Concepts, Themes, and Intentions
Concept albums are hardly a new thing. Hell conceptual music is probably older than music that’s written just for the hell of it, but I digress. This isn’t a history lesson in musical topics. This is a tribute to albums that tell stories or at least have some sort of theme that defines a purposeful distinction between them and regular albums.
Addendum: For all intents and purposes I’m omitting certain bands and albums from this off the bat. Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Who, and others aren’t going to get much past this honorable mention here. Some bands have set bars in countless territories and besides. Does the internet need one more list saying The Wall is the greatest concept album of all time? Some albums we all already know are great, so let’s go ahead and talk shop about some others for a few.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra – Beethoven’s Last Night
I suppose you could get away with calling Trans-Siberian Orchestra more of a concept band rather than a band that decided to throw out a concept album for the hell of it at some point. While for the most part their music is based around Christmas as a big plot point for the stories they tell the one that stands out is the 2000 release Beethoven’s Last Night.
In this story we track a depressed and dying Beethoven, who at the behest of the Mephistopheles, the story’s antagonist, must make decisions and sacrifices. While often concept albums tend to have rather irregular stories with a narrative that just wouldn’t translate to any other story-telling medium Beethoven’s Last Night’s narrative is among the best assets as it walks us through the emotional turmoil Beethoven goes through in his deafened isolation. Plus if there was ever an album that had crisp and rhythmically tight guitars this would be it.
Steve Vai – Fire Garden
It’s always kinda odd when an instrumental musician defines their albums as conceptual, though for one reason or another it always seems to justifiably work. In the case of Steve Vai while I think his two thirds of the Real Illusions trilogy would make for a fine candidate in a case like this, Fire Garden gets the highlight. Vai’s 4th solo album Fire Garden tells the tale of a man that lives what is commonly accepted as a bad way of life, questionable ethics and all. After falling into a coma after an attempted murder he essentially dreams his way through the Hero’s Journey and sees how his lifestyle appears from others’ perspective. As far as opinions go Fire Garden’s an incredible album and one of my top favorites of all time.
Plus it’s Steve Vai so you can expect to hear some experimental and over the top guitars. I’m sure others could debate with me on this, but when I hear this album I feel like the Steve Vai style we hear today really began its formation here. Flex-Able and Passion and Warfare still had much an 80s style to them, great as they were, and Sex and Religion was just a whole different grab. Vai’s technique and phrasing rose to a new level starting here.
Tool – Lateralus
Perhaps an album like Lateralus is treading the line of predictable a tad, but it’s too mathematically driven for me to not bring up. A lot of people will throw around the term “math metal” when just saying “I use a lot of odd time signatures” would suffice. In the case of bands like Tool the mathematics are every bit a part of the album’s statement as the sounds we hear. The album seems mired in puzzles from the number of times the Fibonacci sequence surfaces down to the famed Holy Gift idea of reordering the songs to reveal a speculated true track listing.
The only asterisk Lateralus gets in the context of a concept album is that the band has been quiet about any meaning. So whether it’s actually a conceptual musical puzzle or it’s all just in our heads the band has yet to outright confirm. I can only speculate without the encumbrance of fact, but I would guess the group feels the mystery adds to the discussion more than it detracts. Regardless of the case when you listen to Lateralus you can hear a sort of wholeness in it.
Willie Nelson – Red Headed Stranger
Have we got room for a country album on this list? If it’s Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger then we certainly do. Willie Nelson took the outlaw concept that is ever so prevalent in country music to a new level with Red Headed Stranger. The album speaks of affairs, impulsive actions, and the guilt that follows as the main character runs from his past.
What made Red Headed Stranger really work as a story was how the songs felt like they belonged together. How certain parts would resurface later in the song like the revision of parts of “Blue Rock Montana”, but with some minor changes – a composing technique often heard in numerous Broadway performances and film soundtracks – that musically symbolize the growth and development of the character.
Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells
Tubular Bells doesn’t necessarily have a concept to it in the same regard as other albums on this list, and saying there’s a theme to the album is kinda like saying there’s a theme to Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind”. It’s one 49 minute song and its theme lies more in the arrangements, tempo, time signatures, and generally how the music was played. But if this doesn’t qualify then it’s worth breaking my own rules for, so here we go.
The purpose of Tubular Bells was to build an actual symphony in a then-modern context. And with an album like Tubular Bells the 70s couldn’t have been a better time to have surfaced. If there is a human emotion it’s captured somewhere within this album from loud and abrasive to soft and harmonious to booming and triumphant. And as grand as the whole experience is were it not for that little opening piano that landed a spot in the Exorcist who knows how long it would’ve taken for Tubular Bells to get recognition.
Fun fact: That little piano piece that everyone recognizes was originally conceived when Oldfield played Bach’s Fugue in D Minor backwards.
Therion – Secret of the Runes
Therion’s Secret of the Runes didn’t have a narrative, but there was a distinct theme to the songs. The songs follow Norse mythology and mostly cover the nine worlds that comprise the lore. There are a few deviations, but they’re all a part of the mythology. Furthermore each song has been associated with a specific rune.
Musically this was a pivotal album for Therion. They had begun their conversion to a symphonic band already, but they had nailed the style on Secret of the Runes. The overall mid-tempo album had sharp guitars and beautiful vocal harmonies and melodies the whole way through. Classic album.
Dream Theater – Octavarium
Don’t go flooding my inbox with hatemail or anything. At least gimme a few to explain why Octavarium. Firstly Scenes From a Memory is about as understood as Pink Floyd’s The Wall. That was a very important album for the band and it’s one of their best works still, but they have a robust catalog of remarkable music that deserves attention as well.
So with all of that music why Octavarium? This one is much like Tool’s Lateralus in that it’s really interesting what the band did with the album on top of the theme that runs through the music. Rather than just writing the songs and throwing them on the album one by one they used the album as a canvas rather than just a medium to store the music.
The concept behind the album as it was being written gradually came to be about the numbers 5 and 8 and how these concepts tied into music. With Octavarium being the 8th album from a 5 man band they gave it a name that had 5 syllables with 5 consonants and 5 vowels. Playing with numbers even more the album duration is 75 minutes and 48 seconds. Add all those numbers together and you get 24 (which is how many minutes long the title track is) which divided by 3 equals 8. The time signature 5/8 appears frequently in the song “Parts of Panic”. Hell the band even formed in 1985 (though part of that was spent under the name Majesty).
And adding to that already huge amount of excessive thinking. The concept of the octave (which theoretically speaking would be considered an 8th interval) was further explored in that each song had specific parts written in specific keys and as the album plays the songs gradually traverse through an octave of keys. The album comes full circle when the album closer “Octavarium” ends in a way that lets it loop right back into the first track “The Root of All Evil”.
Whenever I consider how intently they developed Octavarium it never ceases to fascinate me. With as much thought that went into it to say the least this album deserves respect.
King Diamond – Abigail
How’s a guy gonna go and write about concept albums and not bring up King Diamond? King Diamond has built his entire musical career on concept albums, so really I could pick any of his works and be just as well off. However the big one (and a bit predictable of one) is Abigail. Abigail was the album that put King on the map. Much like Beethoven’s Last Night the story of Abigail has a good enough narrative that it could be altered to suit a film goer demographic as well. Other stories by King, like Them and Conspiracy, people would probably have a bit difficult of a time getting it if they saw it as a movie.
Back to Abigail. Abigail in all rights is an 80s album complete with big-haired shredders and high pitched vocals. But what really sets it apart is the concept. Prior to King Diamond there weren’t many horror story albums and the style was perfected with Abigail. Hail to the King.