Imagine the situation. You’ve just bought a new CD, got home and after fighting with the fiddly folded corners of the stubborn cellophane wrapper for five minutes, you are finally ready to press play. Track one begins, fading in from silence and as the chords progress through several iterations it begins to dawn on you that this song is an instrumental introduction to the record. You can’t quite work out if it serves a purpose or whether it is just is present as filler; you just have to hope it’s getting you into the right mood for track two. As the song trundles on, you nearly lose confidence; so tempted to press skip so that the album can start in earnest. Finally track two begins, but was it worth the wait?
Instrumental intros are commonplace. You can probably think of several straight away off the top of your head, but the question is: are they being thought of fondly?
A truly great instrumental intro is one that can stand alone from the rest of the album. It is a song in its own right, with structure, obvious progression and a musical narrative. The acid test is whether or not this song would make your iPod, going against the almost instinctive reaction of unchecking the tickbox which denotes if a certain track is going to be imported into your library or not. Such a track is Dream Theater’s False Awakening Suite, the introduction to their 2013 self-titled effort. This track opens with a powerful orchestral march that slowly transforms through many different phases before John Petrucci unleashes a series of wailing unison bends. Even though False Awakening Suite was written to sound epic like a movie soundtrack, it has enough evolution throughout three distinct movements that it can be heard on its own, without the need for track two to hold its hand.
Another approach to writing successful instrumental intros is to construct the track around a musical motif that reappears elsewhere on the record. This is very common in progressive music, especially within concept records. Coheed & Cambria are an excellent example of a band that does this, as their first three albums share the same motif, which is beautifully arranged for an orchestral interpretation on Keeping The Blade – the intro to Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume I: From Fear Through The Eyes of Madness. In these albums the recognisable musical theme symbolises periods when a large amount of time has elapsed within the story, but it is altered enough such that each time it is heard it does not grow repetitive. However, care does have to be taken with this approach, as shown by Porcupine Tree’s Occam’s Razor which is the very skip-able introduction to 2010’s The Incident.
Despite the success that can be achieved with a well designed instrumental introduction, some bands seem content with a thirty second build up of noise as track one. Although iconic with the nu metal community, Slipknot’s 742617000027, which sees DJ Sid Wilson having fun with a sample of Charles Manson, is left completely flat without its successor (sic). Even worse is Papa Roach’s Engage which introduces 2012’s The Connection with a dull drone that eventually evolves into a forgettable melody. Surely the album would have been better off to kick straight into the pompous march of Still Swingin’? There are countless other examples – just check your iTunes to see how many albums begin with track two!
To write the perfect instrumental intro a lot of hard work is needed – so is it really worth it? The answer is yes. Just remember that The xx managed to craft an intro that in some circles is considered to be the best song from the album. The simply titled Intro is governed by distinctive drum rhythms, as well as an oscillating growth and decay of tension which speaks to listeners emotions and prepares them for the bleak anti-pop beyond. This track manages to serve two purposes; firstly it is a fantastic song in its own right, but secondly it sets the scene like a well written prologue, making the album feel more connected and unified.
It is clear then that taking the time to produce a decent intro is most definitely worth it, as it can enhance an album by providing cohessivity and diversity. Unfortunately most bands haven’t quite mastered the art yet and until such a time when they have, instrumental intros should be handled with great care.
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