For the June edition of the collaborative blog, the collective discusses some of their favorite concept albums. These posts break down the mechanics that make up the theme of each album, and discuss the importance of the overall concept.
Artist: Edge of Sanity
Year Released: 1996
Swedish death metal übermensch and my valentine, Dan Swanö, pushed Edge of Sanity into increasingly progressive directions leading them to release what is arguably their magnum opus: Crimson. A single song, stretching over 40 minutes, in ten parts tells the story of a king and queen in the near future ruling over a population unable to reproduce and the epic journey of their child to restore the gift of life to humanity once again. This is one of the deepest and most thorough concept albums I have come across, and if nothing else it is worth the read to follow the princess on her journey from birth to encountering evil and her eventual fate alongside the future of humanity. But even if you don’t get lost in the lyrics, the seamless interplay of Swedish death metal, 70s progressive rock, and infectious riffs and melodies will leave you glued to your seat for its entire, monumental duration. Crimson is a landmark masterpiece of a concept album.
Album: Colored Sands
Year Released: 2013
The wave of metal band reformations in the 2000s and 2010s brought with it the resurrection of countless beloved acts across the spectrum of the genre. While the return of some acts was certainly met with a less than pleasant aftertaste, Gorguts was a band that charged at the exceedingly high bar that is set for these types of reunions full bore. Coming more than a decade since their last full-length album, Colored Sands brought with it a maelstrom of complex, angular, and esoteric melodies and rhythms that nod to the band’s past, but waste no time in pushing their sound into uniquely new territories. What’s incredible is that band mastermind Luc Lemay and his new supergroup of Colin Marston, Kevin Hufnagel, and John Longstreth, have achieved three tremendous feats with this release: (i) created a fresh, creative, and worthwhile standalone album, (ii) formed a brand-new, yet cohesive and powerful line-up, and (iii) pulled off a superbly thought-out, well-paced, and expansive concept album. Alone, any of these qualities would be a major accomplishment of a band reactivated after such a long absence; the fact that Gorguts nearly effortlessly reaches such heights is a testament to the capabilities and artistry of the group in its new form.
Conceptually, Colored Sands weaves through the history, culture, and practices of Tibet. Opening track “Le Toit du Monde” (Roof of the World) not only introduces us to the new, more powerful incarnation of Gorguts, but lyrically and musically whisks the listener to the majestic lands and atmosphere of this towering Himalayan plateau. This track is one of the strongest examples of how symbiotic the relationship between the album concept and the new Gorguts sound is. “Ocean of Wisdom”, “Forgotten Arrows”, and “Colored Sands” bring us further into the cultural history and ideology of the region, focusing on the ancient tradition of finding a new Dalai Lama, the principles of causality in Tibetan philosophy, and the intricate, painstaking, devotional practices of the Mandala ritual, respectively.
Just as these sacred traditions and peaceful existence were abruptly changed forever with the Chinese invasion of 1950, so too does this album at the halfway point. The “Battle of Chamdo”, a militant and dissonant Stravinsky-esque orchestral number, divides the album along the same tragic lines of Tibetan history. The first half focuses on the beauty of the region’s philosophy, landscape, and people, whereas after the invasion, these are overshadowed by the resulting war, misery, and death. “Enemies of Compassion” blasts at the listener like the relentless and all-powerful Chinese forces, setting the stage for the more somber and tragic events of Tibet’s history to follow. “Ember’s Voice” and “Absconders” focus on just two such atrocities: the famous immolation-based protests of the Chinese occupation and the more recent events of Chinese soldiers killing Tibetans attempting to flee the still-occupied country. The album finale is one of its most lyrically interesting, focusing on the non-violent philosophy of the Tibetan people. It asks both the listener and the Tibetan people: is this really the way to go? While we admire their ability to uncompromisingly stick with their tenants in the face of decades of oppression, torture, and slavery, can any culture survive such an onslaught? Much like their music, here Gorguts leaves us with more questions than clear-cut answers, but the depth and complexity of this album allows us to come to many of our own conclusions.
Year Released: 2003
As shown by our wonderful anonymously penned review, Sleep’s Dopesmoker has had a tremendous impact on both the world of doom metal and members of the writing staff of the T&E Collective. A towering green colossus emerging from the arid desert sands, Dopesmoker spans entire album lengths, effortlessly escaping the confines of our terrestrial domain on a holy Sensimillian quest. The album tells the story of a caravan of nameless nomadic weed-priests with a simple mission:
Drop out of life with bong in hand
Follow the smoke toward the riff filled land
The stoner caravan migrates through the deep sandscape with herb bales on the back of their beasts and Hasheeshian respirators to survive their treacherous journey and to keep the sacrosanct connection to their Weedian god. Leaving behind an endless prayer-filled smoke cloud, the caravan’s pilgrimage takes them to the holy sites of Zion and Eden, through the Jordan Valley and the endless sandsea. Along the way, the holy men raise the Son of the God of Isreal, encounter the Desert Legions, and complete the Smoke-Covenant as foretold by the seer’s Holy Prophecy.
But onward the caravan must continue, a newly built and divinely imbued bong in hand, to complete their mission and to carry out the divine commandment of the Weedian. Judgement soon comes to mankind, with those worshipping the false gods meeting their fate. The holy green herbsmen serve the rightful king and must spread the hemp seeds their caravan now carry to start anew the rightful churches. As molten fire flows toward Zion, the lungsmen follow their king as the Nazarene takes flight to seek the Cheribum, riding out with spliff aflame. The marijuanauts escape earth to cultivate, grow-room temples becoming the churches of the new stoner breed. The divine priests chant loudly down upon the new freedom seeds – the burnt offerings are redeemed – the smoke deliverance is complete! The caravan has completed its mission and its holy odyssey, the Chronicle of the Sensimillian:
Drop out of life with bong in hand
Follow the smoke toward the riff-filled land
Drop out of life with bong in hand
Follow the smoke, Jerusalem
Vektor – Terminal Redux
Pink Floyd – Animals
Album: Nonagon Infinity
Artist: King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard
Year Released: 2016
From a high-up view of Nonagon Infinity, the naming of it seems fairly straightforward, when looking at the parts and hearing the tracks: nine songs, each of which flows into the other, the last song flowing back into the first. A fantastic album, overall, but that's not what we're here to discuss. What's interesting is how the basic song structures lend themselves to illustrating the notion of the shape that is the album's namesake.
The lyrics across the album hold to a few common themes: youth, dreaming, nature and its phenomena - but are more or less inscrutable, and perhaps wiser listeners than me can contribute to discussions as to their meaning. But what has struck me intensely is how well the album as a whole, single work evokes the notion of that classic nine-sided shape we all know as the nonagon. Each track has its distinctions but remains true to the rhythms, tones, and vibes of the whole, like facets of a gem.
What binds the tracks together in their sameness is fairly subtle. Something like retaining the time signature for some of the songs while halving it in others during a fuzzily defined transition evokes the sense of oneness between the tracks, lending the mind the idea that each track forms a cohesive whole with its fellows, while their own lyrics and tone structures offer individuality - the points of a nonagon, if you will. Not to say that King Gizzard picked a beat and ran with it; a collection of songs might drop to half of the tempo of the main theme to reemerge just as fast as ever later across unclearly defined borders between the tracks, which lends to the subtlety of the creation of this idea of these songs forming a shape in a weird synesthesia that grips the mind in a truly exhilarating way.
It's been a long time (read: my entire life) since I've actually wanted to study music theory; Nonagon Infinity raises that desire to delve into more about how they've managed to convey this strange connection between their songs into my brain.
Album: Songs for the Deaf
Artist: Queens of the Stone Age
Year Released: 2002
One of the crown jewels in Josh Homme’s musical career, Songs for the Deaf is a concept album with a fairly ordinary concept behind it - one that takes the listener on a drive from Los Angeles to Homme’s hometown of Joshua Tree, California. As the album progresses along the I-10, you hear DJs from a random scan of radio stations letting you know you’re passing places like East LA, Banning, and Chino Hills until you get to the deserts of Coachella Valley. Do the lyrics have anything to do with this drive? Not necessarily, but I feel like they are reflective of the random thoughts that pop into your head on a long drive through the suburbs and deserts of Southern California. On a side note, I actually listened to this album on a drive along the I-10 from Downtown LA into the desert on my way to Tucson in college. I was disappointed that the album didn’t perfectly sync up with the drive, but it’s still a great road trip album.
Artist: In Flames
Year Released: 1997
Whoracle is one of my favorite In Flames albums. It’s a strong showing of the Gothenburg melodic death metal sound that the band would make their own throughout their career, and to date, it’s the only concept album in their body of work. The album is about a utopian, technologically-advanced society; its ties to the past; and its destruction at the hands of basic human nature. As the dual guitar attack of Bjorn Gelotte and Jesper Stromblad carries the album musically, vocalist Anders Friden narrates the world’s slow descent into the apocalypse at the hands of the media and business leaders. The band even manages to incorporate a rather exceptional cover of Depeche Mode’s “Everything Counts” to the story’s premise as a way to finish off the album.
Album: De-Loused in the Comatorium
Artist: The Mars Volta
Year Released: 2003
The Mars Volta’s debut full-length album was an impressive statement from Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez in regards to the territory that they would explore after the dissolution of At The Drive-In. The album’s concept is based on a short story written by Bixler-Zavala and fellow TMV sound manipulator Jeremy Ward about a man named Cerpin Taxt, who enters a coma after overdosing on a mixture of opioids and rat poison. The lyrics make use of an incredibly advanced vocabulary and can be a lot to unpack, but they paint vivid and nightmarish imagery that, when combined with the wild, frantic, and dissonant music, are effective at capturing the Kafkaesque journey through this coma. It’s one of those albums that you can come back and listen to and that sounds fresh every time.
Album: Antichrist Superstar
Artist: Marilyn Manson
Year Released: 1996
Everyone has their quintessential if-I-didn’t-have-this-album-as-a-teenager-I-would-have-died album. For me and probably most any angsty freak teenager from 1996 - 2006, that album was undoubtedly Antichrist Superstar. The central storyline revolves an übermensch-type character who is undergoing a metamorphosis into the Antichrist. Through the lyrical, instrumental and visual themes, we are taken on a journey from "the worm" to an angel in three parts:
Cycle I: The Heirophant
This section paints the beginning "worm" stages of the character - tortured, weak and filled with angst. The worm is described by Manson as being a person blinded by religion, media, society, and so on ("sheeple", maaan). He begins to acknowledge the shallowness of society ("The Beautiful People") and feels ostracized for not fitting into the mold. He describes the social constructs fed to him by Christianity, the media, etc. and feels conflicted on how to be a true individual. The final two tracks in this section ("Dried Up, Tied and Dead to the World" and "Tourniquet") express the suffering and loneliness that come along with choosing to separate yourself from what's comfortable or socially acceptable. These songs became anthems to everyone who felt like they didn't fit in and wanted to form their own opinions. And yeah, it describes why this was every goth teenager's anthem. Fuck preppies, y'all!!
Cycle II: Inauguration of the Worm
The major turning point of this album is the track "Cyrptorchid": prick your finger and it's done/the moon has now eclipsed the sun/the angel has spread its wings/the time has come for bitter things. These lines are said in a haunting, angelic tone backed with dark distortions to imitate the complexity of this transformation. It's an empowering change in that the character is no longer a worm and developing his own personality, but his reality has been shattered. He now has to rebuild a new foundation for himself, which can be a very isolating and terrifying process.
The final track of this section, "Kinderfield", is a conversation with the main character and The Disintegrator, who is inaugurating the wormboy into an "Angel with the Scabbed Wings". He is telling the Angel that now there is no turning back, and "this is what you should fear, you are what you should fear." The only thing to fear is God, but he is now his own God.
Cycle III: Disintegrator Rising
The final chapter is the the welcoming of the Antichrist. These songs are vicious, confident and unrelenting. And this section has some of Manson's best songs of all time (i.e. "The Reflecting God)! The character is now all ego ("I went to God just to see/and I was looking at me"), and repeatedly screams at the listener, "Can you feel my power?" By the end of the album, however, he admits he still has weaknesses. "The Man That You Fear" shows that he is still struggling with identity and is "so tangled up in sins that [he] cannot escape". Everything turns to shit.
This album is still as brilliant as it was when it released two decades ago, and mainstream media has never been the same since.
Album: The Downward Spiral
Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Year Released: 1994
I think what makes this my absolute favorite concept record is how completely raw and human it is. Trent Reznor exposes every facet of his depression in a way that I don't believe has been replicated on any other record since. The Downward Spiral is a semi-autobiographical story of a man's descent into depression, self-abuse, nihilism, and ultimately attempted suicide. There are far too many themes and motifs within each song for me to discuss in a single post - but you can hear fellow T&E contributor Ronny and I discuss it in our perfect albums podcast.