Top 10 (+1) Prog / Metal Concept Albums

Hi all, After listening to Ayreon’s excellent The Theater Equation live album recently released, it made me wonder what my favourite concept albums were. This is slightly tricky to pin down as I had to come up with a music category – some are prog, some are metal, some are prog metal – so here we have my top 10 prog / metal concept albums.

Why the +1? As ever, when I get to number 10, there are 2 fine candidates such that I can’t bring myself to drop one.

There were some other great albums that I had to leave, such as Snow by Spock’s Beard and Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes. Truthfully, these didn’t make too much of an impact on me even though they are great albums. My favourite Yes is not this one either. Similarly for Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It’s great, but flawed and not as good as Trick of the Tail or Foxtrot for example.

My biggest regret is that I couldn’t get anything by Rush or Dream Theater, not that they didn’t do concept albums (or song sequences), but my favourite stuff by them is not those. There are at least three albums in the DT canon that I prefer to Metropolis part II.

Onwards! (But listen to Snow).

=10. Devin Townsend: Retinal Circus

the retinal circus

Ah Devin, mad genius, and all the more wonderful for it. I originally put Ziltoid the Omniscient here, as I really wanted to include some Devin and Ziltoid is his most obviously concept album – worth it for sheer deranged humour.

In some ways almost everything Dev does is concept related. He seems to have ideas and then do projects around them.

The Retinal Circus is a weird thing (obviously) even in this list. Part best of, part spectacle, part shoehorned concept album about a man Harold that seems to be, well who knows? Devin calls it an “increasingly tenuous” concept running through the live show, and I can also use it to put the album on this list.

Brilliant things are that this is a celebration of Dev’s career featuring tracks from Strapping Young Lad, Ziltoid the Omniscient, his solo projects and his more recent quintet of four albums: Ki, Addicted, Deconstruction, Ghost and Epicloud. Ridiculous staging, concept, circus performers, flames, machinery, juvenile humour, paranoia and guest appearances including the fabulous Anneke van Giersbergen.

Part of this recommendation is due to the “poppy effervescent” Addicted; the duo of Annie & Dev is the most beautiful and uncannily compatible I know of and Addicted is probably my album of the last decade. Go Dev! Indeed.

=10. Savatage: Dead Winter Dead

deadWinterDeadOne of my favourite Savatage albums. They found a different voice after the tragic passing of Chris Oliva. Literally with Zach Stevens but also they became more symphonic and integrated with higher compositional values, transcending their 80s material and bridging the gap to the more symphonic metal bands to follow.

Sadly they disintegrated into the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and made a load of money or whatever, but I lost interest.

This album also features Al Pitrelli and Chris Caffrey, both great players (see also Alex Skolnick on the great Handful of Rain).

The story is set in the Balkans conflict of the 90s. It covers a wide variety of musical ground. There is the fabulous Jon Oliva sung I am, that sets the template for all his evil guest appearances – Is it just me, but why does this remind me of DeVito’s Joker from the early Batman films?

Other highlights are the vocal harmonies on Not What You See, the symphonic Mozart and Madness and Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24) – which was then used in the TSO.

I should mention Streets which was their other concept album with Chris Oliva. I heard this live as the highlight of Progpower in the UK in 2007 and it was amazing.

9. Leonardo the Absolute Man

LeonardoThis is the first of the Magellan (the band) side projects here. It seems these are better than the band efforts of theirs that I’ve heard. They are a prog band that happens to play metal.

This is also the first of the James LaBrie (Dream Theater) appearances; he plays Leonardo da Vinci in a loose biographical story that focuses on politics rather than the art.

There is some great prog metal music here with a fabulous cast. It is focussed on the whole rather than instrumental brilliance – but avoid if you’re not into prog!

The outstanding moment is the last track End of a World, it is only one quote from the man himself: “Amore sol la ma fa remirare, la solmi fa sollecita” but they hit gold with the melody and arrangement – absolutely astounding.

Tangentially, talking about last songs that can blow you away, if you are a Douglas Adams fan, check out Chain’s Chain.exe’s last track Last Chance to See. It’s the banjo quote from the radio series that gets me, oh and the final quote. Damn.

8. Pink Floyd: The Wall

1035x1035-pinkfloyd-1800-1389115476Right, everyone knows this one. Definitely not in metal territory – this is why this is my list – I’m not claiming any absolutes of order, just an order of what these albums mean to me. I’ve listened to a lot of Floyd in my time so it only seemed fair to have one of theirs here.

Why not Dark Side? It didn’t quite seem to fit the concept album – ok it’s themed, but the songs are relatively independent and it mainly revolves around The Great Gig in the Sky (for me), a lot of the rest is a bit too poppy. However The Wall is definitely a concept album with a film, multiple soundtracks and a nasty grim theme. It’s the sound of a band falling apart and it did.

The main Floyd album for me was Wish You Were Here, but I’ve done it to death. This has Hey you and Comfortably Numb. Enough for any album.

7. Arjen Anthony Lucassen’s Star One: Space Metal

starOneHmm, is this a concept album? Well yes, the concept is a bunch of songs based on sci-fi films. So not a traditional narrative, but a cast of characters in each song and just fabulous music (and production). The films are not mentioned, but they are mostly obvious and it’s quite fun to work out what they are.

It doesn’t get much better than the singers that Lucassen can attract and here we have the brilliant Russell Allen, Damien Wilson and Robert Soeterboek (basically David Coverdale) performing the majority of the male voices. However, check out the amazing Starchild with Dan Swano and the female vocals by a certain Floor Jansen.

Get yourself a good hi-fi and listen to this on it. There is a marvellous live album of this, as far from trendy as you can get, well done Mr. Lucassen (my hero).

Btw, Songs of the Ocean, brain hurtingly terrible film, awesome song!

6. Fates Warning: A Pleasant Shade of Gray

APleasantShadeOfGrayI love this album, it is such a mature statement by a band. Nothing overly flashy, yet the whole thing is just quality. The video starts off with slow rain and the album is basically a monochromatic downer from start to finish.

This has a superb production, the previous album was great but this supersedes it. Subsequent FW albums get even better. This is one underrated band. I love the drumming of Mark Zonder, I think of him as a minimalist Neal Peart, there’s always some interesting detail going on.

There are 12 tracks, numbered I-XII, giving nothing away. The story seems to be that something happened in the past – we don’t know what, and the protagonist is left having to deal with his negative and regretful feelings towards it.

Beauty in darkness. Apparently people find this quite hard to get into.

5. W.A.S.P.: The Crimson Idol

crimsonIdolThis was a big album for me at the time. I think the work that went into this really paid off. Great solos by Bob Kulick, as Blackie Lawless says: “I believe, his best”. It hasn’t necessarily aged as well as some other albums on this list, the sound is a bit compressed, but the performances make up for it.

This is inevitably the story of a failing rock star (see The Wall), but writing about what he knows gives an air of authenticity. If you can suspend your disbelief enough, this can be very involving. The Great Misconceptions of Me is almost prog – Blackie’s Stairway? Not obviously a good voice, but you try and convey emotion the way he can. Still makes my hair stand up. Ok, it’s a great voice.

I must also mention Frankie Banali’s drumming – roll on man.

4. Marillion: Misplaced Childhood

MisplacedChildhoodThis is pure prog rock (obviously) for those who don’t know it. What can I say here? A strange thing this album, how can an English band make an anthem for Scotland? Fish can. I believe this is his finest hour (and Marillion’s). How can you make a nursery rhyme deep and meaningful? It also spawned *that* single and a fashionable girl’s name.

Exemplary playing of course, the sound can be warm and enveloping – I have a ‘97 EMI 100 years 180gm vinyl that is stunning. Definitely better than the recent digital remaster. This is one of those albums that I have bought many times over the years.

A band, like Rush, that can easily trick you with time signatures. Oh yes, this is nice, hmm, where’s the beat gone?

3. Explorers Club: Age of Impact

Explorers+Club+Age+of+Impact+619069I remember this one hitting me when I was driving in the late 90s to motorbike school. It was all this is nice prog stuff, and then it turned staggering.

This is the 2nd Magellan side project on the list, but this is absolutely (no pun intended) one of my favourite albums of all time.

So why is it so good? Well the music is brilliant prog metal but it has superb contributions from all involved. This was the album that introduced me to possibly my favorite vocalist, D.C. Cooper. It has more than half of the Dream Theater of the time – LaBrie, Sherinian and an outstanding John Petrucci – I think this is the most emotional soloing I’ve heard him do – if you have any love for JP – get this, it’s beyond inspired.

Subsequent to this, I’ve heard DC do even more amazing things, obviously in his day job with Royal Hunt, but also listen to We Must Remain by Silent Force.

Who else is on this? Terry Bozzio (“Bozzio goes wild” – from the liner notes). James Murphy, Steve Howe (slightly out of place), Billy Sheehan does another monster performance and various highly decent contributions from members of other prog / metal bands – Magellan, Cairo and Dali’s Dilemma.

Fundamentally though, the massive musical talent wouldn’t be anything without the composition to back it up and the album absolutely has that. It flows from start to finish as one whole. So what’s the concept? Not that much really, there’s not a story as such – just a Carpe Diem message expressed in five sections.

But jeez, that Petrucci soloing. It’s so perfect and fits into the music so well. And there’s a trombone.

2. Ayreon: The Human Equation

the-human-equation-528fee854b47dHere it is, a fully formed, balanced concept album with the most ridiculous lineup of vocalists. Everything about this is masterful. It’s my favourite thing by Lucassen, and I love everything he does. The first time I heard this I knew it was my album of the year and it was at least that in retrospect.

Each song is stands as an independent entity yet the album has a story from start to finish. It’s about a man (James LaBrie again) in a coma after a car crash listening to his emotions, being represented by the other singers. Absolutely standout performances by everyone, including Devin Townsend (yay in at number 2 – he’d appreciate it) and Marcela Bovio who won a competition run by Lucassen to perform on this. She was so good that Lucassen made the Stream of Passion band with her after this.

Instrumentalists are largely Lucassen and friends, there’s real string and woodwind players – also a didgeridoo – listen to Loser and you’ll see – also Devin!

Other notable figures are Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth – try Damnation), Irene Jansen (sister of Floor, they are both on the Star One Live album), Mike Baker (Shadow Gallery – RIP, also on Leonardo), Heather Findlay (Mostly Autumn) and many more.

1. Queensrÿche: Operation Mindcrime

operationMindcrimeI blame grunge for killing QR. When Chris DeGarmo left they totally lost the plot, but sadly they had already been going downhill. They went from being about the best metal band on the planet to some kind of semi-grunge wannabees. They had Geoff Tate, who is basically the metal version of an opera star, but he stopped wanting to use his main asset.

Anyway, onto this, I would have thought that anyone reading this list should know this album. It’s not just my favourite prog / metal album, it’s probably my favourite album. I saw them do this two nights on the trot at the then Hammersmith Odeon (Empire tour – they only played bits on the mindcrime tour). I’ve seen them do it since (Mindcrime I and II at the O2). I think I’ve done it to death, but there’s nothing compositionally better in the genre.

The story has just enough complexity – a man programmed to kill in a dystopian future – and depth for each song to form an interlocking part of the whole. It’s the combination of music, vocals and production that really sets this apart. It’s convincing. You believe that Tate is Nicky.

Whilst I am a fan of shred guitar, this is packed full of excellent harmony playing and is always to the point. A special mention must also go to the vocal duet between Tate and Pamela Moore in Suite Sister Mary.

This also has one of the best songs of all time in Eyes of a Stranger. It is always moving when you finally get there at the end of the album. The first time I heard it was in a metal club in the east of London. It has a psychedelic ending and I asked a guy there what it was – he gave some offhand comment about it, but that was it, the first encounter with Mindcrime.

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