by Justin Crockett
When an artist decides that it’s high time in their career to do the obligatory double-album concept record, it can be a risky affair that often ends with the consumer scratching their head while listening to a bunch of noise and filler, and maybe 6 or 7 good songs. Point is, maybe take that ambition and whittle it down to ALL great songs, and keep those shitty tracks and tack them on to the reissue one day.
There are some good concept albums, however, where there is a(somewhat) discernible idea, and maybe even a sprinkle of focus. They are also really good for doing drugs to, or so I’ve heard.
Also, before we begin, “Sgt. Pepper” is not a concept album. There’s like 3 tracks on there that fit a loose, vague concept, and the rest is random shit they read in the paper that day. The Who have made a couple concept albums, yes, you’re right. But they suck balls, so they don’t count. Same with you, David Bowie.
“But I put a lot of work into this album!”
“Yeahh, but…..I mean, look at you.”
“Tales From Topographic Oceans”, by Yes 1974
Coming off the success of “Close to the Edge”, with its prog-as-fuck 3 songs, Yes immediately had a dilemma: they were losing drummer Bill Bruford to rival art-rock gang members King Crimson. They set up a search, and brought sticksman Alan White into the fold. Where Bruford’s intensity and frenetic snare work and spastic rhythms lent itself to a forward driving rock sound, Alan White’s laid back ass sparked a doobie(musically) and told them bitches to chilllllll.
Alan White was no bitch, he could keep up with the older numbers live, but he also knew when to lay on that ride cymbal, and let the other fellas do their thing. So what to do next? CONCEPT ALBUM.
Birthed in many candlelit hotel rooms on tour, Singer Jon Anderson and guitarist Steve Howe came up with most of the music that would become “Tales From Topographic Oceans” sitting together writing late into the nights. Based upon Hindu something or other, and divided into four suites that echoed blabbity blahfarts, the music actually made sense. Many musical motifs repeated throughout the songs, though in different forms. The songs knew when to get quiet, and when to get loud. There were four songs on the double album, but they don’t feel like long winded songs, as they have sections that kind of melt into each other.
Anderson does sing his little ass off, but it’s Steve Howe who has the highlights here. Somehow he captures the sound of water, if the lyrics are speaking of it, or can bring nature to life with his acoustic guitar when the song reaches an introspective area. Also not to be forgotten is bassist Chris Squire, whose crunchy bottom end(awwwwww yeahhhhhhhh) anchors the new rhythm section.
Of note: Jon Anderson had a model of a cow with fake udders and a replica barn erected in the studio to make things more natural-feeling. I kinda want to punch him. But still, amazing album.
“Animals”, by Pink Floyd 1977
Released right when shit started to hit the fan in Floyd-ville, “Animals” was based off a few jams that the band had been messing with during their “Wish You Were Here” tour. Roger Waters, being the over-thinker that he was, decided that a good idea for an album would be to compare social classes of people to different groups of animals. Based very loosely on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, he decided that he would divide people of the world into dogs, pigs, and sheep. He also decided that he wanted to sing more, because he’s not good at it, and so sang on the majority of the album for the first time.
David Gilmor, the moments he does have on the album, shines, especially on “Dogs”, with his classy ass blues licks, and majestic harmonized guitar solos. Still rock history’s master at bending a note, he makes his presence known, even if from here on out, Waters would take over the reins of Floyd as frontman.
When one things of Pink Floyd, and their several concept albums, one might go “well hey there! Wait just a tootin second! Ummmmm…..THE WALL?” To which I go, “no, that is a double album with 8 good songs, and the rest is Waters bitching to some avant-garde piano tinkling, and Richard Wright isn’t even on the album”. And “Dark Side of the Moon” I’ve heard too much. So this one wins.
“The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway”, by Genesis 1974
Ok, mmmmaaayyybeeee the concept is a little hard to figure out here. According to master storyteller Peter Gabriel, it’s a tale of a half Puerto-Rican punk named Rael, who lives in New York City. He needs to rescue his brother John, who was been whisked away underground by a maelstrom of sinister creatures. So, your basic story of youth in the city.
While the story may take a backseat at times here, what is consistent is the music, which is easily the strongest of Genesis’ career. It was so good, in fact, that Gabriel said “fuck it” and left the band after the tour for this album. He knew that the music this band created could not be stretched or improved upon any further.
The first disc, or side, or whatever you call it now that CDs have died, contains most of the actual traditional songs. From “Carpet Crawlers” to “In the Cage”, the songs create almost a dreamscape of sound. Keyboards, and gentle guitar, and Phil Collins’ sexy rock-solid sheen of mandrums whirl in the air, until the sound dissolves, and the next song fades in. The second disc is the more experimental, sound-collage-y of the two. There is still loads of melody to be had, and Tony Banks in particular shows why he is the most underrated keyboardist in rock history. His solo in “The Colony of Slippermen” is so good, it’s recognized as its own piece, and was played in medleys by Genesis up until they disbanded recently.
And yes, I’m aware that Peter Gabriel looked like this while on tour for the album:
But he’s still better than David Bowie.
“Crack the Skye”, by Mastodon 2009
Yes, there are actually rock concept albums that did not come out in 1974, and weren’t written by progressive rock bands. Not that many good ones, but yes, they exist.
This was actually metal band Mastodon’s third concept album, the first two being based on Moby Dick and climbing a mountain with a one-eyed Sasquatch, respectively. So, it doesn’t need to be said, but “Crack the Skye” is the most fully-realized of the three. And it’s not a simple story, either. But to appreciate the scope of it, you have to realize who wrote the bulk of the album, and what he was going through.
Yup, that’s the one.
Guitarist and vocalist Brent Hinds got his ass kicked in Vegas by System of a Down bassist and another guy, so bad that he hemorrhaged into his brain. For months after the beatdown, he suffered from severe headaches and vertigo. So when he sat down to write the music for “Crack the Skye”, he wasn’t in the best shape. But somehow, he came up with some of the most beautiful parts that have ever graced a metal album. “Oblivion”, “The Last Baron”, they are basically heavier, updated progressive rock, of course with some crushing riffs, but also a grace that most metal bands are afraid to show. And the songs that Hinds’ takes the lead vocals on especially, you can hear the fragility and pain in his voice. The story almost doesn’t matter, it’s the feel. But if you want to break your brain, here’s drummer Brann Dailor describing the basic theme:
“There is a paraplegic and the only way that he can go anywhere is if he astral travels. He goes out of his body, into outer space and a bit like Icarus, he goes too close to the sun, burning off the golden umbilical cord that is attached to his solar plexus. So he is in outer space and he is lost, he gets sucked into a wormhole, he ends up in the spirit realm and he talks to spirits telling them that he is not really dead. So they send him to the Russian cult, they use him in a divination and they find out his problem. They decide they are going to help him. They put his soul inside Rasputin‘s body. Rasputin goes to usurp the czar and he is murdered. The two souls fly out of Rasputin’s body through the crack in the sky(e) and Rasputin is the wise man that is trying to lead the child home to his body because his parents have discovered him by now and think that he is dead. Rasputin needs to get him back into his body before it’s too late. But they end up running into the Devil along the way and the Devil tries to steal their souls and bring them down…there are some obstacles along the way.”
You know, that old chestnut.