Gralbum: Re-Thinking the Concept Album

Many music lovers share a moment in common. On a cloudy evening, you put on a record. Hopefully, it was Rush’s Hemispheres. Most likely, it was Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The LP sleeve rested in your lap. The receiver’s meters bobbed gently, and the lights were dimmed just enough so your eyes could transfix on the junction of prism and light that refracts into a rainbow wrapped in black. As those guitars and synthesizers roared, the artwork and its melding with the music allowed you to transcend conceptual planes by uniting abstract visuals with word, rhythm, and melody. For just a moment, the world wasn’t so bland.

The Gralbum Collective are trying to recapture this enlightening experience with the Gralbum, or graphic album, a packaged release of image, word, and song for iPad and iPhone. A Gralbum plays the music along with synced images or animations. The user can also control the imagery at his or her pace by zooming, clicking, and swiping. In two months, each Gralbum download will include separate high-resolution music files.

The platform’s release took place at the SOHO Gallery for Digital Arts in New York City on Tuesday, April 9. iPads paired with headphones around the gallery exhibited the first batch of releases.

In Train O’Thots, Tom Hart sketches depicted NYC bums, metal-heads, and hipsters on the subway with gruff but comical drawings and incisive poetry. In the headphones, Moon Hooch’s gritty sax spurted over an endless drumbeat, which pushed the rolling train. The combination captured the urban experience of rambunctious oddity.

The illustrations behind Billy Martin’s Omnisphere echoed of a Xenakis score. Bits of musical staff decorated with half-moons, C-clefs, and spiders floated in space. The sparseness and abstraction matched Martin’s new album of ambient howls interspersed with groove.

At the event, I spoke with Gralbum’s creator Sarth Calhoun and Lead Programmer Andrew Beck. Calhoun, more affectionately and artistically known as Sarth, began the project as a way to promote his own album The Book of Sarth. Once he enlisted Beck, the duo worked together for three years and ended up creating a system that any artist could utilize to package his or her own album.

The Gralbum Collective curates their releases. Thus, artists must first pitch their ideas. After providing the music, drawings, and animations, the Gralbum Collective links them together and is willing to cover most of the costs while sharing the sales with the artists.

While building your business model around sales of the album seems risky at a time when the “album is dead”, the Gralbum Collective betting on the odds by targeting people who still love the album. Per Sarth, “Gralbum is a format that was designed for the person who truly appreciates music.” Thus, the Gralbum is a medium focused on the art of music and those who appreciate it.

This focus on the art allows for captivating storytelling. It would be easy to wait for a plane and lose oneself in the moving paintings of Adam Matta. The Gralbum also provides utility through its emphasis on the concept. Maybe someone could project Leah Coloff’s ultra-literal The Tree at a conservation party to integrate a musical theme. Finally, the Gralbum has an untapped audience. Gralbum could re-release older titles and recreate the mind-bending experience you may have had in a basement years ago.

By taking advantage of new technology, the Gralbum Collective is rethinking the concept album and creating a system so that other artists can join. It is an expansion of the artistic statement behind the music with an added level of immersion. Yes, there is something left to be desired from the limited level of interactivity. Zooming, swiping, and tapping somewhat-stationary images can leave you wanting more when compared to Angry Birds, but the Gralbum Collective are not building the next mobile fad. Their goal is to create a platform that deepens the level of artistic expression behind the music and bring you closer to the artist’s vision, an experience that could inspire a listener for a lifetime.

The Gralbum app is available for download in the iTunes App Store. Available for purchase at $10.99, Sarth Calhoun’s The Book of Sarth tells a story of ascension through art, communication and invention. Samples from beatboxer Adam Matta and the ethereal Bora Yoon are available for free.