A Journey with MOVING PICTURES

There’s nothing quite like flying along Colorado 9 and US 285 through the Pike National Forest with the windows down, listening to Rush’s MOVING PICTURES with my 13-year old and 9-year old. The heads rocked and the questions flew. Who was Tom Sawyer? Why did the government pass a “motor law”? Canadians really say “zed”? Why do the band tour if they don’t like the light? Are people in New York really mangular? Did they find the witch? What’s the norm?

At one level, it’s nearly impossible to believe that I was first 13–the age of my Harry–when I first heard MOVING PICTURES. And, yet, at another level, I don’t really remember a time when MOVING PICTURES wasn’t a part of my life, even though I remember so vividly my first listen.

What an honor it is to share it and my memories with my own children. And, I’m reminded–as I hear the album through different ears–how intelligent MOVING PICTURES was and remains.

It’s rock for the non-average human!

To write is human, but to edit is divine

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It’s time to admit it. Too many bands are releasing albums that are too long.

Digital technology makes it possible, but reviewers must now unite in their opposition to today’s most ridiculous musical trend.

Any album longer than 45 minutes must be criticized mercilessly if the artist has failed to edit it.

The first item in any review should be a list of the songs that should have been cut. If the artist won’t do it, then the reviewer should begin the review with an elementary lesson for the artist in how their new release is abusing the listener’s patience.

If artists don’t want the reviewers editing their work for them, and if artists don’t want listeners only downloading or listening piecemeal, then they have to start showing some discipline.

There is so much good music out there. But too many artists are wasting our time.

There, I said it. Let the discussion begin at Progarchy on this. Perhaps we can begin by taking AMG as our reference point:

I want artists to produce coherent, holistic albums. This is not the same thing from lining up 10 songs you wrote in a specific order that works pretty well. For me, the peak of the album is Seventh Son of a Seventh Son or The Wall. When I start The Wall I listen to it front to back and I enjoy the whole experience. Similarly, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son or Symphony X‘s V: The New Mythology Suite. These are albums that use the form to create something cohesive and should a band need 75 minutes to do that, more power to them. The key, though, is immersion. Listeners lose themselves in the music and the album is akin to looking at a painting. Sure, you could look at the left half now and the right half later, but a painting is meant to be seen in its totality. Such albums are usually carefully crafted so as to be continuously interesting and engaging; both as composition and narration. The best album-as-whole is the record that has likely been heavily edited because it needs to be perfect.

Releasing the 15 songs I wrote in the last 18 months without consideration for time and space is not constructing an album. This is, rather, a playlist. There are plenty of great records that are playlists; in fact, I think most albums that are released are simply playlists.2 But that changes expectations. In this case, there will be varying compositional quality and it behooves bands to remove the worst material to improve the flow and feel of their playlist. Historically, this meant sitting down and cutting down to the LP length. And while this is hard, anyone who makes music knows that we all write stuff that we don’t like as well. We all produce music that we think is subpar, even if we like this riff or that idea. The musician who wants to produce the best album possible will either re-write those pieces or drop them. They edit.

Playlist albums are more likely to be repetitive at longer lengths, particularly if they lack dynamics. I love Amon Amarth, but those guys write pretty much the same songs for every album. They’re really good at it, but a 75 minute Amon Amarth album would fall absolutely flat. By the 40-minute mark, you’ve heard everything you’re going to hear and at that point you’re pretty much ready to move on. You’ll see them live, of course, but then they play 120 minutes of their best material, not their most recent.

Sometimes you’ll encounter albums where every song is great but it’s super long, making it enjoyable in two sittings. But is that a successful album? My answer is no. A successful album is something that you want to hear in a single sitting. Generally, the most successful albums are the ones which end before you’re ready. The ones that leave you wanting more. I review new albums on these terms. When enjoyable records crest at 55, 60, or 70 minutes and I’m bored, I consider it an editing problem. An album with plenty of interesting sections but that falls flat on a total listen is a failure which could have been averted with better editing.3 I’d say the same thing of a 30 minute album that I was bored with by the end, too. It’s the whole that matters.

Ultimately, I think that records that bloat make for bad records and that labels are releasing fewer good records because of it. If you’re a person who doesn’t enjoy albums as a whole, then this isn’t a problem. But what are we to do when we review? Our job is to review albums. That means pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of the whole product that we’re reviewing. Since we judge them as single units, rather than rating how much we like each song and creating a composite score, length risks dropping scores due to dropping quality.

People, we must learn from ages past. Vinyl is the gold standard here, and we must learn from it. Exceed the running time length of an LP at your own peril, dear artists. You have been warned.

Three Of The Best Touring Soon

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Lucky US residents can look forward to an incredible line-up of bands touring this fall. Co-headliners are Haken, showcasing Album No. 5, and the mighty Leprous. Supporting them are the magnificent Bent Knee, whose Land Animal was my top album of 2017.

Take it from me, you will NOT want to miss this!

Further details, including dates and venues for all 28 gigs, are at https://www.loudersound.com/news/haken-finish-album-no5-and-announce-co-headline-tour-with-leprous

Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth

“There are dark parts to life.  We all want to tuck our heads down and cry somewhere.  But there’s a lot that’s really beautiful.  It’s amazing, a blessing, that we have all these influences.  That’s what this album is saying: you don’t have to be overwhelmed.” — Kamasi Washington, quoted in July 2018’s MOJO magazine.

If you take mainstream American media seriously (just once, for fun), Kamasi Washington is the latest Savior Of Jazz.  Leading a vanguard of hot young musicians from South Central Los Angeles, Washington has been everywhere at once since he emerged in 2004, working in the bands Young Jazz Giants and Throttle Elevator Music, playing with R&B/hip-hop stars like Snoop Dogg and Flying Lotus, even writing string charts for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.

In 2015, Washington unleashed his first solo statement, The Epic, and the jazz world was understandably blown away.  The 3 hour, 3-CD concept album, performed by The West Coast Get Down (Washington’s 13-piece, double-rhythm section band) with strings and choir, channels the “spiritual jazz” of 1960s heroes like John Coltrane and Sun Ra into a fluid, expansive historical survey of black consciousness.  One example of the man’s range and ambition: Disc Three, subtitled The Historic Repetition, whipsaws from Charlie Parker’s “Cherokee” through Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune” to Terence Blanchard’s “Theme for Malcolm,” moving from a whisper to a scream, contentment to anguish, simplicity to maximum overdrive with seemingly effortless mastery and power.

Crossing over to a wider public, Kamasi Washington had it all, and everyone wanted him on their side (critic Greg Tate, riffing on Washington’s work with Kendrick Lamar, tagged him as “the jazz voice of Black Lives Matter”).  After The Epic, the floodgates opened: Washington composed a suite for New York’s Whitney Biennial, guested across the modern musical spectrum, and toured worldwide — including a stop in Ann Arbor, where I heard his 8-piece band The Next Step live in 2016. 

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So when you’re on top of the heap, or in the center of the storm, where do you go next?  With Heaven and Earth (only a double album — but hold that thought!) Washington makes a classic move, diving deep into a personal take on African-American spirituality, with new music informed by the gospel tradition and the blues.  As he said to the British magazine Dazed:

The inspiration for that is this idea I had that the world is the way we imagine it to be, but it’s also informed by the way we experience it … The journey, you realise, is one and the same: how you imagine the world affects how you experience it. The world your mind lives in, lives in your mind.

Continue reading “Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth”