Don’t browse away! Yes yes, I know I’ve gone and said two words that would normally strike fear into the hearts of the average music fan. Concept Album. There, I’ve said it again. So what are you thinking about now I’ve used that fateful term? Have you automatically conjured up images of hairy hippy types in crazy clothes smoking crazier substances somewhere in the mid 70’s, churning out 28 minute long tales of dragons, flaming swords and mystical wibbly wobbly maguffins?
You wouldn’t be incorrect exactly, but if you truly believe that’s where the concept album begins and ends, you couldn’t be more wrong. There are modern classics out there that you may not even realise have their own story to tell. I’ve picked out five of the best of recent times in no particular order, all of which released after the year 2000. To the best of my knowledge, not one of them has a dragon, a flaming sword, or a shining knight of justice. I’m not so sure if they weren’t written with the help of some special herbal remedies though.
Funeral For A Friend – Tales Don’t Tell Themselves
Tales Don’t Tell Themselves is the third album from my favourite Welshmen, Funeral For A Friend. It follows the story of David, a fisherman who regularly braves the high seas leaving behind his wife and daughter, but is caught in a storm and lost at sea, thought lost forever. The album is a pretty straight telling of his story in that it has a definitive beginning, middle and end and is quite easy to follow. Lyrically it’s mostly David’s thoughts and fears and he begins to lose faith in his chances to get home, but then overcomes his fears and eventually makes his way back home. It’s also quite literal and doesn’t bother with much in the way of imagery and imagination like some traditional concept albums do.
I personally think it’s my favourite FFAF album. It’s not a million miles away from the previous and following albums, but I really like the whole concept of it and the bravery of the band for releasing an album with a theme and a consistent story. Sadly not a great deal of it is played live with the exception of opening track “Into Oblivion (Reunion)” which is a stable part of the bands live set. I think it’s a real shame, The two parter “All Hands On Deck” is the turning point of the story and the two songs fit seamlessly together, but result in a 7 minute mini-epic, so I can understand how it may not fit into a live gig.
The video for “Walk Away” plays out part of the tale too, featuring David’s wife as she struggles to deal with the loss of her husband. Frontman Matt Davies plays the part of David appearing here and there as an apparition of sorts.
Mastodon – Crack The Skye
Crack The Skye may actually have been written on drugs. I mistakenly believed it to follow a story based around the mad monk Rasputin. The actual story is considerably madder. I couldn’t begin to explain it. To quote from Wikipedia:
“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.”
Musically, it’s downright amazing. Mastodon are a mindbogglingly fascinating band, their music being bewildering yet mesmerising at the same time. I can’t comment on the lyrical qualities as I’ve got absolutely no idea what the hell is going on. Hell, half the words in it might just be some spellbinding guitar playing for all I know. All I can say for certain is I love it.
There’s also a sadder real life tale to the album, or at least its title, as it’s also a tribute of sorts to drummer Brann Daylor’s deceased sister Skye (hence the spelling of the title).
My Chemical Romance – Danger Days: The True Lives of The Fabulous Killjoys
My Chemical Romance have done quite a job reinventing themselves over and over again. Frontman and endless font of creativity Gerard Way has one hell of a crazy and sometimes wonderful imagination, reshaping the characterisation of the band with each album. I personally didn’t like The Black Parade era much after absolutely loving Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge, so I was really happy to find myself enjoying Danger Days despite it not sounding anything like the preceding two records, having a considerably more electro/disco/pop sound.
Although the album doesn’t actually have its own story per-se, it is set in a post apocalyptic California in the year 2019 and follows the (mis)adventures of the titular Killjoys, Party Poison, Jet Star, Fun Ghoul and Kobra Kid, as they struggle against the global corporation Better Living Industries (BL/ind) and their attempts to sanitise the world. In the videos for the singles “Na na na” and “Sing” the Killjoys are played by the band and face up against BL/ind’s exterminators, the leader of which, Korse, is played by comic book writer supremo Grant Morrison. I’d assume Gerard Way’s foray into comic books with the excellent The Umbrella Academy must’ve been partly responsible for that cameo.
The album tracks are interspersed with pirate radio DJ Dr Death Defy giving short updates on the situations the Killjoys are getting themselves wrapped up in. Strangely, the songs don’t really reflect any of this other than thematic messages of hope and struggle and inner strength. Without any visuals it would be difficult to detect any of the conceptual work behind it. The scenario stretches beyond the album and videos too with Better Living Industries having their own website (http://www.betterlivingindustries.jp/), other promotional bits and bobs here and there, plus the tour for the album was all based upon the Killjoys.
Check out the aforementioned videos to see the Killjoys in action.
Alice Cooper – Along Came A Spider
Never mind My Chemical Romance. If you want to talk about a master of reinvention, then Alice Cooper, the crowed king of nightmarish pantomime, may be what they aspire to. Alice Cooper’s characters and stage shows have become things of legend, featuring his own decapitation and all sorts of mayhem on stage.
2008 saw the release of Along Came A Spider, the sordid tale of a serial killer named The Spider, who leaves his victims wrapped in silk and missing a leg as he attempts to achieve his ultimate goal of collecting enough legs to create his own spider. Problems occur though when The Spider falls in love with his eighth victim. Absolutely mental, right? Much like the first entry on this list, the album is a fairly straight forward telling of the tale of the serial killer and his struggles. It has all the morbid charm of a typical Alice Cooper album and he takes great glee in his task.
I remember seeing the live show when this album came out and it was a magnificent thing to behold. Although it wasn’t specifically The Spider’s situation, the live show had Cooper playing the bad guy and causing death and destruction before his capture and execution in all its gory glory. Superb stuff from the grand daddy of the art of shlock horror.
Brilliantly, instead of releasing singles and videos from the album, a mini-movie was instead released incorporating three songs from the album: “Vengeance Is Mine”, “(In Touch With Your) Feminine Side”, and “Killed By Love”.
The entire Coheed & Cambria catalogue
To my mind there is only one king of the modern concept album, and that accolade belongs to Coheed and Cambria. Songwriter, guitarist, and crazy-haired frontman Claudio Sanchez is the brainchild behind it all, telling the epic generation spanning tale of The Amory Wars.
Commonly misspelled by those not in the know, The Amory Wars story takes place in the universe known as Heaven’s Fence where 78 planets are held together in a formation by a mystical energy called the Keywork. The first album The Second Stage Turbine Blade follows the characters the band is named after, Coheed and Cambria Kilgannon, as they begin to fight against the overlord Wilhelm Ryan as he attempts to consolidate his power and take over all of Heaven’s Fence. The strange thing is, he actually succeeds and both Coheed and Cambria die, but not before removing nine of the planets from the Keywork.
The story continues by following their son Claudio Kilgannon throughout the next three albums, the names of which fascinate the hell out of me, being some of the longest titles out there. Album 2, In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth 3. Album 3, Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV, Part 1: From Fear Through The Eyes of Madness. Album 4, Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV, Part 2: No World For Tomorrow. The story actually ends in No World For Tomorrow with an epic 5 part tale called “The End Complete”. And if you weren’t bemused by the titles and their chronology, fifth album Year of the Black Rainbow is a prequel, plus electronic side project The Prize Fighter Inferno tells the story of the early years of Coheed’s brother Inferno. Got all that?
To be honest, it’s actually nigh on impossible to follow any of this story purely via the music. Luckily first two albums have their stories properly documented via comics, naturally written by Claudio Sanchez himself. Year of the Black Rainbow was also released as a novel too. If you want to learn about the entire story and join in discussion of interpretations, take a look at fan site Cobalt and Calcium’s forums.
Coheed and Cambria have been compared to Rush a lot in part due to the high pitched vocal that’s not a million miles away from Geddy Lee, but truth be told the music probably has more in common with Iron Maiden, whom the band cite as one of their primary influences. There’s certainly elements of the grand scale of Maiden, though it is difficult to shake the Rush comparisons, especially when you hear their works such as 2112.
I picked out the cover to No World For Tomorrow to illustrate this section as I think it’s my favourite of the discography. I first heard Coheed with Silent Earth and I was instantly gripped by the beauty and sheer grandness of its title track. I’d never heard anything quite like it, and to this day I don’t believe I’ve felt those chills since, though its the climax to the tale that I find myself going back to mostly these days. I’m not going to go on too much about these albums though as Coheed and Cambria will be featuring in a forthcoming Box Set article, so please keep an eye out for that.
And They All Lived Happily Ever After
I hope you’ve enjoyed this foray into the world of modern musical storytelling. I hope you’re not disappointed by the lack of wizards, witches and warlocks. There’s a fair mixture of genres amongst these, so all of it might not be to everyone’s taste, but I’d urge you to give these albums a whirl. To make things easier, check out all of them via Spotify – Musicscramble – 5 Concept Albums That Don’t Suck