Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Face Testbook Cricket

One average office day very recently, I sat at a friend’s desk watching him follow live cricket scores online. He would open up a terminal screen, code for a bit, look perplexed about something perplexing to me (the code always looked fine), do a quick alt+tab, check the score on cricinfo, alt+tab back to the terminal screen and well, repeat the cycle all over again. If it had been a T20 match, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post, but it was a test match (you all know which one), and we all know how test matches go. Probabilistically speaking, it is fairly unlikely that the score will change in any way (runs, wickets, the number of pigeons snoozing in the rafters) during the duration of one minute that separates successive score checks. But this fact never bothered this friend of mine – he took pleasure, I’d like to think, from the thrill of expectation. A sense of optimism that that lottery ticket will eventually come good for him– not entirely misplaced because the wicket eventually falls and the run is ultimately taken.

This whole ritual sparked off an entire row of lightbulbs in my head because it seemed – so darned – familiar. I wasn’t a fan of test cricket, so amnesia could not explain the déjà vu. Then it struck me.


Facebook’s just like test cricket. Before all you avowed test cricket haters jump on my back, I’ll make a solid case for my statement. How many of us ‘occasional’ Facebookers haven’t been tempted by the little red notification icon on the top left corner of the screen? Tempted to check if someone, somewhere (come on, there are 861 of you, one of you should be saying something to me?) had decided to post something on my wall. Or if I’ve just posted a smashing good status message, at least a handful of that 861 would have liked it, right? I refresh the page, alt+tab to stare vacantly at another screen for a bit, alt+tab back and (hopefully) take in the blissful sight of the little red icon. Ah, peace. For about a minute. A few other folks would have seen my status message by now, surely? No? That’s all right. I’ll be back in a minute.

Every web company out there with half an eye on social networking has spent a hell of a lot of time and money trying to understand how users spend so much time on one web page. What’s driving all that engagement time? I only say - fellow primates, you should just follow some test cricket.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Inevitable

Something occurred to me recently. There’s something inevitable about the evolution of my musical tastes. Something linear, something algorithmic, something destined. My mind drifts to the first time I listened to Linkin Park’s ‘Crawling’ – almost eight years ago – sitting in the exact same spot I am now. I switched on the cassette playing walkman, started the track and settled down for a peaceful session of bookreading, only to be interrupted by something alien. The E.T. kind of pleasant alien, not the Alien kind of alien. I immediately waddled over to my sister’s room and shouted out, ‘You’ve got to listen to this!’

‘OK,’ she said. ‘What is it?’

‘Listen to it. There’s something so ooooh about it!’ I added, with a delighted shiver of my spine for emphasis.

She did. The song started off with a few seconds of quiet churchpipes. My sister looked inquiringly at me. Then Chester Bennington happened. A full throated scream pierced the all-too-fake calm; my spine considered another shiver in response to the tinny residue leaking from the earphones.

‘So how was it?’

‘It was OK.’

My sister was of course being my sister: passively receptive to new things, and supremely non-committal to in the face of intense scrutiny. That’s a very useful life skill to cultivate but that’s not the point of this story. The song is. Rather, my reaction to the song is. If you knew today’s me and you had a decent time machine, you would have concluded that I always had metalcore in my blood. But wait, I am getting ahead of myself again. This is not where the story starts. Let me start at the real start.

English music. How did that happen? To be perfectly honest, after scratching around in the dustiest corners of my mental closet, I can’t recall anything before Backstreet Boys. Blue. Kylie Minogue. Robbie Williams. You get the idea. I probably wasn’t born before that. Am I being pretentious? I don’t think I am because English is the closest thing to a native tongue I have. I think in English. When I speak other languages, I often find myself translating from English (or transliterating – with hilarious results, especially when I work my magic with proverbs). I can appreciate a Hindi song; I may like the vocals, I may like the instruments, I may like the tune, but I will never find myself humming a riff to myself or singing a verse out loud. It simply cannot sink that deeply in.

Rock music. I know I mentioned Linkin Park, but unlike most rock fans my journey into this fascinating land does not start with Linkin Park. It starts with Nickelback. In fact I even remember the song that single handedly lifted me out of my comfortably unquestioning existence in the endless stream of pop music dished out by the local radio stations. ‘How You Remind Me’ made me spend hours wondering what exactly I liked about the song. It couldn’t have been Chad Kroeger’s harsh vocals. Yes, the chorus was reasonably catchy, but not exceptionally so. Right? Surely, surely, it could not have been the fuzzy growl of the electric guitars? How could anyone possibly like that? I soon found myself looking out for songs with that exact same instrumental sound. Radio failed me in about a week, so I moved on to haunting neighbourhood music stores. A unified ‘rock/pop’ section did not particularly simplify matters for me, but hey, I knew Nickelback.

So began the era of alternative rock. It’s occurred to me how right I was to use the term ‘evolution’ to capture the changing form of my musical tastes. Like biological evolution, everything changes – newer and weirder creations are constantly produced, and like biological evolution, the ancestors don’t always die out. Although I listen to such songs much less frequently these days, I still love alternative rock. I still find the likes of Seether, Linkin Park, Papa Roach, Three Days Grace, Trapt and Staind just as good to listen to today. In fact, Nickelback’s just seen a revival on my playlists. Cheers for rock music, but my story doesn’t end there.

Metal. My metal journey started just as unambiguously as rock music’s with Megadeth’s ‘Countdown to Extinction’. When was this? I think this transition happened sometime in 2005 when my sister (again) with uncanny prescience gifted me a cassette of Megadeth’s iconic album. Now that I’ve listened to all of their albums twenty times over, I can safely say that there’s no better introduction to metal for a rock music fan than this album. It perfectly straddles the thin line between the vocals-driven but guitar-supported sound that alternative rock fans expect, with the guitar-driven but vocals-supported sound of metal. And how does it do that? A handful of songs on the record quickly quench the longtime rock fan’s thirst (and stop him from throwing away the cassette in the gutter), and a handful of others grow on him slowly – starting off as incidental ‘other’ songs on the album and moving on to become favourites.

And no, my journey does not end with Megadeth either. If musical interests are always partitioned from a fixed piece of land, then thrash metal would take away a large piece of property. And I’ve always wondered why. What could I possibly enjoy in listening to a goat’s bleat (yes, there’s no better way to describe Dave Mustaine’s singing) accompanied by painfully high pitched keening on distorted guitars? (I’m not really sure, but I have a few ideas. Let me finish the story of my evolution before I sew up all the loose threads though.) And then there are the chugs. There are a lot of chugs. Even metal fans are ambivalent about chugging – some of them think it’s metal’s equivalent of ‘cheap thrills’. Not for me. The atomic clock precision of the palm muted riffs that are characteristic of all thrash metal – I simply could not get enough of it.

By now, even rock/pop sections in music stores could not satisfy the strange new beast that my musical taste had become. (I defy you to find me a ‘metal’ section in a Planet M!) It was only to become weirder though; because that was about when I discovered unclean vocals. Or growling, to be more precise, because the term ‘unclean vocals’ is a generic radio-friendly term for something not very radio-friendly. I think Amon Amarth was the first melodeath band I listened to. Melodeath was probably a step down the evolutionary ladder in terms of the instruments: musically it was a lot more melodic than the metal I had grown used to. But all the shouting in thrash metal paled in comparison to the sheer, unbridled aggression of the throaty growls emanating from the hairy throat of a modern day Viking.

OK, so I discovered death metal, albeit a watered down ‘pop’ version of it, but death metal nonetheless. Should I stop now? Certainly not. There’s still unclean vocals part 2 left. What do you think of a 5 minute song where every single spoken syllable is enunciated with a lung bursting scream? Scary? Welcome to the world of metalcore. I actually listened to a number of metalcore bands at the same time (and liked almost none of them: they were again a step up the anti-melodicity graph), so it’s difficult to credit one song, or even one band, for sucking me into the genre. I’ll stick with two bands that had the earliest impact – Parkway Drive and Bring Me The Horizon. They’re by now means the sickest screamers out there, but I listened to them first and this is my story.

There are a few subplots involving a few other minor players – progressive metal is one; punk rock is another - but my story is more or less finished. Again, to reiterate what I said earlier about evolution, this is not a linear story – every song I listen to every day creates a new branch in the tree. I don’t even know which one’s the trunk anymore.

There’s still a denouement left though. I’ve talked about all these diverse threads of musical interests, the major branches in my evolutionary tree, but is there a single rule that binds them together? Is there an explanation for the fact that my tree has moved deeper away from the conventional notion of ‘melody’ with each passing moment? I think there is. It has all to do with what I expect of music. What do I want to feel when I listen to a song? Do I want to be soothed? Do I want it to be a minimally intrusive background to my work? Do I want to feel love? Do I want to feel anger? What I think I want in my music is, simply, energy. I want my music to lift me up when I’m down. I want my music to lift me up when I am up. I want my music to make me want to jump up and down in a delirium of frenzied excitement. I want my music to be like the sound of a gunshot in a library. There’s more energy to a song with an electric guitar than a song without it. There’s much more energy to a song with blazing fast solos and lightning quick rhythmic chugging than one without them. There’s a hell of a lot more energy to a song with endless lung bursting screams than a song without it.

Is that all though? Dance tracks have a lot of energy. I mean, people dance to them! I don’t really like dance music though. Why’s that? Perhaps I don’t want my melodies wrapped in melodies, so to speak. A melody is a melody independent of the instrument that delivers it. Why not make the medium harsh? It’s quite likely that this explanation is absolute hogwash, and it’s either peer pressure or random coincidence that’s made me choose one ‘harsh’ instrument over another. (I think of trumpets – I can’t stand them, but I can’t objectively claim that they’re less soothing to the ear than distorted electrics) It’s also likely that I’m a diabetic trying to stay away from the sweets. Whatever it is, there you have it – a chronologically ordered sequence of snapshots from my musical life so far.