The Long Songs List on the Dutch Progressive Rock Page is a remarkable list to peruse. It is in fact very telling about the evolution of the epic long song in popular music from its birth in the 1960’s to its present and perhaps somewhat exploited (as opposed to exalted) existence. Excluding the two songs that are over 100 minutes long, the list shows us that most popular artists who go for maximum endurance runs are keeping to the temporal confines of the compact disc. More than that, however, we can see what kinds of music creators are likely to attempt the CD-length track. Ambient/electronic or experimental/avant guard metal artists dominate the 29 songs listed between 70:00 and 79:59 minutes. This might not be surprising as these two types of music lend themselves toward long or entirely instrumental sections where single notes or chords may be held over several bars. To the contrary, progressive rock and progressive metal often go for speed and dexterity in order to show off technical prowess. Perhaps one of the slowest developing pieces I can name in rock music is Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and yet the entire song in all its part wraps up in just under 30 minutes.
Studying the time length of the various songs also tells us that the CD-long track only became attempted from the early 90’s. Presumably this is because many albums were still recorded in analogue and then transferred to digital until that time. Recording on computer did not become common place until the mid-90’s (Yes experienced some flak for having recorded “Talk” directly to computer as some people mistakenly believed that the album was made using a computer and not real instruments).
One band name to stand out from the list for me is Transatlantic because they are a symphonic prog band. Their “Whirlwind” album is a meant to be a single song but broken into many parts and as I understand, the parts are separated into individual tracks, suggesting that this is not in fact a true CD-long song but many songs of a single theme segued under the banner of the “Whirlwind” title. The band’s response to this accusation was to record the entire “song” live and release it as a single track on their subsequent live album.
CD-long epics aside, we see that songs in the 60:00 to 60:59, 50:00 to 50:59, and 40:00 to 49:59 time range are few, numbering between roughly 20 and 30 for each time length group. Once we get down to vinyl album lengths – below 50:00 – we see the number of songs increasing appreciatively. Naturally, the 15:00 to 19:59 group is the largest, but it’s especially interesting to see how many songs are in the 20:00 to 29:59 group. There are so many songs partially because of the hefty contribution of the 1970’s and early 80’s, but it seems that a great many modern artists attempt songs of this group length. Perhaps there is a certain charm to writing and recording a 20 to 25-minute long song because that’s what the classic artists of yesteryear did. Or perhaps there is a certain comfort in writing a long song that doesn’t require the listener to devote more than half an hour to listening to the track. Or perhaps this time length is long enough to fit in several parts but manageable enough that it is not necessary to start looking for filler to meet a particular target length. In other words, it’s easier for the artists to say, “I’ve got an idea for a song in five parts that will be about 24 minutes long,” than for artists to say, “Let’s try to do a single track over 70 minutes long”.
Certainly, the advent of the CD and digital recording made it more possible and easier for artists to compose longer pieces. In the 1980’s, however, long songs were not in vogue and a scan of the list will show that few artists attempted anything too adventurous and bold. When progressive music regained respectably and allure in the 1990’s there was a quick resurgence of 20-something-minute epic. Porcupine Tree released the two-part “The Sky Moves Sideways” which reached 34:42 and then The Flower Kings almost hit 60 minutes with “Garden of Dreams” from the “Flower Power” double CD in 1999. Echolyn recorded “Mei” at 49:35 in 2002. But these few observations in progressive rock are just drops in the bucket when one considers the list on the Dutch Progressive Rock Page.
More importantly, the CD format now permits artists to record a song of any length, with a maximum length being just under 80:00. This means that there is no reason why a song has to include filler in order to reach the goal of filling up an entire side of a vinyl album. Songs can be as cohesive as the artists wish them to be. Whether the song reaches 22 minutes or 32 minutes is of little consequence in so far as the final product of “the song” is concerned. However, it is interesting to think of how back in the “old days” artists broke new ground by filling up an entire side of an album with a single song and then covered both sides with an entire cohesive song. Is there anyone out there who is ready to try the double-disc / single song epic? Or with streaming now a common way for many to listen to music, it is possible to record or perform a song of any length, bypassing the temporal limitations of the CD altogether.
A final word about epic long songs
In 1967, The Beat of the Earth released an album containing a single song split over the two sides of the album. It’s an obscure psychedelic album and for the most part a jam. Vanilla Fudge also released a long song, “Break Song” clocking in at 23:23. This too was mostly a jam. Many other bands have filled up sonic space with long jams based around a shorter song. In my opinion, this is the simplest form of creating an epic song and it doesn’t really show that the artists have compositional creativity. Surely, Deep Purple have carried on in the past for over 30 minutes, just filling up an album song of 5 minutes or so with an extended instrumental jam. Then there are long songs that actually constitute several individual songs that are part of a narrative or theme that are segued to make a single track. Rush’s “2112” could have been several short songs, and the band themselves acknowledge that in the past, their long songs were often shorter songs stitched together.
Are Nektar’s “Remember the Future,” “Journey to the Centre of the Eye,” and “Recycle” multi-part single songs or several individual tracks of a narrative? My copies of “Journey…” and “Recycle” divide the parts into individual tracks while “Remember…” has no track breaks except between side one and side two. I think the best epics are songs that form a cohesive whole, where the changes in melody, tempo, time signature, key, and even style flow together almost naturally. If I listen to the song and it seems like several disparate parts were just thrown in for the purpose of creating a long song then I think the song fails on one point and it was not necessary to purposely make it so long. These days there is little reason to try to fill up a song just to meet a temporal target. If a song can comfortably wrap up in 12, 15, or 18 minutes then there is little more reason than boastfulness and pretentiousness to try to extend several minutes more. But who is to decide when a song is packed with filler? That’s a matter of personal opinion.
Some of my own personal favourite epic songs (over 18 minutes) are:
Close to the Edge by Yes
The Revealing Science of God – The Dance of Dawn by Yes
2112 by Rush (short-song-narrative though it may be)
The Great Nothing by Spock’s Beard
Supper’s Ready by Genesis (a patchwork of smaller parts)
Numbers by The Flower Kings
Suite: Little Lucid Moments by Motorpsycho
Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull
Echoes by Pink Floyd
Tarkus by Emerson Lake & Palmer