Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fake Classical

It was a bracing shot, some eighteen years ago, when in the customarily sympathetic goth fan -mag, Propaganda, I read sharp words of criticism for the latest Dead Can Dance album, Aion. I considered it a betrayal, not because the writer was critical of the work--it's not my favorite, either, rather it was the conclusion he reached. To paraphrase, he knocked what he saw as a fake classical approach. You could always go to the symphony, so why would you want to waste your time with something so achingly indebted--and juvenile by comparison. Had there but been some pop element to save it from its own pompous identity crisis the verdict might've been milder. Favorable even.

Over the years I've fallen for a lot of fake classical. I genuinely enjoy it. There are moments with canonized works (Brahms' Tragic Overture, since it has been a recent favorite, will serve as a fine example) that the terrain of the music is so frenetic, or erratic, moving with such uncompromising conviction, that the very notion of an "intended audience" seems impertinent. The music seems to have a mind of its own, and very little time for the cosmetics of simple melody, or the repetitiveness of pop that makes it so instantly digestible.

Porn Sword Tobacco is one of those slick, one-man-show projects, whose one man, Henrick Jonsson, has the fake classical gift. And it is very much a gift. So many artists, from latter-day Tortoise, to Explosions in the Sky, to Ulrich Schnauss, revel in the subterfuge of wordless music. The results alternate between predictable rise-and-fall dynamic "post-rock"exercises, and boiled-beef-gray ambient sedatives.

One of the defining virtues of Jonsson's music is how simple it sounds. Like the best tossed-off moments of This Mortal Coil, or the criminally underrated Scottish organist, Bill Wells, PST traffics in deceptive product. The excellent, New Exclusive Olympic Heights, embraces Mike Oldfield, the luxurious dolor of early Kind Crimson, and John Hassell. The substance, under closer examination bears no real similarity to what we broadly call classical music, but that it is instrumental, and lacks either the ethnic character of a global music tradition, or the rambunctiousness of jazz.

You could say records like New Exclusive owe more to the moody interludes of rock, the outros, the extended intros. In those fragmentary moments the secret composer aspirations of many an artist are on display, half-hidden, as if being test-marketed between radio songs, or rock and roll, or whatever.

What I'm loving about Porn Sword Tobacco is the no-shame-in-the-game embrace of fake classical. The beat is down-tempo, and most of the melodies go in the same downward sloping direction. But the appeal lies in a certain attitude of aestheticism. I suppose that part doesn't waver, regardless of genre. Either the attitude corresponds with the moment or it doesn't, leaving the gravity of evolved musical composition in a suspended state, or at the very least, in question.

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