Category Archives: Columns

All of my columns, compiled.

Amplified Observations: Shoegaze, dream pop have major obsession with replicating feel of heaven


Five weeks into the semester and with all the assignments, exams and personal upkeep, college might feel like the farthest place from paradise — at least on the weekdays.

But if you need help in falling into a trance-like state evocative of clouds and angels, shoegaze delivers, only with electric guitars instead of harps.

Last week, I compared rock and roll to the devil, and because I think purgatory is boring and nearly impossible to musically write about, I’m taking a stairway straight to heaven. And what type of bands are more infatuated with producing a heavenly sound than shoegaze?

Shoegaze, a type of spaced-out, reverberated rock/pop music from England in the 90s, often calls upon imagery of Elysian Fields to create an atmosphere of peace and comfort. Although the guitars wail and the drums crash, nothing about shoegaze feels sinister and foreboding. For the most part, bands who shoegaze focus more on the light and dreamlike rather than the heavy and realistic. Singers explore surrealistic themes and tend to create choruses from short phrases and advice to listeners.

In Beach House’s “Used to Be,” Victoria Legrand sings “Don’t forget the nights/When it all felt right.” Many lyric whispered by shoegaze singers evoke sadness but also some kind of underlying hope. The struggle to remain optimistic in the climate of being drowned out by noise creates a sense of perseverance, a subtle replication of daily life.

Upon hearing titles such as “Heaven or Las Vegas,” “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven,” “Ninety Ninety Heaven” and A Storm in Heaven, it’s clear that there’s some ethereal energy going on. And it makes total sense.

The echoing and swirling guitars in shoegaze meet the ears with encompassing emotion. If done right, the mix ends up akin to Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” technique and becomes as dense as it is beautiful.

The lyrics of a recently-released song, “Shadow” by Chromatics, delve into hometown angst and suppressed wanderlust. But one could almost forget they were stuck in a small town with the celestial tone and optimism. It’s song that moves past good and evil and searches for some heavenly plane to exist. At least, that’s how I think the band intended it.

The negative feelings in shoegaze — depression, heartache, death — are depicted more as mystical obstacles than representations of evil. Whereas rock and roll feels very Western, shoegaze manages to feel exceedingly Eastern. Perhaps, the ambiguous lyrics about love, life and happiness ask more questions than they answer. And nothing ever feel truly lost or complete.

Initially, shoegaze bands might have adopted the angelic imagery from their alternative and goth rock predecessors like The Cure with “Just Like Heaven” and Echo & the Bunnymen with “Heaven Up Here.” The only separation between the three genres rests on how high the guitarist sets his or her reverb knob. The Jesus and Mary Chain bridges the qualities of these two approaches well.

But the morality of shoegazing songwriters extends far beyond the complexity of most rock songs. Shoegaze transcends the rules of music and progresses forward with lush viscerality and dream-logic.

So if you ever come home from class or work feeling like the world is a living hell, you know where to go to climb the ladder out. At least, I do.


Amplified Observations: How rock and roll made a deal with the devil


Somewhere in the mid-20th century, rock and roll music split into two sects: bands following in the tradition of gospel roots and those who adopted a more southern undertone.

Of the latter, many groups took musical cues from blues music. Bands like Black Sabbath, Motley Crue, Van Halen and even new wave bands like INXS, embraced the perilous Satanist tradition in rock and roll.

In the early days of rock, conservatives warned against the devilish influence rock and roll might have on its listeners. I suppose that’s a testament to the power of music.

But in contrast to the Norman Greenbuams and the U2s, the sinful and hedonistic nature of rock and roll falls close to the realm of the devil than any squeaky-clean paradísio. Even the imagery of bands like Motorhead, Iron Maiden or Slayer evokes the occult, the weird, the unmentionable or any other adjective that H.P. Lovecraft liked to use.

Even acts like Elvis Presley embraced moral rebellion through his suggestive themes and performance, closer to horns than a halo. And Charlie Daniels, Robert Johnson — and even Goethe — did the devil a favor by personifying him as a fair character with a sense of justice. Somewhere down the line, rock musicians plainly started embodying outright evil.

It’s difficult to tell if the image of debauchery arrived before the actual sex and drug debauchery that long defined rock, but they probably informed each other. Of course, other bands shifted the meaning of evil from things defying the Bible out of protest to a more positive action of defying the Bible out of spite. Norwegian black metal bands took the notion of the style to its logical extreme conclusion.

But sometimes, subtlety proves more effective. Less is more. A duality, or qualified opinion fairs better than an absolute.

Music that hints at a never-ending fight between Good and Evil without taking sides ends up the most objective lens into the unknown. Of course, Good and Evil are synonymous with the morality of decisions, like the bargain in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Contemporary artists that meditate on the practicality of living, whether in music by Josh Tillman or in film by Darren Aronofsky, reveal the most through discussion and the sanitizer of sunlight.

Ultimately, rock and roll’s obsession with Satan emerged from its rejection of the so-called straight and narrow path. But it’s only a way of pursuing the path toward goals. The important thing to note is that no absolutely correct path exists.

Rock music in the 21st century summons the spiritual and occult ranging from Godsmack’s “Voodoo” to Foxygen’s “666”. The Luciferian trend has continuously subverted the radio since its early days as blues.

No matter if you follow Good or Evil, the only true mark of judgement comes with inner-character. That’s why some of the most vile-looking people are in reality some of the kindest.

However, above all, I think evocations of the afterlife and devil-fraternizing is just a humorous way to prepare for the unexpected. Whether or not Hell exists, it’s fun to think — or sing — about it.

Amplified Observations: When the music matches the moment


The first time I realized that a memory or location could call into mind an associated song happened in the fledgling days of Minecraft, circa 2012.

As background, I spent a good portion of my early high school years invested in the world-building game. Having outgrown LEGOs long before, the game stoked my architectural creativity and issued a satisfying challenge of trying to simply stay alive and prosper.

I excavated strip mines, built a house, started a farm and crafted glass for a greenhouse. After a while, however, I began to retread the same blocks over and over again, which gave me a sense of familiarity.

At that point in my life, I always played my iTunes library from the speakers of my first PC while gaming on it or Xbox Live. Since then, my taste has grown enough to where I feel like I can write a music column each week, but I’m certain that my old library housed some embarrassing music: Linkin Park, Seether and a whole lot of the Chili Peppers (as a disclaimer: I still like the Chili Peppers, especially John Frusciante’s guitar work).

But MGMT’s infectious hit “Kids” sticks out to the most of all the songs of that era. While burrowing underground in Minecraft, searching for the ever-precious diamonds, I passed a certain mineshaft that put a needle to the gramophone in my mind and “Kids” started to play in my head without prompt. Perhaps, it was a Pavlovian reflex; the song did have a tuned piano. And each subsequent time I passed that section, I would associate it with “Kids.”

Although a moment of little value to anyone else, this experience helped me to realize that, like sight, smell, taste and touch, our minds recall sounds from particular times, rendering memories even stronger. In retrospect, I now realize that I associate MGMT’s song not only with a moment in a game, but also with a youthful time in my life. The connection has expanded with age to mean more.

From that point on, I noticed the phenomenon of being transported to a distant place through nostalgic or meaningful music. I will always associate Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs with waiting to be picked up for winter break. I connect Earl Sweatshirt’s second LP with a rough and uncertain time during my sophomore year. And, every time “Born Under Punches” by Talking Heads comes on, I imagine I’m at Casa Nueva on 80s Night.

Along with the more pronounced visual components we see in our mind’s eye, audio memories can recall the same amount of emotional weight and hindsight clarity. Some people with synesthesia have these two sensations combined, being able to see sounds as corresponding colors. Musicians ranging from Billy Joel to Pharrell Williams experience this condition.

But for the rest of us, a song associated with a key moment in one’s life might hold the same importance as the people who were present, the magnitude of it and the feelings one felt. There is no hierarchy of sensation.

I still hop on Minecraft from time to time, but I can no longer remember the specific associations I had with places in the game. Like algebra, uneventful days and old technology, they faded into nothingness.

But perhaps it’s time to turn on some music and create new ones.

Amplified Observations: Birds and musicians share purposes in the world


When a bird sings during the dawn chorus or later in the sunlight, the tones and phrasing emerging from its beak repeat in a hypnotic and often moving way.

Nature granted male birds the ability to create beautifully pure-tone sounds to attract mates and assert personal territory. Some female birds, like the mockingbird, can also sing for the same purposes of courting and defense.

But to most humans, the singing of birds sounds more like a form of emotional expression, a joyous hymn from a sparrow or the reflective lamentations of a robin. This common, even subconscious, interpretation paints birds as nature’s purveyor of art and song, an idea embraced in a similar manner to the role of the artist or musician in society.

Whether in John Lennon’s somber “Blackbird” or Bob Marley’s elated “Three Little Birds,” songwriters have incorporated birds as not only a symbol for freedom but also instinctual expression. With their effortless flight and carefree songs and chirps, birds embody the life for which artists strive, one full of creation untethered by the tedium of constraint. Among recent relevant works, Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” idealizes and supports this image of escape and autonomy.

For the artists, music or any other form of creation can feel like a natural impulse than a choice. Birds have no choice but to sing for their life’s fulfillment, artists have no choice but to create in the same passionate and legacy-building way. And both musical expressions — merely sound arranged over time — possess a deeper, abstract meaning about the capabilities of absorbing life’s strange gifts of song and practically inexplicable aesthetics.

Had I not mentioned birds sing for mating and territory, their songs might seem wholly spontaneous. But in either humans or birds, nothing comes from true spontaneity and is always devised deep in the neural firings in the mind before being brought forth into existence.

Although, in songs of all human and non-human languages, biological or sensical meaning is not necessary, only reaction and emotion. What matters more than words are deeper feelings of melancholy, joy, loneliness or alienation.

On Mount Eerie’s new album A Crow Looked At Me, which deals with the death of artist Phil Elverum’s wife, the words hold great impact in their obvious catharsis of death as a reality. But the true sadness of the album comes from listening to Elverum’s inflection of melancholy and thinly-masked despair.

Like the namesake crow, the songs with titles like “Real Death,” “Raven” and “Crow” deliver a reproduction of the power of earthly suffering, reaching from the same rawness of black metal music. And despite the modern references and exploration of social constructs, A Crow Looked At Me is appropriately named as a crow or nightingale could encapsulate the music’s message perched on a willow branch, lamenting in solitude and pain.

Of course, bird songs can also carry the essence of more hopeful music, such as Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound” or The Shins’ “New Slang.” Only their compositions are interspersed with more noticeable silences, less structure and little temporal rush.

But perhaps the most important art and music deal not with content but with the act of loss and discomfort. Cheerful songs only act to distract while requiems heal. And although birds might not sing specifically for the dead, the right sounds from a black-feathered avian might give an unmistakable impression.

Like a bird’s haunting lament, the songs like Phil Elverum presents on A Crow Looked at Me or, for that matter, Sufjan Stevens sings on Carrie & Lowell regarding lost love and worn-out territory feel just as much a part of nature expressing itself as anything in the forest.

Songbirds fly among us and experience the same reality as humans. They are simply less aware than us but often more truthful. With attention, one might find the full spectrum of terrestrial emotion from the throats of both the robin’s beak and the broken heart.

Amplified Observations: ‘Every Breath You Take’ encapsulated the good and sinister of love and loss


The Police released no singles that matched the popularity and longevity of 1983’s “Every Breath You Take.” It marked a high-water mark in the group’s career, despite the circumstances surrounding it.

Accompanied by a solid b-side, “Murder by Numbers,” and a clean and ageless music video, the band’s four-minute signature song creates a tender atmosphere that dives straight through the chest and into a place of deep vulnerability reserved only for inner-monologues.

Sting’s ambiguous and heartfelt lyrics find safe haven behind Andy Summer’s steadily uncertain strumming, two components the song that would earn the band two Grammy awards and an endless flow of royalties.

But for all the acclaim placed on “Every Breath You Take,” the song’s meaning — or rather multiple meanings — is not typical of a record with such a level of popularity. Unlike the generally straightforward contemporary pop songs by artists like Adele or Ed Sheeran, Sting’s relaxed composition suggests multiple interpretations with a narrator who is either exceedingly devoted or exceedingly obsessive. And the only way to discern among the two possibilities is by the recipient of the song’s message.

Each time the “Every Breath You Take” plays on a classic rock radio station or in the background of a restaurant, without fail someone comments on the creepy, stalkerish undertones within Sting’s lyrics. In interviewers, Sting himself has called the song “sinister” and “ugly,” despite initially intending to write a love song.

However, this question is the entire draw. The narrator reaches into a gray area of love and loss that only makes itself known within the level of the subjective psyche. Is it worth trying to hold this together, is it no longer love but jealousy, and when is it time to let go?

Sting wrote the track in the Caribbean between a divorce with his ex-wife and a blooming relationship with his future wife. Writing in the same space that Bob Dylan did for 1975’s Blood On the Tracks, Sting inhabited a strange limbo of emotional loss and newfound affection. Knowing this position, it is difficult to decipher which person the song is more directed toward.

Perhaps the residue of the former relationship lingers in the narrator’s mind, stalking him with curiosity. But it’s also possible that the narrator simply wants to give his new lover the attention that he feels she deserves, giving notice to her every move out of pure affection.

The lyrics simultaneously contrast endearing love with what we mistake for love after it has left.

Additionally, the song might also apply to the sort of relationship between a government and its citizens. The government loves its citizens so much that it needs to monitor their every breath and every move, which adds to the “sinister” aspect of surveillance whether by authority or a former partner.

With the syntax of such simple statements, Sting manages to leave enough ambiguity in the song to keep people wondering about its real meaning, which is undoubtedly in human nature to do.

If anything, “Every Breath You Take” exemplifies that great works of art can arise during times shrouded with domestic unraveling general tension. It shows that, if harnessed correctly, energy from the lowest point can lead to success and recognition.

Certain truths and revelations can only be expressed by those engulfed by them, and the expression in “Every Breath You Take” is not one from a commonly explored space, but one that manages to encompass the full spectrum of loving and loathing.

Amplified Observations: The essence of rock and roll dates back to ancient Greece

The spirit behind rock and roll came into existence long before the electric second half of the 20th century. The music’s central purpose of challenging social normality and inciting ritualistic debauchery has been recorded in art by humankind as far back as the Grecian age of antiquity.

In a 1980 interview with late-night host Tom Snyder, Iggy Pop, now a sacred cow of rock and roll, described his unhinged music and self-destructive stage performances as being “Dionysian.”

More specifically, Pop said this in reference to Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1872 work The Birth of Tragedy, which expressed the philosopher’s views on art. Nietzsche divided art into two categories “Apollonian” and “Dionysian,” and he regarded ancient greek tragedy as the highest art form because of its combination of these two qualities through aspects like stage dialogue and a rowdy, impulsive chorus.

Apollonian art describes the act of construction, that is building a statue or shrine or something with the purpose of standing for time immemorial, reminding onlookers of a certain virtue. Dionysian art, however, is much swifter and exists more in the moment. It refers to an event of destruction or tearing down social constructs in a sort of cathartic cleanse of our base animal nature.

The choruses of early ancient greek drama exemplified Nietzsche’s idea of Dionysian disorder and revelry in a similar way to the drinking, dancing and sometimes fighting of 20th century rock shows especially with bands like The Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Nirvana, the infamous G.G. Allin and more modern acts like Death Grips.

The more I consider this comparison of rock and roll to the ancient Greek god of wine and debauchery, the more it makes sense. I can almost picture Dionysus (Bacchus, if you prefer Roman mythology) rolling on the ground and screaming lyrics into a microphone with a backing band of demigods providing abrasive instrumentals.

Like classical tragedies and satyr plays, rock and roll emerged as an art form used for primal pleasures and only grew wilder throughout its siege of popularity. And for the most part, rock music possesses an underlying sense of instinctual aggression and a hypothalamic origin.

The Velvet Underground did not necessarily give a Dionysian live performance but the content of songs like the sadomasochist anthem “Venus In Furs” and the self-explanatory “Heroin” undermine cultural normality. Most of the group’s songs, “European Son” for instance, sputter into dissonant chaos toward the end much like the work of successors like Sonic Youth or Big Black.

What’s more, many rock artists have echoed the jarring implications of Sophocles’ Oedipus complex such as Iggy Pop in “Sister Midnight” and Jim Morrison on the bridge of “The End.”

Conversely, classical music and jazz sought to build up a composition from nothingness, whereas most rock looks to return to that raw and aggressive realm of energy and instinct. And when it becomes too Apollonian, as it did with progressive rock in the 1970s, there’s always a countermovement like Punk to return rock to its infinite perpetuation of vulgarity and vice.

The ideas behind rock and roll are meant to challenge and not to compliment. Like a painting by Caravaggio, rock is meant to show the reality of individuals and destroy perceptions of the ideal and the beautiful.

In a 1983 interview given by Dead Kennedys, lead singer Jello Biafra comments, “The original spirit of rock and roll … was meant in the form of an attack.” And it’s evident by looking at the band’s concert footage that its performance can be called anything but Apollonian. With band and audience sharing the stage, as with many performances, it beckons back to the early Greeks who cared not for sophistication but for fun.

The Greek gods and goddesses might not have delivered guitars, drums and amplifiers to the acropolis of Athens, but like fire, they first gave society the urge to destroy through the act of creation and that urge has never really gone away.

Amplified Observations: New vinyl records, a luxury in college, sometimes worth the impulse

College students and luxury are often at ends. For everything wanted, there is something else needed.

As much as many of us consider music a need, some aspects of it unfortunately fall into the wide umbrella of want. And the best case to illustrate this problem is the internal debate of buying vinyl.

Undoubtedly, vinyl records have a certain charm and charisma attached to them. Hearing sound created when an intricate needle falls into their ridges not only looks cool, but will also give you credibility to guests who will “ooh” and “ahh” over the rare and magical sight.

But despite the spectacle, vinyl is inedible and will not propel a car to go forward nor pay the landlord. Coupled with the relative cost of records worth buying, people that have not started careers yet and find themselves weighed down by schoolwork rather than paid work hardly have the spare $20 for a new record.

Of course, with the possibility of used records, which nearly every record store carries, bargains come into play. A $3 Yes record might be plucked from the dusty back shelves with money left to buy accompanying beverages for the first spin on the turntable.

At the same time, bargains for well-known used albums usually trend in the opposite price direction. To buy a $60 press of Blonde on Blonde, Led Zeppelin’s IV or any post-1964 Beatles record is such a reckless indulgence on a college budget that a Spotify subscription almost seems like an objective responsibility. It’s cheaper, but not the same.

With the modern availability of music, any vinyl purchase over even $5 feels like an indulgence, an undeserving luxury that can be bypassed through other, more frugal methods.

Yet, like many material things, the authentic atmosphere that vinyl albums exude cannot be quantified in a given dollar amounts. The true nucleus of vinyl records’ likeability comes in the element of interactivity.

Clicking play on a computer is now such a mindless act with little significance, but taking a record out of its artistic gatefold, checking it for any scratches, adjusting the volume levels of speakers and watching the black, intelligent disc spin ad infinitum is something that can only be experienced firsthand. Not to mention, the carefully engineered and signal-processed bass reproduction sounds warm and feels unmatched in hearing it on anything else.

When buying vinyl, you don’t pay simply for the music like in the 1970s, you now pay for the process of exclusive enjoyment. Sometimes hearing the bleeps and bloops of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn is worth shelling out $30 on impulse. It all depends on where a limited amount of money means the most.

At some point in post-college financial stability, vinyl will most likely stop feeling like a luxury and more like a casual trip to the record shop. That day will both be welcomed and dreaded because it means the end of a certain sacred regard I hold for something that’s as simple as a grooved circle in a cardboard sleeve.

Luxury might become standard, but I suppose it’s all matter of perspective.