Talking ’bout evolution

Another one from the vaults…

The creative muse can be a fickle mistress. Musicians can wait for ages before relocating their mojo – the Blue Nile would take eight years between albums, while Kate Bush’s release schedule seems to coincide roughly with visits by Halley’s Comet.

Music writing hardly falls into the same category, but in a slow week, the creatively-bereft journalist can usually rely on some made-up news, usually in the form of a ‘survey’. Commissioned by a bank or deodorant manufacturer desperately trying to get some column inches in the trendier press, “Best Driving Songs”, “The nation’s favourite guitar riffs”, or “Top rock haircuts” may eventually form a Channel 4 show with Noddy Holder alongside an ex-Blue Peter presenter clearly too young to remember any of the references.

Most recently, website Skynet & Ebert found that people stop listening to new music at the age of 33. It perhaps states the obvious – keeping up with modern music is harder thanks to parenthood (which ages your tastes four years, we’re told), while job demands may also put an end to clubbing seven nights a week.

Interestingly, the research finds it’s males who return to music – borne out by the legions of balding middle-aged blokes at gigs by balding middle-aged bands. Sprightly support acts will be met by mutterings of “too loud”, “is that a boy or a girl?” and “music was better back then” as the audience turn into their parents before their eyes.

It may be that humans are too emotionally attached to music to give a sensible response. So, Queen Mary University and Imperial College in London performed a computer analysis of more than 17,000 songs since the 1960s – though, significantly, taken from the US Billboard Hot 100.

Their cutting edge signal processing picked out fascinating, if very technical info, such as jazzy dominant 7th chords vanishing in the early 60s, while timbre identification could tell if guitars or piano were prominent.

Three musical epochs were IDed – 1964 saw rock sweep away jazz and blues, with Peak Guitar reached in 1966 as the Stones and the Kinks came through. Prog, glam, disco, funk, punk and new wave seem to make no impact, as the next shift came in 1983 when synths and samplers (and one-fingered keyboard riffs) came into play – though a computer would say that.

But the biggest shift arrived in 1991 – not grunge, no; in fact, Peak Hair arrived, for the USA at least, in 1986 with poodle-permed arena rockers like Bon Jovi and Motley Crue. The survey cites this time as the only real period of stagnation – clearly its authors never heard the third Oasis album. But the early 90s saw rap shift us towards speech and rhythm at the expense of harmony. More than 10 years after the Sugarhill Gang, the likes of Gang Starr, NWA and even De La Soul may not have seemed all that big at the time but most of today’s chart music has roots in hip-hop.

But what does all this black-and-white analysis give us? Well, it’s reckoned computer analysis could spot the next big thing.

However, for myself, and any jaded over-33 hack, it simply fills a column. And for that we salute the music marketeers.

The Comfort of Loss & Dust
Straight from the first riff, which lumbers out of the speakers like Godzilla on elephant tranquillisers, it’s clear that this London quartet’s third album isn’t for the faint of heart or gut.
‘Goth’ undersells their doom-laden oeuvre quite considerably, singer Maya’s soaring but stricken wails only part of a mix of punk and metal with proggy flounces.
But it’s the full-on rock at the heart of Cold in Berlin which makes this more than your average teenage emo dream / nightmare.
Fans of Ozzy and Siouxsie will already be familiar with the sounds and themes contained in these ten tunes, but for newcomers to the genre, be prepared to embrace the darkness.

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