The bastion of artistic expression or a cliché that the washed up artist with no ideas left resorts to by cobbling together an incomprehensible story line that stretches too thinly and outstays its welcome?
Concept albums are funny old things. Certainly in the prog world the phrase “concept album” is a badge of honour (c’mon, you know I’m right) and something a prog band does at least ONCE in their career. But it’s not limited to just prog bands, oh no. Some luminaries as The Who (Tommy), Jean Michel Jarre (Oxygene), Danny Brown (XXX) amongst MANY others, have decided that they’ve got a story to tell.
The idea of a continuous storyline (or musical motif) that is interwoven across an album, is an interesting concept in today’s musical landscape. With the advent of digital downloads, and in particular, the splitting of albums into tracks on iTunes, there is a school of thought that claims that people (or “kids”) don’t buy entire albums any more, just individual tracks. This poses a problem for the artist as a concept album should be consumed as a whole, a great big meal that consists of not just a main course but a hors-d’oeuvre, starter, main course, pudding, cheese board AND coffee and mints. I can see the logic in this. But I do believe that the songs on a concept album should be able to stand on their “own two feet”, they should be able to be pulled out of context and still work (to some degree). And if you think of the “famous” concept albums, it’s probably a safe bet that the lead single from the album is the one with as little to do with the story as possible.
So here are 6 of my favourite concept albums (in no particular order)……..
W.A.S.P. – The Crimson Idol (Hear: here)
With 1989’s ‘The Headless Children’, WASP shed their previous image of party, shock-rock-n-roll sleazers for something more political and social. After its release, vodka-swimming pool enthusiast and guitarist Chris Holmes, would leave the band allowing Blackie Lawless to assume complete creative control. TCI tells the (time honoured) story of a boy who dreams of being a rock star as a way to escape the life he’d been given, only to find that the roar of the crowd cannot fill the emptiness in his soul. Whilst the story is a little bit too familiar (and certainly lacks any gravitas or emotional weight) this is actually a really good album.
There is a musical motif revolving around a D minor chord that appears throughout the album and Frankie Banali’s drumming….. well…. less Peruvian marching powder next time Frankie. Blackie is on fine form, his vocals ranging from tender to vaudevillian evil. Visually the album looks great with some suitable moody black and white artwork across the album and related singles. So, whilst others will accuse Blackie of trying a little bit too hard in following in the footsteps of one of his idols, I still dig this album.
A Perfect Circle – Thirteenth Step (Hear: here)
More of a collaborative effort than the début album, Mer de Noms, APC’s second album saw them head into concept album territory thanks to the lyrics of singer Maynard James Keenan. Dealing with the various aspects of addiction and recovery, the album displays a maturity in both the music and the structure of the music. There is far more light and darkness on this album… as befits the lyrical content. Thematically we range from a junkie looking for a fix (‘The Package’), overdoses (‘Blue’) to the inability of others to understand the difficulties that go hand-in-hand with addiction (‘The Outsider’). There is on this album (like most of the records that feature Keenan’s vocals), something unnerving and claustrophobic about the singing.
Something about MJK’s intonation and note choice just gets to me. He’s far from the most conventional singer but there is just something about him. This is a far stronger release than the début album. It’s dense, sprawling, melodic, jarring, bleak, angry and magnificent. I was lucky enough to see the band live in 2004, and I have 3 overriding memories: my mate trying to record the show onto mini-disc using the headphones as a microphone and succeeding in recording a grand total of 4 minutes of the show, being told that APC request the audience refrain from smoking…. then watching a member of the support band smoke….. on stage….. and just what an intense and magnificent show it was. Small venue, no screen, no staging just wonderful music.
King Diamond – Them (Hear: here)
Like most of introductions to music back in the late 1980’s, I’m pretty certain that I bought this record after seeing it in my friend’s older brother’s record collection. I clearly remember toddling into HMV Cardiff (the original one) and rifling through the ‘K’ section until I found this album. I’m pretty certain this was because I had either birthday or Xmas money. Anyway, after assuring my Mum that this WAS the record I wanted off I went to pay for it. Get the train back home and eagerly place the needle onto the vinyl. It’s probably worth mentioning two things at this juncture: (1) I was easily terrified as a child (still am to a degree) and (2) at no point in my 9/10 years on Earth had I heard a single note of King Diamond’s music. Well you can imagine how it went. To say the album freaked me out is a tiny understatement. I mean from the opening audio of the dwellers of Amon to that vocal salvo to the concept of ‘Tea’…. Mother wasn’t the only one getting weaker as the album progressed. So was my desire to carry on listening. I *think* I made it through the album…. but I can’t say for sure. Tie that in with my viewing of Ghostwatch and that pretty much pushed me over the edge.
Musically it is very much in the KD tradition. Lots of keyboard motifs and guitar lines that walk that very fine line between edgy and cod-Hammer Horror pastiche. Vocally, King sounds sublime; glass shattering falsetto, other-worldly spirit voices… it’s all there. The story is genius that plays on two of the creepiest concepts of all time – ghosts and old people. But the production….the production is TERRIBLE! It’s the thinnest, most treble-y album I’ve ever heard. It really needs a nice, big, fat low end to thicken up the sound and add (more) menace. Also, how has this not been made into a film yet? I’m not talking a big Hollywood blockbuster but it can certainly be manna from heaven for the independent film maker. In fact one of the songs features in the sequel to one of the most celebrated independent films. Twice.
Porcupine Tree – Fear Of A Blank Planet (Hear: here)
My introduction to PT was via a magazine back in 2005 that described them as Metallica vs Pink Floyd. Which is kinda right. The album it referenced (‘Deadwing’) is in itself, a loose concept album but it is 2007’s ‘Fear Of A Blank Planet’ that I find to be the more fulfilling of the two, in terms of message and “layout”.
Influenced by the Bret Easton Ellis’ novel ‘Lunar Park‘, FOABP deals with the themes of isolation, A.D.D, bipolar disorder and the disconnection of modern life because of technology. It’s a sprawling 50 minute epic that segues from track to track and mood to mood in a seamless way. The album very much follows the template of the 70’s concept album (and prog albums) insomuch as it presents the music as a continuous piece, something that we the listener must ingest in one sitting. There’s something delicious about the idea of giving something that deals, in part, with A.D.D. your undivided attention for almost an hour……
I must make special mention of the centrepiece of the album ‘Anesthetize’. If there is one song on the album you MUST listen to on headphones it’s this one. For many reasons but primarily for the magnificently woozy riff that staggers into being around the 17m40s mark. Come to think of it, I’d argue that you should listen to the entire album on headphones to get it’s full beauty. For the full FOABP session, be sure to checkout ‘Nil Recurring‘, an EP of excised FOABP tracks, too.
Marillion – Misplaced Childhood (Hear: here)
I’m going to go on record here and say that I think that at least HALF of girls in the UK named Kayleigh who were born after 1987 are as a result of that song. I wonder what the stats are for girls named Margaret….. anyway I digress. Much like ‘Thirteenth Step’, this is thematically more of a concept album than a narrative one. Dealing with love, identity, loss, innocence and growth it is (arguably) the pinnacle of the Fish-era output. I was always familiar with the band, mainly down to ‘Kayleigh’ but I do, for some reason, have a vague memory of having the ‘Live at Loreley‘ video in our house for some reason. It wasn’t mine…. I have a feeling it belonged to a friend of one my parents. I certainly remember being intrigued by the cover art, something I would late come to appreciate as a key facet of Marillion’s work.
So what of the album? It goes without saying that I love it but it’s also in that specific class of album for me that I can’t just cherry pick a song to listen to. If I’m going to listen to one, I’m going to listen to it all. It’s the same type of album as Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here…. they have to be consumed in one sitting. It’s not that the songs can’t be split up and enjoyed separately, Marillion did just that with the singles from the album. It’s not that they are basically two complete musical works that flow into each and can get a bit choppy on their own (like much of ‘The Whirlwind’ by Transatlantic). No, it’s simply because it is part of a collection of albums that are journeys, where interruptions effect that journey. There are albums that SHOULD be consumed in one sitting, in one go so that the emotional impact of the work is allowed to impact in they correct way. You should finish ‘Misplaced Childhood’ with a smile on your face, a belief in the positive and that things will be ok in the end. That all that struggle and loss and challenge is for a reason.
Pink Floyd – The Wall (Hear: here)
The granddaddy of concept albums. Was it a bit obvious to have it listed here? Maybe. But it was a very close thing between this album and ‘The Whirlwind’ (Transatlantic), I can tell you. But I couldn’t choose anything BUT this album in a way. For, you see, this was one of two albums that were my gateway into prog (the other being Genesis’ ‘The Way We Walk: Vol. 2 – The Longs’). I was always kinda familiar with the Floyd’s work. I think I was aware of ‘Money’ and the idea of ‘The Wall’ as a show, but I was not really au fait with their music. My eyes (and ears) were opened when I finally saw the film version of ‘The Wall’. The movie was compelling but the music? WOW.
So I sought out the album…. well technically it was the (then) recently released live album ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ It was like someone had unlocked a door in my tiny brain. It was combining awesome rock music with theatre and social commentary and anger and frustration and alienation…. it captivated me completely. And then came ‘Comfortably Numb’…. game over. Gilmour, never the flashiest of guitar players, wrings so much emotion from his guitar. so much melancholy, so much uplfit that it’s easy to see why it’s such a fan favourite and can make grown men weep.
I’m sure that we all know the story of the genesis of this album as well the resulting tensions between Waters and Wright (which led to the latter quitting during the recording of the album and leaving after the subsequent tour) as well as it leading to, what is essentially a Waters solo album, ‘The Final Cut’; a polarising album amongst the fan base. This is a weighty and unyielding album that some find an effort to get through, so unrelenting is it in it’s relentless exposure of wounds and darkness. But it’s also an album shot through with melody and light – ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’, ‘Young Lust’, ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’, ‘Mother’… all have a great sense of melody and musicality to them. The first single was a disco song for goodness sake…..
I was lucky enough to get a chance to see Roger Waters perform ‘The Wall’ back in 2007. It was unbelievable. Visually jaw-dropping, musically superb…. and yes, I did shed a little tear during that song.
- Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway
- Spock’s Beard: Snow
- Transatlantic: The Whirlwind
- Jean Michel Jarre: Oxygene
- Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here
- Roger Waters: Amused To Death
- Dream Theater: Octavarium