“Concept albums”—The Beatles’ “Revolver” (1966) and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967); The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” (1966); The Who’s “Tommy” (1969)—are often thought of as collections of songs (in general) strung together in some instrumental, compositional or lyrical narrative. Concept albums are less often pursued nowadays. Many bands tend to let songs come together as they may, organically, or focus on singles that are more consumable in the digital age, wherein one or two MP3s can be purchased at a time.
That’s not to say the concept album is gone. The three-piece outfit Howling Giant—Tom Polzine (guitar, vocals), Roger Marks (bass, vocals) and Zach Wheeler (drums, vocals)—just released the second part of their own conceptual, three-part EP space odyssey, “Black Hole Space Wizard,” in August. They’ll be rolling into ILM in their white hearse (who needs touring vans?) to play their collection at Reggie’s 42nd Street Tavern on Sat., Sept. 23.
The album art best reflects the colorful sci-fi landscape of the overarching, almost comic book-like narrative. “The Pioneer,” which is a track about a character who was dropped onto an almost “fallout wasteland” version of Earth, is featured on the cover of “Part 2.”
“He sees these humans who have survived, he discovers these druidic people, and this Force has sprung into life seemingly out of nowhere,” Polzine describes. “It almost feels like a weird connection to a different plane of existence, and [the cover] is him kind of looking on to this shocking piece of Earth that he didn’t think existed.”
Polzine’s mother, artist Sue Davies, created the album art for “Black Hole Space Wizard” parts one and two. Visually, fans will see a foreign yet somehow familiar landscape of buildings in ruins, surrounded by overgrown greenery and waterfall in the background. Their eyes will then focus on a space helmet with the reflection of what the explorer can see: an elegant (yet powerful) feminine fire goddess surrounded by human-like figures.
“My mom used to paint nudes and that used to be her thing,” Polzine says. “As far as the human form goes, we wanted this image to be kind of like an Earth goddess who was summoned in the flames. . . . My mom doesn’t listen to this music and she’s just kind of approaching it with fresh perspective apart from traditional metal album covers.”
“It’s a unique look as well,” Wheeler observes. “Because visually with a lot of album covers in our genre, they look a lot of the same. And this isn’t just another thing that could set us apart.”
“She’s awesome,” Polzine agrees. “She’s an art teacher in Minnesota, and we’re such a DIY band. So, I just went and said, ‘Hey, Mom, I don’t have any money…’ [laughs].”
“If you’re noticing a theme, we do like to keep everything in-house,” Wheeler adds. “Tom asking his mom to do the artwork, me asking my wife to help record.”
“We’re really just too poor to do anything else,” Polzine quips.
As opposed to “Black Hole Space Wizard: Part 1,” which was recorded in Boston with Converse Rubber Tracks’ community-based recording studio, they were able to cut “Part 2” in their Nashville home base. The two agree their Boston experience was a great time and they wouldn’t change a thing about it, but logistically speaking, traveling with all of the band’s gear was somewhat cumbersome, if not problematic. Zach’s drum set, for example, had to stay in Nashville.
“They had a nice drum set up there,” he observes, “but there’s something nice about playing with my own kit when I’ve been writing almost all parts on those drums and whatnot.”
“The biggest difference [between the two experiences] is recording in our hometown [means] we could be more prepared in some ways,” Polzine says. “Going to record in Boston was super fun but that was very much like, ‘Hey, guys, we have this opportunity for you. It’s in six weeks, write something to record and fly out.’ . . . Not to say one is more comfortable than the other, but familiarity was a pretty positive role in recording this time around.”
For two years now, Howling Giant has been in Nashville, where they recorded their first self-titled EP in Polzine’s bedroom in 2015. On the latest chapter of “Black Hole,” they were able to bring on guests like Drew Harakal (organ, synths) and recruit Wheeler’s wife, Kim (baritone sax), who also helped with engineering duties. Kim’s sax makes an appearance in “The Forest Speaks.”
“I was just kind of noodling around on the acoustic guitar and thought this might be kind of a cool riff,” Polzine recalls. “We just kind of joked about putting saxophone on it . . . Kim is a great sax player, and we just said she should try to play something weird. I thought it was beautiful and eerie, and a break for your ears overall.”
“Imagine ‘Part 2’ if that song wasn’t there,” Wheeler agrees. “You would have the song ‘Visions,’ which is a long doomy track, going right into ‘Circle of Druids,’ which is a constant bombardment on your ears. As a metal head, I love that sometimes. But we look at these albums like each song still having its own identity, but there’s still an ebb and flow to the whole thing.”
Howling Giant is cataloging songs, ideas, partial vocal parts, and riffs in preparation for the last installment of “Black Hole.” While it’s a connected series, it acts more like an individual comic book issue rather than a graphic novel. Each EP comes with its own flow and story arc, so they’re not tethered to a chronological order.
“People come to up to us all the time and say they loved ‘Part 2’ and want to want to go check out
‘Part 1,’ and that’s totally fine,” Wheeler says. “The way the story is progressing, it’s not like we’re telling it front to back . . . these are all snippets. You don’t necessarily have to listen to it in order.”
As they prepare for “Black Hole Space Wizard: Part 3,” Wheeler and Polzine are looking forward to another chapter, so to speak.
“We don’t want to be the band that just does ‘Black Hole Space Wizard,’” Polzine observes. “We’ve been loving that but I would very much like to move on to something that’s really different.”
“I would love to just get a nice, concise three parts banged out and it’s done,” Wheeler tells. “Then we can focus on (hopefully) an album that would be its own entity.”