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Monday, September 20, 2010

Homeric Epic, Exit no. 3

So, when Oblivion went into the studio to craft what would become The Garden in the Machine, we felt that we'd learned quite a few things about making good records, and creating a solid aural experience. The year+ grind of making Ellipsis, and the ultimate shoddiness of that record taught us that you have to have a plan before you start to record or you will easily lose your way on the many-forked road that is album creation*. You must remember that at the time we were only working part time jobs and finishing up our Bachelors, so we had a crap ton of time to think about this sort of stuff.

At the same time that we were beginning to write the songs that would be on TGitM, we were beginning to revisit, or discover, classic albums that all featured exquisite sequencing and tone. I was listening to a lot of psychedelic-era Beatles, Ben was diving back into Pink Floyd, and the whole group was collectively digging Tool's magnum opus Lateralus and a little-known, but absolutely brilliant, album by Toronto-based Change of Heart titled Tummysuckle. Despite the various genres of rock, these albums had many things in common: they all start off with strong openers and finish with languid, sizzling closers; most songs flowed one to the other without any breaks; they all feature a variety of styles within the albums themselves.

Slowly, we started to believe that there was a process to creating a classic album. You needed to start off strong and end quietly; you needed to have the album flow seamlessly; and you needed to have an overarching theme that you stuck to at least tangentially. And we believed in this process like it was some lock that if we just turned the key the right way we would produce a masterpiece. Again, we were young, and this belief is admittedly idiotic (exactly the sort of theory a bunch of over-educated, white kids would come up with) but as with all beliefs they have a way of coming true if the believer really, honestly believes in what they're doing.

In the end we tackled TGinM with so much unbridled enthusiasm that we pretty much met and exceeded all of our stated goals, and created a ramshackle, loud, exhausting, schizo piece of art that is still impressive to me, nearly a decade later, because of its audacity and the quality of the recordings. That this album was made entirely by a group of young dudes, self-funded and conceived, with no label support and no proof that their labors were even worth it other than their own confidence, still surprises me. It was an honor to have been a part of it, even though sometimes it feels a little like it was another person, someone apart from me, who actually helped make this record.

However, if there is one criticism of Oblivion that sticks, it would be that we had a pretentious streak a mile wide, and TGitM, for all its grittiness and hodgepodge, has moments which display this pretension in all its crass and embarrassing glory. It occurs to me that part of what makes an artist great is actually believing in his own greatness, which can lead to some embarrassing missteps along the way (e.g. for every "A Day in the Life" you also get a "Bigger than Jesus" comment), but which also keep the artist going even when others doubt. Oblivion was no different, and our unwavering belief in our own greatness contributed both to TGitM's successes and also its over-reach.

Our greatest misstep was also, coincidentally, our greatest musical achievement, in orchestration, scope, and execution. "Homeric Epic, Exit no. 3" (hell, even the title is pretentious) was a five and a half minute musical epic, which ended the album with a four-part song-cycle, which featured a string quartet**, a synthesizer, a billion guitar overdubs, and took about three times longer to record and mix than any other song on the album. It is pretentious as all get out, but as a piece of modern prog rock created by a young collective with no adult supervision, it is a damn fine recording, and a more than fitting end to a damn fine album.

To explain the title, in The Odyssey Odysseus has many daring adventures and escapes, and the third one mentioned in the story (I believed at the time, though I've never actually went back to check on this) is when he escapes from the island of the Lotus Eaters. For those of you who may need a refresher, the Lotus Eaters are the peeps who eat the Lotus flower and then forget where they are and are just content and languish all their lives on this island. It's a very powerful diversion and ensnares many of Odysseus' peoples. However, Odysseus, being a productive and wily chap realizes that spending your life doing nothing but being content and happy and eating is no way to live, so he gets some of his men together and they escape.

I used this story as a metaphor for the way the media and dominant culture does such an effective job of engaging most Americans so fully in TV and movies and magazines and celebrity culture that we sort of end up spending our whole lives either working, driving to work, or watching TV. At least that's what I was going for. The story is told in three parts: 1.) in which our narrator explains the situation, 2.) in which our narrator begins the journey of escaping the Lotus Eaters, 3.) in which our narrator is tempted, and 4.) in which our narrator overcomes many obstacles and emerges victorious. In each of these sections, the music mimics the story beautifully. The first section features a tense arpeggio on Ben's guitar in 10/8, with Jason bringing in a second guitar part in 4/4 (which, if you do the math, the two parts line up twice during the verses, at the 40th beat). I'm singing with Ben but occasionally slip onto Jason's part, creating a distinctly uneven and uneasy vocal part. Section two explodes from the first and features the most aggressive guitar work and vocals of the song. Section three blossoms out of the second with a spacejazz, disco beat and some fancy twin guitar work from Jason and Ben. Section four is an extended coda, which introduces the string quartet, and features soaring, victorious vocals.

All in all, it's a pretty intense experience and took all five of us working together to pull it off properly. I think we did.

Ed. note: I love the picture featured above because it shows just how ridiculous being in a band can be. We practiced in the most disgusting, hellhole of a basement four+ times a week, and I don't think it ever occurred to us how futile or potentially idiotic our efforts appeared to others. This picture pretty much says it all. Plus, that was when my hair was long enough that I could actually pull it back in a ponytail. Gosh, I miss those days **wipes tears off of his keyboard**.

*Making an album seems like it would be an easy thing, but it is actually an exceedingly difficult thing to do, once you factor in the hours and hours of studio time and artwork and mastering and the mixing. At any point, when you have this many things to keep track of, and five+ egos to soothe, it can be easy to lose your way. We lost focus a lot on Ellipsis and committed ourselves to staying focused on TGitM.
**It must be stated that the string quartet part that Jason wrote was extraordinarily beautiful and it is unfortunate that it ended up so buried in the final mix. I believed then, as I do now, that this piece could have stood alone. Jason worked his tail off on it and deserves mucho kudos for the achievement.

Homeric Epic, Exit no. 3
Lyrics by Tres Crow
Music by Oblivion

I awoke to a wake spreading before me
And weak hands reaching up to me
through the grooves
By not forcing myself
to say what they can not
I am such a tragedy
as I breathe in their ruin

Just one bite would silence all these troubling images
Wandering like bleeding wounds looking for bandages
I can not

I climbed up the floating stairs off the stationary
A tumbling savior and brilliance
was all I saw in every plane
Points attached to points attached to points
attached by connections
Brilliant to behold
and a laid it out and pressed it to the roof of my mouth
This meticulous assignment
certainly would have broken me
Yet here I am with the crowd under my feet

I am large I grow outward
with your extended hand for a guide
Put in it what you want to show me
what you think that we can achieve together
When I was young I had a dream
of your embrace strangling me
But with this master number comes this curiosity
that draws me nearer
To the center of the circle
To the center where I meet you
My sweet lotus

Time is slowing down to a crawl
On my knees I notice these subtleties
And the cracks in the facade placed in front of me
And I am climbing these floating stairs
Off the stationary tumbling into the sea
To face the ruin of these four walls

Lyrics reprinted by permission Shire Reckoning Publishing House


Ben U. said...

Nailed it once again, Tres.

Misopogon said...

Still my favorite Oblivion song.

This one is the one I show to anyone dumb enough to get caught in a conversation about music with me when there's Internet readily available. It stands up spectacularly well against everything that's been made since.

Do Trix next.

Tres Crow said...

Thanks for the kind words, fellas. I don't have Trix uploaded yet. Prolly in a few months. It's funny, I like that song from a music standpoint more and more as the years pass, but the lyrics just don't seem to hold up as much. They are too timely, and so much has happened since that moment, that they come across outdated, like old anti-war songs from the 1960s.