Finding joy in the ritual of listening to music

I moved house recently, and in doing so was finally able to get all my music, my mighty hifi setup and my office all combined into one. For me this is Shangri-La; now I get to blast whatever I like all day whilst working.

Having all my vinyl on tap got me passionate for LPs again, though the ever-escalating prices around them quickly dampened that enthusiasm when I realised you could buy an album on vinyl for £30, or just buy it on CD, second-hand, for £3.50, tops.

Consuming albums in both CD and LP format really made me realise something though, namely that the enjoyment of music is greatly enhanced by the rituals of selection that surround it – and indeed the things that in turn drive that ritual of selection itself.

Allow me to elaborate.

Visiting a music streaming service has always been a joyless experience for me, with a combination of weak algorithmic editorial and the paralysis of choice ensuring that my passion for listening to music seemed to ebb away the longer I had the app open.

By having a finite, physical selection of music around me, that joy of limited options and therefore more investment into one’s consequent choices means that I actually emotionally invest into whatever album I elect to play all the more. Even the physical act of pulling the chosen release off the shelf and putting it in/on your player of choice seems to commit you to listening that bit more. Or at least it does for me.

In truth, I think the physical format is less relevant; if I’m honest, I’m not a vinyl snob and most definitely take a view that a great album is a great album, irrespective of whether one owns it on vinyl, CD, cassette or whatever else.

What really enhances one’s joy from physical, in my view anyway, is simply that you tend to place more focus into what you choose to play, and in turn don’t get into ADHD-style track skipping or album hopping.

Of late, I’m listening to albums (and comps) end-to-end… and I’ve not felt as into music – as wholly passionate for it – in decades.

Adding to this passionate deep dive is the veritable smorgasbord of great books about music that have either just been released, or which I’ve discovered (or rediscovered). The stories these tell, the extra context they all bring, ensure that when you’re listening to music, you’re not just putting on some aural wallpaper to largely ignore. You’re deep into the record, the story, the entire world around that release.

One of my favourite books of all time is In Praise Of Slow by Carl Honoré. In it, the author argues a case for simply slowing the pace of life down, and enjoying the moment more. Anything from food to medicine to working is covered in separate chapters, but the over-arching message is simply to stop rushing to complete things, and instead enjoy the process. Savour it all.

That, to me, is where the real joy in listening to music comes in. Don’t rush; take time to select that record, stick it on, and just relax and take it all in.

These are simple pleasures, but in modern society we seem to have a fixation on having access to everything, all the time. Silicon Valley’s main focus is on scale – “all the music in the world at your fingertips!”, “10M books to choose from!” etc – but the victim of that is inevitably those deep connections to something that generate a lasting emotional impact.

Rejecting that entire state has never felt so good.


(Typed whilst playing the legendary Macro Dub Infection Vol. 2 compilation that a pre-Bug Kevin Martin curated back in 1996)

Music must-read: Harry Sword’s “Monolithic Undertow”

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.

Listen on your service of choice here

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.

Listen on your service of choice here

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.

Grab your copy here.

Motorik Beats

cover_43432117102008I found myself jonesing for some Motorik beats having played Neu’s mighty Hallogallo. One quick google search for a playlist of some kind landed me on this brilliant article on The Quietus.

Having read it, I noticed that Spotify was – at the time of compiling the playlist back in 2009 – missing some of the tracks. So, I recompiled it to add in the missing songs here.

Its ace – check it out if you can. Quite funny to read a claim that Bowie used motorik beats only to then have the evidence (which is 100% spot-on) presented to me via the playlist. Ditto Ultravox and The Human League!

In praise of: the new Quietus anthology

The Quietus - coverThe Quietus is a website I have a huge amount of admiration for. Like Drowned In Sound, they retain a fierce credibility and some fine depth to their writing – two things I don’t see much elsewhere at present (he writes, gazing in the direction of the NME…). I religiously read the priceless “Horns Up Ya Shitters!” metal column, as its now become the singular source for the best metal releases each month (to the point where it leaves me missing the Black Friday Radio Show I once hosted on ResonanceFM – to date possibly still the only ever drive-time black metal show). Beyond that though, I don’t check the site as much as I should. Not for any reason – just life gets in the way. No great excuses, that’s just how it is.

I was delighted then to discover that they have just issued an anthology of articles from their first five years as an e-book for Kindle. I purchased it yesterday evening, and I’ve only been dragged away from it since by life once again getting in the way. This anthology has some great articles and, put simply, I cannot recommend it enough. Whether its Quietus co-founder Luke Turner berating the baby boomers, Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess writing about the pitfalls of authoring his second book or – my current favourite – Bad Seed Warren Ellis writing about his fashion tastes and penchant for a fine pair of shoes, this has a brilliant spread of pieces covering all manner of topics.

Continue reading “In praise of: the new Quietus anthology”