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There comes a time in every musician’s life where having a hit single isn’t enough anymore. They need to push the envelope and really express their artistic vision to the world on a grander canvas. That canvas… is the “concept album.” An integrated group of songs, usually forming some sort of continuing story, and more often than not either completely unlistenable or totally bizarre. In this feature, we’ll delve deep in music history to share the weirdest and wildest concept albums ever released.
Devin Townsend – “Ziltoid The Omniscient”
Devin Townsend is one of heavy metal music’s most perplexing figures. As the founder of Strapping Young Lad, he dished out some of the most incredible riffs of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but after breaking up the band in 2007 he embarked on a solo career into the depths of absolute madness. His album from that year, “Ziltoid the Omniscient,” is a concept record with a truly bonkers story. The titular Ziltoid comes to Earth in search of a cup of coffee. When he’s served one, he finds it so disgusting that he calls the armies of his planet to destroy our crappy world in a massive conflagration. Amazingly enough, Townsend actually put out a sequel to this mess, titled “Z²,” in 2014.
Frank Zappa – “Thing-Fish”
One of America’s most iconoclastic musicians ever, Frank Zappa had big ideas behind almost everything he did. 1984’s “Thing-Fish,” though, pushed the envelope to bursting. The triple album recounts the story of a racist prince who engineers a disease to wipe out gays and blacks, only to see it transform them into “Mammy-Nuns” who perform a play within a play for a married WASP couple – it’s a mess, made even messier by the fact that some of the music comes from earlier Zappa releases. To promote a proposed stage version of the album, Zappa and crew produced a 28 page photo spread of one of the sequences for smut rag Hustler.
David Allan Coe – “Requiem for a Harlequin”
Outlaw country musician David Allan Coe is best known for his rough late ’70s albums that flaunted all sorts of taboos and were sold via mail order from the back pages of biker magazines like Easyriders. But what many people don’t know about Coe is that his sophomore release is one of the most bizarre concept albums ever. 1973’s “Requiem for a Harlequin” consists of two side-long songs titled “The Beginning” and “The End” and feature Coe talk-singing stories of life growing up on the hard city streets, backed by a free-ranging assortment of sounds from country and blues to gospel and jazz. It’s bleak, weird and unlike anything else Coe would ever record.
Styx – “Kilroy Was Here”
This 1983 album by Styx spawned the inescapable radio hit “Mr. Roboto,” which is more than most concept albums manage to do. But lead singer Dennis DeYoung had bigger plans for the “Kilroy Was Here” album and accompanying stage show. The songs told the dystopian tale of a world where rock & roll was against the law, and the lone surviving rocker Robert Orin Charles Kilroy breaks out of his robot-run prison to hook up with a new generation of musicians and shred once more. The process of recording the album magnified the differences between DeYoung and the rest of the band, and eventually guitarist Tommy Shaw smashed his guitar on stage during a concert in Maryland and quit the group.
Bushwick Bill – “Phantom Of The Rapra”
Imagine you’re Bushwick Bill, the 3’8″ one-eyed MC that brought the Geto Boys to regional and national fame in the 1990s. What do you do for an encore? Well, one option is to release a concept album based around Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” called “Phantom of the Rapra.” Bushwick plays the titular Phantom, explaining to an interviewer that “rap is opera to people in the ghetto” before launching into a tightly-connected suite of songs and skits covering all of his favorite topics – murder, sex and weed. It’s a short but potent album that stands as the high point of his solo career.
Jimmie Haskell – “California ’99”
Arranger Jimmie Haskell was well-known for his work in the film industry, producing and arranging original scores through the 1960s. But, like many of his cohorts, he had dreams of commercial success on his own, and the totally inexplicable “California ’99” was his shot at the big time. The 1971 album tells a dystopian political tale of the entire United States being renamed “California” after massive economic turmoil. Some of the events Haskell tells about include the Midwest being renamed the “Marijuana and Insect Corridor,” because insects are now the primary protein source for humans, and the establishment of a Big Brother-esque government that ensures citizens are following their “life programs.” Narration in between Haskell’s songs helps move the story along, and it came in an awesome gatefold album cover with a map of the new California.
Scatman John – “Scatman’s World”
Bet you didn’t know that massive Eurodance hit “Scatman” actually inspired the singer to do a whole concept album. “Scatman John” Larkin had a severe stutter as a child, but playing the piano, singing and scatting helped him overcome it. When he moved to Germany in the 1990s, he became a massive star at the age of 53. “Scatman’s World” features an imaginary nation called Scatland, where all of the problems of modern society have been overcome. From those shores, Scatman John talked about his childhood, the world of music and other issues. It’s kind of a tiring listen, but kudos to the dude for sticking with his talent.
Matthew Herbert – “One Pig”
Many concept albums go for big stories, but Matthew Herbert’s “One Pig” focuses on the small. The electronic musician’s 2011 release is entirely composed of samples recorded during the life of a single swine “from birth to plate.” That means that in addition to the squeals and grunts of the hog in question, Herbert also made instruments out of the animal’s body parts, including an organ that used its blood to change pitch. Yeah, that’s not creepy at all. The end result is a dark, suffocating record that is harsh and challenging and will make you think twice before you order that McRib.
Aphrodite’s Child – “666”
The Bible is a popular inspiration for concept albums, but none tackled it quite as wildly as Greek prog supergroup Aphrodite’s Child. The band, which included Blade Runner composer Vangelis, considered “666” its magnum opus. It tells the story of a circus troupe performing stylized representations of the end of the world for an audience while the real apocalypse is happening outside. Eventually, the tent is ripped away and the final battle for humanity begins. The record is wild to listen to, with lots of sonic experimentation and improvisation. Salvador Dali had actually planned to stage a “happening” in Barcelona along with the album’s release, but the record was delayed by the label because they thought it was “pornographic” and it didn’t happen.
Mort Garson – “The Wozard Of Iz”
Canadian composer and arranger Mort Garson was one of the first musicians to embrace the wild new sounds of the Moog synthesizer, and his albums were just as unusual as the tools he made them with. 1968’s “The Wozard of Iz” captured him at peak weirdness. As you might guess from the title, it’s a parody of The Wizard of Oz, but instead of a Kansas farmgirl and her friends, the lead characters are a bunch of hippies. Dorothy is seeking “where it’s at” and her journey leads her to some pretty bizarre places. Stentorian narration with a Brooklyn accent, deranged vocal performances and skronky, bloopy synth fiddles make this a listening experience like nothing you’ve ever had or will ever have again.