When I first heard Unwound’s “Kandy Korn Rituals” single in 1992, I finally heard a band that did everything I wanted a rock band to do in one song. Energy, anger, beauty, feedback, high tempo, texture and melancholy could easily be heard in any number of late 80s and early 90s alternative/underground rock bands, but I hadn’t heard a band that did all of them at once to my desired specifications.
“Against” is all of the above. Justin Trosper, Vern Rumsey, and Brandt Sandeno had created a whirlwind more than a song.
Months later, I would fall in love with their new debut album Fake Train, and I would see them live inside a dormitory at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA. Sandeno was no longer in the band, and Sara Lund had already taken his place behind the drums. Sandeno was rhythmic glue to both walls of noise generated by Trosper and Rumsey. Lund brought yet another unique and subtle approach to rhythm to the band, heard throughout the rest of Unwound’s catalog.
Now Rumsey became the adhesive who laid down the menacing yet catchy bass lines holding together Trosper’s textures and Lund’s rhythms. Rumsey’s playing sounded like a hybrid of Minutemen’s Mike Watt, operating a conspicuous thunder broom, and The Fall’s Steve Hanley, who helped make The Fall as danceable as they were.
By lucky coincidence, Unwound were one of the most prolific rock bands of the 90s, releasing an album once a year on average — a frequency that was becoming rarer for rock music starting in the 90s. Unwound toured almost all the time, especially on the west coast of the U.S., hence I was lucky to catch them at least once a year. By 2002, I would have seen them more than a dozen times. There was no bad Unwound performance, although a few were absolutely stellar.
All of Unwound were sweethearts. However, Vern Rumsey stood out as the least shy of all the members, so he became the first band member I would briefly chat with after shows.
What struck me the most was that Unwound — usually Vern — would remember my name the next time they played a show. I did not grow up with them nor did I work with them in any business related context. If any band remembered my name 24 hours later while on tour, I would have considered that a miracle. So Unwound remembering my name roughly a year later after playing yet another tour made them kind and immortal beings to me.
It’s become a pastime on the Internet to argue which Unwound album is the best. My favorite is the underrated Challenge For A Civilized Society from 1998. Having became enamored with German kosmische aka krautrock during the 90s, I heard Can, Embryo and Amon Düül II throughout this album.
Rumsey’s first vocal spotlight in the studio with Unwound appears as “Side Effects of Being Tired” on this album. Hearing this compared to “Against” shows how much and how quickly the band had changed, matured and experimented in just 6 years.
The “1991 -> 2091” band logo circa 1993 seemed like a break of exaggerated confidence for a band that was usually self deprecating in person. 2091 is now only 71 years away. I certainly hope people will still be talking about the music made by Justin Trosper, Brandt Sandeno, Sara Lund and, of course, Vern Rumsey beyond 2091.
I’m very thankful to everyone I know and don’t know for sharing the Vinyl Pause of 2020 FAQ I wrote in a fit of grief and frustration a week or so ago. (If you’re reading this now and have no idea what I’m talking about, I recommend reading the above link first.) I am positively overwhelmed with the reaction to it.
I don’t write much online because I have so many talented journalists and critics as friends who can convey my thoughts about artists or musical topics far better than I could. So writing this piece was definitely out of my element.
Some errata to note
There are some items I got wrong in the FAQ that I do want to correct here, and will also embed in the FAQ:
I mentioned that some record labels could afford an overhead of lacquers for mastering. While this is true, this is clearly more true of bigger pressing plants, who directly depend on mastering discs manufacturers such as Apollo or MDC Japan. I neglected to mention that overhead on the part of many pressing plants, so that was an item that I should have mentioned.
Someone had commented that vinyl did not start around the 1880s, and that commenter is correct. The phonograph record industry started taking shape around the 1880s, and the material to make those first discs was shellac. Polyvinyl chloride — vinyl, in short — didn’t start making a presence in the industry until the 1940s. I equated vinyl with phonograph records in my mind, hence that mistake.
Post-Apollo-Fire thoughts and musings
It has been only days since the Apollo fire. A week feels like an eternity in the press, but that is just a blip of time for those who worked at or ran Apollo Masters. I don’t expect to hear any official word about Apollo for quite some time, and that’s fair. Randall Roberts of the Los Angeles Times went out to the disaster site of the fire, and reported this disheartening scene on Twitter. Of course, many articles musing about the near future of vinyl were written in the past week. I’ll admit that I had job related priorities in this interim, so I haven’t followed as many sites and papers writing about this topic as I wished.
However, I did notice two distinct camps who wrote about the fire and what could come next. The first camp was mostly informal and personal discussions on social media. I won’t be reporting on those discussions for very obvious reasons. All I will say from this camp is that far more people had the same concern about the tiny lacquer bottleneck as I did.
The second camp of articles came from music trade publications and businesses, as expected. Two articles each by Billboard and Discogs stuck out in my mind. (If you see ad blockers on the Billboard link, apologies. There’s nothing I can do about it.) Both articles were well written, and rightfully pointed out that “Vinylgeddon” is an exaggerated term for what’s coming in the immediate future. While I was not into the “C’mon guys, everything will be OK” tone of either piece, it was a fair tone, as some people had a far more fatalistic attitude about the industry after the first wave of “Vinylgeddon” pieces.
I was disappointed that — Ben Blackwell of Third Man Records aside — the interview subjects chosen by the writers all worked at major labels. That’s not surprising given that both sites’ primary focuses are on pop music and legacy artists, respectively. (And while it’s not surprising that these interviewees didn’t want to disclose their names — no business wants their name associated with industry fragility — it was odd to read. What would a major label employee risk by telling the truth about an event that effects everyone in the industry anyway?)
Billboard and especially Discogs should have given some space to interviewing other independent labels and artists outside Third Man, because the Apollo fire could be a complete disaster to these artists and labels. Remember when I mentioned grief and frustration above? My life is surrounded by the independent music industry, and this community in every city is whom I had in mind after hearing about the fire.
Moreover, during the 90s and early 2000s in the U.S., when major labels had abandoned vinyl, U.S. independent labels had mostly kept the U.S. pressing industry alive, or at least prevented it from dying. So to have another threat to the vinyl industry be reported in a way that only gives major labels a podium feels like a betrayal once again. There likely wouldn’t have been a vinyl revival in the U.S. in the first place had it not been for the independent music industry’s support during the 90s.
That’s it for now
I’ll be posting here again once a plan or initial zeitgeist to address the Vinyl Pause starts becoming solid.
Yes, this is really really bad news for vinyl lovers, especially those who buy new product.
No, I’m not a vinyl mastering guru.
Yes, I put together the FAQ below about the incident, and I make predictions about what will come next. Take these predictions no more seriously than you would take predictions from, say, The Amazing Criswell. However, I’ve been a music collector since I was a toddler, and I started observing and following music culture not long after that, so I’d like to think this will help inform my friends and, in turn, their friends.
If you see something below that’s flat out wrong, call me out on my falsehoods in the comments. I’m always happy to learn.
So what just happened, and why should I care?
Apollo Master Audiodiscs’ building burned down the morning of Friday, February 7th 2020 circa 8am PST. Here is one of the first reports on the fire. Thankfully, no one involved was physically hurt. Of course, the workers at Apollo no longer have jobs for the foreseeable future.
Apollo provided at least 90% of vinyl mastering studios/plants with the needed lacquers (acetate discs) to cut masters for any new audio vinyl pressing in the entire world. They were also apparently the only manufacturer of the cutting styli needed to create such masters.
Why did we allow having only one building in the entire world be in the critical path of 90% of new vinyl pressings?
A very fair question. My hot-ish take is that it was a combination of the following factors:
Apollo didn’t mind having little to no competition — no business would have minded that — and few people questioned it, since Apollo has been in the business for a very long time. Apollo merged or bought out competitors over time as well (such as Transco.) The only other producer of lacquers in the world — currently the only one, now — is MDC in Japan. And they are tiny compared to Apollo.
While the 21st century vinyl resurgence has been strong for almost 15 years, that’s still a blip compared to the initial era of vinyl media — from roughly the 1880s until the 1980s [Ed: The first phonograph record era; vinyl’s first major presence was in the 1940s] — so, many people in the industry were still questioning whether there was such a major investment to make in creating entirely new plants for vinyl music pressings, given that the vinyl format is still considered by most people, in 2020, to be far in the past.
So why not just build a new lacquer plant, or just use MDC in Japan instead?
Also a fair question, although the downsides are immediate to point out:
MDC in Japan is no longer accepting new clients due to high demand. And that was before the Apollo fire.
Apollo wasn’t just selling a liquid compound sold in bottles that was created in a vat. Apollo sold blank acetate discs which require a far more complex and unique process.
Apollo is/was pretty much the only knowledge expert on lacquers for mastering in the Western half of the world.
Even if Apollo had a backstock of lacquers saved elsewhere; and if all their insurance paperwork was in order; and if Apollo’s scientific formulae and their product design paperwork were saved offsite, reopening a plant still requires a lot of new paperwork and bureaucracy — which, among dozens of issues, includes finding a new location for Apollo’s needs and adhering to updated environmental standards in California. Lacquers are not exactly organic products, so reopening in California in 2020, where environmental standards are high, would take a while even if all else went well. (I’ve never run a lacquer business in California, so this is all my best guess, anyway.) Sure, Apollo could possibly reopen more quickly in a different U.S. state, provided all the backup above was in place.
It’s too early to know what Apollo’s exact situation is, just days after the fire. I don’t envy Apollo Masters, to put it mildly. Being idealistic, it could take at least a few years for either Apollo to reopen or a new company to open — whichever happens first — and start making lacquers again for vinyl mastering. Again, that’s a mighty idealistic estimate.
Does that mean I won’t be able to buy new vinyl in 2020?
You will be able to buy new vinyl titles in 2020 — or most of 2020, anyway. Ironically, the long waiting time to get a respective record pressed after cutting its master may be critical in delaying the consequences of low supply of vinyl offerings. That waiting time to press can take several months — and that’s assuming all money needed for the pressing is gathered and ready to spend. (Incidentally, before the mid 2000s, the waiting time used to be dramatically shorter.) Many new albums coming out in 2020 already had their respective masters cut in 2019.
Moreover, some labels that can afford the overhead do purchase and stock up on blank acetate discs in advance. If you guessed that major labels have the upper hand on this overhead compared to independent labels, you’d be right. [Ed: Bigger pressing plants invest in this overhead too, of course.]
However, from the end of 2020 onward will be the big question mark regarding vinyl supply in retail.
And it wouldn’t be surprising if labels began to start a more conservative release schedule effective ASAP. If any label does have a stash of lacquers, they will likely be reserved for releases that the label would consider low-risk in sales — such as legacy artists or hot new acts.
I’m guessing RSD 2020 will go on as planned in April, since most of the titles will have already been pressed, or at least had their masters cut. As for RSD Black Friday 2020 and RSD 2021? Hmmm.
I recorded some music and was planning to fund my own vinyl pressing of it. What do I do now?
I hope you have quite a bit of money and patience — more than ever before.
Your only immediate options for mastering new vinyl in the near term will be DMM aka Direct Metal Mastering. You can get excited about the science of it described on their Wikipedia page, if you wish. And, yes, the noticeable lack of a dependence on lacquers is key.
The problem with mastering at a DMM plant isn’t that it won’t work — today anyway. This interview with Abbey Road mastering engineer Miles Showell highlights the key dilemma: all of the original DMM designers are now dead, and they didn’t write everything down. So any DMM plant will operate until, well, it no longer can. Then that’s basically it for that plant.
The more pressing (pun semi-intended) problem with getting a mastering done at a DMM plant is that there are only half a dozen of them in the world. Most of the queued up demand for new vinyl pressings will spill over onto these DMM plants — increasing their new client base by roughly 10 times more than they had before. If you know how high demand and low supply work, you can already guess what I’m about to say. Expect a very high quote for an offer from a DMM plant if you get one; and expect the wait time for your mastering to be long as well.
Keep in mind that you are also in the same race as other record labels, especially major labels, who will make competition fierce.
There may be cheaper alternatives that do very limited runs, such as lathe cuts. But I think any plant that deals with mastering for a pressing that can be played on a turntable is going to be very overwhelmed in the coming year.
So why can’t artists put out cassettes or CDs again?
Many independent bands and independent labels have been releasing cassettes for the past decade — especially bands that can’t afford vinyl pressings. Cassettes are far cheaper to manufacture than vinyl. While there is Burger Records, for example, we will probably see more cassette-only labels starting up or coming back. (Yes, cassette-only labels have been a thing since the 80s and early 90s. Anyone remember ROIR or Shrimper?)
What about CDs? Most titles on major labels and a few on independent labels are still released on CD. While I could see D.I.Y. artists putting out more limited-edition CD-R’s again in the future, I don’t think there will be a full CD resurgence again like in the 90s and early 2000s, thanks to the mass schadenfreude of the 1999 launch of Napster. (In my humble opinion, there is very little wrong with the CD as an audio medium and product, especially with the potential artwork and metadata presentation — small as it can be — so an artist or label ruling out well packaged CDs after 2020 might be foolish.).
In the meantime, selling digital albums on sites like Bandcamp are an easy option for artists. They’re not physical products, but Bandcamp’s sales model is more analogous to brick-and-mortar retail than MP3 stores on Apple Music (iTunes) or Amazon, for example.
All that said, we can’t ignore streaming services’ presence in the CD or Digital Album scenarios. Many music fans have long checked out from the digital music purchasing model.
How are record labels and record stores going to deal with this?
This is likely the most painful question to answer, given that most of my friends in my entire life work or worked in record stores and/or record labels — mostly independent ones.
Labels are probably thinking deeply about the Vinyl Pause right now. If they’re not, they should. Should they go forward with pursuing new vinyl pressing opportunities, independent labels will likely miss out on relationships with DMM mastering plants (mentioned above) due to competition from major labels. I wouldn’t be surprised if some independent labels stopped vinyl pressings for new titles for a few years, at best, in hope of lacquer production coming back.
Not that major labels are going to recreate the same level of supply as now. Every regular vinyl consumer is going to notice a particular dearth of product by 2021.
Whatever new vinyl pressings that do come out that are DMM mastered will likely cost more and sound brighter and, ur, more different than before because of the nature of DMM mastering. This will likely become the new normal — and again, this is a best case scenario. Be prepared for shiny “Now mastered with DMM!” stickers.
(And regarding the sound of DMM mastered vinyl, I own quite a bit of vinyl, and I believe I own maybe 3 DMM mastered records? So I am staying out of that DMM vs. lacquer debate.)
Now, record stores…
Record stores whose models primarily deal with selling new vinyl pressings are going to suffer circa 2021, for obvious reasons. There’s no way to sugarcoat this.
Record stores that deal almost exclusively with vintage vinyl will be less affected, though record stores in the former category may decide to pivot to selling mainly vintage vinyl as well — adding to the competition for used vinyl product. Either way, I sadly expect to see an acceleration of record stores closing down.
If the Vinyl Pause becomes worse than a pause, no one in the entire vinyl industry is winning — including companies that sell peripherals. When a format is about to die, mass devaluation begins all across the board.
Is vinyl as a format going to die?
Everything comes to an end. I guarantee 100% that vinyl will die as a format in the future. How far into the future is the question.
The Apollo Masters fire certainly seems to accelerate the vinyl industry toward this death. However, there will always be vinyl collectors in the decades to come. And optimistically, there will be an adjustment to a new normal in the coming years as I mention above.
What is worrisome is if the vinyl industry continues to ignore supporting and maintaining all its parts — turntable makers, stylus makers, recording studios, mastering plants, pressing plants, brick-and-mortar record stores, etc. — it could be forced to pause for a long enough time such that even avid vinyl consumers will switch to different hobbies.
And if that happens, vinyl will “die” and become one with the 8-track tape — now an ancient curio that will still exist in thrift shops but will require buyers to be on their own for procuring used working equipment to play them.
Now, I don’t think the Apollo Masters fire alone will do this, but it’s hard not to be cynical about a stubbornness in the music industry in neglecting disaster recovery. Within a year, we’ve now seen two major stories regarding this very crisis: poor archiving practice via the 2008 Universal Studios fire; and now poor, fragile infrastructure in the vinyl industry with the Apollo Masters fire.
In the near term — sidestepping a needless debate about analog vs. digital, vinyl vs. CDs vs. MP3s, zzzzzzz — streaming services are gaining more and more clients as years go by. Most new consumers of vinyl are most likely to gravitate to streaming services, abandoning vinyl in the coming year if there is a perceived slowdown in the supply. So there’s obviously going to be a dip in new vinyl purchases after 2020, no doubt.
Why do you care for vinyl so much? I mean, formats come and go, right? You know that, right?
Despite talking so much about vinyl in this entire piece, the primary reason I’m writing all of this is that we don’t lose a vital part of the music industry, period — notably our core network of independent labels whose innovations have allowed the entire music industry to thrive. The music industry has flirted with disaster on and off through the past century, but I no longer trust we can risk another flirt and ignore it.
While I don’t agree with everything in his article, Craig Havighurst’s “The Devaluation of Music: It’s Worse Than You Think” from 2015 hits on many key points that are still valid today — and highlights why the music industry is in a more fragile spot than ever. It’s become more common to hear from friends, “I just listen to podcasts now. I rarely listen to music anymore.” Music is becoming more ephemeral to more people, and this feels entirely preventable. And yet, here we are.
This can’t be more easily said than done, but perhaps it’s time for a conference to discuss upgrading the vinyl industry’s infrastructure. Major labels will likely prefer to play to their own tune, but I do hope that at least independent labels, stores, and artists alike can converge on a solution that will protect their livelihoods. If that means vinyl is deemed too expensive an industry to maintain, so be it. It would be better to have a network of independent music lovers making a living than none at all.
With the advent of 3D printers, why can’t kids just 3D print their own custom rec…
One night in late 1989 under the stairs of their parents’ home in Sevenoaks, England just southeast of London, brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll recorded onto a cassette tape some sounds using a few synthesizers and a sequencer. Under the name Orbital, that recording would become their debut single, “Chime”. They gave a cassette copy to their friend, DJ and dance music mentor Jazzy M (real name, Michael Schiniou.)
Jazzy M is one of a few DJs credited with popularizing house music in the UK. One of the artists he helped and championed was Chicago musician Steve “Silk” Hurley a.k.a. J.M. Silk, who scored a UK #1 hit with “Jack Your Body” in January of 1987. “Jack Your Body”‘s success paved the way for the accelerating popularity of house and techno music in the UK. The Hartnoll brothers had gotten into house and techno around this time, so they were happy to orbit DJ Jazzy M. He had given brutally honest feedback and suggestions to Orbital before.
Paul Hartnoll was able to get a couple of his tracks, under the alias D.S. Building Contractors, onto the 1988 compilation The House Sound of London, Vol. IV – The Jackin’ Zone. The biggest UK hit from The House Sound of London was “We Call it Acieed” by D-Mob featuring Gary Haisman. However, the success of this song didn’t translate to more attention to Paul Hartnoll as D.S. Building Contractors.
It was that time again for Jazzy M to judge Orbital’s new cassette submission, “Chime”. Orbital were surely waiting for the latest lecture. This time, Jazzy M didn’t shake his head in disapproval. Instead, he looked up at Orbital and started smiling. Jazzy M eagerly stated he was starting his own record label, Oh’Zone Records, to release “Chime” on 12″, to Orbital’s utter shock.
Oh’Zone Records pressed 2000 copies of “Chime”, and they all sold out immediately. Within a month or so, Orbital were courted by half a dozen record labels. They signed with FFRR records, a London Records subsidiary dance label founded and run by BBC radio DJ Pete Tong. (FFRR Records were the same label that released The House Sound of London that featured Paul Hartnoll’s earlier work.) FFRR re-released Orbital’s “Chime” 12″ and released a 7″ version for commercial radio airplay. In late March of 1990, “Chime” peaked on the UK Singles Chart at #17. That’s quite a return on investment for a recording that cost Orbital nothing, other than the cassette it was recorded on.
“Chime” is less of a capital-P pop song and more of a gleaming rhythm template, not unlike Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” or Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” All three of these tracks became DNA to decades of club music that followed. “Chime”‘s minimalist mix of acid house and bell pattern ushers dancers onto the floor, yet the song is always resonant and gentle. Simon Reynolds, in his 1998 book Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (retitled Generation Ecstasy in the U.S.), described “Chime” as pivoting “around a tintinnabulating, crystalline sequence of notes that hop and skip down the octave like a shiver shimmying down your spine.”
The success of “Chime” ushered in a multi-decade career for Orbital. They experimented with unique sounds, melodies and rhythms immediately after that first taste of success, wanting to show they weren’t a one-track wonder. Orbital’s sophomore album from 1993, known as either Orbital 2 or The Brown Album depending on whom you talk to, is among the most acclaimed electronic dance albums of all time, featuring tracks such as “Halcyon”, “Lush 3”, and the environmentally anxious club hit “Impact (The Earth is Burning)”
Orbital’s top billing in the 1994 Glastonbury Festival, combined with the festival’s first major live telecast that year on British network Channel 4, gained Orbital instant crossover fandom. This broadcast garnered new fans many of which never went to a rave or even a dance club.
They are still active and experimenting today. Orbital released a single on October 20, 2022 called “Dirty Rat”, a collaboration with Nottingham political post-punk duo Sleaford Mods. The explicitly angry song’s release day of October 20 is the very day Conservative Liz Truss resigned as Prime Minster of the UK, due to budgetary turmoil and inner Conservative Party turmoil among several other reasons. (Truss is now best known for being, so far anyway, the shortest-serving Prime Minister in British history, at just 44 days.) “Dirty Rat” will appear on Orbital’s upcoming tenth studio album Optical Delusion in early 2023 — their twenty-eighth release if you count their nine studio albums, four soundtracks, three remix collections, two hits collections and nine live releases.
As far as “Chime” itself goes, Orbital have, so far, released at least twenty-six versions of “Chime”, either as remixes or live versions. Orbital have played “Chime” in almost all of their live shows, often as a set ender or encore. No one has been more loyal to “Chime” than Orbital, which is saying a lot, given how many fans consider that song a classic for electronic dance music overall. The Hartnoll brothers could have easily left “Chime” in the rear view mirror months after its chart peak and not have jeopardized their career one bit. Instead, Orbital revere “Chime” like an only child and patron saint.
Why are Orbital so loyal to “Chime” anyway? What was it specifically about “Chime” that entranced UK dance culture at the dawn of the 90s? How was “Chime” able to spark and circulate so easily and quickly, years before virality vectors such as the World Wide Web and social media?
The success of J.M. Silk’s “Jack Your Body” brought house and techno 12″ singles from Chicago and Detroit into the UK mainstream. This and the subsequent rise of acid house played a big part in spawning The Second Summer of Love, a roughly year-long zeitgeist in the UK from 1988 to 1989 that ignited the popularity of dance music and raves, legal and illegal — and yes, the Second Summer popularized the drug MDMA (also know as Ecstasy, E, or Molly.) Euphoria and community were the anthems of The Second Summer of Love. The ensuing moral panic and crackdowns on raves during the latter years of the Thatcher era certainly added rebellion as an anthem, too.
One particular dance hit in 1987, “Pump Up The Volume” by M|A|R|R|S — a fluke 4AD Records collaboration gone rogue — was a surprise to everyone involved when it got to #1 in seven countries. “Pump Up The Volume” is a DJ workout and mega-mix more than anything else mentioned here. Stylistically, it has little in common with Orbital’s music or that of most of their peers. But “Pump Up The Volume”‘s dominion over the dance and pop charts worldwide, into 1988, reminded introverted DJs and artists everywhere that even they could have a global hit song. (There may or may not be a future Depth First entry on “Pump Up The Volume.”)
Sure enough, more dance hits from previously unknown artists under strange monikers were cropping up, especially in the UK. For example, Manchester’s Gerald Simpson, who went by and still goes by A Guy Called Gerald, peaked on the UK Singles Chart with his minimal lucid acid house track “Voodoo Ray” in mid July of 1989. And in December of 1989, right around when Orbital were dreaming of making “Chime” a hit, Manchester’s 808 State were peaking on the UK Singles Chart with their acid house chill-out track “Pacific State.” (Incidentally, Gerald Simpson was once a member of 808 State, but he acrimoniously left the group earlier in 1989 due to fallout from other 808 State members finishing the track “Pacific State” without his consent. Thankfully, A Guy Called Gerald and 808 State have since resolved their differences.) The dream of a fluke house & techno hit was very much in the air throughout 1989. The underground dance scenes were growing more popular each year, even as the Second Summer was waning. This setting surely helped Orbital’s “Chime” go viral very quickly.
It’s no surprise that “Chime” has similarities in its beats and bass sounds to that of Kevin Saunderson, a Detroit Techno music pioneer — notably through his group Inner City’s 1988 hit “Big Fun.” It’s also not a shock that the heavenly arpeggiating melody of “Chime” is likely inspired by one of Paul Hartnoll’s beloved musical influences, the Australian experimental electronic group Severed Heads — for example, the bouncy percussive melody from their 1987 track “Jetlag.”
But neither “Big Fun” nor “Jetlag” sound as divine as “Chime.” There are few predecessors to the specific aura of that song. One notable early 80s track that shares that jangling ecstasy is “The Jezebel Spirit”, a song from Brian Eno and David Byrne’s 1981 collaboration album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. And yet, “The Jezebel Spirit”‘s samples of an an evangelist’s supposed exorcism of a poor woman on-stage may serve as unsettling commentary on religion, whereas “Chime” is hovering happily above commentary, with no vocal samples to improve or dampen the mood.
If a melee of bell sounds over a groove is the sound of heaven to many, what could be a better source for that than soca music? Soca is a subgenre of calypso, invented proudly by musician Ras Shorty I, better known as Lord Shorty, real name Garfield Blackman, from Trinidad and Tobago. Lord Shorty released several albums throughout the 70s, featuring primarily uptempo dance numbers with heavy use of congas and timbales. It’s not just the percussion that Orbital’s “Chime” has in common with the music of Lord Shorty and other Caribbean artists. “Chime”‘s primary refrain lends itself to be easily covered in an Afro-Caribbean dance style.
Now it’s time to back out of the musical rabbit hole.
The Hartnoll brothers clearly have numerous musical influences that make the small track list above look quaint. Of course, musicians don’t compose music by culling musical ideas from their entire mental topology, extracting one tiny idea from each neuron in a scenic loop through the brain. The creative process is as respiratory as it is cognitive. Getting ideas onto tape (or digital memory or storage) is quite a subconscious exercise. While it’s fun to guess what musical influences inspired a work, no one outside Orbital truly knows why they made a song a certain way. Certainly, I don’t. Paul Hartnoll admitted in a 2018 interview in The Guardian regarding “Chime”, “I certainly wasn’t trying to make a hit record.”
While working on this entry, my brain kept landing on Orbital’s cheekiest version of “Chime”, out of all twenty-six versions. Released in December of 2013 — “Christmas Chime” was delivered. It’s basically “Chime” wearing a Santa hat. There are a few new notes and Christmas sounds overdubbed on top. I can only guess Orbital were throwing their hat in the ring to get a UK Christmas #1 hit with as little effort as possible. (If you’re unfamiliar with the UK Christmas #1 phenomenon. Chris Molanphy, writer and host of SlateMagazine podcast Hit Parade does an excellent job explaining this during his 2018 episode “Christmas is All Around”.)
If the difference between “Chime” and “Christmas Chime” is just a figurative Santa hat, what does this say about “Chime”? The song title clearly hints that bells are its primary emulated sound. And sure, bells have been used to drive meditation sessions in various religions, particularly Buddhism, for a very long time. Bells are, of course, omnipresent during the holiday season. Anyone who lives in a country that has a sizable Christian population expects sleigh bells and church bells in all forms of media every November into December. The sounds of Christmas provide a warm blanket of nostalgia and security for many who celebrate it or are surrounded by it. And from many accounts, “Chime” was written during the onset of the 1989 holiday season.
Now, I’ve never taken ecstasy (please, don’t all gasp at once), and given the current state of the world, I don’t think I’ll ever start. I obviously won’t discount the connection between Ecstasy and rapturous experiences ravers have today or back in the day. For those who wish to make music in an enhanced state, there must be some other context with which to synergize. When one is surrounded in all forms of consumption by the sounds of sleigh bells and church bells year after year, they can seep below one’s awareness, then germinate in unexpected ways. Just sayin’. Moreover, Orbital’s success with “Chime” certainly brought brighter days and a brighter future to the Hartnoll brothers’ lives.
Aside from thoughts on the passing of Vern Rumsey, it has been almost been three years since I last wrote a long form entry here. Imagine if the worst problem in the world was a vinyl lacquer shortage, as I lamented one early February day in the year 2020.
Expect more frequent entries here about my thoughts on music. You’ve been warned.