The first Tuesday Ten of 2018, and I’m starting quietly. Kinda. What is silence in musical terms? Silence is an absence of music, I guess. But wiki has a great description:
Music inherently depends on silence, in some form or another, to distinguish other periods of sound and allow dynamics, melodies, and rhythms to have greater impact. For example, most music scores feature rests denoting periods of silence. In addition, silence in music can be seen as a time for contemplation to reflect on the piece. The audience feels the effects of the previous notes and can reflect on that moment intentionally. Silence does not hinder musical excellence but can enhance the sounds of instruments and vocals within the piece
A colleague, too, commented that he was reminded of a quote from Keith Richards: “A painter’s got a canvas. The writer’s got reams of empty paper. A musician has silence.” In other words, you create music from a base of silence. Sometimes, too, that white space – the silence – that remains is fascinating.
So this week, I’m looking at songs with good use of those moments of silence.
A few notes on those I’ve not included first, though, as there are a few good reasons. John Cage’s 4’33” was considered, of course. But that would be too easy. And anyway, as one friend pointed out, while it is superficially 273 seconds of silence, it is really a concept around the idea of what you can do with a blank slate, with the background noise wherever you are being the “music” that you hear.
In addition, I decided to avoid album “jokes” like Type O Negative’s “hilarious” intro if silence on October Rust
What else? Fugazi’s mighty Waiting Room – complete with the lengthy silence twenty seconds in that, one so long that it is difficult to play on radio as it could be mistaken for Dead Air – misses out as it featured on 217: Positivity, and Mogwai’s Like Herod – with use of silence to accentuate the following army of riffage that arrives like an unexpected storm – has previously been featured on 147: Long Songs.
I’ve added a few other tracks that I considered to the end of the Spotify playlist.
Silence Is Sexy
Silence Is Sexy
For a band that made their name making an extraordinary noise, of almost unrestrained power, two decades of their existence later saw a notable about turn with Silence Is Sexy. While elements of the pummeling fury remained, use of silence and space was the key to many moments on this album, but most of all on the title track. I should perhaps try and count up the seconds of silence that appear right through the track – every verse, chorus…section of the track is separated by an aural void that is really quite unnerving. This was the band reminding that less could very much mean more – especially as this track has become a long-time fan favourite live, despite it meaning Blixa has to smoke onstage just to get that cigarette draw/intake sound right.
Also a mention of the mighty Headcleaner (from the brilliant Tabula Rasa), for the break of “SILENCE… MUSIC!” amid the sonic carnage in the first portion of that head-rattling track.
Aren’t We All Running?
The Fall of Math
Not, perhaps a band you’d associate with silence, at first – this, however, is Sheffield band’s greatest moment. It relies on restless stop-start dynamics and a dramatic, peaking rhythm that appears to finish a minute or so earlier than the track length suggests, trailing out a twinkling synth delay into nothing, then stretching out that silence for far longer than you think – nearly ten seconds, in fact, before one cymbal heralds the whole band crashing back in, building back up to another heart-wrenching climax that this time stops dead, back into silence.
Through Silver In Blood
The best-known song, probably, by the post-metal-doom-blues titans, this song is often played mid-way through their sets, as if they need to build a colossal momentum up just for the extraordinary power of the track. But just after that first minute of the track, which is deceptively calm and relaxed. Then, there is a drawing of breath, and a moment of silence, before a primal roar and gigantic riffs burst through the speakers like an avalanche.
The Other Side
The Race for Space
The extraordinary highlight of their Brixton show a couple of years ago, this deals with the Apollo 8 Mission, and the first humans to orbit the moon. The near-silence as the mission loses radio contact for a few moments (aside from the low fuzz of the radio static, and the commentary of the Public Affairs Officer at Apollo Control as they nervously await news from space), passing the dark side of the moon, is one of jaw-dropping tension, and when performed live the roar as radio contact is restored is a truly spine-tingling moment. This is such a clever use of a lengthy sample, and one where PSB clearly realised there was no need to adorn it, leaving it “as was” for the most dramatic moments was more than enough – even when we know the outcome the tension is still extraordinary.
The lead single from one of perhaps the most-unlikely million-selling albums ever released, to most people who have an interest in alternative music, this will be an instantly recognisable song. You’ll be able to hum the intro, the melody, the chorus, probably even the verses too, but there is some fascinating detail amid this track – not least that the weirdly distorted vocal intro was actually a happy accident. That vocal intro drops out, though, leaving silence broken by just a drum rim shot, then another gap, before that bass line heralds the actual song. They even use the trick again – the bong in this reggae song…. leaves an entire four beats silent before the chorus rips back in at full pelt. The dynamics of this song are simply glorious, leaving the unexpecting listener wrongfooted, and the rest of us trying to second-guess it, every single time. It’s perhaps no surprise, either, that the song doesn’t leave time to fade out – it just stops stone dead.
Garbage, of course, made quite a splash from the off, their debut selling millions. A question of fortuitous timing, perhaps? I’ve of course covered this album in great detail already on The Rearview Mirror: 005, but the hyper-produced electronic rock of opener Supervixen deserves a mention here. The band made great use of stuttering moments of silence on their debut (Queer and Fix Me Now also do it), but none of them had the impact of the opening track. The digital trickery probably helps, but the way the track stops and starts multiple times is absolutely thrilling, and just adds to the impact of this opener.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Perhaps what is most remarkable about listening to this early Specimen material now is how contemporary it still sounds. It has a vastly better production than might be expected for the time, and this track positively glowers out of the speakers. Led, like any good Goth of the time, by a muscular drum-beat and rumbling bass-line, the track suddenly starts to drop elements out, like a ship dropping ballast, before everything stops and we’re left with a lengthy gap…and then the track just picks up the full sound again. That must have been fun on goth dancefloors as a DJ, watching unsuspecting punters looking around confused until the beat came in again. Still, a top tune.
Rage Against The Machine
The last track on Rage’s now twenty-five-year old debut, of course – an album that was meticulously, brilliantly produced, and thus is often an album used now to demonstrate the quality of audio equipment. But let us laser into this. It builds, and builds, then the track drops elements out steadily, reaching total silence each time for just a moment, before Zack de la Rocha states, quietly, “Anger is a Gift” – and the band launch into one of their best, tightly-controlled freakouts each time. The first time it does it, “Anger is a Gift” is barely audible, but the second time…when the guitars kick back in, it’s a searing thrill.
Send Me Your Money
“Now let’s have some silence… For all you SINNERS!”
That’s it, really, with this track, just one brilliantly-placed moment of silence. It takes a while to come, though, as this is a bruising punk-metal track with Mike Muir delivering a snarlingly cynical vocal, playing the role of a fictional evangelist who is less interested in God, and more interested in the money he can receive. Not, it has to be said, an uncommon song subject choice around this time – I’ve rather lost count of how many there were. But that drop for the line above? It’s wonderfully dramatic.
A lot of post-rock, of course, can get very quiet indeed. But one of the pioneers – and only belatedly recognised at that, frankly – were Slint. Slint perhaps understood silence more than any of the bands that followed them. They wielded it like a weapon, huge chasms of silence would loom around the tiniest picks of guitar (at points it is so quiet that just fingers sliding down the fretboard can be heard), or whispered voices, with an immense sense of dread amid every moment. That dread even fed into the bandmembers themselves, as the band barely survived the recording of this album before splitting soon after – and of course later reforming once the wider world had caught up.