Little Drummer Boy

(Smalltown Supersound; 2009)

By Skip Perry | 11 January 2010

Space disco eyes couldn’t help but twinkle, sugarplums couldn’t help but head-dance when the news broke of Hans-Peter Lindstrøm’s 42-minute version of “Little Drummer Boy,” everyone’s favorite musical account of a young lad who impresses the Virgin Mary and her newborn baby with his beatmaking prowess. Since most of us who claim to have musical taste spend the holiday season whining about the trite Christmas music that retailers ceremoniously cram down our throats for a month starting probably before Thanksgiving, what better way to ring in the new year than by putting on that new pair of Sennheisers for one last hurrah, one final marathon of electro-prog ostentation? Imagine the extended crescendos, the dreamy synth lines, the fanciful twiddle thingies that Hans-Peter would come up with to fill such an immense palette. The astral otherworldliness of it all would make the 42 minutes just fly by, floating on magic reindeer dust. Lindstrøm, we agree, must be on the “Nice” list.

Or not. Nearly all pop music depends on some form of repetition, and Christmas music is about as “pop” as music gets, but even the most monotonous trance thumpers don’t approach the obstinate heights of ostinato touched by the percussion on “Little Drummer Boy.” No one can have any reasonable idea what they’re in for when the snare drum begins to peek through the mix at around the one-minute mark. At five minutes, it starts to grate; at ten, the volume has been jacked up and the beats drill brutishly into the listener’s brain; by 25, the mind wanders toward the poor guard keeping watch over Oskar in The Tin Drum. Jumping, high synthesizers hum above the driving, metronomic triplets, but nothing can fully distract from the rat-tat-tat-tat of that solitary robot drummer. Modern scholars point to early-onset dementia as an explanation for the repetitive nature of Ravel’s Boléro (1928) and, like Boléro, “Little Drummer Boy” has no narrative arc aside from an elongated crescendo. Feel free to infer what you wish from the facts I’ve presented.

Unlike Boléro, at fifteen minutes “Little Drummer Boy” is just getting warmed up. Vocals make an ephemeral appearance early on, but it’s not until the 25th minute that the song, as most know it, emerges. A digital singer of androgynous digital gender introduces an echoing, celestial synth-chorus that gives barely discernible voice to the words the listener has sung and inculcated a hundred times already. Violins, chimes, and bells soften the atmosphere and allow the track to be, as if it finally resigns to be so, Christmas-y. Ten minutes later another synthesized chorus adds heft to the middle register, completing a part of the mix most probably didn’t realize was missing for the last half hour anyway. In the late-thirties the track finally, inevitably builds to something big: a final jam straight out of an action movie full of chunky parallel octaves, dramatic string flourishes, an ultra-cheesy bass riff, and an off-beat rhythmic emphasis, the first instance of such variation in the entire track. It’s an exhilarating passage and a fitting end—or at least a merciful coup de grâce that puts all but the most starry-eyed progheads out of their misery.

It’s only after you accept the stubborn technical framework (no, the drum won’t stop; no, the song isn’t almost done; no, no one is making you finish) that you can appreciate both the deft microscopic touches and the larger accomplishment of the Little Drummer Boy EP: that Lindstrøm spun a coherent 40-minute suite out of one Christmas carol, honoring the song and the season with something undeniably, amazingly surprising; that he injected life into a moribund genre; that he even came up with the idea in the first place; and, most of all, that I sat through the whole thing multiple times. I can’t help but smile at the entry of that gooey bass or (spoiler!) when the track ends with the abrupt sound of an analog television set turning off. “Little Drummer Boy” might be a joke, but it’s a damn appropriate one.