Looping is the essence of songwriting. Any even moderately conventional genre loops almost to a cliché; artists like The Field are just upfront about it. Of course, this throws off a lot of people. Other artists have explored looping more thoroughly (see Disintegration Loops) but nobody has reached such heights of popularity. From Here We Go Sublime, his first LP, was the most critically acclaimed album of 2007. How does someone who merely repeats something over and over achieve any level of artistic success?
The secret answer is that the question itself makes a false assumption. The Field does much more than just loop something over and over for the entirety of a song. He starts off with a loop, sure, like any other non-avant-garde musician you can think of. Slowly (much more slowly than the others) he begins layering these loops with other loops, fading some away, isolating segments, transitioning almost imperceptibly into something entirely different. And that is where the magic to The Field lies – he is incredibly subtle, insatiably forward. These little changes are incredibly rewarding and satisfying in a relatively unique way. The conventional wisdom is that you should leave a listener begging for more, but he disregards this often faulty advice for the idea that you should leave a listener happy with what they’ve got. This may occasionally lead to irritation with something dragging on for too long, but more often than not, the songs will instead create a perfect background of blissful layering and repeated comfortability.
Consider the first minute or so of “The Follower”. It starts off with an acidic synth lean and a straightforward bassline. By halfway through the track, both of these elements have completely disappeared, never to appear again. In fact, at the end, the somewhat funky club mood has been replaced by tension, helped out by screaming wails. Meanwhile, the average listener probably didn’t even notice all these shifts. You can’t see that kind of transformation with many songs. He didn’t used to be this good at this. His first album, while filled with more accessible samples (like Lionel Richie), tended to be a little less subtle at transitions. Emphasis on “little.” Just as subtly as he changes from element to element in his songs, he has equally subtly perfected his craft from album to album. Each of his five albums span between the small range of 54 to 64 minutes. Even the album covers have only changed in color over time, keeping the exact same font and general design. This is a little too subtle for most, who have slowly started paying less and less attention to Axel’s work.
Unfortunately, he kind of proves their lack of attention right with The Follower, which is really only worth a listen if you are already a fan or are extremely interested in the craft of looping. There are differences here from his last work, and if you haven’t given him a spin since the turn of the decade, they will probably strike you. He has adapted to become less ambient and more techno-driven. He has gotten ever-so-slightly better at creating soundscapes instead of just clear repetitions of ideas, something that could soundtrack your real life instead of just distract from it or create some other escapist one. However, his touch for knowing exactly when to release an idea has seemingly faded a bit. Most of these songs drag on just a little too long, which of course translates to frustration on the listener’s part. The ideas he is creating are better than ever, but you can sense the age now, like an elderly person who slowly begins to take longer to tell stories that used to be quick. There’s more wisdom and beauty to it now, nonetheless wearing at your patience.
On the other hand, if you are willing to ignore this over-longevity, it is incredibly rewarding. “Raise the Dead” and its follow-up “Reflecting Lights” are two of the most gorgeous ambient pieces he has created yet. You’ll have to be patient until the end of the album to hear them, of course, but it’s worth the wait. Axel could retire now, and most of the music world would simply accept it. But there’s more to him, you can tell. He continues to get better, even if his work overstays its welcome sometimes. So here’s hoping that when his next release rolls around in about two to three years, featuring a black cover with a familiar scrawled font, the hour or so of music on it will be his best yet.
– Kirk B.