I was listening to Stereolab’s fantastic record Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night a couple of weeks ago and got to thinking about how dense their music is, how it is a clear and vast amalgamation of elements plucked from jazz, rock, and french pop. Their sound is described as post-rock, which is one of those quasi-asinine genre signifiers applied to any modern music that deviates from sounding like The Beatles or Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs. “Post-rock” is one of those catch-all definitions that encompasses music played by bands that use rock instrumentation in other genres or rock songs played with instrumentation or arrangement styles normally seen in other genres. Think Tortoise, Maserati, Slint, or Mogwai.
It’s a pretty shitty definition, and in my opinion anyone who wants to argue about genre semantics should really consider a long walk instead – it is Spring after all, the birds are returning to the trees in this city to produce the season’s first clutches, the fruiting bodies of mushrooms will soon be humming to the surface and cresting the soil, and there is a whole wide world of wonder around us. Why waste time assigning genre names that no one but their creators will understand? The world of music criticism is seemingly fascinated with genre assignment. It’s why we hear people talk about things like spazz-core, chill-wave, post-noise, among countless others, as if the signifier creates a sense of legitimacy for the music itself even though most people have a hard time making true distinctions between these micro-genres. Of course there is some value in categorizing music as a way to help people contextualize what it is they’re listening to, but the current rate at which the music machine churns out hyperbole and ambiguous descriptors is rapidly bringing us further away from meaning and intent. Now that I’ve crapped all over genre assignments, let’s explore post-rock and its roots (what a dick!).
Genre semantics aside, music as varied and technical as Stereolab’s is fun to listen to as an exercise of assembling its various elemental musical styles like a puzzle. There is certainly some enjoyment in picking out influences while listening to a song like The Free Design , with its layered, playful instrumentation, the strutting organ melodies recalling 60′s psychedelic pop and Laetitia Sadier’s buoyant vocals conjuring the easy gait of the bossa nova swingers.
If you start working backwards from post-rock bands like Stereolab, picking apart their influences as a way to seek out new and unexplored genres, you’ll eventually run into the influence of Kraftwerk and Can and other bands that fall under the collective genre known as Krautrock.
Kraftwerk is usually referred to as the pioneers of modern electronic music, and they are indeed influential, but hardly the first to incorporate odd electronic noise into the pop song format. If Kraftwerk and Krautrock in general can be seen as a distillation of their artistic influences, you can start to work backwards even from them and see that the roots of Stereolab and Kraftwerk are lain deeper into the musical bedrock. The Robots was recorded in 1978, but we can peel back another layer to look at another German band that formed from an early incarnation of Kraftwerk, NEU!. Characterized by overdub effects and long droning songs, NEU! set the stage for Kraftwerk and the output of Brian Eno, Suicide, and countless others. Their eponymous debut is the album that launched a million indie rock bands, and though they are not the most well known act from that time period, their influence is remarkably deep and wide.
But we can’t stop at NEU!. Stereolab, Kraftwerk, and NEU! all spring forth from the musical fields sown by Simeon Coxe III, Danny Taylor, and their amazing, mind-bending minimalist duo Silver Apples.
The story of Silver Apples reads as little more than a footnote in the grand tome of the history of rock ‘n roll, but if you listen to their 1968 debut record you hear a band so far ahead of their time, so forward thinking, that it is needless to say that we might not have yet caught up to what they did.
As noted, Silver Apples were a duo. Danny Taylor played the drums and Simeon Coxe III manned a daunting bank of primitive synthesizers, vintage oscillators, and junk electronics that he manipulated, programmed, bent, slapped, and threw himself against to produce a whirling, heavy sound. The drum lines rub up against something funky, rumbling along the drone of an organ bass line and dancing around the whirs, blips and screeching frequencies. The resultant songs are surprisingly danceable, shimmery and dark. Coxe’s voice flits through the compositions like his melodies were plucked from the silver throat of an Elizabethan bard. There is an archaic quality to his voice and his employed melodies that lends the heavy psychedelic vibe of the instrumentation a pastoral sheen.
Listening to Silver Apples, you can hear musical seeds being sown for the above noted bands to cultivate and hybridize. Contextually speaking, Silver Apples laid some important foundations for the electronic “pioneers” of the 1970′s. We can work backwards from them, of course, back into the work of musicians and mad electricians who developed early synthesizers, employing sampled sounds; the tinkerers and the knob twirlers, progenitors to the beat makers and producers of today. We can go further back to the electronic alchemy that led to the electric guitar; back into the early days of improvisation; Louis Armstrong conjuring the unknown future and giving it shape in his trumpet solos; back to the genesis of the American pop song, sprouting from the font of Stephen Foster, and further still…
But today let’s apply the brakes on the wayback machine and lend our ears to the gentle skronk and throb of the Silver Apples self-titled debut album, cut in 1968, when it was most assuredly assigned a genre signifier that confused those outside of its tight circumference. Let’s focus our attention to the very moment that this album was tossed into the musical sea, the moment it ducked beneath the surface to become the sea itself, where it caused a ripple that is felt still in bands like NEU! and Kraftwerk, where it is carried in the crest of Stereolab’s velocity and will fold in upon itself and reappear in some disparate genre elsewhere.
[audio:http://godonnybrook.com/home/media/01%20Oscillations.mp3,http://godonnybrook.com/home/media/02%20Seagreen%20Serenades.mp3,http://godonnybrook.com/home/media/03%20Lovefingers.mp3,http://godonnybrook.com/home/media/04%20Program.mp3,http://godonnybrook.com/home/media/05%20Velvet%20Cave.mp3,http://godonnybrook.com/home/media/06%20WhirlyBird.mp3,http://godonnybrook.com/home/media/07%20Dust.mp3,http://godonnybrook.com/home/media/08%20Dancing%20Gods.mp3,http://godonnybrook.com/home/media/09%20Misty%20Mountain.mp3|artists=Silver Apples,Silver Apples,Silver Apples,Silver Apples,Silver Apples,Silver Apples,Silver Apples,Silver Apples,Silver Apples|titles=Oscillations,Seagreen Serenades,Lovefingers,Program,Velvet Cave,Whirly Bird,Dust,Dancing Gods,Misty Mountain]
Silver Apples – Silver Apples (released 1968)
2. Seagreen Serenades
5. Velvet Cave
8. Dancing Gods
9. Misty Mountain