Kate Bush – Experiment IV
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
That’s always the first word that comes to mind when I think of Kate Bush’s astounding “Experiment IV.” The song, a then-new track added to her 1986 compilation The Whole Story, shouldn’t be such a stand-out; it’s entirely Kate-of-its-time, all programmed drums (including a very militaristic snare tattoo), swaying strings, and Kate doing her patented vocal tricks. It’s a mid-‘80s-UK-chart warm bath, which only heightens its effect: sound and subject matter clash to frightening effect, a nice irony. “Experiment IV,” after all, concerns the creation of “a sound that could kill someone.”
“We only know in theory what we are doing…”
The song’s narrative is straight out of Orwell’s 1984: a lab of white-coated scientists (as visualized by its excellent video, which stars among others Dawn French and Hugh Laurie) set to work constructing the most horrific sound possible, one that can cause immediate death: “From the painful cries of mothers, to the terrifying screams / We recorded it and put it into our machine,” Kate sings desperately. What could be scarier?
“It’s a mistake in the making…”
The true brilliance of “Experiment IV,” however—and thus, further evidence of the true brilliance of Kate Bush—is the way she produces the song. As long as she’s been self-producing, she’s always made little symphonies of sound, but on few of her songs has the production been as necessarily spot-on as it is here. The drums, for example, are simple Linns metronomically keeping time—until the chorus, when Kate sends them into their snare paces, adding a military element so perfect you can’t imagine the song without it.
Similarly, the song’s swelling strings sound nearly romantic for much of the proceedings, but then on the second chorus start ominously sawing away. On the subsequent bridge, they creep back into the mix so deviously and eerily, it’s as if they came straight from Orwell’s resting place themselves.
“We won’t be there to be blamed, we won’t be there to snitch
I just pray that someone there can hit the switch.”
The sum of these parts is entirely unsettling—as one can only assume it’s meant to be. “Experiment IV” is a fine example of an artist seeing her vision completely through, and nailing it. As opposed to much of Kate’s oeuvre, this is cold and clinical, and guaranteed to provide nightmares. God, she’s good.