Original Cover Art Designed by Nicholas Ma
Life is rarely easy and just as often unpleasant. When great art imitates life, great artists recreate the strength of life’s best moments with the pain and confusion of its worst. Some projects go above and beyond surface level thematic connections to tie the very soundscapes of an album to the great never-ending confusion and chaos of existing.
Tick tock. Close your eyes. If not literally then at least imagine yourself wrapped in the unseen. Alone in the darkness with a pair of headphones on, you’ve pressed play on one of the most critically and commercially acclaimed albums of all time, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The experience might not be the smooth sailing you expect, seeing as the album has spent more time than any other riding the Billboard 200 albums chart, appearing for a total of 861 weeks. The album’s intro track, “Speak to Me,” bodes an ominous, sonic foretelling of the journey to come.
Thump, thump. The sound of silence is punctuated by the steady rhythm of a heart beating. It’s joined by the ticking away of a clock, the repetitive drone of a cash register, and a quiet voice laughing away in lunacy: “I’ve always been mad, I know I’ve been mad / Like the most of us have / Very hard to explain why you’re mad.” The cacophony of sounds rises into a disjointed shaking that bleeds into the next track, “Breathe (In the Air).”
As quickly as the stress of the intro builds, it is dissipated by the first genuinely musical sound of the project. Suddenly you’re no longer falling, but floating on waves of psychedelic rock energy as bassist and vocalist Roger Waters reminds us to breathe.
In a sufficiently altered state of consciousness, 60 seconds of build up can feel like an eternity. The sounds of the intro create stress, maybe even a feeling of panic, but the immediate pay off is all the more satisfying for it. Rather than just sounding pleasant, the music creates an even stronger response: relief.
Relief is more than just enjoyment or satisfaction. Relief is being pulled back from the edge just in time. It’s the build up of tension, the rush of being all the way to your limits and returning unscathed. Some of the best feelings in the world aren’t the pleasures of mundane comfort, but waking up from a horrible nightmare to the security of your bed. It’s the terrible moments of panic when you remember an assignment is past due, but it’s also the first freeing breaths when discovering you’re not even a student anymore…
Dark Side of the Moon perfected the musical manipulation of tension and relief and used it to craft an album that gave sound to insanity. The masterpiece sucked the listener into the confusion and stress of madness and turned the view inside out to shine a mirror on the ironies of perspective. Thankfully, it hasn’t been a 47 year drought since such a project was released.
Using the rises and falls of sonic stress and release is a staple of jazz-fusion producer Flying Lotus and, more recently, alternative hip-hop artist Childish Gambino on his latest project, 3.15.20. Each artist similarly explores the concepts of panic, madness, and death, the sound of falling, and the application of discomfort to influence the perspective of the listener and flesh out some highly psychedelic concepts. The Dark Side of the Moon lays out a roadmap by which we can draw the lines.
An atmosphere of madness: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon
There are two major ways in which tension and relief are musically applied. The first is the immediate gratification of “Speak to Me” / “Breathe (In the Air)” where Floyd uses the intro to create the feeling of panic and quickly transitions it into a burst of ecstatic guitar riffs. The second form of tension and relief is the steady descent into madness, or the anticipation of an encroaching dark moment, followed by the slow but sure climb back out.
Immediately after the last riff of “Breathe (In the Air),” the song “On the Run” breaks the gentle guitar with one prolonged note. The guitar is overtaken by an increasingly ominous loop of erratic synths as the heavy breathing and slapping feet of a man running desperately to catch his flight joins the soundscape. The rampant build up feels dark, like the listener needs to reach out to the man and shout for him to stop before something terrible happens. Efforts would be futile. The pace increases until the instrumentation slams together in a jolting explosion of sound.
By forcing his own will onto his fate and fighting to catch his flight, the man dies in a collision he may not have been meant to ever be a part of. Looking on from our daily lives, running to make an appointment probably doesn’t seem that strange. The tension of the music forces our perspective to see the madness inherent in normalizing demanding lives that require us to battle our own destinies through the lens of Pink Floyd.
The intense atmosphere created by the plane crash is followed by a silence that sucks the listener into edge-of-the-seat anticipation. The moment is only broken by the loud bonging and chiming of a room full of clocks that signals the arrival of the aptly named next track, “Time.” The tension created by the plane crash is so thick that the intrusive and unharmonious clanging could inspire an involuntary jump from the edge of that seat.
After the prolonged stress of “On the Run” the build up is equally engaging, but this time instead of ominous synths creating a sinking feeling, the increasingly bright chimes and bold guitar chords create a sense of rising away from tension with each progressively stronger measure. In this case the relief doesn’t come from instant gratification but from the slow and steady progression of rising up. The simultaneous landing of the track’s first drums and first words, “Ticking away, the moments that make up the dull day” is my favorite moment on the whole album.
Psychedelic music often sonically imitates the feelings of erratic thought patterns under an altered state of consciousness. The erraticism and surplus of sounds like the build up of “On the Run” and the deluge of chiming clocks on “Time” is meant to overload the listener with musically simulated feelings of madness followed by the relief of simplicity. Some of the best moments like “Breathe (In the Air)” and “Time” are driven by single chords or progressions. It’s unsurprising that the pleasant feelings of “Time” come with the idea of slowing things down and living in the moment.
Further down the album, “Brain Damage” really drives home the allusions to madness made on “On the Run.” The lines, “The lunatic is in my head / You raise the blade / You make the change / You rearrange me till I’m sane / You lock the door / and throw away the key / And there’s someone in my head but it’s not me” coupled with sporadic laughter give the impression that the vocalist is insane. The idea of someone else living in your head controlling your thoughts is uncomfortable, but the suggestion made is that the actual madness is living abiding by the expectations of normalcy. The real voice in your head is society telling you how to act and how to live. Real madness is to think you can fight to control your fate rather than giving in and going along for the ride.
In great works this mantra is represented not just thematically, but sonically. It’s a case of showing, not telling; feeling, not explaining. To experience the highest relief of surrendering, you must experience the thrashing of resisting. To give in fully to the best experiences offered by artists like Pink Floyd, Flying Lotus, and Childish Gambino, you accept the highs and the lows, stepping on the carriage of life and giving up the reins.
Descent and ascension: Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead!
It’s not death I fear, it’s being comfortable in a cloud where nothing ever happens.” – Flying Lotus for FADER (2014)
Death, madness, confusion, peace, and acceptance — the underlying narrative of Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! works together with carefully assembled production to bounce the listener between tension and relief. The 2014 album was a way for Lotus to reconcile feelings about the close presence of death in his life by exploring the journey of a spirit through the afterlife.
The descent into death and dissolution of the spirit is told through the turbulence of jazz and moments of serenity granted by giving in. FlyLo attempts to communicate troubling emotions that somehow make more sense in music than they could ever be reflected in words alone. Truly understanding means to take a listener through falls just as intense as the rises.
The album opens much like Dark Side of the Moon, with the long shaking note and rapid build-up of “Theme.” The spirit falls through the first half of the album in confusion represented by the hectic drums, erratic saxophone, and piling guitar licks. The turbulence is sprinkled with flashes of sonic serenity like the brief and bright glissando of the piano on “Cold Dead,” or the peaceful voice interrupting the series’ erratic pacing with pleasant chimes on “Fkn Dead.” These moments of instant relief and clarity are fleeting as Lotus spins the afterlife on wax.
Artwork included with physical copies of You’re Dead!
“Never Catch Me,” “Dead Man’s Tetris” and “Coronus the Terminator” are particularly chaotic, as lyrics and sonic cues suggest the spirit struggles with reluctance to move on once understanding has set in. On “Dead Man’s Tetris,” the spirit might ignore the uncomfortable background sounds of screams and gunshots to smoke weed with J Dilla, Freddie Mercury and Lotus’ late friend Austin Peralta, saying “Hold up, hold up / I bet you thinking that we dead,” but by the end of the song, death has wiped his sense of self and the laughter mocks his denial, “oh man he dead, hahaha.” Death is one of those inevitabilities that we fight despite the futility of the battle. Knowing this narrative assists building tension in the music. The protagonist is doomed to fall further, but the promise of hope in the moments of musical relief suggest an easier journey by giving in and moving with the flow.
Laughter is a common tool of building narrative tension across Dark Side of the Moon and Flying Lotus’ work. It’s a call back to madness, often laughing at the idea that the subject of the narrative has any semblance of control over their fate, like the man desperately trying to catch his flight or the spirit resisting the idea of death.
As Dark Side of the Moon imitates the feelings of madness from erratic thought patterns under a psychedelic state, You’re Dead! recreates the feeling of ego dissolution in its sound and narrative. Under the influence of psychedelics the areas of the brain responsible for identifying the self make connections with the areas that identify other people and the environment. The resulting feeling is a temporary erosion of self identity replaced with a feeling of “oneness” or unity with the universe and others. In FlyLo’s musical exploration of the descent into the afterlife, the ego dissolution played out on “Dead Man’s Tetris” is a key piece of the spirit letting go of inhibitions about living that hold it back from the bittersweet embrace of existing no longer.
Throughout the rest of the album, the spirit’s loss of self and acceptance of its condition slowly replace the turbulence and erratic instrumentation with cohesive melodies and brighter sounds — smoothing out the descent. Chimes and bells that were included only intermittently across the spirit’s struggle are a mainstay of “Turtles,” and the voices sound simple and comforting in contrast to the ominous vocals that precede them. As observed on Dark Side of the Moon, to retrieve the payoff from the struggle is to move within its current.
Outside looking in: Childish Gambino’s 3.15.20
The roots of 3.15.20 can be found in traces on Awaken My Love, but Gambino’s most recent project takes the psychedelic funk and rock influences and pushes them to the edge with plenty of his alternative hip-hop spice throughout. The surprise project dropped with all but two of the song titles as numerical timestamps to encourage start to finish listening. A complete and uninterrupted play is absolutely crucial to the rollercoaster ride of anticipation and release that stitches the project together.
Concept art used with the release of 3.15.20
Keeping with the trend of the other albums mentioned in this piece, 3.15.20 opens on a long note that fades into a harmonious distortion. However, while Floyd and Lotus rolled the note into immediate tension, Gambino continues to let the sound climb higher, almost generating a false sense of floating before the clashing dark synths and aggression of “Algorhythm” yank the listener back down like gravity with a vengeance.
This inverse relationship of tension and relief works to feed a lot of energy into his ominous description of modern society’s enslavement to technology that’s supposed to make us feel more free. “Supercomputer status, walkin’ along streets / Everyone is an addict, stumbling concrete / What was the motivation? Constant communication.” Gambino’s message is similar to Dark Side of the Moon’s contrasting imagery of madness and normalcy and he uses some of the same tense instrumentation to communicate the feeling. While technology makes us more advanced, the irony is that it’s grown even harder to escape the intense pressure of society’s expectations of perceived normalcy.
Clap your hands, don’t spite the vibe / Keep on moving, you might survive / Pressure is to evolve, take a bite of the apple / We crush it into the sauce, how do we know the cost? / How do we know the truth without feeling what could be false? / Freedom of being wrong, freedom of being lost” – Childish Gambino, “Algorhythm” (2020)
Each verse of “Algorhythm” further darkens the tone of the song until the residual energy of the harmonious intro is entirely overcome by the rising tension, culminating in a sonic pile up at the end of the song. It may be more coincidental than intentional that both 3.15.20 and Dark Side of the Moon contain a turbulent critique of technology that segues into a freeing cut titled “Time,” but there’s still some significance in the shared message. If the hustle and bustle of life’s pressures is the question, then time is the answer. Gambino’s album is full of tracks that either begin or end with these uncomfortable sounds. It may make the project a tough sell for playlist hunters, but it makes the rises and falls of the piece thrilling and engaging.
Take the track “19.10” for example. Coming off the back end of “12.38,” it’s an immediate funky break from the rising distortions in the featured artist’s vocals. Gambino sings passionately and energetically about the curse of beauty: “To be beautiful is to be hunted / I can’t change the truth, I can’t get you used to this.” His steady groove and smooth rhythm could easily throw you back to the days of “Sober.” However, no longer content just to move, the track takes a sharp dive into a prolonged rattling sound, perhaps meant to reflect the inner turmoil of beauty described in the song. From the outside looking in, it’s easy to miss the pain among the flashy singing and groovy beat, but when it’s all stripped away, what’s left is uncomfortable to confront.
The discomfort is slowly relieved step-by-step in the synth progression of “24.19” in a steady manner similar to Floyd’s “Time.” This trend of rising and falling continues throughout the album without ever really skipping a track completely. “24.19” ends in the sound of a rapidly beating heart and feet slapping pavement as the labored breathing of a man running slowly becomes the guttural chant of the next track. “32.22’s” sharp synthetic sounds and jumbled vocals may be my least favorite section of the project, but it’s immediately followed by “35.31,” one of my favorite cuts, and a feeling that’s incomplete without the intense lead in. “39.28” sounds like the singing of an artificial intelligence retelling the end of the universe, but still makes room for Glover’s upbeat “Feels Like Summer” in the guise of “42.26.”
Gambino’s 3.15.20 is a masterful manipulation of sonic tension and relief that sends the first-time-listener careening across unexpected rises and falls for just under an hour. Like other projects of its kind, it’s not made for playlisting or casual listening, as even the groovy high points of the project just won’t feel complete without the context of the lows. Conceptually, Gambino approaches some of the same ironies as Dark Side of the Moon, but with a wider range of sound that’s as thoughtfully engaging at every turn as it is body shaking.
You’re not mad — you’re along for the ride
Psychedelic music goes beyond the laid back listening of pressing play and nodding along to the beat. There’s an abundance of easy listening experiences available just a few clicks away from any one of these albums. It’s the tension and disruption that makes the music more honest to the artists’ experiences and reflects the true turbulent nature of life.
The world moves fast and our best moments are never as significant without the context of our worst. We lie to ourselves assuming we have any kind of control over our destinations, falling behind even quicker by trying to stay ahead of the race. Everyday we abide by the illusion that if we act in a certain way and follow certain rules we can guarantee a more positive outcome for ourselves. Maybe we even look at someone who didn’t follow our rules as deserving of a lesser result, but the truth is none of us control the outcome – and that’s a terrifying thought.
While the listening experience of Dark Side of the Moon may not be an entirely smooth ride in and of itself, in those moments we recognize the true insanity of it all, Pink Floyd reassures us that asking those questions might actually make us more sane. When we try to fight back and force the things we can’t control to conform to our will, Flying Lotus reminds us to close our eyes and remember and appreciate the best and worst experiences of the whole ride while we still can. When our internal worlds are breaking down and it seems like nothing can put them back together, Childish Gambino encourages us to dance, because we never know who else might be breaking down around us. Life isn’t easy, but just like the three incredible albums discussed in this piece, it’s worth taking on the chaos for the payoff of the overwhelmingly beautiful moments.