Songs about or just inspired by science are by no means hard to find, but it seems the same few are continually bandied about (e.g., "I Am a Scientist" by Guided By Voices), so we thought it would be fun to list what are, depending on your level of music knowledge, perhaps some lesser known examples. These 10 songs, listed in no particular order, cover the gamut of genres, from ambient to pop to rock to metal, and were inspired by a wide range of scientific disciplines, including mathematics, robotics, climate science and cosmology. They include both a number 1 hit and an obscurity released by the very author of this list. Feel free to add your own suggestions for future installments in the comments.
1. Gary Numan and the Tubeway Army
"Are Friends Electric?"
"Are Friends Electric?" is a bleak, synthesizer-driven tale of a lonely man wallowing in self-pity and paranoia in a dystopian future because his, er, "personal" robot (the titular electric friend) is on the fritz:
You know I hate to ask
But are 'friends' electric?
Only mine's broke down
And now I've no-one to love
Gary Numan's ghost-pale future-creep persona put the "alien" in alienated, and his frail warble of a singing voice is married perfectly to heavy synth grooves, resulting in an iconic track that paved the way for the New Wave movement (masses of heavily made-up, big-haired, alienated British boys toting expensive synthesizers and drum machines). The song went to number 1 in the U.K. in 1979.
2. British Sea Power
"Oh Larsen B"
Likely the only ode to an Antarctic ice shelf in all of popular music, oddball British rock band British Sea Power's "Oh Larsen B" laments the deteriorating condition of the Larsen Ice Shelf, located along the eastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Larsen Ice Shelf is actually series of three shelves, A, B and C. Larsen A and B disintegrated in January 1995 and February 2002, respectively, whereas Larsen C appears to be stable for the time being. Global warming is thought to have contributed of the disappearance of Larsen A and B. In a surprisingly touching serenade to the vast, inanimate object, BSP frontman Han sings:
You're fractured and cold but your heart is unbroken
My favourite foremost coastal Antarctic shelf
Oh Larsen B, oh you can fall on me
Oh Larsen B, desalinate the barren sea
You've had 12 thousand years but now it's all over
500 billion tonnes of the purest pack ice and snow
The song's soaring instrumental coda is evocative of an aerial survey of the landscape in question, as if its Will Sergeant-like guitar notes were recorded ringing out over the icy expanse itself. No small feat, then, for British Sea Power to conjure something moving out of what could have been an embarrassingly ham-fisted manifestation of green guilt.
"Maser Pt. 1"
Robert Hampson's first band, the mesmeric UK psych-rock soldiers Loop regularly called to mind outer (and inner) space on classic albums like Fade Out, Heaven's End and A Gilded Eternity, going so far as to employ dialogue from 2001: A Space Odyssey in a song and to dedicate Heaven's End to the film's director, Stanley Kubrick. Hampson's subsequent project Main thoroughly dispensed with any rocking or rolling, acting more as an ambient experiment in the limits of what sounds can be created with the guitar. Main's music took the interest in the scientific far further than Loop, with the icy sounds echoing both the meticulous focus on method (like that required of any scientific research) and the infinite variety of seemingly random details in the patterns of the organic universe. Main's discography overflows with references to science, astronomy and astrophysics in particular, with songs and albums featuring titles like "Firmament", "Spectra Decay", "Rotary Eclipse" and "Valency," but their Hz project was perhaps the most overtly in thrall to the scientific world. Hz was released as a series of six EPs titled, in order, Corona, Terminus, Maser, Haloform, Kaon and Neper. Each EP pushed the unsettling drumless drones of Hampson and his cohort Scott Dowson to the dark side of the moon and beyond, with deep dub basslines providing the only tether to terra firma inside the harrowing din of heavily manipulated guitar sorcery. The artwork for the Hz sleeves consisted of gorgeous close-up photographs of rock surfaces; their solid earthbound appearance unexpected visual accompaniments to the sweeping head trip of the music, but also fitting ones in their distillation of the abstract beauty and forbidding indifference of the natural world.
4. Boards of Canada
"Music is Math"
Scottish electronic duo Boards of Canada, whose public profile is as low as the number of superlatives employed by music journalists over the years to describe their music is high, are fond enough of science and mathematics to consistently reference them in song titles throughout their discography (their landmark LP Music Has the Right to Children contains the songs "Roygbiv,"(referring to the colors of the rainbow) "Triangles & Rhombuses", "Wildlife Analysis"). In fact, with its vintage synthesizer tones evoking an uneasy, vague nostalgia in the listener, their music often calls to mind things like degraded film reels from high school science classes past. "Music is Math", from their dark concept album Geogaddi (which also contained songs called "The Smallest Weird Number" and "A is to B as B is to C"), is a very literal choice, but also included here is the video for "Dayvan Cowboy" from the Campfire Headphase LP, which contains footage of USAF Captain Joseph Kittinger's record-setting (and terrifying to behold) Project Excelsior parachute jump from a stratospheric altitude of 102,800 feet in 1960.
5. Bowery Electric
"Deep Sky Objects"
Early 1990's shoegazers Bowery Electric filled albums with hazy blankets of anodyne guitar, hypnotic basslines and murmured vocals, trying perhaps to simulate what listening to rock music might be like floating in the interstellar void. Their eponymous debut album and the follow up, Beat, are both classics of the loosely-defined "space rock" genre, which at the time included groups like Flying Saucer Attack. Bowery Electric guitarist Lawrence Chandler's shimmering washes of heavily phased, flanged and delayed guitar envelop the listener in an entrancing blur of shifting tones and harmonics, calling to mind the stunning Ultra Deep Field images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2003 and 2004, with their jewellike inklings of mind-bogglingly distant galaxies suspended in blackness. The vocals are largely unintelligible throughout "Deep Sky Objects," serving as additional disorienting elements that complement the feelings of narcotic bewilderment and cosmic insignificance that bands of this type tend to elicit.
Heavy metal bands that take inspiration from science and/or science fiction are abundant, especially those on the progressive side of things. So, although something by, say, Rush might seem an obvious choice for this list (and nothing against Rush: your humble author is actually seeing them perform Moving Pictures at Madison Square Garden in April), I instead went with a band with more, um, teeth. Atlanta's nimble, prog-metal shredders Mastodon released in 2004 their classic Moby Dick-themed LP, Leviathan, which featured this lean, slippery beast of a track namechecking the megalodon, an extinct ancestor of the shark that lived during the Cenozoic, whose fossil remains indicate that it could reach lengths of 67 fearsome feet (about 20 terrifying meters).
"Transcending a Mere Multiverse"
While I'm dabbling in heavy metal, I'll also list this buzzing, churning, downright frightening maelstrom of a tune by the brilliantly bizarre, Brisbane-based psychotics known as Portal. Never showing their faces or revealing their real names ( the vocalist goes by "The Curator") and draped head to toe in black cloth, with guitarist Illogium even sporting a noose(!) around the neck of his black hood, Portal are unique and uniquely disturbing, both audially and visually. Curiously, judging from the lyrics (peppered, typically for Portal, with words and grammar from their own rulebook), it appears they might also be followers of theoretical physics, if not even subscribers to Scientific American:
Envision all futuristic angles
Dreamworking to dimensions of super-strata
One psyche with the omnipresent awareness
Of a billion psyches, dividing, filling infinity
Becoming everywhere & everywhen
All impossibilities to the contrary
The predawn magical science is mathematic
Unlock the gates of cosmos.
8. Kate Bush
Although Kate Bush's song "Pi," where she sings that number's famous digits over a backdrop of shuffling, stultifying Starbucks-folk that sounds like the keyboard breakdown in "Baba O'Riley" as played by punchdrunk chimps, would be the more scientific choice, it is also unlistenable. So, instead, I'll go with the far more tuneful 1985 song "Cloudbusting" from her classic Hounds of Love LP, in spite of the quasi-science that inspired it. The song and video are drawn from the life of Austrian psychoanalyst and Freud understudy Wilhelm Reich, who postulated the existence of a cosmic energy he called "orgone", which he argued was responsible for a host of phenomena, from the formation of galaxies and gravity, to emotion and sexuality. Reich also conceived of a harmful, anti-orgone which he blamed for things like desertification, so in the 1950s he built a "cloudbuster", an odd contraption which he claimed could manipulate atmospheric the orgone and its evil twin, thereby causing clouds to form and disperse. In other words, a rain-making machine. Reich's career was rife with drama and controversy, even eventual arrest by the Feds, and is well worth reading about, but for now enjoy the song and its cinematic video starring Donald Sutherland as Reich and Kate Bush as his son, both of whom give the kind of scenery-devouring performances usually reserved for the Silent Era.
9. Edgar Froese
As founder of the groundbreaking avant-garde electronic group Tangerine Dream in 1967, Edgar Froese helped paved the way for the legions of ambient electronic artists of all stripes via legendary albums like Phaedra and Rubycon. The cinematic sweep of their compositions was not lost on Hollywood, and Tangerine Dream can name more than 20 film soundtracks to their credit, including classics for films as disparate as Risky Business, The Keep and Thief. Froese's debut as a solo artist came in 1974 with Aqua, which featured this lengthy meditation on the spiral galaxy NGC 891, an edge-on formation approximately 30 million light years away in the constellation Andromeda. The track is suitably epic and contemplative and, one would think, a suitable soundtrack for slipping on headphones and stargazing.
10. City Surgical
In a shameless display of self-promotion, I close this list with a track off my own 2010 LP Gray Panic that I released under the name City Surgical. My inspiration for "Pi Needle" and the rest of Gray Panic stems from, among other things like Honduran rainforest fauna, Max Ernst's surrealist collage-novels, Army survival guides et. al., my reverence for reason and scientific truth-seeking, and how objective, empirical analyses can and do (although, in the U.S., the "do" part is continually, maddeningly disputed by people and organizations I won't dignify with a mention here) benefit the human race. Rather than write in glowing terms about my own music, which would appear more than a little biased, I'll quote from the review of Gray Panic written by the fine folks at the world's best record store, Aquarius Records in San Francisco: "a twisted collection of post industrial electronica, of muted blackened ambience...a strange electronic buzzscape, the rhythms skeletal skitters that slowly build to something more substantial, while the bass whirs and throbs, and smeared melodies expand and contract all around...Killer stuff."