An Anatomy of Transition Tracks
Ten years was a long time to wait, but [your favorite artist’s] new album finally dropped. You’ve had a rash since the pre-order announcement erupted from the graveyard dirt of their Facebook, promising just over half an hour of PURE FUKKING DEATH. With the buzz of the doorbell, the gatefold is in your hands. A sheen of sweat makes removing the purity ring from your finger a breeze—you’ve been saving yourself, insulating against social media, the first single, the exclusive streams. The record spins…and a Casio string patch pierces your eardrums.
This is fine, you rationalize, it’s probably just an intro. Flipping the LP over, you see the first track nestled amongst the melting skulls and gargoyles; it’s simply titled “Intro.” Your pulse quickens. The song’s been going four minutes, and the synth brass just kicked in, filling the room with the stench of Gorgonzola. You scan the A-Side tracklist and feel the blood vessels give way in the whites of your eyes. Next up: “Intro Pt. 2.” A scream rends your throat before you sink to the ground, inert.
Transition tracks are powerful tools; at their most effective, they invite listeners into the story or tone of an album, but they can just as easily poison an opinion in seconds. They start life at a disadvantage, being tacked on as intros, conclusions, or the palate cleanser between all of those blastbeats; their typically truncated runtime means they have to work twice as hard to stay relevant on repeat listens. Mirroring the struggle of twenty minute behemoths, only the fittest will survive the playlist purge, the scourge of the Next Track button.
Artists make the conscious decision to separate these sections from the songs that border them, but what is the benefit? Why split the acoustic opening from the thrashing that follows? Let’s keep things romantic—let’s assume their existence is about more than padding the runtime, or a band’s distrust of even numbers. These tracks serve a range of purposes, but can be split into three broad categories: introductions, interludes and conclusions.
A first impression happens once, and in the case of an hour-long concept album, it’d better be a good one. Opening a tale of crippling grief with keyboards that sound like a kindergarten recital is a one way ticket to the trash bin. Introduction tracks are an inherent gamble, but when executed with skill, they can capture the imagination and hold it for the duration of the album.
The Great Old Ones are masters of atmosphere, and begin their sophomore album, Tekeli-li, with the brief introduction track “Je Ne Suis Pas Fou.” The first distant notes propagate a sense of unease that persists throughout the album (based on H. P. Lovecraft’s story, At the Mountains of Madness). Slow, discordant layers of cello mirror Lovecraft’s creeping horror, favoring the cerebral over the visceral. The narration (in the band’s native French) is spoken in hushed tones, conveying the urgency of what’s to follow—despite the language barrier. After a short pause, a last breath before the cold, we’re off to the (elder) races with the lumbering death metal of “Antarctica.”
Intros can also be used to ease listeners into a band’s eclectic sound without overwhelming them. Greece’s Aenaon are a black metal band at heart, but they incorporate a slew of additional instruments in their compositions. Instead of progging all over everything from the outset, they start off their album, Extance, with the pensive grand piano of “The First Art.” Icy reverb initially recalls Elliot Goldenthal‘s score for Pet Sematary, but the ominous character quickly resolves into something more upbeat and melodic. The song continues in a format similar to jazz: instruments are introduced, take the limelight and recede to support the next solo. The procession of guitar, saxophone and keyboard that follows is a microcosm of Aenaon’s sound, familiarizing audiences with the individual elements that form the album.
Interludes are the most versatile of the transition types, taking on many roles: a deep breath between torrents of extremity, a blast of fury to perk up the ears, a signal of impending transformation. Then there’s the Imperial Triumphant school of crazed experimentation. On Vile Luxury, their ode to the glitz and gangrene of New York, the song “Mother Machine” differs from the rest—leaving all vestiges of black metal (and structure) behind. What remains is the distilled experience of the city, told through free jazz. Thoughts of instruments and performance melt away as we’re immersed in the cacophony: drums become the sputtering of engines, and wilting brass echoes the multitude of voices in the air. With “Mother Machine,” the band encourages listeners to create their own mental images, just in time for their descent into “The Filth.”
There are plenty of safe ways to end an album, from an epic length closer to a last minute vocal vomit. A separate outro is more risky, potentially souring the overall impression by overstaying its welcome. However, when crafted carefully, they add finality, the sense of a complete work.“Ego Intuo et Servo Te,” the conclusion to Quo Vadis‘s Defiant Imagination, avoids this problem with a runtime of less than a minute. This tiny track acts as a coda, laying the album to rest with gently plucked strings and a classical choir. The emotional weight of the preceding songs evaporates, granting catharsis that quickly slips away, leaving us wanting more.
Now, feast upon the fav transition tracks of some of your Toilet boiz:
“Coil sets the emotional tone of Watershed. The plaintive melodies tell a tale of loss and sorrow and introduce listeners to the principal characters of the story; the acoustic hooks and stark atmosphere inject feelings of longing and foreboding into the genteel landscape in which the young protagonists dwell, and as the acoustic guitar of Coil fades into the crushing riffs of Heir Apparent, those feelings of loss and danger come to the forefront of the experience. Coil shapes the album, and without it we’d have no sense of the magnitude of the drama unfurling across the heavy tracks on the rest of the album. It’s a shame Opeth called it quits after this record.” —W.
“As someone who entered metal through the prog vein, I used to love the “concept album experience” which usually included intros, segues, and epic conclusions (see Symphony X / Dream Theater). One-hour albums with 13 tracks, but the bulk of the runtime was contained in like 4 songs? I was all about it. Recently, it seems like technical-writing background has started to seep into my music preferences. Cut out the extraneous material, redundancies, and eye-sores. Give me your best 40 minutes condensed into 6 or 7 tracks and let me move on with my life. However, if you wanna do something fun for like a minute before you kick it off, I’m game, like on this Thank You Scientist acapella intro.” —Joaquin
“Despite being only about 2 minutes long, Glass Casket’s ‘Phenomenon’ manages to run the gamut of emotions while simultaneously setting the tone for the rest of the album. What starts as a beautiful, dream-like piece slowly twists and morphs into a darker tone with a sinister underbelly. It’s simple, but highly effective. It lulls the listener into a false sense of security before taking over with the frantic second song ‘Too Scared To Live’.” —365
“This is what an outro track should be: a simple, but definitive exclamation point to end a great album. It’s actually one of my favorite songs by the band. There’s just something about its sound and flow that gives it a cerebral and dreadful feel. This would be perfect for the end of a sci-fi or horror movie where the good guys think they’ve won, but there’s a shred of doubt and, oh my god, we’ve been wrong this whole time and they’re still out there. Song. End credits. Everyone leaves bummed. Perfect.” —365