Darkness Will Not Become This Child
433 · 15 May 03
Dear Holly and Martin,
Stratovarius: Elements Pt. 1
You should really ask Bryan to explain all of this to you himself, obviously, since his personal reasons for loving this music are far more important for any practical or emotional purpose than whatever the music could be construed to represent by itself. But I recognize that that's easier recommended than implemented, so I'll do what I can. Possibly both sets of explanations, together, will elucidate more than either one can alone.
Both of you missed this particular phase in your own childhoods, I realize. Very few girls go through it, at all, and although I'd guess that most boys experience some semblance of it, many get away with much more superficial versions than this. But it may help to recognize that the central appeal of heavy metal, particularly this kind of heavy metal, is fundamentally the same as the central appeal of Star Wars, or The Matrix, or The Lord of the Rings, or superhero comics or even Wagner. The pop-psychology edition of the explanation is that boys, especially ones like Bryan who are both smart enough to be marginalized and smart enough to recognize the ironic injustice of this, gravitate towards compensatory power fantasies. The same social pressures forge bullies and hermits and artists and control freaks; the differences arise from within the subjects.
The really, really good news, from your point of view, is that this is the music of a boy who has been brought up with enough self-confidence, emotional resilience and moral perspective that his reaction to alienation is mainly dissatisfaction. There is heavy metal that attempts to channel alienation into uglinesses, either stylized or destructively pragmatic. I imagine this is what you feared these albums were, but they aren't. Relax, that's your first task. These pressures wreck some kids, permanently or temporarily, and they didn't hurt yours. And I know you think they've come between you, but you have my considered opinion that these records are neither the source nor even a significant part of that.
More than anything, this kind of heavy metal is about pageantry, or about escape. Arguably one is a medium for the other, but I think it's easier to think of them as synonymous. Reality is mundane. Reality is especially mundane when you're a sub-driving-age boy in an automobile suburb, neither challenged by school nor attracted to his peers' distractions. But instead of just rattling around inside what he sees as a hollow shell, or trying to crack out of it by individual force, it seems to me that Bryan prefers to hold still and try to imagine what the world is like outside the shell. The cynic would imagine the outside to be no better than the inside, or maybe better in ultimately illusory appearance. Instead, Bryan imagines it bejeweled and grand. These records are measures of the extent of Bryan's optimism. He cares about the world enough to think that it can be breathtaking.
Stratovarius are from Finland. They came along after I went through this phase, myself, but they've been going since the late Eighties, and have a high enough profile elsewhere in the world to have inspired subsequent generations in turn. Their last proper album, Infinite, came out way back in 2000, when Bryan was first getting into this stuff, and it's possible that I'm even the one who mentioned them to him, although I suspect he would have come across them on the net without my help. I realize they look pretty dopey in the picture, but as rock bands go, the ones like this tend to have strong work ethics out of sheer necessity. Their music is incredibly difficult to play, and the audiences are niche enough that the key to making a living is often incessant touring, which requires an even higher level of mastery than getting a tough part right once in a studio. In Stratovarius's case they basically overloaded, and after their last big tour they actually came out and announced that they were taking a year off. They were very clear that it was just a vacation, not a trial break-up or anything, but that didn't necessarily keep their fans from getting nervous. After taking the year off they still had to take another one to make the next record, so it's been a while, and expectations have been raised accordingly. This may sound to you like a dumb thing for Bryan to be agitated about, but it won't help if he knows you think that.
Metal bands are particularly good at producing incredibly elaborate evocations of frankly simplistic material, and Stratovarius push towards both of these extremes. As you can see from the cover, this album sets out to be a concept record about Fire and Water. (The "Pt. 1" implies that there will be a "Pt. 2", although a moment's consideration may lead you to the suspicion that the follow-up about Earth and Air may be rather more cumbersome to imbue with the same levels of histrionics; another point not to make to him.) The songs themselves, typically of this sort of thing, don't necessarily carry out the overarching premise with much diligence or insight. Read the lyrics to "Eagleheart", at least, to get an idea. To you two, probably, they will just seem like a short parade of clichés. This is correct, of course, but irrelevant. All those things about wondering how much more he can "take", and eyes blazing with fire, and eagles flying through rainbows (!), are laughably banal to us in our jaded doddering adulthood, but to Bryan they're still vivid encapsulations of his inner fears and dreams. Or if they aren't, he wishes they were. Whatever his insomnia is really about, from his point of view it's much more compelling to lie there imagining that he's surviving relentless torment. "Back against the wall under blood-red skies", they sing towards the end. What wall? And how would the skies be as red as blood, and what the hell difference would it make if they were? It doesn't matter. The words are not cogent, per se, they are cognitive translations of the guitar solos and the fast drumming and the straining melodies. They are mental flourishes, and attempts to paint a whole world awash in flourishes, because would that be less drab?
The rest of the album more or less continues in that harmless, hopeful mode. "Soul of a Vagabond" refers to "sins", but says nothing about what they might have been. "Find Your Own Voice" is just a little exhortation to think for yourself. "Fantasia" is a barely-disguised I'd-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing-in-perfect-harmony peace song. "Learning to Fly" is about being present (and they seem to have forgotten already that Air is supposed to be Pt. 2). "Papillon" is the mythological fire-breathing horse that brought Ogier the Dane to the fairy enchantress Morgana in the legends of Charlemagne, and then ended up sticking with the poor fool after Morgana decided that a hundred years of mind-control were enough and sent Ogier back to Paris, only to suddenly retrieve him again later just when he was finally in the position to accomplish something. Except the song shows no explicit sign of knowing this, so the only reason I suspect that they're referring to the horse, and not to the breed of spaniel with the same name, is that the spaniels are not typically fire-breathing, which gives the horse a thematic advantage. "Elements" itself is a hopeless lyrical muddle, but "A Drop in the Ocean" at least ends the album with some water to match "Eagleheart"'s fire.
But the lyrics are ciphers, as is frequently true of all rock music but even more so with metal. Pretty much everything sung on this album could be replaced by "Our dreams are bigger than this room" without any semantic corruption. The messages are that simple, and that affirming. And the music, although I know it sounds garish and brutal to you in many ways, is in spirit just as simple and affirming. The individual instrumental parts are elegant and/or intricate, as are the arrangements into which they are set, but the song structures are larger than they are complex, and the derivations from musical tradition are so direct that perhaps "derivation" is even the wrong word. This kind of metal is sometimes called "neo-classical metal", which is probably overstating things quite a bit, but the point is valid even if the scale is wrong: this is reverent, deferential, historically-aware art, aesthetically conservative in the grammar of its own idioms. You should be no more alarmed by Bryan's interest in it than you would be if he spent his time studying catalogs of excavated Egyptian tomb relics, or reading The Faerie Queen, or memorizing old baseball statistics.
Sonata Arctica: Winterheart's Guild
And your response should probably be no different in nature, either. If it were Tutankhamun, I'm pretty sure you'd be willing to show an interest, and play along. Of course, if it were Tutankhamun, Bryan would be younger, and pestering you with details. Instead, he's holed up in his room with his headphones on, getting grim satisfaction out of your concern and confusion. He knows that you don't know what this music means. He knows that you don't engage with it at all, and when you press him on his record-buying, you just reinforce his impression of your ignorance. And he's right, after all: you are ignorant on this subject.
You'll be relieved to know that there's not much you can do about that. We can stipulate that you love him enough that you'd try to learn the difference between these bands if you thought it would help you communicate with him. But you'd fail. You're never going to love this music, and if you don't love it, trying to distinguish between bands will just make your head hurt. This other record is a perfect example. Sonata Arctica are also Finnish, and in fact Stratovarius's keyboard player plays solos on four of these songs. Sonata Arctica are a little less patient than Stratovarius, and thus their songs tend to be slightly less elaborately conceived and somewhat more rapidly executed, but I'm pretty sure that hint would be enough for you to tell the difference between the two bands in blind tests.
And yet Sonata Arctica may be even more important to Bryan than Stratovarius, precisely because the differences between the two bands are so subtle. Stratovarius are basically a gateway to this style of music. As obscure as they are in the context of the world of music (and more so in the cloudy American view of it), they are canon elements within the reference framework of symphonic metal. Stratovarius define Bryan's musical coordinates to the first couple decimal places, and when he wears his Stratovarius shirts to school, it's to reply to the other kids flying the banners of other bands in more popular styles of music (which are all worse than this, trust me). When he wears his Sonata Arctica shirt, on the other hand, he's engaging in performance art for which he himself is the only audience. The kids wearing Staind T-shirts don't have any idea what Stratovarius is, to begin with, and so don't even know that there's a space in which Sonata Arctica could exist. Declaring himself a Sonata Arctica fan is Bryan's way of saying that not only do you not know where he's coming from, but there's a whole world where he's from, so even if you find a point on the map, you're no closer to understanding the characteristics of his experience.
Sonata Arctica could fill this role without actually existing, to be honest, since you would never know the difference. But they do exist, and they're rather more interesting than they have to be. Musically speaking, you could write them off as kind of the Stratovarius reserve team, rawly talented if undisciplined. But although both bands write lyrics in the same general style, obdurately symbolic and heavily reliant on heroic rhetoric, Stratovarius rarely do more than juggle clichés in interesting arcs, and Sonata Arctica take the time to disassemble them and make something out of the parts. "Abandoned, Pleased, Brainwashed, Exploited" isn't as punk as the title sounds, but "Violate me and this never ends. / My children will then hate you too" is a real threat, and "You aim for a common goal, you are one with your foe" is a real criticism. "Gravenimage" asks some useful meta-questions about the extent of art's power. "The Misery" is a strained tension between inspiration and torture, especially haunting if you think it's about a relationship (as opposed to Inspiration itself, or alcohol). The suggestive-seeming title of "Victoria's Secret" turns out to be its cleverest feature, giving a somewhat over-oblique song a hint at a gender-politics context. "Broken" is as clear a pained self-portrait as you'd expect from any genre. "The Ruins of My Life" is a plangent soldier's lament. And "Draw Me" might even be a genuinely thoughtful song about the relationship between creations and their creator, in both the artistic and religious senses.
And although the pertinence of this is questionable, I will also note that both of these bands are good. That is to say, there are things they are good at, whether you like those things or not. There is plenty of crap out in the world that Bryan could have tracked into your house. There is bad metal that you'd be justified in wanting to scrub your walls after hearing. This stuff only scares you because you don't know what it means. I suspect you'd have the same reaction if it were the Kingston Trio but they were singing in Finnish. Or if you wouldn't, maybe you should.
So that's what I can tell you. I wish I could say something more helpful or informative. But of course I can't. I may know these records, but you know your son a thousand times better than these records or I know him. I think you worry that these records are a part of him you don't understand, and I tell you, as someone who also lives with these records, that they're important, like everything is important, but they don't really matter. We all have our interests, or we should, and if our interests amount to private languages, they don't mean that we can't still speak the public ones. You don't have to know or love this music. I do, and it doesn't grant me any magic powers. I could talk about records with him. But what he needs is someone talking to him, and that someone isn't me, it's you.
Anyway, good luck tomorrow night. It's going to be fine. It really is, I promise you that with all my right to promise things. Give me a call when you get home afterwards.