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JJ's Bizarre Blog #16 - A Story to (Re-)Tell

Joan

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, the time has come for the next chapter in the Bizarre Blogs saga and this will be a very special entry! Humans love stories, they are one of the foundational elements of our nature. It can very much be argued that we became the dominant species on this planet precisely because, unlike other creatures, we do not learn merely from personal experience and trial and error, our language and intelligence allow us to share stories, through which we may pass down our wisdom from generation to generation, building on what came before. Our emotional nature also helps us indulge in and connect with all kinds of tales that inadvertently teach us something about the world around us, something about ourselves. In celebration of this, let me tell you a story of mine.

 

This November marks the one year anniversary since I joined the Community Moderators team and it has been an amazing adventure since then, easily one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Last November, I also dropped a special QOTW post about a topic very dear to me. It was well received, but I was told that QOTW posts of this length are uncommon and that perhaps, a personal blog would be more appropriate. One thing led to another and the Bizarre Blog series was born, leading to the post in front of you right now. So to celebrate how far I’ve come and how far I still have to go, let me tell you a story, a story about stories. Let us revisit the topic that was the genesis point of all of this – let’s talk about concept albums again, this time in full!

 

What is a concept album? Simply put, as I said once before, it's a music album where all songs, when listened to in order, tell an overarching narrative through lyrics, musicianship and other means. More so than a regular album, a concept album is designed to be listened to in one sitting, as songs are designed to flow seamlessly between each other, making the whole record feel like one continuous experience rather than a collection of songs. Every song is like a chapter in a book or an act in a play – it can be observed separately, but ultimately it exists to be experienced as a part of the whole. The most important thing is that there is some story being told throughout the whole thing and that concept unites the whole record.

 

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Concept albums have existed pretty much since the inception of popular music on records has existed. If a collection of songs will be presented on one medium, it makes sense to connect them in some way. However, concept albums as we understand them today really came into their own in the 1960s with the progressive rock movement in the United Kingdom. Early efforts by The Beatles and The Who dabbled in the idea, but the prog rock bands after them sought to truly elevate their music with more sophisticated and layered musicianship and of course, with story-driven philosophical lyrics inspired by opera. No band illustrates this better than the iconic Pink Floyd, with most of their albums being conceptual. Whether it be the tale of the jaded old disgruntled rock star and his frustrations in society and self-imposed isolation in The Wall, the sociopolitical allegory derived from the legendary George Orwell's “Animal Farm” on Animals or the tale of an entire human life including life, love, greed, fame and death on Dark Side of the Moon, Floyd have explored a multitude of tales across their career.

 

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During this same time in the 60s and 70s, many other similar artists threw their hats into the ring with epic stories of their own. The devilish and philosophical In the Court of the Crimson King, the surreal sci-fi spectacle of Tarkus, the Hindu literature inspired Tales from Topographic Oceans, there is a wide variety of experiences to be had, each more fascinating than the last.

 

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A special mention has to go to Jethro Tull, who sought to mock their prog rock countrymen with their fancy-shmancy songwriting and stories with several of their records, but being so talented, Jethro made albums that were just as good as the serious ones, if not better, without compromising on storytelling. You’d never think a flute would work as a lead instrument in rock, but it does. Records like Thick as a Brick also illustrate another tendency of concept albums – the whole album is one uninterrupted song! It’s only split into two parts to fit on both sides of a vinyl record. That album’s liner notes are also designed like a newspaper with fake articles, crossword puzzles and more!

 

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As a heavier extrapolation of progressive rock, progressive metal loves their concept albums just as much, New York prog gods Dream Theater being at the forefront of this with creations such as their esoteric metal opera masterpiece Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory or the 1 hour and 30 minute long double album behemoth The Astonishing exploring a dystopian future government toppled by a rebellion lead by the power of music.

 

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Throughout the years, many different bands of many different genres of metal have thrown shown their own tales, every conceivable emotion, atmosphere, sound and perspective ready to be explored by those daring enough.

 

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I want to just give a special shoutout to Finnish melodic death metal legends Insomnium. Their 2016 epic Winter's Gate, which tells the adventure of a group of Vikings searching for a fabled island amongst insurmountable odds. The whole album is a single 40 minute long track, but for the ease of the listener, this is divided into 7 parts covering a multitude of sonic landscapes. In yours truly’s humble opinion, this is one of the greatest concept albums ever made.

 

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I also want to give a special mention to industrial metal pioneers Fear Factory. While all of their music is unified by a distinctive Blade Runner-inspired dystopian cyberpunk sci-fi theme, several of their albums are also properly conceptual, telling an overarching narrative of humanity taking a stand against the machine overlords they have created that now rule the world, proper Terminator style. Their 1998 masterpiece Obsolete is probably the best example of this - an amazing story-driven record about how machines have destroyed and superseded mankind, humans themselves becoming obsolete, hence the title. The tale follows a man known as Edgecrusher, one of the few survivors, as he leads his rebellion against the mechanical overlords. In the physical issues of this album, there is text exposition and even dialogue between various characters included between the tracks that adds more context to the whole experience, making it a truly fascinating audio-visual experience.

 

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Not just metal has been enthralled with the idea of including a narrative in their records of course, it has spread to pretty much all genres of music. On the electronic side, industrial rock legends Nine Inch Nails have always loved including narratives in their albums. Their dark masterpiece The Downward Spiral tells the harrowing story of a man whose life has reached rock bottom and shows his turmoils until he reaches his tragic end as the album concludes. It's very heavy subject matter and it's exceptionally dark, but damn is it captivating! The album Year Zero instead has bucketloads of lore behind it, telling of an almost surreal political dystopia that was complemented by a whole alternate reality game. That’s a can of worms far too big to open here, but do yourself a favour and research it, you have no idea how deep this rabbit hole goes.

 

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Pop music too has had it’s fair share of concept albums too. The Queen Madonna's album Confessions on a Dance Floor can be considered conceptual. It's structured like a DJ set in a club and goes from happy dance songs to more personal confessions as the album progresses, hence the title. Trench by powerhouse duo Twenty One Pilots is another example, this time a more straightforward concept album. This record tells the story of the city of Dema, which is surrounded by the titular Trench, and the lives and struggles of the children who live within it. This story is then used to explore personal themes as is typical for TOP.

 

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Throughout the years, a vast assortment of pop, rock and electronic artists have incorporated stories into their albums (while they still bother making albums of course). These represent modern day theatrical classic, a melting pot of classic musical storytelling with modern day sensibilities, to create catchy, yet compelling listens.

 

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Now, let's take things one step further. What could be more grandiose and ambitious than a concept album? How about a conceptual discographyYes, you read correct. What if a band's entire career is building an overarching narrative similar to an epic fantasy series like the Wheel of Time or Game of Thrones? Those exist! What more fitting example to give of this than Anglo-Scottish power metal party animals GloryHammer. Their entire discography details many generations of the Scottish rulers of the Kingdom of Fife, all named Angus McFife, as they battle the evil wizard Zargothrax and his plot for universal domination. The tales span many eras, starting from medieval times all the way to the distant future where humanity is a space-faring, galaxy-spanning race. Each band member portrays a character in the story and during live performances, they are in full costume and act in character, it's truly amazing.

 

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In the far flung futures, we can find alternate tales of humanity's path to self-destruction. The unique industrial metal masters from Mechina have devoted their entire discography to the story, called "As Embers Turn to Dust", of how Earth was ravaged by a global war, forcing humanity to abandon it and colonize new planets, the twin planets of Acheron and Empyrean, many lightyears away in the distant future. Then, a war of untold proportions unfolds on these new worlds, fought by man and machine alike. It's an epic tale like no other. For a more grounded approach, the German industrial powerhouse Cypecore present a different premonition. In their own words, they tell a tale of devastation and survival in the year 2133. The Earth, devastated by the nuclear Armageddon of World War III, is a barren wasteland wrought with radiation. High tech warriors rely on synthetic organs and advanced cybernetics to survive and fight over the scarce resources remaining. A brutal and enthralling apocalyptic symphony.

 

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Beyond all this, I want to add one more clarification. Beyond just story-driven albums, a lot of people may call albums that simply have all the songs united by a single theme conceptual. You may see a lot of these albums referred to as concept albums on a lot of places like Wikipedia. Now, these records are cool and engaging in their own way, but this merely means that the album has an overarching theme. In my opinion, in order for an album to be a true concept album, it has to flow from one track to the next and follow and overarching narrative between all the tracks. Thematic consistency is nothing new to any album, it's the storytelling aspect that sets concept albums apart from the lot.

 

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And thus, we arrive at the finale of this tale. But no story ever truly ends, the author simply chooses to conclude it. So I'm gonna do that now. There are thousands of tales to experience out there, each containing a facet of who we are and how we see the world around us. So, remember to experience as many stories as you can, they will become a part of you build you into a mosaic of complexity and profoundness. Armed with that, make sure to make the story of your life one worthy of being retold by others, time and time again. So turn on seamless transitions, dive into my playlist, take your pick of any epic concept album you can find and immerse yourself in its narrative! It's just waiting to be experienced.

 

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