On My First Ten Years

You know, I would have sworn the Steve Roach review came first. But it was actually third.

In 2003 I bought a copy of a Brannan Lane sampler CD. I came across Brannan’s music during the mp3.com days, when I had set up a station called MindMeld. At the time I was also an active member of the spacemusic Yahoo group.  One day I decided to exercise my long-held secret desire to be one of those guys who write liner notes, and I knocked out a quick and appreciative review of the disc, which I posted to the group. At the bottom, I slugged it “John Shanahan, Freelance Reviewer.” A few weeks later I did the same thing with Communion by The Current. The community responded well, which made me happy. Then the Steve Roach Thing happened.

I wrote a review of Steve’s sampler,  Space and Time and, again, posted to the group. Shortly thereafter, I got an e-mail from Steve himself–although I must admit that at the time I would have written that FROM STEVE FREAKIN’ ROACH HIMSELF! He wrote to say he appreciated the review, and would I like to listen to and review his latest. Well, yeah.

And that’s how this whole thing started. That October, I grabbed the name Hypnagogue, made a page on the site I had back then, and opened my mailbox to submissions. Lo and behold, they started coming in. Now it’s 10 years later, I’ve lost count of how many reviews I’ve written although I have to figure it’s north of 1,000, I’ve been exposed to some amazing music, and although lately I’m frequently overwhelmed by the volume of stuff I receive, I remain grateful for the chance to do this.

Being Hypnagogue has let me do two things that I’ve always loved. On the writing side, I get to be, like I said, sort of the liner note guy. I’ve always loved them. That’s one thing about being an old guy who’s gone from vinyl to tape to disc to download. I got the benefit of opening an album and reading what someone had taken the time to say about it. Record sleeves, or the inside of a fold-out, gave someone the space to connect with you about the music. As a jazz and blues fan, I enjoyed a steady diet of it. I’d pick up one of George Wein’s Giants of Jazz records and digest the history of what I was listening to. It’s how I know that in Toronto one night, the same night as a Marciano/Walcott fight, Charlie Parker had pawned his sax and he had to wail on a plastic alto, and still managed to light “A Night in Tunisia” on fire. It’s how I know the story about Robert Johnson calling his agent for money because “a lady here wants to show me a good time for a dollar and I lacks a nickel.” I still remember reading the smudged white typeface on the black sleeve of Cheap Trick’s first album, where Eric Von Lustbader introduced the band to the world. So there’s that. On the music side, well, I’ve made it clear on many episodes that I’m a frustrated DJ, someone who maybe should have gone into radio but didn’t. Being Hypnagogue lets me do that, and lets me play the Ambient Evangelist, hopefully gaining some converts on the way.

It may sound precocious to say this, but I continue to be amazed at the response to Hypnagogue. I look around my office at the number of woefully unsorted and haphazardly stacked discs that have found their way here courtesy of other people trusting my opinion, and it’s still sort of surreal. Because I will share with you one of my secrets: a lot of the time, I don’t believe that I have much to say. I just know that I’ve always wanted to say it, and you people find something of substance in it. Me, I just write what comes out when I listen to the music. It’s 10 years later and I still don’t consider myself an expert in any sense of the word. I can write about how the music affects me, and I can give my opinion on it, but I still have no idea how 95 percent of the gear works, from the Abletons to the soft synths to whatever the hell you kids use to make your glitchy things. Sit me down at an old analog synth and I’ll try to play “Chopsticks” for you, but it won’t sound good and I’ll probably just mess up your patches, whatever those might be. I’m just a listener who happens to be a life-long writer. I’m a guy with words milling around inside me, waiting for someone else’s music to pry loose the right ones and put them in order. One Listener’s Opinion. A thousand discs later and it’s still One Listener’s Opinion. I cannot stress how deeply I hold that conviction. It’s why I never out-and-out pan anything–and folks, to be honest, and I think I’ve earned the right to say it after 10 years, I’ve heard some real crap in my day. But it’s crap in my opinion only, and someone else may dig it, so that’s the tack I take and always will.

I’ve been introduced to some amazing music over the last decade. I’ve developed many favorite artists out of the masses of music I’m sent. I’ve had my music palate broadened with intriguing flavors, from dark to goa to space to noise. I’ve become a better listener. And I hope, after all, that what I’ve been able to do is to provide just a little more exposure for these artists who know they’re making art that has a very small audience–but they keep at it. That’s noble. And that’s part of why I have kept at this for 10 years, when, quite honestly, no other writing endeavor has engaged me for so long. Because they make the music. I just talk about it to as many people as possible.

I thank everyone who’s ever stopped by the site in its various incarnations. I thank the musicians for trusting me. I thank the many other reviewers out there who have been at this even longer, people like Bill Binkleman, Michael Foster, Phil Derby, Matt Howarth, Rik MacLean, and others. It’s a great community to be a part of, and their excellence at reviewing drives my need to be somewhere near as good. And thanks to Steve Roach for that invite back in 2003 that made me genuinely feel like, yeah, I can do this. (And, I must admit like the fanboy I can be, that standing in a Tucson hotel parking lot the morning after SoundQuest Fest, talking casually to the guy whose music has resonated within me for 30 years now remains one of my favorite music-related memories. That, and handing the man a Guinness across his gear at the WXPN studios while he was in the middle of crafting what would come to be the Landmass album.)

It’s been a great 10 years. Thank you all for believing in me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a ton of music to review.

peace & power,
John

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27 thoughts on “On My First Ten Years

  1. Good to have you -as trusted advisor and dedicated music lover.
    Keep rocking and all the best.
    Fred
    The Cosmic Garden
    Germany

  2. John, thanks for doing the Hypnagogue site. I’ve only found this place maybe a little over a year ago. Don’t know how to explain that it slipped my notice earlier but I guess it’s the sheer overwhelming number of artists and websites out there, most not nearly as well done as yours. I probably come to the ambient world from a more rockish world, in the 70’s initially through Fripp & Eno’s work but as you know the tendrils spread out in all directions from any starting point. I’ve purchased quite a few things after first reading your reviews and I’ve never been disappointed. I wish you the best and hope to keep reading your posts as long as you keep reviewing them.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Jim, and thank you for supporting the artists. As far as missing me all these years, I think a lot of people did. It’s only been in the last four or five years that the site starting gaining attention. Little did I know i’d be buried in music. I blame the internet. 🙂

  3. Keep on truckin’ John. Thanks for what you do. A kind word here a fine piece of constructive criticism there. You are a part of the experience. Here’s to the next 10!!

  4. How can I express my thanks to a man who has freely given his time to listening to my work, then taking the time to write an honest opinion about his experience? Words alone seem an inadequate expression of my gratitude, given that your reviews have clearly been instrumental in furthering my musical career and the subsequent monetary gains therein, because each and every one of those reviews were beyond positive. The value of an honest, positive review is damn near priceless. Given that you’ve been at this for ten years now, I’m confident that many of the artists whose work you’ve reviewed will share my sentiment. You’ve helped our careers along, you’ve exposed us to new music we may never have had an opportunity to discover elsewhere and you’ve been a very prolific contributor to the ambient/electronic/experimental music community for a full decade now. I read each and every one of your reviews with great anticipation and have grown to trust your opinion, as it seems to correlate closely with my own likes and dislikes.

    Thank you, John, for your tireless sacrifice of time and ink for all of us. Here’s to the next ten, indeed! And should our paths ever cross in the real world – and they probably will someday – I’ll hand you another CD and ask you to give it a good listen. 😉

    Take care, my friend and, once again, thanks for all you do.

    With incandescent gratitude,

    -hhh

  5. Thanks John for your effort to help ambient artists such as myself forward! Your reviews always seem to be very honest. Thanks also for giving our music a spin. Have a great musical next 10 years!

    Kind regards,
    Eelke van Hoof (a.k.a. Human Metronome/Apollonius).

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