‘I wanted to blow holes in the wall’: How the concept album got inventive

Historically all about pomp, flying saucers and gatefold sleeves, the concept record is being revitalised by artists as varied as The Avalanches and Gazelle Twin. It’s about finding new ways to connect, they tell Ed Power

Thursday 10 December 2020 17:37
<p>Concept records are associated with science-fiction mumbo jumbo, gate-fold sleeves and grandiose album art</p>

Concept records are associated with science-fiction mumbo jumbo, gate-fold sleeves and grandiose album art

The haunting image adorning the cover of the latest album by Australian duo The Avalanches is of a woman trying to establish eye contact amid a swirl of blue static. Her name is Ann Druyan and, on 3 June 1977, she recorded her brain waves for the purpose of sending them into deep space on the Voyager space probe.

“It’s beautiful – a concept that we were really taken with,” says The Avalanches’s Robbie Chater over Zoom from Melbourne. “That idea of sound carrying a message, sound as a migration of love that can reach people.”

We Will Always Love You, The Avalanche’s third LP, takes inspiration from Druyan, her husband, the popular scientist Carl Sagan, and the love they beamed out into the cosmos. The big idea is that Chater and musical partner Tony Di Blasi are following Druyan and Sagan’s example by sharing positive vibrations with the universe, which run through their music. You could say the project distils a complex argument about love, humanity and our place in creation into a singular and coherent vision. Or you could simply call it a “concept album”.

“Even as we were finishing off the record and doing vocal recordings with a couple of guests remotely, we were thinking that we were mirroring what Ann and Carl did with their recordings in sending them out into space,” says Chater. “We were alone and connecting through sound.”

The “c” word has become quasi-taboo in rock and pop. Concept records are associated with science-fiction mumbo jumbo, gate-fold sleeves and grandiose album art. The Who’s Tommy, from 1969, is a classic example. As is Rush’s 2112 from 1976. The latter was inspired by “the genius” of the Russian-American writer and philosopher Ayn Rand, is set in a city called Megaton, and features song titles such as “The Temple of Syrinx” and “Oracle: The Dream”.

Australian duo The Avalanches

These days, that level of bombast is better off left to hip-hop, where the concept album still thrives. But elsewhere in music, things have changed. It’s 18 years (crikey) since The Flaming Lips had a go with their Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, which was, as it said on the tin, partly about a young heroine named Yoshimi battling robots (which are pink). Would anyone dare pull that idea off today?

A few have tried on the fantastical for size. British indie-pop artist Bat For Lashes attempted it with her last two albums: Lost Girls (2019) was presented as the soundtrack to a fictional 1980s movie about a teen vampire gang, while The Bride (2016) was centred around a gothic lover, jilted at the altar. However, these endeavours, wonderful though they are, feel very much like an exception.

This isn’t to say albums bound by an overarching theme or a joined-up narrative have gone away. Rather, they have morphed. The “old” concept records so beloved by Seventies prog-rockers were the vinyl equivalent of The Lord of the Rings: overblown pomp that had something to do with elves, dark fortresses and talking trees. The modern equivalents are dense, intellectual and often interested in chronicling intimate moments in life and subtle emotional realities, rather than Game of Thrones-sized epicness. Take Andy Shauf’s The Neon Skyline in January, which relates the story of a narrator who goes for drinks with pals, only to bump into an old girlfriend, over 11 tracks. Or folk band Tunng’s recent record Dead Club, a thoughtful concept album about death, loss and grief, released during the pandemic.

The Avalanche’s third LP takes inspiration from Ann Druyan, her husband, the popular scientist Carl Sagan, and the love they beamed out into the cosmos.

This is the new tradition upheld by The Avalanches with We Will Always Love You. Back in the 1970s, Ann Druyan, “creative director” on the Voyager project, became convinced that brain waves could communicate the love she felt for Sagan, whom she would marry in 1981. She duly recorded and included them on the “Gold Disc” sent into deep space with the Voyager 1 and 2 probes (both launched in 1977).

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“My feelings as a 27-year-old woman, madly fallen in love, they’re on that record,” she later told Nasa. “It’s forever. It’ll be true 100 million years from now. For me Voyager is a kind of joy so powerful, it robs you of your fear of death.”

It’s a weighty story for The Avalanches to dig into. “I hope we’re not overdoing it,” says Chater. But, he adds: “People seem to connect with what we are talking about. The idea is so singular and so strong. Once we began, we couldn’t stop.”

Another recent record that is more than just a collection of songs is Microphones in 2020, the “comeback” album by cult lo-fi songwriter Phil Elverum’s Microphones project.

Elverum built a cult audience when he emerged from Olympia, Washington with The Microphones, purveyors of melodic garage pop, in 1996. But he retired the band – essentially a solo project – in 2003 and has since generally recorded as Mount Eerie. Yet in August, to the delight of his fanbase across the world, he “revived’ The Microphones with Microphones in 2020.

This was more a conceptual opus than a comeback record. There is just one track, clocking in at 44 minutes, and it largely consists of Elverum reflecting on his youth and his early years as a musician. As he does so, he questions both his own nostalgia and the nostalgia Microphones fans feel for the music he was putting out 20 years ago. The album invites the listener to consider whether nostalgia is a positive thing or something that prevents us from evolving as people.

British indie pop artist Bat For Lashes latest 2019 album was presented as the soundtrack to a fictional 1980s movie about a teen vampire gang

“I am suspicious of nostalgia,” says Elverum in an email from his home in rural Washington State. “Of course I feel it too. But I resist its pull. I value growth and awareness, paying attention to what’s around in this present moment and also what is coming toward us.” 

He doesn’t flinch from the argument that Microphones in 2020 is a concept record. Other artforms are allowed to communicate an idea or present an argument via an overarching narrative. As he suggests, why not music too?

“It [the term concept record] doesn’t have those [negative] connotations for me because I’ve never paid attention in that direction,” explains Elverum. “Music, like all artforms, should be allowed to communicate freely.” But, he adds, “people think songwriters shouldn't get too heady because music is supposed to just be entertainment.”

Artists who commit fully and unselfconsciously to big themes can produce stunning results. This is demonstrated by Elizabeth Bernholz, who makes thrilling and unsettling electronica as Gazelle Twin.

Her 2018 tour de force Pastoral was an inquiry into Britishness in the wake of the Brexit referendum. It doubled as her attempt to process her experience of moving from Brighton to the countryside and discovering rural idylls aren’t necessarily all that idyllic. It was as if someone had remade the Wicker Man as a mildly terrifying collection of witch-house bangers.

She will delve again into these themes with a new album, Deep England, a collaboration with electronic drone choir NYX, due for release in March. “I wanted to depict a kind of ‘ye olde’ England with a modern, demonic twist,” says Bernholz, “to see what would happen if I mixed up all the cliches about this ‘green and pleasant land’, exposing some of the uglier, hypocritical, and just more rubbish bits.

Phil Everum performing as Mount Eerie

“I included myself as one of those cliches by the way; the white, middle-class, 30-something woman moving to the countryside to benefit from the clean air and pleasant neighbours,” she says. 

“It wasn’t really why I moved out of the city to here, but it was definitely something I felt conscious of and wanted to address. Poking my finger at as many English tropes as I could muster, hoping to understand the madness and my place in it. What it means to be English in the 2010s and Twenties. I found it all a bit panto and silly in many ways. Hence the jester figure [on the record’s cover].”

As Gazelle Twin, Bernholz feels that her records have to be “about” something. “Music can serve so many functions – domestic, cerebral, spiritual etc,” she says. “And I’m not saying it’s a sacred thing. But I never got into it to make life tick along more pleasantly, or provide dinner party ambiance. I wanted to blow holes in the wall, smash the windows, face my biggest fears and try to ask and answer the uncomfortable questions.”

In the case of The Avalanches, their music is a way of keeping another person’s legacy alive, which goes all the way back to their 2000 debut album, Since I Left You. It continues through to the new LP, which, in addition to drawing on Druyan’s relationship with her husband (Sagan died in 1996, aged 62) features lyrics by late Silver Jews singer David Berman.

“As sample-based artists, we sample very old recordings,” says Chater. “The singer may have passed away in the 1940s. We’ve been thinking about the way their voice lives on in the music.”

He continues: “And then there’s my own personal journey. I’ve got a history of addiction. I’ve faced death before. [Berman’s] death was very sad. He and I were writing to each other. He shared some of those words before he passed. That was part of the journey of this record as well. It’s a little hard to listen to, actually.”

One of his final interactions with Druyan was just as eerie, in its own way. “Ann and I corresponded for a while,” says Chater. “I was going to interview her in the studio about her story with Carl. And we were going to use her voice as little interludes. The day it was scheduled to happen, she was in LA. I was in Australia and up in the middle of the night. And then I heard, ‘It’s been cancelled’. I never found out why. I never asked. Perhaps it was too personal. It’s her story, her husband. He’s passed. We just left it alone.”

There was, however, a happy ending. “We were already so grateful that her story even existed. It has inspired us so much,” says Chater. “And their story is so beautiful. But then, towards the end of the process, we asked if we could use her image for the album cover. And she gave us permission. It’s such a perfect full circle.”

We Will Always Love You is out today via Modular Records

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