Ben Heels

Everything I do, all in one place.

Zero to 600, Part 1

Music has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember but I didn’t start seriously listening until I started middle school. Seemingly all at once, I became intensely aware of who I was, how I acted, and most importantly what I listened to. For whatever reason, I was vehemently anti-pop during this time in my life. I felt that the music I liked (and disliked) was a reflection of myself, my musical identity. Why listen to the radio if that’s what everyone else is listening to? While everyone else was trying to “fit in” and be accepted, little old INTJ me was actively trying to do something different.

In 7th grade, I met one of my best friends Max—better known today as Diveo. I sat in the back row of our Social Studies class, Max took the desk next to mine. The first thing he said to me was “Do you have a GameCube?” and the second was “Can I have it?” We spent a great deal of time playing games, making music on our computers, and jamming on whatever instruments we could get our hands on.

The first artist I remember us bonding over was Gorillaz, specifically their 2005 album Demon Days. I was drawn to them because of their novelty (an animated band!), imagery, and distinctly different sound. At the time, there was nothing on the radio that sounded like them (though “Feel Good Inc.” and “D.A.R.E.” got quite a bit of airtime). Even within the album itself, no two songs sound even remotely similar, yet it all flows seamlessly together to form one cohesive piece of art. I think Demon Days was one of the first times I ever listened to an album in one sitting and treated it as one big creative endeavor, not just a collection of songs. Until the release of Plastic Beach in 2010, Demon Days would be heralded as my favorite album of all time.

“Last Living Souls,” Demon Days (2005)

Around this time, I asked my mom for a pair of Memorex NC100’s. They were silver, sleek, and boasted active noise-canceling, a feature that seemed impossibly futuristic to me. The noise-canceling feature required a couple of AAA batteries—one in each headphone—and was turned on and off by a little plastic switch. Honestly, it worked pretty damn well. When the switch was ON, it’s like putting your fingers in your ears and yelling LALALALALA but instead of your own voice there’s just a warm barely-perceptible wash of brown noise. I’d always preferred headphones to speakers for the uniquely intimate and personal listening experiences they provide, but something about muting the outside world made listening to music much more enjoyable.

While I was busy breaking in my new toys, Max and I were diving head first into the vast world of electronic music. He had just stumbled upon an old website—a treasure trove of knowledge and research—that would go on to be the single biggest influence on my music taste: Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music.

Ishkur’s Guide was an interactive Adobe Flash website. The original guide was completed in 2000 and was updated periodically until around 2001. Unfortunately, the Ishkur’s Guide that I know and love died at the end of 2020 when Flash was shut down. Luckily, some fragments still exist online.

Below is a video of the site in action:

Ishkur’s breaks down electronic music into seven major genres (house, trance, techno, breakbeat, jungle, hardcore, and downtempo) and further pigeonholes them into an absurd number of sub-genres. When you click on one, the guide helpfully explains what on God’s Green Earth “Casiocore” or “Goth Trance” are and provides several short music clips for each.

The guide introduced me to countless artists and genres that I might not otherwise have known about. The section on minimalism, for example, showed me Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow in Curved Air,” Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” and most notably my favorite composer Philip Glass.

(Also worth mentioning are The Orb’s “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From the Centre Of The Ultraworld” and Farben’s “Beautone.”)

For one reason or another, Max and I both latched on to French electronic music—specifically Daft Punk and Justice. Daft Punk were already fairly popular, but Justice were lesser-known (I think “Genesis” was played on the radio and/or in car commercials, but I could be making that up). Throughout 7th and 8th grade, I had Daft Punk’s Alive 2007 and Justice’s Cross on loop.

One day after classes were done I stood outside the front entrance of the school, put my headphones on, and listened to Cross. A classmate asked me “Hey, Ben! What kind of music are you listening to?” I took my iPod Classic (!!!) out of my pocket, showed him the album art, and let him listen to a bit. “Ah, cool!” he said, trying to process what it was “…techno!”

Everything I’ve mentioned so far has been a mere sampling of the music that defined this era of my life—the albums that defined my adolescence, the many rabbit holes I fell down thanks to Ishkur—but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the original rabbit hole: Pogo’s “Alice.” Back when the front page of YouTube was the same for everyone, when a video with over one million views was important enough to make the news, and a video “going viral” actually meant something, Australian musician Nick Bertke (aka Pogo) chopped up bits and pieces of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland to make something new.

My musical horizon was expanding at lightning speed. I had heard countless talented musicians as a kid, discovered electronic music generated by synthesizers and drum machines, but sampled music was a whole new world that had opened up to me. The idea that you could take sound from a movie and turn it into something new, something your own, was mind-boggling. It was the aural equivalent of putting a magazine in a blender and gluing it back together to make a Rembrandt (or a Picasso, whatever).

Pogo continued to make music (and still does to this day!) and I continued to listen to it. Some of my favorites from this era are”Alohomora,” a remix of the first two Harry Potter films, “Scrumdiddlyumptious” from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and a remix of Up called “Upular.”

By the time I was finishing up middle school, I felt like I was on the edge of infinity. The internet was big but wasn’t in everyone’s pocket yet, an insane amount of independent musicians were releasing new music online, and my curiosity was showing no signs of slowing. There was so much music to listen to, old and new, and plenty of time for me to discover it.

2 responses to “Zero to 600, Part 1”

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