Electronic Music Needs To Hold On To The Album
It should be every rising producer’s dream to create a long, complex, autobiographical piece of work during their ascendency, that encapsulates them as an artist, and tells their listeners a story. But electronic music’s lazy ‘track culture’ is forcing artists to think small, and we’re at risk of letting the long form slip away from the genre altogether, and cheapening the art.
In August, 2019, Soundbwoy Killah, known now as Frazer Ray, released his debut album ‘Halcyon Daze’. Known to us by his prior releases as little more than a young breaks producer intent on making hard and heavy UK bass music, he was slung into a box with LMajor, Denham Audio and Interplanetary Criminal. But with the release of Halcyon Daze, he popped the lid off that box, and revealed to us not just new colours in his palette, but an unexpectedly cultured understanding of how to blend those colours; which to use, which to spare, and ultimately how to produce an evocative and coherent canvas. Obvious high notes like ‘Wanna Hold U’ and ‘Yours’ are carefully embedded among emotive soundscapes and more withholding moments, like ‘Pang’ and ‘Tom Loves To Rave’. It amounts not to an arbitrary playlist of good tunes that he made at roughly the same time, but to a thoughtful and structured record with a discernible shape, that pulls you into each aspect of his psyche, and curiously explores every corner.
The album format invited Soundbwoy Killah to indulge, and he responded with a 47 minute mini-universe into which listeners can step, and wallow and float as they soak up the energy and craft poured into it. He broke the mould that implores young electronic producers to deal strictly in tracks and EPs in order to build a portfolio of cuts with different labels and climb the ladder, and, in doing so, reminded many of us in electronic music how important the long play record is. It remains the only way an artist can encapsulate a moment. It’s an audible distillation of the sounds, sights, smells, thoughts, feelings and daydreams that have crossed the mind of an artist during a period of their life they deemed important enough to devote to an album. It remains the only way an artist can convey that to their listeners in an exhaustive way.
Across all genres, albums are taken for granted. Established artists with major-label deals are expected to produce them regularly. They have the capacity to bring you critical acclaim, to separate you from artists that just have ‘hits’ to their name, and to define your artistic legacy. So why does electronic music feel bogged down in ‘track culture’ and why do up and coming artists not seem to want to make albums?
It seems as though the long play record doesn’t belong to electronic music the same way it belongs to pop, r&b and hip-hop. The idea of an album with a thematic spine; an intro or title track, a few interludes, and perhaps a wistful outro, is a structure adopted more by rappers and singers than electronic beat-makers. Phoebe Bridgers, Perfume Genius and Jay Electronica have all employed it beautifully this year. This template does not appeal to the unsigned UKG prodigy or the bedroom jungle producer because they want to see if they can squeeze four square slappers onto two 12” sides and float it under the noses of labels and premiere platforms, because that is how their genre is traditionally consumed. And that isn’t a bad thing, nor is it anyone’s fault, but in the interest of depth and discovery it feels important to challenge it.
Is it the fact that our lives are barked at us by 30-second bursts of content between 10-second ads, and the fact that we consume music by flicking through algorithmic playlists on streaming sites at ten tunes a minute, that has led the rising producer to reject the album? Is it the fact that labels will gladly offer an artist a slot on a compilation or an EP but aren’t robust enough to consider offering them an opportunity to fully express themselves? Platforms like LANDR and Distrokid have made it easier than ever to cheaply self-release full length projects, and success without label support is hardly unheard of, so it seems unlikely that the logistics of releasing an album are causing headaches. Do these artists, then, have no more to say than a four-track EP will allow? Is it faith in creativity that needs to be called into question? Electronic music needs more albums, and the enigmatic producers that make our minds dance so skillfully owe it to themselves to translate that energy to long form. Jacques Greene, Floating Points and Lapalux all gave stunning examples in the last two years, but these are veterans. Soundbwoy Killah proved that rising producers have something to say. They have stories to tell that extend further than twenty minutes of 808s and breaks, and yet he is one of the only artists in his bracket that I can think of that has turned over a full length project.
The truth is, every genre of music is being dragged into the murky world of viral Tik Tok trends and 2-and-a-half-minute hits, designed to be memed and shovelled into the throats of innocent scrollers. I fear if you asked anyone under the age of 16 what their favourite albums were they wouldn’t be able to tell you. ‘Track culture’ is being created by the consumer, and electronic music is at risk of falling victim to it.
Those concerned unapologetically with making just dance music; music that doesn’t pretend to do more than soundtrack your night out, may not be keen on structuring their work like a modern r&b or pop record. But I write under the assumption that any artist must feel a need for, if not an obligation to, go beyond single tracks and EPs for their own satisfaction, and to have a richer product to cherish and share. The great electronic albums by Burial, Aphex Twin, Moby, The Chemical Brothers, Brian Eno (the details of which I’ll spare you as they are well documented); and modern classics by Kelly Lee Owens, Julianne Barwick, Four Tet and The Soft Pink Truth, are surely chaseable benchmarks as well as precious artefacts. After all, it is impossible to listen to an ‘Untrue’ or a ‘Rounds’ without wanting to make one for yourself.
If the forced solitude and reflectiveness brought on by lockdown has diversified artists’ influences - that is to say they may be listening to a wider variety than usual - then maybe it’ll diversify their output. Their music no longer belongs to the club but to the keen ear of someone indefinitely locked out of one. The spells of time spent by ourselves are making us more analytical, more curious and more insatiable, and we want richer, deeper and longer lasting content to connect with and keep us company while we grapple with our new arbitrary weekly routines. Has this same energy been felt by creators? Have your favourite producers been dabbling in maximalism over the summer? It may be too early to tell as the timeline of releases hasn’t quite caught up with the lockdown period, but it would be a treat to discover that this strange time has invoked mass introspection, and there are full-length projects on the way from artists we didn’t think were willing.
Great albums protect the richness and artistic complexity of music. While we adjust to the thousands of bootlegs, dubs and one-offs that have been injected into the musical bloodstream like raw alcohol, at once intoxicating and corroding our platforms, we must preserve the integrity of the LP, as if the integrity of electronic music itself depends on it.