Monday, June 8, 2009

An entry that is as long as it is winded

I've had a flood of ideas for posts recently and i've been trying to tie myself down to just one and save the rest for later, but i'm usually at the whim of what i've been listening to (which at the moment is a large amount of Bat For Lashes, Wilco and various prog rock).

So... i'm going to go wtih my first idea and instinct which is all about concept albums. Partly inspired from my review of Placebo's latest Battle For The Sun in which I declared it was categorically
not a concept album. I thought i'd set the record straight with what a concept album categorically is, at least - in my humble opinion. Drumroll please...

Eight Great Concept Albums
(-or- Proof That Concept Albums Aren't Just For Prog Rockers!)

It'll probably help, especially for the unitiated among you, to give a little background on the history of the concept album. Arguably it started (with most things related to modern music) with The Beatles and their 1967 magnum opus Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Inspired, in part, by the vast psychedelic canvas and emotional unity of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds the previous year, the mop tops set about crafting their own version... and the rest is history. But it was the album's overall unified concept that set the template for what we call the concept album, and while it was a fairly weak one (Beatles pretend to be the band of the title and play songs) it set a standard in which a record could engage with an overall story in which each track contributed to the narrative.

This is the important point, while prog rock took the proverbial ball and ran with it (or to furhter the metaphor, instead created their own sport with it), the basic idea is that a concept album is an album that tells a story; and all the usual elements that go along with it: characters, setting, drama, metaphor and so on. A subtle but important distinction, there's a difference between an album in which the music or lyrical themes are unified and one which tells a story. That's not to say that an album can't do both, but there is a difference between an album trying to tell a story and one that is trying to impart a set of themes and ideas.

Whether you know it or not, you've probably heard a lot of concept records - some modern examples being
American Idiot by Green Day, The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance or - at a stretch - some Kanye West. While some argue that the concept album has had a resurgence, it's never really gone away, it's always been here in one shape or form. Anyway.... any further questions should be directed to your closest Wikipedia entry... on with the show!

8. Green Day - American Idiot (2004)

The Story: St. Jimmy and Whatsername engage in a rage versus love standoff against a milieu of decaying American suburbs and a messiah called the Jesus of Suburbia, it turns out that St. Jimmy is the messiah but commits suicide in the face of a disaffected, commercialised society.

Behind The Story: After spending four years in a commercial hinterland, Green Day returned with a record inspired both by the rock operas of The Who (Quadrophenia, Tommy) and their resentment of the current Bush administarion. While musically not much had changed in the Green Day camp, still all punk energy and four chord shout-a-longs, the transformation had occured in their maturity to structure and compostion.
Gone were songs about masturbating, bong hits and picking scabs and in their place came conglomerates of their past riffs (
Jesus Of Suburbia), political rebuke (Holiday) and power ballads (Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Wake Me Up When September Ends). The sudden explosion of popularity that American Idiot generated wasn't so much to do with the band's evolution, they'd skirted mainstream popularity with deceptively clever tunes before (cultural phenomenon Good Riddance for instance); but that their sensibilities and concept album structure would synergise so precisely with the zeitgesit of American youth.
Undeterred by the album's heady ambition, 'the kids' were content to just sing-a-long to large choruses custom-built for them, the likes of "Are we, we are/are we, we are the waiting" or head banging to the virile Letterbomb.
It's understandable then that it would take Green Day half a decade to release a follow-up, this year's
21st Century Breakdown, the verdict is still out on the album, but it's obvious it follows the same blueprint of American Idiot.

7. Dr. Octagon - Dr. Octagonecologyst (1996)
The Story: Focussing on the character of a time-travelling alien surgeon, who performs a variety of bizarre medical procedures, botches most of them and disguises himself as a female gynecologyst in order to have sex with nurses and patients alike.

Behind The Story:
Believe it or not, hip hop is a genre that is as obsessed with the concept album as much as prog rock. While its usually the likes of Yes and Genesis who are blamed for taking the story record idea too far, its usually a blind eye thats turned to the swathe of mid-nineties rap and hip hop artists who conjured equally bizzare and far out albums. Examples include Wu-Tang Clan's obssession with martial arts that informed their early records or N.W.A.'s court-room setting for Fuck Tha Police. The hip hop 'skit', the long cemented hallmark of the genre has its origins in concept albums. But I digress...
Dr. Octagon is the invention of none other than rap pioneer Kool Keith teaming with underground production legend Dan "The Automator" Nakamura; whose obscure samples and psychedelic work behind the decks blended perfectly with Keith's hallucinatory lyrics, informed by sci-fi, pornography and vivid word play. The whole affair delivered in a package of the darkest of black comedy and murky beats that became highly influential to Britain's burgeoning trip-hop scene. Aside from gauranteeing the creative powers and careers of its progenitors, Dr. Octagon also marked the highest point in hip hop's concept album fascination.

6. Michael Franti - Stay Human (2001)
The Story: A call-in radio show, Stay Human, hosted by Brother Sunshine and Media Poetess showcases the plight of one Sister Fatima, set to be executed due to a false conviction. A situation which a governor is using as a political platform to get re-elected. In the end the benign Fatima is executed and new evidence proving her innocence results in the station being shut down mid-program by the FBI.

Behind The Story:
Michael Franti was no stranger to lacing his politically and socially charged opinions with a good story, it was the basis of his former groups The Beatnigs and The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Where those previous efforts occasionally succumbed to the anger and outrage that informed them, Stay Human is a much more accessible and enjoyable trip for the ears. By using the pirate radio format it allowed the songs to be abstracted from the story and the likes of Rock The Nation, Soulshine and Sometimes became successful singles in their own right. In context though, they still do powerfully reflect the case of Sister Fatima and its real-world consequences. At points the all too real familiarity of the radio segments will have you wondering if it is actually a staged drama at all (thankfully, it is).
But the brilliance of the record lies in this duality, acting both as a powerful political statement and also as a succession of excellent R&B, soul and hip-hop cuts.
Channelling the elegance and intelligence of '70s soul music, the likes of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, but always using the narrative as a foil to voice Franti's serious concerns regarding socialism and politics. In other words it is the sugar pill to the medicine of the conscious lyrics and ultimately it is not Franti's political bent, but his creativity and charisma that sells it.

5. The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love (2009)
The Story: A young woman called Margaret falls in love with a shape-shifting forest creature which incites the jealous rage of the Forest Queen who besets a vengeful murderer, called The Rake, upon the young couple. A number of events occur that lead to the couple drowning.

Behind The Story:
That The Decmeberists would deliver a full-blown folk opera as their fifth studio album was no surprise to their dedicated fanbase. In fact, it was a promise fulfilled considering their previous track record, a series of records that were half-narrative based songs, half-folk indie revelry always invigorated by frontman Colin Meloy's old-world poetic muse. In short, The Decemberists were nothing if not literary.
With titles like Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga) and The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle The Thistles Undone (*phew*); The Hazards of Love flaunted Meloy's bookish lyrics to the fore. The already seven piece strong group even roped in the likes of Becky Stark (Lavendar Diamond) and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) to voice the female parts and Jim James of My Morning Jacket to provide backing vocals throughout.
All the vocal and lyric aesthetics are matched by the powerful folk-prog of the music, with clearly discernible recurring themes and motifs it's a record that demands to be heard in a single setting, with none of the proverbial chapters of the story incapable of functioning apart from the other.
In this way it is, song for song, perhaps not The Decemberist's best record, but it is certainly the closest in matching Colin Meloy's grand literary ambition. It's a work that's best judged alongside the likes of Victorian-era song cylces or the grand Vienese operas of the classical music tradition. This would suggest that the record is desperately out of time, and in a way - it is - but it is the album's greatest strength. A deep, demanding, sometimes draining journey at a time when such works are anathema to the mainstream.

4. Devin Townsend - Ziltoid The Omniscient
The Story: The intergalactic alien overlord of the title appears in Earth's orbit and demands its greatest cup of cofee. Producing only an insatisfactory beverage, Ziltoid destroys planet Earth. Captain Spectacular, returning from an intergalactic voyage, discovers the planet's distruction and vows to make Ziltoid pay for his crimes. Ziltoid, discovering Spectacular's plans, attempts to awaken The Planet Smasher only to be rejected, seeking out the Omnimensional Creator for answers, it is revelead that Ziltoid is merely a puppet in an overall grand design... but the truth is interrupted by the reveal that this is all the daydream of a Starbucks employee.

Behind The Story:
If that ridiculous plot synopsis didn't make it clear, Ziltoid is the rarest of records, a concept album that lampoons concept albums. With lashes of impish humour and tongue lodged firmly in cheek, Ziltoid The Omniscient takes the grand architecture of progressive rock fantasies and heavy metal masochism and reduces it to a sci-fi B movie parody. It's a story you're willing to follow because, unlike most creators of concept albums, it doesn't take itself seriously. Two of many, many examples are when Ziltoid booms "If there were to be two omnisciences, I would be both!" and The Planet Smasher grunting "By the way the name's Herman, and I hate musicals." From Townsend obviously voicing all the characters in a saturday morning cartoon way, to the Python-esque absudrity of the lyrics, right down to the text-book cliche of the 'it was all a dream' ending, it's a uniquely funny and entertaining record. The fact that Devin Townsend achieves this while retaining his fierce technicality and shimmering produciton is a major accomplishment. There are fewer guitar sounds with more power and clarity than Townsend, and he knows it, stretching and pushing his axe to create pure sheets of noise or layers of texture. In keeping with the humourous spirit of the album however, he even satirizes the guitar histrionics of heavy metal, including his own. During Ziltoida Attaxx!! Ziltoid melts the earth with his guitar playing skills, squawlling and screeching all over the place, while championing his own prowess in a wry commentary. The powerful, booming rhtyhms of the drums were created using a computer program called 'Drumkit From Hell', meaning that even a lifeless machine can calculate and re-create the proficient displays of metal drummers.
It's an album of contradictions that polarised many of Townsend's fans: managing to be both clever and dumb as well as a powerful prog-metal prodcution and a biting prog-metal commentary. Townsend manages to have his "Fetid! Foul!" coffee, and drink it too.

3. The Mars Volta - De-Loused In The Comatorium (2003)

The Story: Cerpin Taxt attempts suicide through a concoction of morphine and rat poison, it fails however and instead sends him into a week-long coma in which he traverses a dreamworld known as The Comatorium. Experiencing visions of psyche and humanity, he awakens from The Comatorium only to find the real world unsatisfactory and kills himself properly by throwing himself off a bridge.

Behind The Story:
De-Loused In The Comatorium will justifably go down in musical history as one of the most powerful opening statements from a band ever. Fully realised, excitingly fresh, impossibly dense - it was all these things and more.
After the dissolution of At The Drive-In, core members Omar Rodriguez Lopez and Cedric Bixler Zavala looked for a way to voice and combine their multitude of diverse influences.
The result was The Mars Volta.
In early interviews the two wore their pretension and obscure cultural references as a geeky badge of pride, heralding their outsider status and openly admitting the bombastic tendencies of their concept debut. All this bravado would have smacked of arrogance, leaving them with mud on their face and much more than a tarnished legacy, if it wasn't for them backing their crazy preparations with an equally crazy, and impressive, result.
A heady combination of surrealist, philosophical and psychedelic obsessions with a musical witches' brew of punk, rock, metal, jazz, salsa, fusion and anything else they could throw into the concoction. Bixler Zavala's banshee vocals and poet-laureate, surrealist lyrics were near impenetrable while Rodrgiuez' atonal guitar work seemed to be played by an army of spiders. All that however, had been evident from the band's early EPs and demos, what really took Comatorium to the next level was the professional production by the legendary Rick Rubin with studio help from Chili Peppers' Flea and John Frusciante, lending the album respected credibility and a polished finish.
Here was music that could have conceivably come from the future or arrived from some distant planet if it wasn't for the endless passion and energy that the band put into their music. It was this passion that let you know that it was something made by humans, humans fired by the hardest of drugs and a powerful urge to push the musical envelope, but humans to be sure.
The story is nearly impossible to decipher from the lyrics, but what Bixler-Zavala lacks in sense, he more than makes up for in vivid, provocative imagery.
Lyrics like "Made its way through the tracks
of a snail slouching whisper/A half mass comute through umbilical blisters/Spectre will lurk/Radar has gathered/Midnight neuces from boxcar cadavars/Exoskeletal junction at the railroad delayed" may look like garbled nonsense on the page, but in combination with a snaking melody and the behemoth music it leaves a powerful impression.
That is the magic of The Mars Volta: the music as metaphorical journey, where you end is most certainly not where you start, never mind all the craziness that happens along the way. And it is in this way that De-Loused In The Comatorium tells its story. It's there in the immediate transition from abum opener Son et Lumiere to the relentless Intertiatic ESP (the only track to receive radio play), or the brutal coda of Drunkship of Lanterns. Or when Cicatriz ESP re-emerges from a cavern of atmospheric noises to a guitar duel, in the elegiac acoustic creepiness of Televators or the jagged corners of the dissonant This Apparatus Must Be Unearthed. It's an endlessly surprising, occasionally frightening, never boring trip that will take your breath away, lingering in your mind long after it has finished pulverising it.

2. David Bowie - The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars (1972)

The Story: After the world is given an apocalyptic message that it has five years left to live, an androgynous alien arrives on earth as the ultimate rockstar: Ziggy Stardust. His aim is to spread the word of peace and love, but he is undone by his own excesses - namely sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Eventually he is unmade by the very same fans who first celebrated his arrival, burning out in a glorious rock and roll suicide.

Behind The Story:
Aside from a fistful of glorious pop moments previously, there was little to suggest that Bowie would deliver such an undertaking as Ziggy, it seemed to spring out of nowhere. With hindsight, it's clear that the seed was planted early on with influences ranging from Japanese Kabuki theatre, to the use of a stage persona in rock and glam's predication for dressing up and stage theatrics. But all the preparation in the world couldn't have captured the zeitgeist quite like Bowie and his band (The Spiders From Mars) did with his 1972 landmark album. In tone, style and production it's like a riveting timecapsule of the era and yet a timeless record thanks to its brilliantly concise songwriting.
Even without a story, here was a record destined to succeed on the strength of its tunes, the tracklisting reading almost like a best-of compilation: Moonage Daydream, Starman, Ziggy Stardust, Suffragette City, Rock N Roll Suicide. They're all here, and all perfectly comfortable in isolated context from the narrative of Ziggy, in fact the story is quite vague - particularly while trying to slot in the surf rock tribute Suffragette City - but it is the autonomy of the tracks that led to its widespread acceptance. Bowie knew that it was his art-rock conceits that held the record together and resonated for a specific audience, but he also knew the rest of the kids just wanted something to rock out to - and rock out they did.
Another remarkable factor is that, unlike most concept albums of the time, the story reflected consequences in the real-world - mainly due to Bowie's foresight. Ziggy's rise and fall paralled and predicted the rise and fall of the glam rock era with startling accuracy. While countless artists crashed and burned clinging to a genre that was quickly fading, Bowie rode the wave of glam rock to new shores, managing to jump ship by the mid seventies and siphoning onto a variety of styles in a variety of guises.
The use of character to drive his musical escapades is something he would employ throughout his extensive career, and is exactly why is often labelled a 'chameleon' - but it all started with Ziggy. It's not just one of the greatest concept albums ever, this is one of the greatest records ever, period.

1. Pink Floyd -
The Wall (1979)

The Story: A jumbled chronology of the life of the nameless frontman of a rock group (usually referred to as Pink). Taking in his birth, his tragic youth in which his father is taken by the war and he is abused at school, through to his possessive mother, his malicious wife and his adult rock star lifestyle that leads to an inevitable downslide into insanity. The Wall of the title being a metaphor for the emotional barrier that Pink has built over the course of his life that shields him from any kind of emotional conncetion to the world.

Behind The Story:
The major theme of The Wall is isolation, from others and from one's self. Originally the idea was borne of an incident in which Roger Waters (bassist/vocals) spat on a fan attempting to climb up onstage during a concert performance. Shocked by his own actions, Waters set about analysing how and why such a metaphysical 'wall' had been constructed. Focussing on a distinctly harsher and more theatrical approach to songwriting, the result was a sprawling canvas of themes and ideas that stretched to a double album, all unified by the metaphor of 'The Wall'.
It is arguably not Pink Floyd's greatest album - that accolade consistently falls to 1973's Dark Side Of The Moon - but there is certainly no other record like it in Floyd's, or any other group's, catalogue. It is a story that can only be told through the album format.
Sure, it was later made into a big budget movie (directed by Alan Parker, with animations by Gerald Scarfe, starring Bob Geldof), but that merely provided images that bolstered the narrative - rather than aided in telling it. It is an utterly unique audio experience that draws you in with sounds both familiar and starkly alien. Its time-jumping aesthetic is never jarring thanks to some brilliant segues and is in fact key to the experience, both subjective and objective it is deliberately ambiguous. It often feels like we're inside the mind of the protagonist - his scattered thoughts and memories mixed into a strangely directed flow, while objectively following the course of his life and the bevy of characters that fill it which means we can never really be sure that what is being presented is the whole truth.
Even at this analytical level 'The Wall' exists throughout, as a lyrical concept that unifies the record: it is peerless. Moulded to an endless parade of themes and ideas, whether its the conformity of instutional systems (Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2, Empty Spaces), the division between performer and audience (In The Flesh, The Show Must Go On), idyllic safety (Mother, Goodbye Blue Sky), mental isolation (Is There Anybody Out There?, Hey You) madness (One Of My Turns) depression (Don't Leave Me Now) and so the list goes on...

It resonates as a timeless piece of art that takes in scatching contempts towards war, fantatical institutions and even ponders on the very meaning of the human condition.
This dense, complex record would also resonate on a commercial level with the blockbuster single Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2, its defiant chorus "We don't need no education/we don't need no thought control" etched in the cultural conscience. So too the breathatking epic of Comfortably Numb that, even if it didn't quite condense the entire album into six and a half minutes, still blew listeners away with David Gilmour's life-affirming solo, one of the greatest guitar moments committed to tape. It's worth mentioning here the consistently excellent performances of all members of the band, keyboardist Richard Wright and drummer Nick Drake included, across the album. Even Waters' usually inferior everyman voice lent itself beautifully to the pained, crazed lyrics and theatrical characters.
It is the glorious end to a miraculous decade of glorious albums by Pink Floyd and their last great record before Waters left the band in a nasty split, and the remaining members sank into an uninspired cycle of underwhelming albums and live shows that rode on their past glories.
Whatever the damaged consequences of its laborious conception, it was more than worth the blood, sweat and tears that went into producing it. For without it, concept albums - records that told stories and most certainly every entry on this list that came after it - would never have existed. Most concept albums are a fanciful way to unify an artists' themes and ambitions, few change the landscape of the music world as we know it like The Wall did.

Whew! still with us?
That ended up being just like a real concept album - long, deep and a lot to digest in one setting. In some ways, this list only the scratches the surface of the bevy of great concept albums out there and I know i've missed more than a few... so if you can think of any, let me know by commenting below. More over, it should inspire you to seek out the records mentioned but if nothing else, hopefully this list has changed or better informed your opinion of concept albums.

1 comment:

  1. Your articles are a pleasure to read Al.

    I was ignorantly unaware of The Wall's concept, but will have to give it another listen now with this new context.

    I definitely agree with Ziggy Stardust. Before i listened to this album, i was firmly in the 'who is this Bowie character that everyone keeps referencing and i only associate with 80's fashion, and an androgenous worked on look. This album altered my opinion of his music and an instant fan.

    I enjoy the conjecture associated with the label 'concept' album now. Mostly, artists indicate in broad terms what their album is about, and rumours surface that it's a concept album, brisk retorts follow to extinguish any word that their album is a 'concept'. More politically correct themes, motifs, layering throughout are used, which i find interesting, because fundamentally the music is what matters (see Bat For Lashes - Two Suns).

    My two cents about concept albums:
    The Who - Quadrophenia
    The Streets - A Grand Don't Come for Free

    And the worst:
    My Chemical Romance - The Black Parade. The title track is epic but the concept - an emo band channelling the fear and hatred of a fictional character - 'the patient' dying of cancer, and also the story of my chemical romance forming a band called the black parade which they performed as (parallelling sargeant pepper's) is almost too much.