Monday, November 9, 2009

The Concept Album

Good, Bad or Ugly?

A long time ago, in a musical universe far, far away, there lumbered a dinosaur (band) that strove to achieve artistic greatness and immortality. One way to attempt this glorious feat was to create a “concept album.” Basically, this meant wrapping the music and lyrics around an overall theme, connecting the various parts and movements within a whole framework consisting of a beginning, a middle and an ending. Back in the heady days of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it all made perfect sense. Whether you consider the very first concept album S. F. Sorrow by the Pretty Things, Tommy by the Who or Days of Future Passed by the Moody Blues, this lofty endeavor ultimately fell upon the earnest and enthusiastic Progressive Rock bands to pull off. Let’s face it, some concept albums worked and some didn't. A concept is merely a technique and doesn’t necessarily ensure artistic or commercial success. Some bands buckled under the heavy conceptual strain (Yes with Tales from Topographic Oceans; Genesis with The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway) while others reaped huge rewards and acclaim (the Who with Quadrophenia; Pink Floyd with The Wall). But whether or not you like the concept of a concept album, it still all comes down to the music. Great music can (and definitely has) existed within a bad concept (see Yes and Genesis above). Unfortunately, this grand approach opened up certain bands to the accusation of being “pompous” and “snooty” – words commonly leveled at Progressive Rock bands by their critics. Never mind that most of the musicians never considered themselves superior to the rest of humanity. Nor that their music was inherently better or smarter or deeper. In their minds, they were simply being creative and playing at their peak. The Prog guys just wanna have fun! And to be realistic, no specific musical genre has ever had exclusive rights to pomposity. Unless you're one of the few who have never experienced a pompous pop star, punk rocker, jazz musician, folk singer, etc. This misperception was created in large part by those who labeled the bands "progressive" in the first place. The word implies a superior attitude that was never really there. Unfortunately, once it became a label (and a genre), many misguided bands figured all they had to do was adopt a certain sound, use certain instruments, arrange music in a certain way, wear glittery capes...and voila! They would magically be transformed into a "progressive rock" band. Thus, many hacks came along and resorted to out-and-out mimicry. Which, in and of itself, is very unprogressive. Looking back, the glory days of the concept album now seem a quaint and distant echo of a time long passed. As does the very concept of an album itself – soon to be relegated to extinction in today’s iTunes digital download reality.

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