By Cassandra Szklarski
Posted From - <a href="http://jam.canoe.ca/Music/" target="_new">JAM! Music<a>
TORONTO (CP) - Call it revenge of the album, old-school style.
Hammered in sales by the digital single, the beleaguered album is fighting for its survival.
And of all things, it's turning to its past for unlikely salvation. Brace yourselves, the concept album is back. At least that's what a glance at recent releases would suggest, with acts including Halifax's Joel Plaskett, Toronto's Rock Plaza Central and U.S. rockers Nine Inch Nails, My Chemical Romance and the Decemberists among those crafting overarching themes for their latest discs.
Once the epitome of '70s self-indulgent prog rock, the concept album suffered a severe backlash with the stripped-down sound of the '80s and '90s but has emerged as a whole new animal in the last few years, notes music watcher Alan Cross.
"It used to be, for a very long time, that the concept album was very, very uncool - it was considered to be something that was a holdover of the dinosaur rock bands of the '60s and '70s," says Cross, Toronto host of the syndicated radio show, "The Ongoing History of New Music".
"However, that attitude toward the concept album has changed dramatically and we've seen a number of acts actually think that this is a pretty cool idea."
Green Day's blockbuster disc "American Idiot" led the charge when it emerged in 2004, its political rants racing up the charts while transforming notions of the maligned genre, made famous by bands including Pink Floyd, the Who, Rush, Yes, and Genesis.
Since then, the concept album has gained more devotees, perhaps in spite of a technological revolution in the industry, says Cross.
Chris Eaton of Rock Plaza Central argues that concept discs may actually represent one of the few ways a band can defy the increasingly disjointed ways people listen to, distribute and create music.
"The single is becoming more and more the thing for people," notes Eaton.
"People will download one song and put it on their iPod and they'll just listen to it like that."
Although Eaton didn't set out to create a concept album with his disc, "Are We Not Horses," a bizarre theme nevertheless emerged and he ran with it, to critical and audience acclaim.
"We wanted people to listen to the whole (album) together and this was sort of one possible ploy to have people do that," he explains. "It's kind of a last-ditch effort, and quite possibly why other people might be doing it too, that last ditch effort to try to save the album."
There's no doubt that sales of physical CDs are plummeting.
Figures released last month by the Canadian Record Industry Association revealed that CD and music DVD sales dropped 35 per cent - to $68.7 million from $105.6 million in the same period in 2006 - in the first quarter of this year.
Meanwhile, digital downloads continue to be immensely popular. CRIA estimates there are 1.3 billion unauthorized digital downloads in Canada each year and 20 million legitimate downloads in 2006.
Singles undoubtedly rule among today's music fans, at the expense of the album, concurs Cross.
"We have moved very, very definitely in the direction of a la carte music tastes - we're buying singles again or we're looking for specific songs again, and we're not necessarily interested in taking an entire album," he notes.
"What some of these artists are trying to do is recreate the album experience by creating a story, a narrative that will take you through, 35, 40, 50 minutes worth of music."
Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, whose catalogue of concept discs include "2112", "Hemispheres" and "Caress of Steel," says the Canadian trio has always been partial to large-scale thematic works.
But physical limitations of the vinyl LP restricted the way that vision could be realized.
"The format has changed so much," Lifeson says of today's digital world.
"Being able to play as long as you want to play now makes it a little easier to get into an idea, I suppose. On LPs you only had less than 20 minutes per side and you were sort of fixed with how far you could go with it."
Despite his disc's critical success, Eaton admits he was at first hesitant to indulge his peculiar predilections.
After all, jumping into such an ambitious work is not done without risk of spectacular failure.
"There was a lot of fear that people were just going to think ...it was some sort of elaborate joke or something," Eaton says.
"When you embark on a project to write an album about robotic horses who think they're real horses you kind of expect that lot of people are just going to laugh at it. And certainly, in the early days when we were playing the songs live and trying to tell the stories, that sentence would usually make most of the audience start giggling and then you're like, 'No, no, no - really!' "
Cross says the influx of thematic works can more simply be explained as a creative exercise for maturing bands that are looking for something a little more challenging.
"You can only be young and angry and confused for so long," he says.
"At some point, as a musician and as a songwriter and as an artist, you're going to develop much more sophisticated approaches to expressing yourself and one of the things that we've seen is loose librettos forming the basis of entire albums."