Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Impressive Instrumentals

I'm going to focus today's Impressive Songs post on instrumentals. Some people find instrumentals incredibly boring, as much as others might find songs with words boring, if they happen to be insane. I don't necessarily think it's the lack of words, though, that makes instrumentals boring to most people. I think it's the lack of proper compositional prowess. Words are the fastest and most accurate way to convey the meanings of songs, but take away the words and all you're left with is emotion, and vague emotion can get dull after a while. Compound that with the fact that a lot of artists like to write their instrumentals as if they were writing for songs with words, only without the words, and not only does it get real boring real fast, but it's annoying on top of that. Here, I'm thinking of artists like Joe Satriani who may be great on the guitar, but every time I listen to his songs I just long for an actual voice to take the place of the guitar playing the vocal lines. Step one in creating a worthwhile instrumental is to eliminate vocal lines all together, not just play them on your guitar or some other instrument.

I think when you sit down to write your instrumental, you need to have a particular emotion or theme in mind and contemplate how to best capture the feeling you wish to convey without words. It's like painting a picture versus writing a poem. With a poem, you get to paint a vivid image and convey a strong meaning through words. With a painting, you eliminate the words, so every color you choose and every brush stroke you use to apply it had better carry the weight of the message you're trying to get across, or people won't understand it, or worse, they'll get bored with it even if they do understand it. It can be difficult to find the Mona Lisas amidst the sea of Andy Warhol prints because, just like paintings, there may be many pop artists who produce instrumental tracks, but only the few brilliant ones can create something truly memorable. The following are several instrumental tracks that never cease to impress me no matter how many times I hear them.


King Crimson - "Industry"
There were many King Crimson songs I could have chosen because over half of King Crimson's total catalog consists of instrumentals as they're more of a heavy jazz band than a rock band and their lyrics are often superfluous to the music anyway. Anything from "Sailor's Tale" to "Larks' Tongues In Aspic" to "Fracture" to "Thrak" would do. King Crimson is one of the very few bands who can hold my rapt attention for a 12-minute instrumental ("Larks' Tongues, Part 4"). However, I kept defaulting back to this song from 1984's Three of a Perfect Pair album. This is not the most driving or rocking instrumental the band has created, but I think it's the closest to its intended theme that almost any band has created. Although the overall sound harkens directly back to 1970's In the Wake of Poseidon, I don't think any band has more accurately recreated the sound and feeling of an industrial factory with musical instruments, to include actual artists in the genre called "industrial." With its stomping bassline, it takes us from dawn to dusk of a day in the life of an average robotic industrial plant with everything in between.

Pain of Salvation - "Remedy Lane"
Developed by Daniel Gildenlöw around the wavering keyboard riff that flows throughout the song, this short instrumental interlude marks the introduction to the final chapter of the album which shares its title. It's remarkable because it says in just over two minutes with no words what it is sometimes impossible for words to convey. It represents a sort of rebirth, a shedding of the fear and pain one has come to know in order to look toward a future both bleak and hopeful with grim determination. Like any of Gildenlöw's compositions, this one carries the powerful weight of crushing emotion even without the added shock value of words he typically utilizes to illustrate his relevant points. Even though there is nothing to specify any particular subject matter, I think everyone has felt what is being conveyed here at some point in their lives. If not, I'm sure you will.

Fates Warning - "Disconnected, Part 2"
This song concluded Fates Warning's 2000 Disconnected album with the much shorter "Part 1" introducing the album. This ambient track is one of the most moving instrumentals in my collection. Every well-placed note helps to channel its dark, somber mood. A cross between loneliness, sadness, angst, gloom, and despair, with a dash of urgency and a very powerful, foreboding bassline to give it an overall ominous, depressing tone. Under normal circumstances I might find the repetative guitar chord annoying, but here it's done so tastefully it doesn't become redundant. In fact, it cuts down to the core and leaves the listener with a hollow emptiness by the end of the song, especially with the sad piano lines dancing around it carrying the song out.

John Petrucci - "Lost Without You"
While I was looking for songs to round out this set, this song suddenly popped into my head even though I honestly hadn't listened to it in years. Although John Petrucci finally released it officially on his first solo album a couple years, this recording is much older, possibly one of the first times it was played live. I found it circulating the Web around 1998, and I think it can be dated back to 1994 or 1995. Dream Theater's John Petrucci is one of THE greatest guitar players currently alive, able to adapt to any style and play with an almost unmatched technical prowess, but he often receives criticism that he's too technical of a shredder without enough real honest emotion. This sad, bluesy solo, augmented with an average piano motif provided by Derek Sherinian, not only showcases some of his fierce guitar work, but does so tastefully, with emotion.

"Ytse Jam for Classical Piano"
Not your typical Dream Theater instrumental, although it's based on one. This cover of Dream Theater's "Ytse Jam" instrumental from 1989's When Dream and Day Unite album has been circulating the Internet since the mid-Nineties. No one's really sure where it came from except maybe Mike Portnoy himself. Rumor has it that after the official announcement of keyboardist Kevin Moore leaving the band, someone sent Dream Theater drummer and spokesperson Mike Portnoy this recording as a sort of audition tape. It was then circulated around the Internet with many different names attached to it including Kevin Moore himself, their latest keyboard player Jordan Rudess, and a fellow named "Bungle," (not to be confused with Mike Patton's band Mr. Bungle). Finally, it found its way to the end of the closing credits of the Dream Theater anniversary DVD When Dream and Day Reunite credited to a Peter Rajkal, on whom no one can seem to find any information. Whoever it was that created this thing, it is nothing short of insanely, mind-numbingly phenomenal if you have a thing for great piano playing. All four instrumental tracks — drum, bass, guitar, and keyboard — are being played solely on piano. I read somewhere a long time ago that the original artist claimed it can be played by one person in one sitting with no overdubs. I've listened to it very closely trying to visualize the key layout and hand movements for each note, but it's hard to picture as fast as it moves in places. I can concede that it could be possible, even without the person having three hands, if he's fucking lightning fast. I found the
original version posted on YouTube if you want to listen for comparison purposes.

Ozric Tentacles - "The Throbbe"
Even if you hate instrumentals, I implore you to at least check out this song. As always, I leave you with something fun and upbeat. Not much I can say about this song because there's not much I have to. It speaks quite well enough for itself. I can listen to this over and over again and never get tired of it, probably thanks to some awesome drumming and a strong, driving bassline (hence the name, "Throbbe"). Although this was created by a progressive rock instrumental band reminiscent of early Pink Floyd, (here, I'm talking 60's psychedelic Pink Floyd), I find this song has more danceability than most techno dance songs. I could picture a rave full of kids bouncing to this irresistable beat much more than I could anything Paul Oakenfold has ever created, which sounds to me like nothing more than random noise compressed onto a computerized 180 bpm track of pure unbridled unlistenability. This is the difference real artists who play real instruments can make when it comes to dance music. Whereas I find most house and techno music repetative, redundant, and boring, this song with real drumming, real bass, real guitar, and real keyboards, all played by real musicians, keeps my attention from start to finish, no matter how many times in a row I listen to it. I took the liberty of cutting the more ambient intro from this sample in order to get to the meat of the song. If you think the bass is weak on this, pump it through a subwoofer instead of just computer speakers because it is fucking massive.

*STANDARD DISCLAIMER: I include lower-quality samples of the songs I've selected purely as a means of free promotion for artists that I enjoy. Most of these songs and artists are lesser-known and operate on smaller or independent labels that routinely get suppressed by the major labels who rely much more on money fronted than actual talent to carry the artists they represent. My intent is to generate interest in the songs and artists discussed and possibly increase their fanbase and overall record sales. I'm operating under the assumption that the artists in question won't mind a song or two of theirs praised along with low-quality samples. When writing about songs I hate, I don't include samples because they're all owned by the major labels and it would also mean I'd have to actually suffer through the songs long enough to make the samples just to waste server space on them. Fuck that.

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