For nearly five minutes, all you hear are the reverberations of a piano submerged in the sea. The chords hang in the current, pushing and pulling with little clue of a melody. And then, with a swell of frayed noise, you hear it: Thom Yorke’s voice, slurred and ghostly, belting out an unholy moan.
You can’t hear the words Yorke is singing — I jumped in the river, what did I see? Black-eyed angels swam with me. Instead, as the minutes tick by, the frontman of Radiohead remains in the throes of a whale song. Every so often, the piano tugs upward with a new chord, then subsides, circling again and again. The usual percussion of “Pyramid Song” is no more; the cymbals are just digital whitewater now, and every snare hit sounds like a giant’s inhale. This is the sound of the path to someplace infinite, and maybe frightening. This is the sound of a song slowed down 800 percent.
I consider my encounter with “Pyramid Song 800% slower” to be another brush with the divine that is the YouTube Algorithm®, and it feels like a fitting find in a year that feels, well, infinite and frightening in scope and consequence. I’ve been struggling to maintain my usual appetite for new music, other than the occasional relief of bubbly Dua Lipa tunes. I think the doom and gloom is messing up my ability to enjoy art, but I’ve found a strange kind of catharsis in the cursed-sounding world of music slowed to an extreme degree.
“Pyramid Song” is the perfect canvas for this rudimentary remix, and the comments on the slowed version speak to how surprising, and so poignant, the end result is. When stretched to eight times its length, the sparse acoustic composition of the original morphs into an echoing chamber full of harmonic overtones and fading whispers. It’s the soundtrack to “watch the world end,” as one person concluded.
Another just couldn’t help but be awed by the discovery. “The most beautiful thing about this masterpiece is that it was created unintentionally. Radiohead didn’t compose this, it was buried in their music,” they wrote. “This wasn’t created by humans, it was just hidden in a song.”
There is nothing new about slowed-down music getting big traffic on YouTube; the “slowed + reverb” trend, for one, has been chugging along since its inception in 2017, embraced by Extremely Online sadbois and endlessly versatile as a remix technique. Tame Impala’s “The Less I Know the Better” is a standout application, as is Childish Gambino’s “Redbone”; both retain their melodic hooks, just with a new slow-jam vibe. A much older trend is vaporwave, the nostalgia-fueled non-genre genre that, at least when it comes to YouTube music, expresses as a lot of haunting 1980s songs slowed down by 30 percent. (Or songs filtered to sound like they’re playing inside an empty mall.)
There’s no end to these depressive-sounding takes on pop music online, mostly because the remixes sound edgy as hell despite requiring maybe two minutes of work on an audio editing program. But beyond the cynicism, I think there’s real artistry to be found in the sludge. What I love about vaporwave at its best is that it expresses the sensation of watching some sort of dissolving simulation. It’s the sound of modern life and personal nostalgia, glitched into the event horizon, doomed to stretch and slow into eternity.
But the glacial melancholy of “Pyramid Song” slowed 800 percent pushes the idea to transcendence. Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” might be an even better example, sounding so apocalyptic and unrecognizable that you could convince me it’s an original Eric Whitacre composition sung by an android choir. Such aggressive digital slowing does strange things to music — you hear wind, rain and words where there are none. Notes hang and warp into ugly tension before exploding in clear, radiant beauty. Under the force of slow, even Justin Bieber’s annoying adolescent warbling turns into the lovechild of Brian Eno and Sigur Rós.
This is something different from chopped-and-screwed beats, vaporwave or even traditional ambient music that has all the same ingredients. It’s the kind of musical alchemy that only comes about thanks to internet culture and its constant blending of the shitpost-y and the heartfelt. Why is the meme specifically require 800 percent slower? Surely because it’s a ludicrous figure, but I also think it hits the sweet spot for musical transformation — the percussion disappears and you lose most of the rhythm, yet human voices still sound human (barely).
The potential for hilarity is low-hanging fruit; consider the horrifying results of slowing down the SpongBob theme song by 800 percent. (It sounds like a transmission from the Event Horizon, for crying out loud.) But there’s unexpected beauty to be found everywhere, too, even in something as mundane as Windows startup tones. One person can’t help but admit that they welled up with emotion at the divine-sounding crescendos of the remixed Windows Vista boot jingle, and frankly, I get it.
Minimalist ambient music has always been a sort of musical Rorschach test, and I guess I’m a sucker for doomsday regret vibes as I witness California burning, nationwide civil unrest and a widespread failure by our leaders on all levels of government. Maybe that’s why I shed a tear while sitting in my living room, stoned and entranced by all this cascading noise. (Somewhere, Gustav Mahler is nodding in sage approval. So is Brian Eno, who literally wrote the Windows 95 startup tone.)
These songs slowed by 800 percent are bizarre and discomfiting, yet somehow inescapably human, no matter how haunted the end result gets. It feels like a metaphor for 2020, and I can’t stop listening.