February 19th, 2008

Stuffed CD

Every time I turn around, there's another silence drowning me

This evening, I've been reading a thread on a Dream Theater forum on the topic of realising your favourite band is not your favourite band any more, and this has sparked a number of thoughts for me. Music is possibly the most important thing in my life, even ahead of literature, my academic interests, and railways. When I wake up or study or do the dishes, I do not feel the overwhelming urge to ride a train, but you better believe I'll soon feel something is wrong if I am not listening to music. When I am watching television, the one thing that often occurs to me is that "I'm not listening to music!" As the most important thing, music is only subordinate to the most important people; only when I'm interacting with people has it never occurred to me that I could be listening to music but I'm not. So I'm sure the patterns of my musical preferences say something about me and reflect where I was at that point in my life.

It is hardly any secret that U2 are my first musical love. I grew up on their music and have always enjoyed them; the first CD I ever bought was the Best Of 1980-1990 when I was 11 and U2 were nominally my favourite band from that point on. I say nominally because I really wasn't that deeply into their music, and didn't own much of their material. Music until I was about 14 was there to be enjoyed and I had already developed the habit of religiously writing while listening to music, but it had not yet developed any serious internal significance. Around that point, however, I got more seriously into U2. My transition from casual fan into serious fan occurred swiftly in December 2002/January 2003 with the release of the Best Of 1990-2000 and my acquisition of the Under A Blood Red Sky and Rattle And Hum videos - from each, the three songs I can pinpoint as solidifying my love of the band are Gone, 11 O'clock Tick Tock, and Bad (so much for the theories on Interference that casual fans won't get fully into U2 unless they're bashed around the head with Where The Streets Have No Name, One, and Beautiful Day for the 1,000th time). I very quickly became deeply into the band, trading bootlegs and becoming an expert on setlists. I still draw endless fascination in the band's setlists and, despite my changing musical tastes, I find working on U2VT to be one of the most satisfying things I have ever done.

However, in late 2005, I started to feel that perhaps I didn't like U2 as much as I did. I was so excited by the prospect of U2's first tour of Australia since 1998, and yet by January 2006, my desire to listen to their music had plummeted. In mid-December 2005, the plays of U2 on my last.fm registered in the hundreds per week. By mid-January 2006, they struggled to break the 40s and have almost never passed 100 since. Just reaching my top ten weekly artists has been an achievement for the last year. Their music, on the whole, just does not resonate with me any more in the ways it once did. I tend to associate U2 with a happier time of my life and some youthful idealism now replaced by a disappointed cynicism and a lack of expectations. I should be clear here and say that The Unforgettable Fire, with all of its beautiful atmospheric soundscapes, remains my favourite album and the 26 December 1989 performance of One Tree Hill is my favourite song. But so much after the end of the Lovetown Tour in January 1990 leaves me feeling empty, especially the superficial and simplistic material the band has produced this decade. I wish they had never written One; yes, I wish the song that saved the Berlin recording sessions and by extension kept the band together had never happened, and not simply because it is a terrible song. If they had split up and left their eighties material as their legacy, they would undoubtedly still be my favourite band. But no band can be my favourite when I wouldn't save half their discography in a fire.

So U2 from the start of 2006 returned to being a nominal favourite. I remember around March and April 2006 I briefly considered Dream Theater to be my favourite band, but there wasn't much passion or enthusiasm behind that. They were definitely a top three band for me at the time, but favourite? No, and as the U2 tour in November 2006 drew closer, U2 had at least some of the trappings of being the favourite for me. I had incredible fun at the concerts and I would do it again in a heartbeat - there is something about U2 concerts that is very hard to describe, but it makes them an immensely enjoyable and rewarding experience. However, not even the tour could reignite my declining love of the band. My top three bands at the end of 2006 were Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, and U2, but none was a distinct favourite.

Early in 2007, I thought Dream Theater were starting to emerge as my new favourite. The anticipation I felt for their impending new album, Systematic Chaos, reminded me of awaiting U2's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb in the midst of my U2 obsession in 2004. Then two very significant things happened. Firstly, Porcupine Tree released Fear Of A Blank Planet in April and absolutely blew me away. I gave their back catalogue more love too; I began spending time exploring parts that I had neglected and discovered more of the same brilliance. Secondly and most crucially, Systematic Chaos leaked in May. Without a doubt, this is one of the worst albums I have ever heard by any band even approaching half-decent. I have never felt so disappointed or so letdown by any album; I could not believe as I played it for the first time that not one track appealled to me, and that I even vehemently hated some songs in a way I didn't think possible. That one album irreversibly soured Dream Theater for me, and helped highlight just how bad the two preceding albums are too. I still love their 1989-1997 material and that keeps them in my top ten bands, but they are nowhere near the top.

Ever since then, Porcupine Tree have risen sharply in prominence. I'm sure those most acquianted with my tastes are probably surprised they weren't my clear favourite earlier. But by June 2007 I was closely following their setlists, and even songs I didn't love so much initially are now strong favourites. That stands in stark contrast to every other band I've ever been fond of, where those songs I've initially not liked so much have tended to just slide further. Porcupine Tree's music does everything I want music to do, and best of all, it's consistent - there are no albums or songs that I hate. I've even got a strong fondness for some of On The Sunday Of Life and other early releases full of bizarre experimental music. Certainly at this point of my life, Porcupine Tree speaks to me, and has done so in other phases too. I keep wondering if I will be one of those people who ends up with one predominant musical love, or if I will continue to slowly but surely move between bands. I know I will always return to U2 as my first musical love, and Porcupine Tree as the band who opened me up to so much more, but I see some people who have loved Dream Theater as their favourite for 15 years, U2 for 25 years, Rush for 35 years, and in light of Porcupine Tree's clear rise to dominance in my current tastes, I have to ask myself: so, Axver, how long will this last?