Archive for March, 2018

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.