when the thunder breaks

Thanks to the kind generosity of Five Seventeen (yes, that’s his actual name – as he explains at his website), I finally have a copy of the original version of “Tarantula” by Colourbox (actually, three of them), a song I’d known for years only from the version by This Mortal Coil.

The song itself is a member of that curious class of song whose chorus and title are the same, a word or short phrase that repeats, outside the context of the rest of the song and syntax. Such a compositional method tends to make of the title a sort of numinous concept: something whose specific meaning isn’t clear but which obviously holds a lot of significance for the song’s narrator. In this case, the last line of the song’s lyric at least points in the direction of the title…but it’s also, I’d say, the least effective line of the song.

What’s interesting to me, knowing the cover version first and for years, is how Ivo and buddies were able to get such a radically different mood from the song. I like the original – but when I first heard it I was kind of shocked: it wasn’t at all what I’d expected (and in most cases, I know the originals of the songs TMC covered, so I’m familiar with the way they were often changed dramatically). The most obvious difference is the generally slower, quieter feel – but I think the removal of drums, and the (consequent?) addition of near-silence, gives TMC’s version a sort of dreamlike quality. The original is fairly dark, impassioned, but still pretty well-tethered to being, well, a song. This Mortal Coil makes of it something more autonomous: an incantation, almost a ritual.

That silence isn’t really silence, since often it’s colored by an overhang of reverb from what preceded it. You might transcribe these moments as silence, as rests in the measure, and we sort of hear them that way – but they’re not, really: what they are, though, is a space apart (people forget that reverb is essentially a spatial effect). Reverb essentially puts you in a particular room with sound: a room of particular dimensions, with yourself at a particular distance relative to the sound. And I think the fact that the music persists after the musicians have stopped gives to the music nearly a sort of life of its own, an existence independent of the players who made it. It’s not an accident than an anechoic room is commonly called acoustically “dead”: if the music cannot live independent of the players, it’s as if it’s a mere trick, a ventriloquist’s dummy of subtle and sophisticated form, but really just something the players are doing…rather than something of its own vitality.

And we go back to the lyric: maybe the way to put that numinous, disconnected title phrase back together is to call it the life of the narrator’s pain: dark, compressed, despised…but not to be ignored, except at risk to others.

This Mortal Coil “Tarantula” (cover – Filigree & Shadow, 1986)

Colourbox “Tarantula” (original – b-side of “Breakdown” single, 1982)


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