Thinking About the Album as Art Form

As we gear up to head into the studio to record the next album, naturally I’ve been thinking a lot about albums. Everybody knows that the album as we generally understand it — a coherent collection of songs by an artist — is pretty much dwindled to a niche preoccupation.  Bands like Radiohead get some press for their dedication to crafting albums, and theirs are albums that are united mostly by atmosphere or “sound.”  You recognize a song off of “Kid A” as being different from a song on “OK Computer” as different from a song on “The King of Limbs.”

The alternative is to make a couple of singles and wrap them up in filler and call it an album.  This practice was widespread, and totally never fooled anybody, so that’s why you see digital single sales/downloads FAR outstripping the pace of album sales/downloads.  Nobody even needs to bother making albums anymore if they are a big deal pop star and don’t want to.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed a lot more concept albums coming out and getting attention.  A concept album is one united by a single topic or narrative that binds all of the songs together.  This is, of course, basically an opera.  “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is probably the most famous early example everybody points to.  It’s the Beatles, pretending to be a different band, playing a show.  Not much of a concept, but you can’t expect everything to be perfect right out of the gate.  The concept album was huge in the 1970s, with David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush, and tons others releasing often several of them.

But in the last few years, we’ve seen “Hazards of Love” by The Decemberists, “Hadestown” (which is stunning) by Anais Mitchell, “Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes” about a messiah who keeps getting distracted from saving the world by meeting pretty girls, NIN’s “Year Zero,” stuff by Coheed & Cambria, Mastodon, Green Day, and Aimee Mann’s wonderful “The Forgotten Arm.”

I think the reason why we’re seeing this, and maybe one of the reasons why I even tackled a concept album, is that if you want listeners to experience your work in context, with the dominance of the singles market, you have to give it an explicit context.  Bon Iver basically did this with “…for emma forever ago,” which wasn’t strictly a concept album, but is always described alongside it’s context (“Bad breakup, dude goes to cabin, makes sad record.”).

Me, I like it.  Between their concept work and song cycles (Crane Wife, parts 1-3), The Decemberists have become one of my favorite bands.  It gives people a reason to keep buying albums, and in a way, with the art form beset by decline, it has fostered invention.  I can only hope that someday the John Henry project we’re working on now might be mentioned in the same breath with some of these wonderful, wonderful albums.

Anais Mitchell – Wedding Song by BlurbPR

So when you say "Death Metal…"

I’m quick to let people know that I used to play drums and do backing vocals/growling for metal bands. The most prominent of these — not that any were terribly prominent — was Black Spiral, and we put out our one-and-only album, Defeat, back in ’99 or 2000.  Something like that.  I played in other metal and rock bands as well, including a prog-metal band (I guess) that had a cello, which we used to play the keyboard parts on NIN and Ministry covers.  I so wish I had video of those shows.

But I do not.  You can, however, hear and download, and further enjoy the magic of Black Spiral.  I guess different things come to mind when people hear the words “death metal,” and outside of those fully steeped in the many hundreds of metal subgenres, folks might be a little fuzzy on exactly what that sounds like, and I wanted to go ahead and post one of the Spiral tracks for anyone who’s interested.

(And for those metal die-hards who want more specifics, I’d say that we were really more of a melodic death metal and thrash hybrid…)

This is me on drums and backing vocals, so all the “yeah”s and “humanity corrodes”es and stuff like that…that’s me.  Many, and eternal, thanks to Chris Crowson (Bass/Vocals) and Ryan Dawe (Guitar), who were the real creative forces behind this music.