Tuesday, August 12, 2008

My top ten - Chord sequences

Hi, I'm Louis, and in lieu of being able to construct a cogent and original argument for my Rocktimists debut, I'm creating a big boring list. It's the first of maybe several Top Tens, and unless I somehow forswear being such a terribly unimaginative lazybones in future, you'll have to put up with my numerical witterings. Anyway, the flipside is that compiling big lists of things like favourite chord-sequences is an awfully Rocktimist thing to do, so who's complaining?

Maybe a little on chord-sequences first. I don't have formal musical training, but I like to think I have a sense for harmony. Great chord-sequences, in my book, come when a harmony moves in a manner that is oblique, creating newly tangible sound-shapes, often completely unexpected, and always thrilling to the ear. They may occur once in a song, they may occur fifty times, but what binds them all together is that they etch themselves indelibly into the consciousness long after hearing has finished - what Russell called the "acoleuthic sensation", the diminishing yet lingering delayed-action instantaneity that cumulates musical enjoyment throughout the many different phases of a successful song. The ten examples I list here are all sequences that come out of nowhere, and completely possess the song they inhabit.

10) The Beatles - A Day In The Life (verse, guitar/piano)
One for the rocktimists out there! Ah no, in truth this is one of the first pieces of music that captivated me purely through its chord-sequence, and few have had such a stunningly stop-what-you're-doing effect on me since. I hadn't actually heard the recorded version of the song, but when a friend of mine started playing the verse chords on a small upright piano at a summer camp we were both attending, I was genuinely stunned. On record, coming out of Sgt. Pepper's punky racket, it is no less transcendent, but my first encounter with the chord-sequence was the most memorable. Both homely and spacey, joyful and melancholy, it carved through layers of incomprehension and spoke to my young mind like a seer.

9) Brahms - Requiem Mvt. II (opening theme, orchestra/choir)
When I first heard this, I didn't know what it was, but I was similarly awestruck. The foreboding, majestic push-pull sequence sucked me in then and still does now. The softer counterpart, an ascending 1-2-3-4 pattern, merely pads the blow and sets you up for the next emotional assault. The requiem contains lots of different themes, some sunny, most dark, but this particular section floors me. And they're singing "All flesh is grass"! The human fate, set to music that would bring Tigger to his knees! Magnificent.

8) Super Furry Animals - Blerwytirhwng? (outro, guitar/synth)
A band fixated with complex and often highly experimental pop/rock music, they busted arguably their best sequence in this early single. Much is made of SFA's Britpop connections, and indeed the businesslike guitar, vocal harmonies and chord-happy first three minutes of this song (forgetting the fact, momentarily, that it's sung in a language hardly any of the Britpop elite could understand) earmark it as a highlight of the movement. Unlike most Britpop artists, however, SFA always had an extra trick up their sleeve. After the final verse, the riff leaps into a different key, and an otherworldly synth bursts in as the boyos go all astral on us. The sequence itself is beautiful and skyward, brought back to earth at the end of each cycle by a knowing guitar swagger, the last earth-connecting remnant of Britpop as the song is blasted into space. At this point, with the ground-sky dichotomy whirling into the infinite, there is nothing else for SFA to say, so they fill the song with raucous lasergun noises and spin it out for a further six minutes. It's probably the only way they could have resolved their wonderful melodic crisis.

7) Gary Puckett and the Union Gap - Young Girl (whole song, strings/vocals/horns)
This is a fantastic song, tainted in the minds of those who conflate an awareness of underage sexual attraction with actually going through with it. As for my own underage experiences with Gary Puckett, I first heard this when a toddler, and the tune stuck in my head until I turned 21 and decided to seek out this "old-sounding" pop song that haunted me so. It turned out that not only was Puckett's astonishing vocal performance a catalyst for this memory retention, but that the swelling orchestral section, both sexy and authoritative, as well as the backing vocals, created an unimpeachable succession of chord-sequences, granting the song what many term "pop immortality" and what a few describe as "sick-headed perversion". Guys, he's telling her to get out of his mind. He's confronting his evils. While the tune makes them look even more tempting. The best kind of moral dilemma: a musical one.

6) My Bloody Valentine - Loomer (verse/chorus, guitars/guitars/more guitars/Bilinda's voice)
Can chord-sequences have tremelo bends? I think they can! Also, can they incorporate vocals? Yusss! Actually, in terms of chords, the root strum isn't exactly thronging, but the little bends and extra layers of noisy goodness turn what's probably quite a boring song (ha!) into an experience. I used to hum an approximation of this to myself whenever I played in goal at school, just to keep me sane. Probably didn't work (as my coaches would probably tell you) but it was always fun how each approximation was a little different. I don't actually know what this chord-sequence is, it's that good!

5) Catherine Wheel - For Dreaming (chorus/outro, guitars)
Kick-ass hard-shoegazer-rockists Catherine Wheel were from Norfolk. This song, however, is from hard-shoegazer-rock heaven. After a quiet, glockenspiel-plinky verse, with near-whispered lyrics, this track from seminal 1997 record Adam & Eve explodes into a Brian Futter-enhanced mega-chorus, bittersweet and skyscraping, that just for good measure gets turned into a psychedelic freakout deluxe in the closing stages, keyboards weeping dolefully as the chord-cycle spins into oblivion somewhere off the Great Yarmouth coast.

4) Oceansize - Savant (intro, keyboards, then throughout song on various other instruments)
I love Oceansize, a band far more sublime than both the post-rockers and the avant-metallers they're so often compared to. Perhaps their most sublime moment, Savant begins with a poignant keyboard burr, before playful drums and ringing guitars begin to elevate the trajectory into something truly ornate. By the time it ends amid modern-classical strings and trilling effects-pedals, the whole movement has built into a summery peaen to the open air, grasping for truths that its endlessly unresolved chord-sequence cannot quite find, until the whole thing is simply cut off in mid-flow.

3) Orbital - Out There Somewhere? Part Two (outro, synths)
This is the cheesiest selection in my top ten. What makes this sequence so impossibly plangent is what surrounds it: countless layers of outer-space bleeps and bloops playing a symphonic elegy to human loneliness. The chords themselves, played on string-set synths, underpin the whole event like the final strains of a Disney movie score; what ingrains them are the various alterations to the pattern, which transport it from gloom to uncertainty and finally to an emotional resolution, that occur at 10:08 and then, gloriously, at 10:38. The final 4:50 of the song, in truth, is about as perfect an ending to an album that I've ever heard, and on its own stands as a remarkable achievement.

2) Cardiacs - Jitterbug (Junior Is A) (outro, synths)
It could have been any one of about twenty Cardiacs songs. I'm not going to say much about them, because I cannot rationally explain Tim Smith's genius without saying "listen for yourself". These guys are probably the most harmonically complex lot working under the guise of pop or rock that I've certainly heard, and better still, their experiments work more or less every time (it boils down to Smith's philosophy that all he really makes are "nice tunes"). This song, from their later 1999 album "Guns", happens to contain perhaps Smith's most jawdropping experiment of them all, a four-minute synth outro played in about seven different keys and three different time-signatures. Helped by the amazing bass-playing of brother Jim, Smith's concoction sounds like it was genuinely conceived of by angels. Mere words do them no justice, though. I suggest you consider making a small financial outlay.

1) Talk Talk - Desire (verse, organ)
The single moment of revelation that shaped my musical growth, is the moment Hollis utters the word "Desire" to begin the first verse of this song, from Talk Talk's similarly revelatory Spirit Of Eden record. Already two astonishing songs have been and gone, but this, the third, is the crowning glory, and what makes it so is the organ that accompanies Hollis into proceedings. This all occurs after a lengthy build-up, with a menacing bass-pulse and shaker providing a steady backdrop to piano chords, horn washes, and fretboard swipes. The bass-pulse itself has two different resolutions at the end of each cycle, and it is after one of the upbeat resolutions that the organ (and Hollis) enter the fray, transforming what had been a tense (and, as I say, menacing) situation into an instance of pure concrete certainty. The sequence starts high and descends in stages, like a pair of climbers successfully and strategically negotiating their way off K-2, impervious to the distant thunder of avalanches (or, in this case, the low-in-the-mix kettle-drum ruckus that threatens to disturb Hollis' peace, before the chorus actually comes along and does so, spectacularly). Among the moral and musical chaos that attempts to tear the song apart, we have this one chord-sequence keeping us on the ground, endlessly resolved and perfectly final.

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