Saturday, August 10, 2013

The "Heaviest Album" I've Ever Heard No Longer Exists

Racer asked all Ripple scribes to write about the "heaviest" album they have heard.  I generally have the same opinion about "Best" and "Most" designations that I have about "Top Ten Lists" - each choice is in the eye of the beholder and adds nothing to the discourse about music. However, I had a different, fundamental, definitional problem with this assignment -what constitutes a "heavy" album?

Merriam-Webster provides no less than fourteen meanings for "heavy."  Certain definitions I immediately discounted as not compatible with Racer's intent or as otherwise implausible, such as,

5 a : borne down by something oppressive : burdened
   b : pregnant; especially : approaching parturition

6 a : slow or dull from loss of vitality or resiliency : sluggish
   b : lacking sparkle or vivacity : drab
   c : lacking mirth or gaiety : doleful
   d : characterized by declining prices

7    : dulled with weariness : drowsy
*  *  *

10  : producing goods (as coal, steel, or chemicals) used in the production of other goods

11 a : having stress —used especially of syllables in accentual verse
      b : being the strongest degree of stress in speech

12 : relating to theatrical parts of a grave or somber nature

13  : long 9

That left seven possible definitions which had at least four different meanings:

The first definition is:

1. a : having great weight; also : characterized by mass or weight
     b : having a high specific gravity : having great weight in proportion to bulk
     c (1) of an isotope : having or being atoms of greater than normal mass for that element (2) of a compound : containing heavy isotopes

The definition is akin to some of the many concepts in Merriam-Webster's eighth definition:

 8   : greater in quantity or quality than the average of its kind or class: as
   a : of unusually large size or amount
   *  *  *
    l : of large capacity or output

If by "heavy" Racer meant me to write about the album of the greatest weight or mass, it would probably be Herbert von Karajan's Complete Recordings on Deutche Grammaphon. It is a 240-disc Japanese set that features two CDs of rehearsals, 100 and 200 page books (in Japanese), and a wooden cabinet-style box. However, I tend to doubt that weight or mass is the definition Racer had in mind.

The second Merriam-Webster definition for "heavy" is:

2.: hard to bear; specifically : grievous, afflictive

If this is what Racer meant by "heavy" then the "heaviest" album I ever heard was Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band's debut album. It is characterized by nine tracks of incoherent screams, grunts and wheezes, shrilly backed by Ringo Starr and John Lennon.  Still, I don't think this is what Racer was looking for when he asked us to write about our "heaviest" album. 

The third Merriam-Webster definition is:     

3  : of weighty import : serious
This definition differs little in concept from the fourteenth definition:

14 : important, prominent

Using this definition I would choose the 1990 release of the Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson.  No guitar player and blues pioneer has ever had as much influence on modern blues, rock, jazz music and guitar as Johnson.  Yet, I don't think Racer was looking for an article on the most important album we have heard.

The fourth definition is:

4   : deep, profound

Depending on one's perspective this definition is similar to Merriam-Webster's seventh definition:

9 a : very rich and hard to digest
   b : not properly raised or leavened

It also embodies the following concepts that are part of the eighth definition:
8  . . . b. of great force
    *  *  *
           k : more powerful than usual for its kind

This sounds more like what Racer was seeking - a column on what we perceive as the deepest, most profound album we have ever heard.  For me, that album no longer exists.

In 1889, the father of the Gramophone, Emile Berliner, recorded the first record album and then destroyed it.  It was that album that pioneered sound recordation and ushered in the era of the modern vinyl record album.  Yet, no one alive today had ever heard what was actually recorded since the album no longer exists.
In 2012, Patrick Feaster, a sound historian at Indiana University, was at the Bloomington Herman B. Wells Library looking for a photograph of the earliest known recording studio to illustrate his lecture on Thomas Edison's sound recordings.  As he paged through an 1890 German magazine he came upon an article on the gramophone.  When he turned to the article he found it to be illustrated with an actual paper print of the original first known album.

The album print had no relief.  It was a simple, flat, two dimensional facsimile of the original recording.  Feaster, however, is an expert in rescuing records from photographs.  Through enhancement and imaging software, calculation of shadow lengths, etc., Feaster was able to establish a sound profile for the original recording. He was then able to recreate the actual sound from the long lost first record album. 
The first recorded album contains a recitation of Friedrich Schiller's German ballad Der Handschuh:

Vor seinem Löwengarten
Das Kampfspiel zu erwarten
Saß König Franz
Und um ihn die Großen der Krone
Und rings auf hohem Balkone
Die Damen in schönem Kranz

It is difficult to understand and hear.  The sound is scratchy, just terrible.  The album includes poetry, an acapella song and Berliner and his fellow scientist Louis Rosenthal counting to 20 in several different languages.   

It is not the content of the album that makes it the "heaviest" I have heard.  Rather, it is the deep and profound impact of this recording on the history of music.  It is the progenitor of every record album ever made.  Before Berliner made this album music was only a live experience.  You couldn't bring it home and play it over and over again.  This album forever changed that paradigm. It led to vinyl records, tape, CD's, DVD's, computer hard drives and every other form of data storage device.   Now, that is the "heaviest" album yet it does not exist.

- Old School

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