What A Concept! (1)


The term "concept album" is thrown around pretty loosely when people talk about rock music. However, not every "concept" album is in fact such a thing. At least, not as that term is, or should be, accurately defined.

In that regard, there are two very different types of "concept" album: one is narrative, the other is thematic. There are far fewer of the former than there are of the latter. For example, two of the earliest and most prominent albums cited as "concepts" were The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper. Yet neither is a "true" (narrative) concept album. They are both "thematic" in nature. The "theme" of Pet Sounds is (to be simplistic) personal angst, including love and introspection. The "theme" of Sgt. Pepper (such as it is) is that we are meant to suspend disbelief and accept that the songs were created by a fictional band; a secondary "theme" might be psychedelia.

The third most famous album cited as a "concept" album is Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Yet here, again, we have a thematic, as opposed to narrative, concept: the depression and/or madness that can follow as a result of various elements and aspects of human experience and society.

The first true narrative concept album -- a story told linearly through the lyrics -- was The Who's Tommy ( 1969). (The Who is the only group to have two narrative concept albums, with 1973's Quadrophenia.) The second narrative concept album was Jethro Tull's Thick As a Brick (1972).

So now that we have a clearer working definition, and can separate the two types of concept albums, let's look at all of the narrative concept albums (those of which I am aware), and some of those in the thematic category. I will provide the narrative concept albums in the order in which they were released chronologically, and the thematic concept albums alphabetically by group. At the end I will provide a "favorites" list with the understanding that, as Mark, Steve, my older brother and I have noted ad nauseam, such lists are hopelessly subjective (or, as they say in French, chacun a son gout).

The Narratives

Tommy (The Who).

Released in May of 1969, The Who's first rock opera was a truly ground-breaking achievement, not just musically and lyrically (and in some ways even sonically), but by "making it safe" for other groups to consider creating narrative albums. The story of a young boy who sees his father murdered by his mother's lover, and ends up deaf, dumb and blind due to the psychological trauma (including some quite deliberate brainwashing), belongs among the masterpieces of rock, and is the progenitor of all other narrative rock albums. Tommy was also one of the first double albums (two discs) ever released.

Journey to the Center of the Eye (Nektar).

There are some artists  -- including The Moody Blues, Nektar, Alan Parsons and Pink Floyd -- who specialized in concept albums, either narrative or thematic, and each of them have several. And while it took Pink Floyd until their seventh album to get to Dark Side of the Moon, Nektar (who were heavily influenced by Pink Floyd) came out of the starting gate with one. Their debut album tells the story of an astronaut on his way to Saturn when he is picked up by aliens who bring him to their world and give him knowledge beyond what humankind has learned -- about self-preservation, civility, peace, etc. Nektar would join Pink Floyd (and, in another subgenre, the Grateful Dead) in becoming the progenitors of concert light shows and theatrical extravaganzas.

Thick As a Brick (Jethro Tull).

Released in  March of 1972, the first broadly-known progressive rock narrative concept album was also ground-breaking, by combining several different styles of music ("straight" rock, progressive rock, folk and medieval), as well as using shifting time signatures. Written largely by Tull's flautist/raconteur/jokester leader Ian Anderson, the album tells the tale of a young man who is thrown out of school for writing a pornographic poem. The conceit, of course, is that the album itself is the poem. And although Tull had been writing increasingly progressive music since 1968, Thick As a Brick cemented their standing among the leaders of progressive rock.

Quadrophenia (The Who).

In October of 1973, The Who released their second rock opera -- another double album -- which, while not as ground-breaking as Tommy, was every bit as good, and was actually more commercially successful than its predecessor. It was also the first album ever to be recorded at a studio built specifically to record it. (This would only happen twice more in rock: Deram Records' Panoramic Sound Studio, which was built for the Moody Blues to initially record Days of Future Passed, and Strawberry Studios, bought and completely rebuilt by Peter Tattersall and Eric Stewart to initially record  10CC's eponymous debut album.) The story of Quadrophenia follows the troubled youth of a "mod" named Jimmy, who likes drugs, fights and romance, and for whom nothing seems to go right. The album's closing track -- "Love Reign O'er Me" -- is among the band's greatest songs, and a sad and ambiguous, but brilliant coda to the story.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (Rick Wakeman).

Most people know the Jules Verne story about a German professor who finds an Icelandic runic key/map showing a path down to the center of the earth. Most of us have probably seen one or another of the seven films and two miniseries made about the story, the most famous of which is the 1959 film with James Mason, Pat Boone and Arlene Dahl (this is well worth seeing it if you have not done so). Wakeman essentially wrote a narrated soundtrack for the story, and it is truly extraordinary. Using a full orchestra, full choir, live narrator and full rock band, including himself on keyboards, the recording was done during two live concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in London in January 1974, and released in May of that year. The album went to #2 in the U.K. and #3 in the U.S. Wakeman got the idea for Journey when he participated as keyboardist during concert performances of The Who's Tommy in London with the London Symphony Orchestra.

The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Genesis).

Having already firmly established themselves as one of the major forces in progressive rock with Foxtrot (1972) and Selling England By the Pound (1973), in November 1974 Genesis released what would become their tour-de-force, a double-disc narrative album telling the story of Rael, a Puerto Rican youth in NYC "on a journey of self-discovery." Based loosely on the Christian allegory The Pilgrim's Progress, Rael's story is told through a series of both "normal" and quite surreal encounters he has with various characters in a variety of situations. These encounters, and the story as a whole, are left just ambiguous enough to offer several interpretations; discovering and discussing these has been a serious pastime for many Genesis fans. (And yes, I have my own.) Although the album was not initially successful (though it was well-received by critics), it has gone on to become not simply Genesis' most beloved and influential album, but one of the most important and respected albums in all of progressive rock.

Joe's Garage (Frank Zappa).

A three-part "rock opera," this story tells the tale of Joe, an L.A. teen who forms a garage rock band, and the experiences he has with women, religion and sex. The album "explores themes of individualism, free will, censorship, the music industry and human sexuality, while criticizing government and religion, and satirizing Catholicism and Scientology." As an aside, Zappa is another artist for whom many of his albums could be viewed as thematic concepts, even when he did not intend them to be.

The Wall (Pink Floyd).

1979 gave us what is probably the most widely known narrative concept album of all time. After its release, it found life as a rock show that took arena concerts to their limit; a feature film directed by Alan Parker; a filmed concert; and several books deconstructing virtually every aspect of its creation and themes. A semi-autobiographical rock opera, it tells the story of Pink, a successful and popular rock star who has become seriously depressed, and has built both figurative and literal "walls" around himself -- his isolation a form of psychological protection. His story is told in "flashback" fashion, from birth to adult catharsis. Even setting aside the story, the musical arrangements, and the musicianship, the album's production gave us sonics and atmospheres that are occasionally unique and often positively breath-taking.

Zen Arcade (Hüsker Dü).

It took five years before we would see another narrative concept album, and it came from a very unlikely place. In July 1984, hardcore punk rockers Hüsker Dü released their second album, an ambitious double album with a narrative concept. Essentially, it is a punk version of Quadrophenia, replacing a British "mod" with an American punk, but telling much the same story, though with a "twist" toward the end. It would take another 12 years before we would get another concept album from this genre, Marilyn Manson's Antichrist Superstar.

Radio K.A.O.S. (Roger Waters).

In May 1987, former Pink Floyd founder Roger Water put out his second solo album, arguably the strangest of the narrative concept albums. Billy is a physically and mentally disabled young man from Wales. He also has trouble communicating normally, and is socially awkward. But Billy is actually a genius, and even has a superpower: he can hear all radio wave frequencies in his head: AM/FM, police band, corporate, military, etc. His brother Benny is arrested for dropping a brick from a bridge onto a road, killing a driver, but not before secreting a stolen cordless phone in Billy's wheelchair. Learning to make  the phone receive and send the many frequencies he hears, Billy reaches out and attempts to befriend a DJ at Radio K.A.O.S. in L.A.. When the DJ fails to take Billy seriously, and mocks him, Billy uses his powers to manipulate a military satellite to convince the world that he has launched a massive nuclear strike on major cities. This causes real chaos, until everyone realizes it was a hoax. Taking a little bit from the film WarGames, but also anticipating the concept behind films like Lawnmower Man and Transcendence, Waters delivers a weird but quite listenable story of a "personal dystopia."

Operation: Mindcrime (Queensryche).

In 1988, we got the first of three narrative concept albums by progressive metal bands. Set in a modern dystopia, it tells the story of Nikki, a heroin addict who hates society and becomes involved with a group of political assassins, who manipulate him via his addiction and by brainwashing. When he finally realizes what he is doing and attempts to leave the group, it goes very badly, and he eventually succumbs to insanity. This album is particularly beloved among progressive rock aficionados, even with Thick As a Brick and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway preceding it.

Brave (Marillion).

Tied for my personal favorite narrative concept album is this 1994 gem from Marillion, one of three groups who are credited with bringing progressive rock back from the (almost) dead in 1983, by helping found the neo-prog subgenre. It is based on the true story of a young woman found standing on the Severn Bridge, who did not know who she was or where she came from, and who refused to speak to authorities at all. The album provides a fictitious back story that is simply stunning in both its composition and execution. And even with all the pain and angst explored in other narrative concept albums, this remains the saddest story of them all -- and all the more brilliant for that.

Antichrist Superstar (Marilyn Manson).

Almost unquestionably the most difficult to listen to of all the concept albums -- both lyrically and musically -- Marilyn Manson's 1996 rock opera is nevertheless a brilliant work. The story of a popular rock star who becomes a powerful political demagogue, the themes include dystopian society, fascism, nihilism, and the complete rejection of morality of any type.

Subterranea (IQ).

Released in late 1997 by one of the other two bands that helped create the neo-prog subgenre, this narrative concept album tells of a man who is held captive in a condition of sensory deprivation for most of his life. He escapes or is freed, but does not know who he is, why he was held captive, or why he is now free. And since he knows nothing about the "outside" world, that world is one of intense sensory overload. As he tries to negotiate it, he meets and falls in love with a woman, who is subsequently taken from him by forces unknown. He then realizes he is being followed. He catches and kills the person following him, but not before that person gives him the name of the Experimenter, the one who kept him captive all those years. He all but loses his sanity at this point, but manages to keep it together enough to do some investigating. He discovers that he was not the only subject, as he notices a strange tattoo on his arm and sees it on others. The subjects band together to find and kill the Experimenter, but he is one step ahead, and lures them into a building, setting it on fire to cover all evidence of the experiment. Our "hero" survives, and kills the Experimenter. But he also realizes that his isolated life was much simpler than life in the outside world, and he voluntarily returns to it.

Metropolis Pt. 2 -- Scenes from a Memory (Dream Theater).

Tied with Marillion's Brave for my favorite narrative concept album, this 1999 album is the second progressive metal narrative concept album. This complex murder mystery involving a love triangle, a psychiatrist (who may not be what he seems), and hypnotherapy is positively brilliant in every way. The story is told in libretto form, the music and arrangements range from the merely great to the utterly breath-taking, and the musicianship is as virtuosic as you are likely to hear. This was the album that made me appreciate the possibilities of progressive metal, a genre I previously had very little love or patience for. And it turned me into a diehard Dream Theater fan.

Snow  (Spock's Beard).

This August 2002 release from neo-prog band Spock's Beard is a mix of bildungsroman and messiah/savior story. It tells of Snow, a young albino man with extraordinary spiritual and psychic gifts. Initially shunned by classmates and others, he becomes highly introverted until he leaves home at 17 for the "big city." There, he acquaints himself with the "wretched refuse" (pimps, prostitutes, addicts, homeless, et al. -- all that is missing from the Jesus story are tax collectors), whom he befriends and tries to help. All is going well until the adulation feeds his ego, and then unrequited love (he is meanly rejected by a woman) all but destroys him, and pulls him off his path. However, he is redeemed at the end when all those he helped come back to help him. The story uses elements from Tommy, the film Powder, and the New Testament, and is told in the manner of a Christian allegory (Spock's Beard founder Neal Morse is a minister). As an aside, Mr. Morse left Spock's Beard to create the first true Christian progressive rock band, and all of  their albums are thematic concept albums.

The Black Parade (My Chemical Romance).

It is perhaps not surprising that the most recent and last (?) non-"progressive rock" narrative concept album comes from one of rock's most recent subgenre's. Alt-rock/emo band My Chemical Romance released this, their third, album in 2006. It tells the story of "The Patient," a man dying of cancer, and is told in three stages: his death, his afterlife (in the form of a parade), and his reflections on his former life. And while it is not exactly uplifting (it is "emo," after all), his reflections at the end do include many positive aspects.

The Hazards of Love (Decemberists).

This 2009 love story starts with interspecies sex but also includes the murder of three children by their father, abduction, rape, ghosts and a double suicide. All the ingredients you would expect in a love story. Seriously, though, this is actually a well-told tale of love and tragedy and well worth listening to.

The Astonishing (Dream Theater).

What do you get when you take elements of Romeo and Juliet (star-crossed lovers from warring families) and Jesus Christ Superstar (a savior who is betrayed by "family"), and put them in a Game of Thrones-style atmosphere 200 years in the future? You get this 2016 album, the second narrative concept album from prog-metal band Dream Theater. The story is about a dystopian kingdom in which the ruler has eliminated real music, and only allows the NOMACs (Noise Machines) to provide "music." However, in the outlying, impoverished part of the kingdom, there is a man named Gabriel who still has the ability to make music and sing. Gabriel's brother is the leader of the resistance. The ruler considers Gabriel and his musical abilities a threat, particularly when combined with his brother's strong militia, and vows to destroy him. It only gets worse when Gabriel and the ruler's daughter fall in love. Not as successful overall as DT's first narrative concept album, this rock opera nevertheless has one of the best stories of all, and is executed in perfect rock musical fashion.

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