In November of 2006 two of my loves came together in a way that I never could have expected. After another grueling day of middle school, I rode my bike over to a friends house for (what I assumed would be) yet another innocuous afternoon of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. This was a game that my parents had expressly forbidden me from playing, so I already had a bit of an adrenaline rush going as I turned down his street. I arrived ready to help him joyfully commit drive-bys and outrun the cops, but I arrived to find something completely different: Guitar Hero II.
Guitar Hero became my obsession. That plastic guitar represented an object that combined the two things I cared about most in life: music and video games. It also mixed these two passions with my then-burgeoning hobby of (real) guitar playing. All of these things came together and took the form of one convenient package that tickled my brain and became the main topic of conversation among my group of friends for the next year. As we all practiced our plastic shredding it quickly became a race to see who could work their way from “Easy” all the way up to “Expert” first. There was something epic about being the first one within our group to have completed “Free Bird” on the next difficulty before anyone else.
While the competition was certainly a key factor in the game’s longevity among my group of friends, the primary reason that I kept playing was music discovery. The game turned me onto literally dozens of classic rock acts, most of whom I’d never listened to before. There were major bands like The Police, Iggy Pop, and Deep Purple who were all exposed to me first through this game. The songs included in Guitar Hero II’s soundtrack offered forays into these artist’s extensive discographies, and in some cases, the songs featured are still my favorites by the artists.
But it wasn’t just legacy acts, Guitar Hero II also included a fair number of smaller, more obscure acts and up-and-comers who I had absolutely never heard of. Bands like The Toadies, The Sword, and The Living End all became obsessions of mine over the next several years of high school. These licensed songs were all part of the “career mode” you had to play though as a part of the game’s natural progression. Guitar Hero also included “bonus songs” from lesser-known indie artists that you could purchase with in-game money that you earned from playing gigs (just like a real rocker!)
I could probably write a page (or at least a paragraph) about what each one of the songs in Guitar Hero II means to me, but one song in particular “The Fall of Pangea” by Valient Thorr stuck out to me. What the fuck did ‘the fall of pangea’ mean? I didn’t know, but it sounded wicked.
A year later in 2007 my Guitar Hero obsession had died down and I had moved back to traditional video games. In the winter of 2007 I was playing a game called skate. which had a similarly kick-ass soundtrack. Within its 40+ song setlist was a song by Valient Thorr curiously enough. “The Man Behind the Curtain” was the band’s first breakout hit, a song which centered around a blistering guitar riff that frequently (and abruptly) pauses allowing for the booming drums and manic vocals cut into the track. The song was so infectious that I was compelled to download it in addition to the rest of the band’s second album Total Universe Man.
Within Total Universe Man there are several tracks consisting only of spoken dialogue over subdued instrumentals. One such track is “Intermission: Thesis Of Infinite Measure” which is a rambling paranoid stream of consciousness on love, humanity, and music. I think that the track speaks for itself more than a lyric sheet ever could, but the ending phrase “swim into the sounds” is something that has stuck with me ever since I first listened to the album. The fact that it’s repeated five times makes it feel all the more haunting and important.
While the line is poetic on its own, I’ve always read it as something deeper. The song’s “structure” is loose at best, but it’s ending is crystal clear: it is a plea. Using the analogy of swimming, our narrator repeats the final line five times for emphasis. He wants the listener to shut off their mind and be absorbed by the music. Swim into the abyss of the melody and be consumed by the sound. Lose yourself in the songs and become surrounded by nothing but music. Swim into the sounds.
I think that’s a beautiful notion. Sometimes it’s all you want to do, just float on your back out to sea, or in this case, float into a space where the music is focused on so wholly that nothing else matters. It represents the ideal way to experience music, with a blank mind and an open heart. Like the tide, you need to let music carry you wherever it needs to. You can’t fight it, and you can’t stop it.
I chose this phrase as the name for my blog because it not only depicts this beautiful, poetic, trance-like way to experience music, but also because it represents so much. It represents a formative time in my life when me and all of my friends were bonded together over a plastic instrument. It represents all the music that that game (and its sequels) turned me onto. It represents a time in my life I’ll never get back, but that I wouldn’t trade in for anything. Guitar Hero represents one of the most important moments of in musical journey, and it turned me onto an embarrassing number of bands.
On some level, there’s a weird stigma to admit that you “discovered” something as basic as “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” through a video game (much less one where you press colored buttons and pretend to play along with it), but hey, I was 13. I’d heard maybe 10% of the songs on the soundtrack before playing Guitar Hero II, but I came out of it knowing more about classic rock than I ever would have otherwise. It educated me on old classics and turned me onto new bands I’d never heard of. I gained a greater appreciation for the guitar as an instrument. It led me down a musical rabbit hole that informed my taste and impacted the way I think about music for the rest of my life. It was the first time I’d ever been so invested in a video game because I was getting out of it as much as I was putting into it. From a snobby “music fan” standpoint, it’s hyper-embarrassing to admit how much I got out of these games, but sometimes you just have to not care. Sometimes you just have to let the music take over and gently float you downstream. Sometimes you have to let the music take you on a journey and let it lay you aground wherever it pleases. Sometimes you just have to swim into the sound.