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How Producers Are Breaking the Bland Limits of Plain Black Vinyl

Black vinyl is boring. For Record Store Day, we look at how artists like Shlohmo, Giraffage and Matthew Dear are pushing the boundaries of what a record should look like.

by Mike Steyels
Apr 17 2015, 3:50pm

Why do we still buy physical records in 2015? What's the point of copping big plastic discs in an age where you can upload a weightless digital file to Google Glass or iWatch or whatever Next Big Device you'll prefer in the near future? With the exception of Luddites and vinyl-only DJs, the world probably doesn't really need vinyl anymore. Yet it persists, and has recently even seen a revival and the emergence of a hotly-debated vinyl chart to boot.

Records are great, don't get me wrong. Sound quality debates aside, they're a way for dedicated fans to support artists, which helps keep alive a format for the DJs that want it. They can also be a type of validation for the artists whose work gets pressed onto them, and they make brick and mortar music stores possible. Plus, having a record sleeve to hang on the wall or even a shelf full of them helps reminds us of the things we love... and is a way to show off our tastes to guests. Despite reasonable criticisms that the event has been hijacked by major labels, and might not benefit small shops as much as you'd assume, there are still good reasons to support Record Store Day today.

The real question is: why are most artists unquestioningly sticking to plain black vinyl? Why not break such bland limits if the format isn't central anymore? Artists have been finding cool alternatives for the black vinyl for decades, and the last few years continued that creativity. But they're the exception to the rule. Ad Hoc tried to break down how some of the recent, weirder physical releases are related to "commodity fetishism." But even on just an aesthetic level, it's surprising there isn't more eye candy beyond album art on vinyl releases, especially in electronic music, which is tech-forward by nature.

Matthew Dear Black Citycame with a custom totem that channeled the dark, futuristic aesthetics the album embodied

However, there are notable examples of artists pushing the boundaries of what a vinyl record should look like. There have been some great color vinyl releases that move beyond the red or blue disc. They came in grades of transparencies and shapes that blend in pretty unique ways. Take the Nick Hook Collage EP or Shlohmo's "Emerge From Smoke" single.

Shlohmo's "Emerge From Smoke/Ode 2 Tha Whip"

These records are black and white, but since they're semi-opaque, you can see some shades from the other side shine through. The tones blend ad spread with different energies, like the techniques of a painter's brush stroke.

Nick Hook's 'Collage V.1'

The Collage rcord also includes a five-part documentary series about Nick Hook, and is actually a Serato release, which has been dropping lots of interesting discs. Since that's possibly the only one a DJ might see for the night, it better be pretty, right?

Giraffage's 'No Reason' EP comes as a multi-colored 12″ pressing in a beautiful spot varnish jacket.

Giraffage's No Reason EP is totally opaque, but the depth of the way the reds and whites flow together makes it resemble a distant planet, with all its cloudy and terrestrial textures—again, achieving a level of synchronicity with his music itself.

Perhaps one of the dopest releases of them all is the new reissue of J Dilla's "Fuck The Police" single, which broke the circular tradition and is shaped like an actual police badge. (The irony is brilliant.) Since it's a 9", you can play it on a regular turntable.

NASA's Sounds of the Earth

To put it all into perspective though, the golden Sounds of Earth record that NASA sent into space a couple years ago is probably the best physical record of all time. Daft Punk would agree. However, it should be noted that colored vinyl is a little bit lower in sound quality than black discs.

DJ Qbert's 'Extraterrestria' album sleeve also serves as a DJ controller

As for innovations in vinyl packaging, there are some next-level plain sleeves turned into sorta-functional objects. The first that comes to mind is the album cover of DJ Qbert's Extraterrestria LP, which Thud Rumble converted into a little DJ controller. You can press flat buttons on the sleeve to alter and play MP3s through an app on your device.

Aphex Twin's 'Syro'

Then there's Aphex Twin, who's always been reliably unpredictable, and his recent comeback album Syro didn't disappoint. The limited 3xLP edition sleeve, created alongside The Designer's Republic, has a playable bonus track stamped directly onto it. You probably shouldn't spin it on repeat unless you want to destroy it, but damn. The collection also came with a clear plastic casing featuring artwork etched into it.

Felicita's 'Frenemies' EP

It's also worth mentioning Felicita's Frenemies EP, which was available as a bright yellow 12" disc, came inside a similarly colored drawstring bag, and was paired with a rubber ducky. A little gimmicky, sure, but appropriately kawaii and playful as the music itself.

Unfortunately, too few electronic acts this year were willing to shed the restrictions of their primitive disc-shaped forms. Rock stunts like The Flaming Lips's edible candy fetus release (yes, really), and Jack White literally dropping his new single via helium balloons were largely absent from the electronic scene this year.

Deru's Obverse Box

But ambient artist Deru made a notable, if expensive, left turn from the traditional record. Each track on his album 1979 was paired with a music video, and you could buy the audio-visual album as an Obverse Box. The box is a small projection unit containing the music videos, crafted in a wooden with angular shapes. It also costs $1,000. Not quite a zillion dollar Wu Tang album—which, no, Skrillex didn't buy—but not exactly an everyday type of purchase either.

In terms of practicality, these types of physical records are totally unnecessary. What it really comes down to is the creativity of the music they hold. If you want visual art, you can always go buy some (please do). And if you're willing to go through the effort of buying a plain black record that's less practical and costs more than a digital file just to show love and support for good music, then that's also great. The scene needs people like you. But if that's the main reason people are buying physical records, then artists and labels should consider rewarding and engaging them with the unlimited options that releases like those above tease at. Here's to hoping for more.

Mike Steyels's favorite music usually comes in low quality MP3 only :( Follow him on Twitter