The Bardic Depths – A Prescient Album

The Bardic DepthsThe 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 Dave Bandana and Brad Birzerthe 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.


Continue reading “The Bardic Depths – A Prescient Album”

The Bardic Depths

From Robin Armstrong’s Gravity Dream Records:

‘The Bardic Depths’ is an all new progressive rock project formed from the writing team of multi-instrumentalist, Dave Bandana with lyrics and concept from Bradley Birzer, plus contributions from Peter Jones (Camel/ Tiger Moth Tales) – Saxophone/ Vocals, Tim Gehrt ( Streets/ Steve Walsh) – Drums, Gareth Cole (Tom Slatter/ Fractal Mirror) – Guitar and Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf) – Keyboards/ Guitar/ Bass, amongst a host of other amazing musicians from the progressive rock community around the world.

“The album is about friendship and its ability to get us through anything including war, with the concept centering on the literary friendship formed between J.R.R Tolkien and C. S Lewis between 1931 and 1949. “ says the Lanzarote based band leader Dave Bandana.

Friendship also provided the catalyst to enable such a wide cast of musicians to come together for the record, largely from the community provided by the Big Big Train Group on Facebook. The resulting album is an immersive combination of ethereal soundscape with Floydian undertones, and Talk Talk progressive pop sensibilities.

The Bardic Depths is available to pre-order now from Gravity Dream on CD or in an extremely limited CD/T-shirt bundle.  It’s also available on CD from Burning Shed, who provide the tracklist:

1. The Trenches
2. Biting Coals
3. Depths of TIme
i) The Instant
ii)The Flicker
iii) The Moment
4. Depths of Imagination
5. Depths of Soul
6. The End
7. Legacies

And of course, there’s an album teaser on YouTube:

— Rick Krueger

The Inconsolable Secret

In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

–C.S. Lewis, THE WEIGHT OF GLORY

It’s time to celebrate the depths and widths of all wisdom.  Time to pull out Glass Hammer’s 2005 masterpiece, The Inconsolable Secret.

GH IS

Staring into the Abyss: Darkness, the Ugly Truth, and Comfort in the Lyrics of Tool

Tool2One of my favorite books is ‘The Prince’ by Niccolo Machiavelli.  Anyone having even a passing familiarity with this work knows it is a lightning rod of controversy, with some hotly-debated interpretations.  To say that I like this work is not to say I am a fan of methods that are referred to as “Machiavellian” or that the “ends justifies the means” (an interpretation that I would hotly dispute).  What I like about Machiavelli’s writing in ‘The Prince’ is his stone-cold sober look at human nature – warts and all, and more generally, the unvarnished truth.  Machiavelli has no time for such pieties that people are basically good and, left to their own devices, will do the right thing.  He knows better.

 If Machiavelli were alive today, I’m guessing he would certainly identify with the lyrics of some of Tool’s work.  Heck, he might even write their lyrics.  Aside from the fact that there were not many hippies in Florence during the early 1500’s, it’s not hard to imagine Machiavelli the lyricist penning this verse from Tool’s ‘Vicarious’:

Credulous at best, your desire to believe in angels in the hearts of men.

Pull your head on out your hippy haze and give a listen.

Shouldn’t have to say it all again.

The universe is hostile. So impersonal. Devour to survive.

So it is. So it’s always been.

Machiavelli would have certainly understood the sentiment in the above verse.  And like Machiavelli, Maynard James Keenan and Tool have no illusions about whether or not there are “angels in the hearts of men.”  They know better.

 Tool lyrics range from very disturbing (‘Stinkfist’, ‘Prison Sex’), depressing (‘Schism’), occasionally weird (the Area 51 acid trip of ‘Rosetta Stoned’), and often times take a generally dark view of humanity.  If you are looking for happy, sunny lyrical themes, Tool is most decidedly not your band.

 Before I get into this too much further, I do want to note that I am going to practice a little self-censorship in this piece, as certain Tool songs contain enough F-bombs and S-bombs to cause a collective nervous breakdown of Tipper Gore and her staff at the PMRC.  I’ll simply insert asterisks into the F-bombs and S-bombs.  My reasoning is that I don’t know who reads this site and I don’t want to overrun it with curse words, particularly if any minors are reading.  Well, that, and the fact that the Dept. of Swearing has informed me I used up a significant portion of my lifetime curse-word quota during my six years in the U.S. Navy, and thus need to save the remaining portion of my quota for when it could really come in handy (for example, when my piece of @#*& printer keeps &#!*<?% up).  Rest assured, this is not an editorial decision by anyone else on this site, the decision here is mine and mine alone.

 And one other thing – I’m not going to get too much into the music of Tool itself, which is typically excellent.  Justin Chancellor is an outstanding bassist, and Adam Jones is an exceptionally innovative guitarist.  No discussion of the best drummers in the business today is complete if Danny Carey is not included.  And few vocalists can convey emotion with the sustained intensity of Maynard James Keenan.

 Now, let’s get back to our regularly scheduled programming.

 Our Darker Selves

 When we look at the history of the Rome, we like to think of ourselves as better than those Romans who flocked to the Colusseum.  We would never indulge in viewing such violent spectacles, would we?  We don’t want to see people die or get hurt.  Tool isn’t buying it, as spelled out in the above-mentioned ‘Vicarious’:

Eye on the TV

’cause tragedy thrills me

Whatever flavor

It happens to be like;

Killed by the husband

Drowned by the ocean

Shot by his own son

She used the poison in his tea

And kissed him goodbye

That’s my kind of story

It’s no fun ’til someone dies

While ‘Vicarious’ may appear to some to be more directed to the media and the “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos, stepping a little farther back reveals that it’s more about what lurks in the hearts of people everywhere.  Now, in fairness, not everybody wants to watch people die, at least not in real life … but I think more of us are at least insensitive (if not outright desiring) to the witnessing violence we will admit.  In my own personal life, my two favorite spectator sports are American football and boxing – both of which are violent and can take a frightening toll on the participants.  The issue of concussions and their after-affects is an ongoing story that presently puts a cloud over American professional football.  With respect to boxing, most of us are familiar with the plight of once quick-witted Muhammad Ali, now saddled with a severe case of Parkinson’s disease.  And yet I was thrilled, absolutely mesmerized by his titanic battles with Joe Frazier, especially 1975’s Thrilla in Manila, which I have re-watched on numerous occasions despite knowing Ali’s current condition.

Don’t look at me like

I am a monster

Frown out your one face

But with the other

Stare like a junkie

Into the TV

Stare like a zombie

Let me repeat that sentiment – don’t look at me like I am a monster.  Several years ago in a conversation with an acquaintance I mentioned that I liked boxing.  He asked me how I could watch something like that where the only object (in his view anyway) was to “beat the s**t out of each other.”  That was on a Friday. The following Monday he was raving about a hit from one of Sunday’s football games, one in which a player returning a punt was wiped out and carted off the field.

Why can’t we just admit it?

Why can’t we just admit it?

I also remember, later that year, being over at a friend’s house along with dozens of others to watch the heavyweight title fight between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson.  When in round 7 a huge right hand by Lewis momentarily separated Tyson from his senses and put him on the canvas for the 10-count, a deafening roar of approval erupted.

You all feel the same so

Why can’t we just admit it?

Human beings are quite good at not merely watching others fight, but becoming participants themselves – at least at the scale of nation-states and other large organizations having political goals.  This lamentable characteristic is explored in ‘Right in Two’:

Angels on the sideline,

Puzzled and amused.

Why did Father give these humans free will?

Now they’re all confused.

Don’t these talking monkeys know that

Eden has enough to go around?

Plenty in this holy garden, silly monkeys,

Where there’s one you’re bound to divide it.

Right in two.

 …

 Monkey killing monkey killing monkey.

Over pieces of the ground.

Silly monkeys give them thumbs.

They make a club.

And beat their brother, down.

 …

 Fight over the clouds, over wind, over sky

Fight over life, over blood, over prayer,

overhead and light

Fight over love, over sun,

over another, Fight…

The creator has endowed us with a planet having more than enough for everybody, with plenty to spare and in defiance of the most dire Malthusian predictions.  While some of our drive to acquisition and the defense thereof is undoubtedly springs from deep seated survival instincts (not easily discarded, even in times of abundance), much of our conflict is still driven by greed, lust, envy, and ideology.  In the last century, literally hundreds of millions were slaughtered, fighting over blood, prayer, ideology, whatever.  So far, this century doesn’t look like it will be much different.  For that matter, previous centuries weren’t that much different either.

Repugnant is a creature who would squander the ability to lift an eye to heaven conscious of his fleeting time here.

Indeed.

 This is not to say that I condone pacifism (I most certainly do not), nor that there is no such thing as a just war.  But still, look at us …

 Destruction of Others, Destruction of Self

 One of the seven deadly sins is wrath.  From Wikipedia (stop laughing), wrath “may be described as inordinate and uncontrolled feelings of hatred and anger.” Wrath, in its purest form, presents with self-destructiveness, violence, and hate that may provoke feuds that can go on for centuries.”  Tool deals with this deadly sin in ‘The Grudge’.

Wear the grudge like a crown of negativity.

Calculate what we will or will not tolerate.

Desperate to control all and everything.

Unable to forgive your scarlet lettermen.

Clutch it like a cornerstone. Otherwise it all comes down.

Justify denials and grip ’em to the lonesome end.tool 3

Clutch it like a cornerstone. Otherwise it all comes down.

Terrified of being wrong. Ultimatum prison cell.

Saturn ascends, choose one or ten. Hang on or be humbled again.

Clutch it like a cornerstone. Otherwise it all comes down.

Justify denials and grip ’em to the lonesome end.

Saturn ascends, comes round again.

Saturn ascends, the one, the ten. Ignorant to the damage done.

 …

 Wear your grudge like a crown. Desperate to control.

Unable to forgive. And we’re sinking deeper.

 Defining, confining, controlling, and we’re sinking deeper.

There is so much truth and wisdom in those few verses it’s really hard to know where to begin.  I’m sure most of us have held at least a petty grudge at some point in our lives, particularly when we were kids.  With maturity, some will outgrow such grudges and avoid their self-destructive effects.  Others will not, or will develop new ones, and will be consumed by them.  That’s what grudges do to their holders – they consume them.

 And it’s not just individuals that hold grudges.  Groups of people, from small clans to the largest of civilizations may also hold grudges.  Hatfields and McCoys, anyone?

 And is it any wonder why wrath is among the seven deadly sins?

 Greed, Gluttony, and General Decadence

Greed and gluttony are two more of the deadly sins, and are among the themes explored by Tool in Ænima.  While Ænima on the surface appears to be an indictment of that “hopeless f**king hole we call LA”, it could just as well be an indictment of the current state of western culture.  LA just happens to be Maynard’s example (via his friend, the late Bill Hicks) of a “bulls**t, sideshow, three-ring circus of freaks” that best exemplifies our decadence.

Fret for your figure and

Fret for your latte and

Fret for your lawsuit and

Fret for your hairpiece and

Fret for your Prozac and

Fret for your pilot and

Fret for your contract and

Fret for your car.

       …

 F**k L Ron Hubbard and

F**k all his clones.

F**k all these gun-toting

Hip gangster wannabes.

Learn to swim.

F**k retro anything.

F**k your tattoos.

F**k all you junkies and

F**k your short memory.

Learn to swim.

F**k smiley glad-hands,

With hidden agendas.

F**k these dysfunctional,

Insecure actresses.

It’s like shooting fish in a barrel, isn’t it?

 It’s been said that politics is downstream from culture.  Cue ‘Intolerance’, from the ‘Undertow’ album.

I don’t want to be hostile.

I don’t want to be dismal.

But I don’t want to rot in an apathetic existence either.

See

I want to believe you,

and I want to trust you

and I want to have faith to put away the dagger.

But you lie, cheat, and steal

lie, cheat, and steal

you lie, cheat and steal

And yet

I tolerate you.

Veil of virtue hung to hide your method

while I smile and laugh and dance

and sing your praise and glory.

Shroud of virtue hung to mask your stigma

as I smile and laugh and dance

and sing your glory

while you

lie, cheat, and steal.

How can I tolerate you?

I can’t speak for what goes on in other countries, but for my own, does this not hit the nail on the head as to the state of our current political climate (please, though, no political debates on this site)?  While the lyrics above could apply to a number of different institutions, they lend themselves particularly well as a scathing indictment of the current state of American politics and the two wretched parties in control.

 Alas, we can’t just point the finger at the politicians, when we are the ones that keep putting them in power – and willingly give them even more after we’ve put them there.

Our guilt, our blame,

I’ve been far too sympathetic.

Our blood, our fault.

I’ve been far too sympathetic.

I am not innocent.

You are not innocent.

Noone is innocent.

Why?

So why listen to these kinds of lyrics?  Why take in so much negativity, so much anger, and so much darkness?  Isn’t listening to music supposed to be some form of joyful experience?  Isn’t it supposed to be entertainment?

Well, no, not necessarily anyway.

 Science attempts to explain the physical world around us. Technology can help us harness the physical world for our benefit. But it is the humanities that grow our minds and convey to us the realities of life that are beyond the reach of science and can’t be addressed through technology.  Literature, poetry, and film, and other art forms fall under this larger umbrella – as do song lyrics such as those discussed herein.  Particular ones of Tool’s lyrics are particularly good at illuminating certain realities of life.

 It is essential to see the world as it is, warts an all, if one wants to obtain any sort of comfort or inner peace.  The great Stoic Epictetus instructed his students to not avert their eyes from the painful events of life, but rather to look at them squarely and contemplate them often.  To do so is to free one’s self from illusions and thereby avoid the unnecessary pain that otherwise occurs in the inevitable collisions with reality we all have.  The world is what it is, not what we want it to be.  And as we have already been reminded, “the universe is hostile, so impersonal.”

Some might choose to descend into cynicism and misanthropy upon contemplating the ideas within the lyrics presented.  But that is taking the easy way out.  Do you actually think Tool is going to let you off easy?  Ha. Pffft.  Think again.

The Way Out

Nope, Tool isn’t going to let you take the easy way out.  They aren’t going to let you fall into the cynical trap.  You’ve still got work to do.  We’ve already discussed some of the lyrics of ‘The Grudge’ above.  But even in a song that explores the deadly sin of wrath, Tool lets us know that it is still a choice – and that another path is there to be taken:

Saturn comes back around. Lifts you up like a child or

Drags you down like a stone

To consume you till you choose to let this go.

Give away the stone. Let the oceans take and

Transmutate this cold and fated anchor.

Give away the stone. Let the waters kiss and

Transmutate these leaden grudges into gold.

Let go.

You can be consumed by a grudge, or you can let it go.  Your choice.  One choice is harder to make than the other one … but the harder choice is the only beneficial one.

 The “learn to swim” lyric noted above in the discussion of Ænima above presents an interesting juxtaposition within that song.  At first glance, it appears to be a reference to saving one’s self when LA falls into the ocean.  But reading between the lines, it could just as well refer to learning to be one’s self instead of denying that and becoming consumed by “stupid s**t, silly s**t.”  Indeed, while we cannot control the culture or society around us, we can certainly make a conscious choice to not let it drag us down.  We can “learn to swim” to maintain our own personal integrity and dignity.

The album ‘Lateralus’ has a number of songs with lyrics that point to the way out of despair.  Take ‘Parabola’ for example:

Twirling round with this familiar parable

Spinning, weaving round each new experience

Recognize this as a holy gift and celebrate this chance to be alive and breathing

A chance to be alive and breathing

This body holding me reminds me of my own mortality

Embrace this moment, remember, we are eternal

All this pain is an illusion

We all deal with pain in our lives, but so much of our pain is indeed illusory.  Often times with certain events it is our own perceptions that cause the pain, rather than the events themselves.  And sometimes changing those perceptions can do wonders.

Continued growth of mind is one message to take away from the title track of ‘Lateralus’:

Black then white are all I see

In my infancy,

Red and yellow then came to be,

Reaching out to me,

Lets me see.

As below, so above and beyond, I imagine

Drawn beyond the lines of reason.

Push the envelope.

Watch it bend.

 ….

 Feed my will to feel this moment

Urging me to cross the line.

Reaching out to embrace the random.

Reaching out to embrace whatever may come.

I embrace my

Desire to

I embrace my

Desire to

Feel the rhythm,

To feel connected

Enough to step aside

And weep like a widow

To feel inspired

To fathom the powertool spiral out

To witness the beauty

To bathe in the fountain,

To swing on the spiral

To swing on the spiral

To…

Swing on the spiral of our divinity and

Still be a human.

             …

 Spiral out

Keep going

Spiral out

Keep going

Spiral out

Keep going

Spiral out

Keep going

The lyrical pattern established in the beginning of ‘Lateralus’ and carries through to the very end is one that instructs the listener to keep expanding the mind, to step beyond the ‘black and white’, to ‘spiral out’.  ‘Embrace the random’ also encourages the listener to accept those realities of life which are beyond ones control and not subject to change, and to accept events as they occur.

 While ‘Parabola’ and ‘Lateralus’ are both fantastic songs, it is the 11-minute plus tour de force of ‘Reflection’ that really points the way out from the cynicism and misanthropy that is too easy to fall into when contemplating some of the harsher realities expressed in songs such as ‘Vicarious’, ‘Right in Two’, and ‘Ænima’.  ‘Reflection’ starts with us being at rock bottom:

I have come curiously close to the end, down

Beneath my self-indulgent pitiful hole,

Defeated, I concede and

Move closer

I may find comfort here

I may find peace within the emptiness

How pitiful.

But even at the bottom of the hole, even when it all seems lost and hopeless, there is still a glimmer:

And in my darkest moment, fetal and weeping

The moon tells me a secret – my confidant

As full and bright as I am

This light is not my own and

A million light reflections pass over me

Its source is bright and endless

She resuscitates the hopeless

Without her, we are lifeless satellites drifting

And it is from that glimmer the direction is revealed.  There is a way out of despair, a way out of the disillusionment, the cynicism, the negativity, out of the darkness that will consume us if we let it do so.

And as I pull my head out I am without one doubt

Don’t wanna be down here feeding my narcissism.

I must crucify the ego before it’s far too late

I pray the light lifts me out

Before I pine away.

So crucify the ego, before it’s far too late

To leave behind this place so negative and blind and cynical,

And you will come to find that we are all one mind

Capable of all that’s imagined and all conceivable.

Just let the light touch you

And let the words spill through

And let them pass right through

Bringing out our hope and reason …

before we pine away.

As much as anything, ‘Reflection’ is about a maturation process, a maturing of the soul and the acquisition of wisdom that comes with it.  But, that too is a choice.

tool1As stated above, it’s easy to fall into a trap of cynicism.  It’s easy to hold grudges, and easy to just go along with the wider culture instead of “learning to swim.”  It’s definitely easy to take a dark view of humanity while forgetting what is on the other side of the ledger – art, architecture, a civilization that is more humane with more abundance than anything imagined by our ancestors, and so on.  But taking the easy way out rarely leads to anything good, nor does it get you closer to the truth or lead to real peace of mind.

 During the writing of this piece, I received an email from a friend with a quote from C.S. Lewis that I think really sums up the message in the lyrics of a number of Tool songs when taken as a larger body of work:

“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth, only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”

You certainly will not find comfort in the lyrics of Tool, if that’s what you are seeking.  If you wish to seek comfort directly, go listen to something else, mindful of the quote above.  On the other hand, if you seek truth and are willing to face it, even when it’s dark and unpleasant, then the lyrics of the various Tool works discussed above should not bother you.  Not only will you get a good dose of the truth, you may also find a little bit of comfort as a result.  And most assuredly, you will also hear some incredible music by some exceptionally talented musicians.

The Cautionary Barrett

This is an important month for admirers of the late Syd Barrett.  The artist’s birthday falls on January 6, and his first solo album The Madcap Laughs was released January 3, 1970.  These anniversaries occasion an opportunity to ponder what Barrett left in the cautionaryvery short slice of time that shattered musical conventions.

What Barrett accomplished on guitar is legendary in itself, taking the lowly Danelectro 59-DC and, with a Zippo lighter or a ball bearing for a slide, creating entirely surreal soundscapes scarcely resembling anything on the blues records he enjoyed as a youth.   But it was Barrett’s lyrics that gave substance to his melodic adventures.  As we might expect from a native Cantabrigian, Barrett’s verse was informed by sundry literary figures.  One Russian fan site conjectures  influences ranging from C.S. Lewis (“Flaming” and “Scarecrow”) to Tolkien (“The Gnome” and “Dark Globe”).  Known references include James Joyce’s verse for “Golden Hair” and Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children on “Matilda Mother.”  I would like to expand upon the latter, as Syd Barrett’s oeuvre seems to be one large cautionary tale, reflected both in his artistry and later, after his crack-up and expulsion from the Pink Floyd, in his personal life.

Cautionary tales are written or recited for young audiences.  Syd Barrett’s music clearly displays infectiously playful, childlike elements.   The Piper At the Gates of Dawn has been characterized as consisting of two main features: extended pieces that included free-from passages (“Interstellar Overdrive”) and shorter, whimsical pop songs.

Of the latter it has been suggested that these include certain dark elements.  A good example is “Flaming.”  The melody and the vocals pack the giddy spontaneity of adolescence — a sense of being swept up in infatuation for the first time.  Listening to this song is to be transported back to age 13 or 14.  The subject to whom the song is directed can neither see nor hear Barrett, but he can see and hear her.  Using buttercups and dandelions to heighten a sense of euphoria, Barrett sings

Too much? I won’t touch you — but then I might.

Later we discover this conversation involves “travelling by telephone” — the preferred medium of exchange for adolescents for the past 60 years (the only difference today being wireless texting).  But the notion of Barrett inserting himself as the agent of sensory overload, of shattering the playful possibilities with a very direct and perhaps unwelcome advance — this is the tension that drives “Flaming.” Continue reading “The Cautionary Barrett”