The Bardic Depths, The Bardic Depths, 2020 (Gravity Dream)
Tracks: The Trenches (8:36), Biting Coals (7:50), Depths of Time (12:35), Depths of Imagination (5:01), Depths of Soul (6:40), The End (7:38), Legacies (9:28)
Longtime readers of Progarchy are well aware that just about everything written by Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is brilliant. The previous two album collaborations between Brad and Dave Bandana, 2017’s Becoming One and 2018’s Of Course It Must Be, were both great. I noticed strong strides forward in the second album, and I hear a huge leap forward in this third collaboration in the form of a more formal band called The Bardic Depths.
Birzer still handles the lyrical output and Bandana acts as the musical director, but the cast of characters has broadened greatly. Cosmograf maestro Robin Armstrong realized the brilliance in the demos and decided to both mix the album and make it the first release on his new record label, Gravity Dream. Along the way Bandana began asking people here and there to contribute to the album, and before he knew it a more refined sound had emerged. The Big Big Train facebook group became a means of connection for Bandana and the extraordinary Peter Jones (Tiger Moth Tales, Red Bazar, Camel). Jones contributed a couple soulful and beautiful saxophone solos. Gareth Cole and Robin Armstrong contribute some blistering guitar solos, and a host of other talented people contribute their musicianship and vocal talents (including spoken word). Sir Brad himself makes multiple appearances with the spoken word. Having had the fortune of taking one of his courses when I was in college, I can tell you he was blessed with a fantastic speaking voice, second to only Dr. Tom Conner in the Hillsdale College History Department.
As I said before, this album is a big leap forward on every level. The more lyrics Brad writes the better he gets at it. The concept of the album revolves around the friendship between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis that developed during the 1930s and 40s. Dave Bandana comments, “The album is about friendship and its ability to get us through anything including war.” Perhaps if he were commenting today, he might add “anything including war and disease.” The album is filled with contemplative moments, but it reminds us of things that are truly important. Friendship and faith are centerpieces in the lyrics. Thus is seems only fitting that so many people contributed to making this record.
There is a glass
Through which we see darkly.
– “Depths of Soul”
Biblical allusions (or actual quotations) and references to Tolkien’s mythology abound, yet they are not overpowering. They are extremely tasteful. The lyrics often repeat key lines in various parts of the album. This helps get the point across, and rather than being annoyingly repetitive I find it makes the album better. Bandana’s vocal performance for these lyrics makes it all the better because he provides different levels of emotion. He allows the song and the moments to build through both music and word. “The End” is a simple song, but it is absolutely brilliant. Bandana’s voice is the best I’ve heard from any of his albums on this track. It sounds so natural, clean, and desperate at the same time. The repeated line, “Yet there is always frailty, frailty and vanity,” is delivered with power and soul. I got chills the first time I heard it. Indeed, I sing with Brad and Dave, “To the world we never bow down.”
To the world we never bow down.
To the world we never worship the iron crown…
Yet there is always frailty,
Frailty and vanity.
– “The End”
Musically the album takes leaps forward with the addition of many talented players and backing vocalists. The piano work and synthesizers are sparse yet lush. Peter Jones’ provides excellent backing vocals on the final track that adds a beautiful layer of depth and complexity. Jones’ mournful saxophone solo in “Biting Coals” is absolutely stunning, while his solo in “Depths of Time” goes from mournful to extremely upbeat as the solo changes. Musically the song quite literally reflects the depths of time as we humans go from times of mourning to times of despair. The guitar solos sparingly peppered throughout the album add a heaviness, and the synth solos and flourishes add a proggy feel to the album. The guitar solo towards the end of “Legacies” is particularly awesome with an almost Hackett-like flair to it.
Some for good (Joy shall be yours)
Some for ill (Take courage now)
We ran the race
We kept the faith
Thematically and musically this album couldn’t be coming at a better time. It will be released five days from now on March 20. The world is currently more chaotic than it has been since 9-11. I was only around seven years old when that happened, but this level of fear seems greater because the threat is much further reaching. Perhaps nothing frightens us more than the fear of an unknown disease and what it might do. Indeed, there is always frailty. But we cannot be overcome by fear. We have but one life to live. This album acknowledges all of that yet still calls us to “redefine the age” in the final track. Will we all die from this virus? Maybe. That is all the more reason to lay pride aside and embrace the mercy and love found only in Jesus Christ. Don’t bow down to the world. Kneel at the foot of the cross instead.
Final thoughts – grab a copy of this album. It really is the finest thing I’ve heard so far this year next to Dave Brons’ Tolkien-themed album, Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost.” The Bardic Depths is a well-timed album for the tenor of the times even though its creators had no possible way of knowing what would transpire at the time of the album’s release. There is a gentleness mixed with a profound sincerity in this music and in the words found therein.
Check out Rick Krueger’s review of the album: https://progarchy.com/2020/03/06/sounding-the-bardic-depths/