?Concept albums (and rock operas are a type of concept album) tend to be pretty nerdy propositions on their own, as they insist on continuity in a medium in which it is not always welcome. Most people just want to listen to music, not get involved in some indulgent story about alien gynecologists or what have you. Yet the concept album must hold a powerful allure to sophomore bands, largely due to its habit of transforming a mere “collection of songs” into something resembling a “creative vision.” Whether or not it denotes actual artistic prowess, it at least gives the illusion of it.
Most concept albums are either based on intricate storylines thought up by the band members or adaptations of existing works. Sometimes, the adaptation can also be a backdoor dry run for a stage musical (which we will also see). Regardless, the fact that so many musicians are nerds at heart and the fact that concept albums came into vogue about the same time as progressive rock (the SINGLE GREATEST GENRE OF MUSIC EVER) means we have a large amount of material to work with. A lot of these are just classic works of literature that have inspired many, but somehow, when transformed into works of music even something everyone knows from high school can suddenly obtain an extra nerdy edge.
No surprise: it is kind of an internationally recognized literary classic, after all, read by nerds and non-nerds alike. The Subhumans, Rick Wakeman, and the Alan Parsons Project (get used to seeing them on this list) have all recorded full-length or near full-length albums based on the book, but one of the best examples has to be Diamond Dogs, originally meant to be an entire musical adaptation of the Orwell novel but later scaled down into a 2112-esque half-concept production. Well, that’s not entirely true, since pretty much all of the songs are linked thematically to the idea of an apocalyptic world and paranoia, even if only four of them relate directly to Big Brother. But it’s the specificity of those last few songs that put them above the slew of other songs like them on the musical landscape: you can tell that Bowie not only liked the book, he paid attention too. And let’s not forget that the album ends with the haunting “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”, which surely has to be one of the best names for a rock track ever.
9) The Works of Edgar Allen Poe
The power of Welles compels you! The famous Alan Parsons Project album Tales of Mystery and Imagination, is the most famous full Poe concept album (along with its sequel, Poe: More Tales of Mystery and Imagination). The original was remastered in the ’80s and given new features (including this narration). In both cases, the album presents well-traveled pieces like “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Raven”, though a pair of Poe b-sides did make the cut: “(The System of) Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” and “To One In Paradise.”
8) The War of the Worlds
I’ll admit it: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds used to scare the bezeezus out of me as a kid. My mom had the vinyl recording, and I distinctly remember the terrifying album artwork (the ravens pecking out the tripod eyes, the destruction of the Thunder Child, the red weed, all rendered in delectable detail) not to mention the echoey electro-bellowing of the Martians found throughout the album itself. Nowadays I’m more scared by the idea that they might actually turn this into a movie. They’re already on their way, as Wayne has apparently spent the past few years touring with a full orchestra and Richard Burton’s disembodied head to celebrate the 30th anniversary. Singing war machines aside, you’ve gotta love the epic ’70s sweep of the music, especially in this sequence with Thin Lizzy Phil Lynott as the jaded Parson Nathaniel. Despite what you think, the album is fairly dark, with much of the carnage and despair described pretty plainly.
7) I, Robot
I suppose this could have just been a list of Alan Parsons albums and related material, given the Project’s tendency towards writing songs based on things like the Pyramids of Giza or the works of Sigmund Freud. Although this album could have been far more faithful had Asimov not already sold the rights (thereby preventing the lyrics from getting into the Three Laws explicitly and forcing APP to drop the comma), we’re still within the basic thematic realm of the book, just a lot broader. And even if the source is a little distant, we still have the rockin’ like-Manheim-Steamroller-but-better force of tunes like this one. I also love the random Allman Brothers-esque bit that pops up in the middle, then quietly makes its exit, embarrassed of itself.
6) The Tarot Deck
Tarot cards function on many levels, the most basic being as a collection of pictures and archetypes about as old as life itself. Another well-known fact about the Tarot is that it is regularly turned to as a source of ideas by artists, truer for no one more than the fantasy-freak proggers from the ’70s. Be that as it may, we have a few whole albums that borrow from them for inspiration: namely In the Region of the Summer Stars by British Qualuude-rockers The Enid and former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett’s Voyage of the Acolyte, his first solo work. Tarot enthusiasts will have to judge for themselves whether or not each track of Acolyte matches up with the card it is named after, but one thing we can all agree on, nerd or not, is that “Ace of Wands” is fantastic, perfect music for standing in front of a paisley quilt and suddenly looking up dramatically. As a side note, does anyone remember that British show Ace of Wands? It had a pretty trippy theme song, as I recall, though nothing like Hackett’s sweep-picking madness.
5) The Legends of King Arthur
One of the most enduring cycles of lore in history, it warms my cold English major’s heart to see so many turning to the ancient stories for inspiration (maybe it just makes for cool album art ideas). They seem to have particular appeal to metalheads, with artists like Kamelot and Gary Hughes devoting much of their time to the saga (Hughes released two “Once and Future King” albums, actually). We also can’t forget Rick Wakeman, who not only recorded a concept album, he toured with the semi-infamous “King Arthur on Ice”. But I thought you guys might be getting a little tired of prog, so let’s listen to this track from Grave Digger’s Excalibur for a little metal break.
4) The Works of J.R.R. Tolkien
I don’t need to tell you guys that there’s been a phenomenal amount of Tolkien-based music, as artists from Led Zeppelin to Leonard Nimoy have turned to Tolk and made sonic history. Generally, music based on his works falls into one of two camps: folk music and Blind Guardian. Yes, there are other Tolkien-obsessed metal bands but BG have the distinction of Nightfall on Middle Earth, an entire album steeped in Silmarillion and powered by the gnarled screams of frontman/songwriter/black turtlenecker Hansi K?rsch, who namedrops Valinor, Noldor, and the Silmarils among others.
The Tolkien ensemble may not have any of that going for them but they are another “concept band” and have managed to cut four albums of songs adapted from LOTR in an effort to create a complete catalog of Middle-Earth folksongs, I guess. They also have Christopher Lee warbling a wistful Ent ballad, and we all know those tree-people were musical geniuses.
3) The Cthulhu Mythos
Of course The Great Old Ones have had their hand in many works of music, especially when it comes to doom metal and the like (Catacombs seems to be a Cthulhu concept band). However, I feel like the inherent nerdiness of Blue ?yster Cult has been greatly neglected by TR in the past, and that ends right now. Imaginos may not be an explicit rendering of Cthulhu but it draws heavily from the idea of history being shaped by omnipresent, profoundly evil alien beings and their followers. Here they are called “Les Invisibles” and seem to be tied more strongly to indigenous Central American, Haitian and Mexican culture, but they retain the enormous powers, mysterious identities and cults of mindless followers. Yes, sure enough, one of these cults is known as… do I even need to finish? Suffice it to say it’s a better band name origin story than, say, the Test Icicles.
2) The Works of Michael Moorcock
For those of you unfamiliar, the somewhat tragically named Mr. Moorcock is the creator of numerous science fiction and fantasy characters, most notably antiheroes like psychedelic agent of chaos Jerry Cornelius and albino emperor Elric of Melnibon?. The latter is the subject of many novels and stories, as well as the album The Chronicles of the Black Sword by Hawkwind (though Cornelius is referenced too in the above track “Needle Gun”). Michael himself made appearances onstage with the band to narrate certain sections during their accompanying tours, along with a pantomime dancer in a wig, a big fake sword and about 90,000 strobe lights, observable here. He also co-wrote the song “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” for the B?C, which is just too perfect, really.
1) The Origin of Species
Ok, so it’s one thing to take a cycle of epic literature about fantasy warriors or robots or whatever and try to set that to music. It is quite, QUITE another to do the same to a scientific work explaining evolution. And yet Italian band Banco del Mutuo Soccorso did that and then some in 1972 with their landmark second album Darwin! (I love how they were so unable to contain their enthusiasm). Jam-packed with dense and grandiose lyrics about life creating itself and atavistic skulls, track titles include “The Conquest of the Erect Position”, “Dance of the Giant Reptiles”, and (my personal favorite) “750,000 Years Ago…Love?” Thanks to my buddy Zack for helping me with the translation, and thanks to these guys for combining science with wrenching vocals and what sounds at times like proto-Sega Genesis music. That alone makes it an achievement worth praising loudly.