At what point did it become socially acceptable for DJs to release triple CD sets? I remember back when the double CD set first became de rigeur—it was somewhat strange and unusual when they first started to appear. It was an event. The double album has always carried a whiff of gravitas, albeit often of the pretentiously ponderous variety. When double CD sets became the industry standard, it was hard to avoid the implication that these albums were Important Statements. The artistic apogee of the superstar DJ had arrived. Soon, however, the two-disc sets began to multiply, and it soon became obvious that the format was nothing special: just another excuse for musicians who couldn’t be bothered to trim things down. However, they would argue, a two-disc set more naturally mimics the rhythm of an actual live DJ set. But let’s be honest: there’s a fundamental difference between seeing a DJ in a club and listening to a DJ set on your home stereo.
Most people don’t make a habit of listening to four-hour pieces of music in one sitting. There are very few musicians who would not take three CDs as an invitation to exercise their most shamefully indulgent impulses. Name a good all-killer-no-filler triple album that isn’t either a compilation or All Things Must Pass. Unfortunately, once you start thinking about triple-albums, phrases like “Yes” and “Emerson, Lake & Palmer” immediately spring to mind. There is nothing very sexy about an album full of flabby prog noodling.
Which brings us to Steve Lawler and the release of his new album, the triple-disc Viva. The prog in question is not progressive rock but, ahem, progressive house, but the listener can be forgiven for detecting in these proceedings more than a passing spiritual kinship with the likes of “Aquatarkus”. Can Steve Lawler eat an entire bowl of curry while waiting for one of his records to play? (That’s an old Rick Wakeman joke for those who don’t care to remember these things.) And if you didn’t like prog house back in 2002. you probably won’t like it any better in 2006. It’s still essentially the same tunes, although the trance filigrees have been partially replaced by electro burbles. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the electro elements are particularly dominant: every time a track comes on with a promising riff, it becomes very clear that one riff is all these poor songs are allowed to possess. Take a track like the Vibe Dealers’ “Vibi Di Laine”, for instance, which has a fun synth riff, but essentially repeats that same riff for three minutes until falling into a trancey breakdown, after which point the song resumes the same riff until seguing into another similarly-emaciated tune. I guess the repetition of simplistic themes over a monotonous backdrop is supposed to be “minimalistic”, and the subtle differences between different tracks are supposed to be intellectually stimulating—but really, it’s just kind of boring.
Do I sound like a curmudgeon? I’ve been listening to electronic music for a long time, and while I dearly love it, the genre also has a tendency towards mind-blowing pomposity that simply boggles the mind. Steve Lawler is hardly a tyro, and I was actually quite looking forward to this set before I received it. Having previously released the well-received Lights Out series for the Global Underground label, the debut of his Viva brand (it’s a club date and music label in addition to this album) represents a significant achievement for Lawler, having successfully created his own commercial identity apart from the auspices of Global Underground. I don’t even really dislike prog house: I love what Sasha and John Digweed have been doing these past few years. But there is also a great deal of derivative, uninspired, and just plain boring music released under the prog label—piles and piles of CDs that sound almost identical when heard on your home stereo. Perhaps it sounds better in a club booming out of an enormous sound system? But then, perhaps I’m prejudiced: I’m from the old school that says dance music should be at least a little bit fun. When Richie Hawtin makes you look humorless by comparison, you’ve got some serious image problems.
Viva’s three discs are split somewhat thematically, with each disc labelled “Day 1”, “Day 2” and “Day 3”. What this distinction means is, alas, a mystery. The first and second discs are essentially the same discs you would expect from any medium-up-tempo prog album. If push came to shove I might say that the first disc is slightly more proggy than the second—the second at least has a couple of interesting tracks like Ekkohaus’s “Down With the Boys” and the Jonah remix of M.A.N.D.Y.‘s “Jah”. The latter part of the mix actually shows a little bit of life, breaking away from the electro template enough to actually provoke some twitching toes. It’s all relative, keep in mind—we’re hardly talking Tiga here, or even Fischerspooner. But over the course of three long CDs, you take your solace where you can find it.
The third disc is the real departure. It’s still kind of proggy, but more in the direction of downtempo and even ambient sounds. Considering how easy it would have been for him to fill the third disc with more in the way of repetitive prog house, he is to be commended for trying something different. I don’t know if the mix really holds together very well, however, for the simple reason that there are some weird tunes here that would almost seem to defy the conventional DJ treatment: tracks like Metrika’s “Time” or Circlesquare’s “You Missed the Fireworks” eschew conventional rhythms altogether for almost a capella treatments of bizarre vocal melodies. It’s an interesting disc, and I will say that, of these three CDs, this is the only one I have any interest in hearing again. I don’t think, for a triple disc by a seasoned artist, that’s a very good batting average. If you really, really like prog house, this is probably right up your alley, but those of us with a low tolerance for the genre are advised to steer clear.