Top Ten Original-Narrative Concept Albums
Albums telling a story that you've never heard before...
In case you didn't know, this week is National Storytelling Week, launched in 2000 by the Society For Storytelling. Their mission is "the promotion of the oral tradition of storytelling, the very first way of communicating life experiences and the creative imagination." Heavy metal makes a vital contribution to that tradition, passionately giving life to an abundant variety of psychodramas, ripping yarns and cautionary tales. Here we celebrate some of metal's most powerful original narratives – specifically those entirely conceived for the album, rather than based on existing ideas (hence no Seventh Son!)
King Diamond – Abigail (1987)
King Diamond is metal's undisputed master of the ghost story, and Abigail – his first full-blown concept disc – set new standards for the craft with a genuinely chilling historical narrative about the possession of a young woman by the ghost of her ancestor's dead baby. With a dramatic musical thrust to match the grisly action, it's no wonder King bowed to popular demand and composed Abigail II fifteen years later.
Queensrÿche – Operation Mindcrime (1988)
Still arguably metal's most fully-realised narrative concept, this dystopian opus centres around junkie revolutionary Nikki, brainwashed into becoming the puppet assassin of the evil Dr X. Nikki falls in love with a prostitute-cum-nun, whose subsequent murder sends him insane (spoilers). Constructed with fearless conviction, this lurid urban fable was a global smash, demanding a sequel in 2004 and a full stage show featuring Dio as Dr X.
W.A.S.P. – The Crimson Idol (1992)
A few years after spewing sparks from his codpiece and screaming about fucking like a beast, Blackie Lawless has a go at becoming the Pete Townshend of LA metal with this semi-autobiographical rock opera. A troubled guitarist's ascent to rock stardom is blighted by heroin addiction and the exploitative machinations of unscrupulous label boss Chainsaw Charlie; after being disowned by his parents, the poor sod hangs himself with his own guitar strings.
GWAR – America Must Be Destroyed (1992)
One of many concept albums by the universe's first concept band, GWAR's third LP arguably has the edge narrative-wise, not least because the tale of the search for Oderus Urungus's stolen penis attachment (the 'Cuttlefish of Cthulu') is based on a true story; North Carolina police really did confiscate Dave Brockie's prosthetic phallus. Thankfully however the tyrannical T-rex Gor-Gor – fuelled by dead babies and crack – was entirely fictional.
Opeth – My Arms Your Hearse (1997)
A haunting ghost story in the best King Diamond tradition, with a bleakly romantic twist that's pure mid-90s Opeth, MAYH follows a restless earthbound spirit observing the grief of his bereaved lover. A densely woven opus, artfully flowing like the seasons that pass throughout the story, plus Mikael Akerfeldt neatly manages to end each lyric with the title of the next song.
Rhapsody – Dawn Of Victory (2000)
There are few album concepts as obsessively wrought as Rhapsody (Of Fire)'s Algalord Chronicles – a grandiose overarching fantasy mythos so far spanning ten albums. Crammed with archetypal tropes – brave knights, evil kings, wise wizards, epic quests, brutal battles, dwarves, dragons, demons and damsels in distress – the yarns are spun with such dizzying conviction they can't help but enthral, and Dawn Of Victory is the Emerald Sword Saga's white-knuckle turning point.
Ayreon – The Human Equation (2004)
When it comes to original narratives, you're spoilt for choice with Dutch prog mastermind Arjen Anthony Lucassen, but Ayreon's sixth LP was an emotionally charged departure concept. An intimate character study played out in the mind of a comatose crash victim (voiced by James LaBrie), with internal dialogues sung by concept-album royalty like Mikael Akerfeldt (as Fear) and Devin Townsend (as Rage).
Mastodon – Blood Mountain (2006)
Following the Fighting Fantasy-style adventures of an anonymous hero seeking a crystal skull to place atop the eponymous peak: "It’s about climbing up a mountain and the different things that can happen to you when you’re stranded on a mountain, in the woods, and you’re lost,” drummer Brann Dailor explained. "You’re starving, and hallucinating, running into strange creatures." These include the Cysquatch: "a one-eyed Sasquatch that can see into the future."
Devin Townsend – Ziltoid The Omniscient (2007)
Locked away alone in the studio for four months, metal's most eccentric auteur emerged with this demented high-concept sci-fi spoof, the tale of the titular alien glove-puppet who demands the people of Earth fetch him "your universe's ultimate cup of coffee." When the resultant brew fails to satisfy, the skulletted overlord orders a Ziltoidian attack on Earth. A sequel album was released in October, while Ziltoid's extraordinary inaugural 'ZTV' broadcast launched last Autumn.
Between The Buried And Me – The Parallax II: Future Sequence (2012)
US metalcore wasn't the most conceptually dense and cosmically inclined of genres, until these North Carolina psychonauts got hold of it. Expanding on the opaque, surreal visions of 2011's The Parallax: Hyperspace Dialogues EP, this cinematic sequel refined the mind-boggling story of two men isolated at different points of the universe, bonded by the same soul, who are revealed to be the same man: the ultimate destroyer of all life