When I was in college, it seemed like I had all the time in the world to just sit and listen to music. I would lay on the futon in my microscopic dorm room, blaring a wide array of metal, rock, hip hop, punk and classic country for seemingly hours on end. Sure, I was going to classes and working multiple jobs, but there was always at least a day or two where I could stay up until the wee hours listening, or find a long break between classes to relax with an album or two. I’d stare at the artwork, read the lyrics, the liner notes and sometimes even the thank yous while the music washed over me out of big-ass speakers, or pumped directly into my ears via headphones (until I accidentally crushed them in a drunken incident that needn’t be recounted here). I could lose myself totally in the worlds my favorite artists created, whether it was the mean streets and dope beats of Ice Cube’s The Predator or the reverbed-to-Hell midnight treble-scapes of Darkthrone’s Under a Funeral Moon.
For me, the components of an album are more than just the music. Packaging, artwork, lyrics; these things work in conjunction with the music to create a totally immersive experience. You listen to Under a Funeral Moon, flip back and forth between that eerie cover art and the lyrics to songs like “Natassja in Eternal Sleep” and “To Walk the Infernal Fields,” and the next thing you know, you’re walking through that grim and frostbitten Scandinavian forest, probably heading towards some forgotten graveyard in search of Natassja’s tomb, half-empty bottle of whiskey in hand. Take any one piece out of the puzzle; music, art, lyrics; and the effect wouldn’t be the same. This isn’t the band dictating how you should experience their art, this is the band creating a total environment and inviting you to step inside. The listener will naturally filter that environment through the lens of their own ideas, beliefs and past experiences, perceiving and interpreting the work in their own way.
These days, I don’t have nearly as much time to just sit and listen. I have the forty minute bus ride to and from work during the week and occasionally some time on the weekends… and that’s about it. When you get older, your priorities change, and quite frankly I’d much rather devote my hours away from work to spending time with my beautiful wife than do just about anything else. I still love metal, it’s still an obsession and I still relish just sitting and listening whenever I have the chance, but I’ve come to accept that the opportunities to do so are fewer and farther between, sometimes by choice, sometimes out of necessity.
I try to pick my battles. If an album grabs me right away, it probably means I’m going to write about it, so I make a conscious effort to devote as much time as possible to listening with minimal distractions. I typically listen to an album over and over and over again until I’m ready to write about it, and if I still can’t find the words after listening obsessively, then I’ll set it aside for as long as needed; it might be a few days, a month, a year… I’m not particularly concerned with the timeliness of my writings. The important thing is that I’ve been able to achieve that full immersion; the writing portion is a way for me to make sense of it, to organize my thoughts into something coherent, to come to some sort of understanding regarding my connection to and interpretation of that experience.
The problem comes when I’m missing one or more pieces of the puzzle. This happens often with albums I review. Labels and bands readily provide music, but they’re not always so quick to provide artwork, lyric sheets, liner notes, etc. Even an album you purchase might not include a lyric sheet, which is made all the more frustrating by the fact that we’re dealing with genres where vocals aren’t always intelligible. I’ve been listening to extreme metal for some years now and like to think that I have a good ear for lyrics, but even I can’t decipher all the myriad death growls out there. When missing a puzzle piece, I do my best to work with what I have, absorbing and interpreting what information is available. Obviously a great album can still give you much to chew on and immerse yourself in, even without artwork, liner notes, etc, but I still can’t help but feel that the presence of those things makes for a more complete experience and understanding of the work.
Do labels and artists see lyrics, artwork, packaging, etc as peripheral, or is this merely a byproduct of shortened attention spans and the fast-paced lives we’re all living? Is it just assumed that no one sits and just listens anymore, and music is merely an accompaniment to whatever else we might be doing?
Considering some of the lavish vinyl that’s being released of late, such as the box sets being put out by The Crypt and Nuclear War Now‘s various “diehard” editions, it seems the metal pendulum is swinging ever so slightly towards experiencing the kind of total listening experience that I’m talking about; I can’t imagine someone dropping $30 – $60 on something that’s only ever going to be background music. Although I’ve never been a vinyl obsessive, I do love CDs, and I’ve recently been quite impressed with some of the presentation in that realm as well, such as Profound Lore‘s CD editions of Tukaaria’s Raw to the Rapine and Odz Manouk’s self titled debut. Although they lack lyrics, the exquisite artwork and remastered sound are certainly enough to draw you fully into their respective harrowing underworlds, especially when the music is so compelling to begin with.
I guess what I’m really trying to say is this; art should be a respite and an escape, a sanctuary from this unbearably brutal, soul-grinding rat race that makes up most of our day-to-day realities. I don’t know about you, but I think leaving our ”real lives” behind, jumping into a Manilla Road album cover and storming the fucking castle in search of some crystal logic every now and then doesn’t sound like such a terrible idea.