In recent years a rather disturbing trend has shown itself in my favorite music genre. The compulsive urge to put a narrator on an album (usually a concept album) who "helps move the story along", explaining in wildly overdone voice acting what is going on. In about 95% of these cases the result is embarrassing. Too often this has given an otherwise superb album a nasty amateurish feel. I've lost count of the times I have shook my head and asked myself "why can't they hear that it doesn't work?"
The narration ranges from mildly amusing through toe cringing and hilarious to completely album ruining. Some narrators are non-native English speakers with thick accents and a way of pronouncing words in far out ways. When this happens, any atmosphere the music may have built up is ruined and my imagination is shattered.
Ok, so eventually it all boils down to taste but personally I like to be challenged by music and believe that music should be heard and not necessarily explained on the actual album. I find it most interesting when the music is left to be interpreted by myself, the listener. The best concept albums are those that make me visualize the story in my own mind. When a narrator enters "the picture" to explain what is going on he has to do a seriously convincing job to keep the atmosphere intact.
In my humble opinion the best way to communicate a story is through the music and lyrics on the album. If a band really wants to explain things then the most effective way is by incorporating the story in the booklet in some way. It could be done by writing the complete story in prose (Savatage - Streets - A Rock Opera) or it could be done by adding small introductions or endings to the lyrics of each song in the booklet (Savatage - Dead Winter Dead and The Wake of Magellan). This way of doing it demands more from the listener but it is rewarded tenfold when the listener who wants to get into the story can do it by his of her own leisure and imagination. It is a matter of choice given to the listener.
So does narration even have a place on a music album? Yes, it sometimes does, but that is very rarely.
To my knowledge one of the first to utilize narration on an album was Alice Cooper on his "Welcome to my nightmare" album where Vincent Price successfully gave the album an even scarier atmosphere.
Once upon a time Manowar did it right as well when they hired Orson Welles to do the narration on "Dark Avenger" from their debut album "Battle Hymns". Now, there was a narrator who could enthrall the listener because of his convincing voice and also because he was worked into the music in a way that was convincing.
Queensrÿche also successfully embellished the narrative of their "Operation: Mindcrime" album by sparsely injecting the music with short, almost cinematic, passages. It worked because these were tightly fit into the overall story and music in a convincing way.
Going through the process of creating "that amazing concept album" I'm sure some bands consider the fact that the listener may not get what is going on and then decide to explain things in some way or form. This is almost always a bad choice.
The Manowar album "Gods Of War" is a prime example of this. In no less than three ways is the same basic story of the album explained. First in the booklet as written text. Second it is narrated in a separate track on the album. Third it is sung in an actual song on the album. As it happens, the song is strong enough to stand on its own and especially the narrative track manages to give the whole album a major "get on with it" vibe that it never completely recovers from. As in so many other examples when dealing with narration, self discipline seems to have gone right out of the window.
The optimal route, to me, is to let the music do the talking and just to do something completely different I will again pull out the band Manowar as an example. They managed to do it right with the 28 minute "Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy in Eight Parts" off their Triumph of Steel album. There they let the music tell the story by musically representing the events that were taking place. Though it took a long while to really get that song, in the long run it paid off many times over. So what has changed when a band that once understood the medium now fails to do so?
I have found several pitfalls when doing narration on an album and the list below shows a few I have come across. I have named the offenders next to the offense.
The list of narration No-No's
- Putting narration in the actual song, especially at the beginning or middle which makes it impossible to skip it on repeated listens (Ten - Babylon, Manowar - Gods of War, Genius - Parts 1-3)
- Different narrators are used, thus giving the album an uneven feel (Rhapsody - Symphony of Enchanted Lands Parts 1 & 2, Manowar - Gods of War)
- Using actors to act out parts of the story and ending up sounding completely amateurish and unconvincing in the context (After Forever - Invicibles circles, Rhapsody - Symphony of Enchanted Lands Part 2, Moonlight Comedy - Dorothy)
- Alteration of the narrators voice and sound effects are used to enhance the narration but fails (Manowar - Gods of War)
- An actual band member is doing the narration, thus demystifying the whole thing quite a bit when recognised. (Manowar - Gods of War) Exceptions to the rule: Virgin Steele and King Diamond.
- The use of people to represent scary monsters with hilarious results (Rhapsody - Symphony of Enchanted Lands Part 2 - Erian's Mystical Rhymes - Here the scary dragonmonster sounds like it has gotten a nasty cold, resulting in a severe speech impediment)
My main conclusion is that narration is not necessary to make a fantastic concept album.
A final advice to all bands considering adding narration to their next album: Don't do it! Assume that your listeners have a brain. If, after considering this fact, your band is still convinced that adding narration to your next album is the right thing to do please remember the ground rules: What is said first and foremost has to be interesting, then it has to be delivered in a completely convincing way and finally it has to fit into the music and atmosphere of the album. This is obviously incredibly tricky but I guess that is why it is reffered to as magic when something like this actually works.
Written By Steen
Online: Sunday, April 29, 2012