I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that over the years, there aren’t a great many times where I could honestly say that I haven’t rolled my eyes in response to any news that “[x] are releasing a concept album”. It is fair to suggest that Concept Albums really do have a shitty reputation, in the main, perhaps because some of the better known exponents over time managed to drag the idea through the mud, with certain dull, never-ending prog-rock epics being the worst offenders. And yes, I can’t stand Pink Floyd.
Anyway, here are ten concept albums of sorts that are well-worth your time, and cover a forty year period or so.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Probably the ultimate in concept albums, it also made Bowie a star after a few previous attempts, began Bowie’s amazing habit of reinventing himself every few albums, and along with Marc Bolan’s T-Rex material of around the same time, is to blame for glam rock and all that followed it. Some legacy, really, but the mastery of this concept album was how the concept stretched to so much more than than just the music – it was the image, the outfits, the ethos. Something that not everyone who followed in the considerable wake of this heeded…
The very first concept album is reckoned to be Dust Bowl Ballads by Woody Guthrie, dealing with the hardships of life in the mid-west in thirties America. Springsteen has long noted Guthrie as an influence, and perhaps it was here that it was made the most overt – a bleak, stripped-down collection of songs that offered little in the way of hope for the future, all of the songs linked by downbeat characters, dead-end lives and despair. And perhaps, more than anything, this was a reminder that forty years on and more from the Great Depression, a world of wealth and opportunity had still not reached many corners of the country.
Tour de France
I’ve touched on Robots before (Tuesday Ten: 063), so that obviously rules out The Man Machine. No problem, as most of Kraftwerk’s greatest albums were each concept albums anyway. And with the 99th Tour de France going on at the moment and entering the final week, this seems rather apt. The idea of cycling as a man-machine seems obvious enough, but is taken to extraordinary levels here, with various tracks dipping into the different elements of the life of the racing cyclist – so managing energy levels, emergency support, racing in the peloton, and then finally the original, glorious 1983 single is tacked onto the end – and naturally fits in perfectly.
Following less than a year after The Man Machine, Gary Numan’s band quickly hit their stride with this album – a concept album about a dystopian future where humans are kept in check by androids. Notable particularly for the two classic singles Down In The Park and the unlikely number one single Are “Friends” Electric?, the themes and radio- friendly electronic sounds were an enormous influence on loads of electronic and industrial artists, and was perhaps the first point where it became clear that what became industrial music could have a more commercial side.
Which brings us to Fear Factory. Already with one classic concept album under their belt (Demanufacture), they followed it up with an album that, despite some astoundingly strong tracks, had a concept that was /way/ overcooked. The CD booklet had tons of story that the lyrics were part of, and the Wiki page for the album tells you even more. Actually, this album sums up my issue with some Concept Albums – artists should never forget that the songs themselves need to be able to stand alone in some way or form. Of the songs I still listen to from this? Shock and Edgecrusher are about it. Also, there was the link back to Numan in the cover of Cars that became a massive hit in the US, and, it could be argued, brought them to a far wider audience than before.
Attack Of The Grey Lantern
Ok, so it has been admitted since that this isn’t a full concept album, but it was certainly intended as one and the album holds together well. Mansun came to the fore in those heady days of Britpop, being one of a number of albums that reached number one in the album chart that would be unthinkable if released now. But they were hardly like their more poppy peers, having a distinctly proggy leaning (that this album only served as a pointer towards the utterly bizarre second album). The concept is broadly set around singer Paul Draper as a character who deals with weird goings-on in a small English village, taking in Beatles and Bond pastiches, stripping vicars, D/s relationships and a snarky nod to those fans who read too much into things (ironic, seeing as they gained one of the most devoted fanbases going over time!).
Mastodon are another of those bands that have released a few concept albums, although admittedly some of them are much looser concepts than others. This is for me their best album, still, and the one where I realised that there was definitely something more about this band than just being an impressively technical lot. Anyway, this is their “water” album (each of the first four were – loosely – associated with the four classical elements), and more specifically based around the novel Moby Dick. No, really. And I think it is to the bands great credit that this whole idea works spectacularly, particularly on tracks like Blood and Thunder, where they neatly sum up the ideals and motivations of Captain Ahab and make a metal anthem to boot.
Devin Townsend has long been an oddball in the metal scene, doing his own thing on about five fronts, across countless styles, and crucially never losing his sense of humour over a long career. There was no more proof of his unorthodox sense of humour, though, than this album. Featuring the titular Ziltoid as an alien who comes to earth looking for coffee, and invades the planet after he finds that the coffee is crap (where on earth did Devin come up with this?) Musically, if you like Strapping Young Lad, you’ll love this, just bring a sense of humour…
It is always interesting when what would usually be seen as minor events in another part of the world suddenly blow up – sometimes literally – into worldwide media events, that eventually permeate into popular culture. And the tragedy of the Waco siege, and the people caught up within it, was one of those. The story of David Koresh and the siege itself is hardly an edifying one, but the Branch Davidian sect wasn’t the first claim of a second coming (there is a pretty long list on Wiki People who have claimed to be Jesus), and it certainly won’t be the last either. And so many years on from what happened, the Indelicates have released an album entirely devoted to the whole story (and a few others besides, apparently including Timothy McVeigh), which works a bit like a musical in structure, and is witty, funny, and at points desperately sad.
You’ll note that I haven’t included a particular album here – because perhaps uniquely, each of MIAB’s albums so far has been a concept album. The odd one out is R.E.T.R.O, where the band indulged their love of eighties computer game themes and more, er, primitive technology. The other four albums form an overall story arc, a science-fiction dystopia where the main characters are desperately alone, afraid and riddled with regret. But not only did they come up with an enthralling story, they somehow managed to come up with a style that still sounds like absolutely no-one else. Yeah, so it fits vaguely into industrial, electro and synthpop pigeonholes at points, but the general ambience is so different that it really could have come from the fictional world they invented in the first place. But most incredible of all, what initially came across as cold, austere songs began, after repeated listens, to suddenly morph into heart-stopping anthems that sucked in pretty much everyone else once people started to see the best live show many of us have seen in years. Why does it work? Like Bowie, perhaps, this project is a fully conceived whole, with astonishing levels of detail and preparation going into every part. If you are going to do a concept album, go the whole hog. And don’t forget the songs.