Friday, March 29, 2013

The Cognitive Dissonant

Cognitive dissonance is defined as the feeling of discomfort when holding simultaneous conflicting beliefs. In music, the meaning of dissonance hearkens back to the Latin, whereby a "dissonant" chord is considered "unstable".

The work that Scott Walker has been producing since 1978 is increasingly dissonant, it increasingly contains contradictory elements that are impossible to assimilate in a unified way, and it has become increasingly more terrifying to behold.

Most modern purveyors of fear in musical form attempt to achieve their desired result through intimidation, volume, or the shock value of violent lyrical content. Examples include Marilyn Manson who creates giant spectacles of fascism, Slipknot who dress like they are all meeting at Hellraiser's house later, and a whole gaggle of gangster rap artists who brag and boast about how cold blooded they are.

These are sunny walks in the park compared to Scott Walker.

Now, don't get me wrong. I actually KIND of like Marilyn Manson and I have plenty of gangster rap on my iTunes. Slipknot I have no use for because their aesthetic is so juvenile and stupid and so devoid of humor that the only appropriate response is laughter. I mean, is anyone really frightened by Saw XVIII?

But the brand of terror that the above dole out is inclusive. The result is more a prurient vicarious thrill witnessing someone instilling fear than truly inspiring actual fear. Actual fear is not thrilling. Actual fear is messy and humiliating. True fear results in a reversion to infancy, to a state where you cannot control your bodily functions, to the feeling you get when you know that you have absolutely no control over any aspect of your existence.

This is the kind of response that Walker achieves.

His is a fear born of ideas.

The indie record label 4AD is one of the most influential record labels of all time. Their most famous client is The Pixies. In the mid 1990's they signed an aging former crooner to a record contract. Outside of England no one cared. They have essentially insured that Scott Walker could attempt the masterpieces that were floating around in that terrifying brain of his.

In 2006, 4AD planned a compilation called "Plague Songs" with various artists each writing a song corresponding to one of the ten plagues of Egypt. For whatever reason, Walker drew the Plague of Darkness.

Does Walker use volume and bombast to affect us? Does he use thundering drums? Distorted screaming guitars? Violent imagery? No, there are only three elements used in the song.

A tambourine. A female chorus. And Scott Walker.


Take a listen.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Strangest Pop Hit Single In History

The Walker Brothers had broken up at the height of their fame. Their run only lasted from '65 to '67 but the breakneck pace of recording and touring made it seem much longer. Tensions in the group were high for all the typical reasons, but a crucial one was the burgeoning songwriting talent of Scott Walker. He'd started writing B-sides to singles as a way to increase revenue for the band. It worked. But it also showed that Walker was the true visionary.

Still having a Japanese tour to complete as a vestige of their contract, The Walker Brothers broke up. Walker immediately set to work writing and recording his debut, simply titled "Scott."

Walker had, through a German Playboy bunny he'd met at London's Playboy Club, discovered the music of Belgian superstar Jacques Brel. The first song on "Scott" is an incredible cover of "Mathilde" which Walker sings as if he is belting out the finale of some strange musical where a skinny American kid winds up on the BBC in love with a supermodel who drives him mad.

By default, the second track on the album is Walker's debut as a solo writer. It is also, as the title of this post states, the strangest pop hit single in history. (Get used to hyperbole; it is really the only appropriate response to the eccentricity of this man's work.)

This video is not an official one, someone matched old post-war Europe footage to the moody strains of Walker's imagination. The result is fascinating.

Watch "Montague Terrace (In Blue)".

The album was a smash, rising to # 3 and staying there for seventeen weeks, an eternity for an album. "Mathilde" and "Montague Terrace (In Blue)" charted as singles but the ALBUM was the thing in those days and Walker had a massive hit on his hands. This sent his career into the stratosphere, immediately dwarfing the one-hit-wonder nature of The Walker Brothers. He became a cultural phenomenon, a cult-hit who also achieved mainstream success.

"Montague Terrace (In Blue)" shows why. But what makes it work so well? Is it the strangely dissonant string figure that way back in 1967 felt like a sample but was obviously organic? Is it the harsh consonant clash of the lyrics against that lush bed of violins? Or is it the gunshot crack drum explosion which kicks off the soaring drama of the chorus?

As usual, with Scott Walker, it is impossible to put your finger on just what is going on and why it is so effective. I am also struck by how ENGLISH this song seems, how BRITISH. It animates a cloudy fog-ridden England in the mind's-eye, ancient, foreboding, sexy. It was written by a 24 year old American.

Scott Walker had arrived.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Blue Bell to Bish Bosch: Engel to Walker

In 1958, a teenager from Hamilton, Ohio named Noel Scott Engel arrived in Los Angeles to pursue pop stardom. He cut 20 tracks or so for the tiny Orbit label and achieved regional success with the single "Blue Bell".

In 1965, The Walker Brothers had a # 1 hit in Britain with the moody ballad "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore", sung by bandleader Scott Walker. They briefly had more fan club members than The Beatles. None of them were brothers. None of them were named Walker.

In 2013, a seventy year old man from London, England, named Scott Walker released the song "Epizootics!" from his fourteenth studio album "Bish Bosch". "Epizootics!" is a term which refers to epidemics in the animal world. The song is over ten minutes long with a video directed by Olivier Groulx, an Icelandic director who has worked primarily with Sigur Ros.

Noel Scott Engel and Scott Walker are the same man.

Scotty Engel, 15 when he recorded "Blue Bell", washed out as a teen idol by the early '60's and found himself playing bass around Hollywood in "discos" and nightclubs. One of the outfits he joined was a band led by a tall handsome guitar player who lived across the street from Brian Wilson. His name was John Maus but for some reason he'd begun to call himself John Walker. Scott Engel must have figured, why not, and they began appearing as The Walker Brothers.

Then they did something even crazier than that. Signed to a small recording contract with a company that had a London office, they pooled their funds, packed up, and moved to London. The London office didn't know they were coming. They shared an apartment and started recording.

Since then, Scott Walker has been in the United States for less than three months.

I discovered Scott Walker through a documentary that was briefly available on Netflix called "Scott Walker: 30 Century Man". As this post shows, that documentary was a rabbit hole that I have not emerged from over a year later. His career is so strange that trying to describe it all in one sitting feels like what it must feel like for true believers to try and chip away at atheism.

In fact, the three links that I show above completely ignore the period from 1967 to 1970 when Scott Walker left The Walker Brothers to go solo. His fame skyrocketed and the five albums he released in those three years are, in my opinion, unparalleled. As in, if I had to put my money on a Mozart/Salieri outcome, Walker is Mozart and everyone else is Salieri.

He has unquestionably become my favorite musical artist of all time. And it is not even close. In the 1980's, a British musician named Julian Cope put together a compilation of Walker tracks to help restore what was by then a career that had faded into obscurity.

Cope called the compilation "The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker".

So, heathens, non-believers, look upon his works and despair. The Beatles gathered the world together in worship. The Rolling Stones led the hedons in revelry. The inscrutable voice of God emerged through one man only.

A man named Scott Walker. A man NOT named Scott Walker.