[Revised June 23rd, 2022]
What makes a good story?
I suppose there are various sorts of answers that might be appropriate for a question like that. What I have in mind now has to do with hearing a story told, hearing it knowing that one is supposed to live or to inhabit the story in a sense.
How much detail is needed for that? My own answer would frequently be “not too much!” You may know people who tell stories with too little detail, but I am more often annoyed by too much. How much is enough (but not too much)? There is no algorithm. Yet great storytelling somehow hits just the right level. We know it when we hear it.
This has to do with an (at least implicit) sensitivity to the logic of a narrative. Not logic in the narrow, “if A then B” sense, but the deep logic, the logos of a narrative — roughly, with its “why.” This includes the “why” as intended by the author(s) of the narrative, of course, but it is also much more than that. It is a logic that the author must converse with. It is a product of an author’s will in one sense, but it also has a sort of will of its own, which imposes itself on the author, and insists on going where IT will. If I think about my individual life, which has a narrative (biographical) logic, this provides a clear example. I have had a significant hand in “authoring” my own narrative, yes, but large parts of the narrative has unfolded in ways that were by no means the result of my will (not to mention that it had already been unfolding before I developed any awareness of it). I am probably much more shaped by the story than I am the shaper of it.
A “concept album” can often be judged (among other ways) by the skill with which the narrative is shaped, but also by how much the narrative is allowed to take its own shape. If we encounter a release that presents itself as having a “concept,” we will immediately wonder: What’s the story, and how well is it told? In other words: What is the logos of the story, and how well does the teller allow the logic to follow its path?
This month, The Bardic Depths present us with their sophomore release: Promises of Hope (out June 24th). Expectations are high, given their amazing eponymous debut in 2020 (hereafter TBD; see my review here). I will be honest about my very first impressions. My first listen had me wondering if it was less than I had expected, if the concept (the story) was more vague and stereotypical than the concept of their prior release. But this was probably rooted in my fear and trepidation more than in fact. I wanted POH to be at the same level as TBD, since I am very fond of both Brad Birzer and Dave Bandana, and since I was blown away by TBD.
My transition to finding all of my expectations met and surpassed came when I heard “The Burning Flame” (track 4), which has been disseminated as a teaser, within in its conceptual (narrative) context. Do these guys tell a good story? Emphatically, yes!
In his conversation with Rick Krueger here on Progarchy, Dave Bandana says this:
I left the story to Brad [Birzer]; it’s a tricky sort of subject. But I think it’s one that we dealt with in a not-complex way, in quite a simplistic way. But it told the story that we wanted to tell; it didn’t go into too much detail, but it gives the listener something to think about.
Here is the question opened above: Is there enough (but not too much) detail? The “tricky sort of subject” is suicide, and I want to offer a “translation” of Dave’s characterization: The telling of the story is “not complex” in the sense that its level of detail is just right for the complexity of the concept (for the logos of the narrative). Just enough detail to open itself to the participation of any listener with any kind of experience of the central subject. Experience with this subject is too common, though we experience it at varying degrees of distance. No matter the distance, experience related to suicide (contemplated or attempted by oneself, or bringing shadow into one’s world when it is another) generally brings acute pain and deep sorrow. It is the frequent companion of the dwindling or loss of hope.
The subject is personal for Birzer. Having lost a family member years ago, he tells us he has long reflected on suicide and the possibility of redemption. He references both Dido’s suicide in Virgil’s Aeneid, and the prevention of Aravis’ suicide in C. S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, but the actual story takes an interestingly minimalist tack:
A young woman (a queen of a fantasy world) tries to kill herself, but Heaven won’t allow it.
That’s it. That is what the listener is given as a concept. Birzer says more about it in the CD booklet, but that single sentence is the whole plot. Only two other characters are identified: an unnamed man (“he”), by whom she is betrayed, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, who intervenes to reject her suicide. (The latter explicitly sets the narrative in a broadly Christian context, which is no surprise from Birzer, but don’t expect the theology involved to be either simplistic or “in your face”!)
Is that enough detail? I was skeptical at first, but the band more than sells the concept, compelling the listener to find the detail in the spaces between: between the lines of the lyrics, between instruments and voices, between the narrative logos and the ear of the listener willing to be drawn in. It is rather like a Biblical parable, in which one cannot help but recognize oneself in some way.
Just as the wills, the agencies of the narrative and of the hearer are at issue (“in play”), so Birzer allows the “problem” (question? issue? mystery?) of the will to be an open question. The will of the protagonist to destroy herself comes up against a will that is higher. Is determinism presupposed? Birzer’s apparent wish (will) is to avoid foreclosure of this weighty issue. But what of the logos of the narrative in this regard? What of the will of the listener? The play of the wills both in the narrative and performance and in the interpretive will of the listener is both unsettled and highly charged.
Now, when I talk of selling the concept or “drawing in,” I have assumed all along that this is as much (or more) a matter of the music and the performance as of the concept. But I must now turn in that direction more explicitly.
[Ah, finally! He’s gonna comment on the band!]
Well, here is another (perhaps unexpected?) turn of thought: I have been referring to the concept, and it turns out that talking about the band is not really a “turn” away from concept. The Bardic Depths is a band, and this even more so now than on TBD, since Gareth Cole, Tim Gehrt, and Peter Jones join Dave Bandana as official members of The Bardic Depths! But it seems to me that The Bardic Depths is essentially a concept that is also a band (as opposed to a band with a concept). First it was the collaboration of Bandana and Birzer (still the conceptual core). While the “official membership” has widened, the concept has not really changed; it has only been further enriched.
This is very good news for us, the listeners!
What the concept amounts to still involves the open circle of participation evident on TBD, with friends from both sides of “The Pond”, and even from “Down Under” contributing. Such not-face-to-face collaboration is not unique among contemporary recording artists, I know. But I am an old-timer, and it still rather boggles my 1970s mind. And the level of craft, skill, and loving commitment to the collective task is a big part of the “force” that sells it. But it also makes sense that the concept has drawn Cole, Gehrt, and Jones closer in. The contributions of all three seem more pervasive and more essential, more integral this time. They give the music a pulse and a general “physiognomy”, providing the inviting richness to which the “guests” are clearly willing to bring their all.
Krueger’s interview with Bandana provides interesting discussion of individual members and guests. If I offer a few comments in what follows, omissions should not be taken as negative in any way. Everyone is amazing here!
But I will risk heaping explicit praise on Peter Jones (also of Tiger Moth Tales and Camel). A standout soloist on TBD, Jones here clearly finds a profound chemistry (alchemy?) with the rest of the band. His vocals ignite; his saxophone sears, his pennywhistle dances around the fire. And Jones does not ever overshadow his bandmates; he elevates them. And he clearly senses the logos.
Cole’s lead guitar work is phenomenal, and Kevin McCormick’s lead contribution on “The Burning Flame” fits in gorgeously! (The Floyd is strong in this one.)
Also not to be missed are Rick Krueger’s wonderful organ contributions (classic prog mode on “And She Appeared”, and evocative church organ on “Imagine.”
Bandana is, as expected, everywhere and seemingly on everything. (I’m especially taken with his bass this time.) And there’s Paolo Limoli’s exquisite piano!! And Robin Armstrong’s production is top-notch!! And I haven’t mentioned Gehrt’s deft drumming!! See, my tendency here is to lose words and multiply exclamation points.
The upshot is that Promises of Hope is a worthy successor to TBD, and a worthy exemplar of the concept that is The Bardic Depths.
Listen, I urge you, as one should listen to an opera, where the time taken to unfold the story pushes against “hasty” listening (hasty in Treebeard’s sense), asking for a patient ear. The issue of hastiness is about time, but it is not only about “clock time.” It is about our tendency, as some have recently suggested, to listen in order to respond rather than listening in order to hear.
Allow the agencies of both the narrative and the (musical) tellers to draw you into companionship, into participation, into the deep logic of the story. Allow the possibility of your own death (as a part of what gives your life definition) to inform your listening, to bring some complexity to your encounter with this “not-complex” narrative. It draws back from throwing too much complexity at you, so that you may bring your own.
Finally, it’s worth noting that I have not really said anything here about hope. Yes, Emily, we’re all learning about why you called it “the thing with feathers.” Some (many?) are inclined to say that hope is in short supply these days. But it is not an accident that I have not made that central herein. I leave that to your listening, because it is really what the narrative is about! (…hence the title, duh.). I would not promise that everyone can find hope there, but I think what I can promise (whether or not hope is what you seek) is some mighty good listening.
You need to hear Promises of Hope!
[Thanks to Dave Bandana for providing me with an advance copy of POH.]