Everyone loves a good concept album. We just love it when heavy metal artists take a central theme and develop it over the span of a cohesive collection of tracks to create an experience for listeners that takes us into an alternate world of sci-fi, Norse mythology, wizards, classic literature…the nerdier the better.
Here's a list of the 10 best heavy metal concept albums.
10. Symphony X
V: The New Mythology Suite (2000)
This is a power-metal-meets-classical attack on the senses, and an epic tale that delves into the ancient secrets of Egypt, the lost continent of Atlantis, and magnificent recollections of forbidden technology held by these ancient civilizations. Symphony X succeeded in creating a perfect album that mixes the right amount of soothing, mind bending and virtuosic classical interludes with songs based on symphonic, heavy metal. It is the prefect music, weaving power metal, early thrash and progressive rock, into story line of ancient spiritual knowledge from humanity's past. Truly an adventure in heavy metal antiquity and mysticism.
Macabre is the self-proclaimed “murder metal” band out of the Chicago area, formed in the late '80s. In three decades, the band, still featuring all original members, guitarist/vocalist Corporate Death, bassist Nefarious and drummer Dennis the Menace, has gained quite a cult following of fans, due to the focus on real life monsters for all lyrical inspiration. Macabre has always made humor and heaviness a priority in their music, with a sinister blend of grindcore, death metal, thrash, black metal and even punk, power metal, country, folk, nursery rhymes and experimental rock music. This band has created a musical legacy based on real life carnage and tales of evil, bloodlust, torture, and worse. Dahmer is a biographical concept record based on the real life events in the life and death, of one of America's most infamous serial killers.
The Key (1990)
Hailing from Tampa, Florida, Nocturnus were undoubtedly influenced by the death metal bands from the region at the time, including bands such as Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, Morbid Angel, Malevolent Creation and many others. But what set apart Nocturnus from most of their peers in the extreme metal scene in Florida was the distinct use of symphonic keyboards in their music, even though they were mostly used for instrumental passages and intros. The Key was the band's bone-crushing concept album that was a sci-fi twist on Christianity. An evil cyborg goes back in time to kill baby Jesus, thus creating a future anti-Christian dystopia. After The Key was released on Earache Records, the band broke up only to reform in 2014 as Nocturnus AD.
Much like Fear Factory, Sweden's Hypocrisy is a band that evolved into a concept within itself, with each album a continuation of a greater story, full of motifs, vivid imagery, symbolism and foreshadowing. Since the band was formed in 1990 by guitarist Peter Tagtren, their early music was focused more on occult and satanic themes. However, that soon morphed into an obsession with UFOs, alien abductions, and other paranormal, sci-fi themes. But, with more than one concept albums dealing with extraterrestrials, it was hard to choose the band's best. However, on Abducted, the band is seen in between a switch in sounds and influences, allowing more of a molded death metal sound to bleed into a strictly brutal and even harsher, raw style mixed in with black metal vengeance.
My Arms, Your Hearse (1998)
In 1998, before they achieved much mainstream success in the metal world, Opeth released what turned out to be the first in a series of concept albums. My Arms, Your Hearse is a story full of death, grief and melancholia. Unlike the previous two releases, the songs on this album are all 10 minutes or less, which is pretty short for an Opeth song. The record is based on a man, the protagonist, who dies and becomes a ghost. The songs offer a very surreal, ethereal music to convey the themes of sadness and denial of death. The story progresses to reveal how the ghost is a wandering soul who cannot depart into the next life, from the woman he loved on Earth. The songs are all about the ghost's inner turmoil and his lover's infinite sadness and inability to process and his death and grieve. Rather than a collection of separate songs, this album bleeds into one long musical collection best heard in its entirety.
Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire and Demise (2001)
When it was released 14 years ago, Prometheus was said to be the Norwegian black metal band's final album, putting to rest a career baptized in fire and mysticism. Even though the band managed to still carry on after this album was released, the sheer magic and entrancing power this record possesses cannot be denied. The themes of the album center on the Greek mythological God who brought fire to mankind. Not as harsh but still malevolent sounding and majestic in nature, this album fuses classical sounds inspired by Bach with sinister, ritualistic yet progressive black metal that never gets old. Guitarist/vocalist and founding member Ishahn composed most of the music for this album, a collection that many consider to be one of the band's most expressive and triumphant to date.
4. King Diamond
Widely regarded as one of the best concept albums in all of heavy metal, this release by King Diamond, features the dual guitar attack of Andy LaRocque and Michael Denner, future Motorhead drummer Mikkey Dee and Mercyful Fate bassist Timi Hansen. King Diamond's approach to this record was equal parts New Wave of British Heavy Metal and early thrash. In short, this is a quintessential heavy metal album that rips, full of classic songs like “The Family Ghost,” “A Mansion in Darkness,” “The Possession” and “Abigail.” No one to this day can match the King's high-pitched falsetto vocals, which give a distinct character to this epic musical journey of songs detailing the life, death, rebirth of a demonic spirit known as Abigail.
This record was Mastodon's second release, and the first before their switch to a major label and mainstream success alongside such greats as the Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and even Muse. But before they were on Jimmy Kimmel, they were a sludgy, stoner metal/progressive rock breakthrough from Atlanta. This record is based on the classic piece of literature by Herman Melville, Moby Dick. But even if you hated reading it, you will love this monstrous musical epic that combines experimental jazz, acid rock, sludge metal stoner rock and even more to create a visceral effect akin to the mighty waves of the ocean.
The musicianship on Leviathan is on fire; this sounds like The Mars Volta mixed with heavy metal, thunderous and epic. The shared vocals add to the complexity of the songs, which are based on the classic whaling tale from the 1800s. Songs like “Seabeast,” “I Am Ahab” and the most famous, “Iron Tusk” and “Blood and Thunder,” all prove why this album is best listened to as a whole from start to finish. Leviathan received positive reviews in the press and was named album of the year by several metal publications. The song “Blood and Thunder” features Neil Fallon from Clutch, while the track “Aqua Dementia” features a guest appearance by Scott Kelly from Neurosis.
Operation: Mindcrime (1988)
Perhaps there's enough to turn this concept album into a film, but left to the imagination, and music of the progressive heavy metal band Queensryche this album is just as good as any movie you can see. Listeners are bombarded with epic passages of hard rock, progressive and heavy metal. But the songs all tell the tale of a man in the supposed future, controlled by drug addiction and mind control. In a haze of want for revolution, and feeling sick and tired of mass media lies, wars, and religious/political corruption, listeners are introduced to Dr. X, a drug peddler, in the first anthemic song, “Revolution Calling,” which has a message that is even more relevant and powerful today than it was when it came out. Operation: Mindcrime is a musical drama full of action, suspense and a social commentary against drug addiction, mind control and greedy, war-mongering politicians. Other characters in this classic heavy metal opera include Sister Mary, who is the love interest of the main character, who through manipulation, becomes entangled in a secret revolutionary organization of international assassins. This record is considered by many to be considered one of the best concept albums of all time.
1. Fear Factory
Influenced by George Orwell's novel 1984, The Terminator and a dystopian vision of the future, Los Angeles-based Fear Factory pulls listeners into a world where machines have taken over mankind. This record is one of Fear Factory's best to date, and contains some of the band's classic songs, which truly encapsulate the talent of guitarist and songwriter Dino Cazares, who shreds on this entire album. Burton Bell wrote the lyrics and his vocals added a vital element of brutality to the album. Cazares' guitar effects and riffs give the record a very mechanic, electronic, heavy-as-hell feel that mixes Ministry, KMFDM and Godflesh with Pantera and Sepultura. Fear Factory's influence of using heavy breakdowns, double bass pedals, blast beats and clean vocal harmonies has set the tone for virtually all metalcore and up-and-coming metal bands. Demanufacture is a flawless tale that highlights the band at its best, both in terms of lyrics and musicianship. The songs all balance heavy with melodic and are beautiful tales of war, machines and the fight for humanity.