Young Hearts Are Pure
447 · 21 August 03
In case I somehow haven't stated this clearly the other hundred times I've tried, my musical tastes are arbitrary. As a general truth, I don't know why I like what I like. At most, I may know what I like about something I like, or I may be able to identify some of its likable qualities. But emotional resonance is not a function of analysis.
Part of the problem, of course, is that I do not experience music in isolation. I cannot, practically speaking. It is comparatively simple, for example, to clear my mind and look at two paintings side by side, or taste two different treatments of salmon. These are momentary arts, and I can isolate moments. It is a little harder to extract myself from my reaction to a movie or a book, but it's still doable. I know how to enter into storytelling so that some of me stays outside. My mind can do that like my body will learn to roll a kayak. Storytelling elicits focus, which in turn tends, by its nature, to categorize transient personal context as noise.
But that doesn't work at all with music. Songs are longer than moments, never mind albums, never mind albums played repeatedly. I spend much more time with a piece of music I like than I do with work in any other form. And maybe I could still do full music immersion when I was fifteen, cocooned with headphones and lyric sheets, but I lost that patience many years ago, so the time I spend with music is necessarily time I also spend some other way. I am reading, or designing, or writing, or driving. And the music is still with me when it's not on, when I'm paddling or arguing or scared or entranced. Analyzing music is a coherent activity. Appreciating music is a matter of allowing it to become, for a time, a theme for my life. Maybe there's a physics for this. Maybe aesthetics could be a science again, and there are definable emotional harmonics in the overlay of songs' elusive moods on my own.
But I don't think we're ready for that yet. Aesthetics' time will come again, but not in this season of brutal reductivism and barbaric ignorance. We haven't the units, never mind the instruments for counting them. There is no equation for what a cymbal-crash accomplishes by interrupting a guitar chord, no syllabary for how I hold elation and terror in solution. So of course there can be no system to describe how they interact, and listening remains poetry.
If we had machines that understood this, I have a long list of things I would ask them. "What kind of music does she like?", one of my music-geek friends asked me, almost his first question about Belle. But I always speculated that love might not revolve around music, and in fact this one doesn't. We have music in our life together, she and I, and we have intersections and disjunctions in our tastes, but our relationship is not primarily conducted to soundtracks. Or, perhaps, it is conducted so much to internal soundtracks that actually playing them would be cacophonous, in the same way telepathy precludes conversation. Music belongs to our independent selves. We need different music for the same moods, or different music for different moods for the same moment, or radically different music for adjacent instants. I am listening to angry songs, smiling, as she's driving here, knowing that love is integral to how I understand anger, so that as her car pulls in I understand how deeply these angry songs are about love, but the moment she opens the front door, they're about something else again. Our descendants will have machines that could graph this for us, and I wonder if there are records we both think we hate that we should be playing when we're together.
And maybe the machines could also explain how it is that she makes me feel ready, in many ways, to grow up, and yet I'm still listening to things I loved in music when I was a kid. I'm obviously never again going to be an exclusive metal fan, for example, but I think I'm currently enjoying it as much as I ever have. Somehow Belle is part of this, even though it's not her music at all. Maybe she's part of it because it's not her music at all. The soul of the puzzle she and I are trying to solve, after all, is how to make an us that doesn't diminish either me, for which keeping exaggerated track of each me is essential.
But you see how many generations we are from being able to understand this in numbers. We can't even begin to explain how I can be so thoroughly delighted by Tribe, the new Queensrÿche album, despite their last one having bored me well beyond description. All I can do is lamely try to listen to them side-by-side, which works about as badly as it would if I meant "side-by-side" literally. I already was bored by Q2K, of course, so I pull it out and play it again, and whatever sounds it originally contained, now it also contains the sounds of my boredom, and my disappointment at how Queensrÿche abandoned a style they invented, and my related disappointments at other bands who deserted other styles, and a dozen other intrusive squalls.
So if I'm underestimating, and we build the machines while I'm still alive, maybe I'll come back and find out exactly what happened here. But for now, I'm going to be content not knowing. Promised Land, Hear in the Now Frontier and Q2K are lost to me. Tribe is not a return to Empire, much less Rage for Order, despite the original band being sort of back together (Chris DeGarmo is only credited as a guest, but did co-write and play on several songs), but I choose to reset and begin again with Queensrÿche.
It feels like they want to begin again, too. Many elements are individually familiar, but their combination seems fairly comprehensively rethought. Tate's voice is unmistakable, but he spends more time here in his marginally lower registers, rushing words and furies less, playing his role more like a rock singer with unapologetic technique than a banshee with a head cold. The arrangements are unambiguously metallic, but scaled way back from the old pomp. Drums crack, but don't concuss. Guitars roar and surge, but now often forgo solos for hooks, and decoration for foundation. Bass and synth lines find places to fit, rather than showing off. Queensrÿche used to write songs that spared no gimmick, but thus inevitably came out abstracted, and aged quickly (though not necessarily badly). These songs are vastly simpler, and thus have the potential to mean more, reach farther and last longer. The old albums were epochal. This one might be durable.
Tribe begins in slow, menacing grind, with the eerie distention of "Open". Drums beat disconsolately, and Tate stretches out across the measures. The lyrics let the verse drama down a bit ("You're a cocktail that's stirred never shaken" doesn't quite justify the 9/11 invocation in the liner notes), but the chorus offers another good setting of the timelessly sensible injunction "Open your eyes", and the bridge plays out a clever idea about taking what might have been a breakneck Iron Maiden restart and slowing it down to see what it's made of. The verses of "Losing Myself" idle on circling drums and odd gurgly noises, but the choruses weave simple bass, rhythm-guitar and lead lines into a dense composite groove, underpinned by a drum line that might be the textbook demonstration of Black Sabbath crunch projected through Pearl Jam splatter. "Desert Dance" clanks through a long intro of bolted-together two-note riffs, but eventually slams into a raw low gear driven by heavy bass, guitar snarls vaguely reminiscent of Primus, and syncopated chant-shouting derived directly from old Public Enemy, where current rap-metal has become much more self-consciously stylized.
The first clear signs of continuity don't show up until the elegant "Falling Behind". The pace might have been transplanted from "I Dream in Infrared", the tone from what the unplugged "Silent Lucidity" could have been without the orchestra. The verses buoy on acoustic guitar and gruff bass, electricity only charging the choruses. The band stays in this spare mode for "Great Divide", one of the album's two lyrical theses ("Take the flag we wave, / The freedoms that we sing. / Without respect for one other, / It doesn't mean a thing."; simplistic, but right enough), and the somewhat grander "Rhythm of Hope".
Blocking the songs this way, all the mid-tempo grinds and then all the slow ones, isn't what they teach you in album-sequencing school, but a logic becomes apparent to me as the title track unfolds. The verses are muttered, an oddly "Passage to Bangkok"-ish travelogue delivered in the voice Tate used to use for Orwellian paranoia, but the choruses blare and stab, and build to the album's greatest certainty: "We're the same tribe." There are mixed cues for whether they mean Americans, or humans, but the former is a start towards the latter, at least. Tate pushes back up into his higher ranges again, and shifts the repeated phrase across the beats of the music ("Stop this missile building", Translator once pleaded similarly, back when missiles were what we worried about). "Tribe" segues into the clattering "Blood", whose vaguely bluesy chorus seems like this album's version of Empire's "Jet City Woman", but the album comes closest to old Mindcrime-era fervor on the tense "The Art of Life", with slashing guitars, more spoken vocals and some spiky backing yelps, including Tate stolidly intoning "Discipline!" at strategic intervals.
And finales were never Queensrÿche's particular specialty, but Tribe delivers a pretty cogent one. After three grinds, three slow songs and three charged ones, the tenth and final song carries us out wrapped in expansive hope and fragile determination. The music sounds like Verbow channeling Thin Lizzy but mistaking them for Extreme, Tate sounds like Steve Perry after a Charles Atlas clinic, and there's even the tiniest of gospel flourishes as the last notes fade. The lyrics have no novel arguments for optimism, but optimism is kind of its own argument, if it's going to work, so novelty isn't really the issue. The point of Queensrÿche ending an album with an open-hearted, goofily apostrophe-bedecked rock song is that it's Queensrÿche. We replace paranoias and stridencies with acceptance and understanding, one by one, and if that makes us look goofy to you, maybe you haven't changed yourself yet.
Nevermore: Enemies of Reality
But that's cheating, that's a metal album that goes sentimental at the end, and you'd have to take my word for it that the non-sentimental parts feel like they fit my current sentimentality, too. If you want the simplified version of the argument, you don't even have to leave Seattle. Enemies of Reality is the fifth full Nevermore album, and features no sloppy sentimentality of any kind. Songs jerk from tempo to tempo, goaded by grim drum splatter and inexorable sudden-shift bass/guitar undertows, like a Slayer who paid better attention to their music lessons. Warrel Dane barks and keens like a pair of dementedly detuned Ozzys, and writes lyrics that read like a Slayer who paid better attention to the rest of their schooling, too, and maybe sketched slightly more sophisticated weaponry on their bookcovers than Voivod did (although you still have to have a high tolerance for cheerful overwriting à la "Open wide and eat the worms of the enemy", "I have tasted pleasures of the flesh / And drunk the pleasures of the mind", "Young hearts are pure like violet drops of rain", etc.). And even if Nevermore are largely content to work their chosen metal tropes, Enemies of Reality seems to me like an inspired and basically successful attempt to transpose Black Sabbath's state of the art as of Master of Reality thirty-two years forward from 1971, complete with a potential single ("Tomorrow Turned Into Yesterday") that more or less mashes up all the heroic songs from the first five Sabbath albums and a few stray impulses from GNR's "Sweet Child O' Mine". We've lived through those thirty-two years, of course, including a lot of bands closer to any given extreme than Nevermore, so where Master of Reality was arguably revolutionary (especially if you happen to agree with me that Black Sabbath is at best a preface and even Paranoid is only about half-formed), Enemies of Reality is only really able to consolidate. This may still be the best metal album of the year, and even if it isn't, it may be the one to buy if you want to know what metal has become.
But as much as I approve of Nevermore's disciplined anti-purity, if I'm really still fond of metal because it connects me to my youth, it's better when it's a little more conscious of its own absurdity. Enemies of Reality takes metal seriously, as I think somebody ought to. And thus it can't make me half as dizzily happy as it does to listen to the Finnish metal band To/Die/For covering Cutting Crew's "(I Just) Died in Your Arms". This is every bit as dreadful an idea as you fear. Actually, it's a little worse, since vocalist Jape Perätalo turns the little "Oh"s from the original choruses into, I swear, "Hark"s, which even Cutting Crew themselves didn't have the aplomb for. It's wildly absurd, and sickeningly wonderful, and everything I ever wished Duran Duran and Depeche Mode could have been. But the cover turns out to be perfectly in keeping with the rest of the album, which obdurately undermines song after song's metal gravity with chirpy Eighties-vintage synth bleats and insanely glittery bombast, and ends up as the long-missing link between serious metal and the Sisters of Mercy's Vision Thing. And I never knew why I loved that, and the machines aren't ready to tell me.
I haven't actually asked Belle what she thinks of the Sisters of Mercy, and I'm not waking her up to ask, nor to play her this, as momentarily certain as I am that everybody would rather dance around shouting "Hark" than sleep. Maybe in the morning. Cartoon gothic isn't really her idiom, these days, but we didn't know each other when we were fifteen, so she might surprise me. When we were fifteen, in fact, we would have had nothing to do with each other, and might have been amazing together all the same. So I spend these moments alone, just me and the people I'm not anymore and the people I didn't turn out to be, and maybe we'll be ready for the people we decide we want to become.