Conrad Keely: he means it
Conrad Keely is a man who knows his own mind, and is unafraid to speak it emphatically, regardless of prevailing musical fashions. In the week that sees the release of his first solo album, Original Machines, the ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead co-founder took the time to share the sometimes surprising albums that have shaped his career and highly dramatic musical sensibilities.
"More than simply "changing my life" (whatever that means, my life is constantly changing)," writes Keely, "these albums challenged and influenced my concept of what albums can be. What subject matter can be about, what music can sound like, and what artists who listen to their own inner voice without any consideration of what is commercial or popular - what such artists are capable of creating."
Original Machines is released on 22 January.
1. Kate Bush - Never For Ever
"Yeah I know, Hounds of Love, yadda yadda. Truth is I constantly reference Hounds. Yes, I realize it was her masterpiece and all.
I mean, who else would have been writing that sort of music in 1980?
"But for me Never for Ever is that album which, at the impressionable age of eight years old, got me turned onto the weirdness that is and was Kate Bush, at a time when she was merely twenty years old.
"It's a strange and undeniably self-indulgent album, but criticizing a 20-year-old for being self-indulgent is as silly as herding cats. Especially one who clearly knew their way around composition, instrument arrangement, harmonic arrangement, and not to mention was probably one of only 10 people at the time who knew how to program a Fairlight sampler (and I'm guessing the only woman among them).
"But all praising the artist aside, this album made all the difference between me just growing up with only the neanderthal radio hits on Top of the Pops to inspire me - it made me realize that pop music could be magical enough to transport you into other worlds.
"The undeniable etherealness of Blow Away, the angelic interlude that is Night Scented Stock. I mean, who else would have been writing that sort of music in 1980? Certainly none of her UK post-punk contemporaries."
2. Pink Floyd - Atom Heart Mother
"Again, an obvious choice would have been Dark Side, but that was my intro album to Floyd. Atom Heart on the other hand was like advanced listening for chamber-pop aficionados.
"Even the story of this recording session is quite entertaining - if you're interested, read up on the fiasco that was poor Ron Geesin's experience orchestrating for this album.
The fact that it exists at all is a wonderful gift to we lovers of orchestral progressive rock.
"Despite his own reservations about the final recording of the orchestra and choir (done in one take that he assumed was a rehearsal run-through, according to anecdote), the result for me is a triumphant masterpiece from another planet.
"It's a piece of music that, I'm not really sure how or why it was written - it seems completely out of place in the Pink Floyd canon.
"But the fact that it exists at all is a wonderful gift to we lovers of orchestral progressive rock. Upon first hearing it at age thirteen I was transported to that other planet, and I never fully returned."
3. Mike Oldfield - Incantations
"Most folks just know Mike Oldfield as the guy who wrote the theme for the Exorcist (aka Tubular Bells) but I'd consider this album his crowning achievement.
"Again, I was introduced to this at an impressionable age (ten years old), and I thought it was music that had been composed by elves from Middle Earth. That was seriously what I thought I was listening to.
You wouldn't even notice that the melody you're listening to is not based on any single tonic, but casually passes through all twelve. I dare you to try it, I f**king dare you.
"And at that point in my life, after having read the Hobbit and Chronicles of Narnia, that was exactly what I wanted to listen to.
"I didn't ask how the elves had gotten a hold of electric guitars and synthesizers - how do elves do anything? They use high magic of course.
"A couple of interesting facts about the album. One story I can't confirm is that Oldfield had worked so painstakingly on the album that the 2" tape he recorded on became useless and he basically had to start again. Not sure if it's true, but entirely possible and a great story.
"The other, which I can confirm, is that the four pieces are all based around a complete cycle through the circle of fifths. Now, this is extremely unconventional, and perhaps it had never even been attempted before, let alone done successfully.
"But somehow Mike manages to do it, and you wouldn't even notice that the melody you're listening to is not based on any single tonic, but casually passes through all twelve. I dare you to try it, I fucking dare you.
"If you're at all interested, there's a video of a live performances of Incantations done in 1979, and the choir singing the "Diana" section are super cute."
4. Genesis - Trespass
"At age fourteen I'd been turned on to Seconds Out, the live album where Phil Collins is singing mostly Peter Gabriel-era Genesis songs, but doing a great job. In fact, I admit to liking his voice more. Gabriel tended to make things sound coarse in comparison to Collins's silky smooth delivery.
"But as I delved deeper into the corpus of old Genesis recordings (at the time the radio was playing Invisible Touch - hardly revolutionary) I developed a taste for the band's second studio album.
I'd rather be sky-sailing along to tracks such as Stagnation, exploring strange frontiers with Dusk, or listening to the strange tale of rival wolf clans on White Mountain.
"Trespass is definitely strange. Rolling Stone said of the album 'it's spotty, poorly defined, innately boring, and should be avoided by all but the most rabid Genesis fans'. In other words, my kind of album!
"These are the sort of records I listen to while painting, they transport me away from current reality to an alternate universe. It's not a trip for everyone, some folks prefer to stay grounded with meat and potatoes albums like Combat Rock or what have you, but not me.
"I'd rather be sky-sailing along to tracks such as Stagnation, exploring strange frontiers with Dusk, or listening to the strange tale of rival wolf clans on White Mountain."
5. R.E.M. - Murmur
"I actually had to chose between this album and a Rush album, but I couldn't decide which Rush album to write about so settled on R.E.M.'s Murmur, their fist full-length LP, because it too changed my outlook on music in a big way and at about the same time in my life (age fifteen).
I'm happy to simply appreciate the fact that it's weird, and strangely uncomfortable and beautiful at the same time.
"For one, this album made me realize that lyrics really don't need to make sense at all, especially not to sound good. I don't know what this says about listeners appreciation of the work that goes on into writing good lyrics, but the truth is that the song lyrics on Murmur aren't just good because they don't make any sense, they're actually brilliant.
"Why do songs have to be about anything? The fact is, they don't! Sure, Michael Stype might have had his own secret and very personal reasons why he wrote the lyrics for Laughing that sounds something like 'Laocoön, her two sons/ pressured storm try to move' (made all the more strange because although Laocoön did have two sons, he was a man, not a woman), but I don't really need to know what they are.
"I'm happy to simply appreciate the fact that it's weird, and strangely uncomfortable and beautiful at the same time.
"What else did Murmur teach me? That you can be a band from America, but you don't have to sound like it. You know what I mean?
"Well, if you don't, check this album out."
6. Itzhak Perlman - Vivaldi: Four Violin Concertos
"Fuck yeah, man. Fuck yes, this is a great rock album. This album makes Slayer sound like a bunch of stoned hippies singing 'If you're going to San Fransisco'.
This album showed me that in music, emotion and power transcend genre, they transcend time and era, they transcend generations.
"If you know anything about power and emotion, you would be a fool not to be terrified listening to the C Minor Allegro. The friend who turned me onto this album in high school said he liked to listen to it while reading Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire because it freaked him out (clearly this album managed to make that awful book kind of scary).
We used to drive around in Brady's car blasting this album out the windows, and the jocks in their pick-up trucks in Olympia Washington thought we were hard core drug dealers (well, at the time he was).
"I accredit listening to this album while on acid for inspiring me with a future vision of what rock music could potentially be - a vision of such beauty and complexity that I have never come close to achieving it, but which continues to inspire my composition.
"Along with Basil Polidoris's Conan the Barbarian soundtrack, this album showed me that in music, emotion and power transcend genre, they transcend time and era, they transcend generations.
"This is something important for all composers to think about, because whether or not you are popular in your life time, it has absolutely no bearing on what will be embraced by future generations. Vivaldi, wherever he is now, would relate.
"And let's not forget to mention the bad ass virtuosity of Maestro Perlman himself. If you're a fan, check out his duet with Pinchas Zukerman on Bach's Concerto for Two Violins."
7. Unwound - Fake Train
"A rare quality among bands are those who really don't want to become celebrities, and who actually manage to avoid fame. It seems more common for undesired fame to prey upon those who least want it, while escaping those who really want it (like me, for instance).
The fact that this band never got massively popular continues to haunt me.
"But in Unwound's case they really managed to succeed in remaining obscure, and everything I know about them would lead me to suspect this was entirely out of choice. You might say they were in loath of the idea of their popularity, and their attitude towards it shines through their music and lyrics.
"This was their first full length (1991), and they're the only band on my list I had the fortune of seeing from their beginning, when they formed in 1990 (their Wiki says '91, but I'm pretty sure I remember these guys playing before that, possibly under different names).
"Despite its obscurity outside cooler-than-thou ex-scenester circles from the '90's, this is a great album, and floored me to listen to when it came out. Hearing it for the first time I turned green with envy, yet at the same time I embraced the anger it vented - vented towards nothing in particular!
"The song lyrics epitomized America's disaffected, self-hating white middle-class guilt victims screaming about the fact that they have nothing to do with their time other than be bored, nothing to speak out against other than their own ennui and unwarranted discontent.
"And although that might sound like a criticism or an indictment, the fact is that this sentiment existed, it was shared by a lot of us, and it found its voice in albums like Fake Train (and Fugazi's Thirteen Songs).
"The fact that this band never got massively popular continues to haunt me, and I'm sure many other fans of theirs.
"I clench my fist when I think of the list of popular albums people associate with the '90's, how utterly worthless most of those albums are, how horrible they sound, and that this gem of an album didn't get its chance to influence the kids who were influenced by all the wrong things instead.
"And for that, perhaps we really need to blame Unwound, who seemed determined to jealously preserve and protect their own obscurity."
8. Dead Can Dance - Aeon
"'Fortune presents gifts not according to the book,' Dead Can Dance sing, borrowing their lyrics from the 17th Century Spanish poet, Luis De Gongora. And I'm sure the fickleness of our fortunes is a fact most of us can attest to at least once in our lives.
My fragile eggshell mind was officially blown.
"Such was the fortunes of an alternative band who decided that instead of making alternative music, they were going to revive the sounds of medieval polyphony.
"And did they ever! Wow. How deep into the obscure they had to dig is anyone's guess, and I would love to know the songs they'd considered recording but decided against.
"Aeon is probably the most medieval of their albums, done after the duo had broken up as a couple. Perhaps this tension contributes to the passion on the album, sort of like a gothic Rumors.
"This album got to me during the acid experimentation phase of my life, around age nineteen. So when my friend Brady (the same friend who turned me onto Vivaldi's concerto recordings) got me some great blotter one night and drove me out to the monk's cemetery at St. Martin's Abby, shone his headlights through the ornate iron gate down the rows of headstones onto the crucifix at the far end, then blasted Song of the Sybil, my fragile eggshell mind was officially blown.
"That for me was a life-changing moment."
9. David Bowie - Low
"Well news of Bowie's death broke on the news shortly after I started this article, so it seemed only natural for me to look back upon his influence on my musical development. Ziggy Stardust might have been my introduction, the one that really changed me. But years later, long after I thought I'd learned all I needed to from Bowie, I stumbled upon the weirdness that is Low.
Yes, the first side of Low is total garbage
"One thing this album taught me is that you can make a great album in which the first side completely sucks. Yes, the first side of Low is total garbage.
"You might make a case for Sound and Vision, but it would be a weak one. All the songs on that side are pretty much worth skipping.
"The second side has been regarded by many as revolutionary, and I would say completely makes up for the first side's lack of listenability. Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of what critics at the time said when the record comes out, but we all know that the majority of music critics (in other words the ones who don't actually play instruments) are parasitic morons.
"It's common knowledge that Eno had a large hand in composing the music on side two, but the Bowie-ness of it manages to shine through. Why didn't they make an entire double-album like this instead? Who knows. The world will forever be at a loss as to what that might have been like."
10. ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead - Tao of the Dead
"So why can't I include one my band's albums in the list? Fuck all y'all, no one said I couldn't. It isn't like we're going to show up on anyone else's list for at least another 20 years, so I don't feel bad about it. And can making an album change you as much as listening to one? Hell yes it can.
You take that record budget, you spend it on plane tickets to a studio in a really great location you've never been to.
"This album forever changed my approach to album making. For some idiotic reason I had this idea in my head (planted there by supposed "professional producers" I'd worked with) that making albums was supposed to be some intense, existential ordeal that rips apart your soul, you have to dig deep into all your negative emotions to conjure up the heaviest lyrics and moodiest musical motifs, you have to undergo some painful rebirth to find your true voice.
"Well what a total load of shit. Making albums can be fun! And it damn well should be. I told my band we were going to treat this album like we were going on vacation, and we did. And I was one-hundred percent pleased with the result. It was the album we made that I didn't really care if anyone else liked, I had a blast making it.
"And ever since then, it's has been my criteria for recording. The process has to be enjoyed, otherwise I'll simply do something else with my time. Suffering? Ain't nobody got time for that!
"So for all you new bands out there who are under all this pressure to get all heavy with your recordings, you're being massively deceived. You take that record budget, you spend it on plane tickets to a studio in a really great location you've never been to, away from the ugly cities of the world and into the wild, make sure it has a swimming pool if possible or something active to do nearby like hiking or bike riding, and you just treat yourself to a good time.
"And in the evenings, when you're all nice and relaxed, you do some recording.
"Trust me, you'll thank me for it."