Royal Academy Reviews

Looks at some Festival big hitters
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Taking up residency as Clash’s in house music boffin is Alex Hills, a composer and lecturer in the Department of Academic Studies at London’s Royal Academy of Music.


Unaware of each song’s authors, Alex blindly merits the compositional qualities of the songs given to him by Clash, judging the best of the bunch by its perfunctory arrangement… This month, Clash has handpicked five of this year’s prominent festival headliners - how will these bill-toppers fare against our Alex’s analytical ears?

Kings Of Leon - MCFEARLESS

I like the way the beginning of this superimposes regular and repetitive guitar and bass parts with very spasmodic, rhythmically erratic drumming. It gives the music a sense of having more than one thing going on at once and means the repetition is never too dull. Smoothing out the rhythm into a more conventional groove in the chorus is also very effective, and they contrast very well without being especially different in terms of harmony or melody. I find the vocals a bit one-dimensional, stuck in such a narrow high falsetto, but this is an interesting, tight, song.

Bjork - WANDERLUST

This is pretty fantastic. The form is amazingly open and exploratory, with a wide range of instrumental elements drifting in and out very unpredictably, and others, especially the obviously recurring vocals of the chorus, providing a more conventional sense of sectional repetition. The actual sound of the music is also really interesting - some of the brass parts remind me of Stravinsky, and there are some unexpected clashes between the vocal melody and the harmony that are incredibly striking. I especially like the freedom in combining sounds from such a wide range of genres into something that seems both coherent and incredibly original. The best ‘pop’ music I’ve listened to in ages and I’d be really curious to hear what it is like live.

Primal Scream - SWASTIKA EYES

Just far, far too long for the number and quality of ideas they have in the song. The two 3-second long vocal loops (does it really say “parasitic” and “syphilitic”? There’s an enticing combination!) are really not ever going to keep me interested for one minute, let alone seven. I’m likewise not particularly excited by random references to swastikas and the military-industrial complex. I guess I can understand the idea is to keep the song in a completely consistent place the whole way through to build up a sort of trancelike energy, but it really, really isn’t a place I want to be!

Radiohead - 15 STEP

I find this sort of interestingly confusing. After the intro the rather mellow and spaced-out sounding guitar chords weren’t what I was expecting at all. The harmony is often undirected - the chords aren’t repeating regularly and there are a few nice surprises, especially the completely bizarre step-up key change that happens near the end. Both this and the late introduction of the very wobbly sounding keyboards is also a nice example of keeping something in reserve so all the good ideas aren’t used up too soon. The basic structure of the song is quite conventional, especially compared to the second song (Bjork), but there are lots of little things going on which keep it fresh on a local level.

Underworld - CROCODILE

OK, the beginning reminds me of Vangelis and Nigel Havers running on the beach with no socks on, which is not a good thing, but it gets over its Chariots Of Fire moment rather quickly and actually lets that music come back in a nicely transformed way later on. The consistently messy and reverberant production is a bit of a cliché to me, especially in terms of the vocals, which just become a rather boring wash. The song tries to go somewhere a bit different for the last two minutes, with another ’80s seeming keyboard solo and more extreme vocal processing. I think the intention to create some variety here is good, but the music is not quite interesting enough for it to work. This could be a couple of minutes shorter and would gain, not lose, from taking stuff away.

Conclusion

Except for the third song (Primal Scream), which I absolutely hated, I’m pretty impressed with all of these. They manage the very difficult balance between variety and concision well, and all have moments where I’m caught off balance by something I wasn’t expecting that turn out to be interesting. A good advert for the more exciting and progressive side of pop music. On every level, though, the second song is simply light years ahead of the rest. It has an authentically compositional approach, combining a very complex mix of ideas into a tapestry that doesn’t seem to belong to any pre-existing structural models. This is enormously sophisticated and intriguing music by any standard.

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