The term “concept album” is generally a pejorative one these days, conjuring up images of earnest ’70s prog bands and songs about Tolkien. This isn’t entirely fair — there have certainly been some dreadful concept albums made over the years, but there have also been some perfectly good ones. Either way, here at Flavorpill HQ, we got to thinking that concept albums are usually united by one other feature: they’re pretty geeky. It takes a certain sort of band to visualize a grand narrative arc and/or sonic theme running through an entire record, and it’s not the type who’ll knock out three-chord ditties about fancying the girl next door. So it was that we got to thinking about the geekiest concept albums ever, ten of which we’ve compiled here. Some of these are pretty awesome, and some of them are… well, pretty awful, to be honest. But they’re all united by an unrepentant intellectualism that you can only admire.
The gold standard for ’70s prog excess and overwhelming nerdishness. King Crimson, ELO, Rush, and Wakeman’s own band Yes… They all made concept records, sure, but none of them ever approached the ludicrous glory of an entire album about King Arthur. As if the idea wasn’t absurd enough, Wakeman went the extra mile by deciding to stage an accompanying live extravaganza at Wembley Arena. On ice. Above you can see a snippet of the action — you’ll probably find yourself expecting to see six-inch standing stones descending from the firmament at any moment. Also, six minutes in (if you can bear it for that long), watch for the triple-necked guitar! Truly, they don’t make music like this any more.
Stevie Wonder – A Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants
Stevie Wonder is undoubtedly a genius and has been responsible for some of the most wonderful records ever committed to tape. But honestly, a concept album about… plants? While the ideas behind this soundtrack to the film of the same name (environmentalism, conservationism) were laudable, the music beautiful in parts, and the recording as technically innovative as anything else made in the late ’70s, the result is still like a whole album of Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song” — well-intentioned, but ultimately kind of mawkish.
Mastodon – Crack the Skye
Mastodon’s concepts are something else — they warmed up on the themed-album idea with Leviathan, a record about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (without the book’s excruciating prose, happily) and followed it up with Blood Mountain, about an existential crisis brought about by being lost on a mountain. But neither of those records can hold a candle to the conceptual outlandishness of Crack the Skye: it follows the story of an astral-projecting quadriplegic who travels back in time through some sort of wormhole, flies too close to the sun, and lands in the early days of communist Russia. And ends up occupying Rasputin’s body. Right.
Styx – Kilroy Was Here
Wot, no future? This album — a rock opera about a paranoiac Philip K. Dick-ian vision of the future, where humanity has been supplanted by robots — is mainly remembered because of novelty vocoder-driven single “Mr Roboto.” There have been mighty fine albums that have addressed the themes that Styx looked at with Kilroy Was Here (The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid, to name two), but although the concept was interesting, the execution in this case was somewhat lacking.
Manowar – Gods of War
It’s kind of perversely reassuring that bands like Manowar still exist in 2011 to sell heaps of CDs in Eastern Europe and soundtrack Dungeons & Dragons sessions the world over. Gods of War is apparently the first in a series of concept albums about war gods from various mythologies, and focuses on Norse war god Odin. Camp as a tent city and utterly hilarious, this album should really come with a testosterone’n’acne Scratch-N-Sniff.
Weezer – Songs from the Black Hole
What eventually became Pinkerton was originally envisaged as a “space-themed rock opera.” It’s a shame Songs from the Black Hole never saw the light of day, but even so — it’s a concept album, and it’s by Weezer, so it can hardly not feature on this list.
The Mars Volta – Frances the Mute
There are certain bands destined to be a fixture in any self-respecting music geek’s record collection. If you like electronic music, it’s Autechre. If you like bespectacled indie, it’s Weezer. And if you like bilingual free-form fretboard-melting neo-prog pyrotechnics, it’s The Mars Volta. Even in their At the Drive-In days, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-López were clearly chafing at the stylistic constraints of punk, and once they struck out on their own, all bets were off. Deloused in the Comatorium was demented enough, but with this — a concept album about a diary found by the band’s guitar tech — all restraint went out the window. If a half-hour, five-part opus called “Cassandra Gemini” is your idea of a good time, then look no further.
The Mae Shi – HLLLYH
“We are The Mae Shi,” reads the press release for this album, “and this is our story. It’s about self-improvement and trying to live life at the top of your lungs. It’s about living life rightly, respecting others, and trying to sort out all the static and figure out what matters.” It’s also about zombies, a nebulous but constant religious theme, high-pitched yelping vocals and a whacky techno megamix right in the middle of the album.
Marilyn Manson – Antichrist Superstar
Brian Warner’s breakthrough was a nihilistic and somewhat autobiographical opus about a downtrodden nerdish type rising to global stardom and then inflicting righteous apocalyptic vengeance on the world. You can see why it struck a chord with angry carbuncular teens pretty much everywhere.
Blind Guardian – Nightfall on Middle-Earth
And finally, the apotheosis of geekdom: ladies and gentlemen, we give you… a whole album about The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien is something of a metal touchstone — cheery Norwegian church-burners Burzum took their name from a word in one of his fictional languages, and plenty of other bands have written Middle Earth-inspired songs — but this album is truly the one to rule them all. As it were.