Thursday, September 11, 2008

METAFORM: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Metaform - Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

One afternoon last year I was listening to a local rock radio station and the disc jockey, after playing Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”, mused about having heard those drums sampled countless times. “And we believe,” he said, apparently speaking on behalf of the middle-aged, ponytail-wearing Guitar Center employees that listen to his program “that sampling is not music.” He called it “stealing.”

It’s only fair to mention that “When the Levee Breaks” is one of the few times Led Zeppelin actually gave credit to the source of their own theft; the album jacket credits Memphis Minnie, the actual writer of the song, as a co-author, along with Page and Plant, who did no more to change it than the countless other performers who have interpolated it. Led Zeppelin were notorious plagiarizers: Jimmy Page didn’t write “Dazed and Confused”, and Led Zeppelin were not, contrary to the writing credit, the authors of “In My time of Dying.” Listen to the song “Taurus” by the band Spirit (a great band, by the way,) and then listen to “Stairway to Heaven”, released two years later. Yeah, you could call that plagiarism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

There’s a quote often attributed to T.S. Eliot: “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” Picasso is credited with saying “Mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal.” Stravinsky is quoted as saying “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.” Obviously, someone was stealing from someone, which, given the nature of the quote, is apropos. T.S. Eliot went on to say “The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.”

Creating art through the amalgamation of appropriated sources is not new; even the book of Genesis is made up of various myths, recast to suit ancient Judaism. The American folk tradition includes countless songs of ambiguous origin, many assembled from parts of other songs. “Well I woke up this morning,” the Stagger Lee story, and the 12-bar blues chord progression must have started somewhere, but we have come to enjoy them as a communal pool of raw materials available to anyone wishing to create music.

Now that our interaction with music is so dominated by recorded music, it’s only natural that recordings join that communal pool. The Amen Break, for example, is like a modern version of the 12-bar blues progression. (See this great short film on the break's significance: While legal ideas about copyright and intellectual property interfere from time to time, the art of sampling has thrived and allowed for some of the most creative popular music made since the late 1970s. In fact, without sampling, Hip-Hop and Drum and Bass music wouldn’t exist. Thus, the world would be 30% more boring.

Metaform’s Standing on the Shoulders of Giants wouldn’t exist either, and my summer would have been 30% more boring. I spent practically all summer with a pair of headphones pumping this music into my brain and I’m still not tired of it.

This isn’t a beat-tape or a feature-length mashup (not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things,) this is a fully formed, original album, probably the best of its kind since Endtroducing.

Metaform doesn’t just stack beat-mapped loops on top of each other; he composes songs from raw materials samples from other records, unopposed to recording his own instrumentation to sweeten the deal. This album blazes through 19 tracks in 45 minutes and there’s never a dull moment. Where some producers will drag one idea out past its limit, Metaform knows exactly when to change course, and this album is perfectly paced and constructed to create a “whole of feeling”. Laid back, soulful and shifting carefully between dusky moodiness and bright cheerfulness, this music makes it clear that it didn’t take Metaform five years to make it because he’s lazy, but because his attention to detail is impeccable.

The drums sometimes skitter and sometimes bob, horns and guitars swell and disappear, synths percolate and a number of sonic textures drop in; vibraphones (“Lonely Boy”), flutes (“Lamenting Break”) and a fantastic saxophone solo (“Urban Velvet”).

Metaform makes good use of the human voice, as well. The melancholic “Sunday” layers a wispy vocal snippet over twinkling keys and muscular drums to great effect, and the Radiator Lady from Eraserhead makes an unexpected cameo during “Heaven Can Wait”.

A lot of the samples used on this record have been used before; David Axelrod, James Brown, the “Apache” break. In the blog on his Myspace, Metaform explains “we are all digging in the same crates… A photographer can take a picture of the Pyramids in Egypt, which have been photographed millions of times, but their picture will still be totally unique. There are many factors to consider: experience, lens, angle, and so on. The picture will be unique.” T.S Eliot would be proud.

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