I already dwelled in this subject a lot across my reviews, of what is called a Concept Album. Well, by Wikipedia definitions, it is is an album that is “unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical”, but I really think that there are some exceptions to that rules. Mostly, by what the theme can be.
I mean, if you think about it, every album is conveyed by a theme. Maybe “Abbey Road” is considered to be a theme, as all music are clearly revolving around the feud that the Beatles have become. Or Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” is a story about various tales of various natures, including god himself. Why not “Freak Out!” that has the simple theme of “every song has a meaning?” (I swear, this is an interview, it was told by the man himself). Let’s kick the bucket: Weird Al’s “Dare to be Stupid” is indeed a concept album, because every song parodies something (except Cable TV). Why wouldn’t these examples be called Concept Albums?
The reason is simple: the theme of the songs of Abbey Road is beyond the music going to the history of the band, Aqualung’s songs don’t connect to each other in any ways, may it be lyrical instrumental or narrative, “Freak Out!” is just unthinkable mess and Dare to Be Stupid was made to be funny, parodying a lot of different acts. The thing about concept albums is that I believe that the concept must be in the songs, and maybe on the cover, but not depending too much on it. Like, let’s say Parallels of Rhythm makes an album called “Forty Days to Revolution” and the songs are completely random, varying from soft rock to thrash metal. The cover album tries to save the day, and in the cover there is this girl holding a rotting newspaper with various headlines. Guess what: all the music titles are headlines. So, you listen to the album again, paying attention to that measly detail, and what you discover? All the songs talk about the last day of various people, going from polls made to hobos in the streets to people that write the culinary diagram. So, you get to know these fifteen people that were really living the last days of their lives in different ways: being the ex-reality show winner that lives the last day of his live playing basket ball and remember his old days as a lesser celebrity, being the cop that got shot in an criminal attempt for his life and as the bullet goes through his shoulder his kid dies, being the guy from the comic strips that decided to end his comic the very next day, to not let any mystery unrevealed. That would be an excellent concept album.
…Wow. I just made that from the top of my idea. It’s a fucking good idea! Man… if I one day have a band, that will totally be an album. Well, as I could demonstrate, this was an album that needed a little help from the cover, but that is the most a cover can do. The cover can’t be the entire concept. You can’t make an album about vegetables and as the cover is a banana and the theme is that it all comes from the earth. You must be able to just paying attention to the songs be able to discover the theme revolving it, or get a small clue by the cover.
Well, with that out of the way, when I find a concept album the first thing I do is listen to it. And, after all these years living with them, I figure out that there are some kinds of Concept Albums, more than just a type of “Concept Album”.
1st: The Instrumental Concept Album. This is the closest you can get of not being a concept album. The album is all instrumental, but a quick look at the title or maybe the cover can help you. Quick example of this type from the top of my head is the entire Rick Wakeman’s discography. The albums revolve around classic literature, with albums called “The Six Wives of Henry the VIII” and “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”. Both are complete instrumentals, but each track of The Six Wives of Henry the VIII is inspired by one of the wives, and Journey goes around the story with some narrative.
2nd: The Abstract Concept Album. This is the kind of album that the concept is not clear, and you can get years without noticing the concept, just to one day get the lightning ray of inspiration, and the concept becomes clear as water. The biggest example I can think is the classic “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd. It is a long debate about what exactly is the concept of this album, but I think it is about the things that terrifies and stresses mankind since the beginning of time: “Breathe”, the necessity of doing a thing to be alive, “On the Run”, the necessity to be always fleeing to survive, “Time”, the ever ticking clock of the human heart, “The Great Gig in the Sky”, the despair of death, “Money”, the symbol of man’s ruin, “Us and Them”, the loneliness of being in a loving relationship, “Brain Damage”, going completely and irrecoverably bat shit insane, and “Eclipse”, the end of the world.
3rd: The Discontinued Concept Album. This album talks about a story, but in a non-linear way. You can construct the life of someone or the evolution of a story by the facts that the song signifies something, and the grand scheme of the world is helping. Again, by Pink Floyd, “The Wall” talks about a guy who tries to build up a wall around him to avoid human contact, as mainly three things helps his isolation: his mother growing overprotective after his father died in the war (Concept Album cliché 1: If the dad’s missing, blame the war!), his professor making fun of his private affair and his wife who cheated on him. The story gets really deeper than this going to the limit of being really profound the meaning of it all: but the story gets really confusing at times and demands some creativity.
4th: The Continuous Concept Album. This kind of album is a story. The songs talk about a story about something. The main difference between this one and the above is that you could take one song from the example above and play it alone: in this case, you cannot without making the lyrics make totally no sense at all. As that, it is the easiest of the concept albums to define. A good example is “A Passion Play” by Jethro Tull, which tells as in a play the story of a man that dies, going through this mythology created by Ian Anderson. This kind of concept albums may come in only one giant track.
There are some concept albums that go in gray areas between them, mostly the continued and discontinued concept albums. There are some albums where most of the album dwells in one subject and only two or three gets random that I think are not a concept album, but I guess that is for the listener to decide for himself. Most of these albums just need some creativity on the matter for a couple of minutes, but if you tell to someone else, the probable answer you will hear is: “ARE YOU AN IDIOT OR HAVE YOU SMOKED POT?”. I really think that the real problem is the inverse: “No, man, you didn’t got it. The Mothers “Freak Out!” is entirely a concept album. You see… Oh, wait, if you couldn’t understand something that simple, the problem is yours…”
I hope I clarified the term. This is JotaKa, signing off.