On the aftermath of giving up

Please indulge me a personal post, though I suppose, in a sense, these are all personal. Forgive me as well for writing not on a philosophical text, but a song, and a story of failure. But first, allow me to give some context—not so much of the situation, but of the song.

I have always been drawn to metal as a genre, and can remember my Damascus road experience and the path that led to it. My earliest, vivid memory of music, beyond what my parents played in the car in the 70’s (songs which still haunt me, like “Summer Breeze”, “What a Fool Believes”, “While my Guitar Gently Weeps”, &c.), came from a Christmas present. They got me a portable desktop cassette player, the kind most people today can’t even imagine if it were described to them. It looked like something straight out of an old police drama interrogation scene, complete with a bright red “record” button. The flip-door to load the tape was on the top of the unit, near the center, with a speaker above.

With it came a tape—ABBA: the Album. I was enchanted and obsessed. I spent countless hours with my ear pressed to the tinny, mono speaker, completely taken in by their sound. I remember being especially transfixed by The Name of the Game, and am not ashamed to say that I still am today. There are songs that will stop me in my tracks, and this would become the first of many. When I listen to it now I can see my early love of melodic writing, harmony, deep grooves and (yes, even in this song if one has a sensitive ear) a touch of darkness, desolation, despair. The road from ABBA led naturally to the Beatles, Seals and Crofts, Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers and eventually Pink Floyd. And yet this was all only so much groundwork for what would be the real turning point (though not in the sense of a point left behind, but one carried forward and transformed).

While I consider the 80’s to be generally embarrassing, two albums stand out to me (and perhaps only to me—I’m not claiming these are to be singled out as great albums): New Order’s Substance 1987 and Whitesnake’s eponymous album of the same year. The former provided an element of trance that eventually prepared me for much harder Black Metal bands like Darkthrone and Ulver, but it was the latter alone that gave me the key. At this point I had upgraded from my early cassette player to a legitimate boom-box, which was positioned on a shelf above my desk. Here is where my memory fails me, for I recall popping the tape in, hitting play, and having the first song be Still of the Night, but apparently that was only on the European version. I can only assume I had the American edition, and that the first two songs were so inconsequential as to not have even registered with me. Though I prefer to think this was the first song—at least the first I truly heard. Either way, I remember hearing the opening power chords and being completely dumbfounded. I had no categories for what I was experiencing. I was standing as it played, facing the unit like one who has seen a ghost: immobile, awestruck, unaware of anything around me but the sound. At that moment in time there was only the reality of the music: it commanded, I submitted; it spoke, I listened; it enticed, I gave in. When it had ended, I was out of breath. And I wanted more—the scales had fallen off my eyes, and I would never see the world in the same way. I was in the presence of something greater than I. It was the beauty of ABBA combined with a force that was even more primal. It was ecstatic in the original sense of the word: I was taken outside of myself, something like the beatific vision of Augustine at the window of Ostia.

And yet there was something missing, though I couldn’t see it at the time. In addition to the beauty and power I needed complexity. Pink Floyd taught me this, and Rush would go on to perfect it. From that point on I have been drawn to bands that knew how to both master a genre and transgress it. Not all genres, mind you: for I am as particular and prejudiced as anyone else. Eccentricity in and of itself bores me to tears. There must be inspiration: the work must speak to me on the deepest levels, all the world’s fans notwithstanding. I need to be able to listen to it and not feel like I have exhausted it on the first pass. The only other experience I can remember being like standing in front of that boom-box was when I first heard Tool’s “H.” on the radio. I was driving home, had missed the dj’s introduction to the song, and had no idea who it was. As the song built I found myself not even paying attention to the road. When Maynard’s voice reached the third “I don’t mind” and everything exploded I had to pull over to the side. I sat there somewhere between five minutes and an eternity, having no idea what to do. I was less than 100 feet from my driveway, but couldn’t collect my thoughts enough to cross the road.

Which brings me to Opeth and the song in question. While I was a fervent disciple of both hard rock and metal, the more extreme versions did not appeal to me. Death metal struck me as uninspired and as musical as a jackhammer. The vocals in particular were just noise, and could not be further removed from the intricate and seductive sounds I had come to love. Prog, on the other hand, had completely won me over, and it was my discovery of Porcupine Tree that led to Opeth (a transition, I eventually learned, made in both directions by many other fans).

At 8:49 into Porcupine Tree’s Arriving Somewhere but not Here (and yes, prog is one of the few genres where you can tell someone to listen to something 9 minutes into a single song), there is a gorgeous, slinky, jazzy, slow guitar solo in which not a single note is misplaced or wasted. It didn’t strike me as anything the lead singer and guitarist would play, but it took me a long time to think of looking up who it was. Once I did I couldn’t quite believe the result: I read that it was a man named Mikael Akerfeldt, the lead singer and guitarist of a Swedish death metal band called Opeth. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea of a death metal guitarist having that kind of subtly and touch, but at the same time I couldn’t deny what I was hearing. So I decided listen to a couple of their songs, and was floored. I had found a band that captured the core aspects of what I loved most about music, including the rare ability to not lock themselves into a single sound.

This last point naturally divides fans: there will always be those who want a band to keep recording the same album over and over again, and others (by definition fewer) who can appreciate when a band evolves. What makes it harder is when a band as nuanced as Opeth gets reduced into what fans expect them to be (for let’s be honest, no one is having this debate about bands like AC/DC or KISS). While their early albums fit squarely into death metal, it doesn’t take a degree in music theory to pick out the deeply embedded influences of both jazz and folk behind their heavy sound. When they recorded Deliverance and Damnation (2002/2003 produced by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson) and released them as separate albums, with the former being heavy and the latter clean, there was significant backlash among fans who didn’t care for what they perceived to be a new sound. But it was only new to those who hadn’t been listening carefully from the beginning (to list only a small sample: the middle sections of “The Twilight is my Robe” (Orchid 1995) and “Black Rose Immortal” (Morningrise 1996), “Credence” (My Arms Your Hearse 1998), “Benighted” (Still Life 1999), “Harvest” (Blackwater Park 2001) &c.) This was taken a step further when Heritage (2011) was released, an album which seemed to push their sound even closer to fusion (including having Weather Report’s Alex Acuña as a guest drummer on “Famine”). I remember seeing them tour Heritage and listening as fans behind me lamented the fact that they don’t play their real (i.e. heavy) songs anymore—and at that show, they didn’t. Yet there was no mistaking their sound and power. The newest album, Pale Communion, picks up where Heritage leaves off, but adds a cohesion and orchestration that the former lacks. It’s as if the influences that lay behind their early material were allowed to rise to the surface and take over. In a word the album is magisterial, almost flawless. I would not hesitate to rank it alongside Blackwater Park. In fact, one could introduce a new listener to Opeth’s scale simply by playing these two albums, in a way that not even Deliverance/Damnation can accomplish.

To come to the matter at hand, the song in question is Voice of Treason, which is the penultimate track on Pale Communion. Though I would have to study it further, I feel that after many repeated listenings from end to end this album tells a story in a way earlier albums do only in part. To that degree it is closer in spirit to parts of the black and folk metal movements of the 90’s (cf. Ulver’s Bergtatt). The hand that reaches for the surface in the opening track ultimately grasps melting ice at the end. What strikes me about “Voice of Treason” besides the arrangement, which is driving, open and haunting, is the build toward the end in which Akerfeldt’s voice and lyrics bring it all to a climax:

Have you ever had the feeling
of a sorrow inside?
Have you ever been the reason
why a hope subsides?
Have you ever seen the aftermath
of giving up?

What does it look like when the answer to all three questions is yes? How do we not let the feeling of a sorrow inside not completely take over, which is its wont to do? Of course, people have all kinds of answers ready to hand, and are more than happy to give you their (usually unasked for) advice: take your mind off it, move on to a new relationship, get back to doing the things you enjoy, go for a walk, or, perhaps worst, just give it time, things will get better.

What do you do when you are the reason that hope dies in another? This is not as easy to provide well-meaning but facile answers to, for there is no getting around the basic fact that you yourself are the problem, at least for the other. Hope can spring quickly, and once it takes root can get people through the most unforgiving circumstances. But if you manage to destroy it, to kill the very thing that exists precisely in the face of all that defies it? Then you are left with nothing but mistrust and despair in the person in whom it has died. From here it is difficult to see a way of return. The very quality you need from the other—her belief in you, her trust that, no matter what, you will be a constant for good, is gone, and the only way to regain it (if such a thing were even possible) is to prove the very thing that you’ve definitively disproved. If it were a matter of just learning new skills, like better communication, it would not seem so fatal. It’s one thing to say I have a problem with how you handle X, Y and Z, but I trust you and hope we can figure it out. It’s another altogether to say I’m not sure I trust you, or ever did.

It’s interesting to look up aftermath in the dictionary. Apparently it is an agricultural term referring to the grass that grows up in place of a harvest. I was genuinely surprised to see this, as I’ve only ever heard it to mean something like destruction. And I suppose destruction is what a harvest really is. The grass that grows in place of the crop is not the crop, nor can it replace what was lost. It is life, to be sure, but a different life, one that knows nothing of what came before it, of what had to die to make a new space. To one who knows this sorrow, who sees the other lose hope, precisely because of him, not even this new life can bring consolation. The aftermath of giving up is the loss of self, for we only know ourselves through others.

What’s left is a void inside
And the echo of a failure

The growth that follows cannot fill this space. So then the question becomes how does one accept loss? How does one accept being the reason for that loss?

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