Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mark Opitz – a study in cataclysm

Mark Opitz is an Australian producer who was involved with many of the most successful and famous bands of the late 70s and 80s – Cold Chisel, Jimmy Barnes, INXS, Divinyls, The Reels, The Angels, Little River Band, Models, Eurogliders, Hoodoo Gurus, Noiseworks, Mental As Anything, Richard Clapton, and so on. Perhaps as a result of the musical context of the time, oriented towards live performance in numerous venues across Australia, Opitz’s style was oriented towards producing a relatively live sound. At an international level, this was relatively unusual at the time, given that new wave production was moving towards much more abstract, unreal sounds and spaces (compare, for instance, the changes wrought with Midnight Oil when Nick Launay took on the band’s production, after very live-oriented recordings by Glyn Johns and Leszek Karski). However, Opitz rarely rested on a sound that was purely performative, and at his best, he achieved a quality with his sound production which was unmatched by any other producer then or now. In particular, he had the capacity to produce a cataclysm in the studio which at times seems to threaten the fabric of the speakers. In this essay, I will study three of these key productions: “Boys In Town”, by Divinyls (1981), “Good Times”, by INXS and Jimmy Barnes (1986), and “Communication”, by INXS (1992).

“Boys In Town” is a song that declares itself from the moment it opens. Two guitars open the piece, rhythm and bass, declaratively, simultaneously and indissolubly pumping a rock rhythm, with a third, lead guitar, stabbing into place over the top of the drums at 0:02, both of which punch out the same beat. The song is instantly engaging, and rhythmically exhausting. This is a song built around power, hard emotion, and thumping rhythm, a rhythm which never lets up through the song’s entirety. Similarly, the soundspace is declared upfront as well – all elements in the mix have a note of reverb that codes a larger space than the one in which we are listening, but not enormous – perhaps the size of a pub. The reverb also has a hard, slightly metallic edge to it, so that it has a slight smack marking the size of, and containing, the space. In this intro, the higher toms are sharp and smack at the speakers (it seems the hi-hats may also be hit simultaneously with the toms, so that the combined sound seems to kiss the air), slightly forward of the rest of the instruments, and the lower toms are brought right into the bass speakers, so that their physical presence is felt. This is a song designed not to let us out of its sights or of its confines. At this point it has virtually no dissipation in its sound, other than a slight hiss on the toms/hi-hat combo, which seems more to flick the rhythm into the upper corners of the space, rather than to diminish it.

However, even in this short description, it can be seen that Opitz is twisting the space slightly, minutely winding it up. The drumkit, being brought forward, loses its conventional position in the space, so that the guitars are almost pushed out of the way by the drumkit. The kit is also spread across the space, in a position of domination, so that the thick rhythm/bass guitar combo is pushed out along it, a construction which Opitz explores in more detail on “Communication”. There is also a kind of heady acoustic manipulation in this intro: the rhythm/bass combo has a physicality that seems to press or ache in the head, while the higher toms uncharacteristically have a brightness that seems to snap at the ear, at a point that the lead guitar would normally do; as a result, the lead guitar here, though sharp, has a slightly receded quality in comparison with the toms. The lower toms take up a position that the bass and the kickdrum normally would, having a rolling, fluid, but nonetheless dense quality that seems to increase the swelling in the head brought on by the rhythm and bass guitars. Opitz is giving a press to the sound that seems to affect us in the frequency midrange and horizontally centre in the space: the impact is direct and central, in our faces, and also immediately physical. Nonetheless, the physical impact is not predominantly visceral, as we might expect in music that is funk-oriented, so that the physical response generated in the listener is more closely linked to the emotions expressed in the song, rather than to the song’s rhythm. There is a contrast here with “Communication”, in that our physical reaction to the song is actually a response to the declarativeness of the song itself, and to the various musical elements in it: there is a kind of direction, or challenge, in the impact of the drums, for instance, to us as listeners to respond physically; whereas in “Communication”, we are being engaged less directively, subsumed into the song and its rhythms, through both the size of the space, and the way the space is constructed. “Boys In Town” drives at us at a pitch which is never slackened during the song, with the various elements in the space twisted at us so that we are constantly wound up and wound into it, impelling us so that we feel there is no escape from where the song will ultimately take us.

This sort of impulsion is found in other Australian recordings of the time, but on “Boys In Town” the impulsion is figured slightly differently. Comparing this song with another roughly contemporaneous track which Opitz worked on, “Take A Long Line” by The Angels, we can hear that both of them have a midrange central focus, directed straight at the speaker. However, “Boys In Town” has a note of desperation to the impulsion figured by this focus which “Take A Long Line” lacks. There are a number of elements which convey this desperation (not the least the vocals and the lyrics), but it is Opitz’s subtle use of reverb on “Boys In Town” (and on other tracks on the mini-album from which it comes, Monkey Grip) which seems to expand the impulsion into a broader emotional expression. The reverb does this in a number of ways. Firstly, the confined and defined size of the space marked by the reverb codes a kind of frustrated restraint on the song’s impulsion. The slight metallic edge to the reverb further conveys a coolness that heightens this sense of restraint. However, this reverb, in coding a size to the space, also paradoxically conveys a touch of roominess, of capacity for escape, as well as heightening the sense of drama to the emotions, as if they are writ large for a wider audience, and need that audience to allow their full expression. However, again, this sense of drama folds the emotions back in on themselves, because by being dramatised in this way it also suggests a lack of authenticity. This lack is not predominant, however; it adds a note to the emotions, however, that heightens the frustration of the song, so that it is impelled towards something, but something which it may never reach; or that it is reaching outside something which it may not be able to escape.

Opitz maintains this space throughout the song, so that the song’s frenetic energy never lets up, with changes only being modulations which work to sustain the energy of the song by twisting it into us at certain points. For instance, through the verses, the lead guitar intermittently grinds a note at the end of every second line, which Opitz brings slightly forward as a note of punctuation in the mix, as if the song is ground with slightly more pressure into us. In the instrumental break, the lead guitar seems to move centre in the space, slightly back, and into a slightly deeper fuller space, as if the guitar is moving towards some sort of escape (which is, however, reined in with the chorus of male voices singing “too much too young”, and the repeat of the foregrounding of the drums through this passage). This movement of the guitar reflects an apparent movement of Amphlett’s vocals in the bridge (“ooh, I’m tired/ooh I’m wired”) where they seem to condense in the centre of the space and have a slightly larger resonance.

There is also an interesting relationship set up between Amphlett’s vocals and the rest of the band. When Amphlett first appears, her vocals have a dampened quality to them, slightly receded, and slightly curbed, so that they seem to be set in a slightly deep place in the mix. This “depth” is largely perceptual, but it is an odd position, especially for a female voice, compared with the brightness and sharpness of the instruments around her, all played by men. It lends a note of oppression to her position in the mix, and a correspondingly unsettling sense of comparative freedom to the instruments, all the more unsettling because, as we have seen above, the instruments themselves are cast in a space which is frustratingly confining. This obviously reflects the position of the song’s narrator in respect to the “boys in town” (“I am just a red brassiere to all the boys in town/put this bus in top gear/get me out of here”), but it also gives Amphlett’s voice a slightly disconcerting sense of almost masculine stability in the space, and an edge of gloominess that belies the energy of the song. As the song progresses, and Amphlett’s voice remains fairly stable in the mix (its “condensation” in the bridge is not a very large move, and fundamentally retains the centrality of her voice in the space), there is a sense that the frenetic energy of the instruments is whirling around her, while she is resolutely holding firm (though the occasional sharpness to her voice indicates some difficulty in holding this position). In fact, there is an aspect to the musical and sonic arrangement of the piece that evokes a sense of the male instruments making moves on her which she resists. Musically, the various instruments seem to weave in and out of each other, stepping forward and dropping back in the arrangement (as with the instrumental break, where the lead guitar moves out of the rest of the band into a featured position, but mediated by the occasional rhythmic bursts of the toms and the cymbals shining through this). This is reflected production-wise as instruments occasionally move forward slightly out of the mix, or glint off its surface (for instance, with the way the guitar is brought forward at the end of every second line of the verses), as if they are looming up on the singer. The resolution of the singer is also coded inversely in the segment of the song immediately following the instrumental break (from 2:15 to 2:47), where the band members sing “too much too young”. Though this could be seen as representing a gang of men condemning the female singer, these male vocals are actually pushed back slightly in the mix, blended together, and have limited acoustic depth, so that they have a slightly fey or impotent quality to them. It is as if their accusatory power is diffused against the singer’s own determination to “get me out of here”.

Nonetheless, the singer never does escape: she remains pretty much in the same space and position in which she started the song, and the entire song sits firmly within a consistent, relatively unchanging space: instruments rarely change position within the space, and virtually every instrument is mixed so that they perceptually are spread across the breadth of the space left to right. This is not an accurate depiction of the mix: for instance, rhythm guitar seems to be multitracked and placed left and right, bass is positioned central, along with the drumkit (though there appears to be a slight movement across the space right to left in the lower toms in the intro and under the “too much too young”), and so on. But the denseness of the mix makes the differentiation less apparent than might otherwise be the case (such lessening of the differentiation is also an element to the more complex space created in “Communication”), so that movement in the space, or highlighting of elements in the space, becomes a fleck in the overall denseness of the space, resulting in a sense of lack of air in the mix, further conveying the sense of an inability to escape. This sense of failure to escape is also conveyed in the constraint of the song’s frenetic musical energy to a kind of restlessness in the mix as a result of this limitation of movement: for instance, the rolling of the deeper toms (mentioned above) which has some movement across the space, but which is barely apparent to the listener, and which is overwhelmed by the heightening of the forward presence of the toms. As a result, the toms seem to swell forward, rather than move right to left, or even indeed move dynamically forward, so that they remain within a fairly contained location, despite their musical dynamism. Another example is the lead guitar, which becomes multitracked and takes on a more central position in the instrumental break, the performative image being of the guitarist stepping forward centre stage; but the mix limits the sense of any change in position of the guitarist, partly because the multitracking gives a size to the guitar which actually masks any movement, and partly because it also seems to de-individualise it (rather than emphasise its individuality, as might be expected), giving it a projected emotional energy from within the space and from within the band as a collective: the guitar here seems to be dramatising the desperation and intensity of the song’s overall emotional intensity, rather than describing an individual response within this. The reverb on the guitar adds to this sense of projected emotional heat from within the space, further masking a sense of movement. As is implicit here, this restlessness of the mix is also a response to the musical arrangement and structure of the piece, which takes on the form of a repeated series of risings that never seem to go anywhere. The song starts with an intro that starts high on emotional energy and seems to be pounded higher with the drums, but then it seems to drop back slightly with Amphlett’s vocals in the verse. Then, the following verse/chorus group marks a rise in desperation, with the obvious chorus lines “I must have been desperate/I must have been pretty low”, and the lead guitar slicing its way behind this; but this then falls back to the following verse/chorus group, which repeats the rise. At the end of the second chorus, Amphlett changes the final “low” to “slow”, which seems to twist the song slightly further in meaning, but this is followed by another fall-back, as the rhythm guitars drop away, replaced in position in the mix by the hi-hats (which are less salient in the space than the rhythm guitars), and the lead guitar stretches into long, almost yelped notes. Of course, despite the change, the lead guitar in its drawling is winding the song up anew; but then this drops back again to the bridge, where the rhythm guitars return and the song winds up anew, with Amphlett ratcheting up her vocal to another note of semi-hysteria on the final “wired”. These series of windings up repeat through the song, with finally the sense of an inability to escape being sealed at the end of the song with the closing half note of hysteria in the final “here”s, and the reverbed rounding of the space around the guitars as they abruptly cease.

As with “Boys In Town”, “Good Times” declares itself from its opening notes. The song is massive, clear, a clarion call to party – “everybody shake/and everybody groove”. The song’s space is enormous, but its size is slightly hemmed in – in terms of the performative projection, this is possibly a bowl-type stadium, but most likely a large concert arena. Instruments are placed in conventional positions: lead guitars left and right; drum machine, assorted percussion, kick drum and vocals centre; piano slightly left, toms and cymbals spreading left and right across the space. The reverb bounces around the space, swelling around every instrument, bouncing from one speaker to another on the vocals (Hutchence’s seems to bounce left then right, and Barnes’s in the opposite direction, though the specifics of this apparent movement are not entirely clear). The space is almost entirely filled. We are very clearly no longer in a pub environment. The emotions and message of this song are like billboards across the space: this is not just any old good time, this is a good time of mammoth proportions, the good time of all good times. Accordingly, there is no escape from this space: it is totally dominating. It contrasts with “Boys In Town”, where despite the projected size of the space and the emotions, there is always a sense (however futile) of reaching for escape in the space. With “Good Times”, the space is entirely about, and in, the here and now: our listening space is totally reconstructed from the opening guitar, and remains this way until the fade-out. The overall spatial arrangement and framework is therefore made to be thoroughly stable and conventional, directed at us from the stage, clearly located and with a clear purpose. This in turn contrasts with “Communication”, whose elements seem projected into the space from elsewhere: with “Good Times”, the space is identifiable, and the performative arrangement is readily perceived.

One of the main purposes of this is to build up the architecture of the space around the listener, so that we are positioned within a “good time” environment of large proportions. The space as a result starts to fold around us, by contrast with “Boys In Town”, where the space always remains slightly detached from the listener, in a slightly different space, and projected from that space to us: we are more or less hearing of the singer’s desperation from that space, rather than experiencing the message of the song within its own space (as we do in “Good Times”). Opitz effects this folding through a number of mechanisms. Already mentioned is the bounce given to the vocals, and coupled with the quality of the reverb on them, there is a sense that the vocals are drifting off into the upper reaches of the arena, as if reaching out to all members of the audience. Furthermore, despite the size of the space, and the intensity of the song, the sound of the lead guitars in the intro has a warmth and an almost “acoustic” naturalness to it (in that the sound has a real, fitting guitarness to it, that seems right for guitars to sound; though the right guitar has a Dire Straits almost-too-guitar quality to it), bringing the space “home” so to speak. There is an interesting contrast figured here with the other sounds which enter the space from 0:21, and with the domination of the space overall: as noted, the space is constructed as an entirely and absolutely performatively rock space. The sound of these guitars “rounds” the personality of the space, so that at the same time that it has a power rock sound (conveyed in the electronic drums, the toms and the vocals, and in the condensation of the space in the chorus), it also has a “down-home” or rootsy quality, a sense of “getting down”, all the while that the space seems to move towards overcoming us.

In addition, the guitars are so positioned as to be represented as relatively equal partners in the space (reflecting their musical roles) – each is positioned symmetrically in the space, are equally loud, and are both given a sonic warmth, as they converse musically with each other. This positioning, coupled with their reverb, gives an overall arc to their sound which provides the main figuring for the size of the space. Connected with this, the sound of the guitars has an “inward curve” to it, which is largely a result of the bounce-back of the reverb of this warmth. There is a kind of gentle enfolding in this bounce-back, not so that the whole space crowds round or contains the listener, but so that it has a pleasant comfort and size to it. This contrasts with the directed, contained sound of the guitars in “Boys In Town”, and compares with the guitars in “Communication”, where Opitz takes the “Good Times” guitars one step further by de-individualising them, spreading them through the space, and thereby completely enveloping the listener.

However, in “Good Times”, the space never does completely enfold the listener. In order to provide a sense of the listener being inside the space, Opitz posits an enormous arena, but the arena framework comes with its own limitation, the prime one being, as already noted, the fact that the band are positioned in front of the listener, and pushed, as it were, out to the listener. In order to ameliorate this, as noted, the reverb for instance has a quality of reaching out to, or even folding back over the listener, but the space is never fully enclosing – it is a quality of enfolding-but-not-enfolded. Nonetheless, it is these two elements (the projection of the band, and the enfolding of the space) which effect the unique cataclysmic energy of this song. In terms of the enfolding, this remains as a persistent gesture of invitation to the listener into the space, so that there is a sense of obligation on the listener to be involved in the space. This acts as a subtle foundation for the nature in which the cataclysmic energy works, because we are co-opted into the space; as listeners, we are caught up in something almost before we know what we are involved in, and this is compounded by the back-of-mind sense that we have approached the venue hearing the music thumping from outside, and have run inside to catch the act in full swing. This is conveyed by the relative spareness of the intro compared with the population of the space from 0:21, combined with the “getting-ready” quality of the lead guitars, vocals and drums.

The projection of the band in the space, therefore, raises the energy of the song, and as a result of our co-option, raises our stake in the space and in that energy. In a way, the drifting of the vocals into the corners of the space is also enacting a raising of our emotions into a higher register; but because we can never be totally immersed in the space being projected, there is no end-point to which our emotions are being directed. It is an interesting intertwining series of movements – the space is large and warm, and therefore enfolds around us, bringing us into it; however, because of its size, we can never totally be enfolded in it; but on the other hand, the continual gesture of invitation, and of projection of the band in the space, raises our emotions higher, continually encouraging us further into the energy of the song.

There is a similarity with “Communication” here, in that there is a movement towards immersion in the space, but as noted, for the purposes of the energy of the song, the immersion is never fully realised in “Good Times”. In “Communication” as well, as we shall see, the movement is into some sort of release, which is enacted over the life of the song, and it is this release which drives the energy of the song. In “Good Times”, however, there is no sense of release achieved within the song: the release seems to be somewhere always just beyond us, a sense which bears some similarity with “Boys In Town”. With “Good Times”, however, the release is not a form of escape to somewhere outside the song: here the release is towards a kind of implosion, so that the song is co-opting the listener into a state where the good times are so good, that the only place they can take the listener to are towards consequent self-destruction. This sense of implosion is coded in some key elements throughout the song, the first time being the electronic drums in the intro, which roll into the speakers at 0:12, and then recur at other points through the song. They have a quasi-distorting effect, though it is not distortion in a normal sense – they seem to roll over the other sounds, making it feel like the speakers wobble, as if they might collapse from the weight of the sound, or as if they are filling our ears like water. The effect is similar to the toms in “Boys In Town”, and there is some similarity here in that the sound conveys a kind of looming threat, somewhat like a thunderclap. But here, the threat is not derived from desperation, nor is it a threat that looms from within the narrative of the song itself: here the threat is of being overcome by the space and the song as a whole, of being taken up and taken control of. The roll also sits in a musical way as if it is thumping over the top of the other warmer elements in the mix, proscribing a more subtle emotional engagement: this seems all the more so, because the roll follows the entry of Jimmy Barnes into the space, whose coarser harsher vocals seem to be a smack in the face of Hutchence’s more sinewy initial vocal. As a result, following the roll, Hutchence’s vocal becomes less controlled and more rough, as if rising to the challenge of Barnes’ vocal.

The return of the electronic drum from 0:20 to 0:23 only seems to confirm this, as the bouncing reverb (left to right) seems to slightly fracture the rhythm, and as a consequence refract the space, acting like a tremor through the fabric of the space. There is a sense here that the space may not be able to contain or sustain the good times being enjoyed. This tremor is underscored and picked up for the length of the song by the somewhat visceral kick drum, from 0:25, which seems to have a fluttering rumble to it. This sense of the space being unable to sustain itself is also conveyed by the guitars from about 0:21. Though these instruments are given a warmth in the mix, at this point the warmth, combined with the size and bulk given to the guitars as they blend together with the increasing “rockiness” of the song, takes on a gentle fuzz that feels slightly distorted, as if the edges of the space are fraying, extenuated by the fact that this quality is sustained throughout the length of the track. This fuzz is slightly compounded by the quality of Barnes’s voice, whose roughness, amplified through its size and bounce in the space, seems to make the voice itself to crumble from within (an effect heightened by Hutchence’s striving to match it at 0:14 and thereafter). Finally, the sound of the solitary tom (perhaps a sample, or an electronic sequence), placed centre and spreading somewhat laterally, which starts at 0:24, and repeating virtually unchanged on a steady single beat for the duration of the song, provides an oddly static unyielding figure in the song. Despite this immotile character, it seems to figure in a number of different ways in the space. First, and most obviously, it seems to knock the space into ground, and knock the rhythm into us: the space cannot move from the point which the tom secures, so that its elevated, resonant pitch continually reiterates the height and size of the space, and the stability of its shape. We are also never made to lose a sense of the song’s rhythm with this tom continually knocking it into us, never allowing it to veer away (note that this tom seems to be a larger variation on the sequence which commences the track dead centre in the space). Secondly, and as a result of this, the tom has a somewhat overbearing character: it doesn’t seem to let the space or us out of its grip, so there is a sense that we are bound up into the pace of the song, like it or not. Thirdly, the solidity of the tom seems to knock the other sounds in the space slightly away from it. This, of course, is only perceptual, and the other sounds (such as the voices and guitars), as previously noted, have a power and spread that fill the space. However, this solidity sets up a moderate tension in the space, as if the other more fluid sounds are being made to give way to the tom. Furthermore, as the warmer guitars are a means of engaging us in the track, there is a sense that our engagement, and perhaps we ourselves, are being constrained by the tom, controlled as it were by the pressing rhythm of the track. In doing this, there is the consequent feeling that the very element that is grounding the song is also grinding it on, beyond any means to control it or mediate it. In effect, the point the song is grinding us towards is a cataclysm of self-destruction, through a surfeit of “good times”: we have no ability to turn away from this path, largely because we have been co-opted into it through the heightened and ever-inviting emotional pitch of the song.

By the time of “Communication” (off the album Welcome To Wherever You Are), fully digital production had become the norm in western popular music recording. Digital music (largely in the form of dance music) had become fully integrated into the popular music industry. As a result, a new way of producing to and listening to popular music was arising (though not yet dominant). A simple example may be found on another song from Welcome To Wherever You Are, “Beautiful Girl”. The song is well-produced, but there is nothing about the production which makes it stick out particularly far from other songs of the time. However, there is a slightly squished quality to this track, a thinness, close on the speaker, most obvious in the opening piano and the vocal. This in itself would not necessarily make the track noteworthy, except for the fact that this closeness does not quite seem to reach the speaker: it seems there is a slight gap between us and the track, even though it is made to sound so close. The gap has a quality of deferral or referral, as if we are being told of its closeness, rather than experiencing the closeness first hand. It seems to sit in a plane slightly tangential to us.

A similar quality may be heard in the contemporaneous but stylistically different “Let’s Get Together” by Krush (off the Mo’ Money soundtrack). The song is large, exultant and dominating in the space; but there is a quality to all the elements in this song that they are deferred from us in some way, not of our space, even when the bass seems to thump into the speaker. The track seems to be spinning in space away from us, existing unto itself, rather than to the listener. The lead vocals of the verse, for instance, seem to sit close to the speaker, as close as the track gets to us, but behind a thin veil; and the vocals of the chorus, and the chanted vocals, seem to spin out from this, or around it, rather than towards the listener. (It is this quality of deferral in digital production which so much R’n’B since has worked overtime to overcome, hence a very heavy concentration on extremely powerful bass.)

“Communication” therefore sits in a space where deferral has become currency for production. Such deferral would obviously not seem to sit well with a producer like Opitz, considering the lengths we have seen him take in “Good Times” to engage the listener in the space. However, oddly enough, digital production allows Opitz (and his mixer on Welcome To Wherever You Are, Bob Clearmountain[1]) to explore the way in which his sound moves out from the listener, his works’ capacity for sonic enlargement. He can exploit the “spinning away” quality of digital sound to spin the work around the listener, to create a sonic maelstrom.

Again, as with “Boys In Town” and “Good Times”, Opitz opens the track in a way which instantly sets the sonic scene. The track segues from the previous one, “Heaven Sent”, which had been full, thick and dominating in the space. The only substantial thing about “Heaven Sent” that set it back from the listener was the vocals, and in a way, despite their appearance, they do not have the effect of really being set back, as they are foregrounded for us in their radioesque manipulation, a mannerism common for the time and therefore front of mind, “now”, in an aesthetic sense. This track is closed off, so to speak, by the descending radio signal (perhaps purporting to be moving off the dial from where Hutchence’s vocals are posited), which kind of releases the space, flaps it in our hearing. The signal is produced and positioned so that it seems to lift off from the preceding chunk of sound; but it also lifts out of, or moves out of it as well, as if it was always a part of it (it has a similar quality to the fedback guitar that closes the song centre in the space). It is not alone: there is a reverb on the rhythm guitar that seems to flap back and forth from right to left speaker as well, so there are at least three “flapping” movements here: right to left (guitar), back to forward (from a rearward projected large space to the forward landing radio signal), and performed to electronic (radio signal). This latter is a small but complex aspect of the movement: the signal cues that the sound is simultaneously moving out of a projected space into a more-or-less real-time one (that of a radio with us supposedly in the here and now), and out of a large space into an intimate one (the intimate space of the speakers here with us in the room). The “flapping” occurs because the changes are fluid, but rapid and position-shifting, with a sense of the space between or across which the change has occurred: there is something both missing and quickly filled about this movement. In the radio signal itself, there is a kind of space which creates the sonic “flap” from the thick guitar to the signal: it has a cool metallic quality with a kind of carefully controlled and closed-in reverb within it.

However, I don’t wish to overstate the sense of “flap” in the radio signal itself, for as noted, it also has some continuity with the fedback guitar preceding it, and it therefore also has the quality of absorbing and concentrating the foregoing space and directing it elsewhere. But this direction also sits apart from the flapping of the guitar right and left, so there remains that synchronic “flap” with the guitar itself. The effect is to vibrate the space in a way, across a number of different dimensions: spatially, sonically (in terms of the pure sounds themselves), referentially (different projected spaces), and physically (in terms of how the sounds hit the ears). The space therefore doesn’t move or transform, as might otherwise occur in a transition to a new track. Instead, it seems to vibrate outwards onto the speaker, which is further manifest in the radio tuning passage that flicks back and forth across the speakers (and which, in itself, also flicks, with the Doppler effect and the tuning in and out of the radio stations). The flicking effect is heightened by the way the radio tuning is foregrounded in the space. Ordinarily, we would hear radio tuning as thin and hissy: it is normally associated with small, mono projection, and has this quality because of the means of its production (via non-hi-fi radio). However, Opitz brings the tuning forward in the space, forward onto the speakers, and consequently gives it a size that it cannot quite fulfil in and of itself. This results in a great deal of space within the projected space of the tuning; the quality of reverb that such tuning and its associated white noise has becomes somewhat perceptually magnified; and it seems to arc across the space. This arcing is writ large as the dominant radio presence from 0:05 becomes the white noise itself, and a radio voice (as if over a walkie talkie, not a broadcast radio) appears in the right speaker at 0:07. Again, there is a kind of “flap” here – the voice has a kind of whole presence in the right speaker, lifted up off the white noise, and couched in its own walkie talkie context. It is as if the white noise is a sonic backdrop, rather than a bed in which the voice sits. There also seems to be a bounce off this voice into the left speaker – it is not that the voice itself does, but a similar sonic space and sound appears in the left at 0:09, an electronic radio signal as if in response to the vocal, which actually sits over the top of what seems to be a faint broadcast radio voice (at 0:06 it says “hello”).

As can be seen by the timing, this sequence of events happens rapidly, so that there is no point at which these elements stick in our hearing, which is another aspect of the “flap” of the sounds – in a temporal sense, they seem to flap in and out of our hearing, and we never quite catch what the sounds are. An example of this is that it seems that the radio tuning goes on for the duration of this short sequence, but in fact there are two different sounds here: the tuning ends at 0:05, taken over by blank white noise (which we seem to “hear” as more tuning, aided by the fact that the voice right at 0:07 seems to have been tuned into). The whole sequence is “non-sticky” – white noise which would seem to invade our heads, or at least our space, sits broad and cool, like a metaphoric reverb over the space, rather than a distinct sonic presence. The radio voice comes onto the speaker right, but it does not push onto it or onto us. The rapidity of the passage leaves all elements glancing off us. Opitz is constructing a space that is both clear and open, non-stick, but also that is palpable and pleasurable in the way it touches on our ears.

This is a highly complex soundspace in another way too: as can be seen via the medium of the white noise, it arcs over and around us, but does not quite encompass us. Opitz is setting up a framework whereby we can fall into the soundspace, without being “stuck” in it. It is open in front of us, and open ahead of us (there is a sense that there is a depth of spatial field here, even though there is not much specific placement of elements back in the space to indicate this). It is open ahead of us however in another sense: Opitz is deferring the space away from us in a purportedly real-time, here and now sense (the speakers, in the room, with us), to a space that is broadcast, artificial and referred; at the same time that he is referring to a radio soundspace (a space removed from us in the here and now), he is also moving us into this soundspace, and bringing it around us (in its reproduction here). And there is one more way in which this space is opened “ahead of us”: there is a quality to the radio broadcast sounds here that make them sound spacey, slightly distant, off in the ether, located somewhere we might travel to, even if they cannot be travelled to in this listening.

Finally, the openness of this passage is conveyed in the relation between the radio voice and the white noise. This is the function of the “non-stickiness” and the “flap” of the space and its sounds: by not sitting right in the white noise, by not sticking to it, there seems to be some cool space between the radio voice and the white noise. This is partly also a function of the quality of the radio voice in itself. Ordinarily, we might expect such a voice to sound boxy or tinny, or as if it is coming down a tunnel; here, set against the white noise, its tunnel quality seems to be most salient. It is not that it overtly sounds like it is coming down a tunnel; but there is a quality which, set against the white noise, gives it a cool resonance. This is a particularly hard quality to describe, as it is largely perceptual: analysing the radio voice on its own, there is no distinct sense of it being in a tunnel. However, the way the voice is acoustically curbed, and slightly metallic, then set against (and apart from) the white noise, gives it an imaginatively hollow, long distance effect.

To summarise, in this passage, there are three main characteristics that are shaping the way we hear the sounds: a “flap”, a “non-stickiness”, and an openness, which generate the energy for the soundspace. There is a consistent sense of openness in which the sounds are moving and positioned, so that some of the sounds (e.g. the radio voice, the tuning) seem to flap in and out of the space, on and off the speaker, and on and off our ears. This “flap” is not necessarily acoustic, nor is it necessarily diachronic: in part, it is relational (and thereby perceptual), in terms of the way one sound seems to bounce off and out of another (e.g. the radio voice from the white noise). The openness at this point is also not necessarily a projected space either, as we might find in “Good Times”: again, it is relational and perceptual, and largely abstract, in terms of how sounds are positioned with respect to each other, and our “here-and-now”. This is an important point to grasp here, because it is a fundamental aspect of how the digital recording works in this song. Opitz is not trying to figure a performative or projected space: this is not a vast concert hall, or an open field, nor is it an expanded headspace (though the space is to a large extent an in-the-mind space), such as might be found in dub. This is a kind of expanded reality space, a space constructed both out of the physical and electronic material of the sounds, as well as projected and referred worlds (of the radio broadcast and tuning). In a sense, there are two material realities here, the physical and electronic; and even though both are acoustic, one is not materially graspable by us, the electronicness of the sounds, even though they exist as electronic realities. We can see and feel the speakers (just as, if these were musical instruments, we could see and feel the instruments); but we cannot see or feel the electronics flowing (whereas, if these were musical instruments, we could see or feel the strings or skins vibrating). In a sense, we are caught in a quasi-tangential relationship to this electronic reality, which spins off on its own axis, in its own plane: it comes close to us, it in fact touches us at the point of the speaker and the transmitted sound; but its physical stuff (the electronic particles), and its imaginative framework (the world of radio transmission), do not sit with us, and exist in another sphere slightly separate to our here-and-now. The radio elements have a compressed function here: the radio is both relatively “here” (as compared to the size of “Heaven Sent”, which positions it in a setting removed from that of our listening), and not here (by being deferred, in terms of its “beamed in” quality; its not being a real radio; and its instrumental physicality not being palpable). Setting this song after a more normalised stadium rocker also provides a contrast which heightens the sense of the song spinning away from us into another plane.

Out of this setting, the drums and guitar appear at 0:12. Again, there is a sense of flap in their appearance, as they seem to spring the sound forward from a largely electronic and environmental (environmental in that the sounds, other than the voices, seem to shape and constitute the space, rather than be located in it). However, these instruments don’t leap into or onto the speaker: there is not a sense that they have an immediate physical presence on the ear, though they do have an acoustic force.[2] Instead, they are located within the space, and, as with the elements in the intro, have a non-stickiness to them, so that there is a sense of space around these instruments. There is also an aspect to the sound of the drum and guitar that they are bouncing within their own small space, almost within an acoustic bubble. Furthermore, increasing the sense of these sounds existing unto themselves, the drum and guitar are produced so that they are somewhat hard to distinguish, so that they are more or less a single block of sound. It is not that they sit in a contained location in the space: the cymbals and tamborine glisten out to the left and right edges of the space, and the kick drum punches somewhat indistinctly into the bottom of the space. But the net effect is of a vast chunk of sound contained solidly centre and expanding from this place. The containment of the sound is further manifest in the fact that its quality is unique: there is a chunky puffy quality to the drum/guitar, a kind of dissipated pop, which is considerably unreal in itself, making the instruments seem to exist on a plane slightly moved away from us. It is not that the instruments sound like they are remote or in another space, because they have a full-on presence in the space, and do kick into the bottom of the speakers. However, there is a kind of “quack” to the sound that also spreads or tilts the sound backward, up and out into a slightly different area, a non-located space[3], perhaps even slightly outside our heads. There is a quality to this which makes it sound like it has been beamed into our hearing.

Over the top of this, at 0:16, the keyboard enters the space with an ambient elevated quality left and right spread to the centre, and rises musically in the space while remaining fixed in position, seeming to be a high point inside our heads. At 0:27, the bass (or rhythm guitar?) enters the space thick and centre, almost filling it, pulsing physically, and also inside our heads rising towards the top of our cranium, so that there is some contiguity between the bass and the piano. The chug of the guitar also has a somewhat mechanical feel, which is assisted by the tinkle of the tamborine on the edge of the left and right speakers (note that this “edge” quality is not quite in terms of a spatial position, as the tamborine is positioned only somewhat towards the left and right; it is more that the tamborine seems to be sitting just over the top of the other sounds in the left and right). Opitz is filling the space, and indeed filling it up, and yet he also manages to retain a sense of spaciousness where the main sounds have a wholeness that makes them slightly detached from each other, like they are appearing from different locations. These locations are not necessarily spatial: it is somewhat as if each is appearing from a different time zone (perhaps even a different radio frequency), rather than from a different spot in the soundspace.

The spaciousness has an odd, an overwhelming, and transforming quality to it: it has a metallic sheen and reflectiveness to it, so that it seems we are in a vast bell; but there is also a sense that the bell is our own heads, and our craniums are made to reverberate with the sounds (note the ambient quality of the piano here seems to help trigger this in-the-head quality, and the different radio frequency quality compounds this by purporting a space that is not entirely material, but referred). Such a vast open space might otherwise be projected performatively as, perhaps, a rock concert, perhaps in a stadium: here, however, the space has a transformative effect on our perception, and the acoustic space in which we are hearing the sounds, so that it very much exists in our here-and-now, but as a new, re-shaped here-and-now space. As noted above, there is also a mechanistic quality to this sound, so that at the same time it feels like we are in or part of some vast machine, though because of the “broadcast” or unique referred flavour to the sounds, there is a sense that the machine is not quite with us in the here-and-now.

As a result of these qualities, the space in which we are listening to the track seems almost to transfigure. At the same time, it is operating on a spatial-physical level (a space filling out from us and in front of us); a physical acoustic level (the kick drum and bass thump vibrations into us); and an in-the-head level (ambient piano and various referred qualities). Opitz has, as it were, teased us towards this transfiguration in the brief intro, through the “flap” of sounds, bringing onto the space both a palpable quality, and an unnerving disorienting quality, so that it is already moving towards reshaping our hearing. By the appearance of the vocals at 0:35, the space has taken on dimensions that are both here-and-now – the intense physicality of the piece, and its reflective quality – and deferred and deferring – the beamed-in quality of the sounds. The space which is created becomes internally referential or inherent, so that it no longer primarily refers outward to any other space or reference point. This is strongly brought home by Hutchence’s vocals, which are located nowhere, even while they are close on the speaker, with a detailed sibilant quality, and also have a soft ethereal reverb. They are both almost in-the-head, and almost off into space, while at the same time, distinctly present on our ears, almost physically palpable. It has also been coded, just prior to Hutchence’s appearance, by the burbling radio chatter (vocal and non-vocal), which tinkles around somewhat at the edge of the right and left of the space, drifting the space off, with a forgotten quality to the edge of it, as if these are people or voices forgotten, in the past, or in another lifetime, or in another space. In another recording, musical instruments might take the position of this chatter, and so locating or marking the size of the space. Here, by being sounds referred from another medium, and from other sound contexts, they seem to zone out the space, while at the same time giving it a gentle physicality, bringing a light on-the-ear touch.

The transfiguration of the space, however, is not complete here: prior to 0:48, the location of the space is still just somewhat in front of us, a vast hollowed reflective space, into which we are poking our heads so to speak. With the chorus, however, Opitz and Clearmountain in an instant expand it, so that it seems to fill out around us, fully wrapping round us. The change is instant, but not sudden: it is a change like a realisation, not like a shock. But the change is also intensely physical: the space seems to fill our ears to the brim, and seems to press around us in our physical environment. The change is effected by two main moves: the introduction of the bell-like lead guitar (which further on in the chorus takes on a more guitarish sound), somewhere in front of us, and the movement of the vocals both closer and further back from the speakers. The position of the guitar is indistinct: it seems to be central, but it is most likely that it is slightly left and right, and spread inwards, so that it has a continuant swelling quality. The guitar in effect seems to be “filling” the bell of the space, becoming the clanging note of the bell. Likewise, the details of the voice’s position are indistinct as well: at first (up to 1:03), the various vocal tracks seem to become slightly separate, so that there is a close track/tracks brought forward and close, and another track(s) spread further back at a mid-range, vertically central, but again seeming to be spread inwards from left and right. This track is also treated so that it has a Hammond organ quality to it, a burbling volatile quality. This combination of vocal tracks gives the vocal a peripheral quality – on the edge of the ear – but also a referred quality (the treating again also makes the vocal sound like it is beamed in from afar), and an in-the-head quality. The presence of the space is thereby not directed outwards or forwards, as might be heard in a concert replication: it is made to close around us, but not in a constricting way (though it is made to feel somewhat confining, in a painfully pleasurable way). To understand the effect of this, it’s important to understand that Opitz and Clearmountain are not focusing on individual instruments: they are not trying to punch the space at us by pushing discrete sounds into the speakers, even though the effect is achieved through the subtle use of individual recording tracks. The effect is inclusive and enclosing: the entire space fills around us, as if we are somehow physically immersed into the space.

They bring this home by flapping the space again with the change in Hutchence’s vocals and the lead guitar at 1:03: this provides a slight relief from the press, a slight holding back of the space, so that we get a sense of the size and shape of the “bell”, without losing its physical presence around us. This is partly because Hutchence’s vocals move back from the speakers and take on a form similar to that in the verse, gaining a deeper backward (but slightly dissipated) size, and thereby taking on a gently swelling quality, though in doing so, they do not fill the “bell” in the same way that the guitar has done up to this point. The guitar also gains a bit more specificity in the space: it becomes more guitary and thereby more identifiable, and it also seems to be slightly louder in the mix, or more forward, so that it has a thicker size and presence in the space. It also moves slightly perceptually downward in the space through taking on a deeper resonance, which is more grindingly mechanical and bodily affecting. This also results in a sense of relief or reprieve, but the reprieve is only short-lived in this passage, for the change in guitar sound has an intensity of its own. This again is part of the “flap” of the space: there is a sense of momentary change and release, but the release is into a new movement, rather than into stasis or rest.

The net effect of this is to create a space that is overwhelming, but not oppressive, weighing into us from all angles, but not constricting us. As with “Boys In Town” and “Good Times”, there is a sense that this space is taking us over, and taking us somewhere beyond our own control. More so than either of these two songs, “Communication” re-shapes our own listening space, so that the whole space reaches forward from the speakers and envelopes us. However, paradoxically, and unlike the other two songs, there is a liberation in this space, a freeing up, because it is both non-specific (in that it is an unreal space unable to be located in any projected imaginary location), and also highly specific (in that it exists only within the speakers and in the space in which we are listening). It is a new space, that exists only for us in our listening to the track in the here and now. It is also liberating in an internal sense (largely through its “non-stick” quality): the space created is surrounding but large, with elements placed so that there is a sense of removal from each other, thereby making us aware of the room within it, as if inviting us to be placed where we like inside it. As a result, in “Communication”, the sense of being taken somewhere does not have the shadow of self-destruction lying over it. Instead, there is a paradoxical sense that we are easing into something, even while the emotional tenor and the size of the space are escalating.

This sense of liberation is further built into the fabric of the space in a number of different ways. Musically, there is, of course, the tinkling piano that returns intermittently through the piece (for instance, from 1:18), like a satellite twinkling to us from afar, as if calling us away from the earth. The grand overarching guitar also has a musical inclusiveness and absorption that is rapturous rather than destructive. And coupled with this, the drumkit is played restrained and relatively light for such a large piece, with the rhythm seeming to stretch itself out over the shape of the guitar when it takes on its yawning mechanical sound (for example, from 1:03).

In terms of the space itself, this is further set free by the fact that, until 3:09, it does not settle into a solid fixity. It keeps alternating between the intense chorus, and the slightly less intense breaks and verses (another sort of “flap” in the space, constant movement, but constant release as well). This gives it a rolling forward pulse, as well as a sense of continual release and then winding up, with the winding up being into a space which is relatively open compared with other stadium rockers such as “Heaven Sent”. The “beamed in” radio voices that intermittently appear in the breaks and behind the verses also liberate the space because they seem to pull it up from settling in a projected imaginary position: they’re like tent pegs, anchoring the sound in the corners of the space, and on the edges of the ears, but also allowing the whole space to be suspended above and around us, pulling it up into an aural cloud, rather than grounding it as a metaphoric performative concert space. They also have a liquid quality, both acoustically, and diachronically, as they seem to flow regardless of the rest of the song, so that they resist an attempt to settle the song (this is further effected by the fact that it is hard to make out what the words are saying): the radio voices are, in a sense, allowing us to float along on the song, rather than stick inside it. Furthermore, the voices, coming from “outside” our space, or even outside the song itself as a performed musical entity, continue that “transmitted” feel of the song, as if it is existing non-corporeally and beyond us, part of another dimension, sonic, metaphorical, or otherwise. Finally, and at the same time, the radio voices also have an in-the-head quality, almost as if they are whispering inside our ears, so that they invert themselves and the song in a way: they seem both external (beamed in) and internal (inside our heads). This naturally further sets the song free from a conventional performative fixity in our listening.

Another major element that figures this liberating effect of the space are Hutchence’s vocals. Remarkably, for a band whose image revolves around the persona of Hutchence, his vocals here are made to pull away from the declarative certainty they would normally otherwise have. This is part of a general move on this album towards extensive treating of the vocals, but this is taken to an extreme here where the personality of Hutchence seems to be subsumed into some other form of expression. We have already seen the moves that are made spatially and qualitatively to the voice in order to assist in the transfiguration of the space, and it is these moves that also defuse the voice from taking up a conventional rock vocal construct through representing an individualised perspective. Here the vocals seem de-personalised, de-individualised, treated so that have that “beamed-in” quality, but also so that they seem to run like a thread through the space, a kind of aural lode. This is particularly evident in the title line segment of the chorus, where the Hammond-organ vocal track seems to be less sung than fluted into the space. Moreover, the way the more clear vocal track sits on top of this gives a textured effect to the vocal, so that it seems to touch onto the ear and hold off from it, and consequently, to feel like it is sung towards us, but not quite with us, in a way sung through a dream. It is an odd effect, which seems to coalesce in the line “blood money blood money” (whose words are basically indecipherable anyway), where the Hammond-organ vocal track seems to just ever so lightly touch on the ear, while the more normal track seems to bulge out from it, more like a sponge expanding than something more solid. The de-personalisation of the vocal becomes more explicit in the following lines of the chorus, where it seems to get spun out into the air, almost submerging into the mechanical guitar, or perhaps more properly, almost rising into it. The two do not become one however: the vocal seems to spread into a cloud somewhat close on the speaker, but rising up from it as well, swelling and pulsing on the ear, but fading off into space at the same time. This is again a very compressed production move: the vocal here seems to be slightly weak, while at the same it has a dissipated reverb that spreads its size, while also having an element where it is brought forward in a soft suspended plane just in front of the speakers that draws out its sibilant and hollow breathy qualities. The reverb in fact seems to trail the forward voice, so that it feels like a half-forgotten memory.

The net effect, of course, is to disconnect the vocal; as listeners, we become almost disengaged from it, or disengaged from it as a conventional voice, and become subsumed into its effect on our ear, rather than engaged with the lines it is singing. It’s important to note here that the vocal is never treated so much that it becomes artificial, or robotic, or even unreal. The treatment is such that it is still very much a voice, but a voice that loses contact with the body: it seems to have no location, no natural space in which it sits or in which it would seem to belong, no conventional expressive purpose. It operates more like breath, exhaled into the sonic mist that constitutes the space, singing itself into the air.

Similarly, the lead guitar in passages such as 1:03 to 1:18 liberates the space by seeming to be played into the air, rather than punched forward declaratively, as is, for instance, the lead guitar in “Boys In Town”. Again the move here is complex, because, as noted above, the guitar in a passage like this is more “guitary” than in other places (sch as the bell-like guitar sound of 0:48 to 1:03), enacted as part of the “flap” of the soundspace. However, this movement is only relative: the lead guitar in 1:03 to 1:18 is nowhere near as distinct or specific as in an overtly performative song like “Boys In Town”. This is obviously largely to do with the size with which it is endowed: it sounds like it has been multitracked to within an inch of its life. However, this size is carefully constructed: it is not thunderous or oppressive, so that the guitar is not an expression of cock-rock power. Instead, the guitar is part of the construction of the space itself, so that the space gains its size partly through the size of the guitar here. In a way, the guitar at this point is an almost-felt pulse that swells the space outward; in the light of this, it is interesting to note that the bass guitar becomes almost imperceptible here, as the lead guitar is partly filling that role. It is important, however, that the lead guitar is taking on this pulse effect, as it is taking the space upward, as well as (and not just) towards the body, as the bass might do. There is a kind of semi in-the-head expansiveness to the guitar here, a period of opening up of the mind, though it remains too visceral for it to have an overtly headspace effect. However, this in-the-head aspect is also important here, because like the radio voices, there is a quality here through the guitar that the space is both filling us inside, while enveloping us. Nonetheless, a touch of physicality of the guitar sits like a crust on it at certain points during this passage, where there is a familiar guitary grind to its sound when it plays the lower notes (1:05/6, 1:09/10, 1:13, 1:16/17). This seems to work like a thread woven through the fabric of the space to the speakers, bringing the sound closer to our bodies then allowing it to pulse back as the guitar moves back to the higher notes. Interestingly enough, this does not seem to make the track move into a more identifiable projected space: it seems to further contribute to the liberation of the space, by giving it a free energy disconnected from performativeness, having everything to do with its effect in the here and now of our listening.

Finally, the other major element that liberates the space is the drumkit in the chorus and bridge. As with the vocals and guitar, Opitz has restrained the drums here, so that they do not thump the rhythm into us. Instead, he produces the drumkit so that two elements are predominant – the tom “centre”, and the cymbals spread left and right. This in itself is not a remarkable arrangement, but this differentiation firstly unhooks the cymbals from the rest of the drumkit, so that they seem less connected to the drum pattern. Instead, again, they are both a space-filling element, spread left and right in a kind of cloud, but they are also a space-marking element, so that they seem to paint in the edges of the space. However, because of their spread nature, they are incapable here of actually marking or defining the edges – they seem to rather point to the edge of the space, so that there is also a sense that the space drifts off beyond the edge of the cymbals. By contrast, the toms are placed centre, and are made to sound somewhat “pat”, so that in a way they suck or hook in sound. It’s another aspect of “flap” to the sound, so that the drums continuously effect this sense of absorption and release through being possibly the only contained element in the mix from which other elements seem to bounce or reflect (for example, the cymbals and guitars). However, there is also an odd repelling aspect to these drums, particularly in the bridge, partly effected through their slightly wooden “panel” sound, as if they are beating on a large flat piece of wood, rather than just a drum skin. In a way, the drums both suck in sound, but also (through this panel effect) push it out. This is also effected through the fact that, though the drums are centre, they are only centre vertically – horizontally, they are spread right across the space from left to right, though perceptually, on a casual listen, it seems they are spotted centre. However, the drums do not thereby carve up the space into two vertical elements – we don’t get a sense that sounds are sitting above and below the line of the toms. Instead, as with other elements, the drums have a slightly held-back quality, so that their effect is more in terms of their relationship to the other sounds, rather than in terms of the projected shape of the space. The drums seem to hook the sounds into us, so that the space does not become completely ambient – if the radio voices are like tent pegs, then the toms are like the centre pole, from which the tent of the space can hang. In the bridge, they also seem to operate like the ropes, spreading or pushing the sound out to its maximum reach, with the yawning guitar seeming to stretch out across the toms.

With this space stretched around us, there is an enormous amount of space in which we are placed. This could be alienating, but as with “Boys In Town” and “Good Times”, Opitz uses key elements, such as the toms and the vocals, to connect with us, and to lift us up in the space. We are as it were swept up in the space, but unlike those other two songs, there is not a sense of maelstrom, of barely controlled dissolution. The sense of liberation in this space is one of rapture and release, not of lack of control. This can be seen explicitly, for instance, in the chorus, where Hutchence sings “gonna blow this place apart”, but his vocals are calm, and almost gentle, and Opitz both recedes them through their dissipated size and reverb, and makes them somewhat intimately tactile by just touching on the speaker. Opitz carefully manages the rapture of the song, so that as it seems to escalate in intensity, there is an increasing sense of concession, of being subsumed into something larger, of a pleasurable sort of heightening of experience, both physical and imaginative. This is, for much of the song, realised through the “flap” of the soundspace, so that there is a repeated release in and through the soundspace, but never release from the soundspace, or into dissolution. Each segment of the song – verse to chorus, chorus to bridge, bridge to instrumental, and back again – triggers a new moment of unhooking, but also of re-hooking into both a new sense of the space, but also back into the space itself. It is as if we keep realising something new about the space, or returning to something we once knew but had forgotten. There is also a key moment in the song, subtle, but slightly shifting its dynamics, so that its sense of relief moves slightly differently from foregoing changes. At 2:56, rather than falling back to the radio burble after the bridge and under the verse, the track seems to roll down slightly, with the guitar taking on a slightly sharper turn laden with feedback, whining in the space, and the introduction of acoustic guitar. Structurally, both of these instruments replace the radio burble, so that the acoustic guitar takes over the rolling midspace position of the chatter, and the lead guitar takes on the more ethereal position of the radio noise. However, they also enact three important changes: obviously, they introduce a musicality to these positions in the mix, but they also seem to both defuse these positions (by being musical they lose the charged and marked sonic presence of the radio burble) and reinvigorate them (by overtly introducing a rhythmic and musical element). Moreover, they also have a quality of intensifying the mix, because the space now becomes more thoroughly musical, and filled musically, so that at the same time the space seems to roll downhill, but also to pick up pace. This is emphasised musically by the fact that the verse extends beyond its normal three lines, seeming to descend in melody as it does so, with the final upswing on “gonna give us the truth[4]”. The musical and structural elements just bring on a slightly more performative touch (the lead guitar is more identifiable and rockist, and the acoustic guitar is clearly identifiable, though not strong in the mix), so that the song sweeps us up more easily. Opitz is bringing us up into the song as it moves forward and swells, and in so doing sweeps us up in rapture, rather than in near self-destruction as was the case with “Boys In Town” and “Good Times”. By 3:09, the song is fully realised, with all musical elements in the mix – vocals, drumkit, acoustic guitar, lead guitar, bass, piano – and it maintains this note till the rest of the song, more than one third of its length. The effect is of the song fully opened in the space, so that the foregoing 3:09 feels like a continual series of re-workings to get to this point, rather than this feeling like a winding down, or a “climax”, or a dissolution.
[1] Parenthesising Clearmountain here does not accurately portray the role he plays in producing the sound of “Communication”. However, my interest here is less in the identity of those responsible for the sound, as in the sound itself, and how cataclysm can be coded through sound. Nonetheless, I would like to acknowledge here that Clearmountain is one of the great mixers, and has the ability to create space in a mix rivalled only by Lillywhite and Launay.
[2] Note that the immediacy is also slightly lessened by a small sonic manoeuvre at 0:09, already alluded to: there is the faintest sound of guitar feedback momentarily rising in intensity centre, followed by the radio signal left. Though not immediately apparent as we listen to the track the first few times, this acts as a kind of step into the body of the song; the following radio voices and noises act as further steps up to the introduction of the drums and guitar.
[3] If nothing else, I want to say that Opitz and Clearmountain create, at this juncture, one of the most incredible rhythm sounds in all recorded popular music. This drum/guitar combo (however it has been created or treated) is one of the chunkiest and most engaging rhythm sounds imaginable, and yet it has a subtlety and restraint which allows it to participate in the soundspace like another voice, rather than overwhelm it.
[4] Noted in the lyric sheet as “Show us the truth”.

"Boys In Town", "Good Times", "Communication", "Take A Long Line" all available at iTunes store

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