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.

6 thoughts on “To write is human, but to edit is divine

  1. FANTASTIC commentary! We in 3RDegree are really cognizant of the length of our own albums perhaps because of our own 70+ minute sophomore album from 1996. In those days 1000 CDs cost over $4000 to make and now they’re $1000 so our cramming to get loads of songs on one disk could be blamed on wanting to get “bang for our buck”! 😉 But now, we’re really concerned about flow and total statement more than “the best 45 minutes of music we’ve made between 2016 and 2018” so to speak. I think this has served us well as I see our peers putting out 60 minute plus albums that 1. Cost more to record 2. Are often overlong and 3. add to a band’s discography not often enough. Even if you make albums shorter for “artistic reasons”, there’s loads of business reasons too the most important of which is that you will have “less bites at the apple”. In “the Prog world”, unless you’re one of the big 70’s bands or Steven Wilson, singles and EP’s will garner you VERY little press or buzz. It’s ALL about the album so putting out less of them because your albums are so long is shooting your own band in the foot.

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  2. Bryan Morey

    I’ve been finding myself thinking the same thing lately. Dream Theater’s last album was a prime example of music that needed severe editing. I think the Neal Morse Band’s last album could have also been significantly shorter, especially since they didn’t even tell the entire “Pilgrim’s Progress” story. The new Melted Space on the other hand – 48 minutes of Ayreonesque brilliance (half the length of a typical Ayreon album, I might add).

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  3. We can argue all day about what bands need to edit and which don’t, but it’s all a matter of personal preference. I want to hear as much as I can from the bands I like, so you’re not likely to hear my complain about an overly long album by my favorite bands.

    Of course, when I say “overly long,” I’m not referring to the inclusion of substandard material or songs that too reminiscent of territory the artist has tread before (on the other hand, by that standard, Steven Wilson’s To the Bone would only be a 3 or 4 song EP!). I’m really talking about music that would have normally have been left out for lack of space in the old 45 minute format of vinyl LPs.

    The nice compromise position – the one Sea Within and Spock’s Beard took for their newest albums – was to relegate some tracks to the bonus disc. I’m not sure how meaningful that really is in today’s world of MP3s and streaming, but it does provide a demarcation between “the album” and all the extra tracks recorded in the same session.

    Here is my bone to pick:
    When a record company releases an album and then releases a “deluxe edition” months later with extra tracks. That kind of chicanery is dirty pool – asking the fans to pay twice to obtain a bonus disc – and it’s just begging for people to stream only or download the tracks illegally.

    My second bone to pick:
    Bonus discs full of demos. Sometimes demos can be interesting to the super fan – seeing the evolution of a song from the artist’s first idea to the final version – but they’re usually just inferior and poorly recorded versions of the end product. They’re called demos for a reason. Most of the time, we don’t need to hear them, and we certainly don’t need to pay to hear them.

    I love bonus live tracks, though!

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