too much typing—since 2003

10.31.2004 they are

In the car and at work, my CD listening is more or less random, on purpose - so I periodically end up exploring neglected areas of my collection. I wouldn't exactly call it "neglected," but it's true that I hadn't listened to Agents of Fortune for quite a while. Aside from noting that I'd forgotten what a solid album it is (my friends Roger and John in particular may note its differences from Blue Oyster Cult's earlier material - which I'm thinking I really should explore), let me state outright that "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" is just flat-out brilliant, one of the best songs ever recorded.

First, lots of bands can come up with a cool guitar riff - but try writing one that, musically, works perfectly to establish not only the musical but lyrical atmosphere of the song. The track's about temptation, obsession, and inevitability - and the riff circles around its middle chord (G major), in particularly the note G, constantly being pulled away from its nominal home key (A minor). That temptation requires subtlety, not obviousness...and nearly everything about the track, from its low-key vocals to the organ washes that periodically billow up from the mix, is handled unobtrusively but with confidence. Each section of the track builds to a certain point, increasing tension by switching to sharply strummed eighth-note block chords, for example, only to pull back to near silence.

And then there's the guitar solo. A bit controversial particularly among the more punk-inclined of Blue Oyster Cult's fans, what with punk orthodoxy rejecting extraneous instrumental flash - but I think that notion misses the point. Without it, the song's obsessiveness would seem too easy, too complete, too simple. Or: how can we miss you if you aren't tempted to go away? First, there's that "Twilight Zone"-like guitar figure that constitutes the backdrop to the solo. Its three-note syncopation crosses against the beat of the song, rhythmically analogous to the way the main riff pushes out of its key downward to that G. When it first enters, after a second or so of silence, it almost sounds like another song entirely. It begins some harmonic distance away from the rest of the song, arpeggiating an F minor chord, and when it in fact moves closer to the main key of the song, by way of a subtly-voiced G7 (arpeggiating only F, G, and B), it at first isn't noticeable. But that proves to be important, since the solo, tearing in on the precarious ninth degree of the scale (a quick lick from G to F and back again), after meandering in vaguely eastern mode, ends up with a long fedback tone on...of course, G, which provides the harmonic link back to the main riff, and is suspended over the entirety of the next verse, dissipating finally into an atonal cry. After that, the riff is gone; instead, the last verse locks into the song's obsessive, circular chord sequence (Am/G/F/G), while the guitars hammer that repeated "G" louder and louder. Essentially, the entire song is a dance around, and ultimately toward and into, that single note, a note that rings out over the fade like the afterimage of a nightmare, still felt upon waking.

In fact, it's a perfect song to write about on Halloween...since Halloween is the day when we're allowed to confront, however overlaid with goofiness and commerciality, the flipside of our fear of death: its haunting attraction.


Trickish Knave said...

This was one of the most well written pieces I have ever read describing a song. It is apparent that you know a thing or two about music and prose. This post read like something out of Roling Stone magazine or something.

If I hadn't started playing guitar 2 years ago this post would have been over my head. Arpeggio, increased tension, G7- most people would just describe the song as "kickass" and move on.

I would have to point out that in my determination to play the guitar, really play it, (not just learn a bunch of riffs to impress people only to stop when it comes time to sing the rest of the damn song) I have discovered that these musicians who are raised to an almost genious status because of a few good songs really aren't that geniouses. They just have a solid knowledge of tone and rythym among other things. Anyone familiar with the Rules of Fifths could come up with a good flowing chord progression that sounds decent. Of course the trick is to come up with the lyrics that compliment the music. I learned that so many songs share the same chord progression and it just doesn't take much to write a song. Now don't get me wrong, I love Dharma's guitar playing. He is incredible and I have no business trying to play some his stuff at the level I am at right now. Stone of Love is an inspiration to all up and coming guitar players everywhere.

Now, before I get the backlash comments "Well if it's so easy then why aren't you a rock star??" let me just say that it still takes talent to put it all together. I can play my chords and have even written a few songs but they will never be heard outside my cirlce of friends.

I guess the point I was circling around is that although the songs we love sound great and have mezmerizing chords and riffs in them, I just don't see these guys sitting around and putting these songs together like the music reviewers write about the songs.

Bloom: "I say, I have some mezmerizing low-key vocals here and Lenier, I think you should drown them out every once in a while"

Dharma: "Yeah, I can play a G-7 then bounce around the sister chords for a while."

I don't know, I think these guys just sit around and put this stuff together without even knowing what an arpeggio is. But I am stereotyping to the extreme and I extend this beyond the BOC to all musicians. My favorite artist is Dave Mathews and his stuff is extremely hard for me to play. He has some unusual shord progressions that when played make me stop and think "Wow, how the hell did he come up with that?" then I remember that he, as well as all successful musicians, spend their entire lives learning this stuff. They should know how to do it.

Anyway, Jeff, I am in no way criticizing your taste in music just doing a bit of incoherent rambling. Arguing about what the greatest song in the world is would be like trying to argue the best tasting food. Too subjective to really matter.

I enjoy your site and will frequent it often. It is nice to read a smart blog devoid of AlteRnaTinG CaPs and 5ub5+i+\/+3d characters. Although you are a Kerry supporter I will not hold that against you. Cheers!

2fs said...

You raise the old issue of the extent to which analysis replicates creation. (There's a catchy chorus for the next Britney Spears hit!) I think you're probably right, to an extent, that not that much of what I described was planned as such. However, even if you don't know technical musical terms, if you know music, you know what works - and if you can play your instrument, you know how to play that "what works." Ears are very smart: analysis comes from people trying to figure out why music works the way it does - not people trying to set up rules for other people to work by. And you know, some musicians do talk in relatively technical terms (even rock musicians...). The problem comes when people read such analyses as if the writer thinks he's reproducing the process of composition: I wouldn't pretend to do that. I don't know how BOC came up with that guitar riff: it might have just fallen from the sky and landed beneath someone's fingers. But once you start writing a song with it, you notice certain things about it. That G resonates not only because it's repeated over and over, but also because it's played (most likely) on an open string, a string that, except for the A in the A minor part of the riff, doesn't play any other notes. So in the physical "architecture" of the riff, the resonant centrality of that G is affirmed. Another example: if you've ever heard the promo disc of XTC's "Easter Theatre," you'll hear Andy Partridge describing the way the opening (rather odd) chord sequence came to him both as a sort of finger exercise and led to the song, based on the visual/physical imagery the sound of those chords brought to mind. Ears are very smart, as I said - and so is the body and the hands.

Trickish Knave said...

I couldn't agree with you more on your "go with what works" commnet. My grandparents were music teachers for over 30 years and they gave me and my siblings the same advice. You would htink that after so many years of listening to their technical music speak that I would have picked more of it up.

I found the tablature to the Don't Fear the Reaper and I must confess that it plays nicely and the chord progressions fall in line with the lyrics. Nothing like a good old 6-5-4 progression in the key of C. I also like the fact that there are no irritatingly difficult lyrics-to-chord shifts like a lot of DMB music. I will definately add this song to my 3-ring binder of tabs.

Anonymous said...

Ah, a subject near and dear to my heart. Agents of Fortune was supposedly recorded differently than the previous BOC albums - the individual band members did their own demos and then brought the tapes to the band. "Reaper" was all Buck's song. I believe the recent remastered CD of AoF has Buck's original demo on it, and it's not that much different from what ended up on the album. So I don't think the rest of the band had a lot of input. Buck does the lead vocals, not Eric.

I remember the first couple of times I heard the song on the radio, it was the single version without the guitar solo. When I finally heard the album version I was like "That solo doesn't belong AT ALL". Of course now I feel differently.

And thanks for writing an entire blog entry about "Reaper" without mentioning cowbells...