Underrated Albums: Club Misery EP by Misery Club

Misery Club is an emo-rap supergroup comprised of Wicca Phase Springs Eternal (founder of hip-hop collective Goth Boi Clique), Lil Zubin (lauded by many as the Soundcloud Weeknd), Fantasy Camp (renowned underground producer and songwriter), and Jon Simmons aka Coward (former vocalist of Balance & Composure). The group quietly released their debut EP this past summer, and it’s probably been one of the most addicting releases of the year.

Produced by underground hitmakers Nedarb and Foxwedding, each of the four tracks sounds sleek, effortless, and catchy. The clean guitar samples are overlaid flawlessly with tightly constructed beats, which are some of the best produced I’ve heard this year in the underground. They do not go out of their way to pull off anything groundbreaking or abnormal, but provide the perfect soundscapes to let the vocalists shine.

And man, do they shine. Perhaps the strongest aspect of Misery Club is the diversity of singing/rapping skills and delivery. The lyrical, emo drone of Wicca Phase’s sing-rapping contrasts wonderfully with the pristine melodies provided by Lil Zubin. Fantasy Camp’s understated, soft delivery makes Simmons’ harsh auto-tune pop out in a way that would not be possible without the other. The four take turns in the spotlight throughout the EP; there is no definitive star in Misery Club. Each member gets a first verse on the project, setting their own unique mood on each track.

“River of Blood” kicks off the album as Zubin’s haunting voice floats over a detuned keyboard, “Oh the river of blood in my veins went dry / last night I went to sleep and died / ghost of Zubin / bring me back to life.” The line is hilariously self-aware (and EPIC) in how dramatic it is, and when the beat drops, it’s the first “oh shIT!” moment on the record. The other three members trade verses on the rest of the track, with Zubin coming back to offer a hook before Simmons closes it off. It’s a total banger, the type of funny, sincere, and incredibly ear-wormy writing that instantly gets you hooked.

“Left Side” is the Wicca Phase fronted track, beginning with a melancholy guitar riff and a slowed-down, minimalistic beat. His monotone vocal delivery fits perfectly with the vibe of the track, as the gloom sets in, “And one time I was so drunk off of red wine / so I could talk to you and with honesty / the problems only come up when I come down / and yet I’m fine when I finally get sleep. He is interrupted by Simmons, who’s soaring melodies contrasts beautifully with the previous verse, running right into Fantasy Camp’s smooth flow, finishing off with Zubin’s trademark vibrato, leaving the listener totally satisfied and sufficiently bummed out, but in a “yeah I’m sad but I still like to party” kind of way.

“Bad Mood” begins similarly, this time with Simmons providing the hook, “Never leave you in a bad mood / girl, I promise if I had you / I’ll never leave you in a bad mood / all my life I wish I had you,” bringing Misery Club the closest to Backstreet Boys territory they have come yet. The song flows by with a similar mid-tempo, breezy feel to the previous track, but this does not serve to harm the record, building the consistency.

The final track, “Lifesaver,” starts off with nearly a minute of ominous droning and 808 hits, standing out from the slow build of the previous tracks. What follows is Fantasy Camp’s lead off verse, one of the most haunting lyrical moments on the album, “Now I’m lying on the ground, foreign objects in the sky / they shower me in blood while I try to rest my eyes / I see you in a vision and you slowly start to cry / I’m going far away now, and I always wonder why.” It closes off with Wicca Phase asserting himself as the king of darkness just before the 808s begin to fade, “I’m a high priest, I come from the fourth world / I come up with new words, even you don’t understand, no.” The EP concludes with the ghost of Zubin once again floating over the chaos.

Although this release is not necessarily groundbreaking either lyrically or sonically, it stands as one of the strongest testaments to emo-rap as a sustainable genre, and begs the question of whether emo as a whole will go in this direction in the next decade. The potential for popular appeal in this release is absurd. Between the addicting beats, #relatable lyrics and charisma, Misery Club could be America’s next boy band. With another EP on the way, and all of the members releasing their various solo music, I’m excited to see what they come up with over the next few months as this sub-genre continues to grow and evolve.

Underrated Albums: Extralife by Darlingside

It’s over now.” Normally these three harrowing words mark the end of something: the end of an era, the close of a traumatic event, or the white flag at the end of a long war. For Darlingside this phrase signifies all of the above, but it doesn’t signify the end of the story. On the contrary, these words open the Cambridge, Massachusetts folk quartet’s latest album Extralife, a concept album set on a post-apocalyptic Earth shortly after the close of the nuclear holocaust. It is on this scorched Earth, where life as we know it ceases and anything that remains becomes itself extra-life, that Darlingside begin their musical journey surveying the wreckage; probing for signs of life and reflecting back on the choices that led to such desolation.

On Extralife, Darlingside create a soundscape that is lush and vibrant, thanks in part to the beautiful melding of acoustic guitar, strings, woodwinds, and subtle electronic drones, each made more ethereal by a healthy dose of reverb. However, while the arrangements are stunning, what really seals the deal are the near constant four part vocal harmonies that could make even Simon and Garfunkel jealous. When combined, these two elements create a feel that is much more Narnia than Mad Max, though there is a noticeable melancholic bent to the otherwise mystical sonic palette. It is at once filled with immediate beauty and distant longing, the kind of album that one can appreciate equally when feeling sad or feeling happy. Armageddon never sounded so beautiful.

Though it would still succeed just on the merits of its immersive atmosphere and catchy melodies, Extralife also manages to be more than just a vibe album. Each song, or at least the discernable majority, starts contextually with the catastrophic nuclear event and becomes a snapshot of a particular experience. When put together the songs on Extralife form a sort of patchwork picture of an apocalyptic future, one where the narrators are aware of the overarching narrative, how this catastrophe arrived and all of the things left in its wake, but the listener is forced to piece together the story and its resulting message from fragments. In the title track we get a picture of the event itself as “Mushroom clouds reset the sky.” A few tracks later Futures flashes back to before the apocalypse with the words of a “Mrs. President” pleading in the chorus, “It’s not ever too late.” This refrain is juxtaposed with that of the next track, here presumably post-apocalypse again, where the narrator’s father urges him “hold your head up high”before the narrator concludes the vignette with “underground the new life thunders up and on.”

Despite predominantly leaning into their world and storytelling, there are several moments that remain poignant with or without their narrative context. Perhaps the most mesmerizing track, Old Friend, shows the narrator reflecting on an old friend who presumably has died. It is lyrically the shortest song on the album, only three stanzas of three lines each, but says all that it needs to say in just one stanza: “Old friend I/ Think of you still sometimes/ Sure as the river bending into the light.” Another theme that jumps beyond the story is the preeminence of history and what it means to find one’s place in it. In Singularitywe see a post-apocalyptic man “taking pictures of cement… for the history books on mother Earth.” On Hold Your Head Up High we once again see emphasis put on the ties between humanity and the need to preserve its likeness: “See that humankind is you/ Like all the rest, down to/ The scratches on the album that you’re singing to.” Darlingside probe at this question much more directly in Rite Hayworth, a song about famous, historical women in the early 20thCentury where the question of how one stands out “in a colorless sea” amounts to how one knows what it means to be loved. It is a fitting question for an album looking back at civilization from desolation, but also a fitting question in real, everyday life.

That is the true strength of Extralife, that the story is more than entertainment or a thought experiment, but as the final track, Best of the Best of Times somewhat reveals, it is very much real in its own right. While the chorus “We’re a long way, long way from the best of the best of times” is a proper reflection of the post-fallout predicament of the narrator, it is also buffered by images of clocks winding down, the world saying farewell, and a closing verse that begins “and I wonder/ whether our days are unnumbered” and ends with the dream of finally waking up to be pulled from a shipwreck “all equal and safe.” Here we find what feels like a real, pertinent warning that perhaps we are already a long way from the best of times in our current world and seemingly closer instead to the full collapse characterized throughout most of the album. This turns us back to the question of history and how humanity’s story will be preserved. It won’t do much good to take pictures of concrete once life is destroyed, but if we learn from our mistakes now then perhaps those who follow us won’t have to see what comes extra-life.

Underrated Albums: This Is My Dinner by Sun Kil Moon

Initially rising to fame in the 1990s as the frontman of slow-core kings The Red House Painters, singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek is now mainly known for his work under the moniker Sun Kil Moon.  Named after a Korean boxer, Sun Kil Moon’s sound has evolved drastically over the last two decades.  The band’s first album Ghosts Of The Great Highway (2003) sounded like a somewhat more folk-driven version of The Red House Painters later work, even recorded with many of the same band members.  2010’s Admiral Fell Promises saw Kozelek shedding the full-band instrumentation of most of his previous work, favoring a nylon-string guitar and his voice.  Two years later Among The Leaves was released, which featured more of the nylon-string style, but incorporated a stream-of-consciousness style of lyricism that stood in stark contrast to Kozelek’s previous writing, which was often sparse and riddled in metaphor.

2014’s Benji garnered widespread critical acclaim for Sun Kil Moon.  For the most part, Benji stuck with the same style of his previous two releases, occasionally incorporating full band arrangements, and using the stream-of-consciousness lyric style to great effect.  Most of all, listeners were affected by the brutal honesty of the songs, many of which deal with the loss of loved ones, from the perspective of a veteran songwriter who is coming to terms with being in the second half of his life.

Since then, Kozelek has struggled to gain acclaim.  2015’s Universal Themes and 2017’s Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood received middling to negative reviews, as Kozelek delved even farther into the avant-garde, with both albums including many songs spanning over 10 minutes in length.  Listeners complained that Kozelek was no longer writing with the focus seen in his earlier work, and was just elaborating on self-centered minutia.

2018’s This Is My Dinner is no different.  The album spans an hour-and-a-half over the course of ten tracks, mainly chronicling Kozelek’s time touring Europe in November of 2017.  The first track “This Is Not Possible” features a laid-back, old school jam beat over top of which Kozelek talk-sings, beginning with a story about trying (unsuccessfully) to get into a Frankfurt venue, and ending (nine minutes later) with Kozelek singing about the process of recording the song itself.  Comedically, nearly every stanza of the song ends with the band softly chanting, “Yes, this is possible!” or “This is not possible!” back to Kozelek in response to a question in the narrative, almost like the chorus in a Shakespeare spoof.  Example:

Koz: Is it possible that my favorite meal is chicken and waffles?

Band: This is not possible!

Koz: Is it possible that the United States President needs to be admitted into a mental hospital?

Band: Yes, this is possible!

Koz: Is it possible that I’m singing this song in Berlin in front of a thousand people tonight?

Band: This is not possible!

On this release, Kozelek’s lyrics jump from the hilarious to the heart breaking very quickly in the span of a single track.  The title track finds him recalling a tour in Norway during which he received a call informing him that his beloved cat is near death.  He embarks on the flight home, racing death to see his pet before she dies, “The whole thing was so upsetting / and the anxiety was building so badly on the plane / and I kept writing in my journal / ‘please Pink, don’t die on me / please Pink, don’t die on me / please Pink, don’t die on me while I’m up here in the sky / I’ll hate myself forever if I could not kiss you goodbye.’”

The second half of the album sees Kozelek revisiting his childhood and the music that he grew up with that influenced him to be a musician in the first place.  In the song “David Cassidy,” he announces his intention to cover “Come On Get Happy” by the Partridge Family several times before the song cuts abruptly, jumping right into a one-minute rendition of the classic track.  After, he plays a long rendition of AC/DC’s “Rock N’ Roll Singer,” and then wraps up the record with two now “standard” stream-of-consciousness tracks.

What makes this record great is not it’s unconventional form, or it’s humor or tear jerking moments, but the way in which Kozelek’s writing style opens you up and immerses you into his world.  While some might view his writing as boring, tedious, and at times preachy, it offers a wholly unique perspective as you enter the head of a man who sees everything, and I mean everything, as significant and worthy of being written about.

When most of us look back upon our lives, we think of the big moments.  Graduations, weddings, divorces, moves, deaths of those close to us.  While those things are certainly significant, we often fail to recognize that the majority of life is lived between these moments.  Most of our lives are lived rushing to work, going grocery shopping, staring at our phones, talking to friends, waiting for the next moment.  Kozelek’s music makes every moment feel huge and this is where his writing succeeds.  He recognizes the intricacies of our lives and pays attention to them, honoring the quiet, busy, monotonous, and annoying moments as sacred.

This Is My Dinner is easily the most light-hearted album Kozelek has released, maybe ever.  He sounds like he’s having fun on this release, moving from story to story, detail to detail, reveling in the glory of all of it.  Aside from diehard fans, most probably will not bother with this.  If you haven’t heard a Kozelek album before, go back and listen to Benji, maybe a few Red House Painters albums, and then when you have an afternoon alone, sit down and crack open a beer and throw this on, and you’ll be surprised at how often you want to listen again.

Underrated Albums: On Watch by Slow Mass

The year is 2018 and guitar-driven music is once again in need of revitalization. A few years ago the 2010’s Emo Revival hit full swing, inspiring a new wave of pop-punk-but-this-time-it’s-dorky bands, twinkly math-rock depressed with the state of life in the American Midwest, and self-described loser-rock produced largely in suburban bedrooms and determined to self-destruct at all costs. Roughly a decade ago, when all of these sounds blew up they breathed new life into a musical medium that many had already declared dead. Now with the Emo Revival beginning to lose its steam, the realm of guitar music is once again due for new ideas. Enter: Chicago’s Slow Mass and their debut LP On Watch.

On Watch opens, after a brief intro, with the screech of guitar feedback and two dueling, distorted guitars laid over frenzied drumming courtesy of Josh Sparks (Standards – Into it. Over it.). It hits with the force of a car crash, sending the listener reeling before it retreats on cue to a subdued verse led by the soft crooning of bassist/vocalist Mercedes Webb. The transition is simultaneously drastic and effortless, somehow making what should be a jarring juxtaposition of sounds seem nuanced and natural.

Throughout the album, Slow Mass continue to hold these sounds and dynamics in contrast to one another, at times bordering on pure chaos and at times producing sounds that can’t be described as anything other than beautiful. On My Violent Years, a sparse acoustic arrangement suddenly flourishes with a myriad of woodwind instruments and ethereal vocal harmonies into a rising crescendo that never loses the gentleness of the piece as a whole. Three tracks later E.D. kicks down the door with its dissonant, frenetic brand of hardcore and lays waste to the room before handing the reigns over to the calm shuffling of The Author. Sometimes, like in the plodding Suburban Yellow, they move between both moods in the same song. In still other songs, like penultimate track Schemes, the instrumental and the lyrics seem to create different moods simultaneously. It is this masterful ability to create nuance out of something drastic and extreme that sets Slow Mass apart from their contemporaries. It is this very same ability that makes On Watch a clinic on album composition.

Lyrically, On Watch often leans into the Jeff Tweedy school of cryptic and somewhat obscure. Like Tweedy, however, it is apparent that the lyrics are rarely if ever meaningless, rather they seem to dance around the subject, perhaps giving the listener its general shape but never exposing it in clear terms. In this way deciphering what the songs are about becomes a bit like the old grade-school illustration of feeling an elephant with your eyes closed and trying to explain what you feel. For the ever-shifting, somewhat mysterious feel of the album as a whole this brand of lyricism works quite well, in part because though the lyrics may be cryptic they are not vague. The imagery on On Watchis often vivid, with lines like “a walled up border collie”, “spray painted scenester/ king of the bottom feeders”, “a newborn fib/ and a loser’s lisp”, and “you peel me off like dead skin.” In the few moments where Slow Mass give you something direct it is usually simple, but impactful, such as the central line in closing track G’s End: “All I’ve wanted to say/ is I hope you find peace today.”

Here in their lyricism Slow Mass once again showcase both the tension and the compatibility of extremes, creating a lyrical atmosphere where obtuse images are juxtaposed with direct, easily intelligible phrases such as: “There’s nothing like getting up before dawn to start wasting your life.” Alongside the ever-changing, constantly metamorphosizing music, the lyrics help create an album that seems to have it’s finger on something real, but intangible; everyday, but mysterious; pretty out there, but still grounded somewhere. It is the kind of album that is both mechanically innovative, but also emotive and thoughtful; an album that is unapologetically artsy without feeling overly self-indulgent. Perhaps it is exactly the kind of album that we need to jolt the guitar music world back to life.

Mapping the Zeitgeist: 2018 in Music

After a somewhat down year in 2017, 2018 proved to be a monumental year for music. The sheer volume of incredible albums across all contemporary genres this year would be the most of the current decade if 2016 weren’t such a watershed year for album-oriented music. Unlike 2016, however, 2018 was also a monumental year for the non-artistic sides of music with huge moves in the business, political, and socioeconomic components of the industry. Though our primary focus here at Not a Sound is the creative end of music, there were two big changes in music as a culture this year that we’d like to touch on briefly.

 

The Music Modernization Act

 

On October 11, 2018 the 115th United States Congress passed The Music Modernization Act, a three-part bill designed to update music copyright law for the age of streaming services. The MMA was one of the most sweeping updates in copyright law in decades and received support from musicians, producers, labels, and streaming services alike for streamlining and enforcing the payment process for music recording royalties. Perhaps the most important of the three sections of the bill is the first, which would create an independent, non-profit agency in charge of maintaining a database of mechanical license ownership for sound recordings (the license that covers the composition and lyrics in a recording) and then charging a blanket royalty rate to streaming sites who use the database. It also ensures that songwriters get paid a portion of their mechanical license royalties and enforces this by contract. Also included in the bill is a requirement to pay producers, sound engineers, and mixers who were creatively involved in a recording a piece of the royalties as well. This is the first time that producers have been included in the royalty discussion.

 

Women in Music

 

2018 was a watershed year for women in music. Referencing Metacritic, a site that compiles the aggregate critical scores of albums, female artists or groups with at least one woman member topped the majority of all genres across the board this year, even in genres that are typically male dominated such as metal, where English band Rolo Tomassi released the critical consensus best album by a wide margin, and also hip-hop, where Chicago-based rapper Noname released not only the most critically acclaimed album in her genre, but the most critically acclaimed album overall of the year. Other notable releases included Kacey Musgraves, who topped the critical charts in country music, Half Waif in synth-pop, Slow Mass and The Screaming Females in rock/alternative, and Lucy Dacus in the lyrical alternative/singer-songwriter mold. Dacus also recorded the incredible Boygenius EP with fellow female superstars Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, perhaps the most lyrically proficient super-group of all time, and, continuing the theme, comprised entirely of women.

 

The list of critically acclaimed albums that women were involved in this year runs deep down the line and reflects a growing upward trend in female participation in musical genres previously dominated by men. A study by Fender this year showed that for the first time in history exactly half of new guitar players in both the UK and the USA were young women. Although the trend had been moving in this direction for the past few years, many naively wrote it off as “the Taylor Swift effect”, a surge in guitar purchases driven by the fanatical culture surrounding the young country star. However, years after Swift traded in her acoustic for pop beats and synths, we can see clearly what anyone who had been paying attention in the first place knew all along: girls just want to play guitar too.

 

In 2018 we are finally beginning to see a more even distribution between male and female artists, at least on the critical level. Though we still have a long way to go to remove stigmas and barriers, we are finally starting to see real ground broken in creation and critical coverage, and if 2018 is any indication, the results are going to be great for music.

What Makes a “Classic” Album?

Let’s say you’re like me, and anytime you have a few extra bucks, you roll on over to your favorite used record store for a few hours and bask in your hipster glory. One of my favorites to visit during such (rare) times is Jerry’s Records in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh.  Jerry’s is a vinyl geek’s dream.  Walk in and you will find boxes on top of boxes full of records spanning the entire lifetime of the format, covering all genres.  Let’s say you go to the rock/pop section, which in itself takes up a quarter of the warehouse.  You start thumbing your way through the stacks, in hopes of finding something by The Beatles, Prince, Bowie, maybe Springsteen.  Instead, you would likely be able to find massive stacks of music by relatively unknown pop bands from the sixties, or a plethora of Barry Manilow records.  You’ll be lucky if you find a Bowie covers album, or maybe a scratched Capitol Records version of one of the Fab Four’s early releases.

This is not because these records don’t exist.  They aren’t rare.  The Beatles are one of the most popular bands of all time, selling millions of LPs and singles over the course of the past 50 some years.  The fact is, people don’t get rid of these records often, and when they go on sale, the folks at Jerry’s put them right up at the front so that the costumers will see them and snatch them up within minutes of being on the shelf.

That is because these albums are true “classics.”  Their influence has lasted for decades.  Despite the fact that the Beatles broke up in 1970, they continue to draw new fans with every generation, and hence are more difficult to find at record stores than a band like Bread.  My question is, what makes an artist or an album stand out in this way? What qualities of popular music continue to draw people in and stay relevant for years?  Why does Walmart sell Pink Floyd merch?  What is up with the resurgence of Fleetwood Mac in popular culture?

I would argue that there are three broad categories of classic albums.  As a disclaimer, I’m not saying that all “classics” fall into these categories.  There is such a thing as an “underground classic,” or artists that have a dedicated cult following long after they are gone.  I’m not devaluing that.  Additionally, artists could have multiple albums that exist in any of these categories, or sometimes albums might blur the line between two, or all three.  But, in terms of popular culture, there are three categories of “classic” albums that stand out to me.

Mastery of a “tried n’ true” method

These are albums that demonstrate a deep knowledge of a tradition.  Yet, instead of being boxed in by that tradition, and making a paint-by-numbers folk album for example, they add something new to the conversation through their work.  Think of artists like Johnny Cash.  Cash knew country music better than anyone.  Country, folk, and blues were genres that had existed prior to his career.  His music was not “re-inventing the wheel” so to speak.  He just wrote really damn good songs in a genre he had a mastery of. Often times, as was more common in the fifties and sixties, his albums even included many covers of other people’s songs.  Yet he is still one of the most revered American musical artists.

So what sets Cash’s work apart from the countless mimickers that followed, all of the covers of his songs, and the lookalikes in the industry?  Although his sound was not necessarily groundbreaking in the way that later artists would be, Cash managed to add something newto the conversation through his unique image, presence, voice, and writing style.  His country background melded into the rock-n-roll aesthetic and persona that he had acquired by working with Sun Records, putting a unique spin on what qualifies as “country.”  It is not always easy to put your finger on what makes these artists stand out, but it shows in the influence that follows their career, even after their death.

 

Examples: Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A’ Changin’, Whitney Houston’s self-titled album, Nirvana’s Nevermind.

A tasteful combination of genres

Sometimes, an album comes out that attempts to cover every genre under the sun. These albums tend to come off as cheap imitations of the original form.  Think about the current Island and Latin sounds that have been popular on the radio over the past few years by artists like Drake, Cardi B, and Twenty One Pilots.  A song like “Hot Line Bling” may be catchy, but sounds like a week imitation of the reggae genre, under the guise of being “influenced.”  This type of song usually turns out to be a fad replaced when the next trend comes in.  Another example is in the early 2010’s when all you heard on the radio were singles by Mumford And Sons, The Lumineers, and Gotye.

Amidst this slog, an artist will occasionally make a record that tastefullycombines genres to make a unique piece of art, that has mass appeal, while also showing a loyalty to the forms that it is influenced by.  I would argue that The Beach Boys’ Pet Soundsfalls into this category.  The record creates a unique soundscape through by writing pop tunes with classical arrangements.  Music critics continue to gush over every aspect of this album, even just listening to the instrumentals alone.  The combination of classical and pop does not come off as hokey or just someone trying to mesh things together that don’t belong; rather it listens as a unique piece of art by someone who had a deep respect and understanding of both traditions.

 

Examples: The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Past, Sufjan Stevens Come On, Feel The Illinois!, and Bon Iver’s self-titled album.

Something totally different

Let’s be real, anyone can make a noise record.  It’s easy to hook up a Stratocaster to a bunch of delay petals and brag about how artsy you are.  Many albums have been released that are “different” from most music people have heard, but different doesn’t always equal good.  What sets apart the noise as something that listeners will latch on to and discuss for years to come?

Think about the Beatles reallytrippy stuff from the Sgt. Pepper era.  Tracks like “A Day In The Life,” “I Am The Walrus,” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” come to mind.  The mainstream world in 1967 had never heard anythinglike that before.  While it could be argued that these songs come through a combination of multiple genres, I would argue that the contrast is so harsh that it was more something almost entirely new.  These songs were weird, but still had a mass appeal. Songs like these tend to be ones that we look at as bench marks by which we measure how popular music has changed overtime.  Albums that are total game changers but still have pop sensibilities are remembered and loved for generations, making them difficult to come by at your local record store.

 

Examples: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless,Radiohead’s Kid A

Dynamics: On, Off, Left, Right, B, A, Start

At the center of every great pop song, orchestral piece, or ambient synth-based horror movie score is a conscious or intuitive understanding of dynamics. Giving a song a beginning and an end, or the intentional lack thereof, is an important part of using music to tell a story.  “Dynamic” is often used to describe music that spends some of its time being quiet and some of its time being blisteringly loud, but I’d like to offer up (or rather repeat what I’ve learned from people smarter than me) the idea that there is much more to dynamic music than stomping on a distortion pedal and deafening an unsuspecting listener.

Movement can happen in a song through (deep breath) volume, melody, the choice of instrumental tone (or timbre), the types of instruments used, layers of instruments or voices, space, complexity, dissonance, harmony, chord changes, tightness, sloppiness, the choice of words, the intonation of speech, the rhyming pattern, the length of a given section, repetition, stopping short and a million other dimensions that can make a song feel like it’s progressing from beginning to end. Movement, in all these dimensions, becomes a tool to the songwriter or composer.

You may be wondering: “But Sean, you uninformed and uncultured slob, what about music that doesn’t change much over time? Ambient music, film scores, even simple hook-based pop music? Does a lack of dynamics make them bad?”. To which I would say, “read the first sentence ya nerd” followed shortly thereafter by a far more friendly “no, of course not”. A lack of dynamic change can be just as much a powerful choice as an abundance of dynamic change. Familiarity, comfort, mundanity, and a feeling of a continuity can all be expressed by maintaining a constant dynamic. A song that sets out to capture one particular moment or feeling wouldn’t be served well by an evolving sound that changes dramatically from beginning to end; a song’s movement should match the story it’s trying to convey.

         Subverting this idea can also be a powerful tool. Presenting horrible events with a carefree disposition, jangly guitars, and dancy rhythms (e.g. much of “Bubblegum” by Kevin Devine) can communicate sarcasm or highlight the absurdity of our tendency to live life as if violent injustice is a perfectly alright status quo. Dramatic change between sections can convey the volatile nature of a person or event, such as Slow Mass’s use of major tonal and volume shifts to show the inner existential turmoil caused by pointless, “cyclical living”.

 

The idea that every aspect of a song or album should reflect its place in the world being created or presented by the artist is key to creating what Zack and Ian (Editors in Chief) refer to as “a world album”. The world being presented can be big or small, and the timeframe in which the story takes place can be short or sprawling; the dynamics of a song or album should be coherent with the world being built, and how the world is meant to be viewed by the listener.

 

    Next time you’re listening to a record (or writing one!), try and follow the dynamics of each section or each track. What story is it telling, how is it choosing to tell it, and how is it asking you to listen?