SPECIAL FEATURE: Pieces—A Thousand Albums At The End Of America

Bill Boulden - Pieces - A Thousand Albums At The End Of America (Vinyl Rip - Each of 1000 Copies is Unique)

I’m honored to share an extraordinarily unique recording for this installment at Innerspace Labs. This is Bill Boulden’s (aka Spruke’s) innovative project, Pieces—A Thousand Albums At The End Of America.

From his Kickstarter page:

Spruke’s previous Kickstarted ambient music album Music To Die Alone In Space To featured the same album being rerecorded 310 times with unique variations for every backer. On Pieces, he will expand on this concept by adding an innovative new system of distributed storytelling.

This follow-up project tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic near future – a story spread over 96 LPs. Boulden partnered with Meep Records, a single-run lathe-cut vinyl manufacturer, to make it possible for the first time to own literally the only copy of an album in existence.

Boulden describes the album-within-an-album concept he employed for this record:

When America falls, the musicians of the time period don’t sit around and let it happen. These albums contain fragments of the music of this alternate future. They appear in fits and starts between other tracks; ten seconds as a lead-in to a piano piece, or a thirty-second interlude between two tracks, or maybe fifteen seconds of radio static between ambient passages where you can hear a radio station almost tuning into this song but not quite finding it.

I’ve hired hip-hop artists, barbershop quartets, folk singers, grrl garage punk, country singers, and more from this hypothetical future that may never come to pass, to come back in time and put their songs in tiny pieces on this album.

[The album presents a dystopia where] America is broken and abandoned. Relics from humankind’s brief stay are slowly being reclaimed by nature, and one damning question lingers: What happened here?

Boulden explains “Distributed Storytelling” thusly:

Cassettes. Handheld recorders. Radio broadcasts. Voicemails. When Americans saw their country dissolve around them, they left all of these and more lying everywhere, and you’ll hear fragments of them as you move through a unique copy of the album… but never the whole story.

He leaves it up to the backers of the project to collaborate and piece together the full narrative. The LPs are not numbered, so there is no official chronology or oversight of the 96 segments. They were engineered through Boulden’s generative compositional process, and once the rules were set in motion the story unfolded on its own. The unique one-off discs were priced at $80-110 apiece and all copies sold out to the original backers of the project.

The social participatory factor here is exciting. Some of the backers shared their uniques on twitter as #BitsOfPieces. You can search that hashtag to find people swapping uniques and new material comes up on every copy.

The canonical edition was a randomly selected copy from the series, (Boulden believes it to be #36 or so), that was the copy chosen to print en masse and put on Spotify, iTunes, etc. Approximately 200 LPs were pressed of this edition.

The opening minutes of the canonical (wide-release) edition of the record set the stage with disembodied beeps and somber off-key sour synths. We are quickly introduced to curious smatterings of disconnected conversations about the dismal chaos that has come of America. These fractured dialogues are fast-forwarded and rewound from dusty old cassettes and fade in and out from distant radio signals on an imagined archaic analog tuner. We are wandering through the smoldering aftermath seeking signs of survival in a bleak 1980s vision of a dark near-future.

Musique concrète with a beat, this album offers captivatingly voyeuristic post-apocalyptic field recordings and static-laden AM / Ham / shortwave radio broadcasts with a bizarre displaced out-of-time personae.

Pieces… is richly hauntological and brimming with digitally-processed but authentic sounding artifacts of characteristically analog phenomena, including radio broadcasts, snippets of sorrowful minor-key piano melodies, retro television commercial segments, station-tuning and detuning, vinyl crackling, and tape wow and flutter. It features an impressively wide dimensional soundstage ranging from distant and lonely vocal echoes to vintage answering machines to in-your-face distorted guitar shredding, with looming drones and sustained synths to tie it all together with brilliantly seamless finesse. And the mastering quality is top-notch with a zero noise floor to let the artistry take front and center stage.

Pieces… is a work of 21st century studio wizardry richly in the spirit of classic Musique concrète and Eno’s generative methodology. (I also can’t resist its recollection of perhaps a Gothic incarnation of The Firesign Theater’s Bozos LP, particularly reminisced with the clapboard opening and fractured radio adverts.) And there is undeniably a hearty dose of John Carpenter’s desolate and foreboding 80s synths present here. But the record isn’t just the score to such a film. With all the scattered original vocal samples it effectively conjures the visual of an unmade motion picture as well.

There are no verses or choruses. There is only the persistence of the constantly-shifting ambient foci with strange new sounds vying for the listener’s attention at every turn. The album is a highly-engaging dystopian dramatization reminiscent of War Of The Worlds with the enhancement and magic of modern production which rewards dedicated listening. Pieces… is easily the most fascinating and impactful recording I’ve heard this year.

Five stars for its progressive concept, for its vision, for its implementation, for its production, for its social participatory element, and for music that truly deserves some attention.

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