On Bolt Thrower, Faith No More and the quasi-sexual response to music.

This year has been an amazing year for shows for me. I got to see Government Warning again for the first time in 7 years, and I finally got to see two bands that I’ve been waiting to see for as long as I can remember.

Bolt Thrower, who I’ve been waiting to see since Pentagraham got me into them in 2000 or so, played the most crushingly intense set I’ve experienced, possibly ever. Razor, Born Dead Icons, and Abyss opened, but I regretfully missed them as we had to leave late and they all played early. I would’ve loved to have seen BDI, and Razor, obviously, but alas it wasn’t in the cards. Hopefully both will play again. When the lights dimmed and the Bolt Thrower came to life, projected across the back of the stage I had what the BBC has described as a skin orgasm.

A reaction so pure and pleasurable to the coming onslaught that my knees went momentarily weak. When War/Remembrance spewed forth and broke the crowd I lost my fucking marbles. Two or three times throughout the show my body shivered, skin went all twitchy, eyes rolled back, brutality induced happiness and satisfaction. 15 or so years, and literally thousands of listens, and finally I got the relief of seeing them.

Faith No More was no different. I’ve loved them since I was still in single digits when I would steal away to my friend’s older sister’s room on sleep overs and listen to The Real Thing on tape with her, quietly so her mum wouldn’t catch me there when I should instead be sleeping.

Refused opened, and they were great, but I was really in my head and worried that I wouldn’t get out and get into them, but when we came back inside and saw the stage draped in white and flowers I knew it would be fine. Midnight Cowboy came on, and the band took the stage and I sighed with satisfaction and a tinge of lust for what was going to happen. Again and again through the show I had the beautiful sexual release that music offers me and I left with the feeling that deeply connected sex gives.

After both shows I went on a binge of listening heavily to both bands. Bolt Thrower left me listening nothing else for at least a week. This isn’t actually that shocking, I routinely go through major Bolt Thrower binges, but this was solid, nothing but them, not just an album on very heavy rotation. Faith No More just upped their frequency in the normal rotation, a few albums offlined to my phone, heavy in the shuffle mix.

And still, I’m getting those same chills at the same parts. The breakdown in At First Light, the first time Patton says “Everything’s ruined,” the brutal galloping death metal staple beat that Bolt Thrower perfected, or the awkward bleat of Patton’s voice in the chorus of Midlife Crisis. I’m no stranger to the sexual response to music, it’s something that’s happened to me for my entire life, preceding any actual sexual awakening or maturity I still had the same physical response to music. The same deep, satisfying, quasi-orgasmic rush, skin prickles, weak knees, quickening heart, breath catching, spine shaking. I’ve always had it in music and usually to the same spots in the same songs. A few spots on Dare To Be Stupid or In 3D by “Weird Al” Yankovic still do it to me; several spots on Show No Mercy or Reign In Blood by Slayer; Johnny Rotten yelling “Fuck this and fuck that, fuck it all to fucker, fucking brat” in Bodies; Mötorhead; Adolescents; Minor Threat; Propagandhi; Chvrches; the list goes on. Music just does me right.

Seeing those songs live elicits the same response. But with these two shows there’s been a new take on an old trend. Songs I was previously never impacted by now do the same to me after seeing them performed live, echoes of the intensity of the show reverberate through me as I listen and my body reacts with physical elation, not just the purely mental joy of memory, but the physical experience of the show has begun washing over me as the songs play. None of this should really be shocking to anyone who’s been going to live music for as long as I have, but the calibre of these two performances was so spectacular, so tight, so well-timed in terms of life events and we’ll timed in terms of the actual pace of the performance, that it’s manifested itself in a new physical manner.

Why I took such a long break from going to shows is beyond me. What a dummy.

In the past few years there’s been a bunch of research that shows that while tastes differ, people’s reaction to music is universal. A study from McGill, suggests that  music can have the same impact on people, across vastly different cultural divides. By comparing the reaction between “hipsters in downtown  Montreal”  listening to contemporary Western music and remote Pygmy songs, and did the same thing with a group of remote Pygmy people. The emotional impact and import of the songs was similar among both groups, with both types of music.  A similar study done by in partnership between the Tokyo University of the Arts and the University of Exeter found similar results caused by various musical patterns. The fact that music can have a universal effect on people is further backed up by a Stanford study that showed that people’s brains react similarly to music.

Obviously the songs that give me chills aren’t necessarily the same ones that will give everyone else chills, and some people apparently don’t actually get the chills. But surely since many do, and the impact of music seems to be less cultural and more just a part of being a human, it got me thinking about what it is exactly about music that causes this. Turns out this has been studied rather well, and that it’s that music has a similar physiological and neurochemical effect on people as narcotics and food. Food causes your brain to reward you for consuming things that are most conducive to survival, in an immediate reptile brain sense, sugar releases endorphins that give an immediate reward. Drugs, obviously, stimulate the same neural process, triggering massive releases of pleasure chemicals.

Music, and more specifically live music, has been around, essentially, forever. The fact that music’s impact apply to people universally seem to indicate that the human brain has evolved specially to deal with music. The sheer act of listening to music actively ties in parts of your brain that don’t typically interact so deeply together, tying some of the most primitive to the most advanced. Your brain also stores musical memories differently than it does other types of memories.

There’s no survival benefit to music, it doesn’t literally help us live and procreate, so why does our brain devote an immense amount of its capacity to processing music? Fucked if I know, but I can say that, anecdotaly at the least, any time I’m actively listening to music in a social situation, all my feelings to it are amped. Be it listening to a record at a party, showing a friend a record I love, or singing along with a few friends or watching it live, I’m always more stoked on any song when there’s a shared experience as well as the intimate, personal one.

If music’s social connotations amplify all the neurochemistry, I can make some sense of why those songs that formerly were good, now thrust me back into the momentarily overwhelming wave of pleasure after seeing them played live.