- Concept album
In music, a concept album is an album that is "unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical." Commonly, concept albums tend to incorporate preconceived musical or lyrical ideas rather than being improvised or composed in the studio, with all songs contributing to a single overall theme or unified story. This is in contrast to the practice of an artist or group releasing an album consisting of a number of unconnected (lyrically or otherwise) songs performed by the artist.
Woody Guthrie's "Dust Bowl Ballads" is considered to be the first concept album. Before the advent of rock and roll, concept albums had their original heyday in jazz of the early to mid '50s with artists such as Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, the latter of whom would record numerous concept albums for Capitol throughout the last half of the '50s such as In The Wee Small Hours, Come Fly with Me, Where Are You? and Nice 'n' Easy.
Perhaps the first examples from rock were the albums of The Ventures. Starting from 1961's Colorful Ventures (each song had a color in the title), the group became known for issuing records throughout the 1960s whose tracks revolved around central themes, including surf music, country, outer space, TV themes, and psychedelic music. Ray Charles also issued his Modern Sounds recordings, which departed from his well-known R&B and soul style to conceptually country music records.
In 1966, several rock releases were arguably concept albums in the sense that they presented a set of thematically-linked songs - and they also instigated other rock artists to consider using the album format in a similar fashion: The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds was a musical portrayal of Brian Wilson's state of mind at the time (and a major inspiration to Paul McCartney). Although it has a unified theme in its emotional content, the writers (Brian Wilson and Tony Asher) have said continuously that it was not necessarily intended to be a narrative. However, later in 1966, Brian Wilson began work on the Smile album, which was intended as a narrative. The album was scrapped before completion, only to be revived in the November of 2011. The Mothers of Invention's sardonic farce about rock music and America as a whole, Freak Out! by Frank Zappa and Face to Face by The Kinks, the first collection of Ray Davies's idiosyncratic character studies of ordinary people, are conceptually oriented albums. However, out of the albums above, only Pet Sounds attracted a huge commercial audience.
This all changed with The Beatles' most celebrated album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in June 1967. With the release of Sgt. Pepper, the notion of the concept album came to the forefront of the popular and critical mind, with the earlier prototypes and examples from traditional pop music and other genres sometimes forgotten.
In fact, as pointed out by many critics since its original reception, Sgt. Pepper is a concept album only by some definitions of the term. There was, at some stage during the making of the album an attempt to relate the material to firstly the idea of aging, then as an obscure radio play about the life of an ex-army bandsman and his shortcomings. These concepts were lost in the final production. While debate exists over the extent to which Sgt. Pepper qualifies as a true concept album, there is no doubt that its reputation as such helped inspire other artists to produce concept albums of their own, and inspired the public to anticipate them. Lennon and McCartney distanced themselves from the "concept album" tag as applied to that album.
Days of Future Passed, released the same year as Sgt. Pepper's, was fellow UK musicians The Moody Blues' first foray into the concept album. Originally presented with an opportunity to rock out Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" by their new stereophonic label, the band instead forged ahead to unify their own orchestral-based threads of a day in the life of a common man.
The Who Sell Out by The Who followed with its concept of a pirate radio broadcast. Within the record, joke commercials recorded by the band and actual jingles from recently outlawed pirate radio station Radio London were interspersed between the songs, ranging from pop songs to hard rock and psychedelic rock, culminating with a mini-opera titled "Rael."
In October 1967, the British group Nirvana released The Story of Simon Simopath (subtitled "A Science Fiction Pantomime"), an album that tells the story of the title character. It was only a moderate commercial success. The album S.F. Sorrow (released in December 1968) by British group the Pretty Things is generally considered to be among the first creatively successful rock concept albums - in that each song is part of an overarching unified concept – the life story of the main character, Sebastian Sorrow.
Released in April 1969, was the rock opera Tommy composed by Pete Townshend and performed by The Who. This acclaimed work was presented over two discs (unusual in those days) and it took the idea of thematically based albums to a much higher appreciation by both critics and the public. It was also the first story-based concept album of the rock era (as distinct from the song-cycle style album) to enjoy commercial success. The Who went on to further explorations of the concept album format with their follow-up project Lifehouse, which was abandoned before completion, and with their 1973 rock opera, Quadrophenia.
Five months after the release of Tommy, The Kinks released another concept album, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (September 1969), written by Ray Davies; though considered by some a rock opera, it was originally conceived as the score for a proposed but never realised BBC television drama. It was the first of several concept albums released by the band through the first few years of the 1970s. These were: Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (1970), Muswell Hillbillies (1971), Preservation: Act 1 (1973), Preservation: Act 2 (1974), Soap Opera (1975) and Schoolboys in Disgrace (1976).
Concept albums are considered de rigueur in the progressive rock genre of the 1970s. Pink Floyd recast itself from its 1960s guise as a psychedelic band into a commercial success with its series of concept albums, most famously with The Dark Side of the Moon (which, according to the RIAA, is the third best selling album in history) and later with the double album rock opera The Wall.
From 1975 to 1979, a Canadian progressive power trio, Rush, released three albums containing sidelong epics, regarded by some as concept albums (though not actually concept albums by strict definition of the term; that is, none of the other songs on the album have anything to do with each other or the 20-minute sidelong epic, so there is no pervasive concept or story). The first of which was released in 1975, titled Caress of Steel. The second was their breakthrough album, 2112, released the following year in 1976. Their third was released in 1978, Hemispheres.
Yes also produced concept albums during the '70s, most notably Tales from Topographic Oceans, which would become a defining album of prog rock, but its critical backlash would lead to the genre's decline in popularity and the rise of punk rock. The group's keyboardist Rick Wakeman released many concept albums on his own, most notably The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which was based on the novel by Jules Verne.
Another progressive rock act, Genesis, released the concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in 1974, a double disc that told the story of the street punk Rael. Rock musician David Bowie also made three popular concept albums; The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, about the fictional character, Ziggy Stardust and his band; Aladdin Sane; and Diamond Dogs
In the 1970s and 80s, The Alan Parsons Project was a British progressive rock group which specialized entirely in concept albums.
Though the progressive rock genre was beginning to decrease in popularity, concept albums had become a medium that continued. The progressive bands that were still around were still having major successes with concept albums. Styx continued to have multiplatinum albums with their 1981 release Paradise Theater (a concept album about a decaying theater in Chicago which became a metaphor for childhood and American culture) and 1983's Kilroy Was Here (a science fiction rock opera about a future where moralists imprison rockers).
In the 1980s, the concept album became popular among heavy metal bands bands like Kiss, and their bombastic offering, 1981's Music from "The Elder", which went on to become the group's poorest selling and charting album in their history. Queensrÿche fared better later the decade, releasing the rock opera Operation: Mindcrime in 1988, which tells a story of a young man, Nikki, awoken from a coma suddenly remembering work done as a political assassin. The comedy group Buckner & Garcia released a novelty concept album, Pac-Man Fever, that went gold and produced a hit single of the same name; all of the songs on the album pertained to popular video games of the time.
The heavy metal band King Diamond gained cult status during the 1980s releasing mostly all concept albums. Releases such as Abigail, "Them," and The Eye told elaborate sagas of horror and the supernatural.
In 1985 Kerrang! magazine ran a coverstory on Phenomena, announcing "the return of the concept album". Tom Galley had started the project, and together with his brother Mell and Metalhammer magazine founder Wilfried Rimensberger developed it into an international multi-media rock music project with contributions from a string of rock superstars, that, apart from so far a total of 5 albums, produced the Dreamrunner album and an ongoing following around the world. Phenomena's main story lines are dealing with the supernatural and unexplained, that were also turned in to scripts for musical, rock opera stage productions, feature films and video games. Iron Maiden also released several concept albums including Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, which follows the folklore and myths of a seventh son of a seventh son having mystical powers.
In the 1990s prog rock had all but faded from popular music. With the advent of alternative rock, however, a number of artists still continued to use the format.
In this decade, the rock band Marilyn Manson created three rock opera concept albums, namely Antichrist Superstar (1996), Mechanical Animals (1998) and Holy Wood (2000), which formed an ambitious concept trilogy. Though each one came with individual conceptual backgrounds, they are also meant to be taken together to form a larger abstract storyline. The albums were released in reverse order thus in the larger overarching 'fourth storyline' is divulged in reverse chronological order.
In 1994, industrial metal band Nine Inch Nails released The Downward Spiral which focuses on a life going in a downward spiral. In 1996, Meat Loaf released Welcome to the Neighborhood, a concept album that tells the story of a relationship. Industrial/alt rock band Stabbing Westward released Darkest Days in 1998, which tells the story of a failed relationship and going through the various stages of grief and recovery after the breakup.
In 1999, progressive metal band Dream Theater released Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory, a story concept album. This was a specific follow-up to a song called "Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper", which was released on the band's 1992 breakthrough album, Images and Words. While "Pt. 1" introduced a story, further parts of the "Metropolis" story were unseen on that album or subsequent releases for seven years. Although the band had created a twenty-minute follow-up to Part 1 in the mid-nineties, it hadn't been released. After the band gained complete creative control from their record company, they decided to expand their follow-up of the Metropolis story into a full album: Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory. This album builds on concepts introduced in "Part 1", both lyrically and musically. Although it did not achieve the same levels of commercial success as the band's later releases (it reached #73 on the Billboard 200), it has been hailed by many fans and critics as Dream Theater's masterpiece and the band's defining album.
The Swedish progressive extreme metal band Opeth released two concept albums in the late 90s. In 1998 they released My Arms, Your Hearse, telling the story of a man who has died and become a ghost. Their fourth album Still Life told the story of an exiled man who has come back to his home town to find the woman he loves.
2000s and 2010s
With the advent of the World Wide Web and other multimedia technologies, bands such as The Smashing Pumpkins (with the album Machina/The Machines of God), Coheed And Cambria (with the Amory Wars as a backing story for every one of their albums), and Nine Inch Nails (with the album Year Zero) exploited emergent cultural phenomena such as the alternate reality game to provide additional web-based content beyond that on the album itself.
In the 2000s, the rock band 30 Seconds to Mars released two concept albums, 30 Seconds to Mars (2002) and This Is War (2009). Also in the 2000s, My Chemical Romance released three concept albums, the most popular being Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge and The Black Parade. In 2003, The Protomen released their debut album Act 1 (The Protomen) which borrows from the story of the Megaman franchise to create a dystopian rock opera. The follow-up album entitled Act II - The Father of Death was released in 2009 and serves as a prequel to Act I by establishing the history of Dr. Light, Dr. Wily, and how the world came under the rule of Wily.
Also in the 2000s, pop punk outfit Green Day abandoned the pop punk scene and turned to more alternative and progressive rock influences and produced two Grammy-winning concept albums, namely, 2004's American Idiot and 2009's 21st Century Breakdown. In 2010, American Idiot became the first punk rock opera to make it to Broadway where it has garnered two Tony Awards.
In August 2009, The Antlers released their first concept album Hospice. It tells the story of an emotionally abusive relationship, explained through the analogy of a hospice worker and terminally-ill patient. It is known for its realism, sadness, and use of expressive instrumental segments.
The chilean alternative duo The Paintings formed in Santiago de Chile, 2009 by Eija-Lynn and Hieronymus released their debut album Tiny Tales Of Tides & Suns in February 2010. It is a concept album about the persistence of matter, energy and memory in the Universe. It is a 10 song work where the last track finishes right at the beginning of the first one. "It is designed to be listened to as a cycle." Their second album TEA. is scheduled to be released in the late trimester of 2011. It is a 2-disc set concept album where each part is sung entirely by a half of the duo. Disc 1 is sung entirely by Eija-Lynn and it is about "a possible future where all the cities on Earth have disappeared under the snow of a centuries long winter. Seeds of trees that have been waiting for ages start to grow, multiply and take over again. It will all be written in their annual rings: the memory of trees. Meanwhile, a human spaceship that was sent out to space long ago when the planetary winter began crashes in some foreign planet and the local civilization buries all evidence of the accident." Disc 2 is sung entirely by Hieronymus and it is "about a possible past where humans have evolved from an alien organic source buried in our planet billions of years ago. All the many species that have existed, have an ancestor in that alien molecule. Through the epochs and in the sand the fossils lie entombed: the memory of sand. Billions of years later, all evidence of that fact has been erased or denied and it is considered just a silly theory. The weather starts to change in a dramatic way leading to a planetary winter and a few space travellers sail out to wander in the cosmic ocean in search of answers about their place in the universe. They end up crashing in a foreign planet."
In May 2010, Ayurveda released H. luminous. It is a 25-minute, eight-movement, concept piece recorded live in the studio at Pyramid Sound Studios in Ithaca, NY. H. luminous takes the listener on a shamanic journey of humankind's transformation and evolution from homo sapiens to homo luminous. The piece was conceptualized by lyricist, Tom Burchinal, and offers an anti-apocalyptic viewpoint of the popularized end-date of the Mayan Long Count Calendar in 2012. CD sleeves for H. luminous were silk-screened and printed by the band using 100% post-consumer recycled cardboard. The 16-panel album insert features artwork from five Ithaca-based artists and follows the symbolic transformation from homo sapiens to enlightened beings as portrayed in H. luminous. Under Burchinal's direction, Nicoli Schwiep designed both the album cover and insert layout.
In addition, Grammy-winning metal band Mastodon has released three concept albums, Leviathan, Blood Mountain and Crack the Skye, which, along with their debut album, Remission, make up a quadrilogy, each representing its own element: water, earth, air and fire, respectively.
British rapper Plan B released a concept album titled The Defamation of Strickland Banks in which he plays a soul singer named Strictland Banks.
Progressive metal band Dominici, released three albums in 2005, 2007 and 2008. These were story concept albums which named as O3: A Trilogy, Part One, O3: A Trilogy, Part Two, and O3: A Trilogy, Part Three.
Raleigh, North Carolina heavy metal band Alesana is scheduled to release a concept album, A Place Where the Sun Is Silent, during October 2011. The band has stated the two-disc CD will be based on the seven deadly sins.
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