confront that rumbling chord again. What began as a repellent sound had seemingly transformed into its very opposite; my disappointment broke open to reveal the very same ecstatic curiosity that I’d come to relish within the arena of music discovery. I walked back into the record store and bought the album immediately, and my subsequent listen to this album couldn’t have been more different to my first: I pressed myself into the chord like fingers learning the contours of a tree, feeling the tingle of confusion mutating into an epiphanic understanding.
I quickly came to love this record. It’s important for introducing me to drone music, but also for cementing the importance of yearning within my explorations into sound. This yearning thrives in quiet; it needs patience and space in order to flourish. In essence, it is a form of listening that takes place in the absence of the listening object itself, allowing contemplation to pool within the hollows of expectation. Most importantly, it requires a listener to resist the promise of streaming services: the illusion of limitless sound and limitless discovery. Of course, this promise fails to acknowledge its own paradox, which is that true discovery requires the generation and reconciliation of discomfort, and that this reconciliation can only occur in the silence after the music stops.