Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Top 5 Concept Albums/Rock Operas

The term "concept album" can be pretty broad. In its most basic sense, it is used to describe any album that has recurring themes present throughout the tracks. In my experience people will often use "concept album" to describe albums with a running narrative from song-to-song. While this is technically correct (the best kind of correct), the running narrative can be more accurately described as a "rock opera" (or metal opera, or hip-hopera or what-have-you), while a concept album can even be something as simple as the song titles all having a common element (this is something I learned recently... The Ventures released an album titled The Colorful Ventures in 1961 and each song had a different color in its title. Being an instrumental band, there were no lyrical themes or characters popping up anywhere but it's still a unifying concept and thus, a concept album).

With that said and done, most of my favorite concept albums are rock operas.

05. Fucked Up - David Comes to Life (Matador; 2011)
The newest album on this list, it's also the most impressive in terms of just how much effort was put into making it. Fucked Up has always kind of pushed the boundaries of what a hardcore band is supposed to do, but they level of commitment that they put into making this album goes well beyond their normal threshold. Hell, it goes well beyond the level of commitment that almost any band ever has put into making an album. I still don't fully understand the story being told (Something along the lines of being about a guy named David who works at a lightbulb factory, and he falls for a girl named Veronica. They have revolutionary ideas and plan to blow up the aforementioned factory but then Veronica dies when the bomb is set off early. Then there's a girl named Vivian and a narrator/villain named Octavio, who is controlling the story, and David fights him for control... but then it gets super-meta and the band is also apparently cast into the story and pulling some strings or something...), but it doesn't make the album less enjoyable. But seriously, how many other bands will not only record an 18-track, 75-minute album, but also record eight additional tracks to complement the story (two of those songs simply just introduce the town that the album's story takes place in(!), four of which introduce the four main characters, one that is kind of like an epilogue, and a final song to explain the entire concept) as well as a fake compilation featuring 11 brand new songs by fictional bands from the fictional location of the proper album? I won't pretend to be an expert on what the original SMiLE was supposed to be like, nor will I pretend to know exactly how epic Songs from the Black Hole was planned to become, but I can say that David Comes to Life easily shadows those albums in terms of presentation (and existing in its intended format).

04. New Found Glory - Catalyst (Drive-Thru/Geffen; 2004)
This album is not a story. At least I don't believe that it was meant to be. But there's most definitely a general theme of self-doubt and failing in almost every song. It is important to note that Catalyst is their sophomore effort on a major label: their self-titled had been a big hit and signing to Geffen and releasing Sticks and Stones only increased their exposure. To me it only seems natural that the band members began to become unsure of the direction they were heading; after all, once you're made it to the top, there's nowhere to go but down. The artwork in lyric booklet is what first tipped me off to thinking that there was more to this album than well-produced hooks. Instead of trying to describe it, just take a look:
A sleazy, snake-like creature wearing a suit is up in the front. I can only assume that he is the Catalyst. Kids with sad or blank expressions holding instruments. One kid is signing a contract in the snake-man's hands. Factory buildings that read things like "Tattoo" "Insta Star" "Angst" "Heart Removal." It's not exactly subtle. The back cover and inside artwork don't try to keep the band's feelings concerning major label success a secret:
Nope, no allusions or metaphors here.
Okay, so teen angst and hating "the man" are not the most original or compelling of concepts to base an album around, I admit that. It's definitely not as impressive as Fucked Up's David Comes to Life but that's just not a fair comparison. What I think the most interesting thing about Catalyst is that when New Found Glory released the album, they were doing the very thing that the album was (seemingly) rallying against, that being a pop punk band getting mixed up in a major label's roster. There is no way that they were not aware of that fact though and in the very first song (fittingly titled "Intro") they claim: "It's more than a t-shirt, it's more than a tattoo. It's more than a phase, this is how I was raised. You keep trying to market this feeling, I heard what you said. And no we're not the same." It's the only song that doesn't have any real negative connotations or introspective questions about themselves and I think it really speaks true to the general character of the band as a whole, especially seeing how they've bounced back from the "going major and slowing down" point of their career that so many other bands have trouble recovering from.

03. Coheed and Cambria - In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 (Equal Vision; 2003)
In theory, I could have picked the entire Coheed and Cambria studio discography and put it in this spot. But that would've been a really long entry and I only want to write so much right now. I picked In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 because, even though I prefer the musical complexity of Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Vol. 1: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness (I'm abbreviating that from now on) more, the segment of the story that is being told on IKSSE:3 is my favorite part of the entire Amory Wars. I love the fact that the entire band is based around a concept, and I love that the concept is a sci fi epic. My favorite parts of almost every story is when everything has gone wrong to the point where the protagonist finally wakes up and realizes what he or she has to do and accepts their role in the story, and IKSSE:3 is that part of the Amory Wars saga. The story can be a bit confusing to follow if you don't know a thing about it (it is way easy to follow if you've read the corresponding comics), but what makes this a great concept album is that the tracks are strong enough to stand on their own and the listener doesn't even have to know that there are entire battles going on in the songs. It's also the last part of the story that doesn't bum me out. I know I just said that I prefer GAIBSIV, V1:FFTTEOM in terms of the music, but the story takes a very meta turn on that album that involves a character, the Writing Writer, who is penning the entire Claudio Kilgannon saga which means that everything that happened on the first two albums was merely a story being written. By the next album, Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Vol. 2: No World for Tomorrow, things go back to the sci fi world and the Writer exits the story but it still kind of ruins the whole concept for me because I still know that there's someone pulling the strings and the characters were never in any real danger. Maybe I'm looking at it the wrong way and there was some Stranger Than Fiction things going on, but I still think that the Amory Wars story peaked with In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3.

02. AFI - Sing the Sorrow (DreamWorks; 2003)
Including this one might be controversial. At least to hardcore AFI fans, apparently there's some disconnect between fans as to whether there is any real concept on this album or if it's all just speculation by people with way too much free time on their hands. I'm not going to try to pick apart the entire Clandestine/336-337/Sing the Sorrow/etc mystery- there's no way that I understand it enough to do it any justice. I do, however, understand that there is a theory that the album is examines the cycles of life, self reflection of death and, possibly, the ability (regardless of whether it's a good thing or not) to break out of those cycles. One of the more prominent concepts that I've heard relates to life being cyclical. There are twelve months in a year, during which many things happen, first and foremost the temperature and climates change. When one year ends another simply begins and starts the cycle all over. Allegedly, each track can be seen as representing a month and the sounds that can be heard at the end of the album are similar to those at the very beginning, giving the impression that the album can be listened to on repeat without any sonic disruption, throwing the listener into yet another cycle (and also shines some light on how it is possible for the Leaving Song Part II to occur before the Leaving Song).
This ties into the concept of reincarnation, always starting over from the beginning. The concept of breaking out of the reincarnation is explored in the hidden track, This Time Imperfect, as well as the then-unreleased song Rabbits Are Roadkill on Route 37 (the lyric booklet contains a picture of a dead rabbit with "rabbits are roadkill" written next to it).  Lyrics such as "I cannot leave here, I cannot stay" and "There are no flowers, no not this time/There will be no angels gracing the lines" which create an image of being stuck in limbo, and allegedly Rabbits (Hares) cannot be reincarnated according to the Chinese Zodiac and Davey Havok is a Rabbit himself and this leads to the conclusion that the album is not only about the cyclical nature of life, but also about how Davey Havok is living his final life.
All of this makes for a super interesting concept, and it's one of the main reasons I love the album so much, but I do not know how much of that last part is true. Every time I try to search for links between reincarnation and the Chinese Zodiac I can never find any information on whether or not it is believed that Rabbits are in their final stage of life, I'm always just brought to fan pages about the band. That said, it is fun to notice the little things, such as how Rabbits are fourth in the Chinese Zodiac cycle, while track four on Sing the Sorrow is Silver and Cold, which has a corresponding music video showing Davey Havok about to jump off a bridge while his bandmates, rushing to stop him, all die in a car crash and implications that Havok was a ghost the entire time. 

01. Green Day - American Idiot (Reprise; 2004)
Come on, like this wasn't going to be my number one. Green Day was the first band I really fell in love with. So much to the point that between 2001 and 2003, I had kind of overplayed every single one of their albums and I couldn't listen to them anymore. Then in 2004, they released American Idiot and I finally had something new to listen to on repeat. I've raved on and on about American Idiot before (right here if you want to read it:, so I won't go into a whole lot of my history with the album. What I really like about American Idiot is that they not only created an easily accessible album that reignited their career, but they created an easily accessible rock opera that lays its cards out on the table for all to see all while still using their trademark Green Day lyrical imagery. Anyone who says differently, and that the band "totally changed their sound" for this album, clearly has never listened to Warning or the second half of nimrod. I get that it's one thing to dislike an album or its singles after hearing them a million times, but that's no excuse for making blind accusations that can be easily rebutted.

But I digress. American Idiot's story is extremely easy to follow, which definitely contributed to why it has become the most successful rock opera of the new century. Being a rock opera with such an incredibly fluid story, the track list of the album is really the only way to listen to the story of Jesus of Suburbia, and putting the songs in any other order would be like taking your favorite book and rearranging it so that the big reveal in chapter 34 comes in right after chapter 6 while the introduction of the red herring in chapter 4 has been placed back as the final chapter. This predetermined listening order could be seen as a bit of a problem, because listening to music is not exactly the same as reading a book, but I like to think of it as one of the album's strengths. Other rock operas may have well-crafted and involved stories (such as Coheed and Cambria's Amory Wars or Fucked Up's David Comes to Life), but with cryptic lyrics that can sometimes be difficult to decipher in terms of the grand scheme, it's sometimes impossible to really know how the story is unfolding unless you have a reliable source to help you out (for example, the Amory Wars comic series based on the music of Coheed and Cambria or interviews with members of Fucked Up discussing the album) (actually, the members of Fucked Up have been known to make things up for the fun of it, so an interview with them might not be the most reliable of sources).

There are plenty of ways to do a concept album, but American Idiot is how to tell a story in a rock opera right. I can only hope that the next great rock opera takes cues from Green Day's storytelling, Coheed and Cambria's visual companions and Fucked Up's dedication to making the story come to life.

Honorable Mention
It would be stupid of me to not at least mention the Who somewhere. My dad introduced me to the Who at a very young age, specifically songs from Tommy and Who's Next. While the latter was really a compilation of stuff that survived the Lifehouse project, Tommy was definitely the first concept album that I had ever heard. Pinball Wizard and Sally Simpson were favorites to sing along with and when I was about seven or eight, I saw the film version of Tommy. Despite that I didn't truly understand what was going on in the story until I rewatched it again while I was in college, I still greatly enjoyed it because I got to see the music I was listening to come alive on screen with actors and dancing. I think my love for American Idiot's success stems from being in awe of how Tommy went from being "just an album" and turned into so much more, because now all of that is happening again, but based on the music of a band that I grew up listening to instead.

So that only took a couple of hours to write. I'm amazed that I stuck with it. If you managed to read this far, kudos and thanks for reading! How about leaving some of your favorite concept albums/rock operas in the comments?

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