The thing that’s hard to remember about innovation is that it too is codified and made safe by culture. That is, there are certain ways, aesthetics, signs, and styles which one must perform to be considered innovative. Therefore, you don’t really need to challenge the norm in order to be perceived as one that does; in fact, the norm doesn’t want you challenging it at all. That’s why actually making something new is hard, as you need not only to navigate the “obvious” parts of the status quo in need of innovation but also the meta levels and signifiers which stagnate innovation itself. This is doubly present and clear in music. Many bands out there, especially in circles like progressive metal who pride themselves on “innovation”, think they’re pushing the envelope or are perceived as doing so even when they’re not. I’m sure you all have your examples; it’s pretty rare to find someone who hasn’t been talked down to by someone citing the most basic, “deep” bands out there.
That’s why it was so refreshing to me to come across Mantra‘s “Medium”. Released in support of their October release of the same name, this seventeen minute track is good in and of itself; Mantra’s brand of progressive metal is of the modern variety, relying as much on Gojira, The Ocean and Meshuggah as it does on more classical progressive acts, blending plenty of post-metal into its progressive. But the track doesn’t come by itself: it is accompanied by what’s dubbed as an “interactive three-sided record listening experience”. I know, it sounds like a gimmick; I thought so too. But then I gave the tool a spin and I actually found it to be incredibly cool and interesting.
It works like this: the brain at the center of your screen is divided into two color coded hemispheres. So too the waveforms surrounding it. Together, they make the whole, represented by the icon of the eye at the bottom left. But you can use the slider to separate the track into the two elements which make it up, the white and the red. By moving it around (between icons which obviously represent “body” and “mind”), you can increase or decrease the volume of each part. The beauty of it is that the parts are not necessarily separated into instruments and thus do not sound “lonely” when played separately. Each track can be played as its own piece, while completely ignoring the other, as they were indeed released as two separate tracks when the album was released “normally”. When they’re together, you get the “full” experience but if I played you either one of the “sides” by itself, you wouldn’t feel there was anything missing.
That’s quite a feat. Beyond the nice programming and design which went into this tool (the iconography is way better than what you usually find in these things), the composition itself is also impressive. Creating a track which can work like this is no small feat and Mantra have knocked it out of the park; both the main track and the disparate parts are just great music first and foremost, beyond the niftiness of the tool itself. But the tool adds a whole new layer of experimentation and potential to the thing, as you mess around with the levels and make your own version of the music. That’s what makes this tool really innovative; I’ve seen stuff like this before but never with a sliding, adjustable scale or with tracks that work so well by themselves.