What A Concept! (3)


In Part 1 of this series (see hyperlink), I provided the "narrative" concept albums. In Part 2, I provided the "thematic" concept albums from A-J. Now we're on to "K" through "P," and it is appropriate that we should start with The Kinks' superb paean to the "British Way" -- as much a must-hear album as Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds.

The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (The Kinks).

The Kinks were the masters of British slice-of-life and internal history stories. Only early Bowie (who was contemporaneous), and XTC (who were influenced by The Kinks) could come close. But Ray Davies is the undisputed king of this genre. This wistful paean to a lost way of British life is nothing short of breath-taking. Every song is a concise "memory," brilliantly conceived and executed. This is a truly unique album in rock and a must-listen for anyone who has never heard it.

Hope (Klaatu).

Klaatu came onto the scene in 1976 with many people asking "Is this the Beatles reunited?" -- such was the writing, arrangement, production, and especially vocals and harmonies they created. Although they clearly were not the Beatles, the band fed the rumor (deliberately?) by refusing to release any information about themselves or the recordings. It came out years later that they were three Canadian musicians and a producer/engineer. Their debut single, "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft," was as Beatle-esque as anything could possibly be, and also revealed their penchant for space-themed songs. (The song was covered by, of all groups, The Carpenters, whose version is actually very good.) Their debut album was a mish-mash of songs influenced by the Beatles, Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, ELO and others. And their ability to channel those influences into something brilliant and listenable was truly extraordinary. Their second, concept album straddles the line between narrative and thematic: it is narrative in the sense that it is a "story"; however, while there are characters, it lacks the "personal" story aspect of narrative concepts. The story is about a planet that has been destroyed both from within (as a result of some sort of fascism) and without (as a result of interstellar war). The sole survivor of the planet is the lighthouse keeper, who uses a massive laser to warn approaching spaceships of the dangerous amount of debris circling the planet. Using rock band, orchestra, and some truly jaw-dropping studio effects, they create the kind of concept album that The Beatles might well have created had they remained together.

Misplaced Childhood (Marillion).

Marillion has had two lives: the first was with its original founder and songwriter, Fish, with whom they wrote four albums (and helped create the neo-prog subgenre); the second is with its newer songwriter, Steve Hogarth (h), with whom they wrote their ultra-brilliant narrative concept album, Brave. Misplaced Childhood was the band's third album with Fish, and arguably their best. Conceived during a 10-hour LSD trip, this autobiographical account of Fish's childhood is about as genuine and intense as this theme can be written. As an aside, "Heart of Lothian" is one of my favorite prog-rock songs of all time.

Deloused in the Crematorium (Mars Volta).

Uber-progressive rock trio Mars Volta burst onto the scene in 2003 with this uber-radical concept album based on a short story by its founders, about a man who goes into a coma after overdosing on morphine and rat poison. (It was based on the actual death of a friend of one of the group's founders. And in a case of extremely horrific irony, one of the other founders died of a heroin overdose just one month prior to the album's release.) Even for progressive rock aficionados, the "music" and arrangements on this album were very extremely heady stuff when they appeared.

Dirty Computer (Janelle Monae).

Not quite rock, not quite hip-hop, not quite rap, this unique -- and daring -- entry is nevertheless brilliantly well-crafted and infectiously listenable. Prince produced the single ("Make Me Feel"), and also worked on the concepts and music for the album just prior to his death. (His "touch" is definitely present.) The theme, according to Monae, is "an homage to women and the spectrum of sexual identities." Per Wiki: "The album's 14 tracks can be grouped into three loose categories: Reckoning, Celebration and Reclamation. The first deals with Monáe's recognition of how she is viewed by society, the middle explores her acceptance of 'the cards she has been dealt,' and the closing tracks deal with her reclamation and redefinition of American identity. Overall, the album is Monáe's attempt to 'step into a more authentic self.'" The final track, "Americans," is incredibly apropos of the recent protests over the murder of George Floyd.

Before we continue, as noted in my synopsis of Nektar's Journey To the Center of the Eye,  some artists actually "specialize" in thematic concept albums, some for whom their entire oeuvres are comprised of them. In the next section, in addition to some remaining one-offs (and two-offs), we will take on these groups, including The Moody Blues, Nektar, Alan Parsons and Pink Floyd.

Days of Future Passed (Moody Blues).

Simply the recounting in music of a day in the life of an Everyman, this 1967 release was among the albums that would lead to the formal christening of "progressive rock." It was also the second of three albums (the first was The Who's Quadrophenia, see above) for which a special recording studio was built specifically to record it (Deram Records' Panoramic Sound Studio).

In Search of the lost Chord (Moody Blues). 

With an umbrella theme of "quest and discovery," this album touches on spirituality, philosophy, music and several other topics.

On the Threshold of a Dream (Moody Blues). 

Widely considered their best album, this 1969 release is essentially a psychedelic journey through inner space. (Sorry, but I've wanted to write that sentence for some time. And it is perfectly descriptive of the album.)

To Our Children's Children's Children (Moody Blues). 

A meditation on children, child experiences, growing up, and getting old.

A Question of Balance (Moody Blues).

The "balance" here is of manifold opposites: day and night, life and death, happiness and sadness, love and hate, war and peace, truth and lies.

Remember the Future (Nektar).

See my comments about Nektar in the narrative section. This was their first thematic concept album, released in 1973.  It is a loose indictment of what we are doing to the world. It tells of Bluebird, a mentor/teacher, giving advice to a young boy. As an aside, the members of Nektar were fervent environmentalists. Their narrative album dealt partly with nuclear war. This album deals with overall concerns about our planet. And Recycled (see below) also deals with environmental themes.

Down to Earth (Nektar).

Even a bunch of serious environmentalists have to have some fun at some point. More "straight' rock than progressive psychedelia and musical experimentation, this wonderful paean to circuses is simply brilliant, and great fun, and has their "catchiest" and most uplifting songs.

Recycled (Nektar).

Okay, enough fun. Back to environmental concern. But this time with a slightly lighter tone. Using a combination of the "straight" rock used on Down to Earth and some elements of progressive rock, this may be Nektar's best album overall. From my synopsis of the album in my "Absolutely Essential Progressive Rock Listening Guide" here on Culture Catch: "With Recycled, the band finally mastered a crucial element: the use of keyboards and the recording studio to create textures and atmospheres that truly enveloped the music. With ecology and the environment as their theme, Nektar delivered a masterwork of beauty, poignancy, and complexity, centered around guitarist-songwriter Roye Albrighton's unique and compelling guitar style."

Downward Spiral (Nine Inch Nails).

Just bordering on narrative concept, this unexpected concept album from industrial/metal rock band Nine Inch Nails deals with a man who finds himself in a "downward spiral" as a result of the society he lives in and the cards he was dealt, and ends with his death by suicide.

Mothership Connection (Parliament).

George Clinton "codifies" the infamous mythology of P-Funk. Not your mother's concept album, but a real hoot.

Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Alan Parsons).

This clever album uses music and lyrics to relate some of Edgar Allan Poe's greatest and best-loved stories.

I Robot (Alan Parsons). 

Loosely based on Isaac Asimov's stories under the same title, Parsons was forced to modify the album when Asimov's estate informed him that the title had been optioned by a film/TV company. The upshot is that he had to remove the comma between "I" and "Robot," and had to make the stories somewhat more generic. Even given this, it went on to become his second biggest-selling album.

Pyramid (Alan Parsons).

A meditation on Ancient Egypt, centered around the Pyramids of Giza.

Eve (Alan Parsons).

I have not heard this album yet. According to Wiki, "The album's focus is on the strengths and characteristics of women, and the problems they face in the world of men."

Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd).

As with Sgt. Pepper, there is little that has not been said about this album. It has been deconstructed so many times, in so many ways, that If someone does not know about it -- or even have heard most or all of it -- then that someone must be living under a rather large rock. Still, as noted in the introduction to this article, it deals with "the depression and/or madness that can follow as a result of various elements and aspects of human experience and society." And for those who want to try it, if you are going to listen to it as the "alternative soundtrack" to The Wizard of Oz, you need to start the album immediately after the MGM lion's third roar. (Don't forget to turn the sound off on whatever device is playing the film.) And while my attempt at this worked pretty well, and while it does not quite work as a true "soundtrack," there are several moments when the coincidence of lyrics and/or music with the film are truly stunning.

Animals (Pink Floyd).

Loosely based on Orwell's Animal Farm, the "Dogs" are society's predators, the "Pigs" are the greedy capitalists, and the "Sheep" are the mindless, obedient members of society who allow the behavior of the other two. This vicious screed is among the band's best works.

The Final Cut (Pink Floyd).

This follow-up to The Wall was originally intended to be the third disc of that album, but the record company had no stomach for underwriting a 3-album set, and discord between Roger Waters and David Gilmour delayed the recording anyway. If The Wall was a quasi-autobiography of Waters' life, then The Final Cut is an even more personal account of what he views as Britain's betrayal of its armed services, including his father's service in WWII, by engaging in the Falklands War.

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