Monday, March 25, 2013

Painter's Stroke: A Commentary on Meridian II

"Even peace may be purchased at too high a price." 
Benjamin Franklin

Meridian II delivers an epic musical journey reminiscent of classic progressive-rock albums. It's the second act of a four album wide concept piece written and produced by PhavianThe first act, Meridian I, tells the story of man driven by visions to create a kingdom of peace. His words and deeds gather many to him, yet he notices a dark figure scurrying in the depths of the crowd. At the peak of his vision's fulfillment, the populace revolts against him and his ideas. In Meridian II, we find our hero downtrodden but not wholly defeated. His devotion to bringing peace to the land nears madness as he begins to consult with an ancient force. Invigorated by this power, he works to create a medicine to cure the world's disease of violence and anger.
"Our hero is seemingly on the cusp of realizing his dream but what he does not realize is the true power of the force he has summoned, and that it has its own designs for the fate of humanity."
Opening with the acoustic Adam's Ale and ending with the brooding narrative of Fall of Crour, Meridian II is a musical tour de force. I could ramble on and on about the musicianship of this band. The visually poetic lyrics, their singer's operatic vocals, the eclectic guitar work, and their superbly syncopated rhythm section all combine for a band that a progressive rock nerd like myself can't help but love. With the release of this latest album, Phavian is beginning to get the recognition they deserve. Plenty of great reviews about Meridian II have already been written. Here's one I particularly agree with at Brutalism.

What I want to write about here is how Phavian forms a cohesive unit of musical storytelling. I believe these albums could be the soundtrack of a successful Broadway musical. All you'd have to do is cast and script a little drama between the songs, and you'd have a hit play. While knowledge of the undercurrent plot isn't essential to enjoying the music, it does immensely enhance the experience.

Let me share my first week with this album.

My first listen to Meridian II followed a year of personal anticipation. In many ways, Meridian I was my soundtrack for 2012. That much intense contemplation for a sequel could only set one up for disappointment. When my ears finally met with the opening song, Adam's Ale, I thought "What in the hell is this?". It sounded like gypsy campfire music! I wanted instant metal gratification! The following song, Purl (now one of my favorites), started to satisfy my cravings but it still felt slow and drawn out. This wasn't what I expected. Yes it was good, and in some ways darker, but not the Phavian I thought I knew.

Let me interrupt with a simile.

When The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980, it was met with mixed reviews. Many critics and fans alike didn't appreciate the change of tone in it's storytelling. The revelations of Luke's father, one of it's hero's ending up frozen, and the empire earning a winning position at the end of the film was unpleasant for audiences. What they didn't realize at the time was that they had not seen a single movie, but the second act of a trilogy. An second act that was meant to set up for the return and triumph of the hero in the finale. Once Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, the full story was revealed. Critics not only became more comfortable with Empire's tale, but most turned around to declare it as the best of the trilogy.

Once I remembered that Meridian II was the second act of a story, I began to enjoy it as much as The Empire Strikes Back. I read it's Synopsis, and listened to the music with the lyrics beside me. My experience changed, and I began to see and feel the scenes the band describes on their website.

It was then that I understood the album's Celtic beginning, as it sets the mood of narrative ...
"a small child peers into the windows of a broken and decrepit home. She sees a man there, only a shadow that moves behind the backlit curtains and stirs beyond the crumbling walls. Our protagonist, disgraced and thrown from power, now sits in silence."
Remembering how Meridian I ends with the piano solo of Obsidian, I realized how Adam's Ale makes for a smooth transition between Meridian I and II.

I began to recognize the musical cues to Asteroth (again, please read the Synopsis) in both Purl and Hexenring. Our hero plots and begins to unleash his "healing" medicine upon the world, not realizing the power he summons was actually using him.
Painter’s stroke,
stroke of an artist
I am the hand, you the brush.
Listening to Meridian I again, similar cues are in there hinting at the dark power trailing the protagonist. I even wrote about it in my review unaware how close to the truth I was.
"Before I knew it, I had gained the power of voice over many. Yet, there was a constant shadow growing underneath it all. A shadow growing into disdain, anger and finally violence."
During Asteroth's dramatic appearance in Watersong and Fall of Cruor, the music helped me imagine the horrific imagery of his unveiling.
Image from Disney's Fantasia
Sharp, jagged nimbus –
A crown for its head.
Dark the cumulus
That's worn on its cold shoulders,
Cloaking it in purple power.
While I'm not the most experienced music critic out there, I've never had an experience in musical storytelling as I did with the end of this album. Humanity, including our hero, has been extinguished, and now I'm left dying to know what happens next? I would have believed this was the end if not for my prior knowledge of the remaining two albums.

Once the entire four album set has been released, I think we'll look back on Meridian II as the Empire Strikes Back of progressive metal albums.

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