There was once a time when double albums were kind of a big deal. Even established artists had to often fight with their labels to release double albums, because it meant more packaging, more expensive studio time, and ultimately less profit for the labels. It was an audacious move, to have the confidence and/or ego to think one could fill two LPs, usually more than an hour of music, with consistently great songs. Dylan, The Beatles and Hendrix weren’t the first to release double albums, but they definitely made a statement with over 1:13, 1:33 and 1:15 worth of pretty amazing music, respectively. Blonde On Blonde, The Beatles and Electric Ladyland continue to haunt the upper slots of all-time best of lists, and show no signs of going away. More major landmarks followed with Trout Mask Replica (1969), Third (1970), Tago Mago (1971), Something/Anything and Exile On Main St. (1972). [Captain Beefehart & his Magic Band, Soft Machine, Can, Todd Rundgren, Rolling Stones].
Then prog bands like like Yes, Genesis, and particularly Emerson Lake & Palmer started to take it too far, and the double album started to represent bloated pretension and rock’s decline. The Who’s Quadrophrenia (1973) was even more inconsistent than Tommy (1969). Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti (1975) is revered by many fans, but also showed that they had peaked. Similarly, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life (1976) marked the end of his creative roll, showing lapses in consistency. Electric Light Orchestra was criticized for their expansive Out Of The Blue (1977), even though it was a childhood favorite of mine and I still love every minute of it. Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk (1979), however, is just a big cocaine-addled mess. Pink Floyd released one of their weakest, filler-filled albums with The Wall yet still managed to sell a ton, and it continues to be overrated over three decades later. After punk was supposed to have liberated rock from excess, The Clash released London Calling that same year and showed that great double albums are still possible without filler (though they slipped the following year with the spottier Sandinista) and John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. put out one of the defining post-punk albums with Metal Box. No-budget indie label SST surprised everyone with not one, but two classic double albums in 1984 with Zen Arcade and Double Nickels On The Dime.
Some think the CD made double albums meaningless. Prince’s 79:58 Sign O’ The Times (1987) was a double album, but could have fit on one disc, just as Rykodisc proved by filling the entire 80 minute capacity with the nearly complete recordings of Mission Of Burma in 1988. Rap and hip-hop artists started padding their albums with tons of throwaway skits and jokes, regularly pushing the playtime past 70 minutes. But double albums, particularly ones over 80 minutes that have to be put out on two CDs, even with downloads, still seem to be an event. In the last few years, Oneohtrix Point Never’s Rifts (2009) made a big splash for those who follow the electronica/IDM genre. Avant psych rockers Oneida got some extra attention for their Rated O which filled three discs at nearly two hours. Dâm-Funk’s audatious debut Toeachizown was a whopping 2:19:34. There was Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me (2010), and M83’s acclaimed Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2011). Aside from Steven Wilson’s Grace For Drowning, I don’t have any other double albums from that year, so they’re not exactly a dime a dozen.
This year, however, there were a half dozen doubles, all of which will likely make my top 30. My likely #1 is Colour Haze’s She Said. They’re a relatively culty German stoner/psych band that’s been releasing albums since the mid-90s who previously released a landmark double with Los Sounds de Krauts (2003). After the long-suffering band navigated a myriad of delays mentioned in my review, their tenth album is, to my ears, their best.
Italian psychedelic stoner space-sludge veterans Ufomammut released two separate albums, Oro: Opus Primum and Oro: Opus Alter several months apart, but both are clearly apiece in that they are actually supposed to be part of a single 90 minute song, taking the classical-like structure of the movements of their previous album Eve (2010) to its most ambitious extremes.
Formerly sludgy hard rockers Baroness released the much-anticipated Yellow & Green, a startling departure from their previous sound, often veering into indie rock territory, but still of a kaleidoscopically psychedelic, heavy variety. It was divisive with more conservative fans crying fowl, but others recognizing it as a qualified triumph. Unfortunately their tour to support the album was interrupted by a horrific bus crash in Europe, and the band is still recovering.
Norwegian heavy psych/prog band Motorpsycho has been putting out albums since 1990, and are no strangers to double albums, with Timothy’s Monster (1993), Trust Us (1998) and Black Hole Blank Canvas (2006). Successfully handing over the production reigns to someone else, they reached a larger audience with the exceptional Heavy Metal Fruit (2010). I was slow to pick up this year’s album as it was a collaboration with Ståle Storløkken, Ola Kvernberg, Trondheimsolistene, and Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. Which sounded . . . unwieldy, as did the title, The Death Defying Unicorn: A Fanciful And Fairly Far-Out Musical Fable (Rune Grammafon). But man, it’s awesome! It tells a maritime folk tale inspired by Owen Chase’s, The Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex, “In the heart of the Sea” by N. Philbrick, and the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. Motorpsycho and their collaborators manage to fuse their heavy psych and prog with jazz and classical, while still managing to rock, sometimes heavily, other times whimsically. It really sounds like it’s pushing the narrative forward without getting lost at sea, the 83:50 going by quickly.
British band Crippled Black Phoenix navigates the increasingly murky waters between prog and post-rock, lead by Justin Greaves of Electric Wizard and Iron Monkey. After a handful of great albums on Geoff Barrow’s (Portishead, Beak>) Invada label, they channeled all their apocalyptic dread into (Mankind) The Crafty Ape, infused with a real sense of grandeur that has seemed relatively rare recently until this year’s batch of albums. Divided into three chapters, “A Thread,” “The Trap,” “The Blues Of Man,” there’s a palpable sense of drama even if you don’t follow the lyrics closely. Given their associations with the hugely popular and cool aforementioned bands, it’s a mystery why they don’t have bigger following. Perhaps people are scared off by the prog elements, but the diversity and dynamics in their music is far more engaging than many more hip post-rock acts. They might do better wooing the likes of the loyal Porcupine Tree/Steven Wilson audience.
Both more frightening and hipper, Swans have the longest history of any of these bands going back to the early 80s New York post no-wave scene. Combining elements of noise, industrial and avant rock, a book is required (hint hint) to properly summarize their career. In 2010 they reunited with the celebrated My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, their first album since Soundtracks For The Blind (1996). The latest opus, The Seer is a daunting proposition for anyone at 1:59:16. If anything makes a case for bigger being equated with better, it’s this album, which is hanging out near the top of the year-end lists as they’ve begun trickling out. Nevermind that it’s kind of a rough ride to get through the whole thing, and is easier to admire than to love. As you can tell I have mixed feelings. Frustrated with it, I had it rated down in the 200s of my list for a while. After spending more time with it, I’m not convinced that it’s their second-best album after the classic Children Of God (1987), also a double-album, but its breadth and scope, Michael Gira’s passion and intensity are such an overwhelming force, you just have to succumb in the end and let it steamroll over you. So ironically by far the most critically acclaimed album here is also my least favorite of the batch. Hopefully this will prompt some of you to check out some of the more underrated gems, and give the lately maligned format of double albums (not to mention albums in general) the respect they deserve!
Colour Haze – She Said (Elektrohasch) | Review | Buy
Ufomammut – Oro: Opus Primum & Opus Alter (Neurot) | Review | Buy
Motorpsycho & Ståle Storløkken – The Death Defying Unicorn (Rune Grammofon) | Buy
Baroness – Yellow & Green (Relapse) | Review | Bandcamp
Crippled Black Phoenix – (Mankind) The Crafty Ape (Cool Green) | Buy
Swans – The Seer (Young God)