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Nevermore, The Obsidian Conspiracy (2010)
— Reviewed in the style of Ernest Hemingway —

The man looked at the picture and looked away and ordered another drink.

The hotel was loud and there were already a lot of people there.  The man pulled out a chair and sat down at the hotel bar.  He found the barman and ordered a pink gin.  Like the sailors used to drink, he thought.  A band was playing already when he sat down.  Most of the tables in the lounge were full.  Couples talking, lots of men clapping each other on the back.  The man thought he didn’t need any of that.  There would be time for that.

He thought about “This Godless Endeavor.”  He looked out the window.  A train pulled slowly out of the station, and a table of well-dressed young people across the bar from the man talked loudly about skiing.  Five years is a long time, the man thought, and maybe those fond memories were all wrong anyway.

“Turn to the left, turn to the right.”  The man did not listen.  The band played a chorus, almost like it was played from another room.  It played major, dipped minor.  The man thought he heard something.  Then it was gone.  He ordered another drink.  “Is this soliloquy or psychosis, or self-hypnosis?”  The barman must have left the radio tuned to a motivational program.  The man finished his drink, and watched the ice slowly become water in the glass.  He breathed out.

The band at the bar only wanted to play some crowd-pleasers.  The musicians kept pushing the lounge singer out of the way, so he pushed back.  He seemed a little tight, the pusher.  Squinted his eyes to look serious.  Too many damned words, the man thought.  As if each additional syllable made the sloganeering more effective.  The man glanced out the window.  The train was gone, and a listless breeze swept across the plain.

He listened to the band play “The Termination Proclamation.”  He listened, and then remembered her:

“He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks.  He looked up the tracks but could not see the train.  Coming back, he walked through the barroom, where people waiting for the train were drinking.  He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people.  They were all waiting reasonably for the train.  He went out through the bead curtain.  She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.

‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.

‘I feel fine,’ she said.  ‘There’s nothing wrong with me.  I feel fine.’”***

How do you ‘abandon someone with scorn’, the man thought?  It’s all damned worthless anyway.  The barman dropped his mixing glass, and set his rag down to clean up the mess.  The lounge singer had recovered his poise, and was singing a slow song.  The man asked the bartender to turn down the radio.  The barman didn’t hear.

Most everyone had left the bar by now.  Empty tables weighed down with half-spilled glasses and uneaten food.  An older woman in evening-wear sat staring at the band.  She seemed to project a sense of feeling the music deeply, deeply.  The band’s set was only forty-five minutes, but they had lost some of their sheet music.  One of the players ran through some fast solos while the band sat back.  Maybe it was a saxophone?  The man was not interested.  The sparse crowd listened.  The man sat at the bar, thinking about lousy conversationalists who always steer a polite topic into ornate, self-serving directions.

The band played an encore, ‘Temptation.’  No one had requested it.  The man put down his drink.  It had soured.  The lounge singer bounced his voice around.  Even the well-dressed woman looked uncomfortable.  The rest of the band would not meet the others’ eyes.

The barman came back and tried to get the man another drink.  The man started to order another gin but then ordered a scotch.  “Say, this is some band,” said the barman.  “Yes, some band,” the man replied.  He balled a napkin in his hand.  “Don’t you like the music?” asked the barman, drying off some glasses with lime peels still stuck on them.  “Yes,” the man said.  He took another drink of the scotch.  It tasted like smoke and honey.  “No,” he added.  “It’s very nice music, but I don’t give a damn.  I just don’t like it at all.”  He paid the barman and pushed back his chair and walked out of the hotel and toward the train station.  He looked back.  The band inside was just finishing and those people still at the tables were still talking and laughing.  Maybe they were talking about snow and ski lifts and hot cider and good times but the man stopped looking back and put up his collar and his shoes echoed loudly on the ground.

There would be plenty of time to catch the next train at the station so the man thought about “This Godless Endeavor” again and shook his head and couldn’t remember what he meant to do.  The man hoped the band found the music they had lost.  He put his hands in his pockets and turned the corner and whistled a song he didn’t like.  He saw another train far in the hills and he closed his eyes and he kept walking and the train off in the distance went behind another hill and was gone.  He kept walking.

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*** Just in case the jarring contrast from my piss-poor imitation didn’t make it obvious enough, this passage in full quotation is taken directly from Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants.”  This quote taken from my copy of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, The Finca Vigia Edition, 1987, New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., p. 214.  Let’s just say, shall we, that the Hemingway story likely shares its subject matter with Nevermore’s “The Termination Proclamation.”  You tell me which source deals with its theme more deftly, yeah?

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Musical inspiration is a funny thing.  I suspect most songwriters would tell you they can’t really pinpoint where it is that they find the music coming from, nor, I imagine, where it ought to be going.  We’ve all heard and rehearsed the tired story of Michelangelo, who was apparently fond of saying that the sculptures already existed, and he needed only to clear away the excess marble to find the Ur-figure (but id-figure, or even ego-figure, would be equally appropriate).

I think we love to nurse this myth of the artist as conduit, laboring only to tap into an elemental source of truth and joy that exists just at a tangent to our consciousness.  Still, plenty of other artists will tell you it ain’t no secret but a hard slog of self-doubt and fucking hard work.  I’d like to think, I guess, that the most successful artists harbor some niggling belief in the truth of both notions.

The coexistence (or even the overlap) of these narratives of creation means that when we hear a note, a song, a phrase that recalls another note, song, phrase of not immediately-remembered provenance, we get a lot of mileage out of whichever narrative we favor, no matter how latent/blatant that favor may be.

So, when you hear a song that recalls another song, what do you do?  Do you recoil in disgust, showering the impostor with spittle and vitriol?   Do you wince ruefully, and chalk it up to the best of intentions gone sickly and sour?  Or do you step back and consider whether two songs are mere glinting scratches on the surface of the same atavistic, artistic edifice?  Picture a Kubrickian monolith, or a vast gleaming mountain of purple and electric white.  Each hymns to the same fleeting impulse.

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Mvmt I:

This first pairing of songs, I think, is ample evidence for this latter interpretation.

Max Richter, “Andras” (from Memoryhouse)

Ludwig Van Beethoven, “Für Elise”

Not to say that Max Richter is nipping too closely at the heels of old Ludwig Van, but this seems like oblique homage, or even an unconsciously lateral telescoping of the same shock of wistful beauty, all yellowed leaves and guttering candles and receding memory.
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Mvmt II:

Even here, I’m liable to be generous.  Frankly, I’ve no clue why each time I hear one of these songs, sometime the following day I find myself with snatches of both pieces jammed together on a maddeningly uninterruptable loop in my head.  They’re both pretty decent songs, in fact, and without an in-depth musical analysis, I couldn’t really tell you if they bear any semblance of the other’s structure, or melody, or key.

All I know is, time t+1 from either of these, and over and over and over it goes:
“Cry for Tanelorn! / The obsidian conspiracy is rising!”

Blind Guardian, “Tanelorn (Into The Void)”

Nevermore, “The Obsidian Conspiracy”

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Mvmt III:

The situation here is largely the same.  For reasons which remain maddeningly opaque to me, lately any time that I hear either of these songs, I wind up with a bizarre mash-up of the two stuck in my head for days upon teeth-grinding days.  The sections in question, for the record, are the last two lines of each verse on The Decemberists’ tune, which then leads straight into the Modest Mouse chorus.

Thus:
“So far I had known no humiliation /
In front of my friends and close relations /
And we’ll all float on, okay x4”

Or:
“I’ll prove to the crowd that I come out stronger /
Though I think I might lie here a little longer /
And we’ll all float on, okay x infinity”

The Decemberists, “The Sporting Life”

Modest Mouse, “Float On”

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The work of an errant heel, indeed.  I may just take that lovely turn of phrase as the next slogan of this here blog.

Spinal Tapdance: Inscrutable ramblings from an insufferable nincompoop.

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