This article is a basic study of the significance of repetition in music, and more specifically its application in one particular piece of music that has greatly influenced my thoughts on why rhythm is subconsciously one of the most valuable things in human existence. The focus of this article is the song itself, but I felt it necessary to establish a bit of small talk first on why exactly this has come to be.
Repetition is an important part of life. Even if you live spontaneously and are prone to snap decisions that take you on magical new voyages of discovery every single day, your life can be broken down to its core components which are essentially dependent on routine: eating and sleeping regularly, and behind that, the obvious bodily functions such as breathing and of course your heartbeat. Without these regular patterns, it can become difficult to function in the broader aspects of your life. The vast majority of people will also find comfort in day-to-day repetition, such as steady working hours and a controlled diet. It is these forms of stability that can lead to a healthy, productive lifestyle.
When thinking about music, many people will conclude that, even if they aren’t acutely aware of the mechanics behind the cohesion it provides, a repetitious structure is the key to enjoyability. The standard 4/4 beat that prevails in a large quantity of the world’s music – one that can arguably be attributed to the beating of the heart in its constancy and reliability – is easily the simplest to understand. A dynamic shift in a piece of music, such as a key change or a bridge section, is designed to keep the mind engaged in the song at intervals which follow simple mathematical patterns that are timed to never quite outstay their welcome. This is why a chorus can sound revelatory, or why a simple break like a drum fill can feel like a minor diversion in the program which is interesting in of itself, but which never takes its focus too far from the piece as a whole. This dependability is typically what makes a lot of music so instantly engaging on a basic level.
Another aspect of music, while not being as accessible in the common perception of “music” as the aforementioned 4/4 beat, but could also be linked to subconscious functions of the body and mind as well as the sounds we hear around us every day, is what’s typically known as “drone”. This is as you’d expect it to sound: a prolonged, slow style of music that often only consists of a couple of notes or chords that can serve as a relaxant: It has very little structure or beat to follow and can easily become background listening, akin to the distant sound of the blood flowing through your head in otherwise total silence, or perhaps even the much more enveloping warmth that’s subconsciously ingrained into your subconscious inside the womb. This is also why it can be so easy to fall asleep in transit, I’d imagine, as the constant muted tone of an engine can be deeply soothing.
With these things considered, I would like to theorize that the right combination of a solid 4/4 beat and a droning, hypnotic sound which predominantly seldom deviate from their primary forms could be considered the ultimate form of music: One that provides two forms of stability unified as one in a perfect balance, which under varying circumstances could be enjoyed as a solid flow of sound that is either permanently stimulating or gradually becoming part of the furniture. This, dear reader, is why I think “Sheets of Easter” by Oneida is one of the most crucially important pieces of music I’ve ever heard.
For the uninitiated, “Sheets of Easter” is a song that, for roughly 99% of its duration, is primarily kick/crash cymbal and two chords hammering away over and over and over, for fourteen minutes. Beyond that, the most obvious elements of the song are the vocals – it bursts right into action with ‘You’ve got to look into the light, light, light, light, light…’ – and the three limited but essential four-beat bridge sections which divide the song’s otherwise ceaseless assault. This, when described as such to a lot of people, understandably has sparked reactions that vary from ‘wow, that sounds annoying’ to ‘HAHA FUCK OFF MATE’. However, I’ve played the song experimentally to people before and they have been inclined to agree that, despite its frustrating premise that isn’t dissimilar to being punched in the face for quarter of an hour, when listened to during casual conversation and at a not too intrusive volume, “Sheets of Easter” does in fact gradually fade into the background as the mind begins to accept this sound as the norm – that is to say that the song establishes itself as a formidable substitute for silence.
Incidentally, when you’re in this state of mind and the song ends – and it ends exactly as abruptly as it starts – the brain experiences a minor shock that’s similar to the inverse effect of hearing an unexpected loud noise when sitting in silence. Once you’ve sunk into the constant hypnotic spell of it, the sudden slap in the face at the end is unmistakably alarming, not least of all because it ends with a singular scraping, discordant tone. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a sudden drop from loud to quiet in a song that has been anywhere near as effective as when “Sheets of Easter” ends. It’s like being shook awake from a very busy dream and finding yourself in an empty room where absolutely nothing is happening. In this sense, I often find that once the song starts, I never want it to end. That dream is a recurring dream to me now, and the gradual comfort that the song can provide kicks in instantaneously every time I listen to it.
All of this fascinates me to no end, but what I love the most about this song is that if you listen on a pair of decent headphones or take the time to pay attention to absolutely nothing but the music, beneath the barrage there are constant ebbs and flows of sound that form multiple new dimensions. (I use the term “dimensions” here because to a less willing and more stubborn listener, “Sheets of Easter” can seem very much one-dimensional, and so anything beyond that can seem like a huge evolutionary leap once it becomes apparent.) The first major change is the vocals. As each verse progresses, they slowly fade out of the mix, which in itself is a very obvious example of how a constant sound can become subconscious, because if you aren’t paying attention, it’s hard to notice that the vocals are very gradually sinking into the distance. (Additionally, with each verse, the lyrics change: first it’s ‘light’, then ‘night’, then ‘sight’, and finally for the final eight bars, it’s ‘right’. Thanks to Fat Bobby for clarifying that via email many years ago!) The other noticeable variation is the drumming: in between the ceaseless crashes, Kid Millions – who is an unparalleled drumming machine and one of the greatest percussionists I’ve ever heard – throws in a multitude of fills that are the primary recognizable factor in how the song is so much more than it initially seems. Millions is extremely adept as a drummer in that most of the fills here are very obvious snare patterns, but they seem randomly generated and they break the song up so perfectly in a way that feels like running down an endless hallway in an action thriller and sporadically firing a machine gun at everyone who gets in your way. Of course, adding a rhythm to mowing down every punk-ass motherfucker in the room is obviously only going to enhance the experience.
Beyond these two major variations, “Sheets of Easter” is densely layered with subtle waves that seep in and drift away: for example, there’s a one-note keyboard riff that hits double time at various points, and there are oscillating layers of noise and distortion in various guises that surge up slowly from wry-eyed, cheeky recognition to teeth-clenching, white-knuckle intensity. Even amongst all of this, there are more obscure elements – such as the off-beat cavernous yells of ‘sight!’ that leap up around the 10:10 mark – and the song as a whole serves as an ever-expanding flower that reveals more of itself with every listen, where lines blur between what you think you’ve heard before and what you think is a new experience, since the song is so repetitious it becomes hard to trace exactly where you are at any one point.
The only salvation from the total snowblindness one could experience in the midst of this maddening labyrinth is, of course, the three extremely short bridge sections, which are just as essential as any other part of the song and are utilized to dazzling effect. To me, they are the ultimate bridge sections of all recorded music in the history of mankind (hyperbole, but I’m listening now and they really are fucking excellent). As wonderful as it can be to let yourself spiral off into the maelstrom and go wherever the current takes you, the sudden gasp of air provided by these brief interludes only makes diving back in all the more fun. Just when you think you’ve become completely assimilated with it, the song somehow becomes fresh and exhilarating all over again. The signature drum fill – you’ll know it when you hear it – that precedes each bridge is like a hand plunging in and taking hold of your ankle, yanking you out for one sharp intake of breath and immediately dropping you back in, and due to the nature of the song they always come at unexpected times, which only heightens that blistering impact over and over again.
Those moments, (and everything else, really, let’s be honest) never cease to thrill and amaze me, just as no matter how repetitious it is as a whole, I can never tire of listening to “Sheets of Easter”. I listened to it four times on repeat whilst writing the first draft of this post. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve seen them live twice, and both times they played it, once at the start of the set and once at the end, and both times I completely lost my mind in the sheer volume and the thrill of seeing it performed in front of me. I’ve been told they play it at every gig. It’s my humble opinion that Oneida are the masters of psychedelic noise rock and whilst “Sheets” isn’t entirely characteristic of the breadth of their sound, it has become their signature piece, and I think it defines their integrity as a band to absolute perfection. It’s transcendent and beautiful; a musical “magic eye” piece that seems like white noise if you’re too close or too far away, but suddenly and at just the right distance it comes into focus and displays a deep, unfurling majesty that holds you in its hypnotic gaze and swallows you whole. My perception of sound and of the mechanics of music in general have been brought into question so many times by this song, and I hope it continues to confound and baffle me still for years to come.
Right, right, right, right / Right, right, right, right / Right!