For those that don’t know, a Concept Album (or sometimes referred to a “Rock Opera”, although technically that’s something different) is an album that tells a story – or at least has an overarching theme that connects all the songs. So essentially, every track on the album is like a chapter in a book. Whilst technically ANY album could be considered a concept album (as albums usually have a theme or motif that connects them), usually they aren’t really connected with each other. However, on a Concept Album, as mentioned, all the tracks try to tell a story or put across a certain theme – something a lot of albums don’t do. I always found this a really creative way of telling a story through the medium of music.
Concept Albums are usually attributed to Rock/Prog Rock musicians – but there have also been Concept Albums by Pop, Hip-Hop and Dance artists (Notable examples of these genres are The Beatles and Fatboy Slim). However, considering I listen to a lot of Rock/Metal, I decided to look at my favourite Concept Albums in this area.
WARNING: Just in case any of you guys haven’t heard any of these albums – and due to the fact I WILL be giving away a lot of the stories involved – please keep in mind this blog may have some spoilers for the themes and stories.
So today, in a musical themes Top Five, I look at my Top Five Concept Albums in the Rock/Metal genre. For this list, I’m picking ONE album per band and also picking out one standout track for each of them. And as always, this is in no particular order. I choose these ones because I enjoy the music as much as the story and themes they cover.
Fear Factory - Obsolete
Done as a sort of sequel to their last albums Demanufacture, Obsolete is set in a dystopian future where machines rule (sorta like Terminator). But whereas the humans in Terminator were fighting against them – here they have pretty much been enslaved. The machines they created to keep them safe, now keep them in check – watching their every move. That is until a hero named Edgecrusher leads a rebellion against them in the hope of saving mankind.
As you would expect from Fear Factory, the tracks on here are fast paced, brutal and synthetic – with pounding drums, seven string guitars and swirling mechanical synths. Each track paints a world that is ruled by fear – where no one has privacy anymore and humans are herded like cattle. Terror rules in this future – and machines are the gods.
In actual fact, this album isn’t not TOO far off from the modern world today, albeit slightly exaggerated. We’ve all come to rely on technology to help us in our everyday life – but what if that same technology ends up being our downfall? And with Government’s trying to pass laws allowing them to spy on us and have access to our online accounts, that makes it even more frightening. They can say that it’s to track down criminals and terrorist organisations – but is our safety worth the cost of our freedom?
This album asks those questions, but doesn’t really bang them in. The story puts across the themes very well – but if you don’t care for the story and want to just listen to the music, then you have a great choice here. Each track is vicious and intense – but at the same time it also reminds us of our humanity. Many people state Demanufacture as their best album, but for me, this is their best one. In terms of story and music, it’s perfect.
Stand out Track: Ressurrection. Hands down my favourite Fear Factory song of all time. This song has it all, heavy guitars, sweeping orchestra and lyrics praying for mankind’s salvation. Of all the tracks on the album (which have a bleak outlook) this one is surprisingly positive – almost like it’s inspiring Edgecrusher to carry on as humanity is worth it. This makes the ending of the album that much more depressing – as it ends with the haunting lyrics of Timelessness. The lyrics are accompanied by a sad orchestra, hinting that Edgecrusher has failed his mission and this shows his despair. After such a positive and upbeat song, this really tears at your heartstrings. However it’s a perfect end to a brilliant album, and one that might even make you question things afterwards.
Marilyn Manson - Holy Wood (In The Shadow Of The Valley Of Death)
Holy Wood is set in a “fictionalised” version of America (and the reason for using air quotes will become clear later on), and in this version, Holy Wood is a giant theme park where the main attraction is death. Here, violence reigns supreme and those who are killed live on air are regarded as martyrs, with people like JFK being considered a Saint. This is all part of a religion called Celebritarism (sorry if I misspelled it). On the other end of the country is Death Valley, where a man called Adam leads a revolution against Holy Wood with a number of outcasts in an attempt to bring down the society of Holy Wood. Unfortunately, the outcasts become integrated into Holy Wood and this causes Adam to snap – in the end it’s hinted he kills himself.
Considering this was his first album released after the Columbine School shootings, many would think it’s a parable on that. It’s not. In fact, it’s a parable on gun crime, media frenzy and religion. Holy Wood itself is a metaphor for modern America – a country that’s well known for its love of guns, celebrities and religion. Basically Marilyn Manson is taking all these things and putting them into one big religion – where if you die and your death is televised, you become a “higher power” and ascend to godhood in the eyes of the common people. One could argue that religion and violence go hand in hand. As Marilyn himself pointed out, the Christians symbol is Jesus on the Cross – and that in itself is an act of violence.
I won’t go TOO much into a religious debate for fear of offending any religious readers here (and also because this is a fictionalised version of religion). Suffice to say that this album has a lot of dark themes. The songs have great driving rhythms and violent undertones – extenuating the violence in this society. It analyses the hypocrisy of American Culture, which claims to be a Christian Country and yet refuses to give up its right to bear arms. Columbine was a tragedy, but since then many more school shootings have taken place – and it doesn’t look like they will stop considering guns are essentially a part of their culture.
It would have been easy for Marilyn Manson to do an entire album based around Columbine (and how he was blamed for it), but he went one step further and decided to look at the dark side of the American Dream. And the end result is a fantastic industrial album. Many say Antichrist Superstar is his best work – but this for me is his best album in terms of themes and story. Interestingly enough, he has stated that Holy Wood, Mechanical Animals and Antichirst Superstar are all part of a trilogy in reverse order, with Holy Wood being the start (even though it was the last one to be released). That’s pretty forward thinking from old Brian Warner there! :D
Stand out Track: Every track is amazing on here, but I’d have to pick The Nobodies as one of the best tracks. Whilst I mentioned this album isn’t specifically about Columbine, this one has the biggest connection to it. It tells a story of someone who wanted to become famous, so he murdered some children. And whilst he DOES become famous in the eyes of the media – ultimately he is now forever “dirt”. It’s a bleak outlook at the levels that some people will go to to become “famous”, but also looks at how American media sometimes uses tragedy purely for the sake of gaining ratings. It’s a song with a lot of deep meanings behind it and one that has become a favourite among Marilyn Manson fans. Recently, it gained new interest when it became the theme song for the TNA Wrestling Staple The Decay. If you want a song that sums up the themes of Holy Wood, then I’d have to point to this one.
Rush - Clockwork Angels
Clockwork Angels is set in a Steampunk like atmosphere whereby the world is run by the Watchmaker – who rules over the world with clock like precision. Here a young man tries to find his way in the world and discover his dreams, meeting carnival folk, alchemists and the Clockwork Angels themselves. It’s a pretty straightforward story – think of it as Sci-Fi in album form.
As always Neil Peart’s drumming is the stand out for me on this album (man that guy can drum), but the instrumentation is really well put together as well as Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson add many layers to the songs. The song structure is certainly more “modern” than a lot of their earlier stuff – but what I like about Rush is how they can reinvent themselves with each new album and find new ways of putting their music across.
Not only that, but I think this album has the most positive message out of all the concept albums on this list. In a world that makes you feel small – think big. Go out and achieve your dreams, no matter how hard it seems. All in all it’s an inspiring album with a great message – and for fans of Rush, you may even see a little Easter Egg from 2112 in the artwork.
Stand out Track: Whilst there are a lot of great songs on this album (and finding just ONE isn’t easy) I’d have to pick the album closer The Garden as one of my favourites. It’s a beautiful ballad with uplifting lyrics and an inspiring message. What it essentially comes down to is this – in order to make your life better, you need to take care of the things that matter to you. Nurture them like a garden. In this case, I believe he’s talking about the people that mean the most to you – friends and family. Sure the world may be run by assholes and darkness can creep into the world. But as long as there is love, we can survive. I actually saw Rush perform this live during their Clockwork Angels tour and it was one of the most emotional live performances I’ve ever seen. Even brought a man tear to my eye. Whenever I feel down, this is a track I like to listen to when I need my spirits to be raised.
Dream Theater - Metropolis Pt 2 Scenes From A Memory
NOTE: This one has the heaviest of spoilers for this album, so skip ahead if you don’t want anything ruined.
In Metropolis, a young man is having recurring dreams about a girl named Victoria, who was apparently murdered by her lover. However, these dreams start to feel real to him – so much so that he tries to find out more about Victoria and what happened to her. He finds himself embroiled in a murder mystery whereby he must find the truth. Soon he discovers that he himself is a reincarnation of Victoria – and the truth about her death will uncover a darker secret.
This is one of Dream Theater’s most acclaimed albums. A lot of the lyrics and themes from Metropolis carry over to this one – including one song called The Dance of Eternity (which is mentioned in Metropolis). It also tells an interesting story that could easily be made into a Murder/Mystery film – with the pieces of the puzzle slowly coming together and not being revealed until the end. There’s actually a pretty big twist at the end – which I won’t spoil, but it was pretty shocking.
The album was once voted number one in a readers vote in 2012 of Prog Rock albums. It’s also the album that started the “cycle” in that the last note on the track would become the first on the next album up until Octavarium. Many of my favourite Dream Theater songs are on this album and it’s the Dream Theater album I listen to the second most (first being Images and Words). Let’s also not forget that this album is a sequel to what was originally just a song. It’s amazing how they expanded on the themes that song posed. Few bands can pull that off so convincingly. Dream Theater never cease to amaze me with how good their albums are and this is a great example of their songwriting skills. A brilliant album that I highly recommend checking out.
Stand out Track: The Spirit Carries On. Just like with the rest of the album, this songs presses the idea of reincarnation – that death is not the end. It’s a powerful ballad, with a choral feel and high emotion. Whether you’re religious or not, we all want to believe that there’s something more to this life than what we see. We all want to believe that death is not the end – and whether you believe in reincarnation or not, this is a highly uplifting song. This is another song that when I saw it performed live, they put so much emotion into it that I actually think they made a lot of the audience cry. Dream Theater have always been great at capturing emotion in their songs and this is one of those great tunes. The message is uplifting and full of positivity that you can’t help but smile. You might even get a little tearful in the process.
Pink Floyd -The Wall
The Wall tells a story of a man named Pink, whose father was killed during World War 2. Heavily depressed and lacking a father figure – and swarmed by an overprotective mother and terrible school teacher, Pink grows up to be disillusioned and angry at the world. Even when he marries and becomes a rock star, he cannot shake the hate he has for the world. As such, he builds a metaphysical “wall” around himself and shuts his emotions from everyone around him. Everyone that hurts him becomes metaphysical “bricks” in this wall. He becomes self destructive and violent, and will probably destroy himself and everyone around him unless he “tears down the wall”.
The album itself has a lot of parallels with the writer/singer Roger Waters. His father was killed during World War 2 and he ALSO became disillusioned with Rock Star fame. Much like Pink, Waters also had a dodgy marriage (several in fact) and he felt like disassociating himself from society. But also, Pink could also be a reference to former Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett – Barrett himself had a troubled past up until his death.
With the songs all being chapters in Pink’s life, the story gradually unfolds where we learn about his troubled life and watch his eventual descent into insanity – driven mad by “worms” that I guess represent his hateful thoughts. Eventually he becomes so detached from human life that he imagines himself as a neo-nazi dictator, destroying those he considers unworthy. This is further expanded in the film Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which gave rise to the iconic “marching hammers” that has become synonymous with Pink Floyd.
I could use an entire blog post explaining the themes in The Wall, but for the sake of time I’ll just say this. What I believe The Wall represents is that if you don’t open up to people, you will eventually find yourself all alone. We all like to build walls now and then around us (metaphysical ones), but unless we let people in, we risk facing our troubles alone. And no one wants that, I believe.
The Wall is a fantastic album in every sense of the world. The production is spot on, the guitar sound is immaculate and the musicianship is just… well, it’s Pink Floyd, need I say more? If you haven’t heard this album yet then you are missing out big time!
Stand out Track: Comfortably Numb. It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me why I love this track. It has not one, but TWO of the greatest guitar solos of all time. Gilmour proves that you don’t need to do fast or flashy solos to make them sound good. You just need them to sound interesting. And boy do they work here! It’s done as one part of the song a doctor speaking to him (trying to wake him from a catatonic state), the other part Pink reflecting on his life and realising how numb he has become. It’s not especially about drugs, but it has been used as a metaphor for drugs in recent years. It’s also been used in a number of great films and TV shows – The Departed and The Soprano’s as two examples. This song for me is just perfect. And the guitar tone alone makes me just melt! The minute the solos kick in, I lose myself to the music and just let it flow. Not just my favourite Pink Floyd song – but one of my favourite songs of all time.
And that’s my list. Have you got any favourites I missed out? Let me know in the comments below.
Thanks for reading guys. See you soon.
*DISCLAIMER: All images used are owned by their respective owners and used purely for demonstration purposes. No copyright infringement is intended or inferred*