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In retrospect: The heavy metal concept album

Far from doing things by the book, metal has a proud history of records that go deeper than just the music, with lyrics and motifs that tell a broader story, sucking the listener into another world.

Listening to a concept record front-to-back takes discipline and focus, but is a hugely rewarding and exciting way to become immersed in the world of your favourite artists. Here are ten great concept records that you might want to think about delving into while living life from home. 

Blind Guardian – Nightfall In Middle-Earth 

Let’s be real, we’ve all tried to read The Lord of The Rings and found it hard to even get out of The Shire before casting it aside. Such is the difficulty of reading Tolkien’s work. So for power metallers Blind Guardian to pull off a five-part epic capturing the story of Tolkien’s posthumous opus The Silmarillion in such a concise fashion is simply astounding. Thankfully, the band provides some spoken word sections to help the listener follow along with what’s going on across these 22 tracks – one of which is the band’s super-hit Mirror Mirror. Fantasy and metal never sounded so good.

Dream Theater – Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory

Possibly the most celebrated concept album of the modern era and a must-have for fans of music in general, this record saw Dream Theater pull back from the brink of calling it quits, and propelled them to become the celebrated godfathers of modern prog that they are today. Picking up on a story alluded to in 1992’s ‘Metropolis Pt 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper’, off the 1992 Images and Words LP, the band trace the story of Nicholas, who is hypnotised and discovers that in a former life he was murdered, essentially blowing the lid off a cold-case. A mixture of scintillating metal, soaring hooks, tender ballads and masterful musical refrains, this is where everything fell into place for the band.

Devin Townsend – Ziltoid the Omniscient

I love a good espresso as much as the next music journalist, but Devin Townsend took things to the next level on this 2007 LP, focused around the alien Ziltoid on his quest for the ultimate brew. Appalled by what he is served on Earth (hint: check Bean Hunter next time), he summons a galactic army to attack the planet, the entire thing playing out like the most bizarre Doctor Who episode imaginable, set to a score of extreme progressive metal. Heavy Devy at his most confusing.

Mastodon – Crack The Skye

Speaking of confusion – things got really out of hand in the writer’s room for Mastodon’s fourth, and arguably greatest, LP. Dedicated to drummer Brann Dailor’s sister Skye, who tragically took her own life years before, the record follows a paraplegic who astro travels, flies too close to the sun, goes into the spirit realm and then re-spawns inside Rasputin’s body, who then tries to usurp the Czar of Russia, is murdered and then is chased by the devil through other dimensions. The music is pretty great too….

Opeth – Still Life

Before Blackwater Park came this dark, folky and haunting body of work that put Opeth on the road to the force that they are today. Mixing their trademark blackened death metal and celtic folk, the record tells the story of a forbidden romance in medieval Scandinavia. Considered by many fans their finest work, the LP caught the attention of Steven Wilson, who began a long partnership with the band, producing their records over the next 10 years. A perfect entry point to the diverse world of Opeth. 

Pain of Salvation – Remedy Lane

One of Sweden’s most underrated exports, Pain of Salvation produced an absolute gem with Remedy Lane, a beautiful combination of piano-led progressive rock and aggressive riffing, coloured by wonderful harmonies. A coming of age story about a character growing up, Remedy Lane is as wholesome as it is diverse, with three chapters exploring different seasons of life via sound.

Porcupine Tree – Fear of a Blank Planet

Exploring the story of a school boy who, numbed by an over technologically stimulated world, eventually kills himself in album closer ‘Sleep Together’, Fear of a Blank Planet is spookily prophetic. Released in 2006, before Instagram, Facebook and streaming gave consumers access to whatever they wanted whenever they needed, Steven Wilson and co. warned listeners in advance about the impending isolation of an online world. Some of the groups’ most celebrated work is featured here, with standouts ‘My Ashes’ and the prog standard ‘Anesthetize’ making this an unmissable listen.

Queensrych – Operation: Mindcrime

It is tragic listening to this era of Queensrych and wondering what could have been for this group. Telling the story of Nikki, a heroin addict in hospital who suddenly remembers that he was embroiled in a government conspiracy, the record showcases the band in their stride, with Geoff Tate leading from the front with his incredible vocal and storytelling performances. The band dropped Operation: Mindcrime II in 2006, which featured Ronnie James Dio taking over the role of villian Dr X, and even performed both records with actors and props in a full-blown stage show. Musical metal theatre at its greatest.

Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Another entry by Steven Wilson, 2015’s sprawling, colourful Hand. Cannot. Erase. takes inspiration from the story of Joyce Carol Vincent, who, despite having friends, connections and relative social popularity, died in her home and went unnoticed for three years. Exploring the idea of social isolation, Wilson and his all-star band, including at the time Aristocrats guitarist and drummer Marco Minneman and Guthrie Govan, give some of the best performances of their careers, with tracks ‘Home Invasion’ and the title track weaving rock, jazz and metal elements onto a deeply conceptual tapestry.

Tool – Lateralus

If you’re ready to go down a rabbit hole, look no further than here. Tool’s lauded third album Lateralus already has a considerable amount of mythology around it due to the band incorporating the Fibonacci sequence into the musical arrangement of the title track. However, a fan theory suggested that a reordering of the songs, with interludes overlapping them at certain times, would result in a similar Fibonacci sequence that would result in two perfect spirals when plotted on a graph. Dubbed the ‘Holy Gift’ after a line that Maynard sings in ‘Parabola’, the theory caught storm, with the transitions between songs in the new order seemingly making more sense than what was originally released. Read up on it more here, or listen to the rearranged record and make your own call here.