July 14, 2022

Assorted Gems: Greendale



[ed. note: This piece was written before I got started on the Prog Stories project, but not long before.]

Neil wrote most of the story in one tidily sustained wave of inspiration, a new song/chapter arriving each day, as he drove his car to the studio for recording sessions with a Crazy Horse stripped to a skeleton of its rhythm section, second guitarist Poncho Sampedro having been asked, for aesthetic purposes, to sit the album out. After Grandpa died, the whole band, who loved him, was bummed out, and the vein of inspiration ran out. The way I remember Neil telling it, he thought that might be the end of the album (already too long to fit on a single LP). But then it occurred to him: what about Grandma? And so he wrote Bringin' Down Dinner, and in its wake came the final pieces, Sun Green and Be the Rain.

I love Bringin' Down Dinner. Acoustic live, the way I first experienced Greendale, it didn't add up to much, musically, but when Crazy Horse backs Neil's ragged, soulful pump organ on the album version, it sounds fantastic. But otherwise I'm no friend of the ghost that helped Neil finish Greendale. Sun Green, while developing the story in the unique main-character-shifting manner that drives the narrative, is less clever, less cutting, and less cool than all the songs before it. And finally, when Bernard Shakey's camera zooms out to show the "bigger picture" in closer Be the Rain, I disconnect completely. Don't get me wrong, both songs have great band grooves, but what makes me love Greendale as much as I do is the combination of phenomenal performances with a captivating story. When the tale dries up, though the performances remain, half the greatness is gone. Which amounts to a disorienting anticlimax. I just can't square with Be the Rain at all. It provides a sense of closure, yes, but I'd have preferred a cut-off (touching, if abrupt) after Bringin' Down Dinner, or even an awkward hobble to a close after Sun Green. Anything instead of the big-screen credits-roll here's-the-moral Be the Rain.

But most of Greendale is absolutely killer stuff. I love when Neil gets out-there. Actually, he's almost always out-there; it's just a matter of which kind of out-there you're gettingsmeary heart-on-sleeve love songs? numbskull rock and roll? jokes and non-sequiturs? the shouting of big dumb slogans? idiosyncratic, or even perverse storytelling? I love them all but my favorite is the last, and that's what Greendale is, a single story told across ten (or nine, because does Be the Rain even count as part of the story?) songs. It has a setting, characters with names, plenty of dialogue, free indirect discourse, and a few fantastic blows of a battering ram against the third wall. It has a story you can summarize.

Albums like this are bizarrely rare. I'm not sure why rock and folk music have generally avoided the "story album" or "novel album," to coin two clunky phrases. An aversion to opera? Or to musical theater? I have no ear for opera and detest musical theater, but I'm fascinated by the possibilities that rock/folk/what-have-you structures present in this regard. It's a territory that's barely been explored, barely visited, even. Neil is, as so often in the mountainous, quaking land of rock and roll, part of the front vanguard. But even Neil only stopped by once and departed, classically restless. Now this part of the land lies empty. "I'm falling in love with Calliope," Dylan sang recently in Mother of Muses. "She don't belong to anyone. Why not give her to me?" I've been wondering about that ever since.

Anyway, Greendale! So good! All the songs rhyme, and the rhymes are occasionally forced, but the discomfort I felt to hear them was long ago buried under all the joy I take in how badass, audacious, weird, funny, insightful, tender, and tremendously touching the songs are. Grandpa's Interview probably wouldn't hit hard if heard out of context, but as Track 7 of Greendale (a true double-vinyl album, by the way, just structurally speaking; Neil's team made it a triple LP to keep sound quality up, I guess, but lengthwise, it's exactly four 18-21 minute sides long, and the four can be divided very cleanly), it is in my top three Neil Young songs. There's an amazing moment that makes me laugh and cry in the exact same instant. Such brilliance.

But Grandpa's Interview is only the best of them, and not by a wide margin. Each of the first eight songs is amazing, even Falling from Above, which served as midwife to the Greendale concept, but was conceived as a stand-alone track. Little did Neil know, writing his latest warmhearted country-rocker, how intense, penetrating, and sad a story was hidden in these character/role and place names: Grandpa, Cousin Jed, Edith and Earl, their "young girl" (as yet unnamed), Grandma, the Double E...

As usual for Neil in these latter years (and, fair warning, I'm a strange bird who believes that, for all its various and phenomenal peaks, Neil's 1963-1991 output pales beside what he's accomplished starting with the release of Harvest Moon in 1992, on through to now), he cloaks the song concepts in incredible music. Greendale sounds like nothing else in Neil's discography, not even other records with the Horse. Of all his "back-to-absolute-basics" albums, it seems to me the richest and most beautiful.

Pink Floyd studio albums ranked (outdated, but!)

Whoa. Stumbled on this today. Looks like it dates back to 2013 or thereabouts. The young Sigismund wrote it good!

If I were ranking the discography today, Album #13 would at least be above Album #11; Album #10 would be in the top five; Album #9 would probably be a little higher too, because the 2019 remix/update, with Nick Mason's re-recorded drum parts, SLAYS; Album #4 would be awarded the top slot; and Album #1 would be a lot lower, because I suddenly realized this year that I don't actually care much for Tracks 1 and 5. Also, very significantly, Fire on Fire's Haystack is now tied with the song on Album #2 that I call "the best song I have ever heard."

Otherwise, though, what can I say? This dude knows his Floyd.

I've been listening to Pink Floyd since I was six or seven years old; some sixteen years down the line, here's how I rank their studio discography. Lest anyone take unduly great offense, the fact is that I enjoy all of these; and even if I didn't, they're so much a part of my life by now that it'd be weird not to listen to them regularly!

14. Ummagumma

What's ranked here is just the studio album, to be fair to the rest of this studio-only list. It's an interesting product, Stage Two Floyd at their most happily bizarre, and it half-works: David's Narrow Way is very good, Grantchester Meadows an attractive precursor to the second side of Atom Heart Mother, and Several Species of Animals... simply delightful. Nick's piece is kinda just there, but Rick's borders on unlistenable. The thing as a whole is a hodgepodge, not even trying to hold together... but of course that was the whole point going in, and therein too lies the charm.

13. The Wall

Ambitious, dramatic and relentlessly intense, The Wall is an album you can love or hate but can't ignore. I grew up adoring the whole double album and in many ways it still holds me in its talons; I might not enjoy it as much as the rest of the band's discography anymore, but its power over me has barely waned. I think that, as released, it's somewhat overdone and has too much of Roger before his solo vision really flowered (in The Pros & Cons of Hitch-Hiking), but Disc 2 is tremendous. If I weren't such a whole-album diehard, I would knock the album up several places on its strength alone.

12. More

For a long time, More was my least favorite album in the discography. There was never a time when I didn’t like Cymbaline or Green is the Colour, but the rest of the album I found either too sad and sinister (Cirrus Minor, Main Theme) or too boring (Crying Song, Quicksilver). Despite (or because of?) my relatively low opinion of More I would periodically return to it and over the years my regard grew. It certainly works differently than any other Pink Floyd album (except, maybe, its similarly whimsical follow-up Ummagumma) and it takes a particular mood to appreciate it all the way through. But when it hits, it hits.

11. The Dark Side of the Moon

I think that Dark Side is severely flawed, but a real slice of musical grandeur nonetheless. It is a stronger concept album than it is an album, so to speak; that is, the lyrics, structure, and journey it takes you on are all world-class but there are missteps in the delivery. The album also suffers by comparison to its little brother Obscured by Clouds, which sees the band showcasing all the same strengths but with superior songwriting and no unnecessary adornments. Dark Side's best feature is its unsettling atmosphere, the anxiety that does not let up. To this day it makes me uncomfortable.

10. The Final Cut

Where The Wall was allegorical, The Final Cut is political—Pros & Cons will be personal—and Roger’s dark vision here is more purely distilled, more caustic, more shiver-inducing than it was on The Wall... not to mention the merry little fact that the album’s story ends with nuclear apocalypse. And while you won’t hear David Gilmour apotheosize the electric guitar as he did on Comfortably Numb, you do get several short bursts of solos that are among his best and most evocative guitar work on record, solos all the more striking for their brevity and infrequency.

9. A Momentary Lapse of Reason

The first Floyd album without Roger Waters is a partial remergence of the band’s early-to-mid ‘70s soul; signs of life, indeed! Waters had come to dominate the band to such a degree in the preceding decade that it took his exit to make much of what made their earlier work wonderful resurface. Momentary Lapse is, in turn, David’s album: these are all his songs (a few among the best he has penned) and it’s his arrangement decisions and, above all, his guitar that make the record shine. His smooth, melodic voice sounds grand after three straight albums of Roger’s vitriol. The '80s production wears on some tracks (poor One Slip) but it's not as damaging as it might've been.

8. Atom Heart Mother

The title track is Stage Three Floyd firing all cylinders, crafting their first long piece in which there's no section that drags—but even this self-assured display of powers, grand and masterly, was merely a warm-up run for the following year’s Echoes. The group tones things down for the remainder of the album, which contains the most concentrated appearance of the short-lived agrarian/rustic Floyd sound (acoustic guitars, soft vocals, slow tempos and relatively straightforward arrangements). Summer '68 especially, though the least rustic, is fantastic! But If and Fat Old Sun aren't far behind. It's a lovely little stretch, those three middle tracks.

7. A Saucerful of Secrets

Pink Floyd begin to find their footing after Syd Barrett’s inadvertent stepdown from the position of band leader. Syd gets one song in nevertheless and it’s one of his best as well as the album highlight, but what's surprising coming after Piper is that the other members, including newbie David Gilmour on guitar, are so capable of holding their songwriting own. Rick Wright’s ethereal Remember a Day is the only one that manages to nip at the heels of Jugband Blues but the other numbers are solid too, maintaing a somewhat Syd-like whimsy while also branching out to the spacey and the ragged.

6. The Division Bell

There’s something about David Gilmour’s playing here that makes me think of a festival. It's not just that High Hopes opens and closes with the ringing of a bell, which conjures thoughts of Chrono Trigger's Millennial Fair… well, I can't place it exactly, but for me, that kind of feeling on a modern rock album by none other than the giants of the genre is an enormous treat. The album contains several of both David’s best songs and his best solos. A huge advantage of Roger’s departure was just how much freer David clearly felt to adorn songs with prominent lead guitar. No less significantly, Rick Wright returns!

5. Animals

Though musically about as great an album as I've ever heard, Animals is a scary piece of work. Edgy, abrasive, angry (personal relationships in the band were swiftly deteriorating and conditions in the studio were miserable; you can hear the band taking their frustration out on the songs, though to productive effect), misanthropic, insidious, cynical, vicious: all the terms apply. The closest thing I can discern to a flaw is that, at this juncture, Rick Wright was no longer involved in the compositional process. Whether he was simply experiencing a personal block or felt stifled by Waters’ domineering is unclear, but either way, it's a loss.

4. Obscured by Clouds

Composed, recorded and released after the Dark Side material was first aired live but before the final studio product was completed, Obscured by Clouds is the album Dark Side should & (almost) could have been. The vibe and basic sound of Obscured by Clouds are very similar to those of its higher-profile successor and there are even some direct re-workings, with Breathe becoming Burning Bridges and Mudmen while Time morphs into Childhood’s End, but here there are no bells or whistles—no guest musicians, no backing vocalists, no endless overdubs. Just four friends at the height of their powers, making great music from the heart.

3. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

1967’s fledgling Pink Floyd was already a great band, but they were Syd Barrett’s boys through and through—in the presence of the Pied Piper, what can you do but follow? The album’s excellence is primarily Syd’s doing: his fairytale lyrics cloaked in music that’s the very sound of childhood joy, his irrepressible humor (“I’ve got a bike, you can ride it if you like / ...I’d give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it”) and his intrepid comet-path leading past the gates of dawn, out into a land only ever explored adequately by Syd himself, here with the band that was his once and forever.

2. Meddle

As far as I'm aware, Meddle contains the most triumphant recorded instances of both a dog howling the blues (Seamus) and the hunting cries of poison-wasteland death crows (not Seamus), and after all these years, Echoes remains the best song I have ever heard. Its power over me defies approximation by words, but I will confess a long-held suspicion: that on that auspicious, green and submarine day when God first dreamt up rock music, Echoes was exactly what He had in mind. It’s the universe in a drop of clear, clear water, resounding bright & evermore.

1. Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here is Floyd at the peak of their post-Syd powers and one of my five favorite albums by anybody. Meddle boasts the group’s best song, but where it comes to the album craft, which was always Pink Floyd’s game, this bleak 1975 behemoth is their magnum opus. The album’s five songs (four?) are heavyweights like few others in the genre. Together they constitute an album in mourning: lighter tones may litter the darkness, but Wish You Were Here's got a broken heart.

Assorted Gems: Love of Life



Sister albums are cool. They're not double albums, obviously (or sometimes, as in Big Blood's case, not that obviously), but they maintain a relationship that, as you listen to the one, makes you aware of the other. Like Ten New Songs and Dear Heather: very different records (within Leonard Cohen's body of work, anyway), but linked in their being the two soundings from the Mt. Baldy years, and in their songs having similarly modest and artfully "Muzaky" arrangements, as well as in that each is a collaboration with a long-standing co-writer/backing singer, Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas respectively. Dear Heather is a corrective to Ten New Songs' formality and seriousness, while Ten New Songs, with its thick mood and unabashed devotion to dinky arrangements made transcendent, creates a path for Dear Heather, and clears away the need for the younger sister to be brimful of traditionally accomplished songs, since the elder had enough of those.

When I think about Love of Life, I invariably wonder: which record do I really like more, it or White Light from the Mouth of Infinity? They are both excellent, singular (or... doubular) things, staunch messengers from the same post-Burning World here-we-go-back-to-the-independent-grind era, with a lot of the same band members, both with amazing Deryk Thomas front covers, both gutted later and reshaped into the single-album compilation that Gira frowningly titled Various Failures... and yet, like the Cohens, they have their meaningful differences, their various positions. White Light (a double album, which typically means I should like it more) bludgeons and mourns. Love of Life makes room for different kinds of tracks, and its interludes are as beautiful and usually more arresting than the full-fledged songs. White Light broods with the stormiest-browed of the warrior gods, while Love of Life has more cheerful-sounding Gira songs (and/or refrains) in one place than any Swans or Angels of Light album. Love of Life's rage is like that of a waterspout moving across the open sea: strong and violent, to be sure, and amazing to look upon, but enveloped in and surrounded by a stillness and mystery vaster, more enduring, more patient, and ultimately more frightening than it. White Light from the Mouth of Infinity has more good songs (including Love Will Save You, my gateway into the pre-Angels Swans), but Love of Life gives its songs a more striking, evocative context.

The songs are not really the point. With Gira, the great songwriting didn't begin until he made a conscious effort to write great songs, around the time of Soundtracks from the Blind, leading into New Mother. The point, as in most Swans records from the '80s and '90s, is songlike mood exercises. Lyrics and melodies exist to make the fog more total. Love of Life picks up where the light-melodic/dark-pounding concoctions hinted at on The Burning World and featured on White Light from the Mouth of Infinity left off. To bolster and off-set these comes the marvelous series of instrumental mood pieces called (---), sometimes with spoken word fragments atop them, sometimes composed of eerie, melodic figures, sometimes both. They are sad and touching in ways that the actual songs aren't. But the actual songs, made stark by the interludes, feel more imposing, more monolithic, with these gentle valleys around them, than they did lined up in the crowded, unbroken splendor of White Light from the Mouth of Infinity.

But just about that band sound—and the following description applies to both albums, the difference being that Love of Life came out sounding clearer, more pristine—which I'm not saying is better, since what's not to love about some really good murk—in any case: what a blend of light and darkness! The keyboards, the electric and acoustic guitars, the cymbals, and Jarboe's vocals all grasp heavenward, while the bass with its resonant reverb, the toms and bass drum, and Gira's vocals fight to stay sprawled out in the soil, mouth full of earth.

My favorite track is the (---) before The Other Side of the World, followed by the (---) between Identity and In the Eyes of Nature. Favorite "song," to be stricter about it, is The Golden Boy That Was Swallowed by the Sea (I mean, you'd have to be a jerk to give a less-than-awesome song such an awesome title; this applies also to The Burning World's opener, The River that Runs with Love Won't Run Dry). Or Amnesia, into which Gira breathed new life and music some thirty years later, for the album Leaving Meaning—a choice dictated by the lyrics, apparently, but interestingly, Amnesia is the one song on either White Light from the Mouth of Infinity or Love of Life that sounds most like the kinds of Swans songs Gira would write in the band's second chapter, in the years after Angels of Light, even down to a couple of uncanny details: the sinister synth fanfare in the refrain which sounds like the screeching instrument that plays lead for a while in the song The Seer, and the "Amnesia-na-na-na" phrasing picked up in Mother of the World. Favorite riff/progression is the one that opens In the Eyes of Nature. The song I could most easily do without is No Cure for the Lonely, which is missing from all LP versions of Love of Life, and thus can in fact, justifiably, be done without.

Today, as it happens, I suspect that I prefer Love of Life to White Light. But if the urge to jot down a few things about this period of Swans had come over me last month, or next month, or last week, or next week, it might well have been White Light from the Mouth of Infinity's cover art that graced the top of this post, and you would have found me arguing its case over Love of Life, presumably with frequent recourse to its being a double album, and to pinnacles like Song for Dead Time, Love Will Save You, and The Most Unfortunate Lie, and (speak of pinnacles) to Gira instating the outtake Blind as an official part of the tracklist in the album's 2015 reissue. But, well, sister albums, you see.

Introducing "Assorted Gems"

Not much to introduce here, really. "Assorted Gems" will be my heading for musings on full-length albums, musings that are not part of any other greater project or series. Emphasis will be on full-length albums, but then, why not be flexible? I could imagine live albums appearing under this heading too. EPs? I don't listen to many, but maybe. Bootlegged live shows? Yeah, could be. But then, since exactly 94.826% of my listening is to studio albums, played in full, the emphasis falls right back on, yes indeed, full-length albums.

I'd been thinking about making and annotating a list of my personal Top 100 Albums, but when I started work on it, back in January of this year, I found the process agonizing: and I mean just the selection, let alone the ranking! 

So, to some degree, "Assorted Gems" is a cop-out. On the other hand, I won't need to waste time justifying why I like this or that album more than a hundred or more great others that didn't make the list. A top hundred list has room for exactly that many; an occasional commentary on assorted gems can accommodate many more, and the gems can be gathered from a wider landscape, too. Plus, I think the looseness and spontaneity of the form can do the writing good.

I may still opt, down the line, to do a post with short write-ups about my current Top 25 or Top 33 or something. There does exist a certain dividing line between blindingly brilliant albums, and blindingly brilliant albums that mean the world to me...

Prog Stories: The Dear Hunter's Act I: The Lake South, The River North

Summer is here, the uni is on break, I have no commute to work, few errands to be running, and instead much that needs attention at home, so albums don't get heard. A song here and there, sure—usually one of Ragnar's, or else my own, as I tinker with new stuff. But the kind of space that I prefer, or practically require, for full album listens, won't be available again until the start of the new term in the final days of August. My six listens to Act I have been spread very widely far apart, weeks between them. It has helped the songs sink in, that's for sure. But the listening was done in stolen... if not moments, well then, stolen 40-minute chunks, without much chance to keep a running commentary going. We've had more chances to talk about the album over the phone than I've had to write about it. So this'll be a short one.

In any case, it's great stuff, nonstop great stuff! Musically, each of the eight songs is a treat. I love that five of them pass the six-minute mark. The arrangements are rocked-out and colorful, elaborate but with a raw edge. There are a lot of catchy, happily lingering vocal melodies ("sing softly! bring me to the lake!"). I love that the album has room for an a capella overture (Battesimo del Fuoco), a superbly catchy instrumental that could soundtrack FF9 (The Lake South), a soft and modest but still beautiful instrumental (The River North), punkish folk-rock (City Escape), a bit of villainesque jazzy sleaze (The Pimp and the Priest), and the kind of full-on folk-rock that seems to drip liquid gold (His Hands Matched His Tongue). Casey's singing is such a pleasure: versatile, strong, emotive, with a unique timber. 

No individual instruments stood out to me—actually, now that I check, I see that almost everything was played by Casey himself, which figures, because unless you're Tom Kovacevic or Paul McCartney, the one-musician-band approach usually means there won't be much that stands out, necessarily. But you will get a good, clear picture of what's going on in the writer's head and imagination, since they are the one solely (or, in this case, in all but drums) responsible for how each element ends up sounding. 

Lyrics, then. Before looking them up and reading them, I was able to tell, based on the background you provided me with, that a lot of the album is about the main character's mother: there's a lot on that classically exploited 19th-century theme of prostitution, and, it seemed to me, a lot about the "city escape" into the woods where her son is born. "Places, people, the stage is set," as sung in City Escape, seems to be the central conceit. The river as the border between the City and the Wilderness, maybe? The Lake as a refuge, sought and found. 

Having read the words, it's like you say: very little is illuminated! Casey's lyrical style here is a kind that I don't dislike but can't appreciate much either: it's too elusive, but not elusive in a way that makes me want to relisten and reread until I figure something out; it's the kind that gets me thinking, "Well, all right, I guess the songwriter knows what he means," and leaving it at that. There's a touch of the literary, in that Casey likes latinate words ("release this serendipitious design," "belated conversations saturate anticipation," and so on, tiptoeing toward Death Metal English), but the words don't seem to be honed enough to earn the epithet "poetic." Concrete enough for it to be obvious that the songs are (or are meant to be) about something specific, but abstract enough that I get little more from all those words across all those songs than a vibe. A line like "the flame is gone, the fire remains" might mean something when, or if, I understand more of the story that will come in Acts II to V. For now I receive it only as a blank image with a mood attached. 

Generally, throughout the album, the emotion and force of the songs are carried by the vocals and the music. The vocals and the music are so good that some lines will stand out and linger in the mind anyway ("the trouble began, but it never ended" or my favorite, the patiently unfolding "the pail has leaks, and even if you put all your water into it, you end up with nothing left to drink"), lifted high by their melodies.

I won't rank the songs, since they're all so good. I will note that my two favorites are The Lake South and His Hands Matched His Tongue. And I'll rank my six favorite musical sequences/things/ideas/whatever-they-are.

6.  The atmospheric beginning of The Inquiry of Ms. Terri.

5.  The organ solo that starts at the four-minute mark in 1878 and the organ/guitar duet that follows.

4.  The crowd noise, applause, and cacophonous orchestral tuning at the end of The River North: way to build atmosphere and anticipation for Act II!

3.  The modulating refrains of 1878. There could be way more of these refrains and I'd still be happy.

2.  The moment in which the extra instrumentation drops out again around 1:22 in The Lake South, and all we hear is the piano and—tuba?

1.  The layers of harmonies, keys, guitars, and wordless backing vocals around the main melody at 2:35 in His Hands Matched His Tongue, Casey singing about the water and the pail. (I have no idea what this song has to do with any story.)

I'm excited to hear the various melodies here reprised in future Acts.

And what a great image on the front cover!

May 22, 2022

Prog Stories: Pain of Salvation's The Perfect Element, Part I

1st Listen.

Classic first-listen morass. But I’m inclined to like the production here more than the ‘90s sheen on Remedy Lane or the ‘80s black metal murk of Concrete Lake. The instruments seem well-separated. And, come to think of it, this isn’t even the 2020 remix!

The exceptions to the inevitable “everything sounds the same” morass: King of Loss, since I know the Falling Home outtake version (but the arrangement here still dropped into the swamp) and the title track, which is straight-up “like on first listen.”

2nd Listen.

The “getting used to pain” hook in Used is really catchy.

The opening riff of In the Flesh is awesome. It sounds familiar already, so I guess it must be one of the things reprised later.

Morning on Earth has strings, but they sound decent. The section with strings feels like something that could soundtrack a Record of Lodoss War forest.

Naturally, I love the rapping in Idioglossia. And whoa, the 5:50 breakdown! And damn, the 7:00 scream!!! It sounds like an electric guitar!

Great stuff in the section of Her Voices that starts at 1:45. Overall, though... could this, chronologically speaking, be the first good Pain of Salvation ballad?! Huh, but it’s not a ballad for long. The jam around 4:30 is nuts. I’m not hearing a lot of standard verse/chorus structures on this album! Wait, though, 6:20! What is this! Could soundtrack a Final Fantasy last boss battle!

Great seamless transition from Dedication to King of Loss.

Awesome last two minutes of The Perfect Element. Ending an album with a percussion frenzy (ala here, “BE” , and The Seer) should just become a genre. When people heard the first ever song with an offbeat, thank God they didn’t think, “Oh, that’s original and unique, I shouldn’t imitate it.” No, they imitated the hell out of it, and now there are thousands of reggae songs! That’s how all-percussion album endings should be! What a loss that they aren’t.

3rd Listen.

Did not enjoy this listen. Which is kind of weird, because I thoroughly enjoyed the last listen. I will chalk this up either to my listening to too much late Pain of Salvation recently, or (I think this is the main culprit) my having read through the album lyrics right before listening. I didn’t care for the majority of the lyrics in Remedy Lane, but they didn’t clash with my tastes enough to detract from my enjoyment of the music. These lyrics do. I think the album starts well, with an intelligent and sympathetic examination of what it is like to be abused—and it’s bold and important and cool that Daniel went for that subject matter at all—but from Ashes onwards it seems to devolve into vague and cliche-ridden psychotalk. Have people really been able to piece characters and a story together from lyrics like these...? Without outside help from interviews with Daniel, anyway? Dedication means something, and is earnest, but badly-written. I guess Her Voices is about bullying...? I get the feeling that all the songs mean something real and specific to Daniel, else it’s hard to imagine where the passion in the vocals could come from. But—and this is a common problem for inexperienced songwriters, certainly one I’ve run into myself—I don’t think he was able to transform these things that were meaningful to him into songs that could also be meaningful for others.

No, hold on, that is severely presumptuous. I’m sure the songs have meant a lot to many listeners. It’s not for me to judge if a song I consider grossly bland and cliched reaches someone on a meaningful level and creates real comfort and connection. But the Daniel of 2000 wasn’t yet able to write lyrics that could connect with me.

4th Listen.

Indeed, the album does sound better again at a distance from the lyrics. I’m enjoying a lot of what I hear. But it’s mostly a dispassionate kind of enjoyment, one I can remember accompanying many a past listen to Road Salt and In the Passing Light of Day...

I still by far prefer the Falling Home version of King of Loss.

5th Listen.

I like how In the Flesh comes to a full stop, and then Ashes begins by going right back into the In the Flesh rhythm.

I love the music-box keyboard (?) sound at the start of Morning on Earth.

I respect the animating spirit of Dedication more than I do the lyrics themselves, but I’m intrigued by some lyrical overlap between it and Icon. In Dedication: “I have feared this moment since I was just a child.” In Icon: “As a child, it worried me that all the ones I loved would one day die.”

I love the rocked-out version of the Morning on Earth riff in Reconciliation.

I don’t think there is anything I dislike musically on this album, other than the guitar solos.

Great interaction between the guitar and drums in the first half of Song for the Innocent. (I actually like much of the guitar solo in Song for the Innocent.)

And I’m very much struck, this listen, by things you encapsulated perfectly, Zaya, so I’ll just quote you:

“Also I was just telling Josh that I realize the struggle with ranking Perfect Element by song is that it’s almot really just one REALLY BIG SONG in many small parts. More than maybe any other PoS album, it’s more a complete-listen album and not an individual-song album. It’s SO DENSE and I think it’s very interesting and very layered but much less catchy and doesn’t produce as many individually solid songs since all the songs share pieces of themselves with other songs on the album and work as a whole together. In terms of musical connections between tracks, it’s probably the most connected. Like imagine those Ending Theme callbacks from Passing Light of Day showing up on the same album. But much more in your face ... It’s almost a puzzle. There’s really nothing like it.”

In its “one really big song” nature, it’s definitely brought my huge favorites Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play to mind, but while both of those are clearly a long song each, neither of them opt for the intricate puzzle structure of The Perfect Element. Even if I don’t end up loving (rather than, as I do now, liking) the music, I think this album will keep drawing me back to it through its structural ingenuity. 

6th Listen.

Finally trying the 2020 remix! Overall it seems harsher than the colorful original, but the added clarity means there are so many extra parts to hear and enjoy.

I don’t think I like Idioglossia.

Really not big on Dedication, either. Early PoS ballads, what can I say.

But this is such a contrast with my experience getting to know Concrete Lake! With that album, I had to work really hard to single out tracks or moments of tracks that I liked. I’m experiencing a comparative level of difficulty here, but the difficulty is in finding things I don’t like!

Every time I reach King of Loss I like it, but it makes me want to listen to Falling Home.

I love how the remixed title track sounds. The catchiest vocal melody (“falling far beyond the point...”) gets blended beautifully into the surrounding instrumentation.

7th Listen.

First I need to note that various bits of the album are stuck in my head most of the time.

The transition from In the Flesh to Ashes is so great.

And nah, Idioglossia is fine. There are a lot of sections I like, such as the bit where there are fast drums over the Ashes chorus, and the drumming sounds like it has no connection with the rest of the music. I also love the chaotic riff right after that section.

8th Listen.

Enjoyed it. Didn’t notice anything new. I think that means it’s time to let it roast slowly deep in the back of the oven of my mind. I listened to Remedy Lane again today (the live version with Ragnar, granted), and while there were some things I liked less than before, I did find myself enjoying (!) Waking Every God, and loving Beyond the Pale far more than ever. So it would appear it does me good to keep away from these early PoS albums for a while, once my foot’s in the door.

May 17, 2022

Prog Stories: Pain of Salvation's One Hour by the Concrete Lake

Contextual Note 1 (for readers who aren’t Isaiah).

In the week and a half since I put up the post on “BE” , I have become a massive Pain of Salvation fan. I’ve always (ever since Zaya played me selections from Road Salt and lent me his copy of “BE”, a decade back) respected them, admiring them lightly, safe from a distance. I would come back to them every now and then, spending time with some album from “BE” onwards, checking to see if Isaiah’s favorite band in the whole world would grow on me or not, and wanting that to be the case, but generally it wasn't. Then In the Passing Light of Day came out, becoming my instant favorite in the catalogue. But I didn’t listen to it a great deal. It still featured a lot of the things I didn’t care for, such as Daniel’s dramatic monologues, or the bland-sounding rocked-out heavier bits. But still, every now and then, I’d go back... sometimes I’d discover that I loved a certain song, maybe No Way, or Silent Gold, or Mortar Grind, or Meaningless... by and by, a decade rolled away from the world, and the advance singles for Panther started coming out. I loved Accelerator. I loved everything except one structural/lyrical detail in Restless Boy. And I fell hard for the title track. I think that’s when everything shifted. Something in me decided that if loved the songs Accelerator and Panther so much, and so unequivocally, there was probably something wonderful about the years and years of lead-up to Panther that I just hadn’t noticed yet. Last month, I finally gave Panther the careful listens it deserved, and soon loved everything about it. So I started listening to interviews with the band’s frontman/songwriter Daniel, and started talking with Zaya about the band again, and Zaya (for I had always assumed Pain of Salvation was merely Daniel & Hirelings, and paid no attention to the often-changing line-up) told me about Ragnar Zolberg, and I fell in love with Ragnar’s solo work, which in turn got me scouring In the Passing Light of Day for his contributions, and then playing lots of Falling Home (first the title track, a hundred plus times, then the whole album). Around the same time, I started on the Prog Stories... and my love for Pain of Salvation’s post-“BE” work just keeps on deepening. I think Road Salt, Falling Home, In the Passing Light of Day, and Panther are all magnificent, on so many levels. I can’t wait to properly get to know Scarsick. And I’m curious about the early albums that document how they went from being just another bunch of Swedish kids in a metal band to one of the finest rock groups in the world.

Contextual Note 2. 

Isaiah and I exchanged a lot of messages about how much we hate a certain piano part in Inside Out, the song that closes this album. I won’t quote them all, but here’s a fun selection, one which I wouldn’t like to stay buried in a phone chat record: 

April 30th, Isaiah: “...my least favorite [Pain of Salvation] final track is on One Hour by the Concrete Lake which I think is what lowers an amazing album. There’s a specific piano part in it that annoys me lol”

May 2nd, me: “Is Concrete Lake ranked low [in a Pain of Salvation discography ranking that Zay sent] mostly due to the production issues you mentioned?”

Isaiah: “Yup. Still love the songs. Just think the album has the weakest production. Plus I don’t love the closer.”

Then on May 5th, a long talk on the topic:

Me [upon first listen] : “I think I know exactly what piano part you’re talking about in Inside Out :P ”

Isaiah: “Lol! Do you agree? I find it so annoying. Maybe my least favorite thing in all of Pain of Salvation. And it gets stuck in my head.”

Me: “Hahaha! Yep, the word that comes to mind to describe that part is ‘stupid.’”

Isaiah: “I guess it’s supposed to create tension? But it’s the wrong kind of tension.”

Me: “That kind of ‘I wish it would stop’ tension, right?”

Some minutes later, me: “I did notice that the strong impression that piano part in Inside Out leaves on a listener is in direct contrast to how many seconds it’s actually played. But then it’s kind of like a threat hovering over the proceedings... I kept thinking, ‘They’re not gonna go for that stupid piano part again, are they...?’”

Isaiah: “Exactly!! It creates a sense of dread that you’re going to have to hear it again.”

Several hours later, Isaiah: “So listening to Inside Out I’m also not a fan of the initial main chorus in that song, ‘inside trying to get outside,’ but I love the reimagined version at about the three-minute mark.”

May 6th, me: “Damn it! Just around 4:45 in Inside Out... they’d shifted back to that fast part and held off, making me begin to hope they maybe wouldn’t play it this time, and then FUCK! There it was! Literally made me shout out ‘fuck!’ and groan, in the middle of the street. [But] yeah, the middle section is strong!”

Isaiah: “I even dread Inside Out while I’m halfway through the album.”

1st Listen.

Hardly absorbed a thing. I remember noticing some statistics being read, ala “BE”. I remember thinking that the album sounds like Pain of Salvation’s 1980s moment and that Pilgrim (I think it was Pilgrim) was a badly written ballad, and then registering that a whole album’s worth of ballad-writing practice separates One Hour by the Concrete Lake from even the ballads of Remedy Lane, which are hardly shining examples of the form... speaking of the not-ideal, I remember that piano part in Inside Out; how could one forget? Finally, I remember two songs sounding straight-up amazing. I think they are both in the approximate middle of the album somewhere. I look forward to hearing them again.

2nd Listen.

Intrigued by the invitations (“stay with me”) and confrontations (“who the hell do you think you are?”) in the back half of Inside.

I like the choral singing in the, would I call it a, refrain of The Big Machine. The production reminds me of late-’80s/early-’90s gothic-era Swans.

A thought that came to me during New Year’s Eve: “This sounds like a band learning to be good.” Which must be an incorrect insight, or else how to account for Entropia?

I want a Daniel Gildenlöw rap solo album. Even his proto-rapping on Handful of Nothing sounds good. Maybe after the dark country album...

Was Water one of the two songs I liked on first listen? I hope not. There’s some good guitar work in it, to be sure. But if Water was one of the two, then its power has diminished substantially with a re-listen.

Home was definitely one of the two. I love the guitars and the chords in the verses. Maybe this was the first song I loved, and Serenity Shore the second? But now I’m discovering that I’m only really a fan of Home’s verses. The rest (refrains, solo) sounds (for now) like standard (pleasant) Concrete Lake fare.

Damn, I guess Water really was the other first-listen favorite. Shore Serenity is cool and sounds ripe to grow on me, but it made no impression last listen. Water really was a quick fade... not that it can’t bounce back. The Big Machine and Home are my two provisional favorites now.

Ugh, they OPEN Inside Out with that piano part! Instant flinch!

3rd Listen.

I’m liking Inside. The back half has a “final night before an epic journey begins” feeling. It helps that the vocal melody section in that section is simply great.

Water has a good refrain.

Neat guitar figure in Pilgrim’s verses.

Looking at the album as a whole, I would have liked a lot more of the choral vocals we hear in The Big Machine and for a moment in Shore Serenity.

4th Listen.

Still nothing standing out much, but I’m noticing more enjoyment overall.

5th Listen.

I feel about this album right now the way I felt about Remedy Lane after the second listen. Is that because Concrete Lake is less immediate, or because it suits my tastes less?

The second and third tracks are strong.

I never registered anything about Black Hills before, but this time I really enjoyed the breakdown.

If not for the gruesome piano, Inside Out would be my favorite song on the album.

Twenty minutes after the listen, my head is cycling mercilessly between two things I can’t stand: the refrain of Pilgrim, and the nefarious piano in Inside Out. The piano goes tinkling away, dee-ra-dee-ra-din dee-ra-dee-ra-din dee-da. So I will it to stop. Five seconds later, “piiiiiil-griiiim, where aaaare you going.” No! Get it out! I force myself to force it out. And next thing I know, dee-ra-dee-ra-din dee-ra-dee-ra-din dee-da. Agggh!

6th Listen.

I enjoy the first three tracks. Water has grown (back) on me a lot; I like the heavy verses as well as the acoustic ones, and I love the “we flush! we flush!” section. Black Hills stands as my current favorite. I could still happily do without the refrain of Pilgrim, but I like the way it and Shore Serenity seem to blend into one acoustic-based suite.

I think all I need now, to cross over into actually liking the album, is to put it on in the background some fifteen or twenty times as I level up my Final Fantasy VI characters.

7th Listen.

Wrong! I like the album already. The whole album. The FF6 leveling approach would probably just serve to push me over into “really like” territory. (This whole seventh listen happened while leveling up on the Floating Continent. So fitting! So good!) 

I was thinking of doing a lyric readthrough at this point, but reading the lyrics for The Perfect Element made my fledgling appreciation for that album take a big hit, and Concrete Lake predates The Perfect Element, so I’d rather hold back. I always like what I hear of the Concrete Lake words as I catch snippets here and there. Better let things stay that way.

This must be the Pain of Salvation album that I have the least natural affinity for (with the possible exception of Entropia, but only because I haven’t heard Entropia yet), but it has grown on me immensely. You might not guess it from this bare-bones write-up, but it’s true! I’ve gone from finding it extremely bland, and needing to spend several days listening to other things between listens, to ensure I could come back to Concrete Lake with patience and an open mind—all the way to a constant steady enjoyment of what I’m hearing, from Spirit of the Land through Inside Out, the only two hiccups being the refrain in Pilgrim and, of course, what else, the Inside Out piano.

That said, I do think I would need those aforementioned fifteen or twenty more listens to get to the point I got with Remedy Lane after just six or seven listens. That doesn’t necessarily mean I like Concrete Lake less... if anything, I might like it more, because whereas Remedy Lane has a lot of songs I like much more or much less than others, Concrete Lake feels consistently solid. I think I prefer a lower-level solidity over an album in which, as I listen through a song, Im actually just waiting all the while for the next song to start, because I like the next one so much better.

That said, it’s been a while since I last listened to Remedy Lane...

Anyway, I won’t venture to do a ranking. For this album, it would be too soon.