When I was 14, music was pretty much everything. Like most teenagers at the time I was bowled over by the energy of punk and its aftermath but unusually, and this has remained the case ever since, I never saw much point in shutting myself off to other musical experiences.
So understandably, when Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds was released in 1978 it very nearly blew my mind. Across four sides of vinyl Jeff used every trick in the book to tell H.G Wells’ already well-known parable. Somewhere between concept album and ‘Rock Opera’, Jeff plucked a number of artists who (Phil Lynott apart) were flirting with the very early onset of obscurity to turn in a behemoth whose ripples were felt across the musical world for many years to come.
While I wasn’t aware of it at the time, there had been story-telling concept albums before, and there have been since, but such albums demand the kind of ambition and foresight that most bands just can’t muster and leave record companies running for their ten-foot bargepoles. Consequently, albums of this nature, and particularly good ones, tend to show up about as regularly rocking horse poo.
But now, lo and behold, into this barren concept album wasteland arrives 'The Crack and What It Meant' by Cardiff collective Quiet Marauder. When it comes to big projects Quiet Marauder have form, their debut album, MEN, had an eye-watering 111 (one hundred and eleven) tracks and The Crack and What It Meant is no less inventive or daring. We’ll get the thoughts of Quiet Marauder’s Simon in a little while, but first here’s a relatively spoiler-free account of what happens through the thirty tracks of their impending masterpiece;
every day, Jeff Sheridan walks the bridle path with his dog Jess. On this particular day, however, Jess alerts her master, by means of a series of Lassie-like barks, to a crack that has appeared overnight in the Kent countryside. Jeff photographs the phenomenon and, as seems to be the law nowadays, shares the strange occurrence to social media and is advised by his Facebook friends to contact the BBC.
From this point forward the spectacle goes viral in a very modern tale of marketing opportunities (£30 for a tea towel can you believe?), a false prophet by the name of Daniel, great throngs of people who want to witness the marvel first hand, a great phalanx of discredited experts, and, in perhaps the tale’s most poignant and personal moment, of a man who, having heard the words of the aforementioned Daniel, believes that the glow given off by the crack can cure his baldness, certain that the return of his luscious locks will help him win back his lost love. Mock if you will, but many believe the crack to have healing powers, including Martin who hopes to be rid of his Chlamydia, and Samuel, who hopes to return to his love of dancing after his dreams were cruelly ended by the onset of polio.
Along the way there are references to J J Abrams, David Attenborough, Brian Cox (providing coverage on BBC) and Dara Ó Briain (ditto Channel 5) and a myriad of popular science fiction TV and/or film sensations, from Lost to Fringe, Inception to the Twilight Zone, Dawson’s Creek (?) to Dr. Who.
And, as there should be on a story-telling concept album, there’s an enigmatic narrator in the shape of Burning Hell’s Matthias Kom who lends real gravitas. Rather than simply providing a link between tunes, or a cunning vehicle to move the story forward, many of the narrated tracks bring along their own musical highlights with ominous stirring synth themes or sumptuous strings, perfectly showcased in the short but sweet ‘Ministry of Defence’.
Ultimately (or penultimately if we’re being pedantic, as this is track 29 of 30) narration and musical despair combine gloriously on the thought-provoking ‘Blessed are the Discredited’
The Crack and What It Meant is ridiculous, ambitious and thought-provoking, and the most fun I’ve had listening to an album for a long, long time.
I asked Simon how The Crack and What It Meant was conceived and recorded and how they got Mathias Kom to narrate.
“We are very familiar with ambitious projects. I don't think a project should start without at least a little ambition, but our tolerance may be slightly higher in that regard. The germination of the Crack idea came a few years ago, pretty soon after we released our debut album, MEN. We were talking about doing a sci-fi musical, but one where none of the expected narrative tropes really happen. Instead, we wanted to just write about the social and individual responses that would follow on from the emergence of a rip in time and space. After a lot of the storytelling was done and we'd earmarked out the scope of the album, largely by coming up with song titles before having the actual songs, we developed some demos that ultimately went onto be the final tracks. Recording them was done in waves, really, over the intervening years, with those initial demos having all of the bells and whistles from the band attached to them as we went. Though, I think going forward, this approach to recording may be one of the least energy efficient. Drumming over a random tempo in a demo, it turns out, is pretty difficult.
What was weird about it was how closely the narrative mimics the Brexit debate. In spite of it being conceived years before that was even an issue. I started to wonder, towards the end, if I was actually the prophet I had been writing about within the album (Daniel). And then I realised that I should stop telling people things like that.
Mathias became involved at a later stage when we realised that the story of the album was still relatively oblique, even after we'd crafted our very narrative-driven songs. We first played with The Burning Hell about five years ago in Cardiff and, frankly, I fell in love that night with their songmanship and humour. I think every time they come back, more or less, we play together and have a ball so, even though I'm a big fan, it felt strangely comfortable asking Mathias if he wanted to be involved. I thought his deep voice and Canadian accent would give the narrator an outsider's feel, looking on at the madness that is happening before him with a detached ambivalence. Luckily enough, he agreed and we ended up adding in a lot more exposition through his narrative tracks dotted across the album. It was a genuine joy seeing those bits of the album come together, I think receiving those takes from Mathias was a big turning point. It gave us the spur to finally put the album to bed, finish it and release it.”
I then asked Simon whether there are any plans to release The Crack and What It Meant on double vinyl and any plans to perform it live in its entirety.
“Currently, as much as it saddens me, there are no plans to join the great concept album lineage by doing a double vinyl. We still are yet to release anything on vinyl, staring blankly into the CD abyss as the revolution unfurls around us. A lot of that is cost-driven. When we released MEN, I asked our label how much it would be to put it out on vinyl. MEN was almost five hours long and I think it would need 8 records. I won't tell you how expensive that is, but when finding out I did the wincing exhale associated with cowboy plumbers. I did a similar sound when introduced to just the two records that would be required for The Crack and What It Meant. That said, we've done our best to accommodate some of that gatefold sleeve feel by crafting a rather beautiful booklet with the physical release, and some stunning artwork courtesy of Ctrl Alt Design. Also, we will be heading out on tour with The Burning Hell in June and we'll be doing several tracks from the album with Mathias during that. One of those dates, the 24th June in Cardiff, we will be looking to play a truncated version of the album charting about 40 minutes of it.
Naturally, if this album turns us into the interstellar rock Gods and Goddesses that we rightly deserve to be, you can expect a triple-disc, gold-plated, glitter vinyl with extended director's commentary. Until, then, we'll keep our dreams in our pockets and stare into the sky with our desperate, pleading eyes.”
I finished off by asking Simon to tell me about his own favourite concept albums.
“I love concept albums. To me, it's a real misfortune that not every album is a concept album. And I think a lot of great albums that aren't traditionally 'conceptual' can be bracketed as such just by the virtue of the writer having a very clear idea of what they are aiming at writing about. So, for instance, my favourite concept album of all time is Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs. That's a definitively purposed collection of songs all around a single theme but with so much diversity and complexity within it. It has many, many flaws but somehow the aggregate of all of these things makes me love it more. It's flawless because of its inherent vulnerability. But, then, one of the most powerful examples that I can recently recall was The Antlers Hospice LP which is one of those more aloof efforts that could almost not be a concept album. But when you get acquainted with it, you realise that all of the songs are telling you a finite, tragic story with a beginning, middle and end. It's genuinely affecting, too.
Of course, I need to doff hats to The Who and Pink Floyd, too, who brought way more pomp and audacity to the writing process, as well as to the don Sufjan Stevens for his States albums (incomplete as the project will no doubt remain) and his restless urge to celebrate Christmas. I think what I admire most is commitment to an idea. You don't have to necessarily follow it through 100%. Even if, like Sufjan, you start writing 50 albums and only get to 2, that's still an epic win. I always loved the approach of Stephen Jones from Babybird during his lo-fi period. He had a defined plan of what he wanted to do and he wrote hundreds of songs on a four-track over several years before releasing them strategically on loosely conceptual albums over a much shorter time period. That's dedication. When you plunder and work away with no knowledge that there'll be any pay-off, I think that's the nature of creativity. Plus, it works, too. The albums he released while in that mindset are treasure troves of invention, humour and genuine oddness.”