Love Letter – Playing Prog Rock Fucking Loud

Disclaimer: hearing health is no joke, kids. It’s one of those things that are easiest to ignore when you’re young but that then degrade over time, your past taking its gruesome revenge on you. If you want to keep listening to music when you’re older (or keeping your hearing in tact altogether), please be smart about these things. Recording or going to a live show? Wear ear plugs. Want to listen loudly at home? Good speakers are healthier than headphones. Take care of yourselves; tinnitus is a bitch.

You know the part: the drums, thick and resonating, pick up pace, the bass licks in anticipation of the crescendo and all of a sudden the synths are there, Hammond goodness washing over the soaring guitar parts as the vocals explode into a high note. This structure of “ensemble buildup”, where the entire band joins forces to form the climax of a track, is a staple of many genres but progressive rock has always been the best at it. King Crimson‘s “Starless”, Yes‘s “Heart of the Sunrise”, Wishbone Ash‘s “Throw Down the Sword” (containing one of the world’s most important and most forgotten solos), Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon and many, many other tracks and albums come to mind. Even younger bands operating today and paying homage to the style (like MaladyWobblerWitchcraft and more) adopt the prominence of the climax and full band collaboration.

The main thing I love about this style though is that it sounds so fucking good when it’s played loudly. I’ve always loved playing progressive rock loudly as a result, especially works from the original heyday of the late 60’s and 70’s. There’s just something so pleasing about hearing those synths kick in and the guitars struggle to be heard above them when everything is loud, like the conflict and then conjoining of instruments is writ on a huge canvas, augmenting the epic nature of the moment. There are also, obviously, a few “technical”, “objective” reasons for why these passages work so well, as I was kindly informed on a Facebook post of mine a few days ago.

The biggest one is about dynamics; when the production approach, before the Loudness War, emphasized the tension between quiet and loud passages, the benefit of volume was more immediately felt. When everything is a loud block, waveforms made to serve tyrannical molds, volume doesn’t matter as much; there’s less nuance. But when a track goes from the quietest passages to loud chaos (“Starless” and “Heart of the Sunrise” are specifically fantastic examples of this and how moving a quick switch between the two can be) and your speakers are on high volume, that contrast gets punched home all the better. A second reason also has to do with how these albums were recorded, namely live.

Sitting in one studio, all instruments flowing into one board instead of being sliced and chopped up, something about that recording process just lends itself well to high volumes. The natural tones of tape recorders, vinyl and “present in the room” instruments all benefit from being played loudly. It’s not that I don’t like modern production; I don’t think one style is inherently better than the other. But for the shimmering guitar tones, vocal styles and overall flavor of progressive rock, that style of old school production is what works. Perhaps that was even part of the reason it gained such a following and was so great to begin with; fitting in with a culture that wanted to rebel, to experience otherworldly visions, to disconnect, benefiting from high volumes could only have been an advantage.

But, at the end of the day, beyond “objective” reasons and “technical” explanations, it just feels so fucking good to blast a good rock track loud. Especially on speakers, at home, on a Friday, a long noon which seems to stretch into eternity, a cold/hot drink in your hands (depending on the weather) and the walls reverberating to the sounds of Telecasters, Hammonds and visions of other worlds/mental states. Whether vintage or contemporary, there’s just some sort of power in the well executed progressive rock track and the reproduction of it on my speakers. Loudly.

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Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.






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