Nothing is more near and dear to fans of prog than a concept album. The concept can be as over the top as whatever Dream Theater seems to be doing with their upcoming album(s) “The Astonishing.” It’s actually quite amazing how popular concept albums have become lately. I am not talking about albums that share a common idea or theme, but rather an album with a full plot and story behind it.
But really, are concept albums always a good idea? I am convinced that most prog fans like ANY concept album. Prog as a genre is built on taking the listener away from where they are and transporting them thru some great musical journey. Adding lyrics that are based around a fictional tale ensures the listener is taking a break from reality. Sounds good right?
I think for the most part, concept albums are good. The litmus test for me is quite simple. Can you remove any of the songs and enjoy them on their own without the rest of the album? If you can, the album benefits from it and then it’s a great concept album. Look at “Operation: Mindcrime.” This is a VERY literal story. But take songs like “Eyes of a Stranger,” “I Don’t Believe in Love” or even the title track. These all work as self contained ideas as well as part of the whole. The same can be said for songs on albums like Dream Theater’s “Scenes From a Memory,” Steven Wilson’s “Hand. Cannot. Erase.,” Fates Warning’s “A Pleasant Shade of Gray,” or “Joe’s Garage” by Frank Zappa to name just a few. Many concept albums are great because the parts are actually greater than the whole.
The problems are the albums that have far too specific songs or ideas that get away from being great songs and just serving the idea. One reason that I don’t care for Ayreon is that Arjen Anthony Lucassen seems more concerned with his story and being too literal that the music and melodies suffer because of it. Even “The Wall” has too many “songs” that exist to fulfill a part of Roger Waters’ vision rather than being something you would just listen to for the sake of it.
Sometimes the story can be so off the wall and not make sense that it can impact the album. Fortunately, most prog fans don’t seem to mind that the story of Rael on “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” is just fucking weird. The album probably would have been better if Peter Gabriel allowed someone to edit his oddball tale but maybe then it would lose its charm.
In other cases, if the story itself is so personal to the author, it might not connect with the listener. Neal Morse is a Christian, yes I get it. I am an Atheist. Needless to say, I have to treat any of his albums like an Amon Amarth album lyrically but that’s a lot of work for no real payoff. I have no doubt that it warms the hearts of Christian proggers all over the globe. It’s still a risky thing to keep doing.
I am often very critical of concept albums in my reviews so I hope this editorial explains why that’s the case. Too often, I think artists feel like the way to create a concept album is to force the music to fit the idea. Let the pieces fall where they may. Never forget that songs should always be SONGS. “2112” might be a 20 minute concept song but it’s a well constructed piece of music. That should always come first. There’s always time to be clever after that.