The Decade in Review – Beyond the LP: Digital Experiments in Long-Form Music

Author: Riley Urbano

The long-playing album, as we understand it, has been the atomic unit of artistic expression in music for the better part of a century. One could nitpick and claim that no, the song is the basic unit of musical expression, but really though, how many artists that you care about have only ever released singles? Albums make sense on an intuitive level, because the act of making them is one of the most standardized practices in the music industry. You could be making rap, you could be singing show tunes, you could be making metal: if you want to be taken seriously by your peers and by music lovers, it’s highly likely that you’ll release your music in a way that either conforms to the standard (~10 songs, 30-40 minutes), or very consciously bucks the trend (as every coked-out rock band of the ‘70s and ‘80s did with their horrible double albums). But the truth is, the LP format was very much a product of the technical constraints of its time, and a lot of things about how albums work is arbitrary and maybe even kind of quaint in 2019. After all the only reason LPs are 30-40 minutes long is because that’s how much sound could be fit on to a record when vinyl began mass production; is there really a good reason to still be following that rule now that anyone can fit countless hours of music into their Spotify library?

Some artists and groups, mostly on the fringes of their respective communities, have spent the last ten years exploring the long-form potential that digital releases allow for. Some of these artists have seen some of the biggest successes of their careers as a result of their audacity and ambition, while others continue to toil in obscurity. Either way, it can be easy to miss these projects for a variety of reasons: more often than not, major music outlets simply don’t cover them, because it’s a lot to ask of a music critic that already listens to and writes about music constantly for a living. And on the listener side, I get that it can be a big ask. For most of us, listening to music is a pretty passive experience, i.e., something we do while we do other things like work, exercise, study, or party, and none of those experiences necessarily lend themselves to deep, intensive, long term attention. That’s a perfectly valid way to fit music into your life, and I mean I think everyone does it to at least some extent. But if you’re interested in exploring the possibilities of weirder and more experimental music, have some time on your hands, and like a challenge, you might want to check some of these records out:

Impossible Nothing – Phonemenomicon (2016)

The most obscure artist on this list is also probably the most accessible; while other artists doing long-form releases are frequently making ambient, electronic, or noise music, Impossible Nothing makes eminently enjoyable instrumental hip hop with a psychedelic vibe. The twist? Every album the act releases is exactly four hours and twenty minutes in length and consists of twenty-six ten-minute pieces named for the letters of the alphabet. What’s more, Impossible Nothing has released, no joke, ten albums since 2016, adding up to about forty-two hours of music. The most recent album they released was actually on New Year’s Day of 2019. It’s such an insane amount of music to take in that it can almost be difficult to pay full attention to for too long; that being said, these records are shockingly consistent, often exciting, and wildly varied and creative. My personal favorite record from the Impossible Nothing project remains the debut, an opinion I share with the real Dean of American Rock Critics, Piero Scaruffi. But then again, I’d be lying if I said I’d really fully processed his whole discography intellectually, or even listened to it all. Still, these records are all available for free on Bandcamp, and if you like instrumental hip hop or sample based psychedelic music like The Avalanches or The Books, this may be at least somewhat up your alley.

Autechre – Exai, Elseq, NTS Sessions

Autechre is a vanguard electronic act that played an integral role in the foundational period of Warp Records, pioneering in the electronic subgenera of jungle, acid techno, and IDM throughout the ‘90s. The wildly prolific duo is no stranger to formal experimentation, or to music that comes off a little antagonistic towards listeners: in 2000, they released an album of generatively produced bleeps and bloops called Confield that, on top of sounding like the nightmares of a dying AI, still has a lot of people scratching their heads. But they’ve only veered further out into uncharted territory in the 2010s, with a string of releases that pretty much double in length successively. In 2013, Autechre released Exai, their eleventh (get it? Exai? XI?) record, a sprawling double album that touched back on some of their earlier styles while still incorporating further experiments with generative synthesis and script based production. Further down the rabbit hole comes the elseq series, five digital-only data dumps (about four hours worth of music) that saw the band pulling some of their harshest tricks yet without even a veneer of conceptual organization. This trend towards longer, more scattered releases culminated with 2018’s NTS Sessions, a collection of thirty-six tracks that makes for an absolutely mind bending eight hours. While the elseqs were manic and disorganized, the NTS Sessions are surprisingly well sequenced and intentional in their structure and execution; I’ve mentioned this on a past column, but the macro-level motifs this album establishes and variates upon made for some of the most stunning musical moments of last year for me. If you’re a musician or producer looking for something that will existentially challenge your idea of art, you should def peep some Autechre.

The Flaming Lips – 7 Skies H3 (2014)

Probably my least favorite of the bunch, but notable nonetheless. The Flaming Lips probably don’t need much of an introduction: they’re a wildly popular American rock band who’s notoriety rests at least somewhat on a penchant for weird, gimmicky stunts. In the ‘90s, they released a record with the stems split up across four CDs, which had to be played in sync to fully experience as an album. Throughout the 2000s, they dominated the festival circuit with a live show that, in a lot of ways, weirdly predicted modern EDM/rave culture. And in 2010, they released 7 Skies H3, a twenty four hour long song that came in a USB drive encased in a human skull, which… tacky. But what really kind of bums me out about this release is that there are some elements to it which feel kind of like cheating. Several full length sections are looped out for hours, there are extended passions of droning ambience that feel pretty lazy, and for one of the few “rock bands” throwing their hat into the long-form ring, there really aren’t too many rock songs to speak of, at least relative to that one six hour passage of uninterrupted, looping ambient music. There’s a 50 minute version, which apostles of 7 Skies will tell you to avoid because it “spoils” the album, but honestly, I’d recommend sticking to the LP format for this release. This song is 24 hours long, but I really don’t think there are 24 hours worth of good ideas here compared to, say, the eight incredible hours Autechre offers up with the NTS Sessions. That’s just me though.

Lil B – 05 F*ck ‘Em, 848 Based Freestyles Mixtape (Length Unknown)

In tech, the term “bleeding edge” connotes ideas and technologies so new, that they risky to even try to use or mass produce – an edge you can very easily cut yourself on. Brandon McCartney, AKA Lil B, AKA TheBasedGod, has been on the bleeding edge of rap music for a decade now, bridging the gap between the titans of the ringtone era like Soulja Boy and Lil Wayne and the new kids of the last five years, from ASAP Rocky all the way up to Blueface. Everyone apes Lil B, everyone wants to work with Lil B, but no one besides Lil B has ever gone full Lil B. What does he do, exactly, that makes him such a forward thinking and influential voice in the world of rap? Most of the time, he bares his pure, childlike id to the internet at large in stream of consciousness “based freestyles,” and if he isn’t doing that, he’s likely talking about food or comparing himself to anyany celebrity. The man has released hundreds, actually I mean at least a thousand songs, most of them like this, and doing so has earned him spots behind the podium for lectures at Ivy League schools. At one point, he released an 855-song mixtape of based freestyles (strangely named the 848 based freestyles mixtape), but I’m not counting that because a large share of what made it on to that tape had already been released in some form. No, The Based God’s true contribution to the long-form release format is the epic 05 F*ck ‘Em, a one-hundred and five song tape of all new material that’s, for the most part, populated by actual attempts at songwriting with collaborators like Mac Miller and Zaytoven. There’s a lot of filler, but some of Lil B’s honest to god best songs are on here. Sometimes, life is about just embracing the absurdity of the things you love with a big dumb smile, and I truly think Lil B embodies that in almost everything he does.

Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me

My personal favorite, by far, of the bunch, even if it probably feels the least “decade specific” of any of the releases listed here. Whereas Lil B’s hundred song opus brings to mind the stunning vastness and empty banality of online rap music, and Autechre invokes endlessly looping algorithmic programming in the place of traditional songwriting, Have One on Me feels like something much for friendly and familiar: a good book. Think about it like this: the best works of literature are challenging. Their authors require you to “come to them” on at least some level – and in return, they bare their minds, their passions, and souls to you in a way that can often be really transcendent. Have One On Me, a triple album spanning two hours, feel exactly like that. I mean, Joanna Newsom has been a somewhat divisive figure her whole career, and she doesn’t back away from any of her most controversial qualities on this record. The knotty, fairy-tale lyricism, the long and winding song structures, that love-it-or-hate-it voice… it’s all here. But there are also some of the most stunning moments in her entire discography here – quite a lot of them actually. She speaks more starkly and personally about the people and the events that shape her as a person than she ever did on the allegorically-steeped Ys or her debut, The Milk Eyed Mender. She offers up some of the most immediately enjoyable music she’s ever made, with gorgeous traditional folk and country arrangements. More so than anyone else on this list, with Newsom’s longest release was also her honest-to-god best release. Pretty incredible, if you ask me. And, like all the best books, this one only gets better the more time you spend with it.

Aphex Twin – Soundcloud Releases

Electronic music’s flagship prankster-demon Aphex Twin rounds off the list with a release that, really, really pushes the boundary of what constitutes a collection of music. Richard D James, the mastermind of the Aphex Twin project, had been talking since the ‘90s about hard-drives he had at home, stuffed with some of his most hard hitting and mind-blowing material. Hundreds of songs that one of modern art’s most fascinating and mischievous figures claims to have had, that he just didn’t feel like releasing. Since every other thing the dude says is a lie, no one ever took all those big stories too seriously. Then, in 2015, he just started releasing it, like, all of it, for free, on Soundcloud. The initially anonymous releases amounted to about 300 songs, some of which seemed to be organized into full length albums (including additions to the Analog Bubblebath, Selected Ambient Works, and Surfing on Sine Waves series)… and all of it was really good. Barely any filler to speak of, nothing that sounded unfinished, no “unmastered versions” of already released music; in fact, it seemed to be a career spanning data-dump that not only gave a glimpse behind the curtain of RDJ’s mysterious creative process, but also threaded a stronger sense of continuity throughout his entire career. Naturally, his label (Warp, same as Autechre) totally freaked out and took it all down, even going so far as to cull some of it into more conventional release formats in an attempt to make some cash. Still, these Soundcloud releases remain a testament to the fact that beyond the hype, beyond the myth status, RDJ really is that good, and he’s also pretty online. That’s a miracle, if you ask me.

RILEY URBANO | I think I may have too much free time | KXSU Music Reporter

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