Friday, December 14, 2012

Three Ways to Improve Your Album

Five minutes from Sylosis' Monolith. 67 more to go.

Every year, my admiration for artists who pour themselves into creating and sequencing a full-length work of art swells. In the face of YouTube, iTunes, American attention spans and singles acts, a select few still care about making a great album. Imagine if most popular books only had two good chapters, or if most movies had a couple of good scenes. That's the state of albums today. Dependably creative artists like Converge are both rare and crucial to modern music, just as someone like Jonathan Franzen is to literature.

However, if we are going to keep putting great artists on a pedestal, we still need to hold them to high standards. There are many reasons why music isn't selling as well as it did in decades past. I'll argue that one reason is that in general, most new albums and artists, metal included, aren't as great as their predecessors. With music sales bringing in less revenue than ever for record labels, artists have enough creative control to indulge their best impulses more than ever, but also their worst. Bands as varied as Rush, Gojira and Baroness released good, even great albums this year, but with minimal effort they could have been much better. Here's how.

1. Keep it short.

This seems like the biggest problem for many of today's metal bands. A CD can contain up to 80 minutes of music, but that's no reason for your band to use all 80. If you're lucky enough to find an audience, you should leave them wanting more, not less. To paraphrase Lou Reed, 30 minutes is fine, 40 is pushing it, 50 and you're into jazz.

This isn't a recent phenomenon. Some of the world's finest metal bands have run out of steam over hour-plus long players. Guns N' Roses were the best band in the world when they recorded Use Your Illusion I and II, and even they couldn't get through two-and-a-half hours without "So Fine." But let's look at the good. Slayer's Reign in Blood, one of metal's only indisputable classics, doesn't make it to the half-hour mark. At the Gates reshaped death metal in 34 minutes on Slaughter of the Soul. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, all legendary for their epic compositions, found ways to end their best albums in under 45 minutes. Don't point out that you love all 65 minutes of Metallica's ...And Justice for All until you remind yourself that your band isn't Metallica.

2. Cut the interludes.

Hip-hop is the worst at this. Intro skits, outro skits, intermission skits, phone call skits--these are among the reasons why anyone with a considerable hip-hop collection dreads the shuffle option on their preferred listening device. Metal is also culpable, but instead of skits, they use musical interludes. This year, Veil of Maya, Between the Buried and Me and the Tony Danza Tap Dance Extravaganza littered their records with tossed-off, minute-long pieces that went from being entertaining to skipable over a few listens. Elmore Leonard once said of writing, "I try to leave out the parts that people skip." The best musicians record albums the same way.

3. Save some of the best for last.

Nearly every metal album I've heard in the past several years, even the great ones, are unarguably front-loaded. You don't play all your best songs in the first half of the show, and you also shouldn't play all your best songs in the first half of your album. Slayer ended records with "Raining Blood" and "Seasons in the Abyss." The Number of the Beast closes out with "Hallowed Be Thy Name." How many people who buy Lamb of God records can name a song on the second half of Sacrament or Ashes of the Wake? Those are both great records, but will anyone ever put either of them on a countdown near Rust in Peace? "Tornado of Souls" and "Lucretia" are on side two.

With most listeners sequencing their own playlists these days, some will contend that these gripes don't matter. But maybe listeners would be less inclined mess around with bands' intended tracklists if more artists proved that they knew how to make an album.

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