Stage presence has always been an essential factor to having a great live show. It draws the audience in and keeps them interested. It can also make up for a somewhat lousy instrumental performance, or a big mistake, like forgetting the lyrics. As long as a band owns the stage, they can always come back from whatever they bungled. In fact this overall presence is also something that can separate a good band from a great band. Live music has the added element of performing antics and entertainment. Every now and then, in what appears to be a steadily growing trend, there are those bands that take stage performance to a whole new level. I’m talking about bands who utilize theatrics and put all of that performance from an arena or club into an album.
Overtime I have discovered that there are three major kinds of theatrical takes a band can utilize to amp up a recording and give the listener a sensation similar to a live show. From the reigning king of Glam, David Bowie, we get personas and characters like Ziggy Stardust that not only created a new sound for Bowie, but also an entirely different entity for him to take on. From Pete Townsend and his work with The Who the world received the first rock opera and several concept albums. Finally, the works of bands like The Cure helped to create an image that was not only a part of their presence, but was also heavily emulated to their fans (in a much less aggressive way than the late 70s punk movement).
Here are my top bands who have taken these theatrical concepts to whole new levels within the last ten years and why they work so well.
Bands who emulate their thematic image:
Good: The Venetia Fair–This band can be described as “modern day cabaret” in both sound and attitude. They’ve been around since 2006 but have never quite broken through, even though they seem to be doing everything right. The keyboards and use of distortion on songs like “A Man Like Me” add a really cool element to their music. What makes them admirable for their theatrics, though? They are embarking on a pretty unheard of revival genre and mixing it with rock. And when there is that much whimsy in a song, the listener can’t help but feel like they are in Prohibition times hidden away in a speak easy.
Better: Crown The Empire–I’m a big fan of Crown The Empire, most notably because of their nods to Steam Punk in the earlier videos for their first EP, but also because they embarked on a semi-concept album when they released The Fallout. It not only carried a great Romeo and Juliet storyline (with coordinating music video), but the album itself created a self-contained dynamism between the instruments and vocals. The dual vocals of clean vs. unclean is something that a lot of bands have, but when these somewhat high range power ballads are mixed over djent chords and a double bass pedal, the opposition between the Capulets and the Montagues completely comes alive.
Best: Panic! At The Disco–Regardless of whether or not there is an exclamation point in their name, Panic! has always been one of my favorite bands to follow. They are just really, really weird. Similar to CTE, they began with a real Steam Punk, almost 1920s Burlesque kind of vibe that came off in hits (and videos) like “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” and lesser known songs like “Build God, Then We’ll Talk” as well. With each new album, Panic! has morphed into different niches of their style ranging from The Beatles to nineteenth century detective stories. In fact their latest album was so strange, but still somehow so “Panic!” that it landed the title Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!
The Best Modern Concept Albums Bands:
Good: Attack Attack!–In January 2012 Attack Attack! released This Means War which was their first concept album, and unfortunately the last album made before they disbanded. On a narrative level, the album isn’t too interesting: a man goes off to war and is driven by the idea of being reunited with his son and finds some turmoil along the way. What makes this a great concept piece for the band, however, is that AA! needed a dark, war-filled story line to really change and refine the overall sound of the group. Things got much heavier and the vocals/lyrics got a lot more intense.
Better: Alesana–Alesana makes nothing but themed concept albums. Their first two LPs stood alone with notions of fairy tales and Greek mythology; however, their third full-length, The Emptiness, is a masterpiece. The entire album is based off of a short story vocalist/guitarist Shawn Milke wrote derived from tales and poems by Edgar Allan Poe. If that isn’t enough, they then connected it with a second concept album based on Dante’s Inferno and have recently released news of a third concept work to conclude what they now call the “Annabel Trilogy.” So in other words, they made three concept albums in which all stories connect.
Best: Green Day–American Idiot is one of the smartest things Green Day ever released. Not only is it a political commentary and slight biography of Billie Joe Armstrong, it also tells this strange coming of age story of a kid lost in a world filled with drugs, sex, and “the man” that has become so relatable to the people of the Millennial generation. American Idiot is also one of the best modern concept albums because it broke Rock ‘n’ Roll barriers by being adapted into a Tony Award winning Broadway musical, and is rumored to be turned into a movie.
The Best Bands with Personas:
Good: Black Veil Brides–I have a love/hate relationship with Black Veil Brides. On the one hand, they’ve made some really interesting hair-metal -throwback-meets-metalcore albums, but on the other hand, they have created characters within characters for themselves. Their latest album, Wretched and Divine: The Story of the Wild Ones, is just that, a story about BVB in their alter egos. Oddly, their alter egos seem to just be BVB in an alternate “end-of-times” universe. I don’t really understand it, but it made for a neat album with tracks constantly interrupted by “F.E.A.R.” radio transmissions which make any post-apocalyptic scenario that much cooler.
Better: My Chemical Romance–Gerard Way likes to dress up and he likes to tell stories. With all of the official albums released (excluding Conventional Weapons), MCR has found some way to bring their personal Shakespearian stage to the foreground. The two most notable cases, though you can argue for their second album just as much, comes from one, The Black Parade album in which the band altered their appearance and performed in costume in order to recreate the Black Parade characters in the album’s story and two, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys in which the band basically becomes post-apocalyptic Super Heroes, complete with names, masks, and ray guns.
Best: Slipknot–There is a peculiar, but intriguing difference about Slipknot that none of these other bands seem to capture. Slipknot, as a whole, as a band, complete with mask, is Slipknot and fully embodied as those figures they perform as. On the other hand, the men behind the masks are also separate entities it seems. Slipknot is the only band in which I really see both the connection and the disconnect between the person and the character. Watching Joey Jordison or Corey Taylor in interviews is not the same as watching them perform or even just hearing their albums. They definitely create extensions and projections of themselves into these masks that just breaks away from all that there is and makes the music world that much more intense.
Purchase a CD and buy concert tickets from each band’s website and don’t miss their next live show!
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