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10 concept albums that will challenge your concept of the concept album

10 Concept Albums
(Image credit: Press/Getty Images)

Not content with their role as fearless sonic polymaths, Melbourne, Australia’s Twelve Foot Ninja have taken their knack for inventiveness to hitherto unknown levels of creative mania as they gear up to release their third album, Vengeance. Unleashing the three-pronged Project Vengeance, they’re about to bring out a high-concept comic book, video game and fantasy novel to boot. The Wyvern And The Wolf, a collaboration with author Nicholas Snelling, expands the band’s concept into a fully-fledged world of savagery and unrelenting grimness where an orphaned samurai boy is adopted by the ruthless leader of a clan of ninja.

So who better to give an insight into the best concept albums this, and many other worlds, have to offer? As it turns out, frontman Kin Etik has decided to take a scenic route around albums that… take the scenic route, bypassing the usual prog odysseys for a suitably genre-spanning through the weird, the wonderful, the deceptively down-to-earth and the dystopian, as Kin reveals the 10 opuses that will recalibrate your expectations of the conceptual album.

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1. Frank Sinatra - In The Wee Small Hours (Capitol, 1995)

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This is my favourite, and is said to be the first ‘concept’ album, being an album with a consistent theme. The tone of this release is a sombre, stare-out-the-window-of-a-train-on-a-rainy-day-type affair. It’s two-tone blue and grey, but serves as a tonic for a lonely heart. The songs on this album swoon, sway, and flow, led by the earnestness of Sinatra’s velvety baritone. Some of the greatest writers, and lyricists contributed to this album, to name a few: Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Bob Hilliard, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ Arlen. All arranged, and tied together by long-time, and probably greatest Sinatra collaborator, the formidable Nelson Riddle. With themes of depression, loss, loneliness, and failed relationships, realistically, it’s probably the first black metal album. And I mean, what is black metal? Just heavy jazz.

2. Meshuggah - Catch Thirtythree (Nuclear Blast, 2005)

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Although not a ‘concept’ album, the themes of this album are consistent. And although it was panned by many critics, this remains one of my favourite albums of all time. A ‘Catch 22’ is defined as “A problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule.”, or as best explained by a redditor - “Catch 22 exists as a concept that you can't be relieved of duty unless you are deemed insane by a psychologist. But if you ask a psychologist for an examination, that sole action makes you rational and thus sane.” Meshuggah's Catch Thirtythree seems to take this concept further, into the enlightening, and unravelling journey towards understanding ‘self’ or ‘ego’, and the inevitable dying thereof, that one must endure to break free of the restraints, or limitations of your own perception, and creation.

It’s a heavy, dark, polymetric, and spiralling journey in three acts, with recurring musical themes, and a main motif that undulates throughout the 47 minutes. This is an album to be consumed as a whole. I’ve been listening to this as a cycle regularly, since its release in 2005.

3. Frank Zappa - Joe's Garage (Zappa, 1979)

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I only discovered this after I turned 30, while deep-diving into Frank Zappa’s back catalogue. It was initially released as two albums, and re-released as a three-album boxset. It is a rock opera in three acts, based around a musical protagonist ‘Joe’, narrated by a character known as ‘The Central Scrutinizer’. It’s a huge, sprawling story, covering a wide variety of topics from censorship, totalitarian governance, and the stupidity and malevolence of scientology, to homogenised sexuality, groupies, and sexually transmitted disease.

This stylistically diverse rock opera has everything, and delivers it with sardonic humour, and mind-blowing musicianship. This is one of my favourite Zappa albums, and I think this too, should be consumed as a whole. I could go on for hours about the ins and outs of this album, but I’ll just recommend looking it up, and having a listen.

4. Ween - The Mollusk (Elektra, 1977)

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The spiritual follow-up to their greatest album in my opinion, Chocolate And Cheese, The Mollusk is a concept album based on nautical themes, replete with sea shanties, and tales of pink-eye, and pirates. It’s got a real wobbly, psych-prog vibe throughout. My standouts: the seminal Mutilated Lips, Waving My Dick In The Wind, Ocean Man, The Blarney Stone, and ELO-esque prog of Buckingham Green. Ween are one of the greatest bands that ever was, and ever will be, in my humble opinion. Smoke a stick and stick this awesome album in your ears. All hail The Boognish!

5. Queens Of The Stone Age - Songs For The Deaf (Interscope, 2002)

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Taking place on a car ride from LA, through the desert to Joshua Tree, and tuning into local radio stations on the way, QOTSA's Songs For The Deaf is a beast of an album, and deserves to be up there as one of the greatest of all time. I mean, where do I begin? Josh Homme, Dave Grohl, Alain Johannes, Natasha Sneider (R.I.P), Mark Lanegan, and Nick Olivieri. Fuck. Boom! It is one of those rare gems that is a banger from start to finish, a force of nature – unbridled, but disciplined. There is a true attention to detail on this album that I truly admire. It has an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ quality to the recordings, with each of the personnel being utilised perfectly. It has aged like single malt whiskey, and an excellent companion on a road trip. “Dave Catching here, not saying goodnight, just saying.”

6. King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard - Nonagon Infinity (Heavenly Recordings, 2016)

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Nonagon Infinity, by fellow Australians King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard, was the album that took out ‘Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal’ at the 2016 ARIA Awards, beating ourselves, and some other ‘heavy’ bands. It’s really a hard-psych album, which lead to the ARIA’s being accused of miscategorising their album, and a little bit of vitriol levelled toward the band themselves. The band didn’t show up to even accept the award, which I always thought was a cool gambit.

A good friend of mine suggested listening to this album, which after the ARIA win, I hadn’t given a shot. I started my lawnmower one day and whacked it in my earholes. It immediately grabbed me, right upon the intro to Robot Stop, and it just continues to rumble right through like a road train, each song connected to the next, with the finale connecting back to the beginning, creating a seamless, infinite album I love every song on this album. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable listen. The production values harp back to the 60’s/70’s, and have a warm analogue aesthetic throughout, and just make the whole experience a genuine piece of rock art.

KG&TLW are great fodder for a deep dive. Nonagon Infinity is their eighth studio album, of 18. They are probably the most prolific band going around. Fan for life here.

7. Eagles – Desperado (Asylum, 1973)

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I have to preface this by saying that I was never really an Eagles fan. I loved the track Life In The Fast Lane, but past that, I think they were such a staple of 80s rock radio, that I was saturated past my tolerance as a kid.

A few years ago, I was working a shitty job as a dispatch manager, and the only thing that got me through the day, besides the good humour of my colleagues, was the fact that I could play music all day. My co-manager and I had been listening to a bit of the Eagles and developing a healthy appreciation of their catalogue. One morning, when logging into my workstation, there was Desperado, in my YouTube suggested feed, so I put it on. I was instantly stunned by how diverse it was from their debut, Eagles, and I remember thinking that it was a truly strange way to follow it up.

It’s a rebel’s album. Songs about the Old West, outlaws, and rogues, set to acoustic stylings, and rocked out ramblings. They are even dressed up as outlaws on the cover. The title track is a killer. Get this in the ol’ ear canals, mount your horse, and make hay while the sun still shines. Giddy-up.

8. Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino (Domino Recording Company, 2018)

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This is a treasure of an album. It received mixed reviews, mainly due to its divergence from the immediacy of previous release, and resounding success AM. This is a smorgasbord of a release. Summoning the spirits of Serge Gainsbourg, Nick Cave, and Leonard Cohen, Alex Turner sets this evening’s entertainment at a luxury hotel on the site of the 1969 moon landing, Tranquility Base. It’s a meditation upon the role of entertainment within the sphere of social change, consumerism, religion, technology, and bureaucracy. I particularly love James Ford, and Turner’s production techniques, and the arrangements on this album. It wouldn’t be out of place as a soundtrack to a 60s movie. It’s black, gold, cocaine white, and crystal future noir. Neat whiskeys, and dry Martinis. A four-course buffet, and a show. The lyrics are a whole other level. Earnest, blunt, and masterful. Worth a listen.

9. The Mars Volta - Frances The Mute (Gold Standard Laboratories, 2005)

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Probably my favourite Mars Volta album, next to The Bedlam In Goliath. This is a journey of a release, incorporating so many different musical stylings, from samba, to jazz, and furious fusion, to prog rock. It’s a satiating listen. It was inspired by a journal, that a former sound technician for the band, Jeremy Ward (R.I.P), had found in the back seat of a car he was repossessing, working as a repo man. He read the journal, and found similarities between himself, and the writer. Namely that the writer was adopted and was on a search for his biological parents. It notes a range of characters that he had met along the way, their names being the source of the track titles on the album. Omar Rodríguez-López is on fire on this album, as is Cedric Bixler-Zavala. It’s sprawling and jagged, with ambient instrumentation and catchy, soaring melodies. Even has guest spots from Flea from Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and John Frusciante. This album is the stuff of legend.

10. Deltron 3030 - Deltron 3030

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This album was on high rotation for quite a while in my early 20s. Deltron 3030 is set in the dystopian year 3030 and details a battle against a 31st-century New World Order. Del The Funky Homosapien plays the role of Del, a futuristic soldier and computer genius, who fights in rap battles, and becomes the Galactic Rhyme Federation Champion. He is eventually kidnapped by the New World Order, and has his memory erased, so that pretty much kills the plot. There is a dry humour to this album, but it also uses the dystopian theme to confront modern social issues, such as economic disparity, and civil liberty. Dan The Automator’s production on this album suits the narrative and bleak setting perfectly. Damon Albarn, Sean Lennon, and Prince Paul are a few of the numerous guests on this album. It’s a corker.

Vengeance is released via Volkanik Records on October 15

The Wyvern And The Wolf is available for pre-order from the Twelve Foot Ninja website

Jonathan Selzer

Jonathan is the overseer of all the album and live reviews in Metal Hammer. Thinks songs that aren’t about Satan, swords or witches are a bit silly.