We Need More Albums that Tell Stories
How storytelling is the best way forward in an increasingly monotonous musical landscape.
Look, I am all for another sad ballad by Tay-Tay about her latest breakup or another rap song from Kanye about how he’s secretly a god, but let’s be honest with ourselves. The music industry is beginning to get a bit stale. The rafters are starting to sag, and the paint job’s not looking so hot. We need something to shake the place up, to bring something fresh to the table. And I know just the thing.
Stories. Big, powerful stories. Immense and intricate ponderings on life and all its facets. Tales of human wisdom and folly. The trials and triumphs, the failures and the losses, the smiles and the tears that make us who we are.
At the moment, the music scene is dominated by the same old giants that we see every day in our news feed. They are artists worthy of attention, with words of wisdom to share and drama that is always fascinating to watch play out, but many of them just write the same hits over and over. In slightly different words, maybe, but with the same chords and the same messages. It’s getting dull, and frankly, it’s time we expanded our views on music past what I call the Boring Trifecta: love, money, and fame. If you think about songs you’ve listened to recently, it’s almost certain that they included at least one of these staple ingredients. Just take a quick pop over to the Billboard’s Hot 100, and you’ll see what I mean.
Yet, without these classic pop elements to intrigue the audience, what kind of music are we left with? Is there anything on the market that actually features more than your garden-variety heartbreaks and high notes? Anything that could really reinvent the music we hear on the radio?
Well, ladies and gentleman, it is at this moment that I would be honored to introduce you to a little-known band by the name of The Mechanisms.
Although they unfortunately disbanded in the January of this year (making a dramatic exit, as is their fashion, in the form of an album entitled Death To The Mechanisms), The Mechanisms have left behind an impressive legacy. Over their ten-year-run, they produced a total of eight albums and a practical library’s worth of lore that fans could spend a lifetime combing over. Perhaps I’m being a bit dramatic myself, but I’ll admit when I started listening to the band, it was difficult at first to figure out what was going on. The Mechanisms are… complicated, and the origins behind the band even more so. Once I did finally grasp the concept, though, I was down the rabbit hole faster than you can say, “Late for a very important date.”
You see, The Mechanisms isn’t just a storytelling band. The band’s existence is the story.
But let’s rewind here, back to the autumn of 2010. A solo artist by the name of Maki Yamazaki decides to form a band and get her budding career on track. She assembles a group of theatrical nerds (I use the term with the most fondness possible), and together, they become Dr. Carmilla and the Mechanisms.
“Who’s Dr. Carmilla?” you might ask. Oh, she’s the best kind of mad scientist, the kind that doesn’t care who gets hurt when it comes to getting her way and trying new things. Played by none other than our founding member, Yamazaki, Dr. Carmilla is a ruthless vampire and the creator of the Mechanisms, in a very literal way. The Mechanisms themselves are an unruly band of misfits and revolutionaries assembled from across many star systems to form Dr. Carmilla’s new crew. Each of them was augmented in some way— for Jonny D’Ville, his heart; for Ashes O’Reilly, their lungs; for Drumbot Brian, everything except his heart, etc. — by Dr. Carmilla to achieve the ultimate ascension: True immortality. Each of them can completely regenerate any damage sustained, and none of them can age.
Here’s where it gets really interesting. These characters — Dr. Carmilla, Jonny, Ashes, Brian, etc. — are the parts that the musicians behind the production of the band play all the time. For each member of the band, they have their real identity, and then they have the identity they play on the stage at the same time as they play their instruments and play the parts that the albums require them to play. Like a musical in which the actors are acting as characters who are acting as characters. Confused yet?
Well, explained a little more simply, from the moment the performers step on stage, they are new people. A crew of immoral, immortal space pirates that tour around the universe, giving concerts and telling the stories they have collected over their millennia-long journeys through the stars. Those stories involve characters that the fictional crew members step up to play. Like a very convoluted version of the play within a play concept from Midsummer Night’s Dream, if you will.
I was immediately delighted by this concept, once I fully understood it, because it was so unique. The four full narrative albums that The Mechanisms — who changed the name after their creator literally left to pursue her own career and fictionally may or may not have been plunged out an airlock by a vengeful crew member — have produced are extraordinary. They all take inspiration from legends and lore from around the world and frequently tell them to familiar melodies reshaped from songs like “Sinnerman” and “Rocky Road to Dublin.”
Their first studio album, Once Upon a Time in Space, is a tale of revolution and the revolting things people are willing to do in order to fight for what they believe in — all told through the lens of our favorite childhood fables. Then, there’s Ulysses Dies At Dawn, an Odyssey of an album set on a planet that steadily has become one gigantic City, riddled to its core with corruption and greed that manifests itself in the people who serve it. While the source material for the third album, High Noon Over Camelot, may be fairly obvious from the title, the twists and turns this story of blindness and bigotry takes were unexpected and utterly intriguing to me.
And finally, there’s The Bifrost Incident. In my opinion, the crowning jewel of The Mechanisms’ impressive works. Set in the Yggdrasil star system and taking its inspiration from the apex event in Norse mythology — their prophesized doomsday, Ragnarok — this album brings everything, from tyranny and its costs to love and its triumphs. A poetic tale worthy of Snorri’s Edda, The Bifrost Incident brought the band to new heights of epic storytelling and cemented them in my mind as legends, just like the stories they tell.
So, how does this all relate to the future of music?
Quite simply, while I don’t think musicians should try to become The Mechanisms, I think they should pick up where they left off. The world of storytelling albums started gaining popularity in the 70’s, with music like Pink Floyd’s The Wall and David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And the Spiders from Mars, and it has only expanded since. From Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart to Beyoncé’s Black Is King — and just within the concept of Broadway and musical theatre albums in general — the industry has slowly but surely been inching closer and closer to the idea of musicians telling stories that go farther than their own personal history of heartbreak. Bit by bit, musical artists are creating characters, telling tales, putting old themes to the test by remaking legends in new settings. The creativity of music is being pushed past its former limitations to form narratives that are far beyond the clichés of the Boring Trifecta. Narratives that hold artistic integrity, musical mastery, and most importantly… A crystalline core of something new. Something interesting.
The Mechanisms will always stand out to me, because they are the only ones I know bold enough to be a “storytelling musical cabaret” (as they describe themselves on their website). Hopefully, they won’t always be alone in that. Someday soon, another band might come along and pick up the torch of binding theatre into music, of fusing storytelling and song. Just like in the good ol’ days, when people sang songs passed down through the generations around campfires. Wondering at their place in the universe under starry skies but safe in the knowledge that they were together and that they held a universe of stories in their strumming fingers.
The ideas that are currently incubating in famous musicians’ minds are golden, but if we can continue pushing the music industry farther and farther out of its comfort zone, what we could get could be spectacular. Music has the power to change the world. It has before. So now, it’s up to the music industry to realize that power by leaving behind the outdated and tuning into the stories of adventure and tragedy they could be putting at the top of the charts. It’s up to them to learn how to put out albums that are big and bright and beautiful explorations of existence.
Stories that are human, in every messed-up and glorious way, because that’s what we really need right about now.