A few months ago, I polled some people at some places I regularly visit online and asked them what they feel constitutes a “long” song. What a person thinks counts as long is defined largely by that person’s tastes. Some people I polled start to get bored with a song if it runs longer than three minutes. Some of the poll respondents were huge prog-rock fans and could tolerate a song of any length. Some said a song was long if they started to notice that it was still going, which personally is how I myself feel but is not exactly helpful when you’re trying to decide where to draw the line when you want to write a recurring feature on “long” songs. After roughly fifty responses, I averaged them out and got the mean I initially hypothesized I was going to get: about six minutes. That seems about right to me. You might occasionally have a single that tops five minutes, but never six. That seems to be the point where a hard, if arbitrary, line gets drawn.
So that’s going to be the line for this feature, which I’m calling “A Little Journey”, where we’ll take a look at songs longer than six minutes and see how they justify their length, or if they even do. The title comes from the beginning of A String Cheese Incident, a disc with the rare distinction of being a self-titled live album. At the beginning, mandolin/violin player Michael Kang tells the audience “We’re going to take y’all on a little journey right about now”, at which point the band launches into a ten-minute rendition of Vassar Clements’s “Lonesome Fiddle Blues”. Six minutes is the minimum for a song to get covered in this feature, but we’ll probably stay pretty far from the line most of the time if I’m being honest.
All that said, I’ve got a playlist ripe with material for this sort of thing, but it took a long time to actually choose a song to write about. At last, I have chosen that song.
Song: “First Breath After Coma”
Band: Explosions in the Sky
Album: The Earth Is Not a Cold, Dead Place
Length: 9 minutes, 34 seconds
You might know Explosions in the Sky for their work on the Friday Night Lights soundtrack. It turns out jangly guitar soundscapes and high school football go pretty well together. They’ve also done soundtracks for some other movies that I have not ever seen and am not even sure I have ever heard of.
Explosions in the Sky belong to a genre of music called post-rock. If you’re unfamiliar with it, most post-rock songs are really long guitar-driven instrumentals, sometimes with orchestral elements but not always, that usually alternate between quiet and loud. Some really popular post-rock bands include Godspeed You! Black Emperor and This Will Destroy You, but I’ve always been partial to Rachel’s and Mono, to name a few.
It’s hard for me to listen to post-rock on a regular basis because music is an active pleasure for me rather than a passive one. When I want to hear music, I want to sing along or get into the beat or discover something new and/or exciting about it. I don’t want it to wash over me while it takes however long it is to play out. The difference between “First Breath After Coma” and most other post-rock songs I’ve heard is that FBAC always feels like it’s moving toward something. It’s not just an amorphous blob of music. It moves forward with purpose. That’s one thing I like about it.
The other thing I like is that it feels like it tells a story without words. For me, instrumentals live and die on their titles. If I can’t picture the title while I’m listening to the song or I don’t think the title jives with the sound, it falls flat for me. “First Breath After Coma” might be the best-titled instrumental of all time. There’s a heartbeat at the beginning, it feels like a person slowly rising from a coma, and the song is the person who woke from the coma taking in all the beauty until the end, where the wall of sound represents the point when they finally get overwhelmed by it all.
I usually have to be in the mood for post-rock, but “First Breath After Coma” is a beautiful journey I’m willing to take more often than not when it comes up on shuffle. It’s a little compact adventure that will make you see colors more vividly and take a little more air into your lungs. And to me, that’s what the best long songs do, is take you on a short adventure. Hopefully there will be many more of these short adventures to come.