The Concept Album reappraised

John Cahill writes:  I’ve always had mixed feelings around concepts albums; some of my favourite albums of all time are concept albums; yet the amount of really bad concept albums is huge – and this style of album has been responsible for some really bad music.

Here below is a brief overview of the concept album. With the rise of the internet, its future direction is unclear – but I guess it will be around for a good few years to come.

A Concept album is a piece of music "unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical" (Shuker 2002, p.5). This is usually either a story or a theme.

I guess the whole idea of a concept within music dates back way before albums ever existed (Holst: The Planets and Operas have a conceptual basis). But within poplar music we have to look back to the 50s for the first real signs of the concept album.

Frank Sinatra's 'Songs for Young Lovers', and 'Sings for Only The Lonely' and, 'In the Wee Small Hours' were concept based around a theme such as loss and solitude.

In the early 60’s there was The Beach Boys ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ – about American car culture and Pet Sounds too; but the album that’s really credited for the development of the concept album is The Beatles ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’. It’s ironic that this is could only loosely be described as a concept album as a lot of songs don’t tie into the concept thread.

The Pretty Things ‘S.F. Sorrows’ was released to critical success, if not commercial success; each song had a unified theme around the main character. This was then followed by The Who ‘Tommy’ a rock opera that achieved both commercial and critical success.

I guess these days, when we mostly think about the concept album, we mostly think about progressive rock and the 70s. The most famous concept album from this period being Pink Floyd ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’; followed by ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Animals’ and ‘The Wall’. Yes and Jethro Tull all had success within this genre of music. The 70s also produced some notable concept albums from more commercial artists such as David Bowie ‘The Fall and Rise of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars.

Of course all this excess saw ...
a musical backlash in the form of Punk rock and the idea of the concept album became something to sneer at. The 80s continued to see a lot of concept albums – but most of them seem to confirm that this was a medium that lost its soul and vision. Albums like Styx ‘Killroy Was Here’ but some good concept albums appeared like Queensryche ‘Operation Mindcrime’. Even punk produced some concept albums like The Dead Kennedys 'Plastic Surgery Disasters' and Husker Du’s ‘Zen Arcade.’

During the past 15 years there has been a steady rise of concept albums being released Radiohead ‘Ok Computer’ and ‘KidA’ have a concept based. Progressive metal bands like Dream Theater (Metropolis Part2) and Pain of Salvation (One Hour By The Concrete Lake) have inspired bands to write concept albums again. Tori Amos ‘Scarlet Walk’ being a commercial appealing concept that searches for the American soul across the States. In the last year at least 50% of the new albums I bought are concept based ( Please note that I didn’t actually go out of my way to purchase this many concept albums).

Concepts albums are even found with other musical styles Parliament: ‘Mothership Connection’ (Funk), Jeff Miles: ‘Metropoli’s (Techno) Kezia: ‘Protest The Hero’ (Post Hardcore), Enigma ‘MCMXCa.D’ (New Age) and even hip Hop Fuges: ‘The Score.’

Even progressive rock has made a comeback; bands like the Flower Kings, Porcupine Tree and Riverside have all made concept albums that are usually not over indulgent but show influences of the progressive rock bands of the 70s. Whilst the concept album has no longer the commercial success it had in the 1970s.

It still remains a medium that a lot of musicians want to explore. The power of the internet has allowed specialist musical styles to find devoted followings; that allow bands to release albums. Currently the whole way we buy and listen to music is changing. Perhaps in ever more specialized market place the future of the concept album is here for a good few years yet to come.

My own personal Favourite Concept Albums:

Tori Amos: Scarlet’s Walk: A journey through America states looking at issues such as; Rape Prostitution, Pornography, Insanity, Death and Childbirth

Pain of Salvation: One Hour By the Concrete Lake: Looking at issues such as Globalization and Pollution. Very hard to choose just one album by this band Remedy Lane by POS is also a classic in this genre.

Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon: A classic and probably most famous concept album of all time.

Queensryche: Operation Mindcrime: A Classic about one mans story around trying to change the system. Deals with issues such as the power of the Corruption and drugs also.

Riverside: Out of Myself: A journey through a tortured mind

I still think the concept album can be either really good or bad; it depends on the talent of the musicians and how they walk the fine line between just going up there own arse and coming up with an inspired concept.