Music as a System: The Unfinished Album


Here at the Toilet ov Hell, we like to discuss the creative value of heavy metal (and music in general) as a form of art. Our typical means of encountering this art is through one of two media: (1) a written, recorded, produced, and packaged performance of the artist’s work that stands as a unique snapshot of that artist’s progression and abilities at that period of time; or (2) a live performance that may vary from previously recorded songs and may show a more dynamic approach to artistic evolution. While recorded music is static, live concerts are more fluid and may give a better representation of how the artist views his art while also enabling interaction with the crowd. However, albums represent a type of all-or-nothing statement whereas live performances may lose some of the integrity of personal creativity in favor of entertainment value. What if there was a third way, though, a different path whereby artists may continue to dynamically change a particular performance without the immediate (and possibly biased) feedback of the crowd? Today we explore that middle ground by way of an unlikely source.

Mid-February this year, Kanye West released his seventh album The Life of Pablo through streaming service Tidal. Intriguingly, despite initial comments claiming that the album would remain a Tidal exclusive, West eventually released a different, modified version of TLoP on April 1 on other streaming services and digital download. In the interim period between the two dates, West changed the mixing job on multiple songs, modified the length and vocal work on track “Wolves,” and added additional tracks missing from the initial version. West claimed that this tinkering had always been his intent, viewing the album as “a living breathing changing creative expression.” Tidal users, then, were granted an intimate viewpoint to see an artist dynamically modify what should have been a static artistic statement.

Obviously, West’s work with TLoP varies from the way most metal bands release music. True, there have been slight alterations made to songs as bands change and grow over time, often as a result of a certain band member leaving (compare Megadeth‘s “Mechanix” to Metallica’s “The Four Horsemen”), but most changes come in the form of a remix or remaster. Though these updated versions of songs may indeed contain slight alterations (compare the 2004 remix of Cynic’s “How Could I” below to the original), most simply sound slightly different and rarely alter the initial performance itself. Moreover, these remixes and remasters are often driven by a number of other factors, including profit, label pressure, or lack of availability, and very often do not reflect a dynamic change in artistic style or intent.

However, the immediacy found in Kanye West’s alterations and the short time period over which the changes were made are not entirely without precedent within the world of art and entertainment. In fact, two distinct models may have informed West’s efforts and provided him with the motivation to open his unfinished product to interaction and criticism. First, analogues for modifying a static work of art over time can be seen in the film industry, though the length of these modifications may seem more alike to the remix/remaster methodology than what West did with TLoP. The second form of media that may provide a more direct comparison, though, is video games. Open Beta testing, community forums, and online users have transformed the world of video gaming into a much more fluid and transitory expression that its initial conceptions. The artistic value of video games here is irrelevant; what is important to consider is how game developers now release unfinished products into the wild and incorporate user suggestions for improvements before finalizing development. The remainder of this article examines both models and presents a number of questions regarding how either of these two methodologies could be applied to the world of heavy metal.

Can you imagine a world where Gorguts release a one-track album that grows and transforms over a period or months? Would you be supportive of Abyssal restructuring certain passages to find the perfect atmosphere only a few weeks after they first release an album? How would a band like Mastodon even go about releasing tinkered tracks in a way that all those who first heard the album can enjoy them? We are very likely on the edge of a bold, new frontier with riveting and terrifying potential.

The Film Model

Although a number of filmmakers have released modified versions or director’s cuts of their work over time, far and away the most prolific (and perhaps egregious) example is George Lucas. George Lucas’s magnum opus, Star Wars was released on May 25, 1977. Four years later, the titles Episode IV: A New Hope were added. For the film’s 20th anniversary, Episode IV and its sequels were re-released in theaters with an additional 3 minutes of footage. Most of that extra run-time consisted of new, digitally enhanced scenes that Lucas has claimed were more aligned with his initial vision of the film. Episode IV was released again on DVD in 2004 with further modifications to it and its sequels, bringing them more in line with Lucas’s interpretation of the Star Wars universe. Further revisions were made prior to the 2011 Blu-Ray release. Had Lucas never sold the rights for his Empire to Disney, it is entirely possible he would have continued to modify the films until he passed.

Intriguingly, Lucas’s constant modifications have generally been viewed, both by fans and critics, as uninspired at best or vastly inferior to the original visions at worst. Despite the greater timeline, though, these modifications bear far more in common with the way West changed TLoP than with the remix bonus tracks that are often tacked onto the end of remastered metal albums. So why is West’s tinkering considered artistically intriguing while Lucas’s meddling is nearly universally damned? The explanation is likely twofold.

First, the artistic merit of the original Star Wars film was likely due to both Lucas’s vision and producer Gary Kurtz’s influence. Return of the Jedi, often considered the weakest of the original trilogy films, lacked Kurtz’s oversight, allowing Lucas to craft the story in a way that lacked much of the drama and heft of its two predecessors. Perhaps it was the lack of Kurtz’s input that allowed Lucas to re-imagine his films unopposed, adding in silly and puzzling digital effects that contribute nothing to the final product. Second, Lucas has made it exceptionally difficult to acquire the original version of the film of which fans who initially saw it in theaters have such fond memories. The 2011 Blu-Ray release did not contain the original theatrical versions, and there is debate over whether the initial version of the film is even the one preserved in the National Film Registry. Efforts from Lucas (and now Disney) to seemingly bury the original versions of the film beneath a veritable avalanche of remasters has spurred some fans to attempt a digital “despecialization” in order to recapture the magic of the original.

If metal artists seek to follow the film model, perhaps Star Wars should act as a cautionary tale that the current artistic vision should not usurp the bold artistic statements of the past.

The Video Game Model

In comparison to films, video games seem to offer a much more compatible model for artistic interaction and manipulation. One of the most interesting cases from recent memory is the third-person shooter online RPG WarframeWarframe began its life as Dark Sector; if you watch the original trailer shown at E3, you’ll notice a vastly different game than the one eventually released as Dark Sector in 2008. After developers Digital Extremes decided to take Dark Sector in a vastly different, non-alien based direction, they shelved the original art and concept, only to breathe new life into them five years later as WarframeWarframe entered open Beta Development for PC in March 2013, and the game has technically remained in an early access, unfinished form since then. Players who logged onto servers at that time may recall the lack of enemy diversity, scant smattering of planets, and low choice in weaponry. Today, the game is exceptionally polished, allowing players to equip their frames with wings, ally themselves with varying factions, and summon feral beasts to do their bidding. So what changed?

Over the course of the game’s lifetime, Digital Extremes have maintained a free-to-play environment and frequently interacted with the community. DE regularly hold direct streams where they announce major changes being added to the game, and forums have always allowed players to criticize balance issues or other problems they notice while playing. Although it may be inaccurate to describe Warframe as a work of art, the widely accessible model employed by Digital Extremes bears more than just a passing similarity to Kanye West’s handling of The Life of Pablo.

Like the film model, this open video game model also presents certain issues for metal, though. Most importantly, Warframe is an experience built on interactivity; there is a much narrower division between creator and consumer. By heeding user complaints and developing the game in a way to maintain approval, Digital Extremes could easily be accused of crossing the barrier from artistic statement to entertainment product. Kanye West, similarly, may be accused of compromising his initial vision in order to ensure greater profits. Though there is nothing wrong with entertainment or a desire to make money, doing so at the expensive of artistic integrity is a decisive way to alienate fans and critics within the heavy metal community.

The Metal Model

Ultimately, this article leads us to a series of questions without immediate answers. However, I believe these questions are important to ponder as we enter into a brave new world where records don’t sell and the internet allows for instant connection and access. In fact, the immediacy of instantaneous connectivity seems to be one of the key differences between the two proposed models. With streaming services, it seems that bands, if they desired to do so, would be capable of releasing an unfinished product to the fans; then, as the band either revisited their own work or as fans and critics made their voices heard, the band could then modify that product to ensure a wider appeal or a more definitive artistic vision. However, this model, the Kanye West method, begs a whole slew of questions.

  • Does a modified artistic product lack the integrity it originally possessed? If, for example, a band removed or re-recorded a problematic section of a song, does eliminating that flaw eliminate some of the intent and human nature of the art that makes it important in the first place?
  • Does this model require an expensive production budget? Will this even matter as bedroom bands with home recording equipment become more predominant?
  • Does appealing to fans with an evolving album create the same level of intimacy as a live performance?
  • Will records be seen less as genre benchmarks and more as evolving concepts?
  • Would this model work without streaming services? If so, how?

There’s a lot to ponder here. Thanks be to Guac Jim and Dagon for their insightful discussion on this topic. Please take to the comments and let me know what you think.


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