Crash Chords: Do You Hear What I Hear?

Christmas-time cues the start of the sonic parade of nonstop carol medleys, sentimental wishing-you-were-here ballads, and religious hymns. It takes some effort to find something on the air that doesn’t sound like it’s being spewed by a perky elf, homesick OFW, or sanctimonious choirboy. During this most frenetic of seasons, ironically there’s a dearth of music to chill out too, or any tunes that just sound cool. This is supposed to be the time of Siberian winds and cold snaps and winter wonderlands (either real, imagined, or simulated) and yet the airwaves all seem to want to keep the sap-o-meter at a nice tepid level. Well, freeze that. Keep your stereo system frostily aloof by shunning those overcooked standards and reheated favorites. Crank up these CDs (or compressed audio files) and drown out the noise of the neighborhood kids and the neighborhood malls that are all just caroling and clamoring for your money anyway.

takk

takk (Photo credit: 1541)

While not exactly having anything to do with the Baby Jesus and Santa Claus, the Icelandic group Sigur Ros’ third album, Takk, can almost make you hear the finger of God stirring up the heavens as he tinkers with the Northern Lights. Takk’s soundscapes flow like a glacier surging past fjords and icebergs. Takk makes us feel the raw yearning of a land defined by ice and frost. It’s like they’ve adapted the better parts of the novel “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” into an avant-garde musical.

Lead singer Jonsi’s chilling falsetto soars over notes of frozen glory, moaning and sighing as if he were the spawn of a Christmas elf and an archangel deep in the throes of orgasm (or dying of hypothermia). With song lyrics written in the mostly-made-up language of ‘Hopelandic’, he could actually be saying “deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la la la la la” for all we know, but the swirling crescendos make it all sound so magnificently grand and profound. It’s best to listen to this record while the temperatures are still low, it just might melt in the summer heat.

The Hague Jazz 2009 - Rod McKuen

The Hague Jazz 2009 – Rod McKuen (Photo credit: Haags Uitburo)

Rod McKuen‘s carols are nothing new or groundbreaking. To most modern listeners, they’d come off as quaintly old-fashioned, but in a good way. In the right mood, his songs can both soothe and charm. Rod speak-sings in a deep, velvety sigh that we Pinoys would characterize as “malamig at suave” (cool and smooth), quite an antidote to the overproduced treacly pap that usually fills the Christmas CD sale bins. Just left of folk, drifting slightly towards ballad territory, and very easy on the ears, Mckuen’s Christmas album presents some songs that are sad, some that are upbeat, but each one lyrically deep. His compositions have the tendency to borrow grace notes from classics like Pachelbel’s Canon or to erupt into delightful instrumental interludes. These are carols you can kick back, sit down, and sip hot chocolate to without having to turn your brain off.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Trans-Siberian Orchestra (Photo credit: James Marvin Phelps)

For more recognizable Christmas music interpreted in an extraordinary style, check out the Trans-Siberian Orchestra‘s rock opera trilogy. This ambitious and complex work tells the story of heaven’s youngest angel called back to earth to continue Jesus’ unfinished work. This time he has to help redeem not only Christmas, but the soul of humankind itself.

Straddling the borders of rock opera, progressive rock, and New Age music, these aren’t your typical Christmas albums. But then, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra just happens to be the alter ego of Savatage, a band known for building on high concepts and complex arrangements, raising them far above the limits of ordinary creativity.

Most of the tracks consist of walls of sound constructed from a mortar of electric guitar, synthesizers, choirs, and drums. Hard and heavy power chords crash into gentle piano or delicate classical guitar melodies. Just when all the bombast starts to get overwhelming, the band intersperses a few peaceful passages featuring vocal or instrumental solos. The effect is sublime but not sentimental, ingenuous but not affected, all in all a very Christmassy contradiction.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published under music column Crash Chords in Manual magazine, 2005

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4 Comments

  1. Crash Chords: D’ Hebigats « judefensor
  2. Crash Chords: Good Vibrations (music for healing) « judefensor
  3. Crash Chords: Listening In Shame (But Liking It!) « judefensor
  4. Crash Chords: Driving Beats (music to travel to) « judefensor

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