To be honest, a lot of guff gets written about “Lo-Fi” music and what it all means, doesn’t it? The sort of bollocks that tries to ascertain the philosophical aspects of recording vocals into equipment made from an old tin can and a bit of string. Well, you’ll be pleased to know that the flow of guff is not going to change with this blog post.
In its simplest form, Lo-Fi recordings exist as a means of necessity due to financial constraints, (being unable to afford real studio time) and also in part to perceived musical incompetency (no record label would touch you, hence no financial backing). Lo-Fi music has been around for ages, from the first recordings of music, on cylinders and old 78’s, to the scratchy ethnographic recordings of Alan Lomax, to the golden era of “Lo-Fi” in the ’80s when simple 4-track portastudios becoming readily available.
At that time, the c86 movement saw an explosion in home recorded music, the punk DIY ethic being executed, writ large. Of course the musical results were more often than not, total garbage, but that wasn’t the point. The music was a statement against the increasingly big, dry, bombastic recordings from major labels and their acts. This was also true of the early recordings from the Norwegian black metal scene, with bands using the cheapest, nastiest equipment they could find. It all seemed “authentic” against the fakery of the studios.
But today, lowering costs and advancement of recording equipment, as well as the software to deal with it all, mean the possibilities of what you can do in your bedroom has become waaay more pronounced. In reality, you would only be doing something “Lo-Fi” in a deliberate stance towards “Authenticity” which is almost ironic as most mainstream music today, with its constant use of compression, Pro Logic tools and almost being mixed to play on phones and laptops, has become more harsh, brittle and plastic than many classic lo-fi songs of yesteryear. It’s almost a weird form of alternative ideology against the prevails of the mainstream status quo to make your home recordings sound as full, lush and expensive sounding as possible.
Today some of the best music you hear has been recorded at home or in a home studio. Take a look at these three examples…
One of the blackest, ooziest releases this year, Bobby Krlic (aka The Haxan Cloak) recorded most of this album at home. Admittedly it took him a lot of time and effort but the crushing, scraping sounds of doom he makes is darker that most black metal albums you hear.
“But i bet he has a lot of complex equipment,” you may counter. “That’s not really lo-fi!” Okay, well how about this?
Julianna Barwick is just one woman who, with a few pieces of equipment, and a laptop, makes choir sounds that feel like an angel is giving birth in your cerebral cortex. all the while her cat is messing with her cables!
Oh is that still too complex for you? Well how about this?
Ian Hodgson (aka Moon Wiring Club), makes sample heavy music that references his encyclopedic knowledge of old UK TV and horror films from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. And he composes nearly all of his music on a Playstation 2 using the “MTV music generator 2” software package. Yes, that’s right, he make his music using A FUCKING PLAYSTATION 2!
So effectively, with the level of quality coming from modern home recordings, in reality the only reason you would need to go into a studio would be if there was something too complex to record properly at home, of if there was a greater ambition and imagination at play that required more snazzy, expensive stuff to play with.
(takes a breather…)
Wow, that was a mighty long ramble-as-intro to a record “review” and we haven’t even mentioned the record yet! One of the reasons for that above rambling is that over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to “Nology”, the debut album from local popsters NOLO. And while listening to it, I started thinking about the rationality and comparisons between of home Vs Studio recordings and what it means today be “Lo-Fi”
I enjoyed Nolo’s debut EP from last year, “No Lo-Fi”. In an (unpublished) review, i make the mistake of invoking the artist A***l P**k in describing their sound, which really wasn’t applicable as they weren’t truly invoking a memoryscape of past musical endeavours that would have imprinted their childhood. In reality Nolo make simple Pop Tunes that hints towards the beatles and early ’80s new wave.
intriguingly, the sound on “No Lo-Fi” had a deliciously warped, melted nature to it. Recorded at home on a single mic and basic equipment, natural reverb dripped from tracks such as “Skelin Mín” and “Fondu” seemed to have a scratched, overloaded pulse to proceedings. Then you saw them play live, whereupon you realised they were a classic example of a bedroom band, suddenly forced to translate their music to a live platform and stumbling somewhat. Tinny drum machines, cheesy organ sounds and the inability to sing properly, somewhat dampened expectations a bit, although they have gotten a bit better since their beginnings.
Now we have “Nology”, a 14 track opus from the boys that’s gaining rave reviews and should see them take it to the next level. But somehow something seems to have gotten lost in the transition. Many local reviews have made much of the fact that they recorded this album in a studio with the assistance of Svavar “Prinspóló” Eysteinsson and Loji “Sudden Weather Change” Höskuldsson. But after listening to the end result, you wonder why they actually bothered. Because you could have recorded music with this level of production easily at home. They’ve kept the plastic, flimsy feel to the songs, but the album seems to have lost some of the otherworldly vibe of their earlier material, draining it of its woozyness. When you tell people that “Nology” was recorded in a studio, they actually go “Really? I don’t believe it!” I would have assumed that with going into a studio, they would have gone for a bigger, ambitious, increasingly out-there experience, upping the levels of lushness and smear a layer dripping mental gauze to proceedings, otherwise, why bother going into a studio in the first place?
Not that the songs themselves are bad as such. In some places they’re pretty good actually, Tacks such as “Polka”, “Taxi” and “Beautiful Day” contain extremely catchy melodies, and show signs of increasing confidence in their songcraft. But you do need to ignore certain deficiencies in order to enjoy the listening, the main one being the lyrics. Are they bad? Well, yes, but they’re the anti-Vintage Caravan aren’t they? While the VC try to act like hard 30-something rockers talking about “Psychedelic mushroom men” and “crazy devil women” (I think they’re actually still virgins), Nolo seem to have taken the “write about your experiences and what you know” school of thought. This means singing a lot about travelling on public transport and having friends come over to visit. In terms of life experiences and cultural input, never has being an Icelandic teenager sounded so dull.
Also i would have trimmed a few of the less enthusing tracks, such as “Souls Of Shanghai” and “Iceage”.The reworking of “Beautiful Way” also doesn’t really add that much to the previous version on “no Lo-Fi”.
“Nology” is a quirky little album that has its plus points, but does seem to have lost its way a little in the recording process. Oh, they’ll get the plaudits and become fully paid up members of the whole musical “Iceland = quirky” squad. I just hope that when they next record a batch of tunes, they really think hard about what they want and get some good guidance on making their music a more astral experience.
You can hear and stream the album yourself over at Gogoyoko.