One Eye Filled With Tears
294 · 14 September 00
As I pulled away from the train station, I turned on the radio and flicked the Scan button. When the numbers stopped, the DJ's voice was just dying away, and the next song was starting. It took a few bars before I could mentally extrapolate from the intro far enough to remember which Journey song it was, but I recognized Jonathan Cain's clanging alternate-hand piano cadence and Neal Schon's spirograph guitar blur immediately. I was never a Journey fan as a kid, and still haven't bought any of their records, but they were a constant radio presence during my adolescence, and for a few moments, speeding down a minor Rhode Island highway, I am able to conflate associative nostalgia with actual devotion. And then Steve Perry starts singing, and I remember which song this is ("Don't Stop Believin'", from Escape, which came out when I was fourteen), but also part of why I don't own a copy. And then Steve Smith's dry, echoey drums start, and I remember the rest. Journey, REO Speedwagon and Asia all aspired to fill arenas (and did, to be literal), but not with the music the arenas I imagined demanded. At the time, I wanted faster, darker and heavier, arenas shaking like retributive deities had conjured storms inside the walls to remind us of the folly of architecture that presumes to titanic scale. I support some other approaches, now that I'm older, and in particular I have a much higher tolerance for sentimentality, but "Don't Stop Believin'" still sounds to me like a faded pencil sketch for something to be executed later in airbrush and steel. I've never managed to forgive Journey for all the missing "g"s in their song titles (most egregiously the bathetic "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'"), nor Perry for insisting that every single song he ever performed feature that same trademark semi-falsetto trill. And yet clearly there is the soul of something, straining to claw its way out of "Don't Stop Believin'", to which I respond instinctively and intensely. The chorus affirmation is banal, but so was "Don't Tread on Me", and although admittedly the song came on at a moment when I was particularly in need of uncritical encouragement, the effect has lingered for weeks, and I can still recall it tonight, just by humming a few notes. The song is, to me, at least melodically and timbrally, the aural equivalent of an extremely beautiful woman with long hair standing in front of a wind machine, or a sports car in full slow-motion sideways hydroplane, things I experience as viscerally cool even though I realize, consciously, that they're idiotic and/or irrelevant ("What primary quality are you looking for in a woman?" "Well, mainly that when she faces into a strong wind, I feel an urge to have sex with her." "And a car?" "Poor traction.").
I never seriously expected Journey to make the record I wanted, and until Fantasma, the fourth album by German progressive-metal quartet Everon, I didn't even think the aspects of Journey I responded to were important enough to search for in other music. But then "Men of Rust" opens with a clear, ringing piano hook, worthy of Jonathan Cain, but surrounds it with howling guitars and dense, booming drums, and I'm suddenly convinced I've been missing something after all. Yes, if you have to pick just one genre this is metal, but it seems to me that Oliver Philipps spreads his writing and arranging debts equitably between the progressive axis from Rush to Magellan to Queensrÿche (from whom he takes shifting tempos, churning bass/rhythm-guitar sync and atmospheric synthesizers) and the softer, glossier idioms of Boston, Journey and Night Ranger (circling back obsessively to choruses, guitar solos restricted to established melodic themes, and an overriding expansiveness where a real metal band would have relied on menace). His lyrics dwell on mythology and minor wordplay, but where progressive lyricists usually take pains to keep the text on an abstract plane, Philipps demonstrates a romantic's compulsion to explicitly acknowledge the personal relevances (and so a lumbering metaphor about golden cages and wing-spreading starts to end with the epigrammatic "Men of steel turn into men of rust", but then lapses into the plaintively human "Before they either bite the dust / Or simply run away if they still can"). And a part of me wonders, as Philipps and drummer Christian Moos' meticulous, megalithic production envelops me, whether they could make "Don't Stop Believin'", "Keep on Loving You" and "Heat of the Moment" sound this sweeping, too, if they were left alone with the master tapes for a few days. In a way Everon is to Journey, for me, what Roxette is to ABBA, a new noise that captures what the old noise has come to sound like inside my wishful, selectively revisionist head.
Of course the hardest challenge, whenever you feel like you've discovered a successful reinterpretation of an old failed idea, is distinguishing between the differences in the art and the differences in you. At fourteen, unable to be reminded of Marillion's "Freaks" because it didn't exist yet, I would have thought the twinkling synth-vibes that open "Perfect Remedy" were merely effeminate (which, at fourteen, I thought was bad), and as refrains went, "Are we each other's poison / Or each other's only therapy?" would have paled against "Be cool or be cast out" or "Prince By-Tor takes the cavern to the Northlight". In the years since, though, By-Tor and I have grown apart, and you and I have grown closer, and now "Am I good for you?" strikes me as a crucial question. How old would I have to have been to find Philipps' meter-forced mispronunciation of "melancholy" as "malankally" this hilarious and charming? Late twenties, at least. I'd have loved the whammy-bar bluster of "Fine With Me" at any age, but the slow, "Sister Christian"-gauge power-balladry of "A Day by the Sea" would have been unbearable to me as a kid. I'd have poured over the lyrics to the deliciously intricate five-part title suite, which forms the middle of this album (presumably, in the vinyl days, they would have devoted a side to it, à la Rush or Yes), and I'd have air-guitarred the pounding chords of "Right Now Til the End of Time" until the air complained, but I wouldn't have appreciated the choral harmonies or the Celtic nuances of the guitar figures on the bridge. Pre-"Silent Lucidity", the spare elegance of the "Fantasma" theme and the sonorous cello and brittle classical guitar on "The Real Escape" would only have reached me through a belligerent fog of resistance. Would I have grasped "Whatever It Takes"' synthesis of Queen, Styx and Saga? Probably not. The cheerful baroque flourishes of the soaring instrumental "Battle of Words"? Lost on me until twenty-two or so, I suspect. I'd have wanted "May You" to get to its inexorable anthemic finale within the first minute, rather than prolonging the build-up for three, but I'm more patient now. The ominous golemic voice-over and cathartic guitar fusillades of "Ghost" might well have held my attention all along, but the scolding exhortation "Born free we choose to live in chains" now seems oversimplified to me. As kids, knowing too many limitations too vividly, we inevitably fixate on an extreme, artificial and unworkably abstract conception of "freedom", and mistakenly believe that the important battles will be fought across barricades, against masked enemies, with tattered flags waving above our heads and us basking in cinematic suspension. And so we're raised to defy chains in which we're almost never clasped, and forced to learn the most important truths remedially: how "freedom" is only absolute for pirates on calm days between ambushes (and we never get to be pirates), and must be voluntarily modulated if any two freedoms are ever to coexist; how the most dangerous enemies aren't the faceless others chanting hateful mantras, but ourselves, mumbling invidious lies we've accidentally internalized; how much harder (and more satisfying) it is to extricate yourself from the confines of your own self-image than it ever was to elude your parents; and how you can learn to fill arenas with virtually any music, if you want, but it's better to learn to make music that turns small spaces into large ones, that instead of celebrating barriers, however distant, reminds us that the best route through everything that tries to wall us off from our hopes isn't battering rams and mining drills, it's self-containment and transcendence.
Fates Warning: Disconnected
I'm only thirty-three, which I ardently hope constitutes well less than half of my useful music-listening life, so I'm a bit concerned to notice my musical tastes undergoing a partial bifurcation into one creature that wants everything to sound like whatever I only just discovered last week, and one that wants everything to sound, in some small but unmistakable way, like something I heard on the radio when I was a teenager. It's not, I keep reminding myself, that I think music was better back then, otherwise I'd be buying Journey albums instead of falling for new bands that sort of remind me of them, but clearly I filter my experience of music that is new to me through my experience of (or my memory of my experience of) music that is old to me. At some point, especially in an art form dominated, at least commercially, by young artists, this starts to introduce a disconnect, as I get old enough that I'm associating new bands with old bands that the new bands never actually knew. If I hear things you don't, though, that's hardly my problem. "You are as young as you feel", we are admonished, as if age is a single point on a downhill time-line, and the goal of life is to stay as far uphill from death as possible. But the real trick isn't being fourteen at thirty-three, or even thirty-three at thirty-three, it's being, at all times, all the ages you've been so far. A day, received properly, doesn't shift your world, it expands it. Keeping in touch with new music is fairly easy (by which I mean that it's incredibly time-consuming, but emotionally self-sustaining), and keeping in touch with the music I loved when I barely knew any music is virtually effortless (I suspect I'll know "More Than a Feeling" and "Red Barchetta" as well in fifty years as I know them right now, whether I listen to them each a thousand times more or none along the way). Harder is keeping in touch with all the unanchored music in between, with 1988, 1992 and 1995. How will I remember, when I'm sixty, what I loved when I was thirty? (I'll read my back-issues, of course. You didn't think I was writing this for you?)
It's thus with a sense of responsibility that I put on the new Fates Warning album, their ninth (plus a compilation and a live album), and with a sense of relief that I realize how easy it is to relocate the right frame of mind for it. Fates Warning were always the least florid of the old-school progressive-metal triumvirate (Fates Warning, Dream Theater and Queensrÿche), so it's not too surprising that while Dream Theater and Queensrÿche experimented with mainstream urges and never entirely returned to their roots afterwards, Fates Warning has been better able to reabsorb the ambitions of their brief commercial flirtation and reapply that energy to what progressive metal used to mean before the AOR/MTV carpetbaggers messed with it. Only two of these seven tracks are anywhere near single length, and none of them are single temperament. Disconnected isn't a crossover bid, it's an old-fashioned ADD-defying concept album about alienation. The compositions are intently patterned, but barely melodic, the band's playing and Ray Alder's singing sharing a Mondrian-like fascination with rigid delineations and mathematical proportion, rather than inflection and shading. When Queensrÿche tried to make a grim concept album, it came out paranoid and electrifying. When IQ tried it they couldn't keep a few heartbreaking pop songs from coalescing in the middle. The only thing that challenges Fates Warning's discipline is Jim Matheos' fascination with new studio toys, but if the pistoning sequencer grooves on "Pieces of Me" were going to turn Fates Warning into Stabbing Westward Matheos would have had to get rid of Alder, who sings imperturbably, in his usual geometric style, straight over anything experimental the music attempts. The lyrics are similarly stark and single-minded, repetitive and relentless, and when Alder intones, at the end, "And here I am again, / Tragic and absurd, / Repeating every line / And every final word", I can't help but hear self-reference. You will wait in vain for this album to become anything but its own obsessive-compulsive self, the band marching on like Gloriously Bright tracing the grain in her floorboards, or K stubbornly trying to reach the castle. A merciless air-raid-siren-like guitar howl opens the album, punctuates most of the six-minute finale, and eventually is the only sound left. With the rest of the known world, it often seems, turning pop, Disconnected is a disconcerting anachronism, like a bad dream in which the Cold War never ended, or a relapse after everybody believed the therapy had worked. There are a hundred heartening trends this album is not part of, but they and it will live without each other. How many people will want to be reminded of what it was like to feel this way all the time, I don't know. But even if you argue that this is how we once were, and then we got better, the only way you can sustain a recovery is to remember what you're so pleased to be better than.
The Gathering: if_then_else
And if I'm proud of Fates Warning for adhering to their aesthetic principles, I'm even more cheered (if you can be cheered by grim music) (and you can) to find some new company for them. It's taken two studio records and a live album to disabuse me of the notion that all Gathering albums should recapitulate Mandylion, but after Superheat I finally relinquished the idea, and I'm thus ready to recognize how similar if_then_else is, in spirit, to Disconnected. Anneke van Giersbergen's voice is more ethereal than Ray Alder's, fluttery and supple where his is linear and stern, but she holds onto the notes at the ends of phrases that in standard pop and rock deliveries would be truncated (thus Journey's missing "g"s), and so these songs press on past the points where they might otherwise have resolved, or dissolved. The band sounds more than ever like a Sisters of Mercy who traded Andrew Eldritch's goth decadence for military discipline and Jim Steinman's production histrionics for several extra years of music-school training. The stately instrumental "Beautiful War" is unexpectedly elegiac, like a national anthem for a country so small everybody forgot about it, but most of the rest of the album is unflappable and introverted, as if the band are accustomed to, and comfortable with, being the only people who really listen to them. "Rollercoaster" has all the dizzying ups and downs of a very large tank driving over a pile of very flat protesters. "Shot to Pieces" is rather fast, but for the choruses, instead of speeding up further or modulating or any of the usual chorus tricks, the song just slows down for a moment, and then resumes the original methodical grind. "Amity", with its clicky synth-mallet dyads and a relatively spare arrangement that leaves Anneke's sinuous delivery as the focal point, reminds me faintly of Happy Rhodes circa Many Worlds Are Born Tonight. "Bad Movie Scene" begins with just Anneke and a skeletal guitar line, but by the end the usual slab-like structure has reasserted itself. "The Colorado Incident" makes me think of half-speed Rose Chronicles, "Analog Park" of the music the reissue of Metropolis should have had. "Herbal Movement" is torn between becalmed and gentle. "Saturnine" sounds like "Hell Is for Children" stated as a matter of fact. "Morphia's Waltz" is in 3/4, but Anneke's singing is so legato and arrhythmic that I don't expect to hear this song put to much practical use. And "Pathfinder", the instrumental conclusion, could be the dolorous soliloquy of the town-square clock in a plague-emptied Bavarian village. Anneke's distended vocal style makes it easy to understand words and hard to follow sentences, most of the time, but the lyrics are printed in the booklet, and are, with the painful exceptions of "Herbal Movement" ("The fabric softener of the mind / Makes everything easy") and "The Colorado Incident" (which is a stilted road song, not a Columbine elegy), vague and fittingly evocative. "Why did I ever think / Life is about to go on / In a minute", she wonders in "Bad Movie Scene". "It is time to reach out / To find something that isn't there", suggests "Analog Park", an inversion of "Don't stop believin'" that implies we haven't started believing. And yet "Morphia's Waltz", by way of answer, is a lullaby. "Sleep, child sleep, / Rest your eyes / Until the sun comes up / And you'll awake / To light everyone's day / Up again". It takes Anneke half a minute to relay this brief benediction, and another minute of background rustle for the song to end. But if we can't spare thirty seconds to say goodnight properly to our children and our passions, then we hardly deserve to wake up to them tomorrow. And if we can't spare a couple hours for measured, systematic records about perseverance and proportion, then how will we know the difference between the things that have happened to us, and the small things we've accomplished ourselves, and the big ones?