Monday, October 26, 2009

Strict Joy

When I saw the title of The Swell Season's new album, "Strict Joy," I'll admit that I was a little concerned. They had come to be one of my favorite bands with their self-titled debut, which was characterized by soft, melancholic, mid-tempo acoustic guitar and piano songs with some strings here and there for added oomph. While it was some of the most beautiful music around, I certainly would not have referred to it as "joyful." Therein lay my worry for the new album. Upon listening to it a few times and digesting it, I have found that, while the title is apt, and the group has expanded their sound significantly, the group loses none of their power, nor any of their ability to tug at the heartstrings.
The album opens with "Low Rising," an upbeat, jazzy little number, complete with a horn section and solos from a slide guitar and a trumpet. "I want to sit you down and talk. I wanna pull back the veils and find out what it is I've done wrong," Glen Hansard sings. It is immediately clear that while the band's subject matter remains the same, they seem much more cheerful about things. The third track, "In These Arms," finds the band back doing what they do best: creating beautiful, tear-jerking ballads. The combination of the light piano in the background and the harmony created by Hansard and Irglova singing "Maybe I was born to hold you in these arms" makes this one a standout, and a definite favorite for fans of their older material. Next is "The Rain," an upbeat acoustic number that seems to keep a good balance between the new and old styles, followed by "Fantasy Man," the first song on the album led by Czech singer Marketa Irglova. This track has an interesting folky feel to it, from the plucked guitar to Irglova's subdued, almost childishly innocent vocals. My personal favorite on the album is the Irglova-led track "I Have Loved You Wrong," written from the POV of a lover who expresses great regret for the mistakes they have made in a relationship. Not an original concept by any means, but they do it SO well. If there is a single moment on the album that will make you tear up, it will be the beautiful vocal harmony at the end of this track. Easily a personal favorite of their songs.
While these are the tracks that stand out to me, there really isn't a sour moment on this new release. Lyrically, the group is as melancholic as ever. Sonically, they have branched out significantly, adding horns, electric instrumentation, and even spanish guitar courtesy of Javier Mas. You could certainly say that, instrumentally, they sound much more "joyful" than on their debut. The album is a clear evolution of their sound, and I love to see artists evolve, so I say keep it comin'.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Just go

Ah, the omnipotent identity crisis. It seems like everyone, no matter how sure they are of what they want in life, experiences this, and I have recently gone through it as well. I, of course, have been going through the Christian identity crisis, which asks "Where does God want me?" Christians sometimes seem to think that every decision we make holds the potential to screw up God's plan for us, that God can only use us in a particular situation. As a part of my little identity crisis, I wasn't feeling particularly "called" to my major. In fact, I haven't felt particularly "called" to much of anything. This has created a great deal of stress for me, especially worrying about life and debt after college. I have, over the past few weeks, questioned whether I really even was supposed to be in college.
With all of these little worries in mind last thursday, I went to my weekly discipleship with Matt. Upon my voicing of these concerns, Matt used his weird Matt-powers to point out something frickin' crazy. He said to turn to the Great Commission and to read it. Aloud, I read "Therefore, go and make disciples...." and so on. "Where does Jesus tell you to go?," he asked. Reviewing to make sure I had not missed anything and that I wasn't embarrassing myself, I replied "He doesn't." Matt's reply: "Exactly." God does not always tell us exactly where we are supposed to go, only that we make disciples and praise Him wherever we are. It seems a trend in Christian thought that if you are not precisely where God wants you, then God can't use you. This idea is fundamentally flawed by the fact that it places limits on God. As a Christian, it is perfectly plausible that you may not end up where you have felt called by God, or that you may not feel called to anything specific at all. But God can use you wherever you end up. We aren't told where to go, only what to do wherever we happen to be. I'm becoming more and more comfortable with the fact that God doesn't always explicitly tell you to "Go here." Oftentimes, God simply says "Just go, and I'll take care of the rest."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My faith

So, for the sake of clarity, here is a brief overview of my beliefs. I am a proud follower of Jesus Christ. I believe that God sent Jesus to die so that I could be redeemed and cleansed of the sin of this world. I would not, however, refer to my beliefs as a religion. The modern church as a religious organization was largely devised by man, and the ritual and routine, as well as the propensity for desensitization, was never what God intended His church to be. God's church is merely his unified body of followers and believers, living in community and striving to live for Him. Much of what would be considered "religion" today is more of a country-club-ish thing where the high and mighty can gather to separate themselves from the lesser, more sinful beings of society. This is simply not right on so many levels. First of all, it is written that there is NOT ONE without sin. We, therefore, have no right to place judgement on anyone, because we are equally guilty. Secondly, Jesus was not sent for the perfect people, but to redeem the sinful and deliver God's grace. Obviously, I have a few issues with how the church as an organization has become in today's culture, although this is certainly not a blanket fact. I also believe that, as a Christian, I am called to "go and make disciples of the nations," as stated in the Great Commission. I am called to bring the Lord everywhere I go, and to bring people to His salvation. This all, of course, is a VERY sparse overview of my beliefs. I would be able to write a whole book on everything I believe, and will certainly follow up this blog with more specific ones.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

How to Disappear Completely

So I feel like ranting about this song. It is written by Radiohead, and is probably my favorite by them. For reference, here are the lyrics and a video.
That there
That's not me
I go
Where I please
I walk through walls
I float down the Liffey
I'm not here
This isn't happening
I'm not here
I'm not here

In a little while
I'll be gone
The moment's already passed
Yeah it's gone
And I'm not here
This isn't happening
I'm not here
I'm not here

Strobe lights and blown speakers
Fireworks and hurricanes
I'm not here
This isn't happening
I'm not here
I'm not here

The power in this song lies in the line "I'm not here." That is a powerful frickin' line. While I can only speculate as to what Thom Yorke intended when he penned it (unintended rhyme FTW!), it makes me think of someone who has emotionally detached themselves after a particularly bad occurrence. A death, an argument, a bad breakup. It makes me think of that mostly because that's what I have tended to do a lot. When things go sour, I tend to just remove myself from the situation. And while Thom explains the chaos surrounding the situation, the "strobe lights and blown speakers, fireworks and hurricanes," he continues to stress his distance from the situation. Not to mention his amazing delivery of the vocals. Nevertheless, this mammoth of a ballad is almost completely made by those 3 beastly words, "I'm not there." Apply meaning as you wish. Peace!

Black Gives Way to Blue

Alice In Chains, the renowned grunge-metal band from the 90's, just released their first full-length in 17 years, Black Gives Way to Blue, a week ago, and it is a giant success story. In addition to it being their first album in 17 years, it is their first since their vocalist Layne Staley died of a heroin overdose. Staley had a very unique voice, and many people were concerned about a new guy taking his place. Fear not, though. Newcomer William DuVall nails the Staley wail, snarling the songs he leads when he isn't creating that eerie, AIC-unique vocal harmony with Jerry Cantrell. Stacy and I were trying to figure out what interval the harmony created, and we decided it was either a 4th or a 6th. Either way, it is dissonant, creepy, and only Alice In Chains have ever pulled it off. In regards to the individual songs, they are some of the strongest in AIC's catalogue. "A Looking In View" is one of the darkest, heaviest songs they have ever done, and other songs such as "Your Decision" and "When the Sun Rose Again" capture well their subdued, Jar of Flies-era sound. Still, the biggest standout to me is the final track, which shares its title with the album. This track is led by piano played by none other than Sir Elton John, and is written about and dedicated to the late Layne Staley. This album is not only a great success story for Cantrell and company, but a moving eulogy to a unique voice that helped shape the group.


...was frickin' amazing. I had a feeling it would be, but when I heard "For Whom the Bell Tolls" in the opening credits, I was sold. Even besides Metallica, the movie was darn good. Jesse Eisenberg was as awkward and funny as ever, but I absolutely loved Woody Harrelson. Just the fact that Mickey from Natural Born Killers was running around in a drunken rage, butchering zombies and searching in vain for Twinkies, made the entire movie. I love when a serious actor can jump into a funny role. Bill Murray's inclusion in the movie was pretty darn good too, but that's all I'll say about that. Bottom line: just go see it. Tons of violent, gory, awkward fun.

The Incident

Ok, so if you know me, you know how much I love Steven Wilson, frontman for Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, Bass Communion, and now a solo project, among other things. Well Porcupine Tree have just released their newest effort, The Incident, and it is just plain ridiculous. The album is two discs: disc 1 is "The Incident," a 14 chapter, 55 minute song. Disc 2 is comprised of four songs that were to be considered separate from the 55 minute song cycle.
I know what you're thinking: A 55 minute song?! Well, yes and no. It is more of a song cycle, a collection of songs meant to be listened to in a single sitting and all thematically linked, but also listenable as individual pieces. In regards to the theme, well, I'll just let Mr. Wilson explain that. "There was a sign saying ‘POLICE – INCIDENT’ and everyone was slowing down to rubberneck to see what had happened... Afterwards, it struck me that ‘incident’ is a very detached word for something so destructive and traumatic for the people involved. And then I had the sensation that the spirit of someone that had died in the accident entered into my car and was sitting next to me. “The irony of such a cold expression for such seismic events appealed to me, and I began to pick out other ‘incidents’ reported in the media and news,” continues Wilson. “I wrote about the evacuation of teenage girls from a religious cult in Texas, a family terrorizing its neighbors, a body found floating in a river by some people on a fishing trip, and more. Each song is written in the first person and tries to humanize the detached media reportage.”
The song cycle begins with "Occam's Razor," a heavy, ominous piece that leads perfectly into "The Blind House," which may contain some of PT's heaviest music. From here, the cycle carries through the epic transitional piece "Great Expectations" and the reserved "Kneel and Disconnect." Then the album throws you a curveball. "Drawing the Line" begins with some rather ominous vibraphone and an eerie vocal line, leading up to one of the most strangely happy sounding, pop-punky choruses I've ever heard PT do. And just when I think nothing can surprise me after that, the cycle continues with the title track, which is easily one of the creepiest sounding, most industrial songs the band has done. It reminds me a lot of Nine Inch Nails. From here we move through the oddly cheerful "Your Unpleasant Family" and the electro-choral "The Yellow Windows of the Evening Train," and onto the 11 minute centerpiece, "Time Flies." One of the more autobiographical songs Wilson has done lyrically, it begins with a staccato guitar rhythm that vaguely reminds me of "Trains." "I was born in '67, the year of Sgt. Pepper and Are You Experienced?," Wilson sings. "After a while, you realize time flies." This leads into an interesting little proggy instrumental tangent before returning to the beginning rhythm and concluding. Next is "Degree Zero of Liberty," which is eerily similar to the first track. Then "Octane Twisted" comes along, once again showing off Wilson's talents for layering vocals, beginning softly, but growing into a heavy riff-o-rama. "The Seance" is next, a mostly acoustic, uneasy piece, which repeats the lyrics of "Octane Twisted" at the end before leading into the heavy instrumental "Circle of Manias." Finally, the piece concludes with one of my favorite PT moments, the mostly acoustic "I Drive the Hearse." "Silence is another way of saying what I want to say," Wilson sings, again proving that amongst his talents as a prog musician, he can still write a darn good ballad.
Well holy crap. That's disc 1 and I'm tired. Disc 2 is still exceptional though, for those who worried it would pale in comparison to the first. "Flicker" is a great softer song, and "Bonnie the Cat" is probably one of the weirdest things they've done. I don't even know how to describe it. But yeah, holy crap. Steven Wilson continues to blow me away.

The Alchemy Index/ another one of my artsy-fartsy music rants

I have recently been delving more and more into the music of Thrice. I had been listening to music from their third album, The Artist in the Ambulance, for years, and I had heard some of Vheissu, but I hadn't dug into them until recently. The first thing I really noticed is that every one of their albums is notably different from the last. I love being able to observe evolution in an artist, and it has certainly happened with Thrice. They recently released their new full-length album, Beggars, which I have been enjoying immensely, but this blog will be focusing more on the immense artistic achievement that they are coming out of. I am, of course, speaking of their 4 EP conceptual masterpiece, The Alchemy Index.
Thrice have done a lot of amazing things with The Alchemy Index. The set is 4 EP length discs, each lyrically and sonically focused on 1 of the 4 elements: fire, water, air, and earth, in that order. Guitarist and producer Teppei Teranishi altered the recording techniques for each disc, so it literally sounds like you are listening to the corresponding element. Frontman Dustin Kensrue also ends each disc with a song written in the style of an English sonnet, written from the perspective of the element to mankind.
First, let's begin with the Fire disc: it is frickin' heavy. That disc consists of some of the loudest, angriest, dirtiest sounding songs Thrice have ever done, and I dig it. "We will burn it down and build it again, what was buried in flame. Burn it down and build it again from the bricks that remain," Kensrue belts on "The Arsonist."This disc is the only real heavy one of the bunch, and it doesn't relent. The closing sonnet, "The Flame Deluge," sonically resembles a world at its end, as Kensrue, through the perspective of fire, laments its "curse, this awful power to unmake."
Next up is the Water disc. Thrice add layers of keyboard textures, as well as some industrial, electronic percussion, making the listener feel as if they are floating amongst the waves. They keep the guitars very smooth, with an almost icy timbre, to contrast with the warm, wavering keyboard textures. A personal favorite from this disc is "Open Water" where Kensrue seems to compare the seas to God. "I'm starting to believe the ocean's much like you, cause it gives and it takes away." The closing sonnet for this disc is the subdued "Kings Upon the Main," and is another personal favorite both musically and lyrically. "When kings upon the main have clung to pride, and held themselves as masters of the sea, I've held them down beneath the crushing tide till they have learned that no one masters me. But grace can still be found within the gale.
With fear and reverence, raise your ragged sail."
While the Water disc felt confined in a floaty sense, the Air disc feels very spacious in production terms. A highlight from this disc is the epic "Daedalus," which is the second song Thrice has written about the Icarus myth, this time from the perspective of Icarus' father. The first was "The Melting Point of Wax" from The Artist in the Ambulance, which was written from Icarus' perspective. Kensrue claims he did this because he felt there was something to learn from both points of view. The disc closes with "Silver Wings," as Kensrue lyrically personifies Air. "I've danced 'tween sunlit strands of lover's hair; Helped form the final words before your death. I've pitied you and plied your sails with air; Gave blessing when you rose upon my breath."
The final disc in the set is Earth, and "earthy" is the best way I can think of to describe the sound. The disc is mostly acoustic, and ranges from the folky guitar arrangements of "Moving Mountains" to the jazz piano balladry of "Digging My Own Grave." My personal favorite on this disc is "Come All You Weary," in which Kensrue writes from the perspective of Jesus. "Come all you weary with your heavy loads. Lay down your burdens find rest for your souls. Cause my yoke is easy and my burden is kind. I’ll take yours upon me and you can take mine." From a Christian perspective, this is the most powerful song of the set for me. The disc closes with the piano led "Child of Dust," where Kensrue, through the perspective of earth, sings "Dear prodigal you are my son and I supplied you not your spirit, but your shape. All Eden's wealth arrayed before your eyes; I fathomed not you wanted to escape." For the final two lines of this song, Teranishi once again shows his prowess as a producer. To give the listener the sensation of being buried, he buried the microphone in a box to record the lines, creating a muffled, coffin-like effect. The final words that reach the listener in this stifled atmosphere are these: "Now safe beneath their wisdom and their feet, here I will teach you truly how to sleep."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Safety vs. Significance

One of the most dangerous ideas about modern Christianity is that it is supposed to be "safe." Many Christians are deluded and, to some degree, enticed by the idea of God having their back, and being able to pray away any problem, to lay back and reap the benefits of siding with the Almighty. I feel that simply as a result of my more withdrawn personality, I have fallen into that trap all too often. I have rarely taken bold steps in faith, and it seems sometimes that I am living WITH God instead of FOR God. I've prayed about this a lot, and I am getting better; I stepped into the role of worship leader at Intervarsity this year, originally not even planning to sing, and now I lead and sing several songs per week. This past week, I took what I would consider my boldest step of faith in performing with the IV worship band at Concert on the Commons, which I was actually having nightmares of in the weeks leading up to it. I think that it went very well, certainly much better than it could have, and the sort of spiritual momentum that I gained from it has kept me dreading the idea of falling back into a typical, lazy relationship with Christ.
With this stuff having been on my mind for a few days, I went to Lifepoint tonight, and guess what Pastor Jeff was preaching about? The myth that the safest place to be is the center of God's will. Wonderfully coincidental, no? According to him, and of course, the scripture he cited, quite the opposite is true. (As a side note, much of what I say will be echoing what Jeff said, so I'm just gonna throw down a blanket citation here.) Jesus himself attests to the fact that in using us for his glory, God will put us in some darn uncomfortable situations. In John 16, Jesus explains some of the hardships his disciples will face for merely following him. In verses 1-4, Jesus says 1"All this I have told you so that you will not go astray. 2They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. 3They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. 4I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you. I did not tell you this at first because I was with you." He goes on to say in verse 33, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." Now if you are anything like myself, the first time you read over that, you didn't exactly get a lot of peace from it. I'm not to keen on the idea of people wanting me dead, you know? I don't like to rock the boat. The problem is that oftentimes, Jesus doesn't just want us to rock the boat, but to get the heck out and walk. God doesn't put us in safe places, but he keeps us safe amidst danger, and makes us dangerous.
Now, does living in the center of God's will, and living outside of our safety bubble, mean going about in the most dangerous places, being persecuted and killed like the disciples? Not necessarily. Living dangerously for God does not necessitate martyrdom. In the case of more simple people (and I'm pretty simple), it can merely mean trusting God and taking bold steps of faith outside of your safety bubble. It can mean stepping up to a leadership role, or playing worship music on campus, or simply overcoming my social awkwardness for a minute and speaking to somebody new, and over time possibly helping them get to know God. So as my little unorganized spewing of thoughts here comes to a close, here are my summarizing thoughts: God is our parachute. He will keep us safe in the most dangerous situations, so it is not our responsibility to live safely. We don't need the cushy job, or the "nice" house in the "nice" neighborhood. He will provide; he will catch us. We are just called to take that bold step of faith right out of the plane. And then, there's always Jeremiah 29:11. "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."