Cloud Cult: Here and Back Again

Sing, Siren– and tell the tale of Cloud Cult, a band worth seeking. Though labeled as an alternative rock band, or sometimes called an “orchestral indie rock collective”, the Minnesota-native band is over 20 years old. My introduction, though, is very recent. I heard lead singer and songwriter Craig Minowa interviewed on the On Being with Krista Tippett podcast (episode “Music Is Medicine”); after listening to their latest album The Seeker and learning that Cloud Cult is having two concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra next April 7&8, 2018 (how cool!) – I am convinced they are a hybrid progressive rock band.

The Seeker is a visceral experience, starting slowly with “Living in Awe” and opening up in “To The Great Unknown”. Can we find humor in the cynic? Can we find faith in the Great Unknown? The sounds are upbeat and the lyrics challenging: “God gave you brains, so don’t go drowning in your own thinking. God gave you hands so you can pick up your broken pieces. God gave you feet so you can find your own way home.

“Days to Remember”, “Chromatica” and “Come Home” are transition songs, mostly instrumental. They take you by the hand and lead you deeper into the journey – “the water’s warm, and the sun is shining; I just want to spend some time with you.” You almost feel the warmth, if you close your eyes, and appreciate the convergence of multiple voices with a varied combination of guitar, drums, violin, trumpet, cello, trombone, bass guitar, keyboard, and French horn in each song.

But this album shivers. The sixth and seventh songs of the album– “No Hell” and “Everything You Thought You Had”– are the middle of the road in this journey. “Time Machine Invention” is my favorite song of this album, serving a poppy beat and heartfelt story of a not-so-bright inventor who’s made up his mind to travel time: “I waste so much time a worryin’ I forgot to live my life; I’m not going anywhere ‘til I’m back to where it was we were before. I don’t need anything except always needing just a little more. ” Humanity’s searching in life is often “just a little more.”

The end of the album’s song titles set a descending tone: “The Pilgrimage”, “Three Storms Until You Learn To Float”, “You Were Never Alone”, “Prelude to an End” and “Though the Ages”.

The repeated theme of “faith in the Great Unknown” is what propels the Seeker of this album. But it is unclear: is the narrator or the listener the Seeker? That is a beautiful line never crossed; a mystery to embrace.

If life is a story we’re meant to live through,
then both me and you are the pages.
I’ll tell you a tale, and most of it’s true,
you see, I came here for you through the ages.

We are all on this walk, this memorizing loop across deserts and rainbows and streets and volcanos. Cloud Cult’s music is intimate enough to engage intellectually and broad enough to include its audience. The crescendo at the end of the album, after following a steady stream, felt like an enlightenment. Not a proper ending, tied in a bow– no, an awakening of understanding and senses.

On a side note, I love the line “There’s a reason God is doG backwards, we must chase the tail.”

It makes sense that tail would be spelled like a dog’s tail, but it’s also a play on “tale”, and the image of each of us chasing our own story is a glorious one.

Tarzan: Son of Man, Son of Prog

I was raised listening to the 3 M’s: Motown, Musicals and Mozart. My knowledge of singers, let alone songwriters, was limited to The Temptations, Dionne Warwick, and Rogers and Hammerstein. My mother likes the story of driving me and a neighboring girl to pre-school one day, and the little girl told us that she loved Michael Jackson. “Oh, me too!” I said. “And what is your favorite Michael Jackson song?” asked my mother. “Thriller,” said the girl. “Oh What A Beautiful Morning!” replied I.

Fast forward to 1999: my oldest friend’s birthday was approaching in late June. We decided to see Tarzan, the Disney film released that summer. Perhaps you’ve never seen it; it’s a good movie, though I have serious doubts that Edgar Rice Burroughs would have ever penned a gorilla character that sounds like Rosie O’Donnell. This was also my first encounter with anything prog music related.

At age 11, “progressive rock” was not in my vocabulary or musical repertoire. Genesis was the first book of the Bible. And yet, Phil Collins filled my ears. He wrote the entire soundtrack of Tarzan, you see. He sang his own songs, instead of the animated characters filling in the key notes. It was mesmerizing, playful, and flowed like chocolate over strawberries: it was utterly delicious to listen to, and I sat in that dark theater and occasionally closed my eyes, if only to make the song’s notes linger.

A few years down the road, in high school, my musical tastes included The Band, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Coldplay, Bob Dylan, Queen, Pink Floyd, Johnny Cash and plenty of pop music. I passively listened to Phil Collins  because my Studio Art I, II and III teacher played him during class. I had yet to connect the reasons of why I love certain types of music, but that would surface in college.

In rural Michigan, thanks to Pandora Radio and its music shuffle, I  formally met progressive rock (in the form of RUSH) over my abundance of reading requirements. After a few songs, I became smitten. I would spend hours plugged into the music, getting to know these new friends. Prog rock’s lyrics have substance; prog rock’s instrumental prowess are unmatched; prog rock kept my attention through paper writing, research and editing the independent paper I co-ran on campus.

But back to Phil Collins and Tarzan. Tarzan, the story of the man raised by gorillas who eventually comes into contact with other humans like himself and such, human nature. Collins’ song “You’ll Be In My Heart” won an Oscar, and deservedly so, but that song is far from my favorite.

In third place, “Two Worlds”:

The song parallels two families (human and gorilla) growing in their environments who both face tragedy.

Collins: “Raise your head up/ Lift high the load/ Take strength from those that need you/ Build high the walls/ Build strong the beams/ A new life is waiting/ But danger’s no stranger here.”

In second place, “Strangers Like Me”:

(And for good measure, here is the radio version video that has Phil Collins in it.)

This is the song that explores the relationship between Tarzan and Jane, his love interest and fellow human. Less subtly, however, the film shows how the three explorers give Tarzan his first education by showing him slides of city life and the solar system, watching the stars through a telescope, teaching him to read and how to ride a bicycle. But it is Tarzan who has something bigger to teach them about being human: family ties, loyalty, protecting one’s community.

Collins: “I wanna know, can you show me/ I wanna know about these strangers like me/ Tell me more, please show me/ Something’s familiar about these strangers like me // Come with me now to see my world/ Where there’s beauty beyond your dreams/ Can you feel the things I feel/ Right now, with you/ Take my hand/ There’s a world I need to know.”

Finally, in first place, “Son of Man”:

This is one shows Tarzan’s childhood, and the challenges he encounters which shapes his person and his character. His father figure rejects him, his gorilla mother and cousin teach, help and love him, he’s forced to learn his limitations while pushing his abilities, all the while surviving in the jungle. This song reminds me of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If…”:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Collins: “Oh, the power to be strong/ And the wisdom to be wise/ All these things will/ Come to you in time/ On this journey that you’re making/ There’ll be answers that you’ll seek/ And it’s you who’ll climb the mountain/ It’s you who’ll reach the peak.”

There is much to be said for the Tarzan soundtrack. Because of it, Phil Collins was inducted as a Disney Insider’s Legends in 2002. This may seem like a silly award, but I find it touching. In an interview with People magazine in 1999, Collins said, “We’ve broken some molds. The fact that I’m singing and the characters don’t burst into song makes it (the film) very different.”

The molds he broke were more than him singing: he introduced progressive rock into the mainstream culture via a children’s animated film, and won an Oscar as a result. He also translated the Tarzan album into German, Italian, French, and two dialects of Spanish (Latin American and Castilian), according to the Disney website – “an unprecedented feat by a musical artist for a motion picture.”

May there be many more recordings! Keep spreading the prog love, Phil.