An interesting phenomenon amid the debate about declining music sales in the internet age is that as sales of CDs are nosediving, vinyl sales are steadily rising. I myself have had a record player since Christmas, and I’ve been trying to work out just what it is about a format which is generally more expensive and volatile that has somehow developed an allure.
Maybe at some point I got so accustomed to CDs that I started romanticising vinyl. There are all sorts of silly reasons which sound sillier written down – the artwork is so big, it has lovely crackles and pops, borrowed nostalgia, etc. – but one of the most fascinating elements of it is the physical processes involved. The actual mechanics of needles and grooves is more of a mystery to me than CDs. Bizarrely, it makes more sense that lasers and zeros and ones can produce music; perhaps it is a generational thing but digital processes seem to me paradoxically more intuitive. I can’t get over the way vinyl is basically a tiny needle getting very precisely jiggled around such that it produces sounds theoretically more dense and nuanced than the mp3 format currently allows – it’s mind-boggling, and there’s always a little of that sense of wonder that will never fade.
I find that the more primitive technology is more magical than its successor. I guess back when CDs started taking over, those who held this opinion must have seemed like luddites, so it’s interesting that I have this restored bond with it, as I barely have any memory of my parents playing records when I was little, other than maybe my mum’s Chaka Khan and Eurythmics. But there’s a further element to this physicality: I find the pure ritual itself deeply satisfying; the midway flip is not an inconvenience but a mechanism encouraging a re-engagement with the album, physically and mentally. I identify with the small minority who prefer using fountain pens, rolling their own cigarettes, using tea leaves, still own a typewriter, and abstain from buying Kindles, simply because it forces a deeper personal connection with the process itself and the outcome thereof. The thoroughly pragmatic technological progress encouraged by capitalism marginalises this romanticism – and that makes it all the more romantic. What society has come to see as inconvenience is for some a tiny refuge against a larger structure – it sounds pretentious to suggest that playing vinyl rather than mp3s is a political gesture, but I think there’s at least a grain of truth in the idea that deliberate technological regression is a means of distancing oneself from capitalism.
A more common debate that follows similar lines applies to the process of creating music, as there is a lot of backlash against musicians relying too heavily on studio tricks. Auto-tune in particular is subject of a great deal of criticism, because it is perceived as eliminating the need for musical talent. I can think of a few examples of the device being used tastefully (Bon Iver, and one moment on Mount Eerie’s Clear Moon), and I’d welcome any music which explored the possibilities of Auto-tune rather than using it as a crutch. Within this backlash I think there’s also an extent to which people are expressing a romanticised preference for imperfection, for rough surfaces rather than gloss, and I think that’s one reason many people are reverting to vinyl.
Even though Lee Ranaldo created From Here To Infinity long before vinyl was being phased out, the record’s concept seems to me to be a challenge to the developing pragmatics of the listening experience. The album was made before I was born, recorded between 1983-6 and released in 1987, (the same year as Sonic Youth’s Sister), and it was one of the first vinyl records I bought, secondhand on eBay. I bought it because my attraction to vinyl is partly enhanced by how many mastering and pressing tricks the format enables which are unachievable on CDs, and From Here To Infinity crams in as many of these tricks as possible.
The most notable feature is that every single track ends in a locked groove. The tracks spiral for the runtime stated on the back, before hitting one circular groove, so after each composition finishes, the needle replays another 1.33 seconds of sound over and over until the listener chooses to lift the needle and move it to the next track. Other notable locked grooves include the end of ‘A Day in the Life’ on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (often cited as the first locked groove containing music), and the second side of Godspeed You Black Emperor!’s F#A#∞ (hence the infinity symbol in the album’s title); however, From Here To Infinity is certainly the first LP to give each track a locked groove, perhaps the first to introduce one midway through an album.
It’s also unusual because it’s on clear vinyl, which makes the grooves themselves visually stand out even more. It contains an etching on the second side, of an ouroboros (a snake eating its own tail), similar to the one on the cover. The etching is even given its own track title, ‘Sav X’, with a runtime of infinity, but attempting to run the needle through it would damage both your record player and the vinyl. (George Ingram recently pioneered the first ever playable etching, on the Record Store Day release of Jack White’s song ‘Sixteen Saltines’).
There’s another easter egg too: the etched inscriptions in the runout grooves. While nearly every record has a few digits in the runout grooves that indicate a serial number for the mastering process, this record has extra inscriptions added by Ranaldo: Side A reads “FUCK THE FUTURE; Side B reads “ELECTRICITY COMES FROM OTHER PLANETS”. The text is very small and only visible in a certain light. Both sides carry a second inscription, reading “A PORKY PRIME CUT”, but this isn’t unique to From Here To Infinity. George “Porky” Peckham, one of the most prolific and skilful record cutters in in the business, engineered the vinyl, and left his insignia the grooves of thousands of records.
It seems to me that Ranaldo was anticipating the technological advances that would revolutionise the listening experience, and realising that vinyl was on its way out, strove to create something that would be recognised as a celebration of the format, and perhaps he was rather hoping the record would gain retrospective intrigue as vinyl began to disappear from shelves. There is no satisfactory equivalent on either CDs or digital formats for any of the features which make this album so intriguing, which is why it surprises me that the album was rereleased on CD format, in a heavily modified form.
I actually find it hard to imagine enjoying the album on any other format. It’s comprised of “some, er, ‘found’ noises, sundry electronic sounds, Lee and his guitar”, according to the press release included in my copy. It’s a noise record, with no real melodies or structures at all; a briefer and less brutal offspring of Metal Machine Music. But whereas Metal Machine Music was initially perceived as completely anarchist and formless, just pure sheets off feedback, it isn’t – it was produced very meticulously, albeit intentionally disorientatingly. And I have to admit that Ranaldo’s take on noise isn’t as sophisticated as most of its pioneers or contemporary innovators. I love Sonic Youth and think that Ranaldo wrote some of their best, most underrated songs (‘Skip Tracer’, ‘Hey Joni’, ‘Karen Revisited’…) but he doesn’t excel at this type of music. Compared to noise deconstructionists like Kazumoto Endo and John Wiese, or soundscapers like Yellow Swans and Zs, in my opinion, Ranaldo’s textures are comparatively thinner and thus never quite achieve either technical fascination or moody immersion. I find myself waiting for each track’s most intriguing and unique part, the locked groove.
I listen to lots of secondhand vinyl, and I borrow records from a largely-neglected collection at my university’s CD Library, which have been sitting on dusty shelves for over twenty years. I often encounter unintentional locked grooves formed by dust and grime. It can be annoying, and you have to get up and nudge the needle to fix it, but I often find myself enjoying the new soundscape which these skips open up; each groove has a new, stilted rhythm to it, and lyrics become decontextualised syllables that no longer sound like words – there’s often a beauty in the unintentional snippets of language.
Ranaldo really gets to grips with these moments where you try and wrap your head around these looping fragments. Whereas usually the rhythm and tempo of a piece of music has no relation to the shape and size of the vinyl, when the locked grooves click into place, there’s a palpable synthesis between the physical movement of the record and the undulations of the music on the groove. Sometimes the locked grooves depart totally from the noises which precede them; sometimes they’re quieter than the track preceding it (‘Fuzz/Locusts’) and sometimes they burst in louder (‘To Mary’). Sometimes the final grooves are continuations of the track, for instance on ‘Destruction Site’ each channel plays a separate, desynchronised whirr of fricative guitar noise over a billowing cloud of bass tones, culminating in a locked groove which takes a snapshot of that chaos and begins to give it rhythm – in a stumbling, decentred fashion, the right plays a triplet while the left has two uneven peaks – and beneath that, gravelly spikes of white noise. Whereas the rest of the track seems devoid of tonality, looping the final groove results in melodic chimeras, appearing only when you focus in on them, almost like the melodic patterns of speech which we only subconsciously register; and indeed, two other locked grooves on the album consist of spoken samples which work in this way.
There is no speech on the record other than on these locked grooves: both tracks finish by snapping from guitar noise straight into contrastingly candid, stark voices. ‘Ourobouros’ is full of grating swells of feedback, threatening to burst into something painfully harsh, but it lasts only 48 seconds and ends with a mid-sentence fragment of a man (who sounds nothing like Lee Ranaldo) saying something indistinct, with just a faint swell of feedback in the right channel. The listener is invited to piece together what the speaker might be saying – I get as far as “they were more interested in”, but there are further half-syllables I can’t decipher, and he could be referring to just about anything. It’s a very ordinary, plainly-spoken fragment, but the more one dwells in this suspended moment, the more remarkable it sounds – the more you notice its lilting melody, the more you begin to guess what the speaker might be talking about. Closing track ‘The Open End’ features an even vaguer sample: one male voice seems to say “I’d quite like to” while another quieter voice in the background says something even less clear, and the swell of abrasive noise in the middle of the loop creates further obscurity.
The effect of these spoken grooves reminds me of Steve Reich’s piece Different Trains, in which he used fragments of interviews about train lines during World War 2. The piece is scored for a string quartet and tapes, as the strings imitate a moving train which is sometimes sampled, and interview fragments are introduced one by one, while one instrument mimics the mellifluous patterns in the speakers’ voices. It’s an incredible, absorbing piece of music, and I know people who have told me it opened their ears to the surprising musicality of our speech. Reich’s piece is much more developed and intriguing, of course, but Ranaldo exhibits a similar fascination with speech, and allows the listener to do all the work. It’s a very impressionistic technique, as Ranaldo emphasises in his brief quote on the back of the sleeve: “I hope you will drop the diamond in a groove and let it ride awhile”. It’s up to the listener how long s/he lets the locked groove run, and it’s up to them how deeply they engage with the sonic possibilities it opens up. To some the noise grooves will just evoke chatter or repetitive machinery, but some may latch on to a weird beauty in the minutiae of what would otherwise sound formless.
But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of how this record works physically is that over time, the sonic properties of the grooves shift. Because each of the locked grooves is under particular strain, being trodden over so many times by the needle, the plastic must gradually wear down, the peaks slowly get ironed out. Sometimes when I hear the locked grooves of my secondhand copy, I wonder if they’re quieter or fuzzier as a result of how far the previous owner wore each groove down. ‘Hard Left’ is the most percussive track on the album (I assume it uses a stompbox), but it lasts a mere 18 seconds, and its locked groove sounds as if the noise has worn away. It reminds me of the final stages of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, where the melodies have eroded completely, leaving decaying outlines of where the sounds once were. I thought perhaps the previous owner had left the final track of side A playing so long, that this was all that was left. Listening to the CD copy proved that this effect was in fact intentional – I was almost disappointed.
On ‘Florida Flower’ the locked groove sounds like an engine revving up, but it’s marred somewhat by a scratchy noise which could either be an intentional part of the recording or simply muck in the groove. In fact, sometimes I lifted the needle as I began to worry I could hear my record slowly getting increasingly damaged (the CD clarifies that this too was intentional). Either way, it forms part of the track, and it’s still possible that I’m beginning to hear rhythms in something that wasn’t even consciously crafted, which is as close a connection with a physical format as you can get!
Listening to the re-released (and completely altered) CD version of the record was a strange experience. Because a lot of the sounds on the record were created only when the vinyl was cut, there exists no recording, and Ranaldo had to record some of the sounds on his record again, direct from the vinyl. In doing so, he reworked much of the material and altered the locked grooves, which are mostly represented by minute-long loops at the end, ending with a fade-out. These prescriptive versions of the locked grooves remove some of my enjoyment of them. Although the focal moment is still preserved, it doesn’t have any of the sense of decay, or the idea of the listener’s input into the musical process. The new loop at the end of ‘Time Stands Still’ is much longer than a spin of a vinyl record; it lasts about 3 seconds. There is no physical root to the looping, and I find it much less interesting because of that. A crescendo is added to the ‘Hard Left’ loop, which detracts from the sense that it is zooming in on one piece of sound, instead making it part of an arc. But also, he completely altered some of my favourite locked grooves, for instance ‘Ouroboron’ uses a different vocal sample and obscures your brain’s attempts to latch onto the syllables with feedback. However, since the CD is out of print, I streamed this version online, potentially missing out on any physical elements of the CD’s packaging.
There are lots of other possible vinyl tricks which aren’t explored on From Here To Infinity that are worth mentioning too. It’s possible to have vinyl in any shape that fits in a 12” circle and has a circular space for the grooves, and you can also make them in various colours, patterns, even picture discs. One of the best examples I’ve seen is the Flight of the Wounded Locust single series by The Locust, which consists of four multicoloured puzzle pieces which fit together to make a square. There are even more possibilities in the grooves themselves: The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief (also mastered by “Porky” Peckham) was regarded as the first “three-sided” record in the world, because one side has two parallel grooves containing completely different tracks. When you drop the stylus it’s impossible to tell which track you hit, which is said to have caused confusion. And on the most recent Record Store Day, Jack White (whose Third Man Records seems as much a record label as a workshop for vinyl gimmickry) released the first marketed “liquid vinyl”, a transparent record containing a bright blue liquid which flows around inside. (White’s efforts were preceded by the soundtrack to Disney film The Black Hole, which was filled with multicoloured oils, but was ultimately recalled due to leakage!) A more extensive list of unusual vinyl features can be found on Wikipedia.
There are one or two gimmicks exclusive to CDs, but they tend to be irritating rather than engaging. The most annoying thing about listening to CDs is when there’s a secret hidden track twenty minutes after the album ends – usually it’s either an aimlessly experimental/instrumental effort or a tossed-off one-take song with studio banter, and either way they do nothing but display the artist’s vanity. It’s also possible to insert a “track zero” which requires you to rewind as soon as you play the CD, which might be a nice way to hide easter eggs, but it doesn’t work on all players. Other than that, you used to get a lot of “enhanced CD ROM” albums, which were always hit and miss (my David Bowie CDs used to crash my computer); I guess these are redundant now we have broadband. However, although I’m not a fan of these gimmicks, it’s true that there are more possibilities in CD packaging: whereas vinyl only really has sleeve and gatefold, CD digipacks are very versatile, and booklet inserts can be really nice, even if they always seem too small. The most creative CD I own is Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero; it has a gorgeous gatefold digipack and the actual CD label is made of heat-sensitive material. It gets lighter the hotter it is, so before you play it, it’s dark, and when you play it, it gets warm and turns white, revealing a secret code in binary. The code translates to a website involved in the album’s accompanying ARG (Alternate Reality Game), an amazingly expansive series of clues and codes so complex that the game is still in progress, five years later. While it doesn’t have a physical link to the music on the record, and has sometimes been dismissed as a marketing ploy, I think that developing the album beyond the music it contains can be a tasteful way of encouraging a further immersion in the artwork. It particularly works with the dystopian concept of Year Zero, but I suppose it’s rare that such an extension of an album seems justified – and something similar can be said of the physical properties used on From Here To Infinity; its physical qualities would not be charming if they were frequently replicated elsewhere.
Generally, the potential bonuses of CDs highlight how awkward the format is, how their physicality can be a hindrance rather than an attraction. When they get scratched and begin to skip, they produce really irritating noises rather than the odd skipped or locked groove. And on the other hand, they can last for eighty minutes without any physical engagement, which is longer than one’s attention span and long enough to remove any physical engagement with the album at all. I still buy a lot of CDs because they’re often cheaper than downloading and almost always cheaper than vinyl, and I personally prefer having something with physical artwork to a download, but it makes sense that so many people are rejecting the format.
We are socially conditioned to welcome any technological advance that is more pragmatic, and requires less of an input from the user. But I believe that this attitude gives us less room to be surprised; if pragmatic technology facilitates any form of sensual, and especially artistic experience, it becomes less introspective, it can physically pass us by. In allowing the listener physical control over the format, and therefore the artistic experience, Ranaldo is encouraging an affinity not just with his record, but because of his emphasis on the properties of vinyl as a medium, the general physical processes of listening to music.