Will Long first became known as one-half of Celer, an American duo who issued an absurdly prolific stream of breathtaking ambient/drone releases laced with field recordings and acoustic instrumentation. Following the tragic, untimely death of his partner, Danielle Baquet-Long, Will continued Celer as a solo project, eventually settling down in Japan and starting a new life. While in Tokyo, he came in contact with Terre Thaemlitz, another American expatriate, who is best known in the dance music world for making provocative deep house under the name DJ Sprinkles. Long began translating his sparse but warm drones into a house context, adding a steadily kicking 4/4 beat as well as sporadic vocal samples that express concern and dissatisfaction with the state of the world. Long Trax appeared on Thaemlitz’s Comatonse Recordings in 2016, backed with a second disc of Sprinkles’ overdubbed versions of the tracks, and the album gradually received a decent amount of praise. Long Trax 2 does little to alter the formula: the tracks are all around ten minutes apiece; they all have a basic kick-drum pattern (sometimes accented by digital hi-hats, rim clicks, or bongos); they all have soft, meditative keyboard chords that change every few measures; and the occasional vocal samples still offer simple yet scathing insight into the corruption of society. Opener “Nothing’s Changed” features the terse, pithy words of Barack Obama; in addition to the frank titular phrase, he asks “Should we pretend that we’ve got a colorblind society?,” and at one point, his obviously edited voice states “I’m a very angry man.” Elsewhere, on “The Struggles, the Difficulties,” an African-American woman wearily sighs “We haven’t had it this bad in a long, long time,” and during a lull in “That’s the Way It Goes,” a man exclaims “I just think its part of capitalism to promote racism… and that separates people, so they keep people separated, and that keeps them from thinking about the real problem.” On the now-classic 2009 full-length Midtown 120 Blues, Sprinkles used more extensive samples and field recordings in order to probe deeper into issues relating to sexuality, race, drug abuse, and house music’s appropriation by the mainstream. That album also seemed far more designed for actual club play than Long’s tracks, which are nearly as meditative as his ambient work. His ideas are expressed in a far more succinct manner, but they offer similarly powerful commentary, and the album’s starkness works to its advantage, driving the tracks’ points so they hit home.
Archive for March, 2018
From its inception, house music has inhabited a liminal space between politics and emotion. Not that the two can be discretely separated — which is precisely what house is saying.
House was black, queer music. On Long Trax 2, though, it’s not (at least not overtly) sexual preference that’s in question, but race. House took gospel ideas of freedom and applied them to sexuality — Long Trax 2 now returns to those initial freedoms, refracted through the politicized lens of samples by prominent African American activists.
Creating spaces where people can feel freedom in societies that define their identity as abject is itself a political act. As is expressing desire, even indirectly, of which society disapproves. At the same time, paradoxically, a consumer society is all about enacting and repetitively fulfilling desire. House’s solid beats, without buildup or release, represent both that repetition and the melancholy of the fact that it will never be entirely fulfilled — as is also true for our most utopian ambitions. Tears on the dancefloor are tears of both joy and sorrow. Desire is ambiguous and expressed obliquely.
This, therefore, is a music that has traditionally disavowed the overtly political in its content, but in fact, it’s haunted house — haunted by Angela Davis’s “struggles, the difficulties” that are named on the track of that title.
Long’s house is particularly haunted. The voices of black figures (Davis, Barack Obama, Richard Pryor), which echo over its four-to-the-floor beats and sorrowful synth pads, are very much of our moment, a clear critique. Yet they also hark back to the literal past, the moment in which these words were uttered and were captured (the hauntedness of recordings themselves) — and to previous visions of social perfection, of equality, which have not come to pass. As Long puts it: “The speeches I use are obviously from the more distant past, and all along I’ve been most interested how these themes tie in with my own idea of what house music is, but also as a reminder of our societal failures and what still needs to be fixed.”
And there’s a further type of ambiguity at play. “Nothing’s Changed” samples Obama: “Should we pretend that we’ve got a colorblind society? … Nothing’s changed … and I’m a very angry man!” Is this an ironic commentary on the disappointment that Obama’s actions in presidency represented for so many? Does that betrayal, of his former self and of the people, add a further sting to dancefloor sorrow?
Either way, the exquisiteness and transcendence of Long’s music is disrupted by his choice of samples, which are bound in time (as against that transcendence), which remind one of conflict and of disrupted dreams of “progress.” But the fact that this is disruption demonstrates that it’s only privilege that allows anyone to forget these social conditions even momentarily. These ruptures reflect, overtly, the role that house has always had as an alternative way to do politics, breaking the smooth surface and the traditions of the sound to remind us of what, in its fundamental nature, this music has been and may be still.
In holding these contradictions, Long Trax 2 is somehow eerie, yet also peaceful — thematically and sonically. The six tracks unfold entirely at their own pace over the course of an hour. And they absolutely need that space to breathe, to unfold — just as Long’s ambient compositions as Celer do. Thus, the album has a filmic quality (reflected in Long’s twitter feed, which references movies like Paper Moon, Le Samouraï, and The Defiant Ones).
With antecedents in Herbert’s Around the House or Luomo’s Vocalcity, Long Trax 2 is not a huge leap forward from 2016’s Long Trax (except inasmuch as the absence of the DJ Sprinkles overdubs that accompanied that release), but it doesn’t need to be. The “unoriginality” of house is precisely what is troubled here: “I’m not interested in trying to be cutting edge — always updating or latching to what other currently active artists are doing to be part of a group” (Long). Musically, it’s deeply simple, unaffected, with a crystalline flawlessness in being so. Synth pads come in a moment after you expect them to and hold a fraction longer than seems right — a wabi-sabi that creates perfection. Long resides in Japan, and there’s a kind of Zen-like quality of acceptance and peacefulness here within which lies both conflict and horror, as well as beauty — the “ten thousand things” at play.
Is this spiritual quality aimed at overcoming the human condition or digging deeper into it? Simon Reynolds comments on the way deep house mixes the posthuman with soul: on the one hand, machinic repetition; on the other, the lushness of jazz, the influences from gospel, the wailing diva. Long’s trax are emotionally at a remove from the soulful sirens who are sometimes associated with deep house — that tension between joyful celebration and a modern-day blues, between major and minor keys.
This mirrors the space he creates between isolation and connection. While the music conveys a deep sense of loneliness (though also a certain satisfaction at this aloneness), a hermetic world, the political voices also point us back to the inevitability of interconnection, for better or worse, and of community. Despite Japan’s thriving house scene, it’s not the music’s home, and Long states: “I don’t feel connected in almost any way to a community of house music or electronic music.” There’s an alienness to the tones here, to the shimmering synth pads, which in light of the samples could be called a minimalist Afrofuturism.
Except that this can’t be Afrofuturism. Long is a white man in Japan using black voices and black (/queer) music to comment on race inequality. He grew up in Mississippi, and he explicitly notesthat “We Tend To Forget” is based on a racist incident he witnessed as a child, where an African-American child was treated differently than himself. To be sure, he’s not addressing these issues with the ineptness of, say, tUnE-yArDs. At the same time, this friction can’t be ignored, and it surfaces in interviews in which he redefines the “political” into the realm of the social and cultural, commenting on polarization in a way that may seem to lend a false equivalence to these “sides.”
The listener — as an individual and as part of the web of community, identity, belief — must resolve these questions. But that listener, in the moment and as that moment continually recedes into the past, will do so in the most gorgeous of sonic company.
A protege of deep house iconoclast Terre Thaemlitz, Will Long’s music interweaves doleful, grand chords, subtle, fidgety percussion and snatches of speech. Whereas in the past Thaemlitz had sampled diatribes by Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill, Nothing’s Changed embroiders a gently jacking house shuffle with snippets from a Barack Obama address. An album whose drawn-out grooves spiral seductively like dandelion clocks in the breeze.
A protégé of DJ Sprinkles, Long is well-versed in the political import of deep house, using vocal samples to add narrative as well as melodic texture. Just as Sprinkles used documentary voice recordings to tell the melancholic story of house and its queer origins on 2009’s Midtown 120 Blues, Long continues to explore the radical potential of the dancefloor and its possible expansion into wider society on his second LP, Long Trax 2. If the dancefloor is now regarded as a ‘safe space’, he posits, why can’t our society be also?
Yet, in Long Trax 2 he merely finds the stasis of acceptance, the repetition of norms rather than the urgency of subversion. The critic Ian MacDonald claimed that minimalist music is the “passionless, sexless and emotionally blank soundtrack of the Machine Age, its utopian selfishness no more than an expression of human passivity in the face of mass production and The Bomb.” In Long Trax 2, though, Long uses this minimalism to critique our passivity.
Opener ‘Nothing’s Changed’ is almost tongue-in-cheek in its 11-minute exposition of a single chord sequence. But then beneath the oneiric synths and precise drum programming, we hear the voice of an uncharacteristically pessimistic Barack Obama: “I’m a very angry man,” he says. “Understanding has to be earned / It has to be worked for / There are sacrifices involved.” And then: “Nothing’s changed”. Here lies the thematic core of the record, buried in the danceable grid-structure of the production; it takes concentration to not be lulled into the passivity MacDonald speaks of and to miss it entirely.
This subtlety of sampling continues on the other five tracks, in the muffled melancholy of ‘The Struggles, The Difficulties’, in the critique of ‘That’s The Way It Goes’, in ambient closer ‘We Tend To Forget’. While each of these tracks runs together almost seamlessly, the record is almost in danger of becoming a background presence. But there is a refreshing honesty to this consistency, prioritising texture and narrative over conventional structure or dancefloor impact. Long invites us to tune in and be moved, or to drop out and continue on as ever.
For the past couple of years, Will Long has kept up a steady stream of deep-house releases for labels like DJ Sprinkles’ Comatonse Recordings and Smalltown Supersound, and his debut album, 2016’s Long Trax, was mirrored by Sprinkles’ own album-length remix. But Long also releases music as Celer and boasts a formidable discography (both solo and with his late wife, Danielle Baquet-Long) totaling over 120 albums worth of ambient abstraction.
It’s that project’s sensibility of restraint and narrowed parameters that drifts over to Long Trax 2, where Long uses the seemingly unchanging meter of deep house to explore themes of inertia and stasis as they pertain to politics, dance music, and society at large. That’s a lot of heavy lifting for some canned claps, a steady kick, sustained chords, and judiciously sprinkled vocal samples to carry, but Long prefers casting a spell with a minimal amount of materials. Across six tracks that clock in at over an hour in total, Long Trax 2tends to melt in and out of the background, making it an ambient album that almost makes you want to wiggle a little, or a house album content to exist as wallpaper.
In moving away from micro-edition ambient releases and toward programmed dance beats, Long still has a ways to go to get to the level of someone like Theo Parrish or Kenny Dixon Jr., producers who can make something revelatory out of the sparest of kit sounds. “You Know?” is nearly 10 minutes of a stiff, metronomic beat and soft-focus keys that lilt upward and back in the mix. It’s a track that seems unwilling to budge toward dance music’s sense of release; instead it offers something as gauzy and indistinct as a throw pillow’s stuffing. A muffled vocal sample from Jean-Michel Basquiat rustles just beneath the surface, all but inaudible except for the line, “I don’t remember.” It’s a fitting encapsulation of the music itself: a Lethean track that fades away having left little distinct impression.
Long strikes the best balance on the centerpiece “The Struggles, the Difficulties.” The elements—melancholy chords and a beat as low-key and incessant as a ringed finger on a wooden desk—sound like what Boards of Canada might utilize if they were making deep house. As the chords billow upwards, they sound less like a pleasant, drifting cloud and more like an overcast pall. “The struggles, the difficulties, that’s supposed to be in the past,” pleads Angela Davis, her inflection expressing dismay at the ways that racism, injustice, poverty, and suffering continue to shadow us at every turn.
There’s a nonchalant air to the way that Long triggers these samples. When Richard Pryor says, “Sorry, Jack” in the midst of “That’s the Way It Goes,” you can almost hear the shrug emoji in the spaces in between. Yet there’s also a hefty sense of ambition in making a house track featuring the 44th president of the United States saying, “Nothing’s changed.” That 11-minute track summarizes Long’s political outlook in two succinct words, even as he drops in other snippets of Barack Obama’s voice (“Should we pretend that we’ve got a colorblind society?”; “I’m a very angry man”). The detached tone feels telling, and Long’s backdrop—a basic grid of kick and claps—makes these statements feel all the more perplexed and uncertain. Which is to say, if you wake up daily in 2018 and feel borderline despair and a cosmic sense of futility, hearing the former most powerful man in the free world say again and again, “Nothing’s changed,” won’t do much to move the needle.
As mellow as Long Trax 2 presents itself, there is ultimately something that feels disingenuous. Drawing on African-American voices—be they famous artists or members of the Black Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—and sprinkling them atop lethargic and rote deep house (a music originating from the inner cities of Chicago and Detroit), Long ends up draining both the music and the words of their sense of urgency. It seems a damning luxury to drift off to it.
Part of what made Will Long’s Long Trax 1 so special was DJ Sprinkles. She overdubbed each of Long’s originals, which added a beautiful soulfulness to his raw and bare-bones approach. Without those reworks, the LP would have been a different story. This is the one we get on Long Trax 2, the Japan-based artist’s follow up, which no longer features DJ Sprinkles, nor her label, Comatonse. Now, suitable to its somber personality, Long’s music arrives alone.
Since Long Trax 1, Long’s music has changed less than the world around it. The first installment arrived just before the 2016 US presidential election. Looking back, its morose mood and use of vocal samples as political critique were apt; the album captured an unspoken pessimism, when a large part of American society still believed that slogans like “Yes We Can” and “Stronger Together” would make liberal democracy hold. On Long Trax 2, whose first cut samples the voice of a young Barack Obama, Long’s messages about cultural stasis can seem even more poignant.
Long’s approach to house is so minimal that it feels as fragile as a shell. Each track, built on the same kind of muted drums and gently sighing chords, distinguishes itself from the next only with its quiet use of vocals. They appear out of the mist and vanish just as quickly, reciting lines from history that carry both anger and apathy. “Should we pretend we have a colorblind society?” Obama asks on the opener. “I just think it’s part of capitalism to promote racism,” says Richard Pryor on “That’s The Way It Goes.” On “You Know?,” a man can’t remember what he’s angry about.
Whether you like Long Trax 2 depends in part on how much you hear this message. Some might say the album’s production work is flat, repetitive, uninventive—which, for the most part, is true. This is where DJ Sprinkles came in handy on Long Trax 1. She took Long’s moods and enriched them with a sense of groove and musicality. Long Trax 2 runs the risk of monotony instead. But that seems to be Long’s message: we’re stuck, sorrow repeating without end.
Like Will Long, I grew up in the United States’ Deep South in a town 20 minutes up the road from Memphis – not too far from where Long grew up in Mississippi. Being raised in a region where so many racial and social clashes have occurred, the Mid South has always had its (un)fair share of internalised division and strife, both politically and personally, between neighbourhoods and friends. In order to properly understand the perspective from which he’s creating this club-oriented music, one must come to understand the background Long has chosen to analyse in his work under his own name.
House music itself has a shared history in the collectively marginalised cultures of both racial and sexual minorities. The way that Long decided to explore these ideas of society in beat-driven electronic music is both a logical extension of his ambient sound as Celer and the idea that house music is a reflective culture, no doubt influenced by Long Trax collaborator Terre Thaemlitz aka DJ Sprinkles.
Here we find songs permeated with samples of civil rights leaders calling for the end of things like capitalism and the beginning of renewed social revolution. Bookended by songs with titles like “Nothing’s Changed” and “We Tend to Forget,” Long’s here to remind us what really matters in the long run: the politics of how we treat each other.
In almost every song here, the soundscape extends the synths to infinity, painting the picture of an endless dance floor horizon–a world beyond the queue, where the safety and oneness of communal movement is reflected in everyday human interaction. The press release states that “we shouldn’t need clubs to hide from our fears and differences in the outside world,” a theme perfectly exemplified in the securely sprawling sonic nature of tracks like “You Know?” and “No More”.
At times, the pads throughout remind me of the iconic organ vamps of classic soul music. “No More” is a quiet roller, a track that builds tension so well that when the digital clap comes in it’s a small revelation. With an album as hypnotic as this, it’s hard not to be moved by the spirit of what Long is trying to accomplish. Some of the beats in the songs have a less muted sound than the ones on the first collection of Long Trax, feeling more direct and angular. The rhythm of “We Tend to Forget” feels more urgent and driving than anything Long’s done up to this point. It calls us to action.
Aside from the enhanced directness, ‘Long Trax 2‘ offers little sonic progression from the original. If you’re not prepared for the subtlety of the album, the songs can drag on, but once the feeling is right and you lean into the mix, it’s a relaxing (yet still socially pertinent) listen that works well off of the dance floor. Long offers us a lot to think about once again, but we need a lot to think about in times like these. ‘Long Trax 2‘ is a more-than-worthy sequel to the first volume and hopefully another instalment in a series that continues for a long time to come.
Will Long released Long Trax about a year and a half ago, and now he’s released Long Trax 2, something of a sequel. But upon listening to it, the first question that popped into my head was why. It’s the most boring, pointless release I’ve heard in a good long while. While it’s not actively bad, as offensive to the ears, it’s dull. There are only six tracks, but each is about ten minutes long, and again, I’m asking myself why, because they never progress over those long play times. Song after song is a simple beat combined with very, very slow chord progressions, and the occasional annoying vocal sample preaching some nonsense or other.
This is a case where there’s no real point in breaking down a track-by-track analysis, since all the tracks do exactly the same thing over and over again, and do it for painful lengths of time. I specifically timed one song, and it would play the same chord for eleven seconds at a time before going onto the next one. In some contexts that could work, but when the only thing happening is a casio keyboard demo beat, it’s mind-numbing. I’m honestly puzzled as to why this was released. I’m not joking when I say that almost anyone with any musical talent whatsoever could create this music, but anyone with any musical sensibility would know better than to do so, as there’s just nothing here. It’s like the first attempt of a computer AI to create music: plodding, predictable, and interminable. And words like that are what keep popping into my head while listening. Other words include tedious, joyless, and stultified.
It’s honestly aggravating to listen to this set because I can’t figure out why it exists, or why I should be subjected to it. It sounds lazy and self-indulgent. If the tracks were perhaps one-quarter their current length, things would move fast enough to perhaps be interesting. And I’ve listened to plenty of ambient in my day. Slow music can be worthwhile, but in this case it isn’t. I gave this many chances, and came back to it days after my initial write-up, hoping to find something deeper. But there’s nothing there beyond the shallow surface. If you can ignore the sound bites, this might work as background music for other activities like work or whatever, but there’s so much else out there that’s more rewarding to the ear, I can’t even recommend it for that if I’m being honest.
Celer has been at the forefront of ambient music for over a decade now, with an enormous discography spanning dozens of releases. Fellow American John Daniel has been making music as Forest Management for almost as long. Their new collaboration “Landmarks” takes inspiration from the book and film Mosquito Coast, the story of a man who abandons the American way of life for a remote coastal region of Honduras but becomes increasingly obsessed, with tragic consequences for him and his family. Snippets from both versions of the tale are heard at various points across the album, but the narrative is not spelled out and connections with the music mostly remain below the surface.
As the opening soft, ethereal drone hovers at the edge of perception, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d landed slap-bang in the middle of Celerland. From then on, however, the album takes several detours: birds sing tunefully in a loop over an echoing thud; distant thunder and clatter draws out a gurgling in the deep; grand, majestic melodic refrains are bathed in shimmering light. There are plenty of warm ambient drones to be heard, with indistinct, barely-there textures and endless repetition marking tracks such as ‘Indistinguishable from magic’ and ‘Volcanic institutions’. But there are also moments of greater resolve and certainty, as with the plodding drone of ‘Hotel Mona Lisa’, and unexpected twists and turns such as the faint echoes of previous drones in ‘S-shaped isthmus’. I found it impossible to tell which creative choices originated with which artist, such is the seamlessness with which their respective contributions are woven together.
Ultimately I hear no judgement on Mosquito Coast‘s flawed would-be hero, even as his high-minded ideals lead him down a slippery slope of violence and obsession. The tumbling four-note refrain and singing high-pitched exclamation of the closing track ‘Rights of the idea or a machine’ could be interpreted equally easily as elegiac or as tragic. Either way, this is an album that, despite its frequent lushness, still manages to unsettle and provoke, as the best ambient drone music can.