For the May edition of the collaborative blog, the collective discusses some of their favorite songs that are over fifteen minutes in length. This blog covers the longer, experimental tracks of disco, metal, psychedelic rock, electronica, and more.
Finland’s Moonsorrow is no stranger to long songs. For example, their 2007 album, V: Hävitetty, consists of 2 songs, each roughly 30 minutes in length. Thus it should come as no surprise that they would release an EP over 60 minutes in length. While the title track is the only original piece of music here – the other 4 songs are covers or re-recordings of older material – it clocks in at just under 30 minutes, and is as epic as a folk/pagan metal song of this length can be. In 9 separate parts, “Tulimyrsky” (Finnish for firestorm) tells the story of an ancient village being raided, burned, and destroyed. The conflict is told from both sides, with the spoken word parts by a young boy who watched his village burn to the ground and the sung parts by the armed men seeking vengeance on the village and its inhabitants. Moonsorrow use every tool at their disposal to create a musical soundscape as epic as the story being told here. Over the course of our journey we’re treated to acoustic passages to go with the spoken word, aggressive black metal, epic folk metal, a folk-break section in the middle, epic choirs, battle sounds, and one hell of a finale. To listen to the entire piece in one sitting and take in all of the movements and how they flow into one another is breathtaking. It is a real testament to the musicians in the band that they can create a piece of music with such depth and vision so massive.
Song: “Waters of Ain”
Album: Lawless Darkness
For a number of years, Watain has continued Sweden’s wonderful tradition of infusing melody and death metal elements into their black metal. With their fourth album, Lawless Darkness, the band perfected their melodic and thrashy-assault style, resulting in their best riffs, solos, and songwriting, and the closest they’ve gotten to their vision (pretty sure it’s total darkness). Nowhere is this more evident than the epic album closer, “Waters of Ain”. Over the course of its 14-minute run-time, Watain demonstrate a profound skill for songwriting, a seemingly endless armory of excellent riffs (that refuse to transition into each other in anything but a flawless manner), and their Swedish nature with solos as refined and tasteful as expensive, Scandinavian furniture. The length of the song allows the band to really stretch their legs (hooves?) and produce an artistic vision that could only exist in a format of this length. Whether you’ve been wanting to explore black metal further, or you’ve heard of Watain because your friend’s friend’s cousin threw-up at their concert because of all of the pig’s blood, give this song and this album a listen.
Artist: Kanye West
Album: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
“Runaway” is a nine minute self-reflective masterpiece by one of the greatest artists of our generation, Kanye West. The song is also accompanied by a 34 minute film with the same title (linked above). West released the song and video just a few months after the moment he made Taylor Swift famous in 2009 at the MTV VMAs. This was arguably the first public incident where the mainstream started to perceive West as an asshole. “Runaway” was such an important and pivotal moment in Kanye West’s career because it was a direct response to all of his critics. The song is written as an ode to the average man that makes mistakes every day, West included. In a beautiful juxtaposition, “Runaway” fuses a hip-hop ballad with classical instrumentals. The length of the song is attributed to a piano intro and multiple musical breaks. Because of its complexity and content, “Runaway” is largely acclaimed as West’s “best song ever” by critics, bloggers, and fans alike.
Artist: Pink Floyd
Album: Meddle (1971)
I’m doing all songs from the 1970s. There’s just something about that decade. Disco and jazz and funk and punk and reggae and hip hop and… oh it’s just so fucking special. And while artists certainly create long songs today, there was something about the vinyl format that tempted musicians to see if they could fill up an entire side with one piece of music. A classic example of this is Iron Butterfly, who in 1968 put five normal-length songs on side A and then the epic 17-minute “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida” on side B. Three years later, Pink Floyd took the same approach on Meddle, loading up the first side with five tracks and the second with a 23-and-a-half-minute monstrosity of psychedelic perfection. It is a symphony. The first movement could be Pink Floyd from any album in that it’s pretty run of the mill psychedelia. But that’s just setting the stage for the second movement, which throws you down the rabbit hole of funky psychedelic fusion. In the third movement, things get eerie and noisy, a sparse, sometimes ambient landscape of emotion that gradually builds back up into the fourth movement. And there, we return to the beginning (an echo), jamming blissfully into the aether. By the way, the video above syncs up the song with the end to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which may as well be the official video. Makes “Dark Side of the Rainbow” looks like a dumb joke.
Artist: Miles Davis
Album: Live-Evil (1971)
I know, I know: Bitches Brew is the seminal jazz fusion album. But it’s not my favorite. Miles Davis and his all-star crew didn’t master jazz rock, in my humble opinion, until Jack Johnson and Live-Evil in 1971. With John McLaughlin on electric guitar, Keith Jarrett on electric piano, and a host of other virtuosos, “Sivad” kicks off the latter album into overdrive, embarking the listener on a journey through sonically-intertwined beauty and madness. Miles, using a wah-wah to transform his trumpet into some sort of psychedelic alien instrument, gives us little hint that this is jazz. But it is jazz. Where Pink Floyd’s psychedelic epic resembles a symphony, Miles’ psychedelic epic plays like an extended jazz number. After a few minutes of raucous rocking out, the band winds down for another 12 minutes into a chilled-out groove on the theme. This builds up again with moaning and trumpeting, only to fall back again into the quiet, easy groove. It’s magical, and words can’t do it justice.
Album: Autobahn (1974)
Where would we be without “Autobahn”? This is the song that put the ridiculous German electronic group Kraftwerk on the map, and would pave the way for glorious hits about radioactivity, traveling across Europe by train, and the fusion of man and machine in this crazy computer world. But they started out with a singular concept: what would a drive on the Autobahn sound like? Though Germany’s federal highway system is famous for featuring portions with no enforced speed limit, Kraftwerk doesn’t speed. Their drive is long, but moderately paced and pleasant. It’s also gorgeous. Minimal. Repetitive like the mountains, valleys, and agricultural plots whizzing by outside the window, but never dull. On the contrary, it’s lush and alluring. The time feels like it flows by so slowly and peacefully, but the 22 minutes end so quickly. Oh well, Kraftwerk can be a bit oxymoronic.
Song: “Love to Love You Baby”
Artist: Donna Summer
Album: Love to Love You Baby (1975)
At just under six minutes, Donna Summer’s (and Giorgio Moroder’s) arpeggiated “I Feel Love” would be the piece to inspire a billion dance track knock-offs. But two years earlier, Summer and Moroder first collaborated on a monolithic LP side A track called “Love to Love You Baby,” one of the most sublime disco songs ever recorded. It’s simple: Summer croons the song’s title for about four minutes over a funky bassline, astral keyboards, and a simple drum beat. Then everything fades away except for that funky bassline. Percussion steps back in, then electric guitar. More instruments, including a creeping synth sound, surface slowly, slowly, slowly. The piece comes back to life. Even the signature of 1970s disco, a full string orchestra, join the party. It’s wild, beautiful, funky, and sexy as hell—and that’s before you hear Summer again. She returns around 7:30 not so much singing but moaning, making the raunchy sounds of 2016 seem like they’re fit for children. At nearly 17 minutes, “Love to Love You Baby” is a wonder of the musical world, not to mention a great choice for DJs who need to go use the restroom, do a line, have a cigarette, order a drink, and still have time left over to pick the next track.
Artist: Brian Eno
Album: Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978)
I like to say everything Brian Eno touches turns to gold. (In particular, his collaborations with Robert Fripp and David Byrne hold a very special place in my heart.) But my favorite thing he’s ever done is the 17-minute opening track on this album. It is everything ambient should be: tranquil, calming, beautiful, and full of depth. In fact, it’s the first track on the first album ever to be called “ambient music.” Eno coined the term himself to describe the style of music, which would be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” He was contrasting it with “muzak,” the uninspired background music that typically played quietly at airports and elevators. Epic but reserved, stunning but simple, fantastic but grounded, “1/1,” like many of my long song choices, speaks for itself.
Artist: Porcupine Tree
Album: Fear of a Blank Planet
Steven Wilson is always a breath of fresh air when it comes to prog. While other bands try to wow the listener with complex, highly-technical songs, he always focuses on writing a good song first and saves complexity for his work as a producer. “Anesthetize” is a song that showcases his ability to form complexity from straightforward ideas. Lyrically, the song has the same theme as the rest of the album - youth becoming increasingly alienated by the growing proliferation of electronic devices, digital communication, and information overload in everyday life, as well as by the questionably widespread availability of prescription drugs used to treat the symptoms of ADHD and bipolar disorder. Fear of a Blank Planet came out in 2007, and it’s interesting to listen now and think back to when this lifestyle that has become so common in the past decade was merely a strange, unsettling new frontier.
The song can be divided into three distinct movements, and the middle section, "The Pills I’m Taking,” is by far the most memorable. Steven Wilson's vocal melodies in the chorus will stick in your head all day, and the breakdown (or whatever you call the heavy part with all the frantic drums before the final chorus) comes out of nowhere, yet somehow sounds right at home with the rest of the song. Porcupine Tree - and this album in particular - showed me that prog complexities don't have to come in the form of mind-boggling instrumentation and musicianship. Of course, a guest guitar solo from Rush's Alex Lifeson and the Meshuggah-inspired sections that follow don’t hurt either.
Song: “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence”
Artist: Dream Theater
Album: Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence
I’ll start by saying that, for the most part, I’ve outgrown Dream Theater. They dazzled me when I was a teenage guitar nerd, but as the years went by and my tastes began to vary, I realized just how cringey they can get as songwriters. In addition, the old criticism is true. James LaBrie’s vocals can become overbearing after a while. Regardless, this 40+ minute epic is still one of my favorite songs by them and is a bona fide prog masterpiece. The song is divided into eight movements that explore the psyches of six different people, each with different mental disorders. To me, it's Dream Theater at their peak.
Overture - A symphonic instrumental that introduces the major musical themes that we'll hear later throughout the rest of the song. Dream Theater's roots as former Berklee College of Music students show on this one.
About to Crash - This portion introduces the first character, a teenage girl with bipolar disorder, and also expresses some of the concerns that her father has about her.
War Inside My Head - The song takes a Pantera-inspired turn for the darker and heavier as we're introduced to a combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. I always thought drummer/backup vocalist Mike Portnoy was extremely overpowering towards the end of his tenure in the band, but his role here gives this section just the right amount of muscle.
The Test That Stumped Them All - A dizzying barrage of shred instrumentals sets the tone for the story of a man being treated for schizophrenia. I like how the vocals vary from the James Hetfield-inspired verses taken from the patient's point of view, to the choruses that make up the conversations between the doctors and nurses which harken back to The Wall-era Pink Floyd.
Goodnight Kiss - The band slows things down for the next section, which is about a mother who is suffering from postpartum depression. Most of it is slow and melancholy, but the tempo picks up towards the end guitar solo that accompanies a hospital flashback/nightmare sequence. Also, the transition into Solitary Shell from here is strange, but it works.
Solitary Shell - A tribute in name and sound to Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill," the cheery music's juxtaposition with lyrics of desperation do a great job at portraying the life of a man with Asperger's Syndrome. The jazzy acoustic guitar and piano solos towards the end are a nice touch too.
About to Crash (Reprise) - We run into our bipolar girl again, this time during one of her manic episodes. This has a much more guitar-centric, driving feel to it than the first one. Like Solitary Shell before it, the lyrics are dark in contrast with the upbeat music. The instrumental part towards the end swings back and forth between uplifting and brooding, capturing the effects of her mood swings.
Losing Time/Grand Finale - Losing Time is a simple portion about a woman with dissociative personality disorder that segues into the Grand Finale, which touches upon each of the six characters and encourages the listener to be more understanding of these and other mental afflictions.
Song: “The Decline”
Album: The Decline
There’s a joke about two punks who are walking down the street. The first punk asks, “What’s punk?” The second punk kicks over a trash can and replies, “THAT’S punk.” The first punk finds another trash can, kicks it over, and says, “So that’s punk?” The second punk replies, “No, that’s being trendy.” In that vein, NoFX did one of the most punk things imaginable by not conforming to the typical less-than-two-minute song structure and instead crafting a satirical 18-minute epic about the factors that will eventually cause the downfall of the United States. It has all the trademarks of NoFX’s work – politically-charged lyrics, fast-paced power chords, Fat Mike’s nasally vocals, and even a few horns interspersed at random points throughout the song. It’s one of the most out-of-left-field punk songs I’ve ever heard and… well… you don’t hear too many other 18-minute punk songs nowadays, do you?
See: Riding to Nazareth with Sleep’s Dopesmoker for a piece I may or may not have written about what makes this hour-long saga a gold standard for doom music.
Song: “Faustian Echoes”
Album: Faustian Echoes
There are only a handful of songs that I would personally call a “masterpiece”. One of the top tracks I place in this category is “Faustian Echoes”, Agalloch’s twenty-one minute tribute to Goethe’s Faust. Rather than trying to create a song that’s an exact parallel to the story, Agalloch utilizes excerpts from an English translation of the play and sound clips from the ‘94 film rendition in order to reconstruct the overall mood and theme of the German tragedy. Lyrically, the listener is taken through the section of Faust asking Mephistopheles to fulfill his wishes in exchange for working for him in Hell, up to the point where Faust has the realization that “Man can never possess perfection”, even with the help of a powerful entity.
Each phase of this journey is accompanied by harrowing instrumentation that relays the temperament of each character. Mephistopheles’ monologues are accompanied with alluring riffs that seductively draw the listener in, similarly as grandiose and depraved as Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights” but with a blackened metal frosted tinge. Halfway through, the instrumentation completely cuts out to bare the sound clip of Faust’s commands to Mephistopheles, and immediately kicks back in with a whirlwind of thrashing instrumentation to contrast how drastically different and cataclysmic Faust’s life will be from there on out. As Faust comes to this grim realization of unachievable happiness, the music drifts in and out of a downtempo melody with a bittersweet undertone, showing that he has come to an understanding but is still left in darkness.
I think what elevates this song from being a magnificent work to a true masterpiece is the note which Agalloch decides to leave it off on. They use the clip of Mephistopheles stating that man can only grasp thoughts that language can express. The dialogue continues:
Faust: "Then what of longing? Affection, pain or grief? I can't describe these, yet I know they are in my breast. What are they?""
Mephistopheles: "Without substance, as mist is."
Faust: "In that case man is only air as well!"
Perhaps I’m biased in thinking this is a perfect note to end it on because The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain is my favorite book, and that story ends off on the exact same idea. (Satan tells the townspeople “Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought - a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”). It’s just absolutely devastating to travel through the whole narrative of that song only to end off thinking that Man is meaningless. Yet in a way, it’s almost liberating, hence Agalloch’s almost uplifting sounding outro. It’s a beautifully executed reminder of the devastating but honest motives that makes Faust one of the greatest tragedies ever written.