angst is a musical emotion

‘Lumen’ begins presaging doom. For 40 seconds, an ominous percussive synth is all you can hear. A backdrop; a snowy pine forest in winter, barren, no people in sight. Then, gradually but beautifully, it densens, flowers, first with a delicate treble melody, then bass sliding in to add depth, and finally, a Doppler effect synth and a drum track filling out the soundscape.

As the song began to play at Corsica Studios, whatever it is that moves in me leapt to my throat and pulled me towards the speakers at the front of the club. To think, I once thought I couldn’t dance to ‘dance’. My back to the soundsystem, I soaked up the bass, let the drums move me, remembered how to breathe, how to fall in love.


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My usual cycle for falling in love with a new song takes about three weeks. The most intense attachment is usually at the very beginning, in the first few days. I play it seven or eight times a day at least, sometimes dozens, which eases off to three or four times a day in the following weeks. As it becomes familiar, I keep playing it but gradually stop paying so much attention. Eventually, I still have the fond memories but the song can no longer move me. It’s like the arc of a relationship squeezed into microtime.

Sometimes a song grabs me the first time I hear it. This is true mostly of tracks which resemble earlier loves. I guess this is the logic Spotify Recommends relies on. For instance, Spotify recently recommended ‘It’s Your Love’ by Hannah Lou Clark, which could almost be a Honeyblood track, and I was won by it immediately. It’s tight, tense and rocky, just long enough to deliver on its songly promises but short enough to go on repeat. I probably love it because I understand it – I’m attuned to its chord progressions and structure; I know what I’m expecting and it delivers, predictably but with enough novelty and energy to feel fresh.

‘Lumen’ took a little longer – three or four listens, and the anticipation of going to see Throwing Snow live. The only time I’ve truly loved something similar was a couple of years ago when Aphex Twin released Syro and I put ‘180db_ [130]’ on my ‘New Finds’ playlist before gradually forgetting it existed. ‘180db’ reminds me of Mr Scruff – its chromatic synths and funky rhythms are playful, but there’s little to it beyond that. By comparison, ‘Lumen’ is rich and intense, even angsty. I didn’t think a track without lyrics could be angsty, but of course it can: angst is a musical emotion, all heartbeat and physical tension, an easy feeling to replicate in sound.

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When I first started listening to ‘Lumen’, it reminded me intensely of Surfacing by Margaret Atwood. I haven’t read Surfacing for years, but I felt both this music and that novel in the same way: tension (which in ‘Lumen’ is a relationship between sounds, and in Atwood between characters), ominousness (in ‘Lumen’ the undulating chord progression, in Atwood the threat of environmental destruction) and the moments of “surfacing” (either from each metallic motif in ‘Lumen”s aural landscape, from emotional turmoil in either, or from the icy water of Atwood’s Canadian lakes). The two stories, though told in different forms and languages, seemed to me set in the same worlds.

How does this happen? How come the arts criss-cross like this? How do paintings inspire songwriters and music inspires poets? Why do different artistic products speak to us in such similar, compatible ways?

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