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Chemistry Experiment

 

My Chemical Romance: The Black Parade

Reprise, 2006

Rating: 4.0

 

Posted: December 16, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

God bless the concept album, that ultimate acid test for rock bands. It's like the S.A.T.: No matter how good your previous albums were or your live show is, it's how you pull off a concept album that determines how you'll be remembered in the popular culture. (Note that we're talking about the kind that brims with aggressive musical and lyrical vision that not only expands your boundaries but remaps them. There are bands, like Yes or the Decemberists, that have fanciful explorations encoded in their DNA; we're not dealing with those here.)

It was only a matter of time before a proper concept album -- that is to say, a bold, sweeping, widescreen statement of purpose -- pushed a band from the so-called (and ill-defined) "emo" brigade into the national spotlight, and that moment has come. Based on 2004's Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, it didn't take a genius to calculate that My Chemical Romance had a good shot at following Green Day into that rarified territory (it certainly wasn't going to be Dashboard fucking Confessional). But few could have predicted that that album would possess the stylistic scope and air-guitar crunch of The Black Parade.

If that sounds like a breathless, bandwagon-jumping valentine, it's not. First there's the matter of frontman Gerard Way's voice, which is so thin and grating in the opening moments of "Welcome to the Black Parade" that it's difficult to get past. And then there's the central conceit itself, something about a cancer patient on his deathbed looking back over his life -- not as bad as the concept behind Kilroy was Here, but hardly a fist-pumper.

If anything, The Black Parade stumbles over its own ambition. It's a likable record, to be sure, from the opening "The End" (with a swelling flourish that baldly apes "In the Flesh?" from Pink Floyd's The Wall) to the aim-for-the-fences reach of "Welcome to the Black Parade," the vaguely swinging "House of Wolves" and the anthemic "Sleep." But even its most stirring moments -- the bracing staccato rocker "Dead!," the Brechtian three-penny rock-opera stomp of "Mama" and the irresistible chant-along "Teenagers" -- are tempered by the album's eagerness to announce what a quantum leap forward it represents. As with many concept albums, the concept itself gets buried beneath the show-off virtuosity, the band's ringing need to not only impress but bedazzle the listener.

At their best -- The Wall, the Who's Quadrophenia, the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society, Drive-By Truckers' Southern Rock Opera -- concept albums crystallize an artist's strengths into an hour or two of compelling ideas and grand musical ambition, maybe even (as with Green Day's American Idiot, Parade's most immediate progenitor) reminding the world what made the artist great in the first place while elevating them to a whole new level. At their worst -- KISS' Music From "The Elder", anyone? -- they represent a stunning lack of judgment from which the band might never recover.

Even when they fall somewhere in the middle -- like, say, Queensryche's grandiose but ultimately same-sounding Operation: Mindcrime -- they stand, for better or worse, as a band's defining moment, the benchmark against which both its successes and failures are measured. Few concept albums are as self-consciously aware of that fact as The Black Parade, which breathlessly trumpets its achievements with every rousing chorus, every musical shift, every fanfare and gesture to the point of distraction. It's an impressive feat, but like The Wall, it's not always easy to embrace.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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