Anatomy of an Album: The Classic Approach
Take a look at the first three entries in our Groundbreakers series and think back to some of the objectively greatest metal albums of all time. Do you notice any trends or commonalities? An argument can be made that every great metal release shares a certain number of traits, and although these variables vary in significance, they all still contribute something to the successful model. A groundbreaking album requires excellent, memorable songs. It needs to be both a culmination of the great works that preceded it and to look forward to the evolution of the genre. It needs timeless album art that will accentuate the mood. However, an often overlooked but absolutely essential component is the track arrangement. Sure, not all albums follow the same path; there is plenty of room for variation in album construction that allows different tones and emotions to take root. Each path, though, should accomplish the same goal: creating a memorable and engaging experience throughout.
Great albums rarely just come together by accident. Many artists will write songs out of order from how they appear on the final master, but there is almost always some intent to the way the final songs are arranged. An album should start and end with some purpose in mind. Gene Hoglan once commented that the force of the first Dethalbum was lessened by a strange track arrangement. Great albums avoid that pitfall, and a tried and true method to doing so is the center of our discussion in this post. Today, we’re examining one model of track arrangement: the classic approach.
When I say “classic,” I’m referring to the timeless, relatively conventional track listing that almost never fails. The sort of arrangement that follows a well-trod path that never forsakes quality for ingenuity. This classic approach can be found on some of the greatest metal albums of all time, but where does it come from? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. However, it certainly has its parallels in some of the most timeless pieces of literature, drama, and oral tradition. In many ways, the classic approach to album construction follows the standard plot diagram so often employed in the greatest novels ever written. For those of you who don’t remember your high school English Lit classes, Exhibit A below shows the standard plot diagram.
The formula, however simplistic, works because it engages readers (or listeners) all along the process. Think of any classic novel or play you’ve ever read. Great Expectations. Julius Caesar. The Illiad. The Hobbit. They all essentially follow the same format, and in every case it works.
All of these stories that we as humanity collectively carry in our consciousness follow a format of rising tension before the climax breaks. We crave that tension because it makes the conclusion feel justified. It hooks our imagination and captivates us, carrying us along for the ride. A great album does the same thing. Therefore, the following tracklisting displays the classical and quintessential approach to album construction.
Track 1: The introduction – This can be either an introductory track or the actual first track with a slight introductory portion, but most classic albums employ some sort of tone-setting development at the beginning. Often a slow instrumental build transitions into a full-blown frenzy, setting the pace for what is to come.
Tracks 2-6: The rising action – These tracks build the drama of the album. They don’t all have to be the same pace. In fact, stronger albums tend to vary the rhythm and song length here to take listeners up steps with false peaks and plateaus. Often, slight changes are used to lull the listener into a sense of calm before again introducing a variation into the mix to galvanize interest. However, when examined in the meta-context of the album itself, each little hill and valley still leads ever upward to the summit.
Track 7: The climax – The climax can take many forms. It may be a jarring and emotive instrumental track. It may be a somber ballad. It is always a powerful moment that strips the listener of their preconceived notions and leaves them vulnerable. The journey has led to this point, and some resolution must be achieved. Changes in tone and keys signify that the end is nigh, that the voyage is almost at an end. In many ways, this track, wherever it falls, is the most important part of the album.
Track 8: The falling action/denouement – Often on metal records the two last steps are one and the same. Listeners are led back down the path, but at a much more emotionally charged state. The final track may fade into nothingness (a resolution), or it may simply blast its way downward until coming to an abrupt halt (falling action). Either way, the journey is completed, and the listener is left on some other plane, never again able to view the world as before.
Skeptical? You have every right to be, but let’s examine a classic album to demonstrate the ubiquity of this archetype. Press play on Metallica‘s Master of Puppets and see if you can follow the trajectory above.
Track 1: “Battery” – Yep, those guitars set the mood and provide all the introduction we need.
Tracks 2 through 6: “Master of Puppets,” “The Thing That Should Not Be,” “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” “Disposable Heroes,” and “Leper Messiah” – As each track builds upon the one before it, you are driven along by the invisible hands of the creators, gaining elevation towards some end goal, some point of no return. Each little variation, each valley and each subsequent crest, energizes your adrenaline and pulls you like the twitch upon the thread.
Track 7: “Orion” – It is on this track that the levee breaks. All expectations are laid bare, and the listener is given a quiet moment to collect his or her thoughts and reflect on all that has transpired. The melody strips away all pretense and exposes the vulnerability at the listener’s heart. The only way left now is down.
Track 8: “Damage, Inc.” – Metallica opted to simply conclude the album on a falling note. The fast and vicious “Damage, Inc.” rampages downward, rocketing the listener back towards the firmament. It is the last shot of adrenaline that allows the listener to finish the journey. After the emotional climax, the only resolution offered is completion. The reward is survival, and for the very perceptive, a strange satisfaction in and longing for the thrill of the adventure. The fast ending is a perfect symmetry of the beginning, concluding a perfect album.
So, now it’s your turn. Think back to some of your favorite metal records. Do they follow this format? Sound off in the comments.