Concept albums, love ‘em or hate ‘em, they have been around for decades, they could be defined as, ‘a studio album where all musical or lyrical ideas contribute to a single overall theme or unified story.’ In contrast, typical studio albums consist of a number of unconnected songs (lyrically and otherwise) performed by the artist. It has been argued that concept albums should only refer to albums that bring in themes or story lines from outside of music, given that a collection of love songs or songs from within a certain genre are not usually considered to be a “concept album.” Progressive rock and metal have produced many mighty concept albums over the years, take Marillion’s ‘Brave’, Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, Dream Theater’s seminal ‘Scenes from a Memory’and, just about everything by Ayreon for instance. Personally, I’m a big fan so, when PBII’s concept album ‘1000 Wishes’ landed surreptitiously on my desk, it most definitely piqued my interest dear reader.
Upon the split of dutch prog-rockers Plackband in 2008, four of the original members decided to reform and rename themselves as PBII. Ronald Brautigam (guitars), Michel van Wassem (keyboards & backing vocals)) & Tom van der Meulen (drums) teamed up with the new bass player and started recording their first album as PBII. Plastic Soup was recorded during 2009. During 2010 the bass player is replaced by new recruit Alex van Elswijk and, as Michel decided to concentrate on his keyboards, the band line-up is completed by vocalist Ruud Slakhorst who is also an accomplished lyricist. In 2011 PBII started a remarkable and hugely ambitious project, 1000Wishes; a progressive rock opera that tells the story about a young boy (Eric) fighting cancer. Again a social issue very close to the heart of all band members and based on an idea of Alex’s. The rock opera will not only be recorded for release on CD, no, the band decided to have it accompanied by a book (written by Ronald van der Pol). The album ‘1000Wishes’ is recorded together with the Hofstad Youth Orchestra and soprano Nathalie Mees. A lot of hard work for this ‘amateur ‘band (as they claim to be) but, in early 2013, both the album and the book are released. During 2012 sponsors are found to fund the whole project and make sure that all net proceeds from the 1000Wishes project go to the Dutch children’s cancer foundation KiKa). In March 2013 the rock opera is performed live three times with an overwhelming success.
All concept albums must be considered to be highly ambitious projects due to the fact that, ordinarily, the whole idea of the concept is based on something that is very personal to the artist who composes it and, therefore, may not appeal to the world at large or even a larger audience. However, cancer will have affected everybody and their family at some stage so it would seem very pertinent to the world we live in today. The album starts with a narrative Eric’s Story (pt1) that sets the scene for what is to follow and, how Eric retreats into a fantastical world to cope with the disease. A Perfect Day is a huge landscape of a track, starting with a beautiful cinematic introduction that must be likened to a musical score. The whole song then explodes into what can only be described as classical progressive rock, keyboards and guitar centre stage, hugely influenced by bands such as The Flower Kings and Unitopia. Complex and brilliantly played it is a great start to the album that blossoms even further when the hugely impressive vocal of Slakhorst chimes in. This is a truly superb progressive rock song , it is with an anticipatory smile that you realise there is plenty more to come. The fluidity of the album continues with Never Old, another chapter in the evolving story that still rolls along at a fair pace but, with always a hint of melancholy in the lyrics and music. The smooth keyboards and classy drumming provide ample back up to the quality of the guitar playing, the impressive solo a stand out moment and the youth orchestra proving entirely up to the task. Trust me, you will be captivated by the serene White, the ethereal strings and soft vocal are just superb. This song could be taken straight from the score of a successful musical, gentle and evocative but with backbone. The orchestrations on this song are just magical, an emotive listening experience. Eric’s Song is a nice, laid back, acoustic piece that is in keeping with that has preceded it, a real Unitopia feel to this song with lush vocals and strings. To a certain extent, it is overshadowed slightly by the previous tracks but is still a worthy part of this concept.
As you would expect Eric’s Story (pt2) is carrying on the narrative, setting the scene for the second part of the album. From an intro that wouldn’t be out of place in Jethro Tull song, Lorian marches into the story, proud and noble with an insistent rhythm, harder edged vocal and a stronger riff. As a vehicle for furthering the story and keeping the everything moving, it does its part but, to me, it is one of the weaker tracks on the album which is brought into full focus by the beautiful soprano voice that leads into title track Land of a 1000 Wishes, another magnificent epic that joins with A Perfect Day in being one of the two stand out tracks on the album. It is no coincidence that both these tracks are lengthy, allowing the band maximum rein to compose and fulfil their ambitious project. The song brings to mind the intricacies of the better progressive songs that you have heard with a real touch of The Tangent about the whole experience. Quality vocals, especially on the harmonies combine with great keyboards, studious drumming and the slick guitar work to lift this well above any run of the mill comparisons. Add in the catchy chorus and there isn’t really much more your average progressive fan could ask for. Evil Weed is an instrumental with an intricate introduction and a really cool 70’s soundtrack feel to it, the coruscating guitar adding an air of mystery to this short part of our journey. The tinkling of the keyboards with multiple changes of pitch leads you into a trio of conjoined tracks beginning with The Loss, a melancholy song with a hint of 60’s psychedelia to it, there is a strong feel of pop rock running through this song, a solid track that flows immediately into Reflections, which has a similar feel, quality vocal combinations and able accompaniment from the superb orchestra. That beautiful soprano voice takes centre stage and allows the listener to soar high above on the magnificent, lilting vocal that is a perfect duet with Slakhorst. Then the whole tempo is lifted with the hard rock heavy Into the Light, a powerful song with a really catchy riff and some superb 70’s synthesisers. Yet another strong vocal performance just adds to the potency of the track and the album.
Eric’s Story (pt3) is the final narrative part of the album and heralds the conclusion of the story. We are Home is a short interlude of a song and penultimate track on the album that seems to herald the dawning of a new life for Eric. The final track on this brilliant musical journey is Parental Thoughts, the orchestra leading us into this song and it is one more class piece of progressive music, if slightly overshadowed by the two epics that raise this concept above the merely good. Once more you are treated to impressive musicianship all wrapped up tight by that superb vocal. The whole vibe of the track is hopeful and uplifting and it is a suitably impressive finale to the feast of music that has been presented.
I have no reservations in putting 1000 Wishes on a pedestal with the epic concept albums out there, that PBII have had the courage and strength of conviction to write about such a raw and emotive subject as cancer is noteworthy alone, that they have created a piece of work that takes such a subject and gives it real meaning for all of us, a piece of music that touches the heart and mind is just incredible and testament to the skill of the musicians involved and the inspiration of the project as a whole.