Heavy Blog Is Heavy’s Best Of series takes musical genres and categories and highlights our staff’s personal favorites. You can read more entries from this series here.
Concept albums! The definition of what constitutes a concept album exactly varies depending on the person you’re talking to, but in most cases there’s a general agreement that a concept album must contain at least one single, pre-meditated unifying theme or story, with each track contributing to that theme or story in some way. Most concept albums exist as solitary, standalone units, while some bands (see The Dear Hunter or Coheed and Cambria) spend huge parts of their careers built around a long-form concept that they explore over multiple albums. Though the “modern” concept album as we think of it has its roots in the experimental classic rock era of the late 60s and 70s, really the idea of conveying a single story through song is as old as the medium itself. Music’s primary use for centuries was as a storytelling tool for bards and aspiring musicians of all stripes. Thus the albums listed below aren’t so much splendid or revolutionary for the way in which they present their music, but they are nonetheless exceptional and oftentimes have become highly influential for how their use of story and music bring out the best of each band’s respective talents as songwriters and storytellers.
Another couple of quick notes before we get to the list. You will likely notice that there are no albums listed here pre-dating the turn of this century. While this wasn’t an intentional choice on our parts, these albums were chosen through consensus from our staff as the albums we feel best represent the possibilities and successful execution of this form of musical presentation. The only exception we made to this rule was to include only one album per band, and in a heated battle between Mastodon‘s Leviathan and Crack the Skye, the latter just edged out the former. Even beyond that however, this is certainly nowhere near a comprehensive list, and we openly encourage you all to share albums you feel belong on this list as well in the comments and on Facebook.
With that, check out our staff’s picks for best concept albums below!
Calling Converge‘s Jane Doe a concept album almost seems insulting, as it extends far beyond that. The album was not simply written to chronicle a story, but rather, capture all of the extensive emotions involved within that story, pushing them to the forefront and making the details behind them almost completely unimportant. The lyrics themselves after all never truly touch on the inspiration behind them, never truly explaining the ending of the relationship that inspired the album, but rather draw from that source and present it in its most raw and simple form, creating an atmosphere where it is easy for the listener to make their own connections and fill in the story behind them. This is where Jane Doe excels, as it was never meant to truly be a concept album, it was supposed to a release for pent up emotion that had no other feasible option for release.
The music behinds the lyrics also truly helps to allow them to shine through, creating a chaotic mix of hardcore, grindcore, post-metal, and post-hardcore, constantly threatening to implode into a mess of noise if not for the band performing its intense technical prowess. Perhaps the performances that shine through most, however, were those of the members who were at the time new, but are now undeniably staples to the band’s sound, Ben Koller’s drumming, and Nate Newton’s bass playing. While Jacob Bannon may have provided the spine tingly barks and shrieks that have a spine tingling, lonely quality, the true percussiveness of his vocal performance would have not shined through as it did if it was not layered over the incredible chaotic, while amazingly steady, rhythmic capabilities of Newton and Koller. The same can be said for Kurt Ballou’s massive, somewhat odd, angular riffs, as over a less creative, technically capable rhythmic section, it would be easy to see how they could be perceived as too ambitious in the context of the music.
This is not to downplay Ballou or Bannon’s roles, however, as that is a grave mistake. Ballou’s guitar work is almost completely uncopyable, carrying such a signature feel that would make Converge a completely different band without it. The same can be said for the intense artistic mind of Jacob Bannon, as it is what truly pushed Jane Doe to such widespread critical acclaim and notoriety. It is his art on the album cover, and even printed specifically for certain tracks, that gives the album not just an audio aspect, but a visual one as well. His lyricism also takes a unique turn on Jane Doe, adding to the overarching theme of the album, as he opts for short, important lines of the “true” lyrics (the poems written to accompany each song on the album), in order to keep the songs painfully emotive and personal instead of growing convoluted and over done.
Overall Jane Doe is an undeniable masterpiece, and a staple for the progress of modern metal and hardcore as we know it, as well as a destructively accurate portrayal of the end of a committed relationship. It shows human emotion at its most naked, and has some of the most talented musicians in all of metal and hardcore to help portray that.
Are you tired of metal dealing with the Devil? I know I am. However, in the midst of hosts of boring tales of sacrifice (usually of women) and demonic power (usually of men), a few albums shine to the fore. One such album is Ghost Reveries by the legendary and slightly infamous Opeth. It is positioned as the last album displaying their old-school sound with the next, Watershed, being a, well, watershed moment in their career. Perhaps because of that, Ghost Reveries seems to contain a condensed form of Opeth: elements from all along their career, spinning headlessly around each other.
At the base of the album lies the story of a man who loses himself and his love. He loses it within himself and within the social world around him, which turns its shoulder to his plight. Left without recourse, he turns to dark powers not of this world and sacrifices everything in one, senseless act of immorality. Although this album wasn’t intended to be a concept album at the last, it was created with it in mind from the onset. And the music follows suit, the true mark of a concept album: when the story calls for depression, the music goes quiet. When the story depicts horror, pain or violence, the music unleashes its own anger and frustration.
Ghost Reveries remains one of Opeth’s most complete albums, from start to finish. There are very little wasted moments in it, all utilized towards the story’s depiction and completion. As a result, it has aged very little, still towering over almost every other example in its respective genre.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m floored by the fact that Protest the Hero’s debut album, Kezia, was written by a group of teenaged boys, and I don’t think I’ll ever not be. I, of course, can’t speak for everyone, but based on my own personal high school experience, I think it’s safe to say that discussing issues of social justice (and with such fervour!) isn’t exactly a priority for the vast majority of eighteen-year-olds, and doing so atop beautifully composed songs makes it all the more impressive. I’m not sure what they’re putting in the water in Whitby, Ontario, but I wish they’d make it widespread, because with Kezia, Protest the Hero have hit the nail on the head.
Much of what Kezia does successfully can be attributed to the lyricism of former bassist and marked wordsmith Arif Mirabdolbaghi. Cleverly crafting a story world in which a young woman is condemned to death, Mirabdolbaghi utilizes the view points of three separate characters — the prison priest, the prison guard, and Kezia — to address a broad spectrum of societal issues, ranging from religion, to social justice, to sexism, and beyond. Multifaceted and complex, the story of Kezia maintains its timelessness even a decade after its release.
It isn’t just the concept that makes this album so memorable, however. Musically-speaking, Kezia is an absolute stand-out in the progressive metalcore genre. From the chaotic banger of an opening to Heretics & Killers, to the harmonious acoustic outro of Blindfolds Aside, to the powerfully anthematic chorus of Turn Soonest to the Sea, Kezia leaves no room for filler, and is a must-listen for metal fans of all denominations.
Devin Townsend has always been known for having a sense of humor and levity that imbues all of his music with a powerful human touch, and nowhere is this more present than on Ziltoid The Omniscient. The premise is thus: the omniscient 4th-dimensional titular conqueror and guitar wizard (who is so omniscient, that if there were to be two omniscients, he would be both!) comes to Earth in search of the planet’s best cup of coffee, and declares war against the human race because of his immense displeasure with the foul beverage he is provided with. Sounds weird? That’s the premise of the first song. From there, Ziltoid and the human race, led by Captain Spectacular, wage a war on an intergalactic, multi-dimensional level. Ziltoid protects himself, trying to enlist Herman, the 6th-dimensional Planet Smasher, who, by the way, hates musicals, to his cause, and seeks the advice of the Omnidimensional Creator himself.
The music is just as odd as Devin Townsend’s strangely poetic lyrical ventures here. From the Ocean Machine-esque ambience of “Hyperdrive” to the mach-5 kick drums and Strapping Young Lad-inspired chugs of “Ziltoidia Attaxx!!!”, Ziltoid The Omniscient weaves together every part of Townsend’s career so far into a musical tapestry that is just as compelling as the sci-fi comedy opera that binds it all in place. Every track offers something different, but common musical themes and leitmotifs used across the album stabilize the adventure, keeping it from truly floating off into the depths of space.
Ziltoid The Omniscient is about as good as a “comedy album” can ever get. There’s nothing else like it, in terms of the amount of work and love that’s clearly been poured into the story, characterization, and musical craftsmanship that comprise this album. It’s poignantly obvious that Townsend put his heart and soul into creating this strange, twisted journey through time and space, and he made it perfect.
The Alchemy Index was an unexpected experimental turn for Thrice. The post-hardcore acolytes had previously expanded their sound on 2005’s Vheissu, incorporating anthemic choruses and additional instrumentation, but the vision behind The Alchemy Index was something altogether more unconventional. In a series of four EPs, each six tracks long and released two at a time, the band explored the four classical elements, approaching each from both musical and lyrical standpoints. The fruits of this ambitious undertaking are as ingenious as they are diverse.
What’s most impressive about The Alchemy Index is the way Thrice marries such a wide array of lyrical sentiments and musical moods. On Volume I: Fire, heavy downtuned riffs and uneasy melodies stoke the flames. “Burn the Fleet” calls to mind distant embers with its sparkling, crackling guitar lines,“The Arsonist” explodes violently thanks to James Riley Breckenridge’s frantic drumming and Dustin Kensrue’s anarchical barking, and “The Flame Deluge” beats along like a slow march through nuclear armageddon. Volume II: Water provides a perfect compliment, flush with ambient synths and deeply drenched in reverb. On “The Whaler,” Kensrue takes on the voice of a sailor slipping away from his beloved family in the dead of night, bound for the North Sea, uncertain whether he and his daugher will ever again lock eyes. It’s a moving allegory about the personal demands on touring musicians, and a gentle, beautiful, piano-driven piece that drifts with a purpose, towed along by the gripping nature of Kensrue’s performance.
Air features shimmering tunes not far stylistically removed from Thrice’s previous work on Vheissu, albeit stripped of almost all hardcore trappings. “Broken Lungs” delves into the post-9/11 psyche of America, propelled by fluttery snare drum accents and breathy guitar work on the high strings. Centerpiece “Daedalus,” like the son of its mythical namesake, drifts skyward with uplifting lyrics and chord progressions before spiralling down from the heavens into a mournful coda. The fourth volume, Earth, showcases yet another side of Thrice, adding grit and immediacy through predominantly acoustic instrumentation and a lack of production sheen. MVP Kensrue howls like a forlorn coyote at a lonesome desert campfire on the eminently singable earworm “Come All You Weary.” Finisher “Child of Dust” culminates in the steady onset of a muting effect that suggests the listener – or perhaps the music itself – is being buried in the Earth. Heavy, man.
By the way, as if the elements thing wasn’t ambitious enough, the last track on each disc is written in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet. Because, why not, I guess? And it works! In less capable hands, The Alchemy Index could easily have been an unmitigated disaster. Instead, Thrice produced an unmissable, genre-straddling classic. There is a little of everything here, from muscular hardcore chanting to plucky banjo rattling, from meditations on technology and politics to mythological retellings. Each volume represents an expansive and distinct musical architecture built on the foundational components of Thrice’s sound. The goal of alchemy was traditionally to turn ordinary substances to gold – in that regard, Thrice acquit themselves masterfully.
2009 is simultaneously a metaphorical blink of an eye and an eon ago. Six short years of time, but six long years filled with nonstop musical releases that have filled our ears and our hearts. Mastodon’s Crack the Skye is one such record, being hailed as a progressive masterpiece and the pinnacle of Mastodon’s work, while longtime fans regard the album with contempt and disdain, labeling it a mar on a relatively flawless discography (at the time). Though it seems that Mastodon’s sovereign sludge days are long past, the band have collectively embraced a full-blown progressive mindset that began with 2006’s Blood Mountain. However, it wasn’t until 2009 with Crack the Skye that the band’s collective vision culminated into what would become the apex of their modern incarnation. While many hail 2004’s Leviathan as Mastodon’s mightiest musical endeavor, in itself a concept album about the great white horror of the sea as envisioned by Herman Melville, Crack the Skye comes to us as a product of intimacy and understanding rather than running with a preconceived concept.
The album follows a young paraplegic who experiments with astral travel. Akin to Icarus, he flies too close to the sun and burns away the umbilical cord connecting him to his physical being. While his metaphysical self travels space, he gets sucked into a black hole where he ends up in the spirit realm. He pleads for his life. The spirits deem him fit to return to Earth, but they send him to a past version of Russia to inhabit the body of the infamous Rasputin who just happens to be on his way to kill the czar. When Rasputin is killed, both souls leave the physical body, but the young boy who has since left his body in the future is still unable to go home. Rasputin, now dead, decides to help him return to his own time, but they encounter some obstacles along the way—like the Devil himself.
Though the album has an interpretation that gives it a story to follow from beginning to end, there is an allegorical agenda involved that sits very near to drummer Brann Dailor’s life. Skye Dailor, at the age of 14, committed suicide. The album is an homage to her life and, in one sense, is an abstract journey of an attempt to save her from herself. The title track is especially powerful, as Neurosis’s Scott Kelly, a friend of the band, was personally asked to perform guest vocals on it. He was given a picture of Skye, spoke with Brann and his father about her life and their thoughts, and spent quite a long time meditating on the matter.
The beauty of Crack the Skye is in not only how personal it is for the band, especially Dailor, but also in how it creates an air of belonging in its resonance. The music envelops you, grows inside of you, and it becomes as much a part of you as you are of it.
Honestly, writing a concept album is not easy. There’s not only the story based on the album’s lyrics, but in some cases the music even becomes intermingled. No band has done it better in recent memory than Between The Buried And Me, and this album is their defining conceptual moment. A story that not only spans this album but also many more (see: BTBAM *prognotes for examples), the album is a conceptual giant, beginning with the end of the story and retelling it over the rest of the album. Tommy Rogers does a phenomenal job of creating imagery to aptly fit the music, and does it so well that it’s almost unfair. In addition, the rest of the band took this as a challenge to write their most complex music to date, while still retaining themes from their Parallax EP and even tying some musical ideas even farther from the past into the present.
The album is also a very dense one, sitting at over an hour long and playing itself as one non-stop piece of music, similarly to the band’s earlier album Colors. The album’s overall quality really lends itself to the sheer perfectionists that the band are. When they set out to play this album in its entirety, front to back, the band did so without missing a beat, and it still sits as one of the most fulfilling shows I’ve been to. While the band may never revisit this story, as they’ve moved onto other ideas, we can rest assured knowing the band are more than capable, and if they decide to give us another one, they most certainly will give us one that exceeds all expectations.
You’ve got to admit it, there aren’t a lot of bands who can say that they’ve created not just a concept album but a concept discography. Perhaps Ayreon (shamefully remiss from this list due to consensus and its tyranny) is the only other band I can think of. In any case, Coheed and Cambria have created a rich world revolving around a comics series: The Amory Wars. In it, various entities do battle for the Keywork, a sort of afterlife meets power plant meets cosmic force. This is the setting for The Afterman, both Ascension and Descension.
Drawing the story of The Amory Wars to a close (maybe), The Afterman is a prequel, focusing on, well, The Afterman, a scientist turned adventurer and his plight within the Keyword. In an Odyssian fashion, he discovers that the things he journeyed for were not worth it, as he meets deceased spirits of mostly terrible people, and seeks to return home. On the musical side of things, this album leans heavily towards the pop-rock influences of Coheed’s long career: tracks like “The Afterman” and “Goodnight Fair Lady” drip a poppy sweetness that’s both refreshing and hard to resist. However, the epicness of this essentially progressive metal band is maintained and beautifully executed on what is, in my opinion, the best track on the album. This is no other than the amazing “Key Entity Extraction I: Domino the Destitute,” regaling the life and death of a man lost to crime and self doubt.
All in all, this album remains a beautiful closing segment to the grand tale of The Amory Wars. Together with its counterpart, it represents Coheed at the height of their musical career. Now all that remains is to wait and see what they have next for us.
In retrospect, it seems odd that The Ocean took just under a decade of putting out albums, both concept-based and otherwise, to release an album about, well, the ocean. However, two minutes into “Mesopelagic: Into The Uncanny,” it’s pretty evident that the wait was well worth it; subtle ocean sound effects and samples are only the icing on top of a lush collection of beautifully plotted riffs and sequences, and every successive song only plunges the listener deeper in the masterful atmosphere the German five-piece create. The music gets progressively heavier to reflect the overarching theme of a descent into the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean, but no transition seems forced or unnecessary, and the sense of claustrophobia that sets in over the album’s runtime is absolutely delightful.
It’s worth noting that Pelagial was originally conceptualized as an instrumental piece, and vocals were only added in after the fact. However, this arguably works in the album’s favour as that much more care was clearly afforded in the songwriting; the vocals, in turn, add a whole new dimension to the concept, contrasting the oceanic descent to a metaphorical descent into the deepest parts of the psyche. Pelagial remains an incredibly well-crafted album that rewards every revisit, and is easily a historic release as metal concept albums go.
Leave it to three young music students to blow every other 2015 release out the water. Native Construct‘s Quiet World has seen universal acclaim since its release a few months ago, and for good reason, too; from the eclecticism of the songwriting and arrangements to the brilliantly assembled concept, the album just does everything right.
But behind the youthful exuberance and splashes of musical colour is a story based around a concept sadly familiar to the vast majority of us — namely, that of unrequited love. Except Quiet World’s lonely protagonist finds his love’s rebuttal particularly crushing, and chooses to escape into his own mind, creating a world of his own where no inhabitant is treated like an outcast. However, his tyrannical control of his new subjects eventually meets resistance in the form of a figure called the Archon, and thus the remainder of Quiet World unfolds, a twisted tale of the corruption that absolute power brings.
It admittedly takes a few listens for Quiet World’s concept and for the antics of its cast of characters to fully sink in — aside the protagonist-turned-antagonist and the Archon, personifications of Misery, Lunacy, and Harmony all play their own roles as the story goes on, and Native Construct have yet to release an official guideline to the story. But the beauty of the album ultimately lies in how the music ties all the proceedings together; matching musical themes accompany every single plot advancement with unprecedented cohesion, and it’s hard to imagine just how much meticulous planning was done on the part of the band. In a particularly delightful moment during “The Spark of the Archon,” the titular Archon dives into the sea, and the ensuing ‘undersea theme’ is essentially the exact sensation of being underwater put into music; yet that is only one of many brilliant moments to come across the album’s seven tracks. Not a single second of Quiet World is wasted on anything but advancing the plot, and every riff tells yet another part of the story. One would be very hard pressed to find a concept album that does it better.