Concept Albums and the Novel

For the first ever guest poster here at Mirrormask Fiction, I would like to introduce Eric Zawadzki, half of the ultimate writing team over at Four Moons Press (the other half being Matt  Schick). The two of them have released a fantastic fantasy novel, Kingmaker, which you can find here. Without further ado, here is Eric with a fine post about Concept Albums and the Novel.

I first want to thank James for giving us a spot on his blog, and I want to encourage you to check out his post on our blog.

In my Senior year of high school, I stumbled upon Pink Floyd’s The Wall among my father’s collection of movies. The images, music, and lyrics resonated with me in a way no other musical work ever had. It was my first contact with a concept album, and at the time, the experience was completely mind-blowing.

Here was this album that told the story of a character with all his highs and lows. I had heard story songs before, but they usually had one main melody and told the tale of just one incident. The Wall, though, was epic – fresh melodies shot through with recurring riffs, competing themes, and a conclusion that drew all the pieces of the story together.

It didn’t hurt that at the time, I was yearning for both radical independence and the approval of others. The album’s exploration of alienation was therefore cathartic to my 17-year-old self. I‘m still a sucker for concept albums, such as Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle Earth, which retells stories from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.

I mention all this because I find that the books that stick with me the longest are the ones that feel a bit like a really good concept album. They collection of pieces (scenes or songs) assembled in a way that supports the central concept of the book (or album).

I suspect one of the trickiest problems with creating a concept album is you cannot get away with any filler. With any other kind of album, if I like only eight of the ten songs, I just don’t ever play the two songs I don’t like, and I’m not going to feel cheated. With a concept album, though, especially one where every song transitions seamlessly into the next, I expect (perhaps unfairly) that every track be at least acceptable, and preferably amazing.

I’ve definitely heard supposed concept albums where the songs didn’t fit together very well. Sometimes they simply felt like they were in the wrong order – too many slow songs stuck together, or a dynamic change so dramatic that it was almost alarming. Less often, but certainly more annoying, some had songs that only fit the theme of the concept because the track list said they did. I always wondered, in the latter case, whether they had only come up with six really good songs but needed ten, so they just shoehorned some other material into the same album, or whether they genuinely saw some connection that was completely invisible to me.

By the same token, I’ve definitely seen books that meandered from incident to incident without any real sense of purpose. Even if most of the individual scenes are perfectly fine, it’s hard to stick with the story as a whole, because a good novel is a concept album – it has to be greater than the sum of its parts and cannot have dead weight. Furthermore, the story it tells must make sense.

A concept album that manages to assemble 10-20 individually awesome songs into a logical pattern from which the theme of the album emerges like a phoenix rising from the ashes. It is a wonder to behold and will likely sit on repeat in my iTunes shuffle for weeks. The same goes for a novel that successfully cobbles together character, plot, setting, and style into something that touches deep into the soul even as it entertains. For me, The Hunger Games did that. So did The Sparrow, The Death Gate Cycle, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, The Lord of the Rings, and too many other books to count. All of them have their flaws, but at the time they moved me in ways not all books do.

I’m not 17 anymore. These days, I struggle more with my own mortality than I do with feelings of alienation. But to this day, whenever I hear The Wall – especially “Comfortably Numb” or “Hey You” – I remember what it felt like. The same is true of The Death Gate Cycle, whose optimism spat in the face of the inconsequential power of the individual never entirely left me. I listen to music and read to be entertained, sure, but I also want to feel something powerful and to be inspired.

What novels or songs (concept album or otherwise) have changed your perspective or captured your exact feelings of the moment?

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Posted on November 5, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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