Friday, July 18, 2014

The Concept Album Part Two: The 1980s until Today.

It's clear that it was the 1970s that was the height of the concept album (if you haven't read Part One click here).
Dedicating an entire album or even one whole album side to tell a story may have been an imaginative and difficult thing for an artist to undertake, but as far as the record companies that were bankrolling these albums were concerned, it was financially a great risk. Using one whole album side to tell a story meant that there was somewhere between 18 to 25 minutes of music that likely wouldn't have any chance at radio airplay because it was simply too long for commercial DJs to play and promote.
   So, when the 1980s came along, the concept album sort of faded away. With the invention of the cassette and eventually CDs, the actual length of albums didn't seem to matter as much as the cost of production that went into such things. Basically, record companies wanted to spend less on the recording of music and more on the videos that advertised the music, which seemed to sell more CDs.
  At the same time, the glory days of technically progressive music were kind of over. Whereas the 70s seemed to invite all the technical skills of musicians, some of the 80s audience seemed more enamored with easy to understand pop beats with a little bit of techno-drum or synthesizer flair. The result was that the concept album all but disappeared for years, while 80s Pop became the Kings of the music scene, with a few exceptions:

Styx - Kilroy Was Here (1983): Dr Righteous takes control of the world and outlaws Rock for the sake of preserving mankind. The Hero; Kilroy, an incarcerated rock and roller, kills one of his robot captors and then takes his identity by stealing his 'skin' and uniform. Kilroy has to escape from rockstar prison, and go on a quest to meet up with Jonathan Chance in order to overthrow Dr Righteous and save the world.
Partially inspired by a graffitti/joke that dates back to WWII. A shipbuilder named J.J. Kilroy was being paid per rivet he installed into sheets of metal that would eventually become a military ship serving in World War II. In order to count the rivets, he marked his place by drawing on the metal using chalk: 'Kilroy Was Here'. Chalk is, of course, easily washed-off, but when the final ship was put together, the military personnel on-board these ships discovered the writing 'Kilroy was here' in the most out of the way and hard to reach places that the mark couldn't be erased. To those that didn't know the explanation, it became a small mystery as to how the f**k Kilroy may have got there. Styx obviously elaborated on this idea, placing the hero Kilroy in a large tin prison with Robot- guards to start the whole story, and then having him make his escape through the air-vents and assorted maintenance access hatches and such, where he may or may not have left his mark.
   The popularity of the song Mr Roboto and the general strength of Styx's musicianship are undeniable. However, while the song Mr Roboto was a huge hit for the band, their one true Concept Album is overall not as strong as some of their other albums in their discography such as The Grand Illusion. 'Kilroy Was Here' definitely has some impressive songs and is worth listening to, but it also deserves some criticism. Most fan-opinion seems to agree that the song 'Don't Let it End' could have simply been removed from this album, feeling it's just a cheesy 'break-up' song inserted into the narrative in an attempt for a radio-friendly hit. Also, despite the conflict being complicated by a prison escape and a disguise, it's largely a simplistic 'fight the system' type of story without any sort of turning point that explains how the good guys win. Basically there is no song called 'the battle with Dr Righteous' or 'the downfall of the anti-rock government'. (Perhaps there would be space for such a song if 'Don't Let it End' was removed.) Instead the album just sort of ends when Kilroy and Jonathan Chance team-up and rock is restored to the world. Hurrah!
   It has to be said that Styx dared, and succeeded, in putting out out a concept album at a time when it wasn't considered 'cool'. In an era where all radio-stations seemed to turn to 'pop' and were quickly leaving concepts and progressive-rock and all those heavy messages behind, Styx went in another direction and put Japanese lyrics into a techno-fuelled synthesizer-tune and created a concept based on fear of robotics and futurism, and that has to be commended.

Iron Maiden - Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988): Iron Maiden's seventh studio album has all the elements to fit the concept: The legends, the mystique, the harrowing thoughts of the prophecy and the Oracle and the idea of being able to see the future but without understanding it or possibly without the power to change it. Even the idea of being driven to madness by the gift of foresight is there to give the listener something to think about.
   However, it must be made mention that 7th Son has one major drawback as a concept album. The one thing that's lacking is the story. There isn't any. Bruce Dickinson himself is quoted saying: "we almost did something great. It was only half a concept album...Seventh son...has no story." Which is essentially accurate. Although 7th Son is almost as much a prog-rock album as it is heavy metal, and some of the songs contain characters and some amount of fictional events, there is no over-arching story to link all the songs together. The characters of the Prophet, the Clairvoyant and even the Seventh Son are only there to perpetuate the 'stories' within each song, they don't support a storyline that goes from the beginning of the album to the end. The 'concept' of Iron Maiden's 7th Son is therefore more of a motif, a backdrop for them to play several story-ish tunes about their rather frightening version of the power of foresight.
  Story-detachment aside, the album was very successful, selling gold or platinum in several countries. Unfortunately, the album also represented a strange change for Maiden: their guitar player Adrian Smith quit before their next album and lead-singer Bruce Dickinson would leave in the early-1990s.  Replacement members Blaze Bailey and Jannick Gers supported the legendary band through the 90s, but playing the songs from 7th Son was not usually part of the live show while Blaze was singing lead. Ironically, when Bruce and Adrian rejoined the band in the 2000s, Iron Maiden became a triple-lead-guitar phenomenon in rock and the popularity of the 7th son album rose quickly, with several songs immediately re-inserted into their live shows... the album proved especially popular in South America and latin countries. Today, 7th son is thought of as one of Iron Maiden's best albums.

At this point, it may seem strange to skip the entire nineties for concept albums, but if we were to take everything that came remotely close to being a concept album, then we might be stretching the term a little too thin. 'Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness' by Smashing Pumpkins has a title that suggests that it might be a concept album, but it is largely a collection of various songs that only have in common the angst felt by Generation X, (who still aren't being listened to even though history has proven them correct: 20yrs have come and gone and global capitalism and global financial markest have destroyed the world economy and students are in debt up to their eyeballs. We told you so!) The closest that we come to a true concept album in the 90s is Rage Against the Machine's Battle of Los Angeles, which seems to take on the idea of the systemic collapse of a city, but this idea is more of a theme than a story to be told.

Opeth - Still Life(1999): The main problem with the Swedish Heavy Metal band Opeth is the Growly-monster Vocals. (Cookie Monster singing me not like. Me say: learn to sing or go eat cookies) At one point in listening to this album, the growls had gotten so bad that I was wondering if the lead singer was trying to scare me or vomit on my floor. But there is enough real music (and real singing) on this album to put up with a singer that sounds like angry beast for large parts of the album.
   The story is about a man who has been banished from a town for his religious beliefs (or lack of). He has returned after a number of years to see if he can hook up with his old girlfriend Melinda whom he still loves. The girlfriend is willing, the town is not. Melinda is captured by the town's soldiers and hanged for defying her faith. Seeking revenge, the boyfriend goes on a killing spree. Finally, he, too is captured and hanged for his crimes.
   Because of the Death-Metal vocals, this album would probably appeal to metal fans first and only, and would never have the wide-ranging audience of something like Tommy, but it is still strong enough that it deserves a listen or two. In fact, most fan-reviews suggest that this album represents a kind of high-water mark for Opeth, whose more recent albums have had mixed reactions from even die-hard metal-fans.

Dream Theatre - Metropolis pt2: Scenes from a Memory (1999) A man who feels he is 'haunted' visits a hypnotherapist and is regressed to a past life where he discovers he is a woman named Victoria living in the year 1928. He thereupon learns that there is not only a cycle of re-incarnation to understand but a love-affair and a murder-mystery to unravel as well. This is one in which we will avoid giving away the conclusion. However, if you've noticed a trend so far, most of these 'Rock-Operas' do not end with '...and they lived happily ever after'.
 Despite what sounds like a weird and difficult subject, Dream Theatre's Metropolis pt 2 is probably one of the easiest concept-album stories for the listener to follow. This can only be credited to the creativity of the band, who seem to have found a way to make clear what's happening, without turning to some kind of narrative. Even on the first play-through, the listener can quickly gather what is happening through the lyrics, including the idea that the hypnotherapist is a bit creepy to begin with.
   While the lyrics and story may be easy to follow, the music, on the other hand, is as complicated as it gets; and that is partly the trademark of the band. Dream Theatre, in the prog-rock tradition, use odd-time signatures, abrupt changes in both key and tempo and interrupt certain portions with spurts of full-on heavy metal double bass and high-pitched super-twiddly solos. While Dream Theatre keeps up their heavy credentials, there are, at the same time, some softer and more heartfelt moving moments to this album as is needed to fulfill the story. Incidentally, Metropolis pt 1 is a single track on Dream Theatre's previous album and it is not integral to the whole story, but should certainly be given a listen if you like Dream Theatre.

Green Day - American Idiot (2004): Largely a reaction to the evil Bush/Cheney administration and the nagging feeling of ignorance that comes with blind Nationalism and a race to go to war, Green Day felt inspired to write their first concept album out of some frustration over what it means to be American. Instead of prog-rock, this Rock-Opera contains songs that are clearly  100% punk, and the characters are almost comically named: Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy and Whatshername. The album is loaded with Americana, cultural identifications including allusions to the fifties and sixties suburban dream and even propoganda. The band also makes use of much of their musical influences including surfer-beats and references to previous bands. Only a few bars into the song St. Jimmy, the band stops the song and re-starts in exactly the style that Ramones made famous, shouting quickly 'One, two, three four.' and then launching into a straight ahead punk rhythm. The character St. Jimmy is obviously a punk rocker rebel.
  The song American Idiot is essentially the Overture, introducing the album. The story is somewhat up for interpretation, but this blog will give it a shot: Jesus of Suburbia grows up with the American patriotism and the glorified march to war that's been fed to him by media and television and either is apathetic or decides not to care. 'J of S' then leaves suburbia where he encounters the 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams' where those opposing the war are either shunned or scorned by the 'war-hawks'.  A now-despondent 'Jesus of Suburbia' then either meets or becomes St. Jimmy, a punk-rocker dedicated to f**k the establishment, who also happens to have drugs. St. Jimmy then meets Whatsername, a  true rebel-girl of the slightly dangerous type. Together, the two of them, or three of them, engage in rebellious anti-war mayhem (Letterbomb). After some time (one summer, 7 yrs or 20 yrs depending on how the song When September Ends is interpreted) and influenced possibly by seeing friends return home from war, Jimmy loses heart and becomes despondent with his punk-rock 'screw everybody' lifestyle, or perhaps he reverts back to his 'Jesus of Suburbia' self and gives up rebellion. J of S and Whatshername go their seperate ways, and he makes a point of burning all her photos and doing everything he can to forget her.
   (In the broadway-musical version, Jesus of Suburbia becomes 'Johnny', while four 'friend' characters are added to fill out the plot. The St Jimmy character is greatly reduced.)
  At the time of it's release, American Idiot was considered controversial, the band's anti-war stance and the depiction of Americans as idiots ruled by the media and a red-neck agenda drew criticism from the usual suspects in U.S. political-pundit scene. Politically, it may have seemed edgy, but musically, the album seemed a breath of fresh air: In the mid-2000s it reached the top of the charts at a time when it seemed like no other mainstream artist on the radio could play a f**king guitar anymore. Green Day took the basics of Rock and Punk and rode that driving rhythm to a top-selling concept album that still holds up quite well after ten years.

Coheed and Cambria - Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear through the eyes of Madness (2005): (And the winner of the longest, hardest to remember, most out-of-context title goes to....) The truth is that every album by Coheed and Cambria is a concept album and  they all take place inside a greater fictional world wherein reside the characters Coheed and Cambria, so it seems unlikely that this band will ever make a non-concept album. This particular album, known as Good Apollo 1 (for the sake of brevity) tells the story of Claudio, who exists both as a writer creating the story and as the hero of the tale itself. The writer-Claudio is inspired by things he sees in the 'real' world such as returning to his home as in the song 'Welcome Home' or the theft of his bicycle, which creates an embodiment character named Ten Speed, as in the song 'Ten Speed: Of God's Blood and Burial'. The writer-Claudio is a man who is coming to terms with the death of his wife, while the hero-Claudio is a messianic figure that must use his powers as 'the Crowing' to destroy the 'Keywork' (it only gets more confusing the more you know).
      Fast-forward>> Good Apollo Vol 1 ends when hero-Claudio ('the Crowing') and a woman named Ambellina arrive at a mirror (the Willing Well) which allows them to see through to the world of the writer-Claudio. The hero-Claudio battles to save Ambellina, while the writer-Claudio intends to kill her. All of this takes place in the mind of the writer-Claudio, who is at the place where his wife was murdered at the time that he is thinking of this... uh.. fictional storyline.
   Incidentally, Claudio also happens to be the same name as Claudio Sanchez, the lead singer/guitar player and songwriter of the band. Claudio Sanchez is the author/co-author of this complex story, which has one obvious problem: all the stories of these Coheed and Cambria albums are based on accompanying comic books (The Amory Wars). Without the comic books, the story is incredibly difficult to follow.  (Actually, it's impossible to follow.) There simply isn't enough detail in the lyrics or the music and there isn't explanatory narration within the audio. Of course, having criticized 'Kilroy Was Here' earlier, I would have to put this comic-book requirement down as a severe knock against this otherwise excellent album, only because a music fan has to wonder whether they are really getting a concept album, or just a sort of background-soundtrack for a comic book that is far too complicated to be turned into a Rock-Opera.
   The popularity of both the band and this album is partially due to the appearance of the song 'Welcome Home' on the Guitar Hero video game. Since then, Good Apollo 1 has become a fairly popular album and the band, despite having a few line-up changes, has toured with many of the all-time best of both heavy metal and alternative bands, and they seem to be winning over new fans all the time.

Rush - Clockwork Angels (2012): And so we come full circle. One of those bands from the 70s that risked their careers to to proclaim the musical merits of the concept album rejoins the fray, even after they said they wouldn't in 2009. But when Rush released the songs Caravan and BU2B without an album to back it up, the success of the singles changed their minds.
  The protagonist of the story remains unnamed, a small town boy with big dreams, he journeys from his village to the bigshot town: Crown City, run by a character named the Watchmaker. On the way, he meets up with all sorts of people, the Anarchist, the Carnies and the Wreckers (ie: shipwreckers) who are all people who are essentially 'gumming up the works' for the watchmaker.
  In high contrast to 2112, Clockwork Angels does not take place in some bleak dystopian future in a post-apocalyptic world. The world of Clockwork Angels is instead a well-established, civilized and organized place with it's own set of beliefs and laws. The Watchmaker is not viewed as a tyrannical figure, but more of a benevolent bureaucrat; a person who wants order and organization. Dreamed up according to the 'steampunk' aesthetic, the world features a whole host of fantastical gizmos reminiscent of the turn of the last century. In the songs these gizmos are usually referred to as aero-something or gyro-something. In the end, despite the protagonists' hardships and long journey, he takes away no great moral lesson, but instead returns to his small town more or less humbled, rather than heroic. 
   Is it as good as 2112 or even Hemispheres? Perhaps not enough for some fans, but Rush didn't return to their 70s-chops to make this concept album. Instead they stuck to their more recent playing-style and sound established on the Snakes & Arrows album, and most fans seem to like this approach by the band. Sales of Clockwork Angels have been impressive, partly due to Rush's loyal fan-base, but also amongst younger fans and those re-discovering Rush. Starting in 2011, there seemed a big push by fans to get Rush into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, and the success of Clockwork Angels has only helped the wave reach its destination.

There are numerous reasons why there are less concept albums today than there were in the 1970s. The most obvious reason being that the era had come and gone. And to tell the truth, by the end of the 70s there may well have been many rock fans who'd thought that they'd heard enough of this sort of thing back then and wondered if they could just get an album with some good tunes on it, instead of a whole concept album that they may or may not even like.
   There are inherent problems to putting such work and effort into an endeavour as bold as a two-album RockOpera. Basically, if there aren't a few radio-friendly singles mixed in, then the band is really taking a chance of being stuck with over an hour and a half of music that no one will ever listen to. Of course, bands that don't put their full effort into a concept album will never achieve the sort of respect that comes with such an accomplishment. The hit album is still what seperates the real artists from the one-hit wonders, but the concept album is often what gives a band musical intellectual credentials, proving they can think beyond a collection of catchy tunes. We can't all be Mozart, but some are willing to try.
    There's always the problem of the relevance of such material. Procol Harem put out several albums worth of progressive, highly inventive and orchestrated material that impressed their own fans, but for the most part, fell flat in sales, and seemed unecessary once the psychedelic era of the sixties seemed to have come to an end. Most artists want to be current and try to stay within what's deemed popular for today's society or simply keep their message within acceptable/fashionable boundaries.
   Concept albums are often criticized harshly. Years later, they may become darlings, and the fans usually appreciate them more than the critics, but at the time they are released, it seems like the jackals jump on them. Few record companies or artists want to take the chance of finding their work reviewed as 'being pretentious and beyond their musical skill'. Many such reviews existed for bands of the 70s who tried to put out some progressive material, and no one, not Led Zeppelin nor Rush nor Genesis was free from these sort of terrible and mean-spirited reviews by music critics who often simply didn't understand and probably would much rather listen to an album full of simple, disconnected but catchy songs, like the Rolling Stones.
   Which brings us to the point of genre. So far, the vast majority of Concept albums have been either heavy or progressive-rock or mod-rock or some combination of the three. They are usually based on classical 'movement' structures and usually contain very little blues or jazz except for 'improvisational' sections contained within. There are no motown, funk, reggae or rhythm and blues concept albums that we're aware of except in the 'theme' sense of concept. Peter Gabriel once said that the whole reason that he thought the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway should have a main character that is a mid-1970s puerto-rican born gang-member in New York is that he would be the least likely person that would be interested in a band like Genesis. Are concept albums the domain of those musicians with classical training and technical tastes or can it translate to any genre of music? Perhaps if Green Day can push the concept album into Punk territory, then perhaps others can push it in another direction and they simply haven't tried yet. And there is one album that almost made it onto this blog, though the concept is more of a theme, and that's Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On?' which, in its own way, tells the real life 'story' of inner-city problems and urban society in the US in late 1960s and early 70s. So perhaps there isn't really any reason why there can't be a funk concept album except that it just hasn't been done yet.
   And finally... or... if there is a final point to be made: 
There's always the case where someone about the age of 13 has an older brother, or a sister in college or perhaps, that dude who is willing to sell his albums to some teenager because he's moving somewhere far away... or maybe some 15 yr old picked up a copy of 2112 in a garage sale... but the general truth is that most people really discover and 'get into' Concept albums when they are already well past their childish teen years and considered an adult or 'age of majority'. Fans of concept albums are often well into their twenties and even early thirties. It is a form of music that usually requires an adult mind to fully understand, and not just because longer songs require longer attention spans. The themes and ideas presented may take place in a fantastical or strange otherworld, but they are usually not simplistic or childish stories like those found in Disney movies. If they are adventures at all, they are ones which tell something about ourselves, about our society, and sometimes these stories tell us something which we do not want to hear.
    There are all sorts of media available to us in this modern, technologically advanced society, but many of the largest media corporations are still looking to sell most entertainment, and especially music, to the youngest among us. This might also be a reason why concept albums have become fewer and farther between. The biggest media companies have banked on youth, hoping kids undeveloped minds will swallow up soda-pop and think it's champagne.
   But everyone grows up, and to think that we should all stop listening to music at the age of seventeen is preposterous. New styles may come along to supplant the old, but the truth is that what is truly good music stands the test of time and its appeal spans several generations.
    Concept albums are difficult to create. They require a knowledge of both music and storytelling, as well as technical skill and perhaps even a dose of acting ability to pull off a live performance. To make this all worthwhile, the story can't be simplistic or infantile. It doesn't, and probably shouldn't, have to be as complex so as to need a companion comic book, but it has to be something more substantial than the re-telling of Cinderella or some other childish fairy tale. It has to have songs that are beyond speaking of the most mundane things like what's cool, or going to the beach, or dancing and getting-down. In order to justify all the music and parts written, the story has to be something that relates to people who are not interested in another party album or yet another break-up song. It requires an interested and intelligent audience, and that audience is not going to instantly realize all there is to learn about a concept album after just one listen through. All this requires a real risk on the part of the artist, who may or may not have thought through all the intricacies of his or her story and ideas.
   Of course, when done right, these stories can have massive appeal! Jethro Tull released Thick as a Brick 2 in 2012, and Coheed and Cambria are still belting out their convoluted story through another volume-worth of songs along with matching comic books. Many of these storytelling albums have been transformed into novels, movies, plays, broadway-style musicals and all sorts of other media. So it isn't as though it can't be done... its more a matter that it just isn't being done as often as it was in the 70s.
   As much of a risk as it might seem... whether or not to choose to spend as much two and a half hours at a time with one group or artist and listen for the nuances of story and plot... We at Very Us Mumblings have probably enjoyed the research of this topic more than any of our other blog entries so far. It would seem that almost every artist, when it comes to the Concept album, is willing to put aside their differences and put their best effort into making something as good as it can be. Listening to these songs and stories has been a real pleasure and a great intellectual endeavour, both in discovering and hearing new concept albums that we've never heard before, and in re-discovering what are now considered to be classics. Long live the concept album!

P.S.: If you haven't yet read The Concept Album Part One then Click Here!

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