The Bardic Depths – Promises of Hope (June 24th, 2022)

[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.]

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Audio Authenticity? Rafart – Dasein (2019)

Since it was released in October, I’ve been listening multiple times to Rafart’s new EP, Dasein.  Some might remember that I wrote, back in 2014, about Chilean composer and Chapman Stick player Francisco Rafart and his full-length release, The Handbook of the Acid Rider (2013). Since then, Rafart has released two EPs, the all-electronic Get in the Grid (2014), and Dark Night of the Soul (2015), as well as some individual tracks.  You can search “Rafart” on Spotify, or find him on Bandcamp, or go to his own web site.


Dasein features guitarists Filipe Saalfeld and Pat Nuño on guitars and Patrick Dalton on drums. Unlike Rafart’s previous releases, two of the four tracks on this EP include vocals.  I’ll admit to being partial to the instrumental tracks, but listen for yourself.  I would say that the urgency of Rafart’s vocal style adds an interesting additional dimension to his composition and performance.

Rafart presents Dasein as being about his quest for authenticity.  The reference of the title is to the concept of Dasein in the thought of German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).  ‘Dasein‘ (literally “being there”) is the German word for existence, and Heidegger’s best known book, Being and Time (1927) made it into a technical term, in a way that has influenced a wide range of subsequent European philosophy, most famously the stream known as “existentialism.”  This reference caught my attention immediately, because his work has influenced my own thinking strongly, and I teach his writings to college students.  (Some readers might remember allusions to his thought here and there in my series of posts on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.

Image result for heidegger 1927
Heidegger, around the time Being and Time was published

Rafart is attuned (a nice Heideggerian word) to the way in which my Dasein, my “being-in-the-world,” consists in my having been thrown into the world and enmeshed (before we are even conscious of it) in a matrix of meaning, toward which my most fundamental mode of directedness is care.  What this means is that whenever I stop and wonder about my existence, I find that it is already caught up in a complex set of caring relationships, caring about and for other people, caring about projects that I’m engaged in, caring about things (in the general sense, as in “how are things?”). Within that matrix, Heidegger notes that I am usually in a mode of going along with doing as “one” does, doing what “they” (Das Man) expect.  This is a sort of “falling” away from authenticity, where my doings might be doings that are authored by me, owned by me, my doings, rather than what they do, or what they expect me to do.  To be authentic does not come easily; it is not the default setting.  It requires effort, resoluteness.  One gets the sense that it is risky, and potentially costly.

Heidegger draws this understanding of authenticity (and the conviction that most of us are usually inauthentic) from the 19th Century philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, who is considered the first “existentialist.”  Heidegger (unlike Kierkegaard) seems to intend it as if it carries no value judgment, as if it is not necessarily bad to be inauthentic, or good to be authentic.  But it has been difficult for many to read Being and Time that way, to say the least.  The idea is also deeply complicated by the shadows of Heidegger’s association with the Nazis in the 1930s.  But Rafart joins a host of “existentialist” readers of Heidegger, who struggle deeply with their possibilities for authenticity.

So how is this struggle manifest in Rafart’s music?  I suppose the reader might expect me to pronounce, however provisionally, on his success at achieving authenticity.  But my (hopefully well-informed) suspicion is that it doesn’t work that way.  It is, for rather complicated reasons (having to do with the ways in which we are Dasein), always possible for others to look at my doings and to see them as inauthentic; authenticity is never worn unambiguously, “on my sleeve,” as the saying goes.  It’s not that one simply cannot tell.  It’s not that it is accessible to me but not to you; it’s not unambiguously accessible to me, either.  But rather than seeing that as some sort of failure or disappointment at not getting an answer, let’s change the question.

What happens when I listen to Rafart’s music as, itself, his struggle for authenticity?  What if the struggle is right there for me to hear, instead of being something that I try to detect behind, or even “within” the music?  I submit to you that if you understand from beginning that the music is the struggle, and not a manifestation, or “product” of the struggle, you will be able to hear it.

You will be able to hear it.  Notice that I held back from saying simply that you will hear it.  Why?  Because this whole “struggle for authenticity” thing can apply to listening just as much as it applies to composing, performing, etc.  One may always listen inauthentically.  I can listen as “one” listens, or as “they” expect me to listen.  I hope that I don’t have to give you a long, boring philosophical argument for this:  If my listening is not authentic, if it is not my listening, then am I not listening in a mode that will necessarily miss whatever it is in the music that goes beyond the saying of “one,” or of “them”?

I like Rafart’s composition and playing very much indeed, and I recommend it to you.  But what matters most to him, if we take seriously what he has written about his music, is that it is made and shared as authentically as possible.  So this is not just the sort of review that one writes when they ask for a review.  It is an invitation to accept Rafart’s gift, to listen with open (authentic, if you can manage it) ears, and to risk taking up your own side of the struggle.

Here is a playthrough of a track from Dasein, on YouTube:


20 Looks at The Lamb, 20: Getting Down to “It”

BugsCoitins2This is the end.  (Doors again?)  The end of “the line.”  The last stop (or will there be an “epilogue”?).  Curtains.  (I think of Bugs Bunny as Gangster Bugs, telling Rocky, “It’s gonna be coitins for you!  COITINS!!” (“Aw, they’re adorable!”)

Remember that the end is arbitrary, given the parameters I laid down (set down?  set down, servant; I can’t set down?).  Arbitrary means a (non-random) decision was made.  It’s the 20th Look at The Lamb.  Last stop.  Everybody out!  Los Endos!  …but that’s a different Genesis, isn’t it?  (There’s an angel standing in the sun….)

An end is a goal as well as a stopping point or cessation.  And today, almost a year after Look 19, the goal is to end.  I want to get this out of my system, but lo! it will take its place IN the system that is “me” (wrapped around my “I” like a package with all the ingredients, nutritional information, warnings, etc.).  It will not be OUT of my system.  You’ve gotta get in to get out.

ItSlideIt would make sense, here at the end (if it is the end) to go back to the last track, “It.”  I’m on record as being less enthused about that track than the rest of The Lamb, but I also admitted that its lack of appeal might be its appeal, if I can put it that way.  And now that I am here, a little more than six years after the beginning (the genesis), when I look again at the lyrics to “It,” I see it with different eyes.  Of course, I should say, with a different regard, a different look.

So what does “It” look like?  How does “It” look?  We are looking into “It”, but to paraphrase an overused Nietzsche sound-bite, if we gaze long into “It”, perhaps “It” will also gaze into us.  So considering both meanings, how does “It” look?

In the LItany (get it? L-It-any) of places where “It” is, one place (locus, lieu, site) in particular strikes me today:  “It” is “in the distance of the face.”  The French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, writes of how the other person, the Other (capital ‘O’) is given to me in the face (visage), which (considered as a phenomenon, as experienced by the one to whom the face appears) is not so much a thing that is present, but a medium through which an absence is made manifest (“present”).  facetofaceThe Other appears to me as a trace, which is the term that Levinas and others in his wake use for what is really the absence of something.  But it is not a mere absence.  It is an absence that is pregnant with meaning, an absence that is a positive “datum” (like the absence of fingerprints at a crime scene when they’ve been wiped away).  It’s the absence of something, but it is as if it (It) WAS here, just a moment ago.  Instead of It being in my world as other things are, it is an embodied refusal to be IN my world.  It is another world, so to speak.  The Other, for Levinas, is infinity (in relation to what I would have assumed would be my world, my totality.

I know the Other has been a theme earlier.  All of this has been lurking here, from the beginning (the genesis).  Have I said any of it explicitly before?  I’m not carefully checking; I’ll risk repetition.

So what is the distance of the face?  If we listen to Levinas, perhaps it is that “presence of absence.”  Perhaps it is the infinity there in anOther’s face, which is (among other things) infinitely more than I can think.  It is infinitely more than I can grasp.  The distance in brother John’s face…  is it an icon of the distance in my own face?  My own face is never really given to me — or more strictly speaking, to I.  Rael’s face, John’s face, Rael’s face, John’s face….  Add up the distance between Rael’s face, John’s face, Rael’s “I” (better that ordinary word than the Greco-clinical ‘ego’), my “I”, your “I”.  The answer will always be the same as it was when the adding began:  infinity.  It’s kind of like dividing by zero, except the program, instead of just crashing, goes into an infinite loop.  (Once in, is there an out?)

And adding here is nothing that an abacus could help you with.  Infinity is not a quantity here, but a quality.

It is chicken, it is eggs,
It is in between your legs.
It is walking on the moon,
Leaving your cocoon.

Where are you when you leave your cocoon (if you ever really do)?  If we say “infinity,” we both do and do not give an answer.  If we say “It”, we might be closer in some sense, but we still both do and do not give an answer.

Perhaps the only way to answer the question is to come out of the cocoon.  But the risk is that we come too too soon.  (It is in between your legs.)

Listen again, and do whatever you need to do to leave your cocoon.  Do whatever you need to do to really be open to the Other.  See if you can get in to get out.  See if you can find that gift shop at the end, where you can buy a bumper sticker that says I Found “It”!

This is the End.  But is “It” the End?  Will the light die down?  Or (God, this sounds hoaky, but it’s inescapable) is it another beginning (genesis)?

“Keep your fingers out of my eye.”



<—- Previous Look     Prologue    Next Look —->

20 Looks at The Lamb, 19: Way to Be

Recently, on Facebook (where I still dwell in a love/hate “it’s complicated” sort of way), I saw a group called “ARW is Not Yes Because 3/18 of Yes is NOT Yes.”  A string of several loosely related thoughts (some of them a bit smart-assy) tumbled forth when I saw that group name:

  • At what point in time did Yes have 18 members?
  • If you count 18 members over time, what is the minimum subset of those 18 that would at a given moment be Yes, as opposed to falling short and NOT being Yes?
  • Are there some of the 18 that would be more essential than others?
  • Ah, ESSENTIAL! Does Yes have an essence?
  • Lots of Yes fans believe that Yes has an essence, but doesn’t that just mean “THIS is my FAVORITE Yes”?
  • Would Yes have an essence that is something other than any of the versions of “the essence of Yes” posited by argumentative fans?
  • Philosophers worry about essences, and when they do, they don’t think they’re worrying about their “favorite” versions/aspects/incarnations/whatever of the sort of things they believe have essences.
  • But do they have a way of making sure that they are getting at the essence of something rather than just privileging something that they favor?
  • Gee, I could make one of my Looks at The Lamb about essences! (And now here you are reading it.)

This line of thought simmered in my thinking for about a day.  Then I read some Facebook posts and Tweets about how Fleetwood Mac without Lindsay Buckingham would not be Fleetwood Mac.  This struck me as downright funny, due to my familiarity with the many albums released by Fleetwood Mac before Buckingham was around.  If there is an essence to Fleetwood Mac, it is Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, no?

Is anyone besides Robert Fripp essential to King Crimson?  (Here my temptation is to see Bruford and Wetton as essential as well, since that is my favorite KC.  It sounds much more authoritative to say “essential,” than it does to say “favorite,” you see?)

But what is “essential”?  What is an essence?

I could go into a bunch of philosophy here, but if you’re willing to trust me, I’ll give you a bit of an upshot without going into what gets me there.  Consider the idea that an essence is just “the way in which something is what it is.”  Not what it’s made of.  Not the sum of its parts (whatever they might be).  How it goes about being.  The word ‘essence’ has its etymological roots in a word that just means “to be.”  It is the thing’s way to be.

I sometimes urge my students to think of ‘essence’ as a verb.  It’s bad grammar, and can’t really be written exactly, but think of the essence of something as “the way in which it bes what it is.”  The word I’m putting down as “bes” is prounounced like “beeze.”  If there is a certain way in which I be (that’s a verb, remember?), then you would say that’s the way that Pete Blum bes.

Will all of this help with the matter of whether a particular band is still the same band without member X, Y, or Z?  Well, it could; but that’s not really where I want to go.  This is a Look at The Lamb, right?  So…

What is the essence of The Lamb?  What is its way to be?

While I don’t have an answer to lay out for you, I do have some suggestions regarding how to listen for the essence:

  1. Try listening for things that you don’t like about it, and reflect on the thesis that it would not be The Lamb without those things.
  2. Listen to The Lamb as if you’ve been told that the band performing thereon is not Genesis, but some other band.  Your job is to figure out what band it is.  It can be any band that does not include any of the members of Genesis.
  3. Listen as if The Lamb does not yet have a cover or any accompanying art, and no liner notes (including the printed story) and you have to decide what what the packaging should be like.
  4. Listen as if you have to create some other work — a painting, a poem, a novel, anything except music) that arguably has the same essence.  Resist the temptation to think that you have to tell the same story.
  5. If you can find a way, listen to The Lamb in mono, in as low-quality audio as possible.

Pick one.  Or maybe two.

Or more, if how it bes draws you in.

[No pictures or explicit references to the content of The Lamb this time?!  Yes, that’s deliberate.]

<—- Previous Look     Prologue     Next Look —->



The Fierce and the Dead – The Euphoric

BEM058 album cover

Ah, that’s much better!

Since I’m a college professor, the first part of May every year finds me grading final exams and final papers.  It’s not fun.  It can be gratifying, but it can also be depressing.  Either way, it’s exhausting, and it requires some kind of respite afterwards, a mini-staycation of some sort, a passage into a place where the time is elastic, so that the passage back is simultaneously minutes and days after departure.  The passage back (to the place I was before) is to an apparently transformed and renewed place.  Or is it just that I was, in those brief moments, gone for so long?

Refreshment comes this May with the BEM release of The Fierce and the Dead’s latest studio album, The Euphoric (official release date 5/18/2018).  As I’ve come to expect from TFATD, I’m provided here with a glorious flow of instrumental passages.

Continue reading “The Fierce and the Dead – The Euphoric”

20 Looks at The Lamb, 18: Layers and Distance

lamb_cover2Are you still with me?

Well, I don’t really mean with me, and I don’t really mean me.

[Have you been listening?  (No, I don’t mean to me.)]

Has it been a long time?  Wondering this reminds me of the saying (I forget by whom) that life seems short only because you’re dead for so long.

My experience of The Lamb is that it is still with me, even after so long.  But ‘with,’ ‘me,’ and ‘long’ constantly threaten to dissolve, even if they’ve been spray-painted on some New York City wall.  I’m reminded of this again when I think of cultural references.  The Lamb itself is itself a piece of culture, of course.  And that means that it is embedded in a web of cultural references.  In a sense, that’s what culture is.  It was so when it was first written, and as is normally the course of things, it becomes more and more so over time (however long).

six-layersIf there are references there in The Lamb, and if I refer to them because they are in The Lamb, a strange distancing effect enters the field again.  (We have seen it before.)  There are layers, aren’t there?  Layers not just in these references, but in everything (if you’re listening).

The distance between New York and the where of most of Rael’s adventures is not a measurable distance, but a distance of layers.  These layers both are and are not contiguous.  They must come near to each other if there is to be any leaping between, but how could they be near?  They are as far apart as mind and body in old Descartes’ Meditations.  Joined, yet disjoined enough to feed two to three centuries of philosophical struggle.  The references are always proximate, since they could hardly be discernable references otherwise.  Yet they are always at a distance, for otherwise why would a reference be necessary?

The-Broadway-Melody-1929-MGM-theatrical-release-poster-302x400“Broadway Melody of 1974” is especially rich with cultural references, though most parts of The Lamb rely on them at least subtly.  Current events, some of which we readily remember, others of which we may not, set a kind of schema, or a sort of temporal locus for the development of Rael’s character (in several senses) and situation.  The mis en scène resides much more in the references than in any mundane description of locale, surroundings, etc.  Lenny Bruce, Marshall McLuhan, Groucho Marx, “In the Mood,” Caryl Chessman, Howard Hughes, blue suede shoes, Winston cigarettes, “Needles and Pins” (The Searchers?).

Get the picture?  It is a picture of sorts, though not seen.  Are you listening?  Late episodes of Mad Men might help.

Sometimes a reference is fairly obvious, as in that moment in season 1 of Westworld, when you get a very brief but very clear glimpse in the background of Yul Brynner’s cowboy from the 1973 film.  Sometimes it is more subtle, as are a good number of the references in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Sometimes it is too far (or too near?), and the reference fails.  But if it’s a reference, isn’t there always a potential (ideal?) listener who will see…  I mean hear…  no, I mean listen?

If I’ve got you thinking (in a loose sense, admittedly) about the distance of references, then I have two requests.  First, think about the idea that meaning (in The Lamb and elsewhere) is “held together” by these references.  Things are not contiguous; there are cracks.  (Leonard says that’s how the light gets in, and he’s right even though it’s now repeated too damned often.)  But things are “held together.”  Their Zuzammenhang is by references.  That’s why we can “get it,” and why “getting it” begins with a verb.  Are you listening?  Will you listen again now?


And second, let’s go back to the “beginning”:  Are you still with me?  Allow the ‘with’ to involve the entire distance that the meaning must travel.  And allow the ‘me’ to be (for you) references.  That’s what I am to you, really, isn’t it?  But if so, that’s not bad, because that’s what everything is to everything else.

Yup, this is still about The Lamb (since The Lamb is probably about everything, in a sense).  And my goal is always to encourage you to listen again.

<—- Previous Look     Prologue     Next Look —->

20 Looks at The Lamb, 17: One, Many, All, Nothing

LambCoverThe Lamb is ONE, right?  It’s a unified, singular work of art.  It’s a “concept album.”  There is a narrative, there are dramatis personae.  It is a MANY in some sense, since there are two albums’ worth of songs (plural).  But that’s secondary, is it not?  It’s “beside the point,” perhaps?

But each song is ONE.  There’s a richness, an inexhaustible palpability, to “The Colony of Slippermen,” or “The Lamia,” or (my favorite for richness) “Counting Out Time.”  A cover of a single song can bring out nuances of the song that are not as noticeable in the original.  It can wiredtoearthbe a new Look (regard), like Tin Spirits’ new Look at “Back in NYC.”

But does it sort bother you, at least a little bit, to hear a cover of a single song from The Lamb?  Do you find yourself – or better, perhaps, a part of yourself – wincing when you talk to someone familiar with “The Carpet Crawlers,” but not with the whole Lamb?  Does it feel a bit like an ALL, which is in danger of dissolving into a NOTHING if it is taken apart (whatever “taken apart” might mean here)?

Back in Look #13, I suggested (with much wincing on the part of certain parts of myself) listening to The Lamb “on Shuffle.”  (Did you do it?  If not, it might be worth reflecting on why you didn’t.)  Doing that would have been one way to “take apart” the ONEness of The Lamb, and to experience it as MANY.  It might lead to finding some new ALL in that MANYness that is not NOTHING.  (I like multiple negatives too much.  I need to watch that.)  The answer is “yes, but…”  I don’t see that shuffling must lead to the “taking allnothingapart” that matters here.  The Look here is not simply equivalent to that prior Look, though they may be related.

(related – what’s not “related” – isn’t ALL ONE – is NOTHING MANY – uh oh, stop that, back to…)

That prog fan over there?  He says that “Yes” after Going for the One is no longer Yes.  This one over here?  She says that “King Crimson” beginning with Discipline is no longer King Crimson.  Even more to the point (there’s a point?  ONE point?), that one way back there?  I can’t tell from here whether it’s a he or she, but that one says that Genesis began to decline after Gabriel’s departure, and eventually got so bad that it somehow negated what was so good about the early stuff.  It’s as if the existence of early Genesis is somehow ontologically negated, canceled out by the decline.  It was a ONE that was also an ALL.  It couldn’t continue to enjoy a place, even in history, when it was no longer an ALL.  It became a NOTHING.

A rather extreme example, I know.  But think and listen:

What if ONE and MANY are not opposites?  (They’re not, you know.)

You’ve probably been told at some point: “It’s not an all-or-nothing thing.”  You may already know that few things are all-or-nothing.  (I suspect very few.)  But what if ALL and NOTHING are not opposites either?

aristotleA teacher of “great figures” (philosophers, for example, like Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel) runs into a rough equivalent.  Is the “thought” (how odd, when what we have are texts) of this or that author ONE?  Is it somehow undermined or refuted if there is some clear, evident, obvious (to whom?) way in which some particular “part” is wrong (mistaken? bad? evil?), does that reduce its ALL to NOTHING?  If it is a MANY from which we might (perhaps inexhaustibly, if it is indeed a “great” author) draw, does that mean that there cannot be a ONE there, or an ALL?

A favorite work of art, including a musical work, presents the same sort of questions.

Well, this is no complicated thing at all, one might think.  Of course you can listen to The Lamb as a ONE or as a MANY.  You may have already done this, listening now more as a ONE, then as more of a MANY.

04vaseAh, but now think about those pictures you see, often associated with “Gestalt Psychology,” where it could be seen as a rabbit or as a duck.  You could see two faces, are a vase.  You could see a young woman or an old one.  Seeing a Gestalt, a configuration (roughly), involves something like the flick of a perceptual switch.  Once you know it’s that kind of picture, you can go back and forth between the possibilities at will.

Can you see both at the same time?

rabbitduckThe answer would seem to be no.  Surely you can be aware of both possibilities, but can both possibilities be simultaneously actual?  Whether or not the latter is a real possibility, it is really, ultimately, my suggestion.

Listen to The Lamb, and try to hear both ONE and MANY, at the same time.  If you find yourself realizing how hard this is, it will be a sign that you’re on the right track.

Oh, and for the bonus round:  Try to hear both ALL and NOTHING.  I suspect that’s part of what’s needed sometimes to get beyond

<—- Previous Look     Prologue     Next Look —->

20 Looks at The Lamb, 16: Rael the Lamia Slayer?

BuffyMainRemember when “camp” was an important category for classifying bits of popular culture? Sure, it’s still around, but you don’t hear it as often as you used to. When I hear it, my strongest association is the 1960’s Batman show, with Adam West. But I thought of it most recently while watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer (my second time binge-watching the series).   No, Buffy doesn’t fit neatly in the “campy” box, but it does draw pretty freely from that spring. There’s a higher-than-usual suspension of belief that’s often called for. You can’t worry about whether people would really do those things in a school or a hospital without drawing a SWAT team. You don’t ask how all that loud, catastrophic to-do happens without anyone noticing (unless the plot requires them to notice).

Camp style is a sort of deliberate transgression of situational proprieties, simultaneously satirizing or lampooning those proprieties while still totally relying on them. Relying on them with a wink. Watching Buffy, and wondering at our willingness to go along with the transgression, to wink back while still seriously caring, I thought of LambCoverThe Lamb. I thought of Rael (the Lamia Slayer). It was not yet a well-formed thought, but it seemed right in some way. No wooden stakes come into play; Rael’s blood is enough, and the Lamia become food rather than dust. But the heavy sense of destiny is familiar.

Then I remembered “magical realism” (AKA “magic realism”). Though more commonly applied to certain novelists, this phrase is also applied to some painters.   It’s related to surrealism, and often seems to veer in that direction. But it generally stays “realistic” in its framing and in its primary references, so that the fantastic elements stand out in just the right way. Consider the work of Philip Curtis or George Tooker.

Framing the fantastic elements with the real. Allowing the surreal to impinge, even to the point of a kind of crisis between worlds, where competing candidates for “real” become both equally real and equally fantastic. New York City is real, but in The Lamb it becomes a fantasy, a fable, an open question in some important sense. The city is a contrast to the strange, rocky landscape where Rael travels inexorably toward that strange collapse of self into his brother John. When he’s “Back in New York City,” it’s more like a Potemkin city, a reconstruction or representation of the city, and we see the city as a wasteland somehow continuous with the mysterious land of Slippermen.

BuffyMentalThinking of Buffy once more: In “Normal Again,” (season 6, episode 17), we are confronted with the possibility that Buffy’s career as Vampire Slayer is all a hallucination, and that a return to mental health is available to her by choice. [BIG spoiler alert!] The episode deliberately leaves the question of what is real an open question, but Buffy clearly chooses the darker version of Sunnydale, her life as Slayer, and the friends she loves. The passage between the two Sunnydales opens like the window or skylight that opens for Rael. “I must decide between the freedom I had in the rat race, or to stay forever in this forsaken place.” This realization leads directly to – is almost interrupted by – the exclamation, “Hey John!” As if staying is a forgone conclusion. The window fades on cue. Buffy the series cannot be negated, as much fun as it is to play with the possibility.  Rael can’t really go back.

RaelWindowSo is it really a choice? Is destiny not written deeply into the plot of the narrative, for Rael and for Buffy? Trained by logic into antipathy toward contradictions, it seems WE must decide whether or not these “decisions” are genuinely free. But must that meta-decision be a genuinely free choice as well? Do you smell that? It’s the smell of an infinite regress, suggesting that something in our thinking has gone awry.

When the narrative hinges on some notion of destiny, isn’t there always that ongoing sense of the voluntary, of choosing it even though it is destiny?

Listen again now, and consider: Destinies; fate; predestination; forgone conclusions… Don’t we need to struggle with how none of these really eliminate decision, choice, free will? Might it be that we really don’t (yet) understand decision?

It’s an invitation, not a command. Listen again.

But once you’ve done it, won’t you know that it couldn’t have been otherwise? And perhaps this is true only because it could have been otherwise.

<—- Previous Look     Prologue     Next Look —->

The Fierce and the Dead – Magnet (2015)

The Fierce and the Dead are still fierce, and most definitely not dead.  With Magnet, to be released in August, we have an EP with 21 minutes of music, though only 15 minutes of it is new.  A disappointment, maybe?  Not really.  If you haven’t heard it yet, listen to the aptly-titled teaser track, “Magnet in Your Face.”

OK, that’s about a minute and forty seconds.  Got good headphones or earbuds?  Try it two more times.  A punchy statement, played with a unified voice.  It’s a glimpse at a soundscape that will keep giving of its subtlety the closer you look.

The contrast in length and compact punch was already well-developed by 2013’s Spooky Action, as compared to the almost eighteen minutes of “Part 1” that was our introduction to the band in 2010.  But there’s an Spooky-Action-CD-Cover-FinishedOverannouncement here of something new-ish, characterized by guitarist Matt Stevens as being “more joyous and intense, with bigger riffs and more of an electronic feel” (

Perhaps it’s not that TFATD is simply doing something to us (as if it were a magnet TO the face), but that they provide a revelation of the magnet that is already there in one’s face, an attraction as well as a reception.  When I open to the otherness of well-crafted music, the force of my openness draws into its light and its purview whatever it is that the artist has to give.  Think about how you listen to what someone says, how it’s not only passivity, but also activity, how it’s a drawing to oneself of what is said, or an attaction outward to whatever “metal” it might contain.

The EP will bring three more new tracks, plus two bonus rehearsal recordings of songs from Spooky Action.  “Palm Trees” and “Flint,” though longer (four or more minutes each), follow the tighter, joy-and-part1intensity aesthetic so compactly captured in “Magnet in Your Face.”  Even so, they allow for some stretching and soundscape exploration that assures us that this is still TFATD.  “Conceptual continuity,” to invoke Frank Zappa’s phrase, is naturally strongest on “Part 6,” picking up the thread that began with their first outing.  Here is the mix of abstract and concrete that first grabbed my attention by the scruff of the neck and connected with that center of force between my ears that the guys have now identified as my magnet.

As I’ve remarked before, Matt, Steve, Kevin, and Stuart make music as a unit, as tight as nearly any guitar-based quartet I’ve heard since early to middle Wishbone Ash, but with that exquisite King Crimsonesque sophistication.  The bonus tracks bear this out.  The delightful “Let’s Start a Cult” is rather more raw and more fun than the Spooky Action version, while “Spooky Action” (a CD-only bonus track, according to our copy) nicely shows just how rich is the sound that these four guys get in performance.

The band has indicated that Magnet is an appetizer for another full-length feast now in preparation.  Pull up a chair and have a taste.  I’ve ordered another drink, and am settling in to wait for the main course.

More info, and links for pre-ordering, can be found at TFATD’s website.

Squonk Opera – Pneumatica (2014)

Squonk Opera is a performance art company from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (USA).  If you are not familiar with them, you might expect that they are named for the imaginary creature (also supposedly Pennsylvanian) portrayed in a Genesis song.  You would be disappointed, though, as the band claims the name derives from the jazz term “squonk fest,” used in reference to some saxophone performances.  Nevertheless, Squonk Opera’s music does display some prog influences and sensibilities, and they are worth checking out.

Squonk1Wikipedia refers to them aptly as “a group of interdisciplinary performing artists.”  They’ve been around since the early 1990’s, and among other distinctions have competed with some success on America’s Got Talent (though the judges ultimately did not seem to get what they were up to).  Their mix of audio and visual presentation could invite comparisons to the Blue Man Group, but I find them much more relaxed and refreshing in some ways.  The Blue Men are a bit more “McDonaldized” in the sense elaborated by sociologist George Ritzer, with an implicit aspiration to a total quality-control-hold on performer as provider and audience as consumer.  To be clear, I’m definitely not saying that I don’t like Blue Man Group.  They are good at worst, and irresistable and profound at best (and I do eat at McDonalds sometimes).  But Squonk Opera retains a combination of serious artistry and relaxed fun, a vulnerability and intimacy with the audience of which Blue Man’s ethos requires avoidance.

4PAN1TPneumatica (2014) is Squonk Opera’s latest CD release, with music from their latest stage production.  Why would one only listen to the music without the visual elements?  A good question.  I wouldn’t really want to listen to Blue Man’s version of “Baba O’Reilly” without the visual, for example.  And the visuals associated with Pneumatica go beyond the performance one can see in a video.  (Their 20 page “Workshop Learning Guide” is delightful!)  But considering the music itself is interesting and rewarding.  Their interplay of gravity and levity, both seen and heard in the Gesamtkunstwerk, is embodied just as clearly in the deft movement between and synthesis of prog, classic rock, classical, pop, Celtic, marching band, and other influences.  I sometimes detect a rather strong minimalist current (as in Glass and Reich), of the sort one hears in early XTC, and it works well (to my ears) with Squonk’s dramatistic approach.

storeMayhemI’m not convinced that Pneumatica as CD/album is something that I would return to for multiple listenings, though I think that there are proggish listeners who would disagree.  For my part, I find the earlier CD, Mayhem and Majesty (2010), more fascinating and “durable,” probably because the minimalist element is most prominent and effective there.  But remember that this judgment is rendered upon the music, artificially divorced from its performative context.  Squonk Opera’s work is best felt and seen, not just heard.

Squonk Opera’s Website:

“Whirlwinding” from Pneumatica: