Deadmau5 and the reimagining of the album

The album: From LP to SoundCloud
The album as an art form has been under escalating artistic, economic, and political pressures for decades. Since the decline of vinyl LPs in the 1980s, creative possibilities such as themed sides or run-out grooves were lost, swept away by digital audio. Bonus tracks, remixes, live versions, the whole lot were appended to already exhausting CD run times, producing an experience that was increasingly at odds with the ideal of the album as a digestible, coherent statement. It was the musical equivalent of every novel suddenly becoming Infinite Jest (that is not a compliment).

The CD was overtaken by the MP3, a simple file with no close association with any larger artistic system, at least not in the same way as a vinyl groove or a Red Book audio track. The MP3 could go it alone, be shoved into a playlist with anything else, mislabeled (the early days of Napster sent one Pitchfork writer for a ride by labeling old Pavement material as Weezer’s then-unreleased Green Album), or shuffled off onto an iPod or smartphone.

Now even the MP3 is bowing to streaming services such as Spotify and SoundCloud. Music has become something to experience, not own. In this sense, it has come full circle, returning to its millennia-old state as something that individuals and groups absorb in a continuous stream, without the discrete packaging of an album or single. The key difference, though, is that the user has more curatorial power than ever – it took the decline of the album to make everyone her own album producer and sequencer.

As someone who listens predominantly to albums, I have found the music industry’s direction over the past three decades dispiriting, but also liberating. What’s telling about the most shift to streaming is that it appears to have affected EDM more acutely, and earlier, than rock or even hip-hop.

The idea of an artist album in trance, house, techno, or any EDM field was always a lot different than in other genres – an artist might go years, producing tons of remixes, mixtapes, and podcasts, without putting together a “proper” album of original, deliberately sequenced music. Look at Sasha and Michael Cassette for but two examples. EDM artists, it seems, were just waiting for the consumptive and technological breakthroughs that would turn their habits into freeform yet stamped listening experiences enabled by the likes of SoundCloud and Pandora.

Deadmau5: At the frontier of the album’s evolution
No artist in EDM has been as publicly and repeatedly conscious of the genre’s complex relationship with form than Deadmau5. His albums, if you can call them that, have all born cheeky, inscrutable titles, from Random Album Title to <album title goes here> to For Lack of a Better Name. None of them were what a rockist might think of as an album, often recycling previously released material and using segues to disguise an absence of cohesion. Deadmau5 himself has also been at the center of recent debates about authenticity in EDM, a blanket genre going up against decades of rock-centric critical skepticism of electronic music’s value.

Leave it to Deadmau5 to expose one of the core contradictions of EDM: while mixtapes and similar media are often continuous, with one song fading into the other, this seamlessness does not play the same role as it does in rock, a genre in which the segue (think The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper) is often a way of making a Big Artistic Statement. In EDM, it’s just mechanics – an experience might run through all sorts of disparate songs, but still keep the listener gripped with nice transitions. Mat Zo’s “Mat Zo Mixes” on SoundCloud, which span drum ‘n’ bass and Anjunadeep releases, exemplify this exact ethos.

There are plenty of EDM artists still dedicated to the album experience, though. Above & Beyond’s recent Acoustic release is an example of a trance artist taking up the classic rock trope of an unplugged set to confer seriousness and artistic depth. Now, Deadmau5 himself is on the eve of releasing a double album with a cute C programming-inspired title and 25 tracks that he claims represents the first work that he’s made that can “even be called an album.”

Is Deadmau5 injecting traditional album design into the anti-album EDM world? Earlier this year, he purged his massively popular SoundCloud feed. His albums have been getting progressively more immersive and deliberate, with 4×4=12 and <album titles goes here> both showing the traces of long player logic despite their castoff titles.

While(1 <2): Deadmau5’s Biggest Statement So Far
Deadmau5’s latest album, While(1 < 2), is both his most forward-looking and old school effort. It has more genre exercises than ever before – minor-key piano interludes, contemplative acoustic guitar, vocoder experiments, and 90s/early 00s alt-rock angst – to go alongside some of the most distinctive hooks (“Phantoms Can’t Hang,” “Avaritia”) of his career.

Its unmixed version, clocking in at an astonishing 139 minutes, resists flow and momentum, almost deliberately. There’s a remix of the ancient NIN track “Survivalism” right next to the piano balladry of “Silent Picture.” Hook-drenched opener “Avaritia” segues into the barely-there “Coelacanth I,” which yields to a remix of How to Destroy Angels’ “Ice Age.” While the influence of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is undeniable – both in Deadmau5’s apparent love of “The Social Network” sound track and in the two Reznor-related remixes that sit next to the 20+ originals – While(1 < 2) has even more in common with Aphex Twin’s 2001 oddity Drukqs, another double album chock full of discrete genre exercises from drum ‘n’ bass to classical (the unforgettable Avril 14th became the basis of Kanye West’s “Blame Game”).

Strangely, While(1 < 2) becomes an album through this resistance to the easy segue and undifferentiated experience of the mixtape and, one could argue, of latter-day rock and pop albums, which have taken the coherence mandate of Sgt. Pepper and its successors to the extreme, by making everything sound the same (uniformly loud, vaguely dance-y, consistently exhausting). The tracks on While(1 < 2) each call out for individual attention – why else put the title-says-it-all “A Moment to Myself” as a prelude to the upbeat, hookier “Pets”? Yet its epic length, by willfully tempting short attention spans, begs for it to be put on in the background as something that doesn’t have to be touched for more than 2 hours. It can demand careful attention or mere acquiescence, depending on the listener’s situation. Time to have another go at it.

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