Anatomy of an Album: The Nuts and Bolts
There’s been much discussion lately over what makes an album “classic” or “groundbreaking.” In the last edition of this series, we chatted about the importance of album construction and track listing. The layout of the album is the blueprint that guides the construction of the other elements. However, I’ve been told that our dear old pal the Devil is in the details, and as trite as that cliche is, it holds merit in this case. It is often one tiny misstep that differentiates a good album from a great album. So in the spirit of venerating what’s great and deriding what isn’t, today we’re going to explore some other aspects of metal album construction on which bands can easily err.
As we examined last time, setting the stage for the building tension of your album with some aural exposition is a good thing. It prepares listeners for what’s to come without giving away all the secrets. It gives the first hint at a new sound or evolution without revealing all of a band’s hand. It’s an important element that often gets overlooked. It serves a similar purpose as a welcome mat or a nice spring wreath on your front step. Sure, it doesn’t add necessary functionality, but a listener will often notice something amiss when it isn’t present. However, introductions are extremely easy to blow.
Wrong: The boring ambient/chuggy introduction – It’s almost as if the band just needed to fill an extra minute on the album. If this track doesn’t provide an excellent lead for the first real song, begin to establish the rising action, or demonstrate some newfound technique or artistic approach, chop it. We’re just going to press skip anyway.
Right: The introduction connected to the first real song – Spending twenty or thirty seconds at the beginning of the first track to add a little exposition can actually do a world of good. It can be even longer if it somehow leads perfectly into the vibe of the song itself. Plus, we have no reason to skip it because it’s already part of a song and not just filler.
If I had a nickel for every time I heard the Masterlord whine about an album being too long, I’d be able to afford some head protection to ward off ravenous hawks. Still, my dolorous colleague has a point: excessively long albums can easily eradicate all the good will a band builds during its run time. I don’t believe there’s any hard or fast rule for how long an album should be. I do, however, think bands should be sensitive to the genre in which they’re operating and not overstay their welcome. It would be foolish for a grind band to write an 80-min album. Show a little restraint and cut some of that fat.
Wrong: The double album – Speaking of fat, there is almost zero reason for any band ever to release a double album. There is almost always an overabundance of disgusting gristle that just ruins the overall taste. Trim some of those pointless tracks. Release the second disc months later as an EP. Just don’t hit us with 140 minutes of music when only about 50 minutes are actually good. Take a little extra time to refine what you have and only release the creme de la creme.
Right: Play to your strengths – If you realistically only have a handful of good songs for a release, drop an EP. I’ve stated before that I prefer full-lengths, but it shows wisdom to not release an album loaded with filler when you could alternatively release a lean and mean EP and build anticipation for things to come. Four or five good tracks standing alone beat a full-length of 14 tracks with only 5 or 6 good songs.
Great bands often reach a point where they can release whole albums of songs that all sound exactly the same. However, most bands out there slogging it in metal right now aren’t Bolt Thrower or Amon Amarth. Most bands don’t have the riffs and pedigree to keep churning out exactly the same material. Therefore, most bands should attempt to inject a little bit of excitement up in their lifestyles by writing songs of varying tone, speed, emotion, and even technicality. This even has the bonus effect of helping bands distinguish themselves from others in their same genre. Bonus GBPs!
Wrong: We play a specialized genre so we can get away with it – Nothing turns me off of an album faster than when the first three songs all sound exactly the same. Niche subgenres in metal are notorious for this. Just because you play in a scene with only five other bands doesn’t mean that you all have to write the same exact songs. Add a little spice! Avoid the trap of always sticking to what you know works. Evolve a little and try to surprise your fans.
Right: Follow the template – Sticking to a blueprint for album construction, even if it is the classic approach, can often inject much needed variety to the songs in place. You can’t climb a hill if you’re running on a level plane. A little variation always serves to enhance the dynamics and make the album feel more immense as a whole (as long as the elements aren’t too cluttered). Plus, bands that do this well often make year end lists. Metal would be boring if every band sounded the same, so take the time to build in that diversity.
I easily could have added many more elements to this list, but I’m going to keep stringing you suckers along with edition after edition. So now it’s your turn to tell me what the vital elements for albums are and how easily they can be screwed up. Sound off in the comments below.