There's something about an album that follows a story that makes it consistently better than most normal albums. Why is that? What is it about concept albums that make them so fresh time and time again? In this post, I'll explain.
Most music these days follows some kind of formula. In scholarly discussions of art where you hear words like "form" and "content," the notion of genre tends to come up as something that sets our expectations. And if you are going to release an album, promotional phrases like "nothing else out there" and "unlike anything you've ever heard" are not the best choice because they set no expectations. In my 2017 wrap up, I said 2110 Reborn will be unlike anything you've ever heard, because I was talking about sound effects i.e. audio sketches. Believe it or not, a concept album just popped up on my SoundCloud a few minutes ago. It happens to be the one that inspired this whole post because it finally got me convinced that these deep stories and lore really do make the best albums and it's time to start thinking about making another one, myself. 2110 Reborn is going to be a "scene per track" kind of piece, but something actually chronological again would be very cool. I'm dying to know how the masses will take this concept of narration over epic music, but perhaps I'm on the verge of discovering the answer. At least now I know that heavy use of ambience is not something that only I have considered.
Chronicle by Andrew Weiss, his latest release, features 13 tracks with some heavy use of sound effects and ambiance, and surprisingly fierce percussive flair. According to his SoundCloud album description, the whole album follows a story only by sound, track by track. I got excited. This is exactly the approach I used with Superpowers. But I believe the album has somewhat of an Assassin's Creed feel.
An album like this is a true concept album, with a beginning and an end, a middle, an intro, a climax, and a whole world behind it. The sound effects and ambiance cleverly added here and there, are immersive, such that you know exactly where you are in each track. It has to do a lot with the instrumentation as well. An album like this doesn't tell you what each track is about, it shows you by completely wrapping you in it.
Thematic Album vs. Concept Album
Lets talk about making concept albums. Imagine each track is a movie scene, that's what you are supposed to do. Done.
I really have only one rule: it needs to feel like a movie, but not longer than a normal album. A real movie score is sometimes as long as the movie itself. That's not what we're going for. There's something ever-unique about albums like these.
An album that is simply thematic does not embody what a concept album means to me. It sounds like this just makes things more complicated, but it's actually very simple. My latest album, Legends From the Hills, has plenty of sound effects but the tracks do not rely on each other. They are independent. To me, a true concept album is chronological and tracks borderline don't make sense by themselves. Its tracks flow into each other and key changes happen between movements, not necessarily between tracks. The titling choices are evocative, significant, and vital. Notice the track titles of true concept albums seem generic here and there. By themselves we'd have some music library sorting issues, wouldn't we? But because we know the purpose of the larger entity of which that track is a member, the concept album, the simple titles are really expectation generators. I like to think of them as milestones for the concept album's story.
My Favorite Thematic Albums and Artists of 2017
There were, however, other times this past year that I realized concept albums were a thing. I had actually never heard the phrase "concept album" before this last summer.
Last year between gym time and study and all the Spotify shuffling, I discovered a few electronic albums that I now adore. They both share a very heavy driving synthesizer sound that shamelessly take us back to the 80s without hesitation. For all I know, these could be concept albums, but not from what I could tell at quick glance.
First up, we have Megadrive. Sometimes I get a feeling this artist has a crazy, wild one way ticket to taking over the entire world with with the sounds of Terminator, Blade Runner, and whatever you may actually hear referenced in the tracks (if you recognize them).
I've been unable to discover this artist's true identity, and that's probably not an accident. But the name "Megadrive" is a theme in itself. Megadrive is track after track of decimating bass themes and the impending sound of the machines. Many agree it's the electronic form of heavy metal, but not in the same way dubstep is...
Second up, we have Scandroid. It has a similar sound as it is from the same label, plus a few dance hit sounding tracks with amazingly creative lyrics. There is a lot of fantastic artwork out there related to this artist, and the debut album is thematic but each track delivers a smashing success on its own with 80's sounding traditionally structured songs with great vocals for the electronic genre. It's a real solid work.
So What Is It Then? (My Theory)
When you take the time to develop a whole world for an album, be it a full on plot or just simply a film formula, the music actually comes from something far more vivid than your ordinary release, and it shows. You can hear the difference. Maybe this is all just my tastes blatantly speaking for themselves, but it is after all what makes good production music, even if the music isn't orchestral. I actually believe it makes better music, naturally.
Now hopefully you see why I invest time into more than just music: artwork and creative writing, too. Otherwise I'd spend all day just making music, but then ideas would become random and unoriginal.
2110 Reborn releasing later this year, will be taking the storytelling side of music to the next level, including a new thread in the blog for lore and backstories, for those who are into that kind of thing, as well as possibly more artwork and graphic novels. If you are an artist, we need your skills! Get into contact via Champion Dreamer Music on Facebook, or even Discord.
Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!