Landmarks is the first collaboration between two artists who need no introduction. The more experienced Celer (Will Long) is joined by the up-and-coming mid-western master of plaintive ambient-drone, Forest Management(John Daniels). Their two styles are distinct but here it is difficult to tease out who is doing what. The result is, therefore, a coherent take on collaboration more than a dialogue between two individual voices. “Embera” is somewhat reminiscent of the forest ravescapes of Gas. The tape is book-ended by “7° 10° 77° 83°” and “Rights of the idea or a machine”, each ten-minutes of dreamy loops oscillating between past and present, hope and despair, book and film. Landmarks takes as its source material The Mosquito Coast, both the Paul Theroux novel as well as the 1986 film starring Helen Mirren, River Phoenix, and Harrison Ford. Three of the 14 tracks are short interludes consisting of vocal samples from film, each showcasing a different of the film’s stars. Once solution to the deep malaise of the present seems to be a retreat into nostalgia, but Landmarks interest in The Mosquito Coast works just as well as a warning of the dangers of nostalgia. While we may empathize with the distrust of consumerism and bleak outlook on the future, the hubris of Allie, Harrison Ford’s inventor, should be enough to warn of the dangers of trying to build utopia on the fantasy of the primitive. The general sense of foreboding, critique of romantic retreat into individualism and colonialism, seems well suited to the present moment.
After a decade of these words on this music, I think I am slowly beginning to drift into that period of reminiscence, reflection and nostalgia, which is often associated with “the way things were”. It’s easy to proclaim that “things are not the same these days,” which, of course, is true, from both, positive and negative perspective. If things were the same would I want them that way? And isn’t my appreciation of the present observed only in contrast to the past? Was “that” indeed better or worse, and if so, how would I act to determine its future? It’s too much to ponder on (especially at 6am on a Thursday), but I am, nevertheless, aware, that the thought has occurred more than once in the past.
In order to properly perform this retrospective which would yield strong results, one must have a point of reference. This is a “stake in the ground,” sort of speak, which captures times in a very low fidelity resolution – the rest is filled up by our mind, with what we call “memory”. But beyond the nebulous and often distorted representation of the past, what we do have are the concrete documents to remind [I like that word: “re- mind”] us of the past: some photographs, some words, and yes, of course, all this music. Playing through a piece of history often can feel like a time-travelling feat, shifting your mind to another place with “that feeling” still present. The olfactory sense is the strongest one for this trigger, often sending one spinning into a particular sense of the past, but it is also effective with music… as Celer‘s Nacreous Clouds clearly confirms.
In 2008, Celer was a collaborative husband and wife duo of Will Long and Danielle Baquet, creating music, first for each other, and only then, for the world. There were many releases, often hand-made and unpublished, with 2008 marking the first year that Celer was beginning to gain traction with labels like Spekk, Slow Flow, and Infraction. Nacreous Clouds landed on Dale Lloyd’s and/OAR imprint, focused on environmental and avant-garde sound art, for which the album was a perfect fit. Using tape loops and digital processing, the duo constructed a slow-moving climate of gaseous states, that drifted across the frequency spectrum in a soft cloud of harmonic dissonance. The 37 short vignettes on an album explore different formations of sound, spreading their sonic tentacles deep into your mind. This is where they trigger a memory of a time and a place, which can not be described in a few honest words.
In our private correspondence, Will shares the following:
I thought about something that was different at this time… as time has passed, I’ve grown to use more direct experiences for the inspiration of music. However at this point in 2007-2008, it was near the beginning, and it was almost the opposite… stumbling across an idea or concept (like nacreous clouds) that can somehow associate to a more direct experience or feeling or musical quality. It’s a method I don’t use as often now, but I can appreciate it for connections that direct experiences don’t have, or for the listener, some kind of natural, fascinating association to take their minds away. I guess we’re all trying to get away from something or get something out.
I wonder if, that “something” that we’re all trying “to get away from” is the scary perception of “now”, or even more frightening, the unperceivable spine-chilling future, and so our minds tend to find the comfort and ease, in the post-processed and filtered remembrance of time. Our minds tend to hold on to this former fictitious account, to put in perspective the moment of now. In order to really connect with the present, one must simply let go, time-travel, and visit the past. Was it really better, and if so, how much? Music, at least to me, can serve as a tool, especially one as “memorable” as the one gifted by Celer. This newly remastered album by Stephan Mathieu is a great demarcation of time, to those early beginnings, and a newly found stage. Recommended as a random shuffle playback for about 2-3 hours for a full effect.
Will Long’s Long Trax 2 resembles an empty swimming pool or an abandoned pier extending out into the open sea. It deepens, but does not do a whole lot else, and though long stretches of it are featureless, it’s vast enough to be inherently awe-inspiring. A bassline is a luxury in this music; the drums sound like the rinky-dink automatic rhythm tracks on cheap keyboards; thick synth chords hang low, sad and heavy. Even house fans adapted to formidable repetition might find this stuff too stagnant to enjoy, but for those versed in the spartan ambient music Long makes as Celer, this should be familiar terrain.
Though Long Trax 2 and its predecessor are technically house music, this music works as ambient. These tracks don’t move linearly, nor do they build and release. They hang in place for anywhere between just under to just over ten minutes (long trax, indeed), and though the kick drops out often, it’s seemingly at random. Without the drums, these tracks would just be static washes of pad, but the dull think of the kick and the gentle hiss of the hi-hat (no snares here) means the music changes often enough to keep our attention—and, if we want to take this music for a walk, keeps our feet moving forward.
Something else happens. On most of these tracks, Long weaves in mournful samples, all from prominent African-Americans—Richard Pryor, Angela Davis, Barack Obama and Jean-Michel Basquiat. (Long is a white man, living in Japan.) “The struggles, the difficulties, that’s supposed to be in the past,” laments Davis. “Should we pretend we live in a colorblind society?” says Obama. “Nothing’s changed.” Perhaps the inertia of these tracks is meant to mirror these quotes. The music doesn’t change; neither does the world.
Long is an acolyte of Terre Thaemlitz, better-known as the New York house producer DJ Sprinkles, who 10 years ago released one of the most salient protest albums in recent years, Midtown 120 Blues. Thaemlitz’s strategy on that album was to spin impossibly lush and immersive house tracks and overdub them with passionate rants on the decontextualization and corporatization of house music. You literally couldn’t enjoy the music without sitting through the context. It’s not a stretch to suggest Long is trying a similar strategy on Long Trax 2. The albums even sound similar, with their rainy pads.
If so, it’s nowhere near as effective. Thaemlitz’s examination of the specific context in which house music developed invited thought and self-examination from listeners who might not have given any thought to their consumption of corporate dance music. The themes here don’t reward much thought, and it’s hard to tell if they’re deployed to make a statement or simply as a tribute to great black leaders and artists. The cultural stature of Obama and Pryor means their voices alone take on a certain grandeur; I was reminded of Coldplay’s “Kaleidoscope,” which opens with Obama singing “Amazing Grace.”
To those with the proper attention span, Long Trax 2 works phenomenally well as ambient music. It’s astonishing how much space and grandeur Long is able to generate with the rudimentary trappings of house music. It’s easy to sink back and zone out to this album, even as it continuously suggests that’s not how you’re meant to experience it.
The name doesn’t lie; six tracks all approaching or over 10 minutes, built around house so stripped back it’s barely even there at times – but the utter absence of excess and relentless, mellow, ghostly repetition becomes weirdly hypnotic. Before you know it, those 60 minutes will have melted away.
Attivo dal 2005 con decine e decine di produzioni nel segno dell’ambient a nome Celer, nonché metà della formazione alt pop Oh, Yoko assieme a Rie Mitsutake, e nondimeno artista a tutto tondo nel dilettarsi tra fotografia e scrittura, il producer statunitense – ma di stanza a Tokyo da ormai un lustro – Will Long torna con una nuova prova sulla lunga distanza firmata col nome di battesimo. Arriva a due anni dal precedente Long Trax, ispezione nei territori della deep house sulla Comatonse di quella Terre Thaemlitz (aka DJ Sprinkles, presente anche nel catalogo Presto!? del nostro producer più amato in Gran Bretagna e non solo, Lorenzo Senni) che in prima persona ha “disidratato” le 7 tracce di quel primo volume lavorando di fino su texture e percussioni.
Due anni dopo, ma su Smalltown Supersound, Will Long si ripropone con Long Trax 2, un disco dai temi impegnati che vuole dire la sua sulla situazione politica odierna, e potete ben immaginare a chi si rivolga, criticando “la stasi culturale” che ci affligge. Proprio questo lato “sociale” segna il punto di inizio e di fine del disco, una lunga girandola ambient-(deep)house dallo schema sempre uguale a sé stesso, che si staglia su lunghe ma immobili atmosfere che si creano e sviluppano attorno a due accordi in croce, senza mai un sussulto, bassoni filanti, piattini e hi-hat stanchi e apatici. Ma guai a chiamarlo minimalismo, Long stesso ha aggiunto come lui preferisca concentrarsi sulla polpa della faccenda, valorizzandola il più possibile e lasciando alla polvere le sovrastrutture, proprio come erano soliti fare i padrini agli albori dell’house.
Qual è la polpa del caso? Le registrazioni di frasi e discorsi, neanche troppo avvincenti, di Obama e Richard Pryor per citarne qualcuno, che vanno a dettare come metronomi – metti Winona di DJ Boring senza il piglio acid – i tempi dilatati di tracce che senza questi intermezzi difficilmente troverebbero la loro ragion d’essere. Niente di più, niente di meno da aggiungere. Se non siete neofiti, di dischi così ne avrete già ascoltati a palate – e decisamente più a fuoco – e sarà semplice storcere il naso di fronte a questa profonda mancanza d’idee; se al contrario siete meno assuefatti a certe operazioni, chissà, potrebbe anche piacervi. Noi ci piazziamo nella prima barricata.
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.
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.