Wednesday 27 June 2012

When noise becomes music

For all the decades of recorded music, members of each generation have at some point famously described the next generation's music as "noise".  The phase varies as does the context, but the word persists.

The first time people heard some of the early sounds of "industrial metal', I know that many would have been amazed that some of the most brilliant and gifted composers and performers of the art were classically trained. Some of the best of various sub-genres in metal have been trained in classical styles; from classical piano to opera, and guitar to percussion. The past has aided, even seeded the future.

Now to the point.  Anyone who has followed Linkin Park's evolution will recognise the fusion that is typical of the band's sound which is as unique as Chester's vocals.  There has always been an edge to their sound.

Distortion has frequently been a prominent part of music since the first electric guitar screeched into life. LP have a history of making synth sounds that are reminiscent of the noise between stations on an old AM radio. That is not a bad thing.  It works.

Since their latest album arrived, I've been amazed by one thing.  No, not the "noise" or the "distortion". The amazing thing is how it demands premium audio equipment.

Every artist deserves to have their art shown or heard in the way they intended. In fact, some art loses so much by poor delivery that it could almost be dismissed as a waste.  Cruel and unfair, but so is life.  LP's new collection of songs really sound dreadful on cheaper equipment.  Even mid-range gear sounds scratchy and irritating.

At first I thought my CD was faulty or a new generation of quality-destroying DRM was incompatible with my equipment.  Playing it on premium headphones and speakers however disabused me of that notion. No, this was LP as they intended to be heard and it is as magic as their earlier offerings, although I still think Hybrid Theory stands out as a classic "how do we create a follow-up for this?!?!" moment in musical history.

The lessons and questions this raise are disturbing. Avoiding litigation, I'll resist naming (and shaming) any specific vendors of portable noise gear, but suffice to say that anything less than a lossless digital copy would be worse than a waste of everybody's time. It would be a crime against the music.  This is one piece of musical history that may emphasize the merits of analogue over digital media. I'll forego the lecture on sampling and loss (even in "lossless" formats) of precision in the recording, but suspect that this is an album that really needs a vinyl version to fully appreciate it.

Returning to the headline topic, it is staggering how much of the distortion used on this album overwhelms less-than-premium audio equipment by failing to render the finer points of the music. You want to listen to LP's latest album ?  Advice, don't skimp on the gear you use!