There’s a Melvyn Bragg line that Mark Kermode has brought up in his film reviews: that how you react to something is affected in part on where you are in your life when you encounter it. And obviously, that’s true in music too.
But it in music, it’s even more complicated than that. What you feel about a particular album can be hugely dependent on the relationship you have with what the artist has done before – even in cases where you already liked them, and where you think the album is good – not necessarily how good the album itself is. Naturally, the best way to demonstrate this is with examples, so I’ve dug some out from 2020: Code Orange’s Underneath, Oceans Of Slumber’s self-titled album, Anaal Nathrakh’s Endarkenment, and Unreqvited’s Empathica.
Underneath came to me with plenty riding on it. Sure, the early stuff Code Orange put out was really good, but Forever was a huge step up, and a record to really mark a band out as teetering on the edge of genuine greatness. Following up a record that visceral, that got me up off my chair and punching the air, is incredibly high. You naturally want them to replicate it, and to convince you that the huge attachment you formed with them last time was justified.
And it delivers. It is absolutely fucking killer, involuntary-leg-pump-inducing, and fully of great stuff. No reservations, caveats, hesitations or half-arsed almost-compliments, it is the real bloody deal. The title track alone would have stood out on Forever as one of the best songs on a record packed full of them, and it’s far from alone. When I hear those stomps and crushes and noise and drums and just raw aggression, my brain lights up in recognition like the skies above will in two nights’ time. The good feelings from before jump back to the front of my mind like they did back then, only stronger, because this time it gets there much quicker. The familiarity builds the reaction, partially because it’s going from less of a standing start this time, but also because it knows the steps to this dance, and it’s easier to keep up with as a result.
I have no idea if I like Forever or Underneath more, and probably won’t until about three months before they do the next one, it doesn’t matter. I love them both and I’m not negatively comparing the latter to the former – I’m simply shouting, “fuck yeah!” But my enthusiasm is heightened because it’s fitting into a groove Code Orange had already carved in my brain.
Code Orange have fulfilled the expectations I had built up based on how I felt about them the last time, and cemented themselves in my mind as one of the best bands around today. My reaction to Underneath is in part based on that familiarity I mentioned before, and also by me thinking it’s ace in and of itself – but also in how much I really wanted it to be ace. There’s relief that it’s lived up to expectations, justification that my enthusiasm for them was well placed, and only increased affection for it as a result.
Which is precisely how I felt about Oceans Of Slumber after their last album. I had gone incredibly hard on Winter, and really wanted to love The Banished Heart just as much. And I did. Everything I felt after Underneath, I felt after The Banished Heart. So what I felt when they released Oceans Of Slumber was different: there was now even more expectation. They had proved they could do it, and proved they could repeat it – and, while it’s in no way fair of me to do so, I could not help but feel they had to do it a third time. I wanted a Ghost Reveries (and, looking beyond that to their next album, a Watershed), to follow on from Winter‘s Blackwater Park and The Banished Heart‘s Deliverance/Damnation (and yes, I’m cheating in counting them as one. Bite me).
Oceans Of Slumber is not that album. It’s still a good record, and by no means weak. It has some really strong, stand-out songs (‘The Soundtrack To My Last Day‘, complete with it’s killer Deathspell Omega riff, ‘A Return To The Earth Below‘, and especially ‘The Colors Of Grace‘), and the instrumental interludes of ‘Imperfect Divinity‘ and ‘September (Momentaria)‘ are breathtaking. Cammie Gilbert remains an absolutely superb singer whose talent is only matched by her skill. There are some fantastic riffs, some great drumming, and gorgeous texturing. But it isn’t Winter or The Banished Heart. It’s not their Ghost Reveries. It’s their IX Equilibrium.
If I was coming in cold, I’d probably love it. But I can’t quite. I have built them up in my heart as one of the best bands in the world, who do things to my emotions no one else does, and using musical constructions no one else could imagine, let alone pull off – and while the latter bit is still true, I’m not feeling my heartstrings pulled to the same degree. My heart knows what it felt the last two times, and while it’s glad it’s feeling those familiar tugs on it again, it can’t forget that it was tugged harder the last time. (Oh, matron, etc.) And in comparison, that is a little disappointing – much as I know the album is better than I can enjoy it. My relationship with the band to date, while the source of much joy to me up till now, is limiting my enjoyment of their latest work.
Anaal Nathrakh’s Endarkenment, however, comes at a very different time in my cycle of being a fan of the band. Mick and Dave from Birmingham have been with me for well over a decade (this is my seventh Nathrakh record as a confirmed fan). They would have to seriously piss on their chips to make me think less of them, and have to emphatically pull off a a Lanzini to push them even higher up my top 20 of favourite bands.
I’ve got my personalised “greatest hits” playlist of what I’d like to see them play if they could play a two-hour headline set without breaking themselves, I’ve got the albums I can sit down with and listen to all the way through years after the fact (Domine Non Es Dignus, Passion, and The Whole Of The Law, if you were wondering), I’ve had the album I thought was a bit plop and moved on from (Desideratum), and I’m happy in all of this.
So all I really ask from a Nathrakh album at this stage is that 1) I can and want to listen to it all the way through, at least for the first six months after I initially hear it, and that 2) there are at least two or three songs I can stick in that playlist I mentioned before. (I’d also like to feel like I’m being told the world is a hateful and vicious place that stinks of shit and is full of pricks, but unless someone has lobotomised both musicians involved, that one seems taken as read.)
Endarkenment does both – but no more. It isn’t The Whole Of The Law that completely revives and reenergises my love for them, but neither is it Desideratum. It has four songs (Beyond Words, Create Art, Though The World May Perish, Requiem, plus the title track, which easily forces its way into the top 10 songs of their career) for the playlist. So, in other words, a fairly standard Anaal Nathrakh album – and that is enough to make me very happy.
Endarkenment pushes loads of familiar buttons and scratches an itch I really do want paid attention to at least every couple of years. While I am fully aware of how unlikely it is I will still be listening to it in full in a year’s time, and that Oceans Of Slumber may well be the “better” album, I enjoy Endarkenment more, have certainly listened to it more, and will still be paying attention to songs from it far further into the future. It’s like replacing a comfortable pair of shoes with another that feels familiar. (Gnarly, shrieking, vicious shoes, obviously.) It takes me in no way out of my comfort zone, but despite that, it returns me more on an emotional level – in no small part because the connection I have to the band’s older music is so large and deep at this point.
Unreqvited are almost the polar opposite. I went into Empathica without too many strong feelings. I’d heard and enjoyed a couple of albums he had put out previously – enough to recognise the name and to check out what followed – but hadn’t really formed a powerful attachment to yet. So, fairly similar to how I felt about Code Orange prior to Forever, essentially.
So when Empathica hit me in the face like a ton of velvet bricks, I really was not ready for it. It caught me off-guard more than anything I can remember experiencing with bands I already knew. Even when Altar Of Plagues changed music for me forever with Mammal, it was not as much of a significant change of feelings in that case – although that was probably the closest comparison – because I had absolutely adored and caned the arse off their previous album, White Tomb. And while I will spare you yet another drooling frothfest about why I think Empathica is just fucking magnificent, it’s relevant to mention that my lack of strong feelings is partially why I am so completely head-over-heels.
It’s like going on a date with someone you sort of know but don’t really, but when you sit down and spend some proper time with them, you realise you think they are the absolute best and want to see them again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. And the more time you spend with them, the more you realise you are falling in love with them, that their little traits and quirks and idiosyncrasies are drawing you closer to them every time you are together sufficiently closely to notice. That you didn’t really know them well enough to have those characteristics clear in your mind means that you see each of them with fresh eyes, and the little moves they make or the gestures they use that makes you go weak at the knees are new and exciting.
Empathica is that for me. My brief but shallow familiarity with Unreqvited did not prepare me for how strongly and instinctively I am drawn to this music, or how powerfully I am made to feel emotions I didn’t know I was capable of. It’s intoxicating – and would be impossible if I did not have to sit with and study those things with fresh ears, till I’ve let it carve notches into me, so that future encounters will slot straight in with familiarity and comfort.
Your brain’s expectations and assumptions and knowledge of an artist’s previous work will affect how you react emotionally to future work they do. A completely clean slate, or soft and only partially formed opinions, are easier to impact; strongly positive opinions and expectations can colour how your heart reacts to new material – for better or worse. But often that is only part of the story.
I have no idea, and I don’t care, if Underneath is genuinely better than Empathica. Or if Endarkenment is better than Oceans Of Slumber. Because it doesn’t matter. Music is an abstract and entirely subjective art form that is impossible to properly judge meritocratically. It’s purely dependent on how you react to it emotionally.
While it’s absolutely not fair on the musicians involved, your heart’s reaction takes none of their skill or endeavour into account when it forms its opinion. It cannot ignore what it felt before. Whether based on months, years or decades, it has attachments it has formed with music of a similar sound – the kind of similarity that can only occur if the musicians involved are the same. For better or worse, those attachments cannot be put aside when it hears something new– even in cases where the more objective bit of your brain might know you are being harsh.