Concept album. These two words are guaranteed to divide opinion amongst music critics. That’s despite many classic albums falling into the category of concept albums. This has been the case for nearly fifty years.

One of the first concept albums was The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which was released in 1968. The same year, The Pretty Things released S.F. Sorrow and The Kinks’ The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society.Then in 1969, The Who released Tommy. It was their first concept album. They would release another during the seventies, which was the golden era for concept albums.

During the seventies, progressive rock was King. Nearly every progressive band released a concept album. This included Gentle Giant who released Three Friends in 1972. That year, Jethro Tull released Thick As A Brick in 1972. Jethro Tull were masters of the concept albums. However, it wasn’t just progressive rock who were releasing concept albums.

In 1973 David Bowie released The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars and The released Quadrophenia. However, 1973 saw two of the greatest progressive bands release classic albums.

This included Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans. It was released in October 1973, to widespread critical acclaim. It’s now regarded as a progressive rock classic. However, in March 1973, Pink Floyd released what many music critics consider the greatest concept album in musical history, Dark Side Of The Moon. Soon, other progressive rock bands were following in Pink Floyd’s footsteps. 

A year later, Genesis released The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in 1974. Then in 1976, The Alan Parsons Project released one of their greatest ever concept albums, Tales Of Mystery and Imagination. It’s considered a classic concept album. So is Rush’s 1976 concept album 2112. However, as the seventies drew to close, the masters of the concept album returned, and Pink Floyd released The Wall. Meanwhile, Frank Zappa released Joe’s Garage. Concept albums had been a feature of the seventies, and featured some of the greatest music of the decade. During the eighties, their popularity declined.

As the eighties dawned, concept albums were regarded as over-indulgent by the new breed of gunslinger critics. Blindly, they had flown the flag for punk and post punk. Despite their best efforts to kill off the concept album, some concept albums still sold in vast quantities.

Among the most popular was Duke, which Genesis released in 1980. Then in 1983, Pink Floyd without Roger Waters released The Final Cut. Not to be outdone, Roger Waters released Radio K•A•O•S in 1987. Then in 1988, Iron Maiden unleashed Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son. Concept albums were still popular. However, that was about to change.  

During the nineties, the critics continued to call concept albums over-indulgent and a relic of music’s past. Then suddenly, critics changer their minds when Radiohead released O.K. Computer in 1997. Since then, many musicians have released concept albums. 

This includes everyone from Arcade Fire and Bon Iver to The Flaming Lips and The Killers. Now it seems, the concept album is back in fashion. That’s just as well, as Falkirk’s very own Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo’s recently released sophomore album Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts] is a concept album.

Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts] was released on the Wiseblood Industries label, and is the followup to Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo’s 2013 album, On The Desolate Hillside. It introduced listeners to Falkirk’s very own purveyors of freak-country-folk, the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo. Their raison d’être is to release cerebral music with a social conscience. However, who are Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo?

For those yet to discover the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo, they’re a Falkirk based musical collective centred around D. King. That’s David King, the the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo songwriter-in-chief. By calling himself D. King, it seen as adding an air of mystery. Or as much an air of mystery as anyone from Falkirk can exude. Falkirk you see, isn’t the type of place 007 hangs out on his day off.

If you’ve never been to Falkirk, it’s smack bang between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Anyone whose taken a train out of Edinburgh, to Scotland’s musical capital Glasgow, will have passed through Falkirk. It was once part of Scotland’s proud industrial heritage. Now it’s better known for tourist attractions like the Wheel and the Kelpies. However, it’s also developing a vibrant musical scene.

This is where the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo come in. For the last few years, they’ve been at the heart of the local music scene. Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo’s first release was the Split E.P. This saw them start as they meant to go on. It was released on a limited edition orange cassette. Then came their double-A-sided single. 

Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo’s double-A-sided single featured Fashionable Buddhas and Solitary Rabbit. The single was seen as a statement of intent. This was Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo laying down their marker, and showing what they were capable of. The single was then released on Wiseblood Industries, and featured searing social commentary and wry, surreal humour. This whetted the appetite for Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo’s debut album On The Desolate Hillside.

It was in September 2013, that the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo released On The Desolate Hillside. This was a very different debut album. After all, who else included songs aboyr regression, greedy bankers burning in hell and pollen distribution? The Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo did, and and that’s why On The Desolate Hillside was such a truly compelling debut album from the Falkirk collective. Since then, a question on many Scottish music lips was where are the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo?

The answer to that question came recently, when the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo returned with their sophomore album Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts]. It’s described as “a concept album of sorts, it explores the intertwining of animal and human behaviour, through the retelling of stories brought by the fascist ghost of Mussolini, in dreams of absent-minded regression.” According to Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo; “all humans can behave like beasts when power is in their hands.” This is an interesting theory, which Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo’s will explore on Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts]. It’s very much the the work of David King, Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo’s songwriter-in-chief

David King has been busy. He’s written eight of the ten songs on Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts]. The exceptions are Amelia’s Song and Womanhood Suffrage. Both are penned by David King with Paul Tonner. These tracks were then recorded by an expanded lineup of Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo.

When recording of On The Desolate Hillside took place, the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo were a quartet. Now seven members of the collective packed into the studio. Some are permanent members, others are playing a walk-on role on Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts].

David King has been central to the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo story, and plays acoustic guitar, kazoo and percussion. So is the rhythm section featured drummer and percussionist Steven Tosh and bassist Robbie Lesiuk. He also played steel and acoustic guitar, ukelele, melodica, keyboard, lap steel and percussion. Paul Tonner returns, and plays percussion, cajon and vocals. They’re joined by three new names.

This includes Andy Hill on guitar and synths and guitarist and harmonica player Francis McFaul. The last of the new names is vocalist Louise Ward. Both the old faces and new names got to work on Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts]. Once it was recorded and produced by Robbie Lesiuk, he then mastered the album. Only then was the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo sophomore album ready to release. However, how does Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts] compare to On The Desolate Hillside?

Opening Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts], is The Austrian Farmer. Distant washes of music draw nearer, while a pulsating bass provides the heartbeat. Meanwhile, a myriad of percussion fills out the arrangement, while David King delivers the lead. He’s accompanied by disparaging, accusing, singalong harmonies.  As The Austrian Farmer takes to the stand, he’s accused of various wrongs, including “chauvinistic piggery.” The Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo vocals ooze disgust. By then, David King and Co. have dawned an  Austrian accent.  It’s used in parts of the track. Rocky guitars drive the arrangement along, and provide a  see-sawing arrangement. It accompanies David and the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo. They sing accusingly: “he’s two wives, he’s two wives.” Anger, disgust frustration shine through. Later, the song becomes melodic, as the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo showcase their ability to craft cerebral songs full of scathing, social commentary. 

Just drums and percussion combine as Donkey Actor In Makeup unfolds. A chiming, country-tinged guitar sets the scene for heartfelt harmonies. They’re tinged with guilt, at the breakup letter they’ve sent. When David King takes charge of the vocal, he combines power, passion and emotion. Accompanying David are rat-a-tat harmonies, rocky guitars and pounding drums. They add an indie rock sound to this captivating fusion of influences.

Straight away, washes of trembling, quivering guitars add a cinematic hue to Vulture People. They’re accompanied by robotic drums and an acoustic guitar. However, taking centre-stage is Laura’s vocal. Wistful and despairing, she delivers the line: “you’re on the path to self-destruction.” Meanwhile, the drums add a hypnotic effect, while deliberate bursts of guitar and harmonies accompany Laura. Hurt fills her voice as she duets with David. Especially when sings of “dysfunction people.” Other times despair fills her voice as she remembers the: “people who can’t get relief” from their torment. It’s a moving, heartfelt acknowledgement of people “dysfunction people,” living lives on the edge where despair and torment are omnipresent.

As The Cruel Revenge Of Queen Maria begins to unfold, it begins to take on an anthemic sound. There’s more than a nod to late-sixties, early-seventies Rolling Stones. Partly, that’s down to the rocky riffs that are unleashed. Meanwhile, the a buzzing bass accompanies David King as he vamps his way through the lyrics. Sometimes, there’s theatrical, dramatic sound to his vocal. He seems determined to bring the lyrics to life. Behind him, the guitar line that starts at 2.00 reminds me of Gimme Shelter. Surely, Falkirk’s freak-country-folk combo aren’t going down to follow in the footsteps of Mick Jagger and Co.? Later, an angry, vengeful David announces: “we’re gonna blow all the fascists to hell” as they strut their way through this rocky anthem.

An urgent strummed guitar is a scene setter on The Insidious Creep. A defeated and deflated David sings: I’ve sold my soul to the corporation. Later, he sings “my opinions and beliefs mean nothing more.” By then, strummed guitars harmonies and the rhythm section create a melodic, hook rich backdrop for David’s vocal. Playing an important role is Robbie Lesiuk’s pulsating bass. Robbie also produced the album, and this is without doubt, one of its finest moments.

Faithless, Lawless sees an acoustic guitar and harmonica combine to create a country backdrop. They set the scene for David’s vocal. He doesn’t try and disguise his Scottish vocal. There’s no mid-Atlantic vocal like some bands try on a country track. Instead, his accent shines through, as memories come flooding back. He remembers his hopes and dreams, and wonders: “where are they now?” By then, harmonies have joined him, as he sings of a friend who is a “love rat clown.” They’re seeking forgiveness, from the woman they’ve cheated on. Later, David asks: “what makes you such a selfish lover?” He’s angry and frustrated at his friend’s behaviour, and asks: what ever happened, what’s happening in your mind, you’ve  been sinking to the bottom of the promiscuous ocean?”

Washes of keyboard, chiming guitar and a pulsating bass combine on Amelia’s Song. They provide the backdrop to what’s meant to be a dramatic, theatrical, accented, half-spoken vocal. The lyrics are dark and disturbing. They talk of:  “lust and desire that’s easily pleased,” and “victimless crimes.” Soon, various instruments have been added to frame the vocals. This includes a pedal steel and haunting melodica. These instruments are chosen carefully, and match lyrics dark, disturbing lyrics like: “we romanticise summary execution.” It’s delivered by David and Laura, who also adopts an accented vocal. As the track reaches a dramatic ending, the bass pulsates, and there’s a twist in the tale. “My Iberian Queen, the love of my live, cuts and dissects me and washes me down with red wine.”

Just a firmly strummed guitar opens Womanhood Suffrage. It’s joined by dramatic harmonies. They give way to Laura’s vocal. She sounds like Suzanne Vega, circa 1986. Before long, Laura is showcasing her considerable talents. She bring the lyrics to life. The way she delivers; “you’ve got no common sense,” it’s as if she means every word. Then when rocky guitars interject, the understated arrangement dissipates. Laura’s replaced by David, and the pair duet.  David adds another of his heavily accented vocals. Similarly, the harmonies veer between heavily accented and dramatic on what’s a seven minute, dramatic and theatrical epic.

Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts] closes with A Young Fascist Girl For All Occasions. There’s a mixture of influences as the song unfolds. Elements of country, folk, indie rock and blues shine through. A steel guitar, pedal steel, chiming, quivering guitar and the rhythm section combine. They provide the backdrop for David’s vocal. His vocal sounds impassioned, as he earnestly delivers the vocals. Other times, he reassures.  This is the case as he sings: “don’t be scared little girl, we only kill fascists.” Behind him, one of the best arrangement on the album unfolds. Later, David King vows to protect us: “from the ghost of Mussolini,”  which is one of Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts]’ highlights.

That seems to be the end of the Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts]. As the listener winds their way to the CD player, the Sweethearts Of The Prison spring a surprise. Paul Tonner has penned what’s simply entitled Untitled Track. It’s the track that closes the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo’s sophomore album Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts]. However, how does it compare to their debut album On A Desolate Hillside? 

The Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo don’t make things easy for themselves. Writing and recording a concept album wasn’t going to be easiest way to followup their debut album. Especially when it’s told by the ghost of Mussolini. This makes Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts] sound like an album that harks back to the classic concept album of the seventies. 

Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts] doesn’t come courtesy of Pink Floyd, E.L.P. or Yes. Instead, it come from David King and his Falkirk collective, Sweethearts Of The Prison. They’re not progressive rockers. Far from it. 

Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo described themselves as a freak-country-folk combo. That’s almost selling themselves short. They combine everything from blues, country, folk, indie rock and indie rock. Musical genres combine and collide seamlessly on Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts]. To this musical hotpot, Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo combine, melodies and subtle hooks and social comment. This proves a potent combination…to some people.

Over the years, some groups have tried too hard to be clever. This has proved a turnoff for record buyers. Still, these bands have continued to release their own albums. Sales continue to decline album on album. Ultimately, their albums end up being the musical equivalent of vanity publishing. Eventually, these groups are never heard of again.  It doesn’t matter that their  album feature cerebral music full of  social comment. Other groups have been down this well trodden path, and haven’t lived to tell the tale. Maybe,  Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo are prepared to take that risk.

If they do,  many record buyers will see the music on Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts] as as pretentious and over-indulgent. They’ll even find the words concept album off-putting. It may even bring back Vietnam-like flashbacks of the seventies heyday of the concept album. All this could mean that that the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo music isn’t going to find a much wider audience? Surely, that’s what the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo want?

Especially when David King and his latest lineup of Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo are a talented group of singers, songwriters and musicians. On A Desolate Hillside, and its followup Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts] are proof of this. Both albums feature cerebral, captivating, dramatic, impassioned and powerful music. Sadly, this music isn’t proving particularly successful. Maybe, Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo have to change tack?

Much as I enjoyed Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts], and enjoyed what’s compelling concept album, why don’t Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo try and reinvent themselves and their music? I’m sure they could write a much more commercial album. Other Scottish groups, including The Pearlfishers have been down this road, and survived with their street cred in tact.  I’m sure that the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo could too.

That’s unless the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo are content to plough their own furrow, and continue to release captivating concept albums like Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts]. Of course, maybe fame and fortune isn’t for the Falkirk based collective? Maybe John Lennon was right, and the Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo are happy to watch the Falkirk Wheel going round, while writing the followup to Pigs In The Bull Ring [Humans Like Beasts]?



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