What does one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century have in common with the most militant Catholic of the sixteenth century? Quite a bit, it seems.
Prayer of St. Ignatius
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace.
That is enough for me.
Talk Talk, Wealth
Create upon my flesh
Create approach upon my breath
Bring me salvation if I fear
Take my freedom
Create upon my breath
Create reflection on my flesh
The wealth of love
Bear me a witness to the years
Take my freedom
Create upon my flesh
Create a home within my head
Take my freedom for giving me a sacred love
Steve Babb, everyone’s favorite Glass Hammer bassist and all-around great guy, has just released a trailer for his new work, The Lay of Lirazel. It’s available as an ebook, a paperback, and an audiobook. On a personal note, I must note that this is a gorgeous story, related to that told–through prog music–on Glass Hammer’s classic, The Inconsolable Secret. Enjoy.
I have been back in Bristol for about 6 months now, and boy have I missed the place. It’s a vibrant City with so much going on that it’s very easy to get distracted and if you find willing conspirators you can be out every night.
One of the greatest things about a city this size is the number of venues that have live music on, and not just tribute bands, but proper bona fide gigs criss crossing genres and styles, so from the Fleece, The Louisiana, The O2, Colston Hall, The Old Duke to name a few there really is something for everyone.
One thing Bristol has got going for it is a talented and diverse musical scene, from bands like Portishead, Massive Attack, Hi Fiction Science, the Blue Aeroplanes and artists like Tricky and She Makes War there really is some fantastic music that has been produced and continues to come out of this area.
One such band is Schnauser, an exciting and eclectic English band, who are now signed to the Esoteric Antenna label (alongside local band Hi-Fiction Science, and the excellent Tin Spirits from just down the M4 at Swindon), hats off to Mark & Vicky Powell at Esoteric who find some amazing bands. With some fantastic bands in this area there must be something in the water (or the cider-just ask the Wurzels…)
Mark Powell brought Schnauser to my attention at the album launch for Hi-Fiction Science’s wonderful album Curious Yellow, when he mentioned that if I enjoyed Hi-Fiction Science I should keep an eye out for the new Schnauser album.
In one of those happy coincidences which keeps the world spinning the next day I saw the last Schnauser long player (Where Business meets Fashion) on the review list for the DPRP, and I was hooked.
If you can imagine a four piece performing music in a Canterbury scene vein, with a seam of quintessentially English surrealism and word play running through their oeuvre with overtures of Monty Python or the Bonzo’s and killer vocal harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys or early Yes, then you are getting warm as to the Schnauser sound.
However there is something indefinable at play as well, something truly original that sends tingles down the spine, and which puts a great big smile on the face.
Their latest album Protein for Everyone, is their fifth long playing excursion, and sees the debut of Jasper Williams on drums, joining founder member multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Alan Strawbridge, long term collaborator, bassist and vocalist Holly McIntosh and keyboardist extraordinaire Duncan Gammon (also on vocals) who joined in 2011.
Following on from the inventive and complex tracks on Where Business Meets Fashion, which is wonderfully layered album, containing some fantastic tracks like Walking Stick and Cat and Waterloo Teeth, Protein for Everyone is an evolution of the Schnauser sound.
With a striking cover, featuring Laura Kidd (She Makes War) and a real beefcake of a Gentleman all in tweed enjoying a day out at Clevedon pier, this is album art as part of the record, and is probably the best album cover I have seen so far this year (although it might put vegetarians off) the meat theme is carried over, with the CD itself looking like a piece of steak, and the credits written like packaging for meat. A wonderful concept, it works beautifully with the contents of the album.
These 7 tracks are superb, starting with the fantastic Grey or Blue, with its vocal harmonies, it’s great keyboard and guitar work, and of course that Schnauser trademark, the vocal harmonies of Alan and Holly that add so much to the sound, and with its lyrics about choosing optimism or pessimism, it’s a brilliant opener to a strong album. Since the band coalesced around the current line up, the confidence and power of the songwriting has grown, and this is a definite step along from the previous album. The title track Protein for Everyone, features more of those wonderful harmonies, some fantastic musical interplay between all four of the band and lyrics about selling body parts for me. The knack Schnauser have for mixing the dark and the light is sublime, the music is bright, airy and upbeat, then you throw in the lyrics, and it’s only as you’re humming or singing along, you realise that they’re covering quite dark subjects in a very clever way.
National Grid is another great song, and as the music works its magic, again very catchy and very clever, the lyrics deal with everyone being connected via social media.
Contemporary lyrical commentary in a pop/prog packaging, very few people can pull this off, even fewer can pull it off with such skill and aplomb.
Holly takes the lead on The Reason they’re Alive, a brilliant composed song, with another great performance by the band and some fantastic lyrics, again looking at the world in a slightly different way, this time celebrating the life of wasps of all creatures, again it makes you think about them in a slightly different way.
Split is a fairly conventional post-love song, with some heartfelt lyrics and a great performance from Alan, whilst Buon Natale is a fairly joyous if a tad incongruous Christmas song in Italian, whilst the lyrics are all sung in Italian, the music is wonderful, and I would love to be able to speak Italian to translate it, and find out what they are saying.
Then we come to the grand finale, and when I say grand finale it is the long one, Disposable Outcomes, a 16-minute plus epic of Canterbury style intensity and musical playfulness. In fact as it’s made up from a number of different songs it also has that Abbey Road side 2 vibe to it as it flips from mood to mood and song to song.
In fact the band are brimming with musical confidence here, it starts with an announcement about turning off your mobile devices and asking you to enjoy the song, with a lyrical introduction to the piece. In fact the spoken word intro is almost pure Stanshall. With some fantastic jazzy piano, great keyboard work and guitar interplay, the drum and bass of Holly and Jasper working in sync, this is fantastic as it weaves from mood to mood, it’s lyrics celebrating the joys in life, as it sneaks in a reprise from Buon Natalie, with some great guitar work. The band really stretch them out on this one, as the song fragments are all built and built with some of Duncans finest keyboard works and Alans brilliant guitar as suddenly a powerful driving keyboard and guitar riff comes in, Jaspers beat propelling it along at great speed.
This is a confident and intelligent piece of music, as it leads us back into some more of Schnausers story lyrics about Ordinary Ways, celebrating the joy of the usual, in a similar vein to McCartneys vocal interlude during A day in the Life.
Next we launch into Spleen Damage, a cautionary tale for all written and performed in a style that owes nods to the Bonzo’s or indeed Monty Python, with it’s blend or the real and the surreal, it provides a counterpoint to the musical intensity, as the story builds to its crescendo.
The finale returns to musical ideas introduced in Grey or Blue, and rounds the album off with aplomb and style as the finale builds and builds.
This is a fantastic album and shows a band at the park of their musical and compositional powers, and there is no weak track on it, proof of the pudding of course is, does it work live?
Yes, is the answer to that question.
The album was launched at the Lanes in Bristol on Saturday 4th October, and having already heard the album, and having the joy of seeing them play (albeit a truncated set) supporting Knifeworld, with the addition of the saxophonist to the line up, this was not going to be a gig I missed. Especially it’s practically on the doorstep!
The venue itself, the Lanes, is as the name suggests a bowling alley/bar/multipurpose venue, and whilst I love the fact that quirky venues like this have a place in the world, and also are diversifying so they can maximise their space and make sure they generate revenue to stay open, I am not 100% sure that this works as a venue for live music.
The fact that the bowling was still going on whilst the band played was distracting, and the mixing on the sound left a bit to be desired as some of the magic of the vocal harmonies were lost in the mix.
However that is my only criticism of the night, and with a few tweaks the venue would be perfect. However the audience didn’t seem to mind as the place filled up very quickly, and there was quite a crowd there ready to enjoy the debut of Protein for Everyone in a live setting.
The band played a couple of tracks from their previous album Where Business meets Fashion, including a wonderful version of Walking Stick and Cat, before launching into the album.
With the addition of Deano on Sax to the band, this was the first time the audience got the full five-piece Schnauser effect, and boy is it impressive.
The addition of the sax to the band enhances the live sound, and the way it weaves into the tracks from Protein is superb.
Watching a band live is always better than listening to the album, and the beauty of Protein for Everyone is that every track on the album translates well into a live setting, and when you see them live, you realise just how powerful a drummer Jasper is, throwing himself into everything and driving the songs along, whilst Holly on bass plays to perfection, more than a match for jasper, and the way they work together anchors the whole sound, and is as important to the band as Alans wonderful guitar work and vocals, and Duncans keyboards and his theremin, which when thrown in with the vocal harmonies adds to the fact that at times there is a Beach Boys vibe about them. The vocal interplay between Alan and Holly, which has been a Schnauser trademark for as long as there has been a Schnauser band is vitally important to the sound, and on tracks like The Reason they’re alive and Buon Natale, is at the forefront of the bands sound. The highlight of the set for me, and indeed the highlight of the album, is the immense epic Disposable Outcomes, which works even better live than it does on record (bear in mind on record it is flawless) and with the addition of the sax to the mix, it lifts it even higher, and with its quick fire mood changes, its changes in key, and tempo and style, it comes off with aplomb, showing that Schnauser are absolutely on fire as a live act, and easily the equal of any band you might have seen before. With some fantastic stagecraft and peerless musicianship from all 5 of the band, this was one of those gigs you leave and realise you’ve just witnessed something special. If you get the chance to see Schnauser do so.
I also spoke to multi-instrumentalist and keyboard player Duncan Gammon about the new album, and Schnauser in general, first however we got talking about Duncans 2009 solo album Lord Gammonshire’s guide to Everyday Sounds, a piece of fantastic prog pop, which features guests like Maria Charles from Bristol’s Hi-Fiction Science, and is a rare treat which deserves investigation.
‘It took ages to record, as it was ideas I’d had for a long time, and there was stuff bubbling under from about 2001 when I had started playing in Bristol bands, I started recording it at my home studio, and a friend of mine Gaz Williams, whose a producer here in Bristol helped me out with it, and it came out in 2009. It got some good reviews and reasonable sales, and then I should have promoted it more and toured with it, but I didn’t!’
Then you joined Schnauser,
‘I joined Schnauser in 2011, I had seen them supporting Euros Childs as I’m a bit of a Gorkys (zycotic Mynki) fan and was blown away by seeing them. I bought Sound of Meat and got chatting to the band. I am very into photography so I offered to do some pictures for them, and we got chatting about music. I sent a copy of my album to Alan (Strawbridge) who was raving about it, and then he asked me to join the band on keyboards. I wasn’t really a keyboard player, my main instrument is the guitar, but having switched over to keyboards there’s a different area of songwriting that has opened up for me, and it’s like a blank canvas composing in a way you wouldn’t even consider with a guitar’
Had that informed your input on Protein for Everyone?
‘When I joined the band the majority of Business meets Fashion was already recorded, so I overdubbed all the keyboards and we recorded one song, Pigeons, which I contributed. This time round we were writing in the rehearsal studios, and the process was more organic. It reflects more of what we sound like live, and of course it’s the first album with Jasper on drums.’
‘John (Fowle) the previous drummer had a great sound, right on the mark, he was very precise, Jasper is so different, he’s very much into jazz and so he plays the drums very much like a lead instrument. So the songs came very easily from the jam sessions, and there was a real spark with the writing.’
‘We’ve been playing these songs a long time, they were well rehearsed before we recorded them, and they’ve been in the set list for a while, so we’re used to performing them and know what we’re doing each time’.
I mentioned how I’d seen them supporting Knifeworld recently in Bristol,
‘That was a great gig, I love what Kavus does with Knifeworld and of course the Cardiacs, the music Knifeworld are making is amazing. Unfortunately on the night of that gig, with it being in a small pub, it took ages to set up, so we had to play a shorter set, but we still managed to get the 16 minuter in.
It was out first gig playing with the sax player Deano, who’s now a permanent member of the band. He brings that extra package, another ingredient to the mix and a different sound.’
What about the album launch gig, how did that go?
‘The launch gig, that was the first time we’d played all the songs live and in order as a whole. The sound was a bit muddy, some of the harmonies got lost, but it was a lovely place to do a gig, it’s a great venue.
We launched the last album at the Cube, which unfortunately this time round was booked up, the Cube is an old cinema so we had more films, which this time round we were unable to show.
We did have a good time performing, and it’s good to see the songs went down well with a lot of the audience’
Protein for Everyone is their first album on the Esoteric Antenna label,
‘Mark & Vicky (Powell, label bosses at Esoteric) have done so much for us, they’ve both been so enthusiastic about the record, and I count them as friends. The press has also been very supportive we are getting great reviews. There was a good one in Prog, another great one in Shindig and Record Collector, there’s been some radio as well, and we’re getting orders from other countries
We were nominated for the Limelight award at the Prog Awards this year, we chanced it when we sent off Where Business meets Fashion, and they latched on it and have been supportive of us, and it’s taken off from there.’
How do you feel about being part of the new prog scene?
‘It seems to have come at the right time for us, with all the magazines calling us prog. I am a massive prog fan and listened to things like Ummagumma, Zep III, and Piper at the Gates of Dawn when I was growing up, so it’s where I come from. Up until recently prog has been a dirty word, but now there’s bands like Syd Arthur who aren’t afraid to say they are prog’
Has prog influenced you as a songwriter?
‘Personally I listen to a lot of music, the Canterbury Scene, Caravan, the Soft Machine, Egg, I also like a lot of new bands. We went to see White Denim as a band and they sparked in us the idea of doing the 16-minute track. White Denim have released 4 albums and live they cut it up and mix it with tracks from each album being chopped and changed, its high energy entertainment with a cut and paste style.
Al & Holly are into Todd Rundgren, Al and I like 10CC with their element of songwriting. I consider the work of 10CC to be prog but in a pop sound. Like Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci they had a prog approach with a more commercial sound.
We like to think we have that same sort of approach.
The last track we recorded for the album was Disposable Outcomes, we’d been writing a lot of jams and had ideas for verses and choruses that were unfinished, and then we decided to segue them in a way that seems perfectly natural.
They all came from sessions going back to about 2012 and we’d had bits and pieces recorded when the last album came out.
It became more of a cohesive piece as we did it live in the studio, then overdubbing bits and pieces to give it more energy, we must have rehearsed it several times before recording it, then we broke it into chunks, did 4 takes of each and then mixed it and nailed it. Then when we toured Italy we wondered what we could do live, and honed it there.’
I mentioned the striking album cover, which harks back to classic album covers of the 70’s,
‘We had the album title already, and Johnny who runs Rocket recordings, is a great graphic designer, was knocking ideas around with us. At first we thought about making a meat-processing machine out of an amp, but that didn’t quite work, we wanted something unexpected. So Johnny came up with the idea of the man made out of meat, which ties in with the title track and selling body parts for meat.
We took the photos at Clevedon pier, and Laura Kidd (solo artist She Makes War) another friend from Bristol, volunteered to be our cover star, which works out great because she has a pet Schnauser Benji, and so he’s in some of our promo material as well. Johnny has an eye for detail and is a big fan of Barney Bubbles, and he wanted to make this one like a Hipgnosis cover.
Down to the disturbing shrink-wrapped faces?
That was Johnny’s idea; he covered our heads in cling film, and told us not to breath in otherwise we would suffocate. That was a surreal afternoon. The things you do for your art!’
How has the band evolved?
‘We’re all working full time or part time, and so we can’t do this permanently because at this level it doesn’t pay the bills, and so we fit Schnauser in round family life, and we’re lucky to have such supportive families who allow us to do this.
We feel we’ve evolved from the previous album, and we have a few songs left over from this album that we’re not sure what to do with yet.
Now we’re starting to jam and the riffs we’re doing are different again from ones we’d have done two or three years ago. The song is paramount; it’s all about the pop hooks. The playing might be a bit sharper, particularly with the sax. Now we have the sax we are revisiting the back catalogue to mix the set list up a bit. We’ll even be drawing on the first album that Al did as Schnauser back in 2005, Kill all Humans.
It started out as Al’s baby and it’s evolved as we’ve been playing the new material and stuff from the 4 previous albums.
Has any of the Lord Gammonshire material made it’s way into the set list?
We’ve played Everyday Sounds, so it has been known to happen, as we play Bristol quite a bit, we like to have very different set lists at each gig.
We’re looking for a few more gigs across the UK and start to get out there. Its difficult without a manager, and there’s no idea if there’ll be an audience for us if we get gigs. We’re playing Birmingham, Bournemouth, Swindon fairly soon, then Italy in February.’
Italy seems to figure quite heavily in the bands story
‘Al is obsessed with Italy; in fact he’s out there at the moment. He’s been learning Italian for a long time and I think he’d move there at the drop of a hat.
Buon Natale for instance means Happy Christmas, but Al felt that if he’d sung the lyrics in English they would come across as mawkish, as it’s a jolly tune with quite melancholic lyrics about missing his Dad and other people at Christmas.
It took a while to get the lyrics right on the recording, as we recorded it as live in Weston Super mare, the same sessions that we recorded Grey or Blue, Protein for Everyone, National Grid and Buon Natale. It must have taken about 40 takes to get the vocal right for that. The fact we’ve been playing most of these songs for two years means when we were able to get them done pretty quickly in the studio.’
Buon Natale features another example of the Schnauser harmonies,
‘I’m not needed that often to get involved with the harmonies, one of the Schnauser sounds is the vocal harmonies with Al singing a higher vocal than Holly, there’s only a few songs where I join in and we all harmonise.
Has the band thought about performing further a field?
‘Hopefully we’re looking to set some gigs on in January, we’d like to go up North as we’ve been selling albums in Hebden Bridge, and I have family up North as well, so hopefully we can play up there’.
What about festivals?
‘We played Eppyfest last year, which is a great gig, a superb venue, however we nearly didn’t make it as we broke down and were stuck at Thornbury for three hours, luckily we made it in the end.
We are looking to do more festivals; we usually get on Bristol’s Dot-to-Dot festival. We’ve also played a festival in Dorset, it was the first time we ever played a big stage like the one they have at Glastonbury with a big PA. We played with the Pretty Things and Hugh Cornwall that was good fun. We’d love to do the Green Man festival, and it’s all about getting the momentum behind you’.
And having the record label helps,
‘It was ironic Esoteric signing Hi-Fiction Science and us at the same time, as we’re both good friends. There’s a great scene in Bristol with loads of bands and the live scene is good and supportive, it’s nice to know that there’s bands and venues for everyone.
We wouldn’t have labelled ourselves prog, we think we’re nearer a pop band, and prog people and the prog scene picking up on what we’re doing have labelled us, and it’s great to get exposure as part of the scene.
What about the final story in Disposable Outcomes?
The story, Spleen Damage, it came from a night when I’d had some Speckled Hen. A big influence of mine is Viv Stanshall, and Al had this piano piece that he didn’t know what to do with, and it sounded a bit Rawlinsons end, so I got the notepad out and went nuts. The lyrics throughout Disposable Outcomes are all about celebrating the ordinary. No-one writes about going down the shops, and it’s what people do everyday, so why not write about it and celebrate it.’
Thanks to Vicky at Esoteric for arranging the interview with Duncan, and thanks to Duncan for his time.
More information can be found at http://www.schnauser.co.uk
Rush’s lyrics over the decades put its point of view firmly in the great Western intellectual tradition of Aristotle, John Locke, and Adam Smith. So when you listen to the band’s 165 original compositions, you’re hearing the same ideas that animated Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson—only a lot louder.
–Rob Freedman, RUSH: LIFE, LIBERTY, AND THE PURSUIT OF EXCELLENCE, 2014
A nice note came to the website today:
I recently searched for pictures of the famed Le Studio in Quebec where Rush recorded (following my own desire for a place so cool to record in). I found out that Le Studio has been abandoned and was facing demolition. All the news I found is a couple of years old and I’m wondering if it was demolished or if someone purchased the place to preserve it.
Does anyone have any idea of what happened? Thanks, Brad
I had a hard time trying to think of a title for this post. I wanted something snappy and catchy but ended up with People I don’t know who do nice things. Let me explain.
There is a man in Greece. His name is Dimitriadis Tasos. I have since learnt that he is an artist and a fan of progressive rock music. One morning a few weeks ago I noticed that this guy had posted a video on you tube of one of our songs, Desert Sands. It was a really good video, miles better than anything I could have done. After getting in touch with him he said he had done it because he liked the music, and would like to do some more. He has since done Reminiscence and last night he posted this one for Situation Disorientation.
There is no reason for him doing this for us apart from the fact he likes our music.
Likewise, there is a gentleman with the initials BB who occasionally writes on this site who has championed our music and written some really nice words, not only about the music but about me as well. It feels good when strangers ( people you don’t know ) do something nice for you. I have also had the opposite happen to me this week and I am hurting from it so thank you to the people I don’t know for restoring my faith in the world.
Thanks for reading the thoughts of a rambling mind.
The Black Codex episodes 14-26 released
On October 7th we have released the second double CD in the four part series of The Black Codex.
The Black Codex tells the story of a young man (Ezio) who sets out to draw a map of the world, from a wooden flying machine. However, from the moment he meets Lev, his plans go completely awry. Lev has a mysterious insight in the patterns in which people behave and is a master of secret plans and schemes. Lev involves Ezio in his quest for an ancient book called The Black Codex. They encounter all kinds of villains, secret societies and mythic characters.
Originally setup as a weekly digital release only the whole series will be released on 4 double CD’s, packaged in a mini-album sleeve. Together with the fourth part a box and a book will become available. The series of double CD’s will be released quarterly. Together with the last double CD a box and booklet will be released.
Mastermind behind The Black Codex is multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer Christiaan Bruin. Not only does he handle the drums for both the progressive rock band Sky Architect as the progressive metal band Adeia. He recently joined Nine Stones Close as keyboardist. He is also one of the major supports as a musician and producer of Maartje Dekker’s Mayra Orchestra. And of course he has released already 4 solo albums.
I must happily admit, every month I really look forward to iTunes informing me that a new Billy Reeves/Kscope Podcast has arrived in my podcast box (“area”? I have no idea what it’s called–something in iTunes). This month’s–no. 56–is especially good.
Make sure you check it out. It features music and news from Lunatic Soul, NAO, Iamthemorning, Anathema, and Steven Wilson.
N.B. This is a deeply personal essay considering two examples of why prog means so much to me. I could offer others. But, on this October 11, 2014—the second anniversary of the creation of this website—these are the two I need to offer. I reveal some things that maybe should be left unrevealed. . . but such is life.
As some readers of progarchy might know, I’m a progarchist only at night and during my free time. By day, I’m a professional historian, lecturer, and biographer. I’m also a husband of one and a father of six. . . well, seven. . . but that will be explained in a moment.
Though I’ve had the amazing opportunity to lecture in England (2003 at the Ashmolean), I generally lecture in the U.S. In some years, I might lecture as many as 20x in various locations around the country. Usually and understandably, I’m asked to lecture on the liberal arts, Catholicism, biography, etc. But, almost always when someone who knows me only from my academic career looks at my resume, he sees “progarchy” or something about “prog rock” and becomes more than a bit dumbfounded. Yes, I admit it. Rather proudly. I’m 47, and I love Socrates, Jesus, and progressive rock. I love Batman, too, but that’s another story.
All of this is merely to give context to what I’m about to write.
From as early as I could remember, I read everything I could get my hands on. I was never a huge TV person (aside from Star Trek), and I’d just as soon spend any free time outside exploring that vast horizons of Kansas as I would reading. But, also, for as long as I can remember, I loved music. As a toddler (and my mom can confirm this), I’d crawl out of the crib, make my way to the family room, and blast the stereo system at three in the morning, waking the entire house. I also used to turn on oven burners at full blast at 3 in the morning, but this, too, is a different story.
I grew up with a very, very intelligent mother and two spirited and equally intelligent older brothers. They introduced me to Tolkien, to Bradbury, and to progressive rock. Lots and lots of progressive rock. In particular, I used to stare and stare at the gatefolds of Yes’s Yessongs. And, of course, Roger Dean’s art is deeply ingrained in every fibre of my being.
Prog has gotten me through much. As some level, it has been almost religious for me. I can state with complete honesty—though without detail, at least at the moment—that had I not had the music of the Moody Blues, Yes, and, especially, Rush, I would not have survived junior high school. I mean this quite literally. Neil Peart’s lyrics gave me a reason to live when it seemed no others existed. Let’s leave it at this: I had an amazing mom, two wonderful brothers, and a rather evil step father (sounds like a Disney movie, I know, but it’s true—he’s currently serving in the first third of a 13-year prison sentence; not a “nice guy.”).
Even with my step father and his machinations, I was able to escape INTO prog. A simple pop or rock song wouldn’t do it. My imagination demanded long songs, intricate bass and drums, and philosophical lyrics.
It still does.
Most of my prog associations are happy ones, despite what I just wrote above. There was prog when I went through college and graduate school, when I play Canasta (my favorite game), when I bake (one of my hobbies), when I met my wife, when we got married (at our wedding; yes, prog was played!), when we had each one of our children, and throughout my entire professional career. Every book I’ve written, I could’ve easily dedicated to a few artists who inspired me as I pounded the keys and poured over the research.
The lyrics of Greg Spawton, Mark Hollis, Roine Stolt, Andy Tillison, Tom Anderson, Tori Amos, Sam Healy, Roland Orzabal, and Neil Peart hover always near my conscious waking state, and who knows what they do to my dreams? Quite a bit, I presume.
To the crux of the point. I could name probably ten albums that have fundamentally shaped my life and made me—for better or worse—who I am.
But, no moment in my life—even with all the horrors of childhood—compares to August 8, 2007. On that day, my wife delivered a full-term stillborn baby. Our little girl, Cecilia Rose Birzer, had been utterly healthy and had come to full term on August 6. Rather than induce, we decided to wait and allow her to come naturally. It was a wretched decision to make as on the morning of August 8, she became entangled in her own umbilical cord and strangled to death. At the time it happened, my wife felt a strange, painful jolt in her womb. By the time we got to the hospital, though, Cecilia Rose had already suffocated.
It’s one thing to suffer and be abused on a personal level. It’s a radically different thing to see a loved one suffer. There’s nothing in this world more horrific than knowing that your child has been harmed. Nothing. I’d rather die at the hands of a madman than see one of my own children hurt. And, there was my little precious girl strangled to death in the most protective of all places—her mother’s womb.
We held our baby for a very long time after she came into the world. She grew hauntingly and eerily cold as the heat from her mother’s womb dissipated. There was our little girl, never to wear pink, never to love princess, never to fall in love with a prince.
Our community—at the college and through our parish—rallied around us, and, for this, we are eternally grateful. Strangely enough, he had just moved to a new house—located across the street from a grave yard. We had our little girl buried there.
Of course, I’ll never forget the year after she died. I was on sabbatical, and I was writing my biography of American founding father, Charles Carroll. The day Cecilia Rose died was the most confusing of my entire life. My wife handled it all with beautiful strength and grace, her husband less so. For the next week, every single minute seemed a day, every hour a lifetime, and the entire week a year or more. We buried her on August 14.
After the funeral, after the burial, after all of our friends had returned to their respective lives, I felt absolutely alone and quite bitter. I don’t member a lot about that year. I hugged our other kids all of the time, I wrote my biography of Carroll, and I made daily (sometimes more) pilgrimages to Cecilia Rose’s grave. I had experienced real depression as a kid—but it was of an entirely different kind. When I was a kid, the evil happened to me. Now, as an adult, the evil happened to my daughter. The first was bearable, the second didn’t seem to be.
From August 8, 2007, to March 5, 2008, I hated God. There’s no way around it, I hated Him. I never doubted His existence, but I thought He was nothing more than a huge, nasty, omnipotent bully. While at Cecilia Rose’s grave, I would (quite literally) shake my fist at the sky and scream. I’ve been against abortion all of my life, but, standing at her grave, I raved that “God was the biggest and most evil abortionist in the universe.”
On the evening of March 5, 2008, I sat in Mass, and I decided that I hated God so much, I would end my own life. I had thought about suicide a lot as a kid, and it was the words of Neil Peart that had given me the strength to persevere. After leaving for college, entering marriage, and having kids, such thoughts had dissipated to nothing. I’d assumed they were gone forever.
In the near absolute darkness of March 5, 2008, though, I was ready to end it all. All of my doubts and fears overwhelmed me. I was thirteen again, and I was ready to say goodbye, even if that meant leaving my wife and kids alone. In some twisted logic, I’d convinced myself that since I’d allowed my daughter Cecilia Rose to “be murdered” I wasn’t fit to be a father. My wife and kids would be better off without me.
Some small voice resisted that night, and I called one of my closest friends. I won’t give his full name, but his first name is Steve. Steve, being about the kindest person I know (and wickedly smart), immediately came to see me. We met at the parking lot in front of our office building. I’m not sure how long we sat in my car talking. It might have been an hour, it might have been five. Steve, being Steve, never complained. He just listened. I cried, I ranted. I probably seemed more than a bit crazy. And, I think I was. Yet, after however long we talked, it was over. Just the very witness of Steve’s friendship made me realize the beauty of living. I’ve still never gotten over my anger about the loss of my daughter, and I think of her every day. I can, however, now accept her death even if the pain remains (and, believe me, it does, and, I assume, always will).
So, what does all of this have to do with progressive rock? One album and only one album sustained me during that horrific time, August 8, 2007-March 5, 2008, even as I slowly and sometimes not so slowly descended into despair: Marillion’s Afraid of Sunlight.
I don’t mean to suggest that I didn’t listen to other music. I most certainly did, and I enjoyed that other music. That was also a year of The Flower Kings, Kevin McCormick, Rush, Talk Talk, Riverside, Porcupine Tree, Pure Reason Revolution, and others. But, it was always Afraid of Sunlight that gave me the most strength, and it was to that album that I returned over and over again.
I had, naturally, come to Brave first (through my friend, Lee), and I loved every aspect of it. I had delved into the lyrics, the music, and the meaning of Brave. It was, perhaps, one of the finest puzzles I’ve ever unraveled. But, of course, it ends in suicide. I had spent so much time deconstructing Brave that I decided just to take Afraid of Sunlight for what it was. I had (and have) every note and every lyric memorized. But, I never analyzed the album. It was only recently—perhaps in the last several months—that I finally looked into its meaning, finding out that the album dealt with celebrity and the death of celebrity: O.J. Simpson; Michael Jackson; and Brian Wilson.
I’m very glad I didn’t know any of this in 2007 and 2008. Then, it was quite simply an album of immense hope—hope in beauty, hope in truth, and hope in goodness. Hope. An overabundance of hope.
Steve’s guitar, Pete’s bass (the bass ties the entire album together), Mark’s keyboards, Ian’s drums—all so gorgeous, so intense, so meaningful. And, then, Hogarth’s voice. What can one say that would ever do justice to such a voice? It’s a voice of hope, a voice of truth, a voice of beauty, and a voice of conviction.
I hope the band will forgive me for reposting these lyrics without permission.
Drive the road to your surrender /Time comes around… out of my hands /Small boats on the beach at the dead of night /Come and go before first light/ Leave me running in the wheel /King of the world How do you feel? What is there to feel? So how do we now come to be /Afraid of sunlight? Tell me girl why you and me /Scared of sunlight? Been in pain for so long/ I can’t even say what hurts anymore /I will leave you alone/ I will deny/ I will leave you to bleed/ I will leave you with your life/ So how do we now come to be/ Afraid of sunlight? Tell me girl why are you and me/ Scared of sunlight? All your spirit rack abuses/ Come to haunt you back by day /All your byzantine excuses Given time, given you away /Don’t be surprised when daylight comes /To find that memory prick your thumbs /You’ll tell them where to run to hide /I’m already dead/ It’s a matter of time/ So how do we now come to be/ Afraid of sunlight/ How do we now come to be /Afraid of sunlight/ So how do we now come to be/ Afraid of sunlight How do we now come to be /Afraid of sunlight/ Dayglo jesus on the dash/ Chalk marks on the road ahead /Friendly fire in hostile waters /Keep the faith/ Don’t lose your head /So how do we now come to be? ….
Such words could not, of course, bring back my Cecilia Rose. But, they did save my life.
For: Dedra and Steve.