Concept Albums

So, concept albums.

Some might consider them the epitome of musical excess. Overblown storylines, songs made for the purpose of accentuating pathos, artistic pretense and self-indulgence, it is all in there. One can claim that concept albums represent some of the most masturbatory tendencies in rock music, and given some of the most egregious offenders in the bunch, it is hard to disagree.

And then, there are the few concept records that truly push the envelope, resulting in instant classics remembered decades after their release. Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” is perhaps the quintessential example, its appeal based on both the music contained therein and the dark, psychotic storyline deconstructing their generation. Another one is Iron Maiden’s “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son”, which would get my vote for one of the finest heavy metal albums ever made. Rush’s recent concept album “Clockwork Angels” had not only been released to very strong sales and positive critical acclaim, but had also spawned a book by best-selling author Kevin J. Anderson, written in collaboration with the band and elaborating the album’s story.

What is it about concept records that captivates our attention both as music listeners, writers, and even musicians? Is it the music’s ability to enhance the storyline, and to present the story in a form previously not considered (never mind that opera and ballet had integrated auditory composition and storyline long before rock music was even thought of)? Is it the thematic connection between songs on well-done concept records, as both music and lyrics must relate the varying moods of a story?

A great concept record must succeed on several levels. First and foremost, it must contain great music. There are no “if”s or “but”s here – should the music fail to stand on its own merits, the end result will be a tepid affair with little to recommend it (Queensryche’s sequel to “Operation Mindcrime” is one of the worst offenders here).

Second, a concept album must have some kind of connection between the songs, whether through common musical passages, reoccurring lyrical cues, or other elements threaded through the entire concept. It is not enough to write lyrics that tell a story and to call the end product a conceptual record. The music and the overall flow of composition must be more than a sum of their parts, more than a collection of songs.

Third, the overall packaging has to tie in with the concept. An old saying has it that one should not judge a book by its cover, but in my opinion, a cover is as important as what is on the inside. If the artwork depicts barbarians in loincloths duking it out over scantily clad young ladies, one would be hard pressed to expect profound lyrical statements. At the same time, artwork and packaging that tie in with the overall story may enhance the mood of the entire project, making it feel like a cohesive whole.

I am reminded of an example close to my heart. As of this writing, a friend’s band is a week away from releasing their conceptual opus, which will feature a small contribution from yours truly. The band is called Silencer (http://www.silencer.cc), and based on the above criteria (and on my prior history with the band, since I have not heard the full album yet), their latest full-length album, “The Great Bear”, promises to be the one to watch.

In Silencer’s case, the album’s story has to do with space race between the Soviet Union and the United States told from the Soviet point of view, and the theme permeates the entire project. The artwork includes a quasi-Cyrillic font for the band logo, while displaying the image of nighttime sky over industrial landscape. One of the tracks is a semi-ambient piece with spoken parts in Russian language (performed by yours truly), while other parts of the album incorporate both ponderous and majestic heavy riffs, and hints of melodies inspired by Russian and even Soviet music.

Naturally, as a musician, I would love to create a concept record myself, and perhaps someday I will. It does seem that the bar is set higher by default, because a concept album succeeds or fails as a whole, not just as a collection of individual songs. No one wants to release pretentious mess. But if the project is written and performed with inspiration and genuine emotion, if the story asks questions the listeners may ponder on for decades, if the entire composition is done right and without songs that exist only to take up space – then a concept album may achieve its lofty goal.

In that, it may have more in common with classical music accompanying opera and ballet, which is meant to tell a story over longer periods of time. And who knows, it is not too hard to imagine that hundreds of years from now, some of the conceptual classics of today may be treated with the same reverence as operatic masterpieces of the classical era are now.

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2 Comments

  1. Bob Szekely

     /  September 17, 2012

    I noticed that you didn’t mention The Who’s “Quadrophenia”, or Side 1 of Rush’s classic, “2112”?

    Reply
    • I tried to stick to the albums I was very familiar with, and didn’t want to talk about those I was not as well versed in. I was never very knowledgeable about either The Who or Rush, and decided to stick with the albums by other bands that got lots of playtime for me over the years.

      Reply

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