Given heavy metal’s relationship to fantasy and the realm of imagination, it’s no wonder the genre is such fertile ground for concept albums.
It might seem like a natural fit but the fact of the matter is that weaving a complex narrative around the framework of killer songs is no simple undertaking.
Here are the ten best heavy metal concept albums:
Fear Factory – Demanufacture
Although their debut album Soul Of A New Machine was a well-regarded bulldozer of industrialized death metal, Fear Factory broke the chains of genre constraint and set the criterion for the brutal side of alternative metal with their landmark sophomore effort, Demanufacture. Having lived through the Los Angeles riots of 1992, the band took inspiration from the external chaos by subverting the idea of an uprising in opposition to the police state with that of a rebellion against artificial intelligence. It is a dystopian masterpiece akin to the works of Harlan Ellison and Philip K. Dick (as well as The Terminator, of course), and it becomes more relevant by the day.
Life Of Agony – River Runs Red
After a string of successful demos, Life Of Agony broke out of the underground while staring into the void on their debut album, River Runs Red. Blending elements of hardcore and grunge to create their own brand of brooding groove metal, the Brooklyn natives brought more to the conceptual table than just an intriguing new sound. The running theme of teen suicide is highlighted through the lyrics and further tied together by three skits (“Monday”, “Thursday” and “Friday”) in which a protagonist is verbally abused by parental figures while their adolescent life crumbles via a series of answering machine messages. It’s a harrowing thing to listen to, and knowing what will inevitably happen doesn’t soften the blow at all.
Mastodon – Leviathan
There are plenty of concept albums within their canon, but Mastodon’s Moby-Dick-inspired sophomore breakthrough stands as their best. Taking cues from their critically acclaimed debut Remission, the band upped the ante on Leviathan in every possible way. Laying out the sonic elements and thematic grandiosity that would prove to be the bedrock of their career, its masterful strokes of technical viciousness serve the existential horror of man against beast with acute fury. It’s easily one of the best metal records of the new millennium.
Pig Destroyer – Prowler In The Yard
You don’t hear about grindcore concept records very often, and for good reason. A well-crafted story tends to require time-consuming exposition and character development, so longer songs tend to suit the format better. Pig Destroyer found a loophole in this argument and turned a possible limitation into frenzied strength on their legendary second album, Prowler In The Yard. A gore-soaked foray into the mind of a sadistic maniac, the lyrics and accompanying prose tell a tale of romantic obsession, abject violence and death. Unlike science fiction or fantasy, subjects as true-to-life and ugly as those discussed in Prowler In The Yard benefit existing within visceral sonic bursts. Given what they do, no band could have been better suited for the material than Pig Destroyer.
Opeth – Still Life
Following the success of My Arms, Your Hearse, kings of progressive death metal Opeth delved even deeper into the concept formula on its stuffing follow-up, Still Life. The plot deals with a man who is exiled from his home for not sharing the beliefs of his neighbors. Returning after years of banishment to retrieve the woman he loves, the protagonist finds that she is engaged to another man. The star-crossed lovers nonetheless rekindle their romance, for which the woman is murdered. The man becomes consumed with murderous rage as the result of his grief and sets about killing numerous townspeople. Although he is caught and executed, he senses the presence of the woman he loves as he dies.
Iron Maiden – Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son
While the band took a more prog-oriented approach by incorporating keyboards and odd-time signatures into their songs, the slight augmentation of musical direction only served as an even better vehicle for Iron Maiden to spread their amazing legends. Based on an Orson Scott Card fantasy novel, the story of Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son regards a prophet born under the circumstances that the title suggests. Over the course of the album, he struggles to understand his power while living in constant terror of the apocalyptic visions that plague his mind.
King Diamond – Abigail
The legendary Mercyful Fate frontman and Satan’s favorite ambassador to the masses, King Diamond has an undeniable flair for the theatrical. While all of his records tend to be mediums for storytelling, Abigail is undoubtedly the most effective. A bone-chilling odyssey of restless spirits and demonic possession, the album tells the story of a 19th-century couple who inherit a mansion that is haunted by the ghost of a stillborn infant. Although they are warned of the evils that lurk within the walls by an ominous cabal of horsemen, the headstrong pair move in anyway. It goes about as well as you’d expect…
Dream Theater – Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory
One of progressive metal’s most enduring ballads, Dream Theater fans had been demanding a sequel to the song “Metropolis – Part 1: ‘The Miracle And The Sleeper’” practically since its release on Images And Words. Devotees might have expected a follow-up track on a later album, but little did anyone know that the band were secretly chipping away at expanding the narrative into a fully realized album. Released in 1999, Metropolis, Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory tells the story of Nicholas, a man who believes he has lived a past life. Under the watchful eye of the Hypnotherapist, he becomes aware of the tragic life and death of a girl named Victoria. Obsessed with finding out the truth behind her murder, Nicholas is unable to find peace in his life until he uncovers the secrets surrounding her death.
Edge Of Sanity – Crimson
We can all benefit from a good endurance test sometimes. By the time of their fifth full-length, Swedish death metal mainstays Edge Of Sanity had grown disillusioned with genre trappings and decided to take their brand of brutality in a different direction. A single 40-minute long opus, Crimson tells a post-apocalyptic tale of a future in which humans can no longer reproduce. When the Queen miraculously becomes pregnant, the population take it as a sign from God that they will be able to conceive again; regardless of the fact that she died while giving birth to a daughter. After the King dies, a new monarch usurps the throne. Seeking her rightful place, the daughter gains power through an alliance with an unholy entity; slaying the new King and becoming the new ruler. Growing paranoid of threats to her power, she kills the beloved elders who humanity had been preserving for their collective wisdom. When word gets out of her treachery, a group of rebels blind the new Queen and place her in the same preservation tank of crimson fluid that had previously held her victims.
Queensrÿche – Operation: Mindcrime
While the band had long since established themselves as leaders of the progressive metal scene, nobody could have anticipated the epic journey that Queensrÿche would embark on with their 1988 magnum opus, Operation: Mindcrime. Told in a series of flashbacks, the story revolves around a heroin addict named Nikki who is systematically manipulated by the nefarious Dr. X, the leader of a revolution. Brainwashed and strung out, Nikki becomes an assassin for the militant group, whose plans for social and economic change are not as altruistic as they appear on the surface. A series of twists and turns leads Nikki down a desperate path towards imminent destruction. It’s a heartbreaking saga that stands among the best rock operas of all time.