Norma Jean is a band with perennial appeal. Although hardcore has changed quite a bit over the last decade, Norma Jean has always managed to strike a careful balance between trendiness and their characteristic blend of raw aggressive and tender emotional works.
That may sound oxymoronic, but 2019’s All Hail shows off the band’s trademark style better than any of their other albums.
In the interest of full disclosure, despite following Tchaikovsky’s work I first heard this piece not very long ago.
I’ve always found choral music to be an exemplar of the most moving and powerful parts of the classical tradition, and Tchaikovsky offers something that is beyond even his usual mastery.
Of course, most people in the West know Tchaikovsky for his contributions in the form of the Nutcracker ballet–which has probably the largest cultural relevance and serves as a Christmas-time staple–or his rousing 1812 Overture. His Romeo and Juliet is instantly recognizable, though it is often used for its motifs and not attributed to him (e.g. played in very short snippets). Personally, I don’t particularly care for much of his music from the ballets, though his orchestral compositions appeal to me more.
Until recently, I was entirely unaware that Tchaikovsky had written any sacred music.
It’s quite beautiful, and one can see the premonitions of what would continue in the works of Pärt and other writers of modern sacred music in it.
I’ve been a gamer as long as I remember. It’s not really something that ever really shaped my identity because it’s just been a thing that I do, in the same sense that being someone who eats breakfast isn’t a huge part of my identity.
However, one of the special things about gaming for me is the musical experiences I’ve had. A lot of games have, if we are being totally honest, mediocre soundtracks. It’s not that they’re terrible, they’re just not good.
But every once in a while you wind up with something that sticks with you because it’s really good or really interesting.
The soundtrack of Metal Gear Rising has stuck with me because it’s interesting. It’s eclectic, which is usually a plus for me, but the quality of the music itself isn’t anything stellar. It makes a good companion to high-octane action, but not necessarily for listening to by itself. The only song I really consider particularly stellar is “A Stranger I Remain”, and perhaps only that because I’ve played it in Beat Saber.
The only reason that I wound up listening to it again was the lyrics.
Metal Gear is an odd franchise, and it’s one that has been forever made more interesting by the fact that it waxes philosophical (or at least has pretensions toward being deep), and the songs of the Metal Gear Rising soundtrack.
I’ve recently gone through some pretty significant life changes, and one of the things that gave me the fortitude to go through with them was the Metal Gear Rising soundtrack.
This may sound a little hyperbolic, but I mean it. The lyrics to the songs all tie into political philosophies (at least that’s my interpretation of them), and “The War Still Rages Within” in particular has a message that I’d associate with the Hero’s Journey.
I’m an avid reader of Jung’s work (though I’ve only made it through a small fraction of his writings), and one of the things that I find incredibly interesting is the notion of archetypal being. At the risk of sounding a little new-agey, I’ve been pushed through a variety of events in my life and philosophical evaluation to take steps toward my own Hero’s Journey.
An interlude in “The War Still Rages Within” includes the lines:
The only way out of the cycle, is to strike out and pave your own way!
The notion of the way is an archetypal one, something you find in Eastern philosophy but also in medieval Western thought: the notion that there is a pathway in particular that individuals are supposed to follow in a dogmatic sense.
Right now, I feel like my life to this point has been nothing but cycles, and each year has been passing through a deepening process but not out of the cycle.
I’m living more boldly now, with a lot of my work on games and writing moving to the forefront, and I think that it’s a great step on the heroic path for me.
And while the music from a video game about fighting giant robots as a cyborg ninja isn’t a major compass in my life, there’s something to be said for reaffirming your guiding star anywhere you can and using that light to orient yourself.
When I was younger, I listened to Project 86 a lot. I still listen to them quite a bit (my daily wake-up alarm is a random song from a playlist of all their work), but a lot of their mid-00’s stuff is stuff that I remember well from my days in high school (you know, back before streaming music when we had to actually buy albums, as uncivilized as that sounds).
I recently listened to M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead (affiliate link), which is a biographical history of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. It is one of my favorite audiobooks I’ve listened to so far on Audible. In addition to just being a generally enjoyable listen (it is read by the author), it presents an interesting look into Soviet culture. Shostakovich lived through some of the most terrifying parts of Stalin’s purges, and as a high-profile artist he found himself frequently in the crosshairs of the regime.
Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations are perhaps one of the best examples of classical music that can evoke strong emotions. Based on a common element, each individual variation inflects upon the theme in a variety of interesting ways, and throughout the overarching work each piece has its own specific role.
At times dark, and
at times hopeful, the Enigma Variations are an attempt to capture
various moments and individuals and Elgar’s life. Perhaps the
greatest strength of the variations is their flexibility: many of the
pieces are very short, but can make their identity clear in a minute
or less. Others, like the famous Nimrod variation, build upon a
single notion and develop it into a larger distinct piece. The sheer
versatility is staggering.
reflect the entire range of human emotion. They are almost as much a
biography of the spirit as they are of his subjects.
I had the pleasure
once of attending a performance of the Enigma Variations in concert.
The experience of doing nothing but simply listening to music is
stunning. I have heard it said that Elgar’s Enigma Variations is for
modern British identity what Arne’s Rule Britannia was for Imperial
Britain. Not being British myself I cannot vouch for this, but it is
worth noting that the Enigma Variations served as a central source
for Hans Zimmer’s score of the movie Dunkirk. Indeed, it was Elgar’s
work more so than Zimmer’s that carried the film’s soundtrack, and it
was well received by modern audiences around the world for its
I am rarely captured
by music so strongly as to be enraptured by it. The Works of Arvo
Pärt are a good example of this, and Elgar manages to achieve the
same appeal for me. However, there is something more authentic in
Elgar’s work. Much of Pärt’s work is sacred music, and his
minimalist style serves itself misses certain elements of the
emotional life: they are majestic and transcendental, but much of
Part’s work overlooks everyday, common, events.
Elgar leaves no such
gap in his work. The Variations can be playful or down to earth as
well as being majestic, and as a result a person’s mood can be fitted
to one of the Variations at any point. Overall, I would say that the
whole collection is playful, but is punctuated by triumphant and
somber moments. Listening to the Variations in their entirety as a
larger whole is cathartic in the same sense that a play or film
written and performed by masters might be. I can think of no other
musical work that progresses so elegantly through the entire range of
As a layman, I am
far from the best person to describe Elgar’s work, but it needs no
in-depth description. From the soaring triumphant strains rising from
the sorrowful depths of the Nimrod variation, to more playful and
cheerful elements (Elgar made one of the variations after being
inspired by a dog at play), even without knowledge of the scenes and
pictures that they are supposed to represent the Variations provide
the essence of their subjects. They are worth listening to
individually, even if one does not listen to the whole work: there is
something sublime in the collection, but also something beautiful in
each individual part of the whole.
Much as an actor or
writer may put themselves into the heads of their characters, Elgar
seems to jump into each song with audacity. Each movement is honest,
and that allows it to be perhaps unparalleled and its ability to form
direct connections with the listener.
Explaining why the
Enigma Variations are so wonderful is beyond my ability. However, an
apt starting point would be to compare them to the works of
Montaigne: listening to the Variations is like listening to a friend
tell a story in the same way that one reading Montaigne’s essays
finds that are they listening to a friend mull over thoughts.
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Arvo Pärt’s work. He blends
classical and modern styles in such a way that they are transformed
into something distinctly unique. His merits are strong enough to be
recognized even by a musical layperson such as myself.
The biggest weakness of modern composers, in my opinion, is the
complete dissociation that they draw from tradition. While they can
have practical reasons to do what they do, it is often more of an
exercise in flamboyant display of talent. When someone does not have
that talent, it falls flat. The composers of old are equally
vulnerable to such hubris, but have the advantage of centuries
between us and them: their worst works are forgotten or rarely
performed, and their best are treasured.
Pärt, however, seems to be a composer without hubris. This is not
to say that he is universally successful in creating music worth
listening to, but I would be hard pressed to condemn any part of his
work as trite or meaningless.
Recently I have been listening, by happy accident, to his
Lamentate. I had snuck parts of it into a classical playlist that I
sometimes listen to, but I had not really listened to the whole work
in one consecutive go, as it is meant to be.
His trademark tintinnabuli style is on display in the Lamentate,
but unlike many of the minimalist composers he draws heavily from
classic methods and his works remain recognizable as successors to
that tradition. I compare him in this sense to Glass, whose work I
have mixed affection toward. Glass’s “Metamorphosis” is a
terrific composition, for instance, but he has also created works
that are not what I would describe as classical: they stray too far
in form and substance to be considered part of an earlier tradition
(Koyaanisqatsi, which I like in part, is an example of this straying
too far to be within the same category).
The Lamentate lives up to its name; Pärt describes it as “…
a lamento – not for the dead, but for the living.”
Its mood is dark: at places oppressive, in others fragile. It
moves at its own pace. It inspires–not to joy, but to mourning and
reflection. Despite this, it is not lost within itself; the feeling
that results is catharsis, not dread or depression. It moves with
purpose, then with dissonance, the staggering of one overwhelmed with
the world, but who will not be lost.
Since I’ve been writing about classical music here from time to time, now it’s time to go and ruin that by choosing entirely different sorts of music.
One of the more interesting musicians that I’ve found in my various musical dalliances is Tobias Lilja. He has an interesting mix between electronic, industrial, and just plain weird styles that I find incredibly appealing, not the least because of the incredibly deep layers of sound and the mix between dichotomous harmonic and heavily distorted/natural and synthetic sounds.
I find that the music that Lilja makes is both compelling and primal. It succeeds in running the gamut from highly intense to the surprisingly somber, and in his Medicine Sings Triptych he manages to create a driving, almost hypnotic experience with both incredibly intense elements and at times serene and wistful lyrics and instrumentation.
The particular song that I find myself revisiting most often, however, is “There Is No Other”. This was the song that I discovered Tobias Lilja from, in the form of a trailer for the roleplaying game Degenesis, which I’m including below.
However, I think the real strength of “There Is No Other” comes in the way that it showcases a mixture of intensity and sort of mystical, surreal tone. It opens one’s mind to wander, but also drives one forward, almost triggering a physiological response to the intensity of the effects.
You can find the original song on Spotify or on SoundCloud. Lilja also made a special mix for Degenesis, a tabletop roleplaying game, which can be found on SoundCloud, and another remix is available at his BandCamp page.
I think that listening to and comparing the different versions is very interesting as a highlight for the different ways that Lilja can use the same elements with different dressings to create an engaging listening experience.
Today’s music that really spoke to me was Pärt’s Symphony #4. It’s a great piece that really shows off Pärt’s minimalist style.
I’m pretty sure I’ve written about Pärt before, but he’s one of my favorite composers, and certainly my favorite contemporary composer.
What I really enjoy about his work is the way that he can send one’s mind off in contemplation without relying on forceful compositions. Sometimes somber, sometimes uplifting, Symphony #4’s restraint comes in spite of its incredible power.
With a master composing music, there is no need for bombastic showmanship. I am not trying to say that these things cannot be good (after all, I love a good Tchaikovsky piece when I can get one), but rather that the slow, deliberate movements and restrained use of complex harmonies that forms the core of Pärt’s distinctive style can be incredibly intense in ways that would surprise those used to some of the more “meaty” composers out there.