In recent times I’ve found that the #1 casualty of the streaming – and advertising – age has been the stories around music; that critical context that heightens your love of something from “casually enjoying” to “deeply connected”. Streaming platforms have largely stripped all the context out from music to just present songs as ‘artist name – track title” and not much more. Equally, advertising shifting almost entirely into the pockets of Google and Facebook has meant that many a music website has shut down or become highly marginalised as revenues went off a cliff. Some might call that progress, but these days I just call it a tragedy.
My means to address that change has largely been to immerse myself in seeking out books that really speak to the music I love, and in that respect Harry Sword’s Monolithic Undertow is something of a slam dunk. Subtitled In Search of Sonic Oblivion, the book bases itself around the powers of the drone, and how that has fed through the finest music since music existed.
Starting with Neolithic Maltese temples designed to turn chanted vocal into something significantly more powerful through extreme resonance, the book plots a path examining various chapters in musical history, from the Master Musicians of Joujouka to Tony Conrad and LaMonte Young, through to Popol Vuh, Swans, Sunn 0))), Coil, The Stooges, Brian Eno… you name it, they’re all in here.
In its own strange way, this book is a bit like Julian Cope’s mighty Copendium in that, once read cover to cover, you find yourself dipping back into a random chapter for inspiration. And inspiration is there in droves. There are a lot of artists I am aware of, but not overly familiar with. Spacemen 3 would be a case in point; friends liked them back in the day, but for whatever reason I never sought out their music.
Imagine the sheer joy then, of checking this band out only to learn that not only is their Dreamweapon album an absolute gem of a release, but that it was recorded live less then a mile from my house, in Brentford’s Waterman Arts Centre of all places.
It is interesting too, how much a book can have you revisiting artists you might have wrongly written off for one reason or another. Hawkwind are a case in point; I think I am semi-justified in not really delving deeply into their catalogue, as it has proven variable over the decades. Again though, with some refined guidance, one lands on their Space Ritual live album that truly reflected the group at their finest.
I could go on and on, naming albums and embedding links here, but that would miss the point. Monolithic Undertow to me is like an alternative history of rock n’ roll; of the real music that influenced the influencers. Every recommendation is pure gold, and along the way you will undoubtedly discover artists and albums you either missed completely, or were vaguely aware of but never truly invested time into.
I think there are very few books that I would argue should be on everyone’s bookshelf, but Monolithic Undertow is one of them. It is such a joy that even now I keep returning to delve into chapters. So much to learn, so much to discover. Frankly, I’m just glad books like this exist. We’re all the better with books like this – and authors like Harry – in the world, keeping that crucial context alive and celebrating what is truly amazing about music.