Essential Listening: 10 Stellar Heavy Metal Concept Albums

With its over-the-top musicianship and grandiose imagery, few genres are better suited to a good concept album than heavy metal.

Here are 10 of the best, spanning from the Eighties and Nineties to the present day.

1. Emperor – ‘Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise’ (2001)

Emperor’s final album was also their more far-reaching, offering up a story about the life-to-death journey of the mythological title character over music that was their most complex and progressive to date.

2. King Diamond – ‘Abigail’ (1987)

This story about ghosts, spirits and haunted mansions in the 19th century was King Diamond’s first concept album, and their most successful. This fall, the band is playing the album in its entirety on the ‘Abigail In Concert’ U.S. tour.

3. Queensryche – ‘Operation: Mindcrime’ (1988)

The album that established Queensryche as a force in Eighties prog-metal is a tale about disillusionment in Regan-era America, and filled with evil political masterminds, assassination plots, brainwashing, and a prostitute-turned-nun named Sister Mary. The album has had such staying power that nowadays, , Operation: Mindcrime is also the name of ousted frontman Geoff Tate’s new band.

4. Iron Maiden – Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988)

The concept for this record, revolving around the folkloric idea of the mystical seventh son, came to bassist Steve Harris after reading the novel of the same name, Orson Scott Card’s ‘Seventh Son.’ The disc also showed Maiden beginning to move in a more proggier direction, a sound they would explore even more deeply in the 2000s.

5. Opeth – ‘My Arms, Your Hearse’ (1998)

Opeth’s third full-length album, ‘My Arms, Your Hearse’ was also their first concept record, with a story that revolved around a man who dies and becomes a ghost. The follow-up, 1999’s ‘Still Life,’ continued the concept album streak, with a distinctly anti-Christian story line.

6. Mastodon – ‘Leviathan’ (2004)

Mastodon’s breakthrough effort was also a concept record loosely based on Herman Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick.’ That arc also positioned it as Mastodon’s “water” album, following ‘Remission,’ the “fire” album, and presaging “Blood Mountain,” the “earth” album.

7. Between the Buried and Me – ‘Coma Ecliptic’ (2015)

One of modern metal’s leading progressive acts, BTBAM’s newest effort is a majestic, sprawling disc that tells of a man who, while in a coma, journeys through alternate past lives.

8. Blind Guardian – ‘Nightfall in Middle-Earth’ (1998)

German power-prog metallers Blind Guardian sixth studio album is also one of their most well-known, with a storyline based on J.R.R. Tolkien's ‘The Silmarillion,’ The music, meanwhile is more epic and dramtic than previous efforts, and the album also features spoken-word interludes that help move the story forward.

9. Rhapsody – ‘Legendary Tales’ (1997)

The Italian symphonic power metal band (now known of Rhapsody of Fire) debuted in with this album, which also introduced what has come to be known as the “Emerald Sword Saga,” a fantastical tale centered around a character known as the Ice Warrior. The band would build on this story over four more consecutive albums.

10. Gwar – ‘Scumdogs of the Universe’ (1990)

The band’s second full-length tells the very real story of the interplanetary heavy metal warriors’ arrival on Earth, as well as their subsequent reign of terror across the planet. They’ve been ruling it ever since.

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.