A Review of Riverside, Wasteland (Insideout, 2018).
At first, I was surprised that the two best (and best known, at least in American prog circles) Polish bands named their most recent albums, Wasteland. Well, ok, there’s a slight difference. Newspaperflyhunting named its album with a plural. Still, it must be more than a coincidence. Presumably, each took the name either from the Arthurian legends or from T.S. Eliot (who took his from the Arthurian legends). Regardless, the title fits for most of our world of 2018.
Two unexpected beauties arrived in the mail today–the latest releases from Riverside and Karmakanic. Well, I write unexpected because 1) I had completely forgotten that I’d pre-ordered the Riverside; and 2) I wasn’t expecting it to show up with Karmakanic, which I’d also forgotten was a two-disk affair. Truly serendipity.
The Riverside release is really a re-release of last year’s LOVE FEAR AND THE TIME MACHINE. This special edition includes a second disk, a DVD, with the album presented in hi-res stereo as well as 5.1 surround (mixed by Bruce Soord). It also includes a hi-res version of five tracks from the recording sessions, and the videos made to accompany the album. From what I can tell, the booklet that comes with it contains no new information from last year’s release except for an update on who mixed the DVD.
Not surprisingly in the least, everything here is outstanding–from the packaging to the re-released music. If you haven’t yet, make sure you check out Erik Heter’s review as well as his interview with the band last year.
I’m especially taken with the five additional tracks labeled as “day sessions.” These add up to nearly 28 minutes of extra music. If you remember how The Pineapple Thief often released bonus material of their jam sessions a decade or so ago, you know exactly what to expect from these “day sessions.” Frankly, they’re stunning, sounding as much like Lunatic Soul as Riverside. The atmosphere created and presented by these tracks is really exceptional. It’s worth ordering this new package just for these five songs alone. I’m sure I will be spending many hours listening to these songs.
When I pre-ordered the new Karmakanic (already reviewed–several days ago), I didn’t remember having ordered the special edition. While the artwork–provided by Rush’s Hugh Syme–is simply stunning, I can’t say the same about the packaging. Mostly plastic, my new case came pre-crushed! The booklet is in good shape, but the innards that hold the two disks are just lots and lots of flaky pieces. Ugh. Thankfully, the disks are ok, but the packaging is weak and poor. Too bad, as this release deserves the highest treatment possible. The extra disk is also a DVD. It has five songs recorded at RosFest 2012, a “making of” documentary, and several interviews.
Erik Heter’s grand interview with Mariusz Duda this past summer, The Duda Abides, reawakened (or least reminded me of) much of my love of Riverside. And, that love is and never has been a shy love. I first heard Riverside sometime between 2005’s SECOND LIFE SYNDROME and 2007’s RAPID EYE MOVEMENT. I was immediately riveted by their music. Not only do I love the Polish people and culture, I love prog and rock—so what a perfect mix of things.
Frankly, if you measure Poland’s prog and art rock output through Riverside and Newspaperflyhunting, it’s hard not to think of Poland as one of the most important countries in the world when it comes to producing modern music.
I agree with Erik’s assessment—as I almost always do! I have to say, though, that I hope Riverside brings all of its music together.
Let me try to explain.
One of the things I loved most about the first three albums of Riverside is how well they tied together. By design, Riverside wrote and produced their first three albums to delve deeply into the soul and mind. One is never sure if the protagonist of the three albums is insane or trapped in a purgatorial world. Either way, the emotional flow is nothing short of astounding. Everything works perfectly on these three albums, and each member of the band is truly a member of a friendship of artists, a meaningful part of a whole.
The live album, REALITY DREAM, is one of the finest concerts ever recorded. Even the name of the show reveals how much mystery exists in the topic. The words flow like poetry.
When ADHD came out, I fell in love with it immediately. It has a much harder edge to it, of course. In my mind, I saw a huge project.
Chapter 1: Out of Myself; Second Life Syndrome; and REM.
Interlude: Lunatic Soul I
Chapter 2: ADHD
Interlude: Lunatic Soul II
The problem, of course, is that the following Riverside releases, SHRINE and LFTM, don’t fit the plan! [Queue Geddy Lee’s voice]
Ok, so it’s my plan. But, still. . . .
I think Riverside is one of the best of the best. By simply writing great albums, though, they diminish the chances of achieving rock immortality. They’ve traded the extraordinary for the good. Let’s hope they come back to a grand plan and, thus, achieve something divine.
It’s not enough to pump out great albums. A truly extraordinary band demands a vision of the whole, not merely particulars of the moment.
N.B. This post should be approached with caution. It is at least PG-13, if not NC17. Not for language, but for personal revelation and content. Additionally, I’ve written about one or two of these things before, especially about Peart as a big brother. Please don’t fear thinking—“hey, I’ve read this before.” But, even the few things I’ve mentioned before are here rewritten. Final note: for an exploration of Peart’s Stoicism, see Erik Heter’s excellent piece on the subject, here at progarchy.com.
As I’ve mentioned before in these pages and elsewhere, few persons, thinkers, or artists have shaped my own view of the world as strongly as has Neil Peart, Canadian drummer, lyricist, writer, and all-around Renaissance man. I’ve never met him, but I’ve read all of his words and listened to all of his songs. I’ve been following this man since the spring of 1981 when two fellow inmates of seventh-grade detention explained to me the “awesomeness” of Rush. My compatriots, Troy and Brad (a different Brad), were right. Thank God I got caught for doing some thing bad that day. Whatever I did, my punishment (detention) led to a whole new world for me, one that would more than once save my life.
Having grown up in a family that cherished music of all types, I was already a fan of mixing classical, jazz, and rock. Rush’s music, as it turned out, did this as well as any band.
While the music captivated me, the lyrics set me free. I say this with no hyperbole. I really have no idea how I would have made it out of high school and through the dysfunctional (my step father is serving a 13-year term in prison, if this gives you an idea how nasty the home was) home life without Peart. I certainly loved my mom and two older brothers, but life, frankly, was hell.
I know that Peart feels very uncomfortable when his fan project themselves on him, or imagine him to be something he is not. At age 13, I knew absolutely nothing about the man as man, only as drummer and lyricist. Thus, even in 1981, I absorbed his lyrics, not directly his personality. Though, I’m sure many of Peart’s words reflect his personality as much as they reflect his intellect.
Rush gave me so much of what I needed in my teen years. At 13, I had completely rejected the notion of a benevolent God. He existed, I was fairly sure, but He was a puppet master of the worst sort, a manipulative, Machiavellian tyrant who found glee in abuse and exploitation. As a kid, I was bright and restless, and I resented all forms of authority, sometimes with violent intent. Still, as we all do, I needed something greater than myself, a thing to cherish and to hold, a thing to believe in.
I immersed myself in science fiction, fantasy, and rock music. Not a tv watcher in the least, I would put the headphones on, turns off the lights in my bedroom, lock the door, and immerse myself in the musical stories of Genesis, the Moody Blues, ELO, ELP, Alan Parsons, Yes, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, and, especially, Rush. I could leave the horrors of my house for roughly 44 minutes at a time.
Scratch, scratch, side one. Zip, turn. Scratch, scratch, side two.
Rock music was the sanctuary of my world. But, not just any rock. ZZ Top and REO Speedwagon might be fun when out on a drive, but I needed a work of art that demanded full immersion. I needed prog. I was not only safe in these rhythmic worlds, I was intellectually and spiritually alive, exploring innumerable realms. Pure, unadulterated escape. But, escape into a maze of wonders.
The first time I heard the lyrics (at age 13, the spring of 1981) to “Tom Sawyer,” I knew Rush was MY band. It seemed as though Peart was talking specifically to me, Bradley Joseph Birzer. That’s right. To 13-year old Brad in Hutchinson, Kansas. Peart was 15 years older than I, and he must have gone through the same things I had. Or so I thought. Again, I knew him only through his lyrics. But, did I ever cherish those lyrics. I lingered over each word, contemplated not just the ideas, but the very structures of lyrics as a whole.
Though his mind is not for rent
Don’t put him down as arrogant
His reserve a quiet defense
Riding out the day’s events
No, his mind is not for rent to any God or Government
Always hopeful, yet discontent [corrected from my original typos]
He knows changes aren’t permanent, but change is
Though I’ve never given any aspect of my life to the Government (nor do I have plans to do so), I long ago surrendered much of myself to the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity and to His Mother. While I’m no modern Tom Sawyer at age 47, I still find the above lyrics rather comforting. And, I do so in a way that is far beyond mere nostalgia.
Armed with Peart’s words and convictions, I could convince myself to walk to Liberty Junior High and, more importantly, to traverse its halls without thinking myself the most objectified piece of meat in the history of the world. Maybe, just maybe, I could transcend, sidestep, or walk directly through what was happening back at home. I could still walk with dignity through the groves of the academy, though my step father had done everything short of killing me back while in our house.
[N.B. This is the PG13 part of the essay] And, given all that was going on with my step father, the thought of killing myself crossed my mind many, many times in junior high and high school. I had become rather obsessed with the notion, and the idea of a righteous suicide, an escape from on purposeless life hanged tenebrous across my soul. After all, if I only existed to be exploited, to be a means to end, what purpose did life have.
What stopped me from ending it all? I’m still not sure, though such desires seemed to fade away rather quickly when I escaped our house on Virginia Court in Kansas and began college in northern Indiana. Not surprisingly, my first real friendship in college—one I cherish and hold to this day—came from a mutual interest in all things Rush. In fact, if anything, my friend (who also writes for this site) was an even bigger Rush fan than myself! I’d never met such a person.
Regardless, from age 13 to 18, I can say with absolute certainty that some good people, some good books, and some good music saved my life, more than once. Neil Peart’s words of integrity and individualism and intellectual curiosity stood at the front and center of that hope.
Perhaps even more importantly to me than Moving Pictures (“Tom Sawyer,” quoted above) were Peart’s lyrics for the next Rush album, Signals. On the opening track, a song about resisting conformity, Peart wrote:
Growing up, it all seemed so one-sided
Opinions all provided, the future predecided
Detached and subdivided in the mass production zone
No where is the dreamer or misfit so alone
There are those who sell their dreams for small desires
And lose their race to rats
Even at 14, I knew I would not be one who sold my dreams for small desires. I wanted to be a writer—in whatever field I found myself—and I would do what it took to make it through the horrible home years to see my books on the shelves of a libraries and a bookstores. Resist and renew. Renew and resist. Again, such allowed me to escape the abyss of self annihilation.
Indeed, outside of family members (though, in my imagination, I often think of Peart as one of my older brothers—you know; he was the brilliant one with the goofy but cool friends, the guys who did their own thing regardless of what anyone thought). From any objective standpoint, as I look back over almost five decades of life, I can claim that Peart would rank with St. Augustine, St. Francis, John Adams, T.S. Eliot, Willa Cather, Ray Bradbury, Russell Kirk, and J.R.R. Tolkien as those I would like to claim as having saved me and shaped me. If I actually live up to the example of any of these folks, however, is a different question . . .
I also like to say that Peart would have been a great big brother not just because he was his own person, but, most importantly, because he introduced me as well as an entire generation of North Americans (mostly males) to the ideas of Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Cicero, Seneca, Petrarch, Erasmus, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others.
During my junior year of high school, I wrote an essay on the meaning of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, based on Peart’s interpretation. I earned some form of an A. In one of my core humanities courses, while at the University of Notre Dame, I wrote my major sophomore humanities term paper about the cultural criticisms of Neil Peart as found in his lyrics to the 1984 album, Grace Under Pressure. Again, I received an A.
I’m not alone in this love of Rush. The band is, of course, one of the highest selling rock acts of all time, and they are just now crossing the line into their fortieth anniversary. Arguably, no other band has had as loyal a following as had Rush. Thousands and thousands of men (and some women) faithfully attend sold-out concerts throughout North and South America to this day. This is especially true of North American men, ages 35 to 65. Now, as is obvious at concerts, an entirely new generation of Rush fans is emerging, the children of the original set.
Telling, critics have almost always despised Rush, seeing them as having betrayed the blues-based tradition of much of rock, exchanging it for a European (and directly African rather than African-American) tradition of long form, complexity, and bizarrely shifting time signatures. Such a direction and style became unbearable for the nasty writers of the largest music magazines. They have felt and expressed almost nothing but disdain for such an “intellectually-pretentious band,” especially a band that has openly challenged the conformist ideologues of the Left while embracing art and excellence in all of its forms. Elitist rags such as the horrid Rolling Stone and equally horrid NME have time and time again dismissed Rush as nothing but smug middle-class rightists.
That so many have hated them so powerfully has only added to my attraction to the band, especially those who came of age in 1980s, despising the conformist hippies who wanted to mould my generation in their deformed image. Rolling Stone and NME spoke for the oppressive leftist elite, and many of my generation happily made rude gestures toward their offices and their offal. I had no love of the ideologues of the right, either. But, they weren’t controlling the schools in the 1980s. Their leftist idiotic counterparts were in charge. They had no desire for excellence. They demanded conformity and mediocrity.
[The best visual representation of this widespread if ultimately ineffective student revolt in the 1980s can be found in “The Breakfast Club” by John Hughes (RIP).]
To make it even more real for me, the parents of Geddy Lee, the lead singer and bassist of Rush, had survived the Polish holocaust camps, and the parents of Alex Lifeson, the lead guitarist of the band, had escaped from the Yugoslavian gulag. Peart came from a Canadian farming community, his father an entrepreneur. No prima donnas were these men. They understood suffering, yet they chose to rise above it. And, of course, this makes the British music press even more reprehensible for labeling the members of Rush as rightest or fascist. Again, I offer the most dignified description for Rolling Stone and NME possible: “ideological fools and tools.”
Enter Rob Freedman
In his outstanding 2014 book, Rush: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (Algora Press), author, philosopher, and media specialist Rob Freedman has attempted to explain not just Peart’s popularity among his multitude of fans—some of the most dedicated in the music world—but also the Canuck drummer’s actual set of ideas and explored beliefs in his books and lyrics. Not surprisingly, Freedman finds the Canadian a man deeply rooted in the western tradition, specifically in the traditions of western humanism and individualism.
As Freedman notes, one can find three themes in all of Peart’s lyrics: individualism; classical liberalism; and humanism. It’s worth observing that Freedman has formal training in academic philosophy, and this shows in his penetrating discussion of the music as well as the words of Rush.
Relying on interviews with the band, the music journalism (much of it bogus and elitist idiocy) of the last forty years, and actually serious works of Rush criticism, such as that done admirably by Steve Horwitz in Rush and Philosophy (Open Court, 2011), Freedman offers not so much a biography of the band, but rather a map of their intellectual influences and expressions. Freedman possesses a great wit in his writing, and the book—relatively short at 164 pages—flows and flows, time standing still until the reader reaches the end. For all intents and purposes, Freedman’s book serves as an intellectual thriller, a page turner.
As a lover of Rush, I have a few (very few) quibbles with Freedman’s take. Mostly, from my not so humble perspective, Freedman gives way too much space to such charlatans as Barry Miles of the English New Music Express who claimed Rush promoted neo-fascism in the late 1970s. Freedman, while disagreeing with Miles, bends over backwards defending Miles’s point of view, as it did carry immense weight in the 1970s and wounded the band deeply. From my perspective, there is no excuse for Miles. He maliciously manipulated and twisted the words of Peart—using his lyrics and a personal interview—which were as deeply anti-fascistic as one could possibly imagine (paeans to creativity and individualism) and caused unnecessary damage to the reputation of three men, two of whom who had parents who had survived the horrors of the twentieth-century ideologues, as noted above. Miles’s take on Rush is simply inexcusable and no amount of justification explains his wickedness and cthluthic insensibilities toward three great artists. Dante best understood where such “men” spent eternity.
I also believe that Freedman underplays the role of Stoicism in his book. The venerable philosophy barely receives a mention. Yet, in almost every way, Peart is a full-blown Stoic. In his own life as well as his own actions, Peart has sought nothing but excellence as conformable to the eternal laws of nature. This is the Stoicism of the pagans, admittedly, and not of the Jews or Christians, but it is Stoicism nonetheless. Freedman rightly notes that Plato and, especially, Aristotle influenced Peart. But, so did Zeno, Virgil, Cicero, and Seneca. This comes across best in Peart’s lyrics for “Natural Science” (early Rush), “Prime Mover” (middle Rush), and in “The Way the Wind Blows” (recent Rush). In each of these songs, Peart presents a view of the world with resignation, recognizing that whatever his flaws, man perseveres. Erik Heter and I have each attempted to explore this aspect of Peart’s writings at progarchy. Heter has been quite successful at it.
As the risk of sounding cocky, I offer what I hope is high praise for Freedman. I wish I’d written this book.
Peart as Real Man
In the late 1990s, Peart experienced immense tragedy. A horrible set of events ended the life of his daughter and, quickly after, his wife. Devastated, Peart got on his motorcycle (he’s an avid cyclist and motorcyclist) and rode throughout the entirety of North America for a year. It was his year in the desert, so to speak.
Then, in 2002, Rush re-emerged and released its rockingly powerful album, Vapor Trails. The men were the same men (kind of), but the band was not the same band. This twenty-first century Rush, for all intents and purposes, is Rush 2.0. This is a much more mature as well as a much more righteously angry and yet also playful Rush. This is a Rush that has nothing to prove except to themselves. The last albums—Vapor Trails (2002); Snakes and Arrows (2007); and Clockwork Angels (2012)—have not only been among the best in the huge Rush catalogue, but they are some of the best albums made in the last sixty years. They soar with confidence, and they promote what Rush has always done best: excellence, art, creativity, distrust of authority, and dignity of the human person.
Peart is not quite the hard-core libertarian of his youth. In his most recent book, Far and Near, he explains,
The great Western writer Edward Abbey’s suggestion was to catch them [illegal immigrants], give them guns and ammunition, and send them back to fix the things that made them leave. But Edward Abbey was a conservative pragmatist, and I am a bleeding-heart libertarian==who also happens to be fond of Latin Americans. The ‘libertarian’ in me thinks people should be able to go where they want to go, and the ‘bleeding heart’ doesn’t want them to suffer needlessly” [Far and Near, 58]
If he has lost any of his former political fervor, he’s lost none of his zest for life and for art. “My first principle of art is ‘Art is the telling of stories.’ What might be called the First Amendment is ‘Art must transcend its subject’.” [Far and Near, 88]
These twenty-first century albums speak to me at age 47 as much as the early albums spoke to me at age 13. I’ve grown up, and so has Rush. Interestingly, this doesn’t make their early albums seem childish, only less wise.
After my wife and I lost our own daughter, Cecilia Rose, I wrote a long letter to Neil Peart, telling him how much the events of his life—no matter how tragic—had shaped my own response to life. I included a copy of my biography of J.R.R. Tolkien. Mr. Peart sent me back an autographed postcard as thanks.
I framed it, and it will be, until the end of my days, one of my greatest possessions.
After all, Neil Peart has not just told me about the good life, creativity, and integrity, he has shown me through his successes and his tragedies—and thousands and thousands of others—that each life holds a purpose beyond our own limited understandings. As with all things, Peart takes what life has given and explodes it to the level of revelation.
Some of you reading this might be old enough to remember that the actor Steve Martin also made a name for himself as a stand-up comic, releasing two albums of stand-up in the late 1970’s. On one of those albums, Martin remarked that “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Martin may indeed be a wild and crazy guy, but I must respectfully disagree with him. After all, what would we be doing here on a blog dedicated to progressive rock if we agreed with him? Are we not here to have a conversation about prog (and other music as well)? The only difference is that our conversation here is not in real time, but instead is conducted through the written word. This brings me to the main topic of this post: books about prog.
My hands-down favorite progressive rock book is ‘Rocking the Classics’ by Edward Macan. In my opinion, this is a must-read for any dedicated progressive rock fan. Make no mistake about it though, this is not a fan-boy book, this is a serious critical study of prog.
What is best about Macan’s book is that he treats progressive rock as serious art – in other words, as it should be. Macan takes an academic point of view in his study of prog, and views it from several different angles – the music itself, the lyrics, the visuals (both album artwork as well as live presentation), and the culture that gave rise to the initial wave of prog. A more in-depth study of four different works of prog – ELP’s Tarkus, Yes’ Close to the Edge, Genesis’ Firth of Fifth, and Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (the entire album) is also provided.
Finally, Macan delves into related styles, the sociology of prog’s fan base, the critical reception of prog, and closes with a discussion of prog after 1976, as the first wave subsided. I particularly enjoyed his dissecting of the critics of prog, as I always found it ironic that they, of all people, were labeling prog as pretentious. As the old saying goes, projection ain’t just a river in Egypt … (it seems I might have garbled the translation here).
My only quibble is that Macan seems to believe that prog had played itself out following the advent of Discipline-era King Crimson and the neo-prog movement of the 80’s. Perhaps he can be forgiven though, since the internet was relatively new then, and thus like many of us, he was not aware that we were on the cusp of a second and more enduring golden age of prog. All things considered though, I cannot recommend this book strongly enough to those of you who haven’t read it.
On a different level, there is ‘The Progressive Rock Files’ by Jerry Lucky. This book is more of a mini-encyclopedia of prog up to the time of its publication (in the case of my copy, 1998, when the fourth edition was published). Lucky’s book includes a history, discussion of the definition of prog, a discussion of the critics, and then brings the reader up to date (or at least up to 1998!) with the goings-on of prog. That chapter, along with the listing of prog bands that follows, was the first realization for me that prog wasn’t dead but was actually alive and thriving, if one knew where to look.
Bill Martin’s ‘Music of Yes’ is a book with which I have a love-hate relationship. The love part is the analysis of Yes music, with its particular focus on ‘the main sequence’ of Yes – ‘The Yes Album’ through ‘Going for the One’. This is the period where Yes really made their name as one of the leading lights of the first golden age of prog, and thus Martin’s focus on this area is well justified. The hate part? Martin far too often lets his own politics work its way into the discussion, and it becomes very annoying. Agree or disagree with his views, it seems that their insertion into the discussion is often contrived, and where it occurs, it really takes away from the discussion.
Finally (if you’ve made it this far), there is ‘Pink Floyd and Philosophy’. I am a sucker for the pop culture and philosophy books from two different publishers (Wiley and Open Court Books) – particularly when it a band like Pink Floyd is the focal point (As a quick aside, there is a ‘Rush and Philosophy’ out there now – has anyone picked up a copy yet?). For those unfamiliar with these books, they are divided into a series of essays, usually about 15-20 or so, by different authors. While not every essay is a good one, many are more than worth the time and will make you do the same thing that listening to prog does – think. Among the essays included ‘Pink Floyd and Philosophy’ includes a series on the topic of alienation – a theme that runs through the lyrics of most of Pink Floyd’s work in the 70’s. That section alone makes it well worth the price of admission.
There are a number of other prog books out there that I haven’t read, including the aforementioned ‘Rush and Philosophy’, ‘Progressive Rock Reconsidered’, and “Beyond and Before – Progressive Rock since the 1960’s. If any of you reading this have suggestions, you would be doing many of us a great service if you were to further this discussion in the comments.
Did you make it this far? If so, let’s go put some Frank Lloyd Wright on the stereo and hit the dance floor.