I have written a whole series of posts on the Definition of Science Fiction, as quoted from Frank Herbert. However, in doing so, I have skipped the opening clause, but not intentionally. Let’s talk about that now.
Poetry as the apex of human language. I’ve read some of Herbert’s poetry; and there’s of course some scattered throughout the Dune novels. However, how prevalent is poetry today? Do we have our cleverest folks penning the apex of human language?
I would argue that, while there is of course still poetry being written today, the main poetry of today is in song lyrics. That’s where our poets are going to work; it’s where they can make money and a living. So today I wanted to share thoughts on a few of my favorite concept albums, where the whole album is trying to tell a story – yet this still happens abstractly, poetically, and leaves me still often wondering what is going on, unpacking and learning more every time I listen.
On The Music of Life
So first, for the title of the piece. Since I’m twisting a Herbert quote a little bit to talk about music instead of poetry, what do I see when it comes to Herbert and music? How about this quote from Heretics of Dune:
WHAT IS SURVIVAL IF YOU DO NOT SURVIVE WHOLE?… WHAT IF YOU NO LONGER HEAR THE MUSIC OF LIFE? MEMORIES ARE NOT ENOUGH UNLESS THEY CALL YOU TO NOBLE PURPOSE!
–Leto II, Heretics of Dune
Here’s arguably the wisest character from the Dune novels, the ancient Leto II, leaving writing on the wall for a character millennia later. And he takes time to talk about the music of life. And how not hearing it would be like not surviving whole. Would be like a life built only on memories: a life without forward purpose.
The music of life… almost spiritual in meaning. Actually, almost definitely spiritual in meaning. People talk about how smell sparks memory, but for me, and my nose that doesn’t work very well, it’s all about music. Music takes me back to a place, a time, an activity. Memories.
But it’s also always carrying me forward. I prefer music as my background noise, my white noise, while I’m working. Keeping me thinking, keeping me focused.
But I love stories, too, and I love music that tells a story. So as promised, how about three great stories from music!
Can We Find The Minds To Lead Us Closer To The Heart?
This series of two songs, spanning nearly 30 minutes, bridges between two albums, A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres. The first part is more musical, and involves a spaceship hurtling through space, to its final destination: the Black Hole of Cygnus X-1. And closing out the album, a cliffhanger: he hurtles into the black hole.
Then we get a lot more of the story, as Hemispheres begins. It chronicles conflict between two of the Greek gods, Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo offers mankind knowledge, and humanity dives in head-first. However, they lack the passion for the knowledge, and eventually, knowledge for knowledge’s sake is dry, and without purpose, it fades. So Dionysus comes, and offers joy. Their hearts are glad, and the people revel. However, when times get hard, they lack the knowledge to properly protect themselves, with the harsh winter coming on.
Enter our black-hole-traveling hero, who, coming out the other side, finds himself in Olympus. There, the gods celebrate the audacity of humanity, naming him Cygnus, the god of Balance. Because it is through the combination of hearts and minds that humanity finds its success and purpose.
And suddenly, after hearing this, the themes in a number of the other songs make sense and tie in, especially songs like Closer to the Heart. And listening to the two albums is a complete joy; they are my two favorite Rush albums.
By tackling philosophy, mythology, science, meaning and purpose, these songs dare quite a bit. Through the use of the lyrics, the music, and even devices like a cliffhanger, this story comes to life. So join them on the Rocinante, and sail by night on this final flight to Cygnus X-1.
Hey look, it’s on YouTube. Everything’s on YouTube.
Remember that Death is Not the End… But Only a Transition
I don’t know what you do when you’re a band whose greatest hits album is called Greatest Hit (…and 21 Other Pretty Cool Songs), but that is the life of Dream Theater. This progressive band is probably known, more than anything, for one album: Scenes from a Memory.
This was their first album I was introduced to, and as many comments I’ve read online say… once you’ve heard this one, you’ve heard the best they have to offer, and can pretty much stick with that.
This concept album explores a fatal tragedy from the past, by hypnotizing our narrator. Is he remembering his own past? Or someone else’s life? As reality begins to blur, as he grows obsessed with the story, he slips further into the past. I’m still not sure what goes on in this album, but it’s fantastic.
A mixture of musical craftmanship, introspective sorts of thoughts like The Spirit Carries On, and then just losing yourself in the fantasy, like in Home, this album goes through a lot. I highly recommend it.
Singing oh, The Hazards of Love
I’ve talked about the amazing Decemberists before, and my favorite of their albums is their concept album The Hazards of Love. This beats out even shorter story pieces like The Tain or The Mariner’s Revenge Song.
This album got some hate for being some of the heaviest music that the band has played, but I think that’s part of the joy of the album. Each character has their own theme, music that plays when they sing. And for the characters singing while the electric guitar is wailing, well, they’re pretty excellent.
I have no idea what happens in this album. It moves between a number of characters, and I’m not 100% sure which songs apply to whom. Each time I listen to it I feel like I figure out more of what happened.
However, there are a couple of songs I know go together, and are so creepy and excellent. First, there is The Rake, a common sort of character in the Decemberists’ songs. His wife dies, and he is stuck with the three children – and he slowly “divests” himself of that problem. Later, the children come back to haunt him, in a song that uses the music so beautifully to match what the ghost children sing.
I found this interesting fan music video of these two songs for your enjoyment!
I could talk so much more about so many more songs; it’s both something that I put a lot of my time into, and something I have no skill at. I can’t make music myself, but I love listening to it.
Rather than me give you more, though, how about your thoughts? Do you see ways where music is the modern poetry? Music that tells an amazing story? Leave your examples in the comments below!