A good friend recently lent me his remarkable headphone
set-up. We’re talking about an Antique Sound Lab Mrk III DT tube headphone amp,
a pair of Sennheiser phones and a pair of Grado RS1i Reference Series phones. I myself have a pretty posh pair of
Sony MD-60’s* so between the three I was set for an all-encompassing critical
To say there is a difference when listening to music on
headphones is in many cases an understatement. Of course there will always be an element of
music so generically produced no method of scrutiny could reveal anything more than what’s on the surface**
But that’s not what we’re talking about today. What we’re talking about is headphone heroin; music specifically crafted to transport the listener to different places. And granted most of this
stuff was recorded in the sixties and seventies, when recording was still a
slightly occult art more akin to sorcerer than the lackadaisical pastime
digital proliferation has made it today, but that is not entirely the case.
· BLACK SABBATH: SABOTAGE – specifically here I want to
labor on about tracks four and five, Meglomania and The Thrill of It All.
Sabbath really hit their stride recording and producing in the
mid-seventies and to say they treated
it like alchemy would be an understatement. These guys were smokin’
Chillums, eating hallucinogens and hand-crafting amazingly visual
soundscapes into blues-spliced hard rock for a few years in a row and nowhere
do they soar as high or as far as on these two tracks, with the album’s closer
The Writ adding closure to what has always seemed to me a trilogy of the
psychic ramifications of becoming a rockstar in the age of drugs, the occult
and fallout from the ideological heights that crested with the introduction of
cocaine and disco into the formerly spiritual pop landscape of the hippie era.
Iommi’s guitar lilts from ear to ear, light mystical fog that occasionally
explodes in flashes of epic lightening as crescendos resound and dissipate,
accenting the sometimes harrowing, sometimes celebratory wails of John ‘Ozzy’
Osbourne and the unstoppable, almost liquid rhythm section of Ward and Butler.
The thrill of it all indeed, nowhere can the argument be made for Sabbath’s
transcendence of the genre they heartily helped create than on 1975’s Sabotage.
· TV ON THE RADIO: YOUNG LIARS E.P. – specifically here
Staring at the Sun and the unlisted accapela cover of The Pixies classic ‘Mr.
Grieves’. TVOTR, on their first release were still only Tunde Abimpe
and Mark Sitek. The throbbing electrical motor providing the bass is a machine,
and it is this machine TVOTR ingest and regurgitate in their methods for constructing songs; sampling
vocals what sounds like dozens of times in some cases, accenting and
interpolating sonically tightened guitars that act more like tightly
controlled and extrapolated explosions than melodies or ‘riffs’.
Staring at the Sun deafens the listener when applied through
the intimate setting of headphones, and the layers of minutiae that accent and
envelop the main vocal melodies create a dark and vibrant psychedelic
experience the likes of which have never existed before.
· JIMMY HENDRIX: AXIS BOLD AS LOVE – Whole freakin’ album, Golden Rose and Little Miss Lover in particular, but every track swims with meaty psychedelic grandeur.
· THE ROLLING STONES – STICKY FINGERS – specifically here
I want to talk about the album closer, Moonlight Mile. There is a certain
effect that has been largely lost the better digital recording methods get. I’m
not saying I don’t love how slick and clean people can make songcraft these
days, but whenever I go back and listen to something like Sticky Fingers I long
for the days when recording wasn’t yet so advanced. Poverty always promotes
ingenuity and that seems to have especially the case in the recording studios
auteurs like The Stones contracted with to house and give form to their
creative energies at that time. A track like Moonlight Mile, which starts
simple and quiet and slowly builds in grandeur, employs elaborately dramatic
instrumentation such as timpanies and strings to transform the landscape of rock and
roll to the kind of higher aesthetic that built their reputation as (arguably)
the greatest rock band of all time. The effect I miss is a special phenomenon where Reverb Returns and stereo voicing builds up and leaks
through the walls of a track, creating often overlooked, almost phantom instruments. This effect is also especially true of instances where drums or perhaps backing vocals are captured by micing a room and/or employing real, honest-to-goodness Reverb Plates.
As Moonlight Mile
draws Sticky Fingers to a close you get the feeling that these almost
subliminal voices are telling you something, telling you that this music will
be with you the rest of your life.
And it’s right.
Viva La Headphone Elitists!!!
* My second pair, not even a year old. My old pair lasted a
little over ten years and were worth every freakin’ dollar (~$120 of ‘em).
** And of course I’d be talking about a lot of what the charts call R&B
and ‘Hip-Hop’ these days. Oh, and who could forget the unabashedly awful Grammy-crowd country – exceptional at being bland and forgettable.
*** Which is most assuredly not R&B.