I’ve been listening to this new My Bloody Valentine album, M B V. I like it very much. Today, as I was listening to it, I started wondering why that was the case. What is it about this music that resonates with me, and with so many other people?
I began thinking about what M B V doesn’t have. It does not contain any type of virtuosity, at least not in the way we typically think of it. There are no huge melodic leaps, no acrobatics in the vocals or the guitars or the bass or the drums (the drums contain some interesting rhythms, but they are always the same interesting rhythm repeated throughout a song, often with very little change at all). In fact, there is literally nothing fast about this music.
In nerd terms, there are three types of rhythm: 1) rhythm like you usually think of, your non-melodic, pulsating, driving, beats, aka drums; 2) Harmonic rhythm, which is really just how quickly the chords beneath the melody are moving (every measure, twice in every measure, etc); and 3) Melodic rhythm, how fast the melody is moving.
The general rule of thumb is that if your harmonic rhythm is slow, your melody should be faster to keep things interesting and moving along. Conversely, as you might be able to guess, fast harmonic rhythm usually means the melodic rhythm will be much slower. If both of them are fast it’s tough for the listener to grab hold of anything to make sense of what they’re hearing. That’s bad.
So there’s some music theory for you.
What’s interesting about M B V, and My Bloody Valentine in general (as well as bands like Sigur Ros, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Explosions In The Sky, etc) is that NONE OF THOSE THREE RHYTHMS ARE EVER FAST. None of them. The drums drive the songs, to be sure, and I suppose they do frequently play at a bit of a trotting clip, but the repetition, in my mind anyway, cancels out that propulsive feeling. So what’s left is something that shouldn’t really be all that intellectually stimulating or interesting. It shouldn’t keep your attention.
This is all coming to me in the middle of a pretty gigantic Yes phase. I’ve been listening to Yes consistently for a month now, and they are the exact opposite of the bands I’ve been talking about. Each member is a virtuoso at his instrument, the melodies in their songs iare typically very fast, chord (as well as key) changes abound, the drums rarely keep the same beat for more than eight measures. I love this kind of music when it’s done well (it’s the worst music imaginable when it isn’t. I won’t name names, Joe Satriani).
What’s my point?
Well, what we have here, with Yes and MBV, are two sides of the same coin. A band like Yes exemplifies what music can accomplish in the hands of trained, well-rehearsed, like-minded people. It’s a thousand disparate threads which, when placed together, form a tightly-wound cord that is stronger and more powerful than the sum of its individual parts.
That’s all well and good but, if I may put words in his mouth, I don’t think that’s what Kevin Shields is trying to do with MBV. It isn’t about what music can do. It’s just about what music is. Rather than looking at middle ‘C’ as a bridge to another note in a series of notes that constitutes a smoking-hot guitar solo, folks like Shields look at middle ‘C’ and appreciate it for what it is. They sit there for a while, playing middle ‘C’, asking questions about it. What can this note do? What can it make me feel? It’s really a beautiful thing.
I don’t know if you believe in God, but I don’t think you really have to to get my point here. Whether it’s God or simply the physics of this world, it’s pretty mind-blowing that any object that vibrates at 440 Hz is going to sound like an ‘A’. And it’s even more amazing that, when people arrange all of these different vibrating things together, they create something that is actually pleasing to peoples’ ears (and don’t even get me started on how amazing ears are!). We have staggering power in that regard.
A band like My Bloody Valentine reminds me of that power, in its rawest and truest form. They remind me that I have that power too.
I’ll always love bands like Yes. Big, broad, sweeping landscapes are breathtaking and beautiful. They make you feel small and insignificant, and that’s kind of cool. But the trees, in and of themselves, are beautiful too. That’s what I’m thinking about today.