HOW WE DISCOVER MUSIC, PT. 1: PINK FLOYD

In a previous life, I wrote and published a nifty little Zagat-like music guide book called The Pockit Rockit Music Finder. I based it on the “If you like X, then check out Y” concept (or “RIYL” [“Recommended If You Like”] as they now say on Reddit). To the best of my knowledge, no one had yet written a music guide with that structure. It went through two editions, then Wikipedia and Pandora launched and soon my main distributor, Tower Records, went under. So, all good things come to an end.

But I still think there was a kernel of a good idea there: how do you discover music in an era of massively overflowing content? Spotify has something like 50 million tracks now (and seemingly twice as many playlists). More tracks are produced and released each year than ever before. It’s overwhelming and most people just have to hope that they get a lucky recommendation from a friend or happen to be listening to a decent Sirius station at just the right time.

So, I thought it might be helpful to revisit some of the recommendation lists I compiled back in the day, explaining what I think is the core essence of the artist in question and why I picked the recommended artists I did. Mostly, I’ll stick with what I wrote originally. But where a notable newcomer or two emerged over the past decade, I will not hesitate to elevate them to their own pedestal. This was the first one I wrote. Let’s check it out…

What I'd like to start doing with this blog is to examine how we turn-on to music. How do we go from where we are with music to points unknown? Is using what we already know our primary guide to exploring the unknown or do we use other means? What issues impact musical taste? How much of taste is musically based versus socially based? How big of an impact do things such as personal associations play into what we like? What about the impact of repetition and familiarity? What about the effects of subculture and style? I think we know that all of these things all have an impact. I just don't know how much. Can we ever just experience music "as music"? Do we even want to? Are all of those externalities, such as subculture, style, memories, associations, etc an essential element that enhances the experience? Or, are those externalities a way in which we reduce music to mere fashion accessories? I have my thoughts, but I really don't know.

I evaluate and categorize music for a living. It is of deep concern to me and a source of never-ending fascination to try to figure out connections between artists. For example, what would somebody who likes Jane's Addiction also like? It can be a difficult task, especially with this kind of band that has such an idiosyncratic style (The Doors are another band that is difficult to match really well). There are numerous cues that a Jane's fan could attach to: is it Perry's voice that most signifies Jane's sound? Or is it Stephen Perkins' drumming? Is it the hardness of the music or the quasi-psychedelia of it? Or is it something totally different: the decadent ambi-sexual vibes, Perry's corsets, the fact that you were a sophomore in high school and your first tape was the beat up copy of Nothing's Shocking that your older brother's hot girlfriend gave you. Or did a friend drag you to a show and it was your Birkenstock that landed on stage and was picked up by Perry. Trying to factor all of that into a single system is massively (impossibly?) complex. But I do think the underlying music, in and of itself, whether formally (the notes and structures), sonically (production), or perhaps even spiritually (essence) can be realistically explored and compared. So that's what I try to focus on.

Specifically, I'm trying to figure out how people connect from what they currently know and love to what they have yet to discover and yet to start getting into. It's the most tried-and-true, classic means of reference I know. By tracing that path, I'm trying to see if it's possible to get at "the essence" of a given artist's music and to see if it's possible to experiencing "pure music"-- music, as itself. Personal associations are burned deeply into everyone and are pretty much impossible to remove from the evaluation process. But removing the packaging, promotion, social pressures, political agendas, social theories, and other extra-musical distractions could go a long way towards building our ability to evaluate music in a rational, passionate, and musical way.

Most of this questioning is going to be fairly welcoming and open-ended: I'm simply going to pick an artist of the day and try to figure out what that artist's essence is: what forms the core of what makes that artist what it is. Then, I'm going to look at a bunch of other artists to try to figure out who, in essence, is most like the given artist. This is basically what I've been trying to do in the Pockit Rockit book and website, but now pulling back the curtains to its process, while also inviting critique and oversight.

I want to kick things off with Pink Floyd, a colossus of Classic Rock to most, a symbolic object of revulsion to some, and highly personal to me as they were my first concert (Brendan Byrne Arena, 1987, Momentary Lapse of Reason tour). Better yet, for all their renown, they are a tricky band to match and to provide discovery recommendations for, as we'll see in a minute. But they ultimately do a great job of showing how this process works, for better or worse. Hopefully, we'll be able to improve the process as we open it up.

The first step is to figure out what Floyd's essence is--what is Floyd at its core? This is more complicated than it could be due to the fact that the band changed its approach significantly between the time of its early singles and first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), and the dawn of its mature period, beginning around the time of Meddle (1971). There are plenty of people (of which I'm not one) who contend that Piper was the most significant album Floyd recorded and their definitive statement. For now, let's assume it is. Where does that leave us? Piper is, in its essence, the cataclysmic rupture between childhood innocence and the menacing vortex of the existential Void, or perhaps, more simply, the musical result of far too much hallucinogenic substances. Embodying this fractured essence is the tandem of Syd Barrett's whimsically psychedelic pop-songs, such as "Bike," "See Emily Play," "Arnold Layne," etc and his heavily distorted, ominous and menacing guitar freakouts, such as "Interstellar Overdrive," "Astronomy Domine." This Floyd is a schizoid soul.

And that's a tough trick to pull, because that schizoid-ness is what made early Floyd special. Honestly, much of that psychedelic pop/rock sound was done by a billion different (mostly English) bands that weren't particularly notable. Some relative stand-outs include Tomorrow and July, but good as they were, they didn't match Floyd at either extreme of deliberately arrested development, on the one hand, or nuclear mental meltdown, on the other. Perhaps some more interesting choices would include the astral-traveling Gong, with their soaring and spacey guitar and keys combination, or the Soft Machine on their first two albums, which had some of that child-like playfulness. But the former were whimsically self-described “pothead pixies,” as opposed to the brooding cynics in Floyd, while the latter combined their Syd-like tendencies with a kind of avant-jazz-rock sound, rather than bad trip menace. For that vibe, Hawkwind might be a good choice. But for all its dark and spacey vibe, Hawkwind never had the extended compositional chops of Floyd. Many people have drawn similarities from Floyd to the Velvet Underground's folk/feedback approach, although the Velvets never had a feeling of delight or innocence. They were clearly, self-consciously "arty," with John Cale's avant-garde resume and the band's connection to Warhol, while their songs had an archly urbane, (overly?) worldly edge that was full of heroin and S&M references. Maybe it was a kind of convergent evolution with two bands getting to vaguely similar places while arriving there from vastly different orientations.

With kind of halting, tentative steps, Floyd’s next few years yielded moments of genius ("Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun," "Careful with that Axe Eugene," "Nile Song,” “Green is the Colour,” etc) but not much in terms of a coherent aesthetic. Things only started to coalesce with 1971's Meddle and then....then....of course, Dark Side Of The Moon, followed by Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall. At risk of alienating many passionate record collectors and hard core psychedelic fans, these 70s albums are the definitive body of the Floyd essence: transportation through hope, exploration, failure, disillusionment, despair, death, truth, salvation, not always in that order and not necessarily all of them in a single album. As time went on, the lyrical messages become increasingly pessimistic, but the experience of taking a trip is always there, as strongly as with any band that I know. This was achieved through masterful pacing, texture, and dynamics, as well as spectacular recording quality. The instruments are consistently secondary to the flow of the composition: none of them are overplayed or flashy: Nick Mason's drums mostly keep time, Rick Wright's keys are mostly atmospheric (though essential), Roger Waters' bass steps out only occasionally (such as on the monstrous, walloping "One of These Days"), leaving most of the soloing space to the understated forcefulness and restrained grandeur of David Gilmour's guitar. The music is closely composed, like a symphony, so there is little room for messy edges. Most every note, progression, and sequence is there for a reason and generates a specific effect, perhaps chemical. All together, that effect is sublime transportation. The tones are controlled, disciplined, a mixture of acoustic and electric, sometimes dreamy, sometimes hard, usually with a palpable intensity and often with a hint of darkness, directed primarily by simple, powerful, guitar lines over a bed of swirling keyboard atmospheres and softly sung/more harshly spoken songs.

Breaking it down:

Essence: Immersive and transportational listening experience through a wide emotional range in which the dominant sounds are spacey, intense, and often dark.

Means: Understatedly powerful lead guitar, omnipresent atmospheric keys, controlled drumming, disciplined bass, modest vocals, pessimistic lyrics, meticulous dynamics, spectacular production.

Special Sauce: Mastery of extended, album-length composition and immersive listening experience.

Who I Picked For Pockit Rockit and Why (alphabetically):

Camel: I had not originally included Camel, but a reader’s suggestion made me reconsider. In the end, I think he was right. Camel had at least one of its feet in the Floydian vibe: fluid guitar solos, atmospheric keys, a spacey and heavily instrumental sound, if missing a little of Floyd's contained intensity. Camel knew how to put together an extended and, for many, an immersive listening experience. To my ears, they lack some of Floyd’s darkness, muscle, and texture, but I have little doubt that many Floyd fans would find much to like in Camel. Probably start with either The Snow Goose or Moonmadness.

Eloy: particularly, their late 70s/early 80s work (Silent Cries and Mighty Echoes, Ocean). What they had that very few other bands of the time had, was a feel for the Floydian guitar/keyboard tones and interactive balance. The sound is crystalline, even if not quite as meaty as Floyd's. What they got wrong is that when you have a great sound, the vocals cannot be allowed to detract from it. Unfortunately, Eloy's vocals are heavily German-accented English, which can be distracting. Thankfully, their songs are largely instrumental.

House of Not: They pick up on the harder-edged, darker Floyd sound from The Wall/Final Cut. The atmosphere and musicianship is spot-on, if only their writing throughout the duration of their albums were more consistently excellent. Some stunning, memorable tracks, though ("Mainstream").

King Crimson: this begins a string of what seem to be artists only tangentially related to Pink Floyd's sound. Crimson, in any of its incarnations, does not really sound like Floyd, in any of its incarnations. The musicianship is more rigorous, the compositions more ornate and demanding, etc. Still, Crimson (as with the best progressive rock) approaches music in a similarly transportational sense, if also in a more experimental and improvisational sense, than Floyd. Still, for a certain Pink Floyd fan—one who wants to kick up the intensity and musicianship—I think Crimson could be a logical next step of exploration, especially due to Crimson's excellence with dynamics and Robert Fripp's truly phenomenal guitar playing. Red strikes the best balance of song and instrumental (and includes “Starless,” one of the absolute greatest pieces in Rock history), though Larks' Tongues in Aspic may be more intense.

Magma: Similar issue here, as with Crimson. They don't sound at all like Floyd, but they have some essential similarities that could resonate strongly with a certain kind of Floyd fan. Admittedly, there is a little element of self-indulgence of including Magma, since they are probably my favorite band and any excuse to get them more exposure is a good one, in my mind. But for all their Carmina Burana, epic-opera, jazz-rock, on Top of totalitarian, Martian marching rhythms, Magma, like Floyd, are one of the greatest composers of the album-length, extended Rock composition. They cover the highest highs, lowest lows, brightest brights, darkest darks, and take you on jaw-dropping, breath taking, soul stirring trips through your emotional and spiritual being. All of life, but elevated and magnified, for forty minutes. Magma’s invented language and choir vocals may seem bombastic to those who appreciate Floyd's more austere sensibilities. But some may find here the greatest band ever, as I did. Mekanik Destructiw Kommandoh is as complete of a statement of musical and spiritual art that I know.

Mike Oldfield: Oldfield is much more instrumentally focused and lighter than Floyd, bountiful with all sorts of "world" influences and pastoral passages. But, again, he brings a mastery of extended composition that certain Floyd fans would appreciate. His guitar work is ace, as is the fantastic production. In terms of sound, if a listener could embrace Floyd as a gentler, more ethnically vibed, all-instrumental band, while retaining the suberb guitar work and even a bit of Floyd's intensity, Oldfield will be much appreciated. The classic Tubular Bells, as well as Ommadawn, Incantations, and perhaps Amarok are all good places to start.

Nektar: No one sounded quite like Floyd, but Nektar came closer than most. Certainly, their light show rivaled Floyd's. Also, like Floyd, this band did a lot of evolving. Their first, Journey to the Center of the Eye, leans back to the more psychedelic Syd-era, but spacier and generally rockier. One year later, A Tab in the Ocean was more in line with Meddle's sound. Things tightened up further by Recycled, with shorter songs that fit into the sharp, clear, total album. The overall sound is sometimes a little harder than Floyd's and a bit more psychedelic and more loosely structured. The trip was almost as good and the aesthetic for the time was more than sympatico.

Neurosis: Again, I've taken liberties (big ones, this time!) with the literal interpretation of the Floyd sound in favor of what I've gleaned to be the Floyd “essence.” Neurosis comes from the East Bay post-hard core scene. They are far heavier and rawer than Floyd (especially regarding their mostly barked/incanted vocals). However, starting around the time of Souls at Zero and reaching full stride by the following masterpieces, Enemy of the Sun and Through Silver in Blood, it became obvious to me that Neurosis was playing, in lack of a better term, "psychedelic music." Many heavy music fans (including Floyd fans) agreed with me wholeheartedly when I would suggest as much to them at concerts. The albums feel like extended works while the songs are often long, volcanically intense, yet incredibly dynamic journeys. This ability to shift intensities is largely what gives Neurosis its cathartic, time and space-travelling power--a power very much related to Floyd's, even if the outward form is very different. I know that a lot of Neurosis fans are Floyd fans. I don't know how many Floyd fans could become Neurosis fans, but I'd at least like to open the door.

Ozric Tentacles: Here, it comes back to the powerful, lead guitar/spacey, atmospheric keys interaction. The Ozrics essentially reinvented psychedelic jam music in the late 80s with their futuristic, space rave-influenced sound. They're entirely instrumental and bring in influences from dub, Middle Eastern, Indian, and trance musics, so they're not a Floyd carbon copy by any stretch. But the playing, with its polished and streamlined prog approach to psychedelia and its seamless instrumental interplay show Floyd to clearly be one of their biggest influences (along with the above-mentioned Gong). And they definitely know how take you on a trip: Erpland does it all.

Porcupine Tree: Probably the first band I would recommend to Floyd fans seeking the next torchbearer. One of the most important Prog bands of the 90s, PT's Stephen Wilson almost perfectly matches David Gilmour's dark but soaring lead guitar and tasteful vocals while gracefully incorporating more modern elements, such as trance rhythms and electronics in their traditionally Prog-based sound. You want Floyd, but newer, more updated? This is your band. Start with the live greatest hits Coma Divine and work backwards.

Radiohead: To the extent that prog translated into the post-alternative/post-Nirvana world, I would say that Tool is the modern King Crimson, Mars Volta is the modern Yes, and Radiohead is the modern Pink Floyd. Their best work, as with Floyd's, is both progressive and song-oriented, challenging and accessible. They can generate a powerful emotional reaction with everyone in the band playing their heads off or with just an acoustic guitar and vocals. Vocals, in fact, are closer to the lead instrument here, as opposed to the guitar, so the overall feeling is a bit more emotive than grand, but they achieve both in spades. Lastly, few recent bands are as good at connecting songs into a organic album-length experience than Radiohead, especially on OK Computer.

Tangerine Dream: This band kind of inverts the tangents I went on with King Crimson and Neurosis. Those bands have little tonal connection to Floyd but may, for certain listeners, have similar effective goals as Floyd. Tangerine Dream, on the other hand, has a lot in common with Floyd, tonally, but their goals are divergent. An insightful reviewer once called TD "Pink Floyd without the rock,” and that's about right. All the atmosphere, the spaciness, the intensity and vague ominousness are absolutely there, largely through the expert use of analog synthesizers and trancey, cosmic spaciousness, rather than emphasizing guitars and rock rhythms. However, the atmospheres exist largely to be lived in, without the tightly composed dynamics and production embellishments that make for a typical Pink Floyd song cycle. TD occasionally bring in rhythmic elements but the real impact comes from the powerful, moving clouds of keyboards. Phaedra is probably the most definitive, though Riccochet and Force Majeure add some drums for a more rock-ish feel.

The lack of obviousness is a major reason why I wanted to start this new blogging approach with Pink Floyd. Each artist demands a different approach to discovery guidance, based largely on the originality of the artist, the number of followers it has, the quality and variety of those followers, and the ultimate, artistic and emotional impact of the artist. For Floyd, there are few truly direct comparisons (Porcupine Tree, House of Not, maybe Radiohead) but the artistic approach (extended, album length works) and the ultimate goal (emotional/spiritual transportation) is timeless and is aimed for by many artists. The trick is recognizing and balancing those elements through artists that make their music without necessarily having any thought to how it might fit into my equation. For some listeners, the balance of my recommendations will fall to the left; for others, to the right; for others, hopefully, a third eye will open. After addressing the basics, I think offering the possibility of revelation is the greatest service I can hope to give.