How far can you push the boundaries of music until it becomes just noise? Plenty of our favorite experimental bands and composers, from John Cage to Stalaggh/Gulaggh have toyed with this notion — but none have taken it to more extreme lengths (literally) than Denver ambient noise/drone duo Bull of Heaven.
Over the course of more than 450 releases (and counting), Bull of Heaven have put out
billions of hours an infinity’s worth of their eerie, glacial soundscapes — challenging not just listeners’ attention spans, but in some ways the very concept of music composition itself. When one of your pieces takes 3.343 quindecillion years to listen to (a “quindecillion,” by the way, is 1048, or a 1 followed by 48 zeros), are you really writing music or just a mathematical abstraction of music? Can you actually compose a piece of music in a shorter time than it takes to play that piece of music? How often, if at all, does the music change over those 3.343 quindecillion years — and at what point does it cease to matter, since there will be no humans left to listen to it, and perhaps not even a universe left to listen to it in? The mind reels — as does my syntax when attempting to describe this shit.
Bull of Heaven’s music isn’t completely uniform — there are forays into doom metal and psych-rock and sound collage and even jazz. But this five-hour excerpt from one of their most well-known experiments in interminability, a 1,453-hour release called The Chosen Priest and Apostle of Infinite Space, gives you a pretty good idea of their preferred sound, which tends to resemble the squall of noise the amps make at the end of a Sunn O))) concert, time-stretched into eternity.
If you lost interest, oh, about 24 minutes into that, don’t worry — you’re far from alone. The most exhaustive cataloger of Bull of Heaven’s music, a long-suffering fan called Hakita on RateYourMusic.com, frequently sounds less than enthused when describing the duo’s more long-winded efforts. “Could use more variety, especially since it’s one week long,” he/she writes about The Wicked Cease From Struggling, “but I didn’t hate listening to the [63-minute] excerpt.” (Helpfully, Bull of Heaven often release “excerpts” of their longest pieces, so if you’re too lazy and/or mortal to make it through the full-length, you can at least get a taste.)
The guys behind all this cosmically creeping doom are not some academic aesthetes who teach aleatoric composition at NYU or some shit. One, Neil Keener, is a hardcore guitarist who achieved a modicum of renown with an Illinois band called Planes Mistaken for Stars. The other, Clayton Counts, was a DJ turned mash-up artist whose greatest claim to fame before Bull of Heaven was Sgt. Petsound’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a 2006 Beatles/Beach Boys hybridization that earned him a cease-and-desist letter from EMI (and which included the excellent song title, “I’m Fixing It, Dayhole”). They met in Chicago and later launched Bull of Heaven together in Denver — where, sadly, Counts died of an opioid overdose in 2016, only eight years after launching the project.
For a while, it seemed like Bull of Heaven might have died with Counts. But just a couple months ago, Keener released a new BoH album called Fight Night for the Ghosts of Heaven, so it appears he plans to keep the project going as a solo venture, perhaps in tribute to his late bandmate. Fight Night is, by Bull of Heaven standards, a downright conventional affair, clocking in at a mere, relatively non-repetitive 36 minutes, broken into what sound like discrete, song-length chunks. But it’s beautiful stuff and every bit as eerie as the duo’s earlier work.
It’s worth noting that Counts was such a prankster that when he died, many of his friends assumed the whole thing was an elaborate joke. As a young man in Texas, he achieved some local notoriety for his constant prank phone calls to conspiracy theory jag-off Alex Jones, then a public-access cable wingnut in Austin. So it’s likely Counts was yanking everyone’s chain a little when he composed, say, a 50,000-hour piece called Like a Wall in Which an Insect Lives and Gnaws that consists of little more than fluctuating pulses of static and noise. It would take nearly six years to listen to Like a Wall in its entirety — six years in which Counts and Keener released many more billions of hours of music, much of which has presumably still never been heard by anyone, because who in their right mind has made it all the way to hour 49,999 of Like a Wall in Which an Insect Lives and Gnaws?
But even if you view Bull of Heaven less as a band than as some elaborate art prank, it’s a pretty great one. And hidden somewhere deep in the recesses of the prank are some very profound thoughts about the nature of music and time and life and death and eternity and all kinds of other heavy shit. It also makes you question your own limitations as a consumer of art and just as a person living in the world with deadlines and responsibilities and bodily functions and other things that interfere with your ability to absorb, in a single sitting, even a relatively brief Bull of Heaven piece like the 24-hour Even to the Edge of Doom.
By the way, since for obvious reasons YouTube can’t possibly host much of Bull of Heaven’s catalog, the band has helpfully uploaded most of it to their website. My computer can’t play some of the longer pieces — like At the Tide’s Edge, I Lie, whose running time is just notated with an infinity symbol — but your mileage may vary.
I could go on about some of Counts and Keener’s many other, even more esoteric experiments — like their releases that are listed as having negative running time, or their untitled series, in which they released thousands of short pieces identified only by 32 digits each of hexadecimal code. They’ve also released an interactive piece of music that doubles as a calculator and MP3s that can be converted to RAR files that contain other MP3 files, like musical Russian nesting dolls. But I’d rather just leave you with the most batshit Bull of Heaven release I could find in my admittedly all-too-brief search through their catalog — this one-hour excerpt from a 59-hour piece called Vicious, Cruel, Incapable of Remorse, which sounds like a hungry tape deck mangling The Residents. And this one final thought: We often say that deceased musicians achieve immortality through their music, but I would argue that Clayton Counts has come closer to attaining that immortality than anyone. We’ll be listening to his music forever — literally.
P.S. Our thanks to Mr. Gredo and the Crushing Fetish Band for suggesting we add Bull of Heaven to the Weird List. You weren’t the first to suggest them, Mr. Gredo, but we have short attention spans and you were the first to successfully explain to us why it was actually worth our while to at least attempt to listen to a 5-hour YouTube upload.
P.P.S. We’ll be taking some time off this week to celebrate that odd American tradition of eating insane amounts of turkey in honor of our colonially rapacious past. But we’ll be back with more weirdness next week. For that, we hope, you can all be thankful.