Muse – Drones

Muse has never been a band that has been afraid of trying something new. On “Drones” they showed they’re not worried about returning to familiar territory either. For their seventh studio album, Muse teamed up with producer Robert John “Mutt” Lang, best known for his work with Def Leppard, to make a more straightforward, hard rocking record.

The one thing that has always been consistent with all of Muse’s albums is its combination of hard rock, pop, and progressive rock. As they gained popularity, the band experimented heavily with orchestration on “The Resistance” and electronic music on its follow-up, “The 2nd Law”.  For “Drones”, Muse chose to keep things simple…well, simple in the terms of Muse. Although the music on “Drones” is noticeably stripped back compared to the two albums that came before it, it’s still as complex, innovative, and powerful as anything Muse has done before.

“Drones” has probably the most binding underlying concept of any Muse album, even venturing into rock opera territory. The songs on the album revolve around a story that in many ways parallels Queensrÿche’s “Operation: Mindcrime” – the attempt of a government or organization to brainwash or program someone into becoming a killing machine for them.  The one big difference is “Drones” definitely has a happier ending, with the protagonist defecting.

Jesus Christ Superstar

I never thought the album “Jesus Christ Superstar” was sacrilegious, but the BBC did, banning its broadcast in the U.K.

When I first heard “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 1971 it made me want to learn more about Jesus Christ and his teachings. It’s not an easy task to get a 9-year-old kid to want to learn about religion, but this album did for me.

Sacrilegious? I think not.

I think my favorite moment on the album is the song “Gethsemane (I only want to say)”. Where, in a brief moment of doubt, Christ initially asks God to “take this cup away from me” and moments later, realizing he needs die for our sins, tells God “I will drink your cup of poison, nail me to your cross and break me”. Ian Gillan (from Deep Purple) sings with such conviction I get teared up every time I hear it.

Since “Jesus Christ Superstar” is rock opera that tells the story of the final week leading up to Jesus Christ’s crucifixion that leads to His resurrection, I made it a tradition a few years back to listen to it every Easter Sunday.

Sacrilegious? I think not.

Porcupine Tree – Deadwing

“Deadwing” is essentially the soundtrack to a film that has yet to be made. Whether it ever is, remains to be seen. Steven Wilson wrote most of the songs on it as music meant to accompany a screenplay he had written with director David Bennion. Although they were unable to get funding for the film, Wilson decided to record and release the songs in 2005 as part of Porcupine Tree’s eighth album, “Deadwing”. Because he still hopes to have the film made, Wilson has never released all the details of the storyline or the concept behind the songs.

From the songs on “Deadwing”, it’s easy to deduce that the story has a somewhat dark theme to it. The album artwork was also created around the story and has that kind of feel to it and Steven Wilson has confirmed that the songs on “Deadwing” tell a ghost story of sorts. Both Wilson and Bennion have remained fairly tight-lipped about the “Deadwing” storyline, although they did make the first fifteen pages of the screenplay available on the Internet:

Reading experience part one: DEADWING script by Steven Wilson & Mike Bennion (first 15 pages)

I don’t know a lot about the movie making process, but I have to guess that as more time passes, the likelihood of the film “Deadwing” ever being made becomes slimmer and slimmer. Even if the movie never happens, I’m glad Steven Wilson decided to release “Deadwing” as an album. It would have been a tragedy to leave music this good unheard.

Jethro Tull – Thick As A Brick

“Thick as a Brick” was Jethro Tull’s follow-up to their breakthrough album “Aqualung” and it was a joke. But that was the point.

Progressive rock was at the height of its popularity when Jethro Tull released their fourth album, “Aqualung”. While Ian Anderson and the rest of the band members considered “Aqualung” to be merely a collection of songs, music critics tried to relate all the songs together and constantly referred to it as a grand concept album in their reviews. Feeling the critics were obsessed with concept albums, Jethro Tull decided to give them something to write about; fabricating the most grandiose of progressive rock concept albums. And thus was born Gerald (Little Milton) Bostock.

Gerald Bostock was only 8 years old when he wrote his epic poem, “Thick as a Brick”. It won a highly distinguished poetry contest in Britain. However, the poem was later disqualified because it was decided that it presented an “extremely unwholesome attitude towards life, his God and country”. On top of that, after reading his poem on the BBC, Little Milton used a four-letter expletive during the interview that followed. The whole situation created a huge controversy in the art community, as well as with general public. Jethro Tull decided to use Bostock’s poem as the lyrics to their new album, putting it to music.

But none of that really happened. Gerald Bostock didn’t even exist, even though Jethro Tull gave him writing credits for the lyrics on the album. The lyrics were actually written by Jethro Tull’s front man and flutist Ian Anderson.

The original release of “Thick as a Brick” came in a rather elaborate package which included pages from a newspaper inside. Among other stories in the paper, there was of course, an article about the whole Gerald (Little Milton) Bostock controversy.

A lot of critics and record buyers didn’t get the joke at first. They thought the whole “Thick as a Brick” story was real. I’m sure most people who were gullible enough to fall for the hoax never admitted it afterwards. But the critics who wrote about it…well, I guess the joke was on them.

Alice Cooper Goes To Hell

“Alice Cooper goes To Hell” is the continuation of the “bedtime story” that started on Alice’s previous album “Welcome to My Nightmare”. The album tells the story of Alice’s unwanted descent into the depths of the underworld and his attempt to escape through influencing the dreams of Steven, a character introduced in a song on Cooper’s previous record.

Ironically, “Alice Cooper Goes To Hell” paralleled Alice Cooper’s real decent into the lowest depths of his life as it was being consumed by alcoholism. The tour for this album would end up being canceled because of his failing health and Cooper had himself committed to rehab, which at that time, meant being committed to a mental asylum. Cooper’s subsequent album, “From the Inside”, would be written about his experience there.

Cooper maintains his sobriety to this day, finding his refuge in both his music and golf. I heard him joke in an interview a while back that with golf, he traded one addiction for the other. Good trade.

Alice Cooper continues his musical career to today. He released his 27th album “Paranormal” last year and will be playing the role of King Herod in a televised stage performance of the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” this Easter Sunday.

The Who – Tommy

In 1969, with the release of “Tommy”, The Who set the standard for a rock opera, and they set the bar high.

I always appreciated concept albums and more especially, rock operas. There has got go be so much more involved in making a cohesive collection of songs that revolve around a singular concept; even more so for telling a specific story compared to just a collection of songs. You have to constantly try to find that balance between keeping the story interesting and understandable while keeping the songs individually understandable and, more importantly, enjoyable.

While finding that balance could seem an undaunting, nearly impossible task, The Who made it look easy with “Tommy”. The album revolves around the main character who, while very young observes an incident so traumatic it rendered him mentally blind, deaf, and dumb (for those raised before the age of political correctness, “dumb” meant “mute”). He is eventually broken out of his isolated shell, and his awakening is viewed by society as a miracle. Tommy begins to view himself as a new Messiah but he is quickly brought back to reality when his followers rebel against his authoritarianism.

One of the things that impressed me about the recording of “Tommy” is that when presented with the demos and concept, the record company wanted to have the band record it with full orchestration. But The Who refused to make the album with any instruments the four band members were not able to play themselves. For that reason, the album has a somewhat stripped down sound.

Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

A vague story of self discovery, “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” was the last album done by the original lineup of Genesis. Peter Gabriel, who authored the concept behind the double album, would leave Genesis shortly after its release. Lead guitarist Steve Hackett would leave a couple of albums later.

Gabriel’s departure didn’t come as a total surprise to the band. There were tensions brewing going into the recording sessions and they escalated before the record’s completion. Peter Gabriel felt he was being held back creatively and the other band members felt they weren’t being allowed enough creative input. In short, the split was unavoidable and amicable.

Unlike many band splits, this breakup was actually a good thing for both parties. Peter Gabriel would go on to release several critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums and Genesis would achieve their greatest critical and commercial success without him. Plus, as is almost always the case when there are creative struggles within a band, the album that came from the turmoiled recording sessions was phenomenal.

It would be impossible for me to pick my favorite Genesis album. There is a noticeable distinction between their different eras, and each of the eras offer something unique. But if I had to recommend one album from the original lineup of Genesis – well, that’s easy – it would be “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”.

Genesis – Selling England By The Pound

I’ll admit it, I really didn’t get into Genesis until their eleventh album, 1981’s “Abacab”. After being blown away by that record and knowing they had many albums out before it that I had ignored, I had to check out their back catalog. Genesis has since become one of my favorite bands and “Selling England by the Pound” has become one of my favorite albums by them.

“Selling England by the Pound” is about as British of an album as you will hear by any band. When Genesis recorded it in 1974 they were concerned that British culture was being taken over by Americanism. They felt their country was selling out. Hence the name of the album and its title song. That said, it’s probably no surprise that it had much better commercial success in the UK then it did in the US – although, it did fare well in both.

You won’t hear any blues chords in this album, or really any other early Genesis album. They were never about embracing American blues. They were about incorporating traditional British and European music into rock and roll, and they were better at it than probably any other band at the time. This is probably why they didn’t have as significant commercial success in the United States with their early albums and why I pretty much ignored their music until their music crossed over in the ’80s, incorporating just a little R&B into it – and made me want to check out their back catalog.

Well played Genesis.

Rick Wakeman – Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Rick Wakeman is an amazing musician and composer. Jules Verne was an amazing author. Combine the two and you get an amazing album.

Never one to shy away from the grandiose, the former keyboardist for Yes wrote “Journey to the Centre of The Earth” following the release of his first solo album, “The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth”. Rather than going into the studio, Wakeman chose to record his second solo record live. For the huge undertaking, he employed the talents of conductor David Measham who lead The London Symphony Orchestra and English Chamber Choir for the performance. The story is supplemented through prose read in between the main musical passages by British stage and film actor David Hemmings.

Part classical, part rock, part spoken word, “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” topped the British charts and made it to the third position in the U.S. It is an amazing piece of music, composed by an amazing musician, based on a story by an amazing author. If you have never listened to it, you owe it to yourself to do so. I think you’ll be amazed.

Alice Cooper – Billion Dollar Babies

Alice Cooper was a band, and later a solo artist (but that’s another story I already talked about earlier) that was known not only for their music, but also for their stage theatrics. To record collectors, they are also known for some pretty cool album packaging – an art form that totally lost its impact with the smaller CD format.Billion Dollar Babies was a prime example.

Alice Cooper’s sixth album was styled to look like an oversized alligator skin wallet. Stored inside it was an oversized billion dollar bill that featured the band’s picture in the center. Also, the inside left side of the gatefold cover was perforated so you could punch out trading card sized cards of the band. The album credits were hidden behind the punch-outs.

The album theme was focused around the band’s amazement that in only a couple of years, they had gone from being a totally broke and struggling band to one of the most successful acts in rock and roll at that time. The album packaging was one of the most unique and memorable by Alice Cooper, or any other band, yet it was not their most iconic (but that’s another story I will talk about sometime later).