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Listener's Guide to No Line On The Horizon

@U2, April 08, 2009
By: Mark Stevens

 

(Ed. note: This is a guest contribution for @U2 by Mark Stevens, one of our former podcast producers.)

In a hectic, sped-up culture, and with iPods ruling so many of our lives, we often miss details in all of the background noise. So, dear music lovers and fellow U2 fans, here's a quick guide to the more subtle parts of the musical onion known as No Line on the Horizon. This is a list of some of the less obvious and sometimes densely interwoven sonic gems that await anyone who has a good set of speakers or headphones (meaning a closed-back, non-Walkman/iPod pair). Your guide is a musician who's been a fan of the band's recorded work since 1981 and its live shows since 1983.

First, a suggestion: Listen to the album before reading this. I'd hate to spoil your adventure in musical exploration. This record is also particularly intense when listened to in a darkened room; no chemical or liquid supplements are needed, just your undivided attention.

Here we go!

"No Line on the Horizon"

Larry really shines here; pay close attention to the intricate tom-tom fills appearing in the right channel at 1:13-1:52. He later shifts to a nice, military-style snare fill (that time in the Artane Boys Band was well spent), also in the right channel, at 3:33-3:48.

"Magnificent"

Several details in this one. Hand claps in the right channel and tambourine in the left at 0:46-1:09, and beautiful interaction amongst Larry's hi-hat (right channel) and Adam's bass (center) at 1:15-1:51. Edge double-tracked his main riff in left and right channels, and the result is spectacular. Edge also differentiates the parts at 2:25-2:59, where he's playing some subtle melodic stuff in the left channel and rhythm guitar in the right (unless of course he's playing with Lanois, in which case it's anybody's guess who's playing what). Bono lends some lovely light vocal support to the keyboard part at 4:12-4:27.

"Moment of Surrender"

There's a nice organ in the left channel and piano in the right at 0:47-1:14. Adam has a wonderful bass wind-down to the song at 6:41-7:14.

"Unknown Caller"

There's a sound collage at 0:21-0:58 composed of several instruments that almost seems like animals waking up. There's even what sounds like a high-pitched processed guitar sound reminiscent of a "digital butterfly" flitting by in the left channel at 0:38-0:41 and again at 4:35.

"I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight"

Hear the rising whirr from 0:00-0:02, very much like the intro to "I Will Follow" -- perhaps intentional, perhaps not. Interesting rhythmic acoustic guitar parts are in the right channel at 0:12-1:02; could be Lanois. The double-tracked guitar part at 3:03-3:19 is a nice surprise.

"Get On Your Boots"

Listen for percussive electric guitar bursts from Edge in the right channel at 0:20-0:25, 0:39-0:48, and 1:27-1:35, and for cool, double-bass kick drum work from Larry at 2:31-2:36.

"Stand Up Comedy"

There's wonderful variation in parts on this one. Adam's bass is a real treat in the verses. Edge appears to have unleashed what could only be called a "giant wasp attack" at 2:47-2:58. (I now can't hear this part without imagining him running around the studio in a bee costume singing the rare Who b-side "Wasp Man" at the top of his lungs.)

"Fez - Being Born"

It begins with market sounds and some hand drums, and at 0:19-0:22 two different voices appear in the right channel, speaking in what sounds like an Arabic language. (Can someone out there translate?) Larry plays a variation of his "No Line" drum part at 1:03-1:34. At 1:45-1:53, an odd cross between a moped engine and a sitar crosses from left to right, and appears again at 2:55-3:02. A classic Eno synthesizer break -- very reminiscent of his '70s solo work -- appears at 3:06-3:26. Eno again interjects with some nice variations at 4:26-4:50. Edge adds some nice, mellow riffing in the right channel at 4:53-5:12.

"White As Snow"

There are backwards guitar loops in the left channel from 0:00-0:25. A fingerpicked guitar in the left channel starts at 0:31, with another alternating-bass style guitar part in the right channel; an educated guess tells me it's Lanois on the left and Edge on the right. A gorgeous, eerie mandolin part arrives in your right ear at 2:28-2:52 and, at least for me, really strengthens the emotional tenor of the song. Hear the beautiful two-part harmony vocals at 3:56-4:23.

"Breathe"

There are lots of harmony vocal overdubs all over the song. Mixed low at 2:22-2:33 is some nice, Elton John-style piano chording in the right channel. There are massed background vocals at 3:54-4:12. There are some slurred cello parts throughout the song in the right channel, a la "I Am the Walrus."

"Cedars of Lebanon"

This begins with a sample of Eno's and Harold Budd's "Against the Sky" from their wonderful record, The Pearl, and then builds on it with hip-hop snare shuffles from Larry, fingerpicked arpeggios from Edge in the left channel, and even some infinite guitar at 2:51-3:07. (Has it really been 22 years since "With or Without You"?) A vocal sample appears throughout the song, maybe in an Arabic language again?

I do hope this has given you a nice taste of "active listening" and an enhanced experience of one of U2's most creatively and sonically diverse records. In the 28 years I've been listening to this band's recorded work, No Line on the Horizon stands out as a wonderful surprise that blossoms under scrutiny and repeated listening. It is well worth the time to sit back, relax, and soak up the sounds in a distraction-free environment such as the darkened room I mentioned before. Enjoy!



© @U2/Stevens, 2009.

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