No two words strike cautious optimism into the hearts of music listeners more than “concept album”. Thoughts turn equally to captivating expanses of musical expression, abstract and esoteric thought experiments, and grandiloquent messes that collapse under the weight of their own import and self-regard. It seems only natural that the listener should wonder what, exactly, it is they are in for when they find out that Woyzeck, a play by 19th century German dramatist Georg Büchner, inspired The Drones’ ex-drummer, Mike Noga, to make is third solo record, King, a concept album. Judging from his choice of source material, Noga is feeling confident in his songwriting abilities.
Fitting with the album’s theatrical origins, King is presented in three acts – and a prologue – punctuated by brief, atmospheric, musical pieces over which actor Noah Taylor provides narration. Production for the record was provided by Something For Kate frontman – and accomplished songsmith – Paul Dempsey and, luckily for the listener, these elements come together in such a way as to ensure King isn’t just an exercise in hubris. Noga delivers an album that works well as a whole, exploring the extreme actions and emotions people fear they are capable of, yet each song is still provided with enough character that they can be enjoyed in isolation from the overarching narrative stream.
Interestingly, King’s music centres on an indie-rock sound – sometimes carrying a tinge of country – which is not a genre that most would associate with concept albums. From the outset Noga deploys his instrumentation to hook the listener, while also immersing them in the emotional atmosphere of the story, as with the menacing piano chords set over a scratchily arpeggiated guitar of album opener, Mary, or the bounding, breathy, rhythm of Nobody Leads Me to Flames. A sexy sway permeates a cover of Gaylen Adams’ Love Meets No Stranger, while All My Friends are Alcoholics augments its repeated acoustic-to-rock build and release with lush vocal layerings.
I Wanna Live in America’s music embodies the psychosis experienced by the album’s protagonist in the preceding Runnin’ at the World by employing dark, disjointed, tones and the excellent use of layered instruments, and it all juxtaposes nicely with the acoustic sweetness of This is For You (Coda), which closes the album. With King, Noga has delivered a surprising – and surprisingly accessible – narratively driven concept album, which often veers in unexpected directions but always maintains a sense of purpose.