Thirty years ago last week – last Thursday, in fact, one of the most important alternative rock albums ever was released. Doolittle by Pixies remains a high-watermark, arguably kickstarted the takeover of the airwaves by alternative rock in the early nineties, and of course, paved the way for countless other bands – Nirvana of course included.
Their signature sonic element, though, was to go from quiet to viciously loud in a heartbeat (and back again), and often Black Francis would go from a calm, considered man to batshit crazy at the same time. So this week, I’m looking at songs where that dynamic shift from quiet to LOUD is at it’s best.
I decided, however, not to include probably the best example of the Pixies work in this case, which is the two-minute madness of Tame. But what I am featuring are ten other songs which go from quiet to very loud indeed, often more than once.
A quick explanation for new readers (hi there!): my Tuesday Ten series has been running since March 2007, and each month features at least ten new songs you should hear – and in between those monthly posts, I feature songs on a variety of subjects, with some of the songs featured coming from suggestion threads on Facebook.
Feel free to get involved with these – the more the merrier, and the breadth of suggestions that I get continues to astound. Otherwise, as usual, if you’ve got something you want me to hear, something I should be writing about, or even a gig I should be attending, e-mail me, or drop me a line on Facebook (details below).
/Good Morning, Captain
Over on /Tuesday Ten/316, I actually featured this band in the way that “they wielded silence like a weapon”, but it is also notable how they wielded noise, too – and indeed paved the way for a great many post-rock bands (Mogwai, who I chose not to feature here after all – partly because I’ve used most of the songs I would have considered before! – initially had the working title of the mighty Like Herod as Slint, which perhaps tells you all you need to know) in doing so. In fact I could have included each of the six songs from this album, but the climactic closing song is my choice. This sprawling, cryptic nod to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner bursts into noise from a murmur a few times, but the closing, raucous climax is an extraordinary piece of music, particularly in the knowledge that vocalist Brian McMahan actually made himself sick enough to go to hospital after recording it…
/Kissing The Sun
The long-lived Swiss industrial band have long been a band that have explored the extremes of their sound and possibilities – particularly in their always-astounding live shows – and their latest album DATA MIRAGE TANGRAM has continued that, with the latest show in London having one jaw-dropping section that saw that album’s centrepiece All My Skin Standing turned into a punishing sensory overload. But that – as great as it was – was eclipsed by the sonic battering of the encore, which began with Kissing the Sun, a track that takes the whole idea of quiet-LOUD to almost ridiculous extremes. On Only Heaven The Young Gods were experimenting with ambient textures (the latter part of the album is almost entirely beatless), and this track has extensive such passages, contrasted with bulldozing electronic thrash for the rest of it. It is relentless, thrilling, and live this time around was the best I’ve ever heard The Young Gods. Needless to say, I’ll be back seeing them again in London in October…
Particularly on their earlier releases, industrial-rock band Stabbing Westward made great use of dynamics in their songs, with rampaging choruses coupled with a great many more introspective moments. Their most striking take on it, though, was the eight-minute title track from their debut, which at points was barely audible as the synths burbled in the darkness, before erupting into a monstrous, riff-heavy chorus. Even more intriguing is that Filter’s Hey Man Nice Shot – released just a year later – shares the same core riff, written by the same guitarist who was part of both bands at the time (the story is in more detail here). As that story notes, the band have rarely if ever played the song live, and certainly I got most of the rest of Ungod, but not this, when I finally saw the band live in Chicago in 2016.
/Little Baby Swastikkka
/Paranoid and Sunburnt
I remember seeing this band in July 1995, at only my second gig (the third day, and my second day, at Heineken Festival in Leeds that summer), as they played an absolutely packed out tent during that Saturday afternoon. They opened with this track, Skin’s a capella vocals to introduce the track barely above a whisper before the band crashed in and the place absolutely erupted. On record, the track still has an almighty impact, as Skin rages against the indoctrination of the young into racist ideals – something that, sadly, is still an issue over two decades later. All the more reason to crank up the volume and get the message out once again.
/All My Life
/One by One
I’ve rather lost track with Foo Fighters in recent years – but earlier material from Dave Grohl’s post-Nirvana band was often thrilling, but none more than this song. The opening guitar riff continues through the song like a heartbeat, always present but not always audible, and the song reduces back to it from time to time, as if gathering breath before erupting back into that huge, stadium-ready chorus. The Foo Fighters never wrote a better, more life-affirming song than this.
/Worst Case Scenario
For all of their reputation as a chaotic, chameleon-like rock band, flitting between styles album-by-album, even in their early days they were capable of moments of elegant beauty – and lung-busting rock. A long-time live favourite amid the more jazzy moments of the much-loved first album (now twenty-five years old!) is this gloriously mad track, with starts out with a jazzy swing on the quiet, before ripping into an anthemic chorus, and continues to change style subtly with each verse as Tom Barman chastises his past self and the rest of the band join in to help out. Beauty and chaos, quiet and loud, in four minutes.
/Rid of Me
/Rid of Me
When this song was suggested there was something of a consensus that the 4-Track Demos version is better than the Steve Albini-produced album version that opens the album Rid of Me – but for me it removes the one element that makes it count here. Without the thundering drums that come out of the speakers like a bulldozer through the wall, for me it loses something of the impact of the song – PJ Harvey’s rampaging fury is only enhanced by it. The rest of the track, of course, is so, so quiet, just Harvey’s vocal and her guitar.
It is easy to forget, amid the rush of later, sub-standard releases and seemingly endless re-issues, that :wumpscut: were an outstanding, influential industrial act in their early years, pushing industrial dance music into darker, heavier corners than just about anyone had ever tried previously. And where Rudy Ratzinger experimented with his sound a bit – i.e. not just lengthy, bludgeoning songs that could become a bit of an endurance test on the dancefloor (there’s a reason why I used to mix out Soylent Green – the full six minutes of it is exhausting!) – the results were really impressive. Capital Punishment takes an age to move beyond the quiet – over half the song – and it builds nicely so you know exactly when the volume will jump into the red, but the payoff is still really satisfying.
/Silence Is Sexy
Neubauten has rather gone from cacophonous noise to more measured styles – and, frankly, quieter, more melodic songs – over the years, almost mellowing with age as their home city of Berlin has adjusted from being a divided city to being the capital of the now united-Germany, and of course peace has prevailed. They are, however, still far from a lounge act, as various extraordinary live shows have proven, and this mighty track is a frequent live appearance nowadays. This song is broadly a calm musing on the machine of self (or more to the point the body), and how we interact with the world around us, but periodically and thrillingly erupts into a gigantic, industrial machine led by the vocal conductor of Blixa Bargeld. Live this track is absolutely deafening (in a good way!).
The closing song this week is, as it happens, the closing song on Idlewild’s first EP, back when they were…angrier, and punkier. Most of their early material was short and snappy, but this track is about a third of the length of the entire six-track Captain EP, and, it’s fair to say, is another track influenced by Slint and the Pixies. This one burbles along, based on a gentle drum pattern and picked guitars, before Roddy Woomble pulls the band with him into a furious, thrashing chorus for a fleeting moment – and the song then continues that pattern of hitting the extremes on the volume dial. For me, Idlewild were never better than that first EP, but that kind of anger as an energy is not something that you can keep up forever, that’s for sure.