As the guitar solo kicks in, the landscape in front of you shifts. Barren crags of rock erupt into fluttering red ribbons, ascending to the heavens. Your trio pushes forward nonetheless, unabated by the explosion of colors. In a few moments, the track comes to an end, and you’re whisked away to another landscape. Words fade in and out overhead, or trail behind as footprints, a song of solitude pressed against a new backdrop of kaleidoscopic gems and whirring panels.
Pilgrimage, an interactive album by Joost Eggermont and Jorrit De Vries, showcases what power visuals can have when married to music. In this case, it’s Panorama by La Dispute. Set across 10 tracks, Pilgrimage asks nothing of the participant other than to take in the sights and sounds. Simply controlling the direction of three wanderers, you’re carried on their path through vivid imagery and fantastical landscapes. Like an album cover come to life, you delve into the scenery, losing yourself to the music and lyrics.
Unlike the passive act of listening to music and reading along with a lyric insert, Pilgrimage enhances the experience like nothing else. Instead of reading ahead down the page during an interlude, or flipping around to peek at art, the presentation of the experience brings out every song line by line, giving you time to digest the overall intent of each. The album itself treads painful themes, ranging from the loss of loved ones, to the process by which one comes to terms with their own mortality, to the crushing existential dread of what lies beyond this life. As Jordan Dreyer’s vocals ring out over desolate worlds, the wanderers press ever forward, unable to stop, much like the anxiety and dread plaguing the narrator of each song.
On the flipside, we have Anamanaguchi’s Capsule Silence XXIV, something far more eclectic and upbeat. While La Dispute exude an emotional energy channeling a darker side of themselves, Anamanaguchi’s bubble gum pop sound and chiptune-y beats give way to something quite bizarre.
Played in a first-person perspective, XXIV lampoons an epic sci-fi shooter far from finished, poised as created by the band itself. However, due to the bugginess of the current build you’re playing, you end up accidentally opening the developer console when trying to use a weapon, and find yourself teleporting in to a debug room. Here, the album actually opens itself to you through the form of cassette tapes scattered about the ramshackle environment. A personal computer hovers behind you while you explore, ready to serve as your boombox whenever you wish to switch to a new track.
These two interactive albums showcase a new way to experience music, something that involves the listener more deeply, and brings out themes and mood far more readily than simply listening. In many ways, it feels like the natural extrapolation of the trajectory taken by the “cinematic” or “operatic” concept albums. An interactive companion to flesh out the world only glanced through the music is not so far-fetched, considering how films such as The Wall and Interstella 5555 provide incredibly nuanced visual adaptations of massive albums.
However, these endeavors need not attempt to pave new ground constantly, or to wrap themselves in extreme artistic experimentation to the point of navel-gazing. Instead, one could simply look at the examples set forth by bo en’s Pale Machine. Developed by Ben Esposito, Pale Machine provides teensy moments of varied interactivity within abstract environments: wobbling a beer bottle on a nightstand to knock a phone off of it, controlling a tongue as it blasts breakfast foods into orbit, or wiggling fingers on a hand. These vignettes are nothing more than mood pieces set against the music to elevate the lyrics, or to juxtapose themselves with the tone of the track to reveal a darker side hidden between the lines.
Furthermore, one needs not even to concern one’s self with deep interactivity, as evidenced by the Rainstorm EP. Already covered here by Emily, the notion of hosting an album within an application evolves the idea of how atmosphere is created by music. Not only do the tracks themselves provide a fitting mood to the low-lit street, but the trickle of rain and the hum of streetlights provide ambient backing that furthers the efforts put forth by the music. Rainstorm is like the next step in a desktop buddy, fused with the practice of opening RainyMood in a tab alongside your music player, all condensed into a single window.
None of this is anything new, however. Back in ’96, French artist Etienne Daho released “Eden”, a CD hosting not only the music tracks for the album, but also an executable for a game timed with the album. The game plays out an abstract story over the course of several acts, creating a piece that not only gives context to the music itself, but provides a glimpse into the creator of the music in a way you couldn’t with an album on its own. Within Eden is a father character, a soldier, who brushes you, his child, off, and seems as standoffish as all the other soldiers you encounter. This draws a parallel between Eden and Daho’s actual life, namely that his father was a solider who abandoned him as a young child.
Ultimately, the idea of an interactive accompaniment to an album release is not a prescription to all artists, but it is a very interesting avenue worth exploring, in a similar sense to how music videos can do so much for a song. I’m sure there are dozens more of these sorts of games out there, experimenting and redefining what it means to listen to an album, more so allowing one to actively experience it. As we move further into the digital era, the way in which we take in art is bound to constantly change. It only makes sense that music will adapt to the morphing landscape, imbuing itself with modern sentiments and technology to further the artistic statements channeled through the album, song, or band.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.