Flux, Adrian Belew’s new album asks a simple question to listeners: what is an album, anyway?
Indeed, the concept of an album as a set, finished product, has been challenged lately. Kanye West has re-worked and changed The Life of Pablo, making it something like a living document; Drake called More Life a playlist he undermined how a new collection of songs automatically equals a record. But both are made up of individual songs.
Flux is something different.
Let’s rewind for a second. Belew’s a guitarist best known for his adventurous style of playing. One moment he’ll be playing a traditional lead, the next he’ll coax elephant moans, dissonant swoons or other weird bursts out of his instrument. He was discovered by Frank Zappa in the late 70s and quickly became his featured guitarist; before long he was playing with David Bowie, Talking Heads and Brian Eno. In 1981, he joined King Crimson, where he’d trade licks with Robert Fripp for the better part of two decades.
However, he’s far more than just an experimental guitarist. When left to his own devices, he’s shown heavy pop-leanings, like on the series of records he made with The Bears: in between the solos, he lays down a distinctly Beatles-influenced groove.
On the just-released Flux: Volume II, he sort of lays a middle ground between these two.
Sometimes it’s fast and hard, other times it’s piano-driven pop. But here’s the thing: Flux is constantly in, well, flux.
The two volumes of Flux are packed with little bursts and snippets. Songs burst out of each other, often before they get properly going. Some are full length, but sound half-finished, like they’re missing an element. And as a whole, things don’t really add up: you get the sense you’ve bought a jigsaw puzzle, but don’t know what it’s supposed to go together.
But that’s kind of the point.
Flux is less an album than it’s a concept.
On disc, each volume are records begging to played on shuffle, where each play leads to new segues and configurations. There’s another level, too. While the CDs are about $20 each via Belew’s online store, for half that (or $13.99 in Canada), you can download the Flux app, which promises to be the future of music.
Whereas the two albums are essentially two discrete pieces of music, the app version of Flux is something else: not quite an album, but not really a playlist either. It promises nearly infinite combinations of sounds, songs cut up and re-arranged in a new order each time, the little bits of audio grout used to paste together unrelated sections of music.
As a concept, it’s not without history: REM used a cut-up technique for lyrics on Murmur, while experimental composers like Steve Reich and Phillip Glass have used gliding variations of simple rhythmic patterns to create full-length compositions (see: Music for 18 Musicians, Glassworks). And there’s always the cut-and-paste approach of sampling.
But this is almost without precedent: music that changes each time you listen challenges the perception of what an album is.
Suddenly, it’s not just a concrete group of songs, or even a playlist. It’s the sort of thing Silicon Valley people call “disrupting.”
At the same time, it also has the same unintentional drawbacks as many silicon valley apps. If the music changes each time, does it grade the composer’s role? If something is always in flux, can it really be called a composition? Or even a work in progress? An album’s running order is carefully crafted to make a statement; does Flux undermine this as well? Ultimately, does Flux say anything other than chaos?
And what of the emotional impact?
Sure, music that always changes will always sound fresh. But it also lacks the resonance a familiar tune does; there’s a reason some people fall back to certain songs: they evoke memories, emotions, and feelings. When it’s impossible for something to be played back the way one remembers it, does the music still draw an emotion?
As a whole, both as an app and as two volumes of music, Flux raises more questions than it answers. The CDs have interesting moments of pop melody, hard-edged rock and Belew’s typically atypical guitar playing. But the questions linger: is this an idea which will really change the way people listen to music? Or is it just another idea that’ll fall by the wayside once the novelty wears off?