Six Modern Rock Operas You Need to Hear


Cyan Larson

(Graphic by Cyan Larson | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Heather Graham, Assistant Copy Chief, Arts Writer


In modern music and all of its genres and subgenres, there are few things as ambitious and challenging as writing and producing a rock opera. While not actually an opera to be sung and acted, a rock opera is a collection of songs and lyrics that relate to a central story. Much like a more common concept album, the themes and concepts are connected but also often employ narrative and characters throughout.

A classic list of rock operas includes albums like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” Queen’s “A Night at the Opera” and The Who’s “Tommy,”  but that’s not to say that rock operas are a thing of the past. Concept albums and rock operas are still very much a part of modern music. The list of modern rock opera albums is vast, but here are six that should not be ignored.

Green Day – American Idiot (2004)

“American Idiot,” the seventh studio album from the pop-punk band Green Day, reached mainstream acclaim despite, or perhaps because of, its hugely political message and protest-worthy lyrics. “American Idiot” follows the story of Jesus of Suburbia, a lower-middle-class suburban American antihero, raised on a diet of “soda pop and Ritalin.” Jesus of Suburbia leaves his town and heads to the city where he is introduced to St. Jimmy and Whatshername and the realities of rage, erasure, drug addiction and love. The tracks on this album address the disillusion and dissent of a generation coming of age in a time shaped by events like 9/11 and the Iraq war.

The band, breaking from their traditional pop-punk structures, used unconventional techniques when making this album, including transitions between connected songs and grand productions. In 2005, “American Idiot” won a Grammy for Best Rock Album and was nominated in six other categories, including Album of the Year. The “American Idiot” stage musical adaptation, a collaboration between Green Day and director Michael Mayer, premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in September 2009. The production transferred to Broadway at the St. James Theatre and opened in April 2010.

Recommended song: “Jesus of Suburbia”

Marianas Trench – Ever After (2011)

This ambitious album from Canadian pop-rockers Marianas Trench tells the story of a fictionalized protagonist and his adventures in the fantasy kingdom of Toyland. Upon waking in a strange land in front of a toy factory, an outcast king tells of his plight: being overthrown by his wife Queen Carolina after seducing him into a feeling of safety and stealing the heart of his daughter Princess Porcelain. Carolina locks Porcelain’s heart in a box in a tower that holds various things she has also stolen, including the protagonist’s way home. After hearing this tale, he sets off in search of Porcelain and his way home. Track by track this album plays like a storybook as we follow an adventure through Toyland and meet Porcelain, Carolina, the Stuttering Wise Man and the heartless toy soldiers along the way. This hero’s journey leads us through triumphant, defeat and a happily ever after.

Marianas Trench’s commitment to the story is completed with interludes that connect each song on “Ever After” into one seamless performance. It is filled with authentic orchestration, intricate production and sonically technical melodies and bridges. Tracks include a gospel choir and the astonishing vocal range and harmonies that Marianas Trench is known for. The epic closing track consists of several musical movements and calls back not only to earlier tracks and lyrics in “Ever After” but also to earlier songs in the band’s catalog. The music videos for “Ever After” were each part of the story, further telling the tale in intermittent pieces and creating an aesthetic and visual concept that was used in the full-production performances on tour. The album peaked at number eight on Billboard’s Canadian Albums chart and at number five on the Billboard U.S. Heatseekers Albums chart.

Recommended song: “No Place Like Home”

Cursive – The Ugly Organ (2003)

“The Ugly Organ” is a three-part melodrama that follows the main character, a less than subtle self-insert of singer-songwriter Tim Kasher called the Ugly Organist, through the trials and tribulations of love and life.

The liner notes of the record prelude the album, with a stage cue: “Enter Organist. Moves stage center in grotesque costume. He gestures towards an imaginary audience.” Additional stage directions preface each of the song’s liner-note-lyrics to help tell this story of a disillusioned and pretentious musician figuring out how to lay himself bare for screaming fans, expounding on his fear of martyring himself to his art while acknowledging that his wounds are all self-inflicted. The story follows this journey with self-awareness and reflection, making you sort of hate the Organist but also fall in love with the ways that he views his own hand in his destruction. The drama comes to an escalating end with a ten-minute sequence of chords that build from guitar and cello to white noise and pounding drums. The album and track fade out with a chanting chorus repeating “the worst is over”.

Melodically, Cursive embraces the post-punk mid-west emo structures that were especially common among their Saddle Creek label mates, flooded with a self-skewing lyrical narrative and ferocious noise with bursts of melody and orchestral interludes. The album was critically acclaimed by Metacritic, and Vulture listed “The Recluse” as one of the best emo songs.

Recommended song: “The Recluse”

Coheed and Cambria – Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness (2005)

Like every Coheed and Cambria album, “Good Apollo” is rich in story and masterful lyrics. The album is the third installment of a projected tetralogy called “The Amory Wars,” a name that refers to both the series of science fiction comic books and novels created by Coheed and Cambria frontman Claudio Sanchez and the conflict at the center of the story. “Good Apollo,” told through the perspective of the author known as the Writer, begins to resolve the issues of a sci-fi quest to protect the Keywork and shed light on the demise of Coheed and his wife Cambria.

“Good Apollo” follows the established prog rock and metal that Coheed and Cambria are known for, with heavy beats and contagious hooks everywhere on this record. It features recurring melodies, self-referencing musical and lyrical cues in certain songs that reference key moments across multiple albums relating to the overall story. “Good Apollo” includes a reprise of “Blood Red Summer” from “In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3” in the track “The Telling Truth” and the line “Jesse, bad boy, just come look at what your brother did,” a reference to “Everything Evil” from “The Second-Stage Turbine Blade.”

Recommended song: “The Suffering”

Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014)

This album is a gritty memoir filled with emotion and personal reflection, detailing lead singer Laura Jane Grace’s lifelong battle with self-hatred, addiction and gender dysphoria. Grace, who came out publicly as a transgender woman in 2012, channels her experience through heartbreaking lyrics from the titular track’s narrative look at isolating feelings of dysphoria. The memoir-esque anarcho-punk beats and melodies carry the listener through protests of not belonging, overcompensation to avoid suspicion and an imaginary alternative reality where the overwhelming sense of dysphoria is silenced through death. The closing track offers a silver lining of hope and new beginnings rising from the ashes of hurt, hatred and survival. The debut of this track was Grace’s official announcement of her complete transition.

Produced by Grace and released on their own label, Total Treble, the album delivers quintessential punk structures and melodies. “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is the highest-charting Against Me! album, debuting at number 23 on the Billboard 200 and number two on Billboard Independent Albums chart.

Grace has continued to be a powerful advocate for transgender awareness in music, novels and an AOL web series.

Recommended track: “Two Coffins”

My Chemical Romance – The Black Parade (2006)

The story of “The Black Parade” centers on a dying character known as the Patient and follows him as he reflects on memories of life, his apparent death and experiences of the afterlife. The album opener, “The End.” begins with a beeping heart monitor and a lyrical invitation for the listener to “find out firsthand” what it’s like to be him, resigning and accepting his demise. This track builds in intensity and slides seamlessly into “Dead!,” announcing the death of our main character. As the story continues we are met with the emo-infamous G note of “Welcome to the Black Parade” as death comes in the form of a parade. This concept was an idea based on lead singer Gerard Way’s notion of death coming to a person in the form of their fondest memory — in his case, seeing a marching band as a child. The album’s narrative takes the listener through memories of life and love and loss. It even nods to its Broadway-esque conceptual ideas with guest vocals from the legendary Liza Minnelli. The Patient wraps up his journey with the emotionally pleading and structurally exciting “Famous Last Words.”

The band credits much of “The Black Parade” and its emotional baggage to the weight of recording in an allegedly haunted mansion in the Los Angeles area. As a result, behind-the-scenes commentary included in the special limited edition packaging of the album retells of hauntings, ghoulish breakdowns, and a curse or two resulting in a torn ligament and third-degree burns. “The Black Parade” debuted at number two on both the Billboard 200 and the UK Album charts, was included in Rock Sound’s 101 Modern Classics list at number nine, and has become a significant icon for the emo scene.

Recommended song: “Famous Last Words”


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