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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Long Live the Triptych: Five Great Series of Three Rock Songs

Posted By on Thu, Aug 18, 2011 at 6:00 AM

In visual art, it's called a triptych -- a piece divided into three connected sections or panels. The individual panels could, in theory, stand on their own, but each adds meaning and significance to the other two, creating a single work that is more than the sum of its parts.

We don't have a name for this concept in music, but we should, especially in the new digital landscape, dominated as it is by singles rather than albums. Three songs is the smallest unit of musical arc, of emotional progression, the midpoint between the song and the album. Two songs only creates a straight line from point A to point B; three allows for a curve, for a complete musical thought.

With that said, here are five great rock triptychs. If we missed your favorite, leave it in the comments.


The Beatles: "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "With a Little Help From My Friends," and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967)

If you had listened to this for the first time in 1967 (and maybe you did), the crowd noise in the opening seconds of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" would have tipped you off that the Beatles were up to something new, something bold. As the song nears its end and Sir Paul introduces Billy Shears (a.k.a. Ringo), something funny happens -- "With a Little Help from My Friends" emerges not from the customary silence between tracks, but in one fluid motion from the song before it.

Although this technique may be common now, at the time it was essentially revolutionary -- multiple songs could really be part of one larger thought, despite being listed separately. Conceptually, this was a leap.

Moving forward, the Beatles lead us on a continuous journey, rather than hopping from track to track. In "With a Little Help from My Friends," for example, the line "I get high with a little help from my friends" seems a bit odd in what is otherwise a sugar-sweet song, but it works as foreshadowing for the alternate universe ahead in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

When "Lucy" ends, we find ourselves firmly entrenched in the Beatles' dream world, which is the profound achievement of this triptych -- it begins by asking us to suspend our disbelief and enjoy a fictional band and ends with us down Sgt. Pepper's rabbit hole.

(Listen here.)


Mutemath: "Stare at the Sun," "Obsolete," "Break the Same" (Mutemath, 2006)

In some ways, the musical landscape of the '00s mirrored that of the world before Sgt. Pepper, but for different reasons. In the 2000s, after years of album-focused approaches to rock music in the post-Sgt. Pepper's era, the switch from records and tapes to MP3s and the ubiquitous "Shuffle" feature reestablished the old divide between songs, and re-emphasized the supremacy of the single (as we write this, in fact, Spotify interrupts the flow between two songs with an ad for Coke). These three Mutemath tracks, however, demand to be listened to in sequence, without interruption.

"Stare at the Sun" meanders through spacey synth and guitar sounds, building a relaxed mood before heading into an extended coda that introduces a new bass line. That bass line drives forward into the next tune, "Obsolete," a mostly instrumental extension of "Stare at the Sun" in which the band explores all of the harmonies and vibes implied in the latter.

In its final seconds, "Obsolete" powers up again with a sound like rockets firing for take-off, culminating in the first notes of "Break the Same," a nearly six-minute rumination on intolerance that brings the latent energy of the previous two songs to a fever pitch before slowly unwinding into a gentle synth landscape, the eerily calm plane in the aftermath of a tornado.

Altogether, the three songs last over 14 minutes, but feel like one unified musical idea.

(Listen here.)


Led Zeppelin: "Houses of the Holy," "Trampled Under Foot," and "Kashmir" (Physical Graffiti, 1975)

The distinctive tone of the guitar riff that starts "Houses of the Holy" is the launching point for these three songs, a trio that explores the guitar's ability to shape-shift.

The riff in "Trampled Under Foot" is markedly similar to the one in "Houses of the Holy," but this time it's doubled with a clavinet keyboard. Guitarist Jimmy Page alternates between a straightforward tone and an aggressive wah-wah sound; combined with the clavinet, it sits somewhere between Zeppelin's signature riff-rock and funk. As the song continues, Page peppers in quick, spacey licks with generous doses of echo to add a sense of depth and wandering.

That wandering slides into something cosmically grand and epic in "Kashmir" as the band trades the clavinet for a string section. Although Page wrote the song's signature riff, the guitar becomes a mere accessory to the strings. Even so, his axe is the glue that keeps the orchestra connected to the rest of the band.

The three guitar riffs are all classic and instantly recognizable -- the genius is in how Page's instrument takes on a different role in each one.

(Listen here.)


Smashing Pumpkins: "Soma," "Geek U.S.A." and "Mayonaise" (Siamese Dream, 1993)

None of these three songs was released as a single, but the trio is stunning. "Soma" begins with a lulling guitar melody, barely audible, and weaves its way through a dreamy haze until it finally explodes into an all-out arena rock singalong.

"Geek U.S.A." picks up at the high points of "Soma," aggressively switching between straight-ahead '90s rock and a slow, thick heaviness that catapults right back into guitar solos and headbanging awesomeness.

As the last note fades with the heavy fuzz of distortion, one of the guitars lets out a high-pitched screech -- the perfect segue into "Mayonaise," which both combines and resolves the two songs before it. It starts with a "Soma"-like lilting guitar melody, but quickly builds into a beast that's heavily distorted but somehow delicate and melodic. Each chorus is punctuated with the squeal of a cheap guitar that the Pumpkins discovered and used for this song, which connects "Mayonaise" to the fade-out wails of the song before it.

The lyrics allude back to the dreaminess of "Soma" but also the trapped frustration of "Geek U.S.A." "Can anybody hear me?/ I just want to be me," singer Billy Corgan howls, somewhere between a snarl and a sob.

Taken together, the three songs showcase the best of the Pumpkins' creative output, with a wide range of moods and enough craft to make us (almost) forgive Corgan's ego-maniacal attempt at reuniting the band with no other original members. At least we got these three songs first.

(Listen here.)


Muse: "Hyper Music," "Plug in Baby," "Citizen Erased," and "Micro Cuts" (Origin of Symmetry, 2001)

Muse apparently killed it at Outside Lands, but, if you ask us, the band's best days were back in the early '00s with this heavyweight champion of an album.

Although Origin of Symmetry has a long list of excellent songs, its centerpiece is this group of four. Yes, we know, four does not equal three, but the point stands -- the most interesting thing about all of these sets is how the bands toy with track divisions, treating them more like symbolic markers than physical divisions. If that's the case, then the difference between three and four songs suddenly becomes less material.

Here, it all starts with the first few seconds of "Hyper Music" -- the scraping sound of strings that seemingly resist singer and guitarist Matt Bellamy's hands, rattling and sputtering like the engine of an old Chevy before roaring to life. When Bellamy's unmistakable falsetto and Christopher Wolstenholme's brash fuzz bass enter the picture, shit gets real. "You know that I don't love you/ And I never did/ I don't want you/ And I never will," Bellamy howls in the chorus.

The song ends with the same slow sputtering feeling of its beginning, and the distorted guitar fades across the end of the track and into the beginning of "Plug in Baby," slithering and morphing into a catchy-as-hell opening guitar riff. The full sound of Wolstenholme's fuzz bass connects the two songs even more.

Fuzz bass gives way to fuzz everything in the opening notes of "Citizen Erased," where each instrument starts to feel like it's being channeled through Wolstenholme's brain. For over seven minutes, the song veers back and forth between subdued quietude and the song's stomach-punching main riff, ending with Bellamy's gentle, almost whispering vocals: "Wash me away/ Clean your body of me/ Erase all the memories/ They will only bring us pain/ And I've seen all I'll ever need." The final chords -- on piano now -- give way to a strange but soothing loop of noise that closes this song and starts the next, "Micro Cuts."

The first 2:36 of this song hearken back to the quiet-loud-quiet feel of "Citizen Erased," except with the added intensity of Bellamy's insane, operatic falsetto, which he maintains for the entirety of the song. The track's final minute, however, recaptures all of the musical arc of the previous three songs and compresses it -- 30 seconds of build-up, then 30 seconds of all-out havoc.

When the band plays the song's definitive last note, all four songs finally feel resolved, as though each track somehow aspired to this level of intensity but simply couldn't get there until the end of the line. Taken together, this set (a quad-tych?) is a study in building and controlling that intensity until it's ready to explode your speakers, and probably your brain.

(Listen here.)


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