The Stations of the Fall
335 · 28 June 01
Runrig: The Stamping Ground
You should be here. Along the edges of lamplight pools, amidst towers of promises, impossibility pauses. Dimly, through the dark lines in our window reflections, city planning ghosts into barrows and river courses. I know you said you only like pictures with people in them, but biology doesn't love metaphor as much as we do, and you can't always see the people we're trying to be in our eyes. It hangs in this air, wraps around antennae, sparkles in readouts, drips from window sills and wires. Maybe your camera couldn't catch it, but I wish you were here to try. I want to believe so many things.
I want to believe in nights and mornings. I want to believe that new beginnings are routine, inevitable and quickly forgotten. Did Edison know how much he was taking for his gift? Every new machine pushes life back, and we have to find somewhere for it to go. For every technologist we need an anthropist. For all our sedatives and clocks, we need someone to sit with the darkness and sing to it when it wakes up frightened. I want to believe that though we move forward in single steps, there are enough of them to reverse the times we slide backwards en masse. I want Gaudí's walls, not Shihuangdi's, engineering hopelessly sidetracked by ornament. Nothing can unite us at once. Unions are transitive or they're worthless.
I want to believe in memory. I want to believe that we sculpt our recollections, half by what we do and half by how we choose to encode it. Some of the most important choices we make come long after the fact, long after they could have affected anybody but us. You have as long as you need to decide who you've been, longer than death if I help. Resignation flees before the sunrise of the morning K reaches the Castle. Redemption isn't anything we pray for or earn, it's an intrinsic property of the curvature of the universe. Eventually all the Ks will reach all the Castles.
I want to believe in storytelling. I want to believe that we weave ourselves together, that what we see when we look at each other are all the things this could explain. I want to believe in characters and morals. This is the camera's greatest trick, a machination that is anthropic despite itself, extracting the story immanent in every instant, betraying the infinite sequence of fantasies that everything real decomposes into. The little stories, the ones we use as minor currency, we can fit into songs and phone calls. The big ones, the ones that define us, the ones that swallow the frames, we have to tell from inside and outside at once. And so we can never quite know what we're doing, and so we need each other.
I want to believe, if not in wisdom exactly, then at least in the future. I want to believe in the children we will be, and the ones we will nurture. I want a cycle for everything to pulse against, and a single arc doesn't provide enough rhythm. There should be a pace to this, to the footwork from born doubts to dead certainty. I want there to be debts owed, and names upheld. I want to fight nature everywhere where we can win, but then to rejoice at everything hopeless, at all the battles our limitations save us from fighting. I want to leave in the middle.
I want to believe that euphorias are elusive and unique. I want to believe that they are so thick around us that settling for the cheapest ones doesn't even have laziness to recommend it. None of us are served by sublimating irreproducible joys into forms it's easier to be sold. We should send away all these salesmen, they don't know us. They're offering envy and self-hatred, when we could have bagpipes and firelight. They would package us up for each other, when the last thing we need is to think we can be bought.
I want to believe in failure and pain. I want to believe that we do not freeze when we're lost. Our fears and sadnesses shouldn't determine where we go or where we don't, they should walk with us. Let there be consequences to our mistakes. I want it to matter what we say, and whether we do what we promise. I want to hold a hundred things I couldn't bear to lose, and lose half of them, and win every last one back or die trying.
I want to believe in our capacity for anything, and in providence, and in summer. I want to believe in resistance, and if not always in Good then at least in Evil. I want to believe in hope, of course, but hope is its own belief. Maybe I do believe some of these things. In some ways I'm already the person I want to be. And maybe some of these are the stations of my downfall, a circle of ritual pyres I forgot to step out of before I closed the last arc. But I still want to believe them. I want belief. I want to believe in so many things, and this record is helping. I wish you were here to hear it.
So far I haven't said a single thing about The Stamping Ground, and although I'm going to, I will probably get no closer to describing the way it makes me feel. Marillion's Anoraknophobia was a huge disappointment to me, an anticipated new record by a long-cherished band that made me wonder whether I'm going to cherish them any more. The Stamping Ground is Runrig's eleventh, and the second with new singer Bruce Guthro, and since the first, In Search of Angels, seemed a little scattered to me, I think it would have been reasonable to anticipate things unraveling a little more on The Stamping Ground. But I forgot to anticipate. In the blur of traveling and in the shadow (literally) (at least it would be literally, right before sunset, if my house were rotated thirty-five degrees counter-clockwise) of this listening backlog, The Stamping Ground became just one more entry on my upcoming-release list. My local store has been doing unusually well with imports lately, so I didn't even order it. But then, of course, they didn't get it, and my sister, who skipped straight through faith to shipping, got her copy before I got mine. So I heard it, for the first time, in my car driving to a soccer game. I think we tied, but Runrig has co-opted the memory, and now all I know from that night is that we drove home through clear summer air with the roof open, and we are lucky to live in these cities before they get domed.
Extrapolate from Mara and In Search of Angels, or arguably even from as far back Searchlight, and you'd probably bet on The Stamping Ground following one of two paths, either continuing the band's slow emigration away from their Scottish roots, or else, precisely in response, falling far back into their oldest modes, deep into their Scottish origins and away from rock and whatever else ever lured them off of their islands. The latter is closer, but still wrong. The album does find them casting back, I think, but by way not of retreating from the world but of reminding themselves what they wanted to bring with them out into it. So there are some drum loops, but also three and a half songs in Gaelic and one and a half a cappella; two and a half musically unapologetic pop songs, but one of them about itself; distant horizons, but also small rooms; and some suspiciously scratchy noises and one memorable line about web-sites, but also one wake-grade Malcolm Jones instrumental and a five-verse epic that reads like a Scottish gazetteer (indeed, plugging a few of the names from it into a search engine got me to an informative, if somewhat unglamorous, governmental web page titled "Gazetteer of places in Scotland where a coal mining search is not required", although I don't think the band intended any energy-policy statement).
But one of Runrig's greatest strengths, to me, in the run from The Highland Connection through Amazing Things, was their uncanny sense for how to be more than the sum of their elements. When I go back and look for the exact moment on The Highland Connection when they invented modern Celtic Rock, I can't find it, but when I play the record through from start to finish I'm sure by the end that I've heard it. Other people have made live recordings of individual songs I like more than any one track on Once in a Lifetime, but it remains my favorite live album. I can point to phrases on Amazing Things that are about wonder, but they don't explain how it embodies it for me. And thus all those little tensions, which I can pick out if I chip my way through the songs with the scan button, melt away when I listen to it right, and I am borne along on what I might want to nominate as the finest album arc in my recent memory, and perhaps the only album whose overall pace and structure have dumbfounded me since 69 Love Songs and Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, both of which were posed as challenges, which this is not. "Book of Golden Stories" is a gentle launch, mid-tempo drum-loop twitch under languid E-bow solos, avian pipe textures and Bruce's sturdy, affectionate voice. "The Stamping Ground" itself funnels rock energy into dance-folk, the band playing rousing, bodhran-punctuated Gaelic call-and-response with Bruce's fluttery English and then crashing into a chorus built around a kick-snare crunch square enough to survey by, and out into a bagpipe-and-shouting coda that you are best-advised to skip over if you haven't already learned to take bagpipes seriously. "An Sabhal Aig Neill" sounds a little like rattly Highland gypsies conflating "All Along the Watchtower" (the Hendrix version) with a jumprope anthem for school-age rock-gnomes and maybe some old Guadalcanal Diary records, but "Wall of China" is one of the sweeping pop songs, all pealing guitars and jig-derived hooks, and although Runrig are all probably too old to pull off the dance routines they'd need to get this into the charts, I must not be the only one who remembers what it was like before U2 turned ironic and Midnight Oil got so grim.
Jones' fiery instrumental "The Engine Room" marks the first intermission not so restfully, and after it grinds to a manipulated halt (or the multi-track shorts out during mix-down) Jones and Guthro supply the only real ballad here, "One Thing", a troubled-lovers lullaby whose dubious consolation is to remind her that their problems are globally inconsequential. "The picture is painted, the colours are bold", he says, but then has to guess "One for each season of life, I suppose", even though he should know that if colors were only used for calendars and maps, we wouldn't need so many. By now we're rested, so "The Ship" surges back into square-dance exuberance. The narrator starts to tell how a lost girl found herself, but then get caught up in the giddy clamor of her village and its sailors, and only late does he remember the point he was trying to make, ending with "And the ship's come round, / And she's waiting at the harbour; / Be prepared to get on board", a refrain at once of the sailors' port recall, and, flipping perspectives and pronouns, of their homecoming.
The second break in the album isn't an intermission, per se, but a watershed nonetheless. It's the one completely a cappella song, "The Summer Walkers", Bruce trading solo vocals with Rory Macdonald on the verses, and joined by Rory and Calum on the sea-shanty-ish choruses. My favorite thing about the composition is that it's another Runrig song I can't wait to have children to teach it to, especially American children to whom the Scottish place names (particularly Coldbackie and Arkle, and the way the sequence in the chorus sounds vaguely like anatomy) will be delightful nonsense, but my favorite thing about the recording is that it seems to have been done live, in front of an impatient audience who had been given no advance notice of the song's length, so every time Bruce hits a verse cadence somebody starts tentatively clapping, only to stop sheepishly when the chorus comes in again. After this casual minimalism, though, "Running to the Light" is the one I scored as half a pop song, pattering drums and circumspect guitars laying the pulsing verses' groundwork for the soaring, nearly-wordless, violin-threaded choruses, the running anthem that a Titanic remake in which the ship missed the berg would have eventually needed. The mournful accordion trifle "Oran Ailein" turns out to be only a brief intro to the album's closest approach to jangly folk-rock, "Leaving Strathconon", a reluctant emigrant's anthem sung, arrestingly, as the narrator's apology to a fellow traveler for taking him away from his home (and I had to read it twice to be sure there wasn't a romantic angle, but no, there's not).
And then, almost to the end, there's the climax, "Big Songs of Hope and Cheer", the album's other massive pop hit for some era less glib than ours. "With or Without You", "Don't You (Forget About Me)", "Red Army Blues", "No One Is to Blame", "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" and "Absolute Reality" all nod, peel out of formation and dive into this somewhere. A muted kick-pulse makes a cursory attempt at contemporary techno-production, but gives up quickly once the guitars and strings start. The message, at first look, seems self-contradictory. "And the company say, give us more of these / Big songs of hope and cheer, / Hits and hooks and riffs that shine as new, / As the refugees come in, live and dying, miles across the snow." And the chorus, after a lot of "I can't take it anymore"s: "I can't sing the paeans of hope in a torn world". But whether it's what the "company" wanted or not, this is as uplifting a song, musically, as Runrig's ever written, so the protestations are at least exaggerated, and at worst deluded, and no, I don't think the fact that it sounds more like "pains of hope" ought to make a difference. And anyway, what sense does that denial make? If it weren't a torn world, we wouldn't need paeans of hope. "All the soldiers of the world are turning history around", he frets at the beginning. "They're with me now, they're breaking down the door." But of course, until culture undergoes some sort of sea change, the kind of soldiers Runrig arrive with aren't breaking down anybody's door. Runrig, at this point (modulo another UK beer commercial), might be the definitive example of a band relegated to walking through only the doors already open. Who's left that hasn't already made up their mind about Runrig, or is too young for this possibly to be shiny enough, or hasn't heard them but is somewhere where they might? But what do they mean, if it isn't that they can't sing these songs they're patently singing, and it makes no sense for them to be worried that they're being imposed on anybody? "Oran", a bouncy Gaelic farewell with Alyth MacCormack along for backing vocals, is an amiable non-entity (even the translation of the title is just "Song"), and as it vanishes into the darkness, Rory singing "Seinn, seinn, seinn" as if it were a rueful "Shame, shame, shame", it leaves me pinned under these crazy certainties: that I'm in love, not that I could be but that I already am, and need only to figure out whom with; that there is a pastoral homeland I will someday return to, although I know it's not anywhere I've lived, and I've been to Skye and that wasn't it either; that humanity's involuntary resilience exceeds its self-destructive creativity. I think they mean, as Runrig has maybe only ever meant, that it isn't hope they're singing about. The torn world doesn't need optimism, it needs awe. It needs some sort of reverence that might be foundation and motivation for repair, not just a bet that it will happen. It needs records that tell us to look around, and catalog anything we haven't lost yet. I want to believe that if there were ever a rock band that could unite the world, that could transcend every cultural constraint by believing so fervently in the potential of their own, Runrig are them, and from here on out world peace is merely a distribution problem.
But of course I know that's wrong. As perfectly as I think Runrig's music ought to resonate with the defining character of the human soul, somebody would think of a way to hate it. The bagpipes will drive the Koreans crazy, or the thumpy drums will alienate Chilean teenagers, or there will be too little irony, or too much doubt. All these objections seem viscerally insane to me, but I know they're important. I know, because I've been alternating The Stamping Ground with Wishmaster, the third album by the dramatic Finnish metal band Nightwish. And my senses report that this one is every bit as exhilarating, but I know it can't have even Runrig's commercial potential. The instrumentalists in Nightwish produce a fast, shimmery, incessant-kick-drum-rumble Euro-symphonic-metal roar not neo-Scorpion-esque enough to be taken as kitsch, but not Korny enough to be part of Nu- anything. Over them, female vocalist Tarja Turunen sings (in English) in a piercing, exaggeratedly operatic soprano. I'm guessing that this isn't very popular, based on the fact that I don't know of any other bands attempting it as a full-time identity, but a) maybe there are and I just haven't heard of them yet (in which case you're about to write and fill me in, I hope), and b) maybe everybody would love this if they heard it. Nightwish is, and I've used this label more than once before but I keep finding better examples for it, the music the blue diva in The Fifth Element should have been performing, songs finally grand enough, this time, to operate on the same overblown level as the rest of the movie. But I have a hard enough time finding other people that liked The Fifth Element, let alone ones who think of the short performance by the blue diva in the middle of it as a place-holder ideal for some to-be-identified style of music. So I accept, without demanding that it be proven, that I can't unite the world by playing it Runrig, and playing it Nightwish might make things worse.
Which needn't affect my enjoyment, I'm aware. Arena-scale orchestra stabs and bristling hooks line the cold, dire opener "She Is My Sin". Synth-strings saw through the ominous, rumbling "The Kinslayer". "Come Cover Me" opens tranquilly, with a lilting flute intro, but then snaps into straight-ahead metal not materially different, save the singer, from Gamma Ray or some of the shinier old Helloween songs. "Wanderlust" throws in serpentine keyboard runs and edges towards Iron Maiden. "Two for Tragedy" plays it gauzy and Sarah-Brightman-at-a-Renaissance-Faire-ish for almost two minutes, but eventually the rest of the band does join in and make it at least a power ballad, albeit one in which Sister Christian takes her religious vows a little more seriously. "Wishmaster", probably my favorite single Nightwish song, relies on Tarja and a backing choir yelping "Master!" "Apprentice!" "Warrior!" and "Disciple!" in stern, yet excitable tones. "Bare Grace Misery" is a shade more hard-rock except for the twinkling synth-chime arpeggios, and "Love lying, enticing", might be the album's best three-word summary of its aesthetic relative to the rest of metal. "Crownless" is a hammering metal sprint, kick-drums pistoning steadily while keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen and guitarist Emppu Vuorinen duel debris-sheddingly right above our homes. "Deep Silent Complete" is a little calmer, and "Dead Boy's Poem" opens with a brief acoustic interlude before sweeping into a chorus that I really thought lamented "Everything I wish for denied", except I see here in the lyrics that it's "Everything a wish for the night". The actual dead boy, one presumes we're supposed to think, shows up to read his poem in the middle, which makes poor narrative sense, but it's not much of a poem, either. The finale, "FantasMic", goofy name notwithstanding, wisely returns to Tarja's magnificent wail.
As with Runrig, my fascination with this album isn't reductive, but in this case it doesn't have anything to do with album pacing either. Nightwish, in fact, might as well have been constructed out of specs taken directly from my fantasy subconscious: vicious but well-balanced metal band with synth-playing songwriter, double-bass drummer and female singer with wildly seductive hyper-aesthetic singing persona. Therion employ a nominally similar style, but in their case I didn't like the band this much, plus their blurry choral vocals always made me wonder how they managed to get the singers to perform in sync with the music without requiring them to actually hear it. In Nightwish Tarja is very obviously a real and knowing participant, not anybody they've blue-toned in. Wishmaster is important to me first because I find it simply galvanizing, and I'm always thrilled to discover a new variation on old styles that makes me even more excited than its sources did. We navigate, in our instinctive-reaction spaces, only by taking these readings, and Nightwish suggest that there's a whole direction I haven't fumbled into yet, which is intriguing even there aren't currently any other bands in it. I've learned something new about my tastes.
But the other reason Wishmaster is important to me is as a two-part object lesson. In the first part, they remind me that sometimes the most interesting progress in music is being made inside compartments you might not think to open, and you'll miss a lot if you sit back only watching out for border transgressions. In the second part, they remind me just how hard an experience of art is to transfer. I could think of some reasons why listening to Nightwish might benefit you, having to do with undermining gender expectations in creative production and rethinking, if you haven't already, the relationship between classical technique and popular expression. But in a sense this configuration became an aesthetically foregone conclusion as soon as the first wave of death-metal bands began delivering all their vocals in that same unintelligible Cookie-Monster-through-a-leaf-mulcher huff, and frankly I'm so happy about the juxtapositions of elements in Nightwish that I don't think I could tell you with any confidence whether Tarja or the band are, on their separate merits, great musicians or merely good enough to pull off the synthesis. I'm sure I can make up a moral: sometimes the easiest way to permute a system is pick exactly one rule in it to ignore. That's a good moral, but it's deduced. It's an effect, not a cause. And thus the problem with this record, like the problem with all these things I want to believe, is that I don't want to talk you into them. I don't want to be a tour guide. I don't want to walk you through strange clearings, pointing out footpaths and trying to explain why we didn't build roads there. If we're going to be exotic to each other, then it wouldn't help to be here. I don't want this to be my world, and you a guest, I want to discover you already inhabiting some overlapping region. Maybe Nightwish isn't it, maybe not even Runrig, maybe not music at all. And that's why I fixated on the bulky camera slung over your shoulder, as you walked up the aisle ahead of your brother's bride, and how you ended up as a character in this, when I needed one. It was a pretty dress, but without the camera, that's all. With the camera, when every social pressure said to leave it somewhere, it was you. You have chosen a way to look at the world, and it happens to be one that I might be able to understand without you having to explain it to me. Yes, maybe there's nothing there. I felt something, but it could just as easily have been pride for your steps. I didn't have to walk up the aisle, I got to hide in the back where none of these encumbrances are visible. But stand up, and they're all there again. We carry them around, all these unwieldy tools, no matter how incongruous, because to leave them behind is to leave behind part of ourselves, and if we do that, then we never arrive anywhere we go.