Sunday Sesh: Off-Album Tracks

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In which we discuss the merits of releasing one-off tracks, either on soundtracks or as digital singles, in the lulls between albums.

Metal is an interesting genre. I consume it differently than I do most other forms of music. Generally, with pop or hip-hop, I’m purely a track man. Whole pop albums tend to be full of filler, and the skits on rap albums are often embarrassing enough to warrant skips. Metal, on the other hand, is generally gulped down in whole rather than in part. My typical work day can be tracked by how many full albums I’ve devoured. While obviously there are always stronger songs and weaker songs on every album, I’d much prefer an entire traipse through Arrayed Claws than a single session with “Disharmonic Feticism.” The song just feels somehow less complete without the whole.

The same can be said of the new Dodecahedron album. While I enjoyed both “Tilling the Human Soil” and “An Ill-Defined Air of Otherness” individually, neither track made as much sense outside of the context of all of Kwintessens. Metal, as an extreme subgenre that often demands careful, patient listening, is best enjoyed in whole rather than in part in order to behold the entire artistic scope of an album. Whether that album is a full-length or an EP, individual tracks just always seem to be stronger, make more sense, and contain more power when linked to their counterparts on a specific, artistically contrived release.

Curious, then, are the one-off tracks that bands write between releases. It’s obvious why these tracks exist. They may be commissioned pieces for soundtracks and paid singles, but it isn’t surprising at all to see creative artists sitting atop collections of songs that just didn’t fit in with other tracks on official releases. Sometimes these songs resurface on deluxe reissues, EPs, or soundtracks. Other times they surface as digital singles to slake the thirst of hungry fans. Whatever the circumstances, they’re often odd, denoting stylistic shifts or allowing the artists to dabble in indulgent pursuits.

Take Metallica‘s “I Disappear” for instance. The track was released in 2000 as part of the Mission: Impossible II soundtrack and showcases the formerly brilliant thrash band at an odd point of their creative arc. No longer a thrash band but no longer really a southern rock band, Metallica was soaring on the height of commercial success with very little artistic direction. “I Disappear” is purely a metal song with no true leanings one way or the other and remains a strong anomaly in the biggest band in metal’s oeuvre, a strange quintessence of their binary struggle between their extreme roots and massive popularity.

Consider also the Decibel Flexi Series of releases. This excellent and free* series of releases often gives bands opportunities to cover influential artists or explore sides often unfitting full releases. It also grants exposure to terrific young bands prior to major releases. Take Crypt Sermon‘s resplendently gloomy track “De Mysteriis Doom Sathanas” released exclusively as part of the Flexi line. It’s heavy and brooding and completely subverts what makes Mayhem so pivotal for metal’s evolution while marking the upward progress of one of the preeminent doom acts in modern metal.

What, then, do these one-off tracks accomplish? It is my hypothesis that they offer better glimpses of future artistic direction than full releases while simultaneously stoking the fires of devotion. Our dedicated writers also offered Mastodon‘s cover of “A Commotion,” The Sword‘s “Hammer of Heaven,” and Primus‘s cover of “N.I.B.” with Ozzy on vocals as excellent examples of special releases that captured specific moments in those bands’ histories. Full releases tell us where we’ve been, but off-album tracks can tell us where we’re going.

On that note, what are some of your favorite odd singles? Sound off in the comments below.

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