Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The Top 10 Concept Albums of The Millenium

Curious Music for Curious People's 
Top 10* Concept Albums of the Millenium

*11 actually

As far as narrative/structural crutches are concerned, concept albums don't have the best reputation. Though steeped in a tradition harking back to the 40's dust bowl ballads and incorporating some fine, drug-fuelled psychedelia throughout the 60's and early 70's, the idea has now become more synonymous with a certain level of arrogant pretension. The propagation of Prog-rock led to bloated, cringeworthy efforts by The Who and 10cc - whose 1977 side-project album Consequences, featuring a drunk Peter Cook with a penchant for rambling monologues, might well have sounded the death knell for the whole movement. 

Jump forward 40 years however, and we find ourselves with something of a conceptual resurgence. A reaction, perhaps, to the limitations of digital streaming and MP3 culture - the last decade has seen a plethora of epic albums tied to increasingly outlandish themes, a narrative crossing continent and genre alike. Here at CMFCP, we give you a run down of some of the best of these gems - albums that, though steeped in no small degree of pretension and cheese, offer up some of the boldest, uncompromising music of the 21st century.

So fire up your pretension-meter and behold the 10 (11) Greatest Concept Albums of The Millenium:

11. Land Of Kush - Against The Day (2009)

Sam Shalabi has been doing his cross-continental avant-jazz thing forever now, but it was on the first Land of Kush record that we received the first, and arguably greatest, example of his large-scale compositional chops. Amassing no less than 28 musicians from the Vancouver music scene (including members of Godspeed You Black Emperor, Esmerine, Cobra Noir, and Marie Davidson, to name but a few) and paid for by the Canadian government, Land of Kush is an ambitious project in both music and scope. Paying homage to the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, Against the Day mixes epic post-rock sensibilities with Drone, Jazz and authentic Arabic voicing (Shalabi being of Egyptian descent). Not always an easy record, it melds long-sections of free-form brass and electronics with more sensible Post-Jazz numbers, and comes wrapped up in some for the most garish/wonderful screen-printed covers ever experienced.

10. Voyag3r - Are You Synthetic? (2016)

I'm not really sure why this counts as a concept album, but the albums blurb proclaims it to be one, so who am I to argue. Are You Synthetic? Is one of those albums whose title and cover immediately divulges every aspect of the music contained within, and a mere glance at the electrified space-portal figure on the cover immediately conjures up images of exactly the brand of retro synth-wave that Voyag3r specialise in. Given the omnipresence of this sort of music these days, it's hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Voyag3r stand out, but, much like the recent John Carpenter albums, the utilisation of actual drums and guitars alongside the prerequisite synthesisers helps the band to forge something more organic and lively than most of their peers. Not particularly big, and certainly not that clever, Voyag3r succeed not by advancing an existing formula, but sticking dogmatically to one, creating in the process a soundtrack to any one of a thousand cheesy science fiction movies, a sound world laced with generous portions of charm, even where it lacks originality.

9. Antonia Luerkers - Hasenlove (2008)

Described by its record label as a piece of 'meta-scientific research of hares and related social, zoological and aesthetical phenomena', inspired by foreign travel guides, and sounding an awful lot like a woman pretending to be a rabbit over children's nursery rhymes and abstract techno, Hasenlove is nothing if not unusual. Limited to 300 copies on a one-sided etched picture disc, this record is a great example of a predominantly visual artist working momentarily in sound - a cycle of songs that, if not quite working in a traditional musical sense, provide enough beguiling aesthetic interest to more than warrant their existence. It may be hard to imagine the conditions under which you want to actually listen to the record - despite its humour it is certainly more of a soundtrack to an art gallery than it is a house party - but once you do, Hasenlove reveals a surprisingly delicate take on otherwise obscure material.

8. The Majesticons - Beauty Party (2003)

The middle part of Mike Ladd’s Hip-Hop (sort of) trilogy, Majesticons tells the tale of the bling-obsessed antagonists to the story’s heroes, The Infesticons. Whilst the Infesticons are framed by Ladd’s more typical left field, Anticon/Lex vibe, The Majesticons invoke the most base, sleazy, mainstream-aping RnB and party-starting Hip-Hop - resulting in something that is as much an advancement of genre as it is a pastiche of one.  Orientated around a cover of the Pet Shop Boys Opportunities (let’s make lots of money), the album pushes contemporary RnB's vocal tropes to near breaking point, making particular good use of a plethora of female vocalists. It's hard to know if the joke was on the DJs spinning jams such as Piranha Party in ultra-hip clubs in 2003/4, but, parody or not, Ladd's creative abandon and 'fuck it all' attitude translated exceptionally well to the dancefloor, and almost certainly influenced the likes of Diplo and Major Lazer - who would go on to expand on the sound and turn it from pop-pastiche to post-ironic pop smash.

7. Fall of Efrafa - Warren of Snares (2010)

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you actually realised those great ideas devised down the pub with your mates, instead of forgetting all about them once the reality of the morning hangover kicks in? Fall of Effrafa answer just that question, with their awesomely specific/completely bonkers career. Formed and named by a group of vegans indebted to the singular notion of creating an experimental Crust-Punk retelling of Richard Adams' classic Watership Down, the band constructed a trilogy of rabbit themed albums (plus an additional remix project) incorporating authentic lapine linguistics (the language of Adams' fictional bunnies), before breaking up immediately once the project was complete. If the idea of listening to several hours of grown men screaming about rabbit torture ("Warren!!!!") doesn't immediately float your boat, then the sheer scope of the project should be enough to warrant a listen - a Post-Metal triumph incorporating a string section, Richard Dawkins quotes and, in the case of the vinyl box set that concluded the project, several recycled card prints of related artwork and a metal statuette of a rabbits skull.

6. Sufjan Stevens - Age of Adz (2010)

Sufjan Stevens is no stranger to the concept album, having once threatened to write a dedicated album for each American state (he only made it as far as Michigan and Illinois), created a song-cycle reflecting the Chinese zodiac, and being commissioned to undertake a symphonic exploration of the Brooklyn-Queens expressway.  With Age of Adz, Stevens channels all of this conceptual potential into an album that finally reflects his thematic ideals - a brilliant, bloated effort that seamlessly incorporates folk, electronic, glitch, synth-pop, hip-hop and indie, without ever sounding forced or trite.  Centred around a recent viral infection and subsequent discovery of the artwork of self-proclaimed prophet Royal Robertson, the album explores themes of love, death, sickness and suicide, staying remarkably cheery throughout. And if you think all this sounds a bit niche, Stevens wraps all this up in some of the most poppy hooks of his career to date, resulting in a modern masterpiece that has been described as both an 'epic train wreck' and as containing "more engaging ideas than most artists could muster in a career". It's also edged it's way onto another masterpiece of the last few years, having been sampled by Kendrick Lamar in his own pseudo-concept album 'To Pimp a Butterfly'.

5. Direct Hit - Wasted Mind (2016)

For every genre, there exists a band who have tried to almost single-handedly destroy it. For hip-hop that band was Black Eyed Peas. For American folk, it was Bob Dylan. And for pop-punk, Blink 182. Such is the omnipresence of these artists that they serve to redefine the contours of their movement, taking what was once charming, authentic expressions of a given community, and replacing it with a sanitised, two-dimensional, cartoon version thereof.  With this in mind, it is impossible to listen to Direct Hit's Wasted Mind without hearing the echo of Blink 182- yet to write them off as mere pop-punk emulators is to miss the snotty charm of the record. Each song crafts a unique identity that corresponds to stages of drug use/abuse, from the euphoric clarity of the hit to the sickening cum-down that follows, and exploring themes of dependency, paranoia and ill-health, with the whole thing tied together by an energy rarely encountered in the genre since NoFX's 1992 masterpiece, White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean.  If anything, Direct Hit owe far more to early NoFX than they do to the likes of Blink or Green Day - a musicality and technique that is carefully buried beneath its relentless pace and questionable vocal delivery, and themes far darker than the comedy masturbation of their peers. Indeed, few bands would dare speak so candidly about heroin use as Direct Hit manage, framing their obvious love of illicit substances in a way that both promotes and critiques substance abuse in equal measure.

4. Seamen and the Tattered Sail - Light Folds (2013)

A collaborative concept album by two artists who have a habit of embarking upon marine-based projects, namely Craig Tattersall (The Boats) and Bill Seaman (Attsea, SEA).  Much like the body of water upon which it is based, this is a vast, meandering offering, clocking in at some seven hours of crackling loops, wistful pianos and melancholy brass, replete with art-prints, a DVD and housed, of all things, in a bin bag. The album is, above all else, beautiful, comprised of the sort of Neo-Classical murkiness your mum would like if it were found on the soundtrack of Broadchurch, but extended to such lengths that the whole thing comes across as a far more dream-like, abstract affair in its totality. Indeed, there is precious little memorable about this music, and therein lies its charm - like the sea itself, it is an encompassing, evolving mass of similar but superbly rich and nuanced textures.

3. Alan Jefferson - Galactic Nightmare (2014 re-release)

Originally written between 1979-1985, and only available at the time via an advert placed at the back of computer magazines, Galactic Nightmares is one of those ideas that works precisely because it is so flawed. A sort of crap, northern retelling of The War of the Worlds, Jefferson wields cheap drum machines and cheesy synths to present a story that, I think, has something to do with a weary space traveller whose ship crashes amid a world of strange and exotic space creatures. Jefferson is by no means the best orator, and therein lies the charm - his lacklustre description of his crew mates being killed off one by one, punctuated by ridiculous synthetic bird noises and porn-film synths is quite something to behold. Recorded alone in his Hull bedroom, Jefferson plays all the parts himself, with many of the characters breaking into impromptu song with the same, badly out-of-tune voice. Particular highlights include an abducted spaceman from Yorkshire singing a song about dramatically aging overnight, and a rebel alien (also from Yorkshire) whose race has been corrupted by a video-ad promising them immortality - "it's a biological breakthrough, not just for you but for the family too!".

2. The Ocean Collective - Heliocentric / Anthrocentric (2010)

Starting any album with the words "and God said…" suggests a level of pretension that should well start alarm bells ringing in any normal circumstance, but when said lyric arrive as part of a double album of Art-Metal documenting the rise of the heliocentric worldview, quotes Dostoyevsky, and comes on an intricately etched vinyl complete with a 3D interactive map of the solar system then you are inclined to give the artist a break. I'm not even sure it's that good an album - it's horribly cheesy for a start - but the sheer and untamable grandeur of the enterprise makes for a compelling, if occasionally cringeworthy, listen. That said, if you're feeling in the mood for some theologically inspired Euro-Metal, then tracks such as the wonderfully blunt The Origin of Species / The origin of God are unparalleled in their Chris De Burgh-like Biblical ambition. Amid all the blast-beats and distorted guitars there's even a reverb-drenched sax solo, something of which Mr De Burgh would no doubt thoroughly approve.

1. The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love (2009)

The Hazards of Love risks falling into the 'Rock Opera' category, but it's relationship to the classical form has more to do with its intricate, movement-orientated composition than it does any faux-Wagnerian opulence. In essence a inter-species love story not entirely dissimilar to A Midsummers Nights Dream, the album is comprised of a surprisingly limited number of riffs, hook and vocal refrains, which are transposed and repeated over one another throughout, creating a level of self-reference and narrative growth that rock music usually eschews in favour of a standardised verse-chorus dynamic. I'm not sure how well this sort of thing goes down with your average indie-folk fan, but for me this is the Decemberists crowning achievement. Every moment of this epic tale is encapsulated in a unified, wonderfully rendered aesthetic, building from slow, Olde Folk ballads to something that borders on early Cream, and the constant reframing of riffs and lyrics builds to an holy climax at the albums apex, the bitterly remorseful The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid, replete with its pained, antagonistic chorus: "I made you, I wrought you, I pulled you, from Ore I laboured you, from cancer I cradled you, and now, this is how I am repaid". An unrelentingly beautiful album that, like any good concept album, only really makes sense when listened to as a whole.

And there you have it - CMFCP's Top 10 (11) Concept Albums of the Millenium. Think we missed one? Drop a comment with your suggestions. 

Until next time, brave audio adventurers. 

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