***** The Great Wall of China
**** One brick short of a full Wall
*** Wooden fence
** Chainlink fence
* Well, there’s a hole for a footing…
Concept rock. It was hot in the ‘70s and early ‘80s — look at The Who’s Tommy (* * * *) or Styx’s Kilroy Was Here (* * *) — but as the age of thin ties and corporate climbing swept the era of excess under the rug, the idea of thinking up a grandiose concept and building all the songs of an album (or two) around it disappeared. Maybe the idea of thinking about rock disappeared. We live in a three-minute hook ‘em and hurt ‘em world. There’s no time to lay back and stretch the imagination for 45-60 minutes. People want “Three’s Company” reruns, not “Masterpiece Theatre.”
In any case, the concept album is not completely dead. Dream Theater delivered a great one at the end of last year and Pink Floyd‘s The Wall is now set, with a new Live package, to win a new legion of fans.
Is There Anybody Out There? The Wall Live
* * * * *
There has never been another rock show or rock album like The Wall. A deeply personal exorcism which ultimately spelled the end of the original Pink Floyd, audiences around the world flocked to buy and attend performances of it, despite its overriding moods of darkness, isolation, madness and sadness.
And while it has taken 20 years for these live recordings of the 29 performances of The Wall to reach the shelves, they are still as emotionally charged and dangerous as they were when Roger Waters first hatched his literal metaphor of disillusionment in the idea of building a physical wall between the performing band and the insanely large audiences that came to see them. His inspiration for The Wall came from the craziness of being in a rock band that was playing stadiums instead of clubs; while the band had more people around it than ever, its members were more and more distanced from the fans. The Wall‘s metaphor was brilliantly simple, and applied perfectly to the walls we all build and hide behind in our lives to keep out the world.
I was 14 when The Wall first hit radio in 1980, driven by Pink Floyd’s only #1 hit, the anthem “Another Brick In The Wall Pt 2”(better known by its catchline, “we don’t need no education”). It was a song everyone could identify with, especially those of us fed up with eighth grade (well, maybe not everyone…teachers didn’t like it, as I recall).
But when I first opened up that double LP covered with the pattern of white bricks and garishly twisted cartoons, I was unprepared for the onslaught within. The Wall was dark fantasy and drama and a whole mess of other things I wasn’t quite sure about, but after listening to it the first time I felt a little dirty, drained, violated. The Wall shoots a thematic machinegun spray of fascism, prejudice, betrayal, violence, fear, Oedipal complexes, longing for love, fear of love. Nearly every song has an undercurrent of paranoia, melancholy or insanely overdriven macchismo to it.
It’s both a frighteningly claustrophobic and hideously expansive listen.
And while the vision and imagery for the album was certainly Waters’ brainchild, it could only have been carried out by the members of Pink Floyd who gave it the musical depth and breadth to be an enduringly haunting classic. And it was guitarist / occasional singer David Gilmour who provided the framework for the album’s best anthems, (and, in fact, three of the band’s career best) — “Comfortably Numb,” “Young Lust” and “Run Like Hell.”
In some ways, it has taken me 20 years to understand the inner struggles that created The Wall. And maybe I still don’t grasp it all. I certainly don’t listen to the discs like I did in high school, but periodically I pull it out and marvel at the complexity of its vision. A few years ago Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs put out an Original Master Recordings version of the studio recording on gold CDs.
The new live recording on Columbia is worth having just as much as that pristine album version. While the timing of the mammoth stage show — which revolved around the literal buildng and destruction of a massive stage wall — didn’t allow for a lot of improvisation, songs like “Another Brick In The Wall – Pt 2” and “Young Lust” offer keyboardist Rick Wright and Gilmour the chance to jam more visibly than on the studio recordings. There are also two incidental songs on it that did not appear on the studio album.
For Floyd trivia fans, the CD booklets also give the members of Pink Floyd and the chief architects behind the scenes of the stage show a couple pages each to recall their memories of the production. But the most interesting thing here isn’t the stories behind the music, but the music itself. If you never experienced The Wall, put this version on in a dark room and close your eyes. If you listened to it long ago…do the same thing.
There are some albums that never grow dated. The Wall remains the concept album of all time; an enduring, cathartic classic.
Scenes From A Memory
I can’t recommend this album enough.
Mix two parts The Wall, two parts Savatage, a heavy dose of progressive rock a la early Genesis and throw in a dash of Toto and Queen for pop appeal, and you have a hint of the taste of Scenes From A Memory.
Dream Theater’s fifth album is a grandiose outing filled with strains of mystery and mayhem that’s bookended by the soothing voice of a therapist.
The album centers on Nicholas, a character plagued by disturbing dreams. When a psychotherapist uses regression therapy to hypnotize him and find out the source of his psychic disturbance, it turns out that Nicholas is the reincarnated soul of Victoria, a woman murdered earlier in the century while in the midst of a love triangle with two brothers.
The album’s 12 tracks (divided into nine “scenes”) follow Nicholas as he “goes under” and relives the events surrounding Victoria’s death.
While Dream Theater has crafted deeply layered albums throughout its career, the sound of Scenes From A Memory has extra depth thanks to the addition of keyboardist Jordan Rudess to the band. The piano and synthesizer strains he adds to the band’s always inventive guitar jam sequences turns these songs from strong finger exercises to works of near-symphonic brilliance. The band’s instrumental acumen is spotlighted in the album’s second track, “Overture 1928,” a three-and-a-half minute trip through some of the major themes of the disc.
“Through My Words” and “Fatal Tragedy” are an electric song combination that lead up to a “newspaper” recounting of the actual events of Victoria’s murder in “Beyond This Life.” The album’s masterstroke however, comes near the end in “The Spirit Carries On,” a beautifully grand anthem led by a melancholy piano line where the spirit of Victoria asks “move on, be brave don’t weep at my grave/because I am no longer here/but please never let your memory of me disappear.” Nicholas finds his peace, noting “If I die tomorrow/I’d be all right because I believe/that after we’re gone/the spirit carries on.” The choir backdrop and organ strains rival the power of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”
Since both Victoria and Nicholas’ parts are sung by James Labrie, the division in characters in Scenes From A Memory is foggy if you don’t follow along with the CD booklet lyrics. But whether you follow the story and characters clearly or not, the strength of the music and emotion in this album are wildly moving.
This is the most masterful concept album of the last decade.