March 28, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Mark de Silva's Square Wave is a bold and ambitious novel of ideas, easily one of the year's finest debuts.
Flavorwire wrote of the book:
"A novel that looks our technocratic, militarized present in the face, Square Wave tells the story of a night watchman who discovers weaponized weather modification technologies. It sounds crazy, but in de Silva's hands it all makes perfect (and terrifying) sense."
Square Wave has a lot of music in it, much of it peculiar. One strand of the plot involves musicians attempting to transcend the scalar limits imposed by mere contingencies of modern instrumentation, the piano in particular. I don’t really want to talk about this here, though. I also want to bypass a discussion of the music I listened to while writing the book, except to say Mahler loomed large. I’d rather talk about rock—indie rock, taken broadly. The connection to the book is simple: each of the following bands gets at least a mention, and in one case a chapter, in the novel.
“Hip Priest” (1982)—The Fall
Though it’s too narrow a view to take of such a seminal band, I do often find myself thinking of The Fall as Pavement before Pavement. That’s especially true of this tune, down to the title itself. Mark E. Smith’s vocal cadences here are strikingly like Stephen Malkmus’s—the same ennui-drenched insouciance, the same off-handed mix of irony, comedy, and contempt (the snarl is a vital part of both singer’s repertoires).
“Do Not Consider Yourself Free” (1987)—Embrace
Here’s Ian MacKaye, post-Minor Threat yet pre-Fugazi, declaiming: “And yes of course I’m scared of getting hurt / And yes of course I’m scared of being wrong / But at the same time my silence will convict me / And the evil will carry on.” A perfect articulation of the hardcore ethos mutating in the post-hardcore era. I like all phases of MacKaye, but this transitional one—Embrace made only one album, and Fugazi was born soon after—is especially compelling to me.
This song is Can playing things relatively straight, yet with hints of the dissonance and difficulty that were always at the heart of the band. Experimental rock has never found a weirder exponent. The band’s double album Tago Mago is a useful reminder to me of how flexible the rock idiom can be.
“Work from Smoke” (1994)—Gastr del Sol
Gastr has always seemed to me the high point of that recondite strain of indie-rock that surfaced in Chicago in the 1990s. One of their specialties was the atonal acoustic-guitar riff. This classic 12-minute track is a good example, stringing several of them together seamlessly. It’s also overlaid with lyrics with a claim to being poetry rather than the typical rock blather (The Fall rates well on this score too).
“Thermal Treasure” (1993)—Polvo
Polvo is a band that revels in time-signature shifts and angular, harmonically complex guitarwork, though without abandoning the fuzzed propulsiveness of post-punk. In some ways, they’re the thinking-man’s (early) Sebadoh—though I adore Sebadoh, for other qualities.
“Night Air” (1994)—Tortoise
Square Wave actually has a scene devoted to Tortoise bassist Bundy K. Brown. Rhythms are the key to this band; John MacEntire, a drummer of other-worldly skill, has something to do with that. So of course does Bundy. They’ve also got an ominous, bass-heavy tonal palette. Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” might have used some their tracks to good effect, though Neil Young did pretty well all by himself.
“Dreams of Being King” (1998)—Dianogah
This band famously had two bassists, along with vocals that were talked or shouted but rarely sung over them. There’s an intricacy, a delicacy even, to their use of the lower registers that is unique and cogent. This song gets a name-check in Square Wave. Bright, airy, hypnotic, wistful.
“Good Morning, Captain” (1991)—Slint
This is off of Spiderland, one of the most influential indie albums there is. Many of the bands on this playlist, in fact, are unthinkable without Slint. “Spiderland” was the right choice of title. These songs creep toward you. And they’re venomous.
This song comes down to massive power chords moving in slow motion and crushing everything in waves. I suppose this is what I would have drowning feel like (presumably the real thing isn’t quite so pleasant). This Japanese band operates all over the metal spectrum, but it’s their drone metal tracks that most appeal to me. There are also the tracks that are nothing but gorgeously orchestrated feedback.
This three-minute tune, built from three sludgy chords arranged in a triumphant diatonic progression, is uncharacteristic of this seminal drone metal band, in both its brevity and consonance. Still, it’s one of my favorites. I set it to repeat and wrote parts of the book to it, actually. (That’s my token concession to music vis-à-vis writing “process” here, then.) The band is purely instrumental, and the music aims to numb your mind, in the best way (Boris clearly picked up a trick or two from them). But lighter qualities sneak in through song titles: “Tibetan Quaaludes,” say, or “Site Specific Carnivorous Occurrence.” Both are tremendous tracks—“primal” and “monstrous” are the best words I can think of to describe their appeal—and they’re also probably more representative of the band’s M.O. than is “Harvey.”
Mark de Silva and Square Wave links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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