A Pessimist In Search Of Dystopia

The Quiet Earth by Morrow / Weltschmerz and Sea of Ice Songs by Men As Trees / Thra by Urskek / Cainsmarsh by Rigorous Institution (clockwise)

When I hear the term concept album, my mind immediately registers a clanging alarm bell – self-indulgent instrumentation, bloated narratives, and over-extended run-lengths.  Now, to some extent this can be true as, let’s face it, prog rock almost colonised the term in the 1970s.  But in reality, concept albums in the truest sense of the term – an album narratively bound by a single cohesive idea – have long formed an integral feature of contemporary hardcore.

This thought process was first ignited by several recent arrivals here at Foundation Vinyl, which got me thinking of the different forms a concept album can take from the specific (a book, a picture, even a word), and the broadly expressive (the illustration of an idea), to the more fully actualised (a detailed marrying of narrative and idea).

Let’s take the specific first.  A great example is the recently reissued Men As Trees LP, ‘Weltschmerz and Sea of Ice Songs’.  Men As Trees were a DIY screamo band from Michigan, who were active from 2003 to 2009.  ‘Weltschmerz’ explores a very specific concept drawn from that German word – meaning a sense of grief at how the world falls short of our hopes and expectations, and pessimism that it ever can.  They sought to examines this idea through the life of naturalist and conservationist, Dick Proenneke, who lived in remote isolation for some thirty years in the Alaskan wilderness.

The band are not explicit on the connection they are seeking to make with Proenneke’s life.  My personal interpretation is that the link is not in the sense of removing ourselves from wider society to start afresh – there are few solutions to be reached by living as a hermit.  But rather in the fulfilment that can be achieved through forging a level of self-sufficiency and learning skills that enable us to do so – an allusion to the DIY ethos that anchored the band.  Indeed, the album ends on a quote from Proenneke that echoes this sentiment, ‘Too many men work on parts of things. Doing a job to completion satisfies me.’

The second half of the reissue ‘Sea of Ice Songs’ is perhaps even more specific, concentrating on a single artwork, Caspar Friedrich’s haunting arctic painting ‘Sea of Ice’.  This was a theme that the band was to revisit when they reformed as Locktender in 2012, whose three LPs focused exclusively on the sonically examining the work of ‘Kafka’ (2013), ‘Rodin’ (2014), and ‘Friedrich’ (2018).

But, a truly successful concept album must not simply explore the idea or narrative, but also forge a cohesive musical expression.  And it is here that Men As Trees excel, through blending extended passages of evocative ambient post-metal with cathartic crescendos of hardcore intensity.  Not only conveying a sense of Alaska’s natural beauty, but also building layer upon layer to create that sense of momentum being built, a task being completed to satisfaction.

The next type is the more broadly expressive, that seeks to create the concept of an illustrative potential future.  This is a route that Rigorous Institution have deployed to great effect both on their early EPs (now collected as the ‘Strange Harvest’ LP) and their debut full-length, ‘Cainsmarsh’.  Throughout their discography, the band’s aim is to conjure a near future dystopia born of environmental catastrophe.  Their lyrics vividly portray a world in a state of virtual, brutal collapse.

But it is their music that brings full realisation to the concept.  By skilfully fusing doom-laden crust with anarcho-punk, the band create an atmosphere of unrelenting, dark foreboding.  Growled, half-spoken vocals prove the perfect foil to this post-apocalyptic soundtrack.  The band locks into discordantly powerful grooves throughout, enriched by haunting gothic flourishes.  And there is a sense of dread that permeates every aspect of ‘Cainsmarsh’ – a feeling that no matter how bad things have become, only worse is to follow.

And any discussion about hardcore concept albums wouldn’t be complete without exploring the work of Alex CF, which will lead us to the third of our variants in the guise of one of his current bands, Morrow.  He was originally lead singer of Fall of Efrafa, who released a trilogy of albums based on the novel ‘Watership Down’ by Richard Adams.  The albums ‘Owsla’ (2006), ‘Elil’ (2007) and ‘Inlé’ (2009) address the story in reverse and use it to deftly interrogate themes of authoritarianism, animal rights, and atheism.

Since the band bowed out, Alex CF has been involved in a myriad of projects all of which, to a greater or lesser extent, have been conceptual in nature.  His current three projects most certainly are.  Median Rot, in partnership with Bryan Lothian of A Global Threat, investigate themes of urban financialisation and social segregation through J.G. Ballard’s novel ‘Concrete Island’ on their EP ‘Exit’.  A similarly specific concept is explored by his band Urskek, a collaboration with members of Monachus, who on the LP ‘Thra’ unleash a bone-shuddering doom metal reimagining of ‘The Dark Crystal’ film.

But it is his third live project, Morrow, that is perhaps the most conceptually adventurous of the three, seeking as it does to actualise an originally conceived narrative.  Across a trilogy of albums – ‘Covenant of Teeth’ (2016), ‘Fallow’ (2017), and ‘The Quiet Earth’ (2023) – Morrow render a post-apocalyptic world through the eyes of a futuristic nomadic tribe to explore themes of environmental and technological catastrophe.  Morrow, in fact share a latter temporal phase of the same fictional universe of another of Alex CF’s projects, Archivist.

Sonically the band, which features members of Momentum and Svalbard, evoke this ravaged world through d-beat fuelled melodic crust, with violin and cello infusing a wider hue of mournful melancholy.  Across the albums, Alex CF shares vocal duties with a wide range of guest vocalists from bands including Archivist, Autarch, Drei Affen, His Hero Is Gone, and Masakari.  The result are truly furious call-and-response vocals that inject even greater urgency as the band hone a crushing assault that is equal parts raucous and reflective.

And so, yes, concept albums can be bloatedly self-indulgent in the wrong hands.  But, when fused with the disciplines and energy of well-executed hardcore, they can also prove hugely successful – sparking both musical innovation and intellectual reflection.