Extra Cheese: My Love Affair with Concept Albums
Maybe it’s metal’s deep-rooted affinity for theatricality that makes it such fertile soil for concept albums. It feels like every day some technical death metal band releases an album based on cosmic metaphysical blah-dee-blah or ionized extra-dimensional doodley-doo, but doing it right takes more than finding all the biggest words in Physics Today and mashing them together for song titles. An effective concept album unifies the songs and draws the listener in to its narrative. That’s easier said than done, as the effective exposition of that narrative often comes at the expense of lyrical delicacy. Simply put, things can end up really, really cheesy.
I have a love/hate relationship with a number of especially cheesy concept albums – I love them, and everyone hates me because of it. To me, they’re more than collections of songs; they’re adventures. I fucking love adventures. I’m going to tell you about a few of them here, so those of you who are lactose-intolerant need not read any further… and should be killed.
Blind Guardian – Nightfall in Middle Earth
The Silmarillion is the Tolkien-nerd’s Holy Bible. Within its sacred pages lies the primordial lore of Middle Earth – The Valar and the Maiar, the Creation of elves and men, and the battle against the Dark Lord Melkor Morgoth. Blind Guardian‘s musical adaption of the book is everything a basement-dwelling, collectible sword-swinging metalhead like you could ask for. Those familiar with The Silmarillion‘s stories will recognize names, places, and events as the immortal Hansi Kursch guides them through battle after battle by the power of his righteous voice. Never heard of the book? Give it a go anyway. Concept aside, it’s one of the best power metal albums ever recorded. Thus sayeth the (Master)lord.
Carach Angren – Death Came Through a Phantom Ship
Hands off that flusher, pal! Give me a second here. I wanted to hate this at first, too. Corpse-painted weirdos playing entry-level symphonic black metal and dressing up like 17th century pirates? Pass, right? WRONG, PEASANT. This album rules. This devilishly handsome Dutch trio specializes in ghost stories, and in Death Came Through a Phantom Ship they want to tell you all about the Flying Dutchman – the dreaded ghost ship doomed to aimlessly sail the high seas until the end of time. Spooky shit. As you’d expect, it doesn’t take long for this thing to fly straight off the cheese charts. Seregor takes a very narrative approach to his lyricism and his vocals are among the most intelligible in the business, so sometimes he just sounds like he’s sitting around a fire snarling ghost stories to his fellow campers. Which would be both ridiculous and awesome. But for some reason, it works. Their enthusiasm is infectious and I can’t help but be drawn in by their peculiar brand of story-telling. Climb aboard, bros.
Turisas – Stand Up and Fight
Turisas is a curious band from Finland. Like most bands from Finland, they paint their faces and wear shirts only when absolutely necessary, but that’s where most of the similarities end. Vocalist Mathias Nygård fancies himself a thespian, and who the hell are you to say otherwise? Back up his sultry Viking croon with a full-blown orchestra and you get Stand Up and Fight! It’s about the Byzantine Emperors’ personal force of bodyguards/mercenaries called the Varangian Guard, and I can’t resist its bombastic vision of a proggy folk-metal arena-rock musical. It’s exuberant, it’s unique, and it’s tons of fun. You might like it.
Slough Feg – Traveller
There are probably more Bronies than Slough Feg fans in this world, but their followers are faithful and true. Most of them will swear by Twilight of the Idols or Down Among the Dead Men, but this sucker right here is my personal favorite. Traveller is based on a sci-fi role-playing game from 1977 which I know nothing about beyond the content of this album. It follows the exploits of an intrepid space marauder named Baltech and a psychotic, gene-splicing Professor determined to conquer the universe with an army of spacedog/human hybrids. Admit you’re at least intrigued. This is heavy metal. The riffs rock hard. The story is a blast. I can’t recommend this cheese enough. Bang your head and sing about space. “CRONOR! MORA! FIRGR! GLISTEN!”
Ayreon – The Theory of Everything
Ayreon is the brainchild of Arjen Anthony Lucassen, and the only way I can describe The Theory of Everything is by calling it an hour-and-a-half-long power-prog rock opera. Is Lucassen eccentric? You betcha. Is he also a genius? I think so. The story involves seven characters voiced by seven different, insanely talented vocalists. The unflushable line-up includes JB Christoffersson of Grand Magus, Tommy Karevik of Kamelot, Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil, Marco Hietala of Nightwish, and John Wetton of the legendary Asia. You heard me right. John Wetton. Of Asia. You know – “it’s the heat of the moment, heat of the moment, the heat of the moment showed in your eyes?” Everyone on the roster has serious pipes, and they manage to breathe life into to otherwise admittedly shallow characters. This was my AOTY last year. If you can handle the dairy, you really need to check this out.
What about you? Are there any cheesy concept albums you just can’t help but love? Share them with your toilet family. And remember – sometimes the smelliest cheese is also the tastiest.