Musical World-Building: Albums Set in Lands of the Artists’ Own Creation 

Source: Bandcamp Daily.

During the boom in science fiction and fantasy literature that hit during the middle of the 20th century, writers began exploring in greater depth and detail the worlds in which their stories took place. From the exotic interstellar cultures of Frank Herbert and Ursula K. Le Guin to the high lore of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the swords-and-sorcery epics of Robert E. Howard’s Conan The Barbarian novels, these meticulously mapped worlds were more than literary backdrops—they were living, breathing characters in their own right.

This literary approach—known as “world-building”—found its musical analogue in the ‘70s idea of the concept album. Adventurous musicians sought to give their creations the richness and conceptual scope of an imaginary universe. Some groups dedicated themselves to to the work of one particular author—like Tolkien, or H.P. Lovecraft. Others set out to develop their own imagined worlds from the ground up. Christian Vander of the French progressive rock group Magma created an imaginary planet, Kobaïa, and a language, Kobaïan, in which the band’s serpentine space operas are sung. (Magma’s influence is so great that there exists an entire prog subgenre, Zeuhl, devoted to exploring Vander’s universe.) The trumpeter and composer Jon Hassell refined a style he termed “Fourth World”—a fusion of first-world and third-world musics that created something exotic-sounding, but from no particular time or place. Meanwhile, Afrofuturism has provided a rich seam of world-building, as musicians and other creatives sought to find new and radical ways to reframe the Black experience—from the cosmic mythos of Sun Ra and the comic book sci-fi of Parliament/Funkadelic and Janelle Monae’s Metropolis suite, a series of science fiction-inspired albums that draw on the works of Fritz Lang, Philip K. Dick, and The Twilight Zone to sketch out a near-future dystopia.

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