“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Object-Oriented Production

...oh how did you know I was going to get to that eventually?! At the very least, Trevor Horn's approach is very Expressionist. So now I'm going to talk about the huge epic “Fly from Here,” which is as huge and horrible and wonderful as anything I've heard Yes do. Indeed that includes “Close to the Edge,” no really. I think that song is highly like this one, in the sense of threat and strangeness and wonder. Only this one is very explicitly about death, and the afterlife—the bardo, even, the after-death between-births state, which people think is heaven or hell (usually the latter, I'm afraid). Now this post is about production, but I do just want to make sure you realize how much Downes (see my previous) is all over this extraordinary suite of songs.

Zappa said, “You can't always write a chord ugly enough to say what you want to say, so sometimes you have to rely on a giraffe filled with whipped cream.” Horn manages to find those chords, believe me. The fact that they are juxtaposed with astonishing beauty (with full respect to Zappa) is what makes them even more powerful.

I think that Expressionism is why, on reflection, so many people (including myself until today) have had issues with the one Yes album he performed on, Drama. Like lots of Horn (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, Grace Jones), it sounds queer. The “green world” hippie sound—the sound we think we want Yes to be—is “natural” and therefore masculine. It erases the traces of its production. The pop world of “Video Killed the Radio Star” just isn't.

I mean, look at this photo from the 1980 Drama era. No prizes for guessing which one is Horn. “He must be taking the piss” as they say in the UK. And yet, and yet—he isn't. It's pure genius, that touch of adding the suit. Robert Calvert used to wear one in late 70s Hawkwind, to similar effect perhaps.

Horn adds bombast, absurdity, sounds that jump out and leer out at you like horrible jack in the boxes. Since I agree with Graham that there is a strange affinity between Expressionism and the OOO reality, I hope you can see some connections there.

Now by “queer” I don't mean wispy or flimsy. If you want that, listen to the album Yes did just before Horn showed up: Tormato, which has a song about a circus, but no threatening circus acts. By contrast Horn's efforts, Drama and Fly from Here, are really really intense. They rock. But they also pop the rock—snapping its masculinity open with pop.

Like in a painting by James Ensor or Max Beckmann there is no real background, just layer upon layer of leering faces. In a production technique that is “wall of sound” and then some—every instrument (or “voice” as Horn says) has equal intensity. You can hear the shaker and the guitar and the lead vocal and that keyboard atmosphere, equally. If everything is equal, then there is no background. No real world.

And since the production process is fully an “instrument” on this album, there is no let up. No metalanguage. Deconstructed sound, if you like, with the wires and floorboards showing. Anti-Wagnerian. But it's not your granny's deconstruction where nothing means anything or everything is just signs. This is demonic.

Horn loves to create huge dimensions of sound, atmospheres. Then from that, when a world indeed seems to emerge, glistening, magnificent, floating, reverberating—Wagnerian—Horn brings in the Mahler and tears it to shreds, like some clown bursting out of what seemed to be a world but was only a painting on a curtain. It's horrible and wonderful. The clown gives way to another world, which is then shredded in its turn, and on and on and on.

You end up in a place where you can't tell whether you're hearing genuineness or some sardonic joke. Then some huger sincerity swallows both those in one gulp. There is no metalanguage. Beautiful, scary pretense: “you can't tell whether it's pretense or not.” Like some demonic musical that grips you by the throat. With ridiculousness and tons of steel in equal measure. Then, based on that, real beauty leaps out of the jack in the box machine and cuts right into your heart. Because there is no boundary anymore, thanks to the Expressionist production.

This is without even thinking about the lyrics, which is a whole other area in which Horn excels, creating a multilayered, highly ambiguous Romantic poem—is this a story? What kind of story?  

My dad was telling me when we went to see Nico Muhly that when West Side Story first hit, people left the theater with tears streaming down their faces, they couldn't believe the intensity. Something like this happens in Horn's Yes. Drama indeed....

God if the bardo really is like this we are so in for a “Bumpy Ride.”

No comments: