When a fellow fan complained one day of the “brick walled sound” that stemmed from an excessive use of compression and limiting on one of my all-time favorite albums “Solace” by the New Zealand trio; Jakob, it made me pause to think.
While my hearing loss and 100% reliance on hearing aids i.e. a processed/amplified sound make me in no position to critique the finer details of audio fidelity, I did feel I could offer a perspective on the matter and as I started to write, I realized that the topic encompassed a wider spectrum of thinking and indeed one that tugs at the notion of what we consider song-writing to be.
The brick wall a.k.a “wall of noise” sound that I judged the fan to be referring to is actually pretty prevalent in the genre haphazardly labeled “Post Rock”. Walls of distortion are actually an increasing trend for modern bands, it’s one of the many tonal colors that they employ thanks to ever-expanding pedalboards.
I personally interpret Jakob’s approach to the sonic treatment of their music as an intentional artistic statement and even a necessary compositional tool that allows for the build and release of tension. For example, the contrast in timbre as lush, textured melodies and chord swells descend (or ascend?) into chaos and veils of wailing auto-filtered distortion are key to providing a sense of variety and progression through what are relatively simple chord progressions. In other words where the Beatles showed us their mastery of the pop song compositional structure via II – V – I progressions and intuitive use of 7th chord shapes to build tension, Jakob have achieved (and dare-I-say perfected?) a same end-result through their exacting use of progressively stacked guitar effects. The genius in Jakob’s sound is that with only three instruments they can conjure up a huge and mesmerizing soundscape that wholly consumes your present emotional state-of-being and yet they control these immensely complex moments with great finesse and articulation.
For the sake of a larger context to work with, allow me this brief digression.
Guitarists these days (and even vocalists) are processing the basic sound of their instrument through all manner of sound manipulating devices that you can buy or build as separate units and connect up together. These mini cities devoted to sound processing require much up-front planning to build well and involve the laying down of power supply lines and wired lanes for sounds to traverse along. The velcro-anchored stompboxes (aptly named for the amount of abuse they sustain) consist of distortions, overdrives, delays, reverbs, modulators, filters, wah-wah’s and all manner of foot and MIDI controllers that are placed directly below the musicians feet so they have unprecedented control and adjustment of their “sound” during live performances.
With great power, comes great ability to do sonic evil and it is unfortunate that many bands abuse these layers of sounds and I have noticed that many musicians forgo the basics of instrumental virtuosity in favor of hiding behind the walls of effected sound. They are simply becoming lazy, not willing to dedicate time to mastering their instrument but have figured out that they can still create cool, audience-swooning noises if they stack enough effects on top of each other. This won’t do at all.
I like Jakob so very much because they know that to introduce a clarity back to a heavily effected sound, they need to play precisely and they need to play expressively and they score on all of these fronts. It’s very clever really. Dialing in some very specific settings on their effects, they can create thick, ambient yet (unusually) exactingly rhythmic soundscapes that carry the crucial underlying melodic and harmonic structures. This grounded ability to lock onto a pulse and cyclic movement of riffs is a critical key element for guiding the unsuspecting listener through what is to come…
At times Jakob’s use of distortion is so severe that it masks the melodic and harmonic motifs to the point where your ears become reliant on the imprinted memory of previously played sections to carry you forward. If you are curious to hear this in action then I suggest donning a pair of headphones and closing your eyes for the whole 8:53 minutes of the song ‘Controle‘ from their 2003 album ‘Cale:Drew’.
It took me a while to notice that this “song” actually appears to consist of 16 (or 11 notes depending on how you count the glissando) notes repeated over and over again for the whole 9 minute duration. Surely a recipe for creating a dull and monotonous song if there ever was one however Jakob cunningly have turned conventional compositional song-writing on its head by using an ever-changing texture and slowly morphing timbre of guitar effects to introduce the critical sense of progression and movement through the piece. For Controle starts with the merest utterances of pitches and in fact, begins so quietly that I personally, am not able to hear the first 30 or so seconds of the piece unless I EQ and boost the high frequency shelf to some considerable degree. I do not do this because I enjoy how, with each cycle of the melodic motif, the trio build upon the last played repetition with just enough extra force and intention that the music seemingly drifts into your perceptive awareness out of nothingness and often much later than you consciously realize there is something being birthed.
The cycle continues to build almost imperceptibly with each repeat to the point that there is no place else for the texture of the sound to go and then cunningly, the guitar introduces more effects into the equation and as the plateau is extended further and then reached, yet more effects are compiled to the mix. You are never distinctly aware of the changes to the sound at any time but two-thirds of the way into the piece comes the startling realization that you are being affronted with the sound of chaos. The distortion was so gradually and gracefully introduced that your ear knows exactly where it is in the time and space of the performance that you can still follow along to the climatic throes of the pen-ultimate cycles before finally a final more bare-bones repetition concludes the experience with a dying sigh. If there was ever music to bed a partner with, this is it.
If anything I hope this write-up will turn some other like-minded individuals onto a very evokative and unique band that is well worth investigating, definitely take a full listen to their albums ‘Solace‘ and ‘Cale:Drew‘ on Bandcamp.