Slice the Cake: Odyssey to the West
It's been a little more than a week since I started listening to this album, and after days of consuming little else in terms of music, I am still thoroughly floored. That so young a band could release a concept album of this caliber, both in terms of the lyrical concept and stories therein as well as the music itself is still mind-boggling.
The stories contained herein are inspired in good part on the classic Christian allegory "The Pilgrim's Progress", by John Bunyan. Like The Pilgrim's Progress, the concept on these odysseys deals with the protagonist wishing to leave his present circumstances out of a wish to seek something sacred, to transcend, and to leave behind what they feel is a decadent world behind. In Bunyan's work, this was the pilgrimage to the Celestial City, a place of salvation. In these odysseys, the end destination is the Holy Mountain, and what's to be found there the ultimate goal. Another parallel is that which the pilgrims leave behind, in Bunyan's allegory, Christian the Pilgrim left behind his wife and child. In these odysseys, the Pilgrim leaves behind a lover, henceforth referred to as Her. Having established and despite these thematic similarities, these odysseys do stray from Bunyan's work, sometimes in surprising ways, as the story unravels thus...
We start the story and find our protagonist in the company of his lover, and while he is happy, there is something disturbing him, something stirring within. What I could intimate was that he harbored a disdain for the condition of that place in which they reside, or perhaps a disdain for the world itself, and this disdain drives him to leave his love behind in search of the Holy Mountain. He is clearly torn between his need of spiritual fulfillment and his love for Her, but the latter ultimately compels him to make the decision. Here he derides his home and asks the Father to guide them, too, to the Holy Mountain. Keen listeners will note that the background to this odyssey is a slowed down version of the song "Of Gallows" from their debut 2012 LP "The Man With No Face". Also immediately apparent is the very experimental vocal approach employed in this work by vocalist Gareth Mason.
Here the vocal work becomes more distorted and angry, with excellent use of layered and distorted vocals to give this section a very dark feel. Here we find the pilgrim utterly discontented with humanity and perhaps even with himself and his pilgrimage, he has lost faith and turned cynic and angry, predicting, and perhaps even cherishing, a cleansing of sorts, as the world itself turns on his fellow Man, this cleansing a product of their physical and spiritual decadence.
Our Pilgrim once again finds himself within his Path, he is urged to let go of the resentment that has gripped his soul, and is also given a gift in the shape of advice:
The Sound that is not a Sound
The Face that is not a Face"
Though what this exactly means is still a mystery to this author, and is likely highly up to interpretation.
Our Pilgrim finally reaches the Holy Mountain, and commits himself to dying so as to light the way for other Pilgrims, he awaits the morn, and when it comes he wakes up, and realizes perhaps it was all for naught. He cries as he realizes perhaps what he strove to attain was nothing more than an ideal. Here we can also appreciate how this work differs from The Pilgrim's Progress, in how the Pilgrim is accosted by dark thoughts and doubts and loses his way. In Bunyan's work the Pilgrim reaches the City and with it salvation, while in this odyssey, the Pilgrim does reach the mountain, but to a starkly different outcome. We will see many of these themes and elements repeated in the main body of work, Odyssey to the West, which is another take on the same premise, but even more in-depth, and perhaps with different outcomes...
Our story begins with the Pilgrim pondering his circumstances; he has seen the Mountain and resolves to seek it to achieve enlightenment, transcendence. He wonders if it is perhaps destiny that guides him so, and like in the previous odyssey, he resolves to leave his lover on his quest. To accompany the spoken-word narrative we have amazing guitar work performed by producer/guitarist Jonas Johansson, very reminiscent of the romantic works of Francisco Tarrega, and written by composer extraordinaire Jack Magero Richardson, who also wrote most of the music on the album. The song makes a transition to heavier territory and here Gareth's work shines through, with beautiful use of melody and vocal work to really elevate the song. It is interesting to note that this album features plenty of clean vocals, to marvelous effect, and more so than previous releases.
Here we see the band's death metal sensibilities in full display, with the song featuring plenty of dissonant riffage, blast-beats, but a very welcome use of dynamics, both in the arrangement itself as well as the mix, which fans will immediately note is different and more organic than the single version, indeed the whole album has a wonderful, dynamic production, courtesy of Jonas. Here we find the Pilgrim speaking of the place which he left, the City of Destruction, a very accurate reference to the city of the same name in the Pilgrim's Progress. He speaks of the decadence and arrogance of which Man is now riddled, and spells doom should this path be continued. He commits himself to resign his fate to the Great Will, or destiny, to guide him on a path he senses as righteous, which leads him to exile himself.
Our Pilgrim reflects on Her, and what he left behind for the sake of the Pilgrimage. He also muses on the materialist nature of man, and reaches the conclusion that the material is ultimately effervescent and unimportant, it shall all fade away all the same, "it's naught but Stone and Silver", and this thought reassures him. Here we can see the disconnect in his philosophy and the world in which he lives, he intimates that his home and perhaps even his lover places too much value on the material, forsaking the spiritual and by extension the Sacred. In this song we shall find most of the motifs which re-occur throughout this work. Gareth offers some very inventive vocal work, with a lot of heat behind the mostly clean vocals, and delivering the heavy vocals to great impact as the songs weaves in and out of itself. We also have a phenomenal guest solo by Jake Lowe of The Helix Nebula, who, it should be noted, aided Magero in the composition of the album as well.
We are immediately greeted by a monstrous groove, which gives way to some more spoken-word narrative, detailing the Pilgrim's encounter with an apparition of Horned form (I was made privy to the fact that this phantasm is a reference to Cernunnos, a Celtic god, though, in what could be a very interesting and subtle shift of subtext, it could also be the Devil). This being bestows our Pilgrim with 3 familiar boons:
The Sound that is not a Sound
The Face that is not a Face"
to guide the Pilgrim on his Journey. This song is packed with tremolo-picked passages as well as fast drum work, as well as colossal grooves, but the definite highlight is the brilliant interplay between Gareth and featured guest vocalist JJ Polachek, of 7 Horns 7 Eyes and Monotheist fame, as well as former vocalist for Ovid's Withering. The vocal work here is absolutely intense with Gareth playing the part of Pilgrim while JJ takes up the role of the eponymous God, absolutely slaying in their delivery.
As the song opens with a highly melodic harp sequence our Pilgrim begins to ponder on the nature of the Pilgrimage itself, weariness is settling in, as well as doubt. As he ponders these things he resolves to become a Man of Papyrus Limbs, by this we mean he relinquishes the ownership of his body and commits himself to using it to enact the will of the One Thing, understood as the ultimate Truth, destiny, etc., his frame the parchment on which the latter shall write it's will, echoing the sentiment expressed at the conclusion of The City of Destruction. He concludes that part of this will is to bring Order out of Chaos, Ordo ab Chao, a theme present on the writing, but often on different terms. The Pilgrim reiterates the theme of lack of real value in the material by repeating his conclusions presented in The Mountains of Man. We can also hear both rhythmic and melodic motifs from The Mountains of Man make themselves present here, to great effect, as these appear with great coherence, where many bands fail by trying to shoehorn in motifs out of context, in this album it happens very naturally. This song also features some stupendous bass work by Jonas.
The song features acoustic guitars which, along the drums, builds in intensity, punctuated by Gareth’s delivery, evolves beautifully as the crescendo reaches its zenith, going from spoken word to tortured rage. Once again melodic motifs for The Mountains of Man resurface here, lending the music a narrative, cohesive quality as well to match the lyrical content. The doubts of which we had merely a glimpse before make themselves more present in the Pilgrim's soliloquy, wondering if perhaps he has lost his Way. He laments his words and labor not being able to reach those he has left behind. Still he resolves to continue in his Pilgrimage to the West, regardless of whether he dies or succeeds, wanting to convince himself of the righteousness of his Path. He recalls past words uttered by Her:
The song immediately continues from where The Lantern left off, with the motif being presented in a different rhythmic context. As the song progresses it becomes hectic, with a very technical death metal feel to the composition, with intricate guitar riffs and fast and heavy drum-work, and on top of these proceedings Gareth doing an impressive and equally powerful delivery both in his slightly unhinged clean vocals and his roars. Though the whole album is stellar, I must admit that this is one of my favorite parts of the album. Our Pilgrim has found his footing again, choosing silence his darker and doubtful nature, which becomes the character “The Lech”, who is promptly rejected by our Pilgrim, reassured once more of the Path which he treads.
Fans of the band’s previous work will immediately recognize this as a sequel to the closing track “Kow Otani’s Castle in the Sky”off of their sophomore album “Other Slices” and indeed, Pieces of Ruins is a continuation of the melodic ideas presented at the conclusion at the end of “Kow Otani’s Castle in the Sky”, and while the lyrical ideas are similar, this is not a sequel to that narrative, the songs being part of different narrative contexts. There is also a small reference to “The Siren’s Song” off of the same album. This song is also much more of a ballad, with Gareth’s performance soulful and full of yearning, as well as featuring a beautiful piano performance by none other than the incredibly talented Mike Malyan, best known for his work as the former drummer of seminal band, Monuments. Our Pilgrim reflects on her, on the nature of their love, and he laments the pain they caused each other, but harbors the hope that they might meet again. This melancholy that takes hold of him is a turning point in the story, and appropriately closes Act I of the story.
Melancholy has now taken hold of the Pilgrim, as he longingly recalls his love. With this emotional burden, his determination once again falters, but where before he found some revelation or determination from which to draw strength, here now his resolve finally starts cracking, as he fears his shortcoming are too great for such the task which he has seen fit to pursue; this is all set against ethereal guitars featuring heavy delay, and Gareth’s tortured delivery makes itself present once more, with even more poignancy. Another revelation appears before our Pilgrim, an Oracle, who proceeds to chastise him in his moment of weakness, reminding him that his Path is not an easy one to tread. Playing the part of Oracle we have Laura Vine, with a delivery very poetic and theatrical delivery very reminiscent of some female spoken parts oft found in the works of Cradle of Filth. Despite this revelation our Pilgrim still finds his resolve shaken, and as the song increases in intensity we find that he agonizes over the Truth which seemingly eludes him, and thus begins pondering over whether or not to abandon his Pilgrimage.
The Pilgrim finds himself filled with ethereal visions, as his resolve finally collapses, and he falls to the Dark. The narrative is accompanied by very eerie ambiance, accentuated further by the careful use of a djembe drum by Gareth; the song erupts into a heavy down-tuned groove, featuring dissonant ambiance and layered screams and more rhythmically adventurous passages, reminiscent of Meshuggah, and this shift will also set the tone for this chapter in the story.
The Pilgrim now becomes an Adversary, his resentment having grown to the point where he now scorns the Path he had previously decided to walk, scorns those Pilgrims like himself who seek to transcend, he mocks them as much as he mocks his previous self, intoxicated as he is with his newfound cynicism. Keeping with the tone established with From Shell to Shell this song, as with most of the chapter is decidedly darker, and not only is it evident in the music itself, but also in the increasingly demented performance from Gareth, this song featuring some very theatrical and deranged performances, comparable to some of the work of Mikee Goodman of SikTh fame.
Having decided to relinquish his status as Pilgrim, the Adversary now decides to abandon the Path, to stop his pursuit of Truth, no longer convinced, perhaps, that there is any to be found. He decides to abandon his goal of being an Agent of Fate. The track features a syncopated groove throughout, accentuated by dissonant ambiance and heavily down-tuned riffs, before descending into further madness, as we’ll soon see.
Our protagonist seeks to rid himself of the task he otherwise so steadily pursued before, he becomes one of the Faceless men so of referenced in the story and in the band’s work in general, he no longer seeks to transcend but now wishes to revert to a state in which he is just one more man amongst others in their decadence, in contrast to his initial outlook, and it’s at this point in the story in which we can begin to elucidate just how much this narrative departs from Bunyan’s work, the idea of Truth (in Bunyan’s work, salvation) treated more as a concept that might not even exist as the doubts in the Pilgrim take hold, making him wish to abandon the Path and question its authenticity. It also speaks in large part of the human condition, the restlessness with which we can seek Purpose, and how we can grow disenchanted to the point where we can reject and even resent our own preconceptions. But is the Pilgrim back to square one, one might wonder, having given up on such a seemingly noble quest? As it turns out, his journey is not yet over, but he resumes his way toward the Mountain, and whether he finds Truth, or something else entirely, or perhaps nothing at all, is yet to be seen, as this chapter reaches an end and a climax of intensity, the music in this chapter some of the darkest material in the band’s catalogue.
The story once again shifts, both musically and with regards to the story. No longer an Adversary, but perhaps not quite a Pilgrim again either, our protagonist starts letting go of some of the cynicism and resentment, and in doing so starts reaching a state of sobriety, no longer consumed by holy madness and self-righteousness, but also no longer shackled by his own exasperation, cynicism, and despair. The path he chooses to take is a result of all of his experiences on the journey and having taken and discarded from both states he chooses to continue to the mountain, but no longer as a pawn of the Cosmos, no longer a Man of Papyrus Limbs, no longer an Agent of the One Thing, but an agent of his own Fate. He will tread a Path of his own making, still decided on finishing his pilgrimage. An acoustic waltz gives way to a very self-aware soliloquy in which he reclaims his status as his own Self. And thus we reach at last the Mountain, and what we’ll find there is about to be revealed.
After the brief respite, the music takes a turn from the heavy once more, but instead of the dark soundscapes found in Ash and Rust, this is of more grandiose and sober kind, as the Pilgrimage comes to close. He is horrified at the thought of him having abandoned Her, no longer telling himself it was done so out of Divine Purpose, he resolves to die on the Mountain.
In this heightened state of desperation and despair, our Pilgrim is beset by a Revelation, here at last at the Holy Mountain. He finally reaches…
The Truth? A Truth? Or perhaps something else entirely? After being beset with the Holy Madness that set him on his quest, after having his Faith and resolve shaken and ultimately broken, only for his determination to take a different shape, after all the pain…
Perhaps there was never a Pilgrim’s Path, perhaps this is not a Holy Mountain, perhaps it’s just a mountain, perhaps the narrative he so desperately wanted to complete when he set out was never real. Or perhaps it was, but is no longer relevant. But therein lies the beauty of this Final Revelation, perhaps, it STILL is relevant, just not to him, but to someone, and perhaps in that narrative there can be found someone’s Truth. Perhaps the Path was meant for someone else, or is it possible that we are ALL Pilgrims on our own Pilgrim’s Path? Perhaps we are all after our own unique Truths? Perhaps the Holy Mountain was not the Mount on which our Pilgrim stands, but the Revelation he received within.
Our Pilgrim recognizes the value in his original quest, but realizes it is no longer his to seek.
In these realizations our Pilgrim also exhorts us not to heed his every word, as he himself does not, perhaps to allow us to find our own Revelation, unique from his but real all the same.
And here we see the true power of this narrative, that behind all the beautiful poetry, the symbolism, the Visions, at its very heart there is a powerful and simple story, one of a man seeking Purpose. It speaks of the human condition, of the unending pursuit of Truth seemingly intrinsic in all of us, and of the existential pain we endure. And what makes it so profoundly moving is that it recognizes that perhaps there isn’t an answer, or perhaps that answer is not a singular one for everyone. And here we can draw an interesting comparison between these works and The Pilgrim’s Progress; where the latter is a guide to being a righteous Christian, the former eschews any form of guidance, offering no substitute. And that uncertainty and Cosmic ignorance is something inherent in all of us, no matter how hard we try to divorce ourselves of it.
Our Pilgrim concludes that after his long Odyssey to the West, he must return…
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