*prognotes – Arcane’s Known/Learned

Once upon a time, in the past of the blog, there was a series planned to be called *prognotes. The idea was to delve into a progressive metal album, known for their intricate lyrics and concept albums. This idea was never fully realized. The run it had was fantastic: analyzing the intricate works of Between the Buried and MeCoheed and Cambria and Obscura, it was fascinating and insightful glance into some of our favorite bands and the amount of time they spent on their writing.

So we’re bringing it back! We have a few albums lined up but we’ll be starting with what is perhaps the best progressive album to come out this yearArcane‘s Known/Learned. Written by the incomparable Jim Grey (Caligula’s Horse), it’s a wide ranging concept album the touches on issues of war, memory, family and time. We hope you enjoy reading our analysis of it; please feel free to sound off below with your own thoughts and recommendations for the next installements. Strap on your best time-travelling attire and let’s get going!

 Time is a problematic concept: the Internet and popular culture are filled with a lot of nonsense about it. It’s become the staple of every “deep” stoner to spout lines about how it’s a matter of perception and “all subjective, dude”. However, time is also a powerful narrative tool. It can be used to create tension, confusion and drama, driving the listener to explore the clues and make sense of the fractured image. This is exactly what Arcane’s Known/Learned does: it lures you in with your misunderstandings, forcing you to pay close to attention to the shifting timelines in order to piece together the background story it so painstakingly creates.

The album starts with “Promise [Part 2]”. Beyond introducing us to the amazing vocals of one Jim Grey, it also introduces us to the fragmented timeline of the story and its various characters. We’re introduced first to the man we’ll dub The Soldier. This man has been ripped away somehow from his family, perhaps by war, torn far away from the woman we’ll call The Mother. The promise is the standard one: return to me. In the midst of his despair, he remembers, believes and perhaps hears her waiting for him. The promise is mutual, of course: he has promised to return. Not only that, but the last character is also introduced: The Child. It is done via one of the best passages in the album:

“He sang his own funeral pyre,
eyes lost in the last breath of fire.
Caught in spider-web family ties,
lost in dreams of a child with her eyes.”

The track ends with the words of The Mother, calling The Soldier back to her. The next track, “Unturning“, introduces two final key concepts which will walk us through the album: one is the non-linear perception of narrative time which I mentioned above and the other is empathy. In it, we learn more about the conflict that’s torn The Solider away from his family: it is total and fought against a bitter enemy. Quickly, The Soldier begins to understand the pointless nature of the conflict and feel that empathy we discussed above: he reaches out to his enemy in a lyrical passage that’s brilliantly brought to life by Grey:

“The anchor between us drags us down,
and in those depths, we will both surely drown.
Reach for my hand, I offer peace, please brother,
take it, we will find release.
“Keep it!” he said, “I wish the ground beneath your feet would give way,
there’ll be no peace! I am the hand that bears the knife’s weight!”

However, it is the end of this track which contains the best part of this album, both musically and lyrically. The Soldier, having been rebuked by his foe, returns home. Is the war over? It is unclear. But it is apparent that The Soldier refuses to fight and more than that: he wishes to bring his message of empathy and peace back to the land from which he came. By using the plural “we”, the lyrics hint that he is gathering forces around him, perhaps fellow soldiers that fight against the war with him. It’s best to let the words speak for themselves:

“We are the voice of the crowd.
We are fire aloud.
We are the ones who stood first,
The hill and the stone.
The deep and the thirst.”

[…]

“Open arms to my brother,
I say: “Welcome home.”
Find the peace in each other,
we’ve waited so long
Neither question nor answer will come from above.
Bury hate with the coward,
The answer is love.”

After two songs that jump back to a past time, dealing with death, acceptance and memory, we find ourselves at a second turning point. Before turning towards it, the track “Instinct” bears more attention. It paints a possible motivation for the departure of The Soldier. He was admittedly in love and happy (“We had it all figured out, you and I”) but something inside him kicked and resisted, an instinct to be away from stability. This reverie never explicitly says so but this is perhaps why he joined the war in the first place. The second track in this couplet is “Womb (In Memoriam)“. From the name and the context of the lyrics, spoken from the view of The Child on the death of The Mother, we can understand that we’ve again leaped in time, now into the future.

However, “Selfsame” is the turning point we mentioned above. In it, we can witness the poisoning of the notions presented in “Unturning“. The Soldier, perhaps harangued by The Mother and The Child in the first few lines (“You just keep fighting the war we sent you on
”, “and we are waking up,
to fight your war”), is now disillusioned with his efforts to end the war. He realizes that this is just another conflict for him to fight, a conflict which keeps him from his family and his life. More than that, it seems to plunge them into the same conflict, if you accept the interpretation for the first two lines made above.

The next track, “Holding Atropos” (Atropos was the Moirai, The Three Fates, in charge of death), plunges into the future again and deals, like “Womb“, with the death of The Mother. This time, it is told via the eyes of The Soldier, saying goodbye to the one true love of his life. The important theme to note here is the blend of content and regret that will characterize much of The Soldier’s emotions in the future setting of the album. The track starts off well enough but ends with an unmistakable sense of having focused on irrelevant things rather than what’s important:

“With these words,
my fight ends. I deserve no
more than I’ve made for myself
Glass stones in the well.

This has been the only love I’ve ever known.
Whispering a goodbye.”

As if our time travelling narrative has not had enough, “Keeping Stone: Sound on Fire” jars us right back to the time of resistance, perhaps between “Unturning” and the disillusionment of “Selfsame“. “Keeping Stone” has The Soldier, our protagonist, speak with his fellow resistance fighters and chide them into facing their internal foes. Perhaps made even more bittersweet by the personal failure of faith which awaits The Soldier “later on”, this track features some of the imaginative and interesting metaphors in the album, closing with the beautiful: “I will stand and raise a voice like sound on fire”.

All that’s left for us of the first album is closer “Learned” (appropriately named for the second album rather than this one). Nowhere else is the mix of melancholy and peace, mourning and acceptance, become more poignant and effective than here. The Solider is at the end of the rope, disillusioned from all the struggles in his life. He finally realizes that he himself is nothing much. However, in that moment of ultimate despair and self-denial, the new purpose of his life is revealed to him: The Child and her protection. All that he lives for now is to make sure she is safe, as the closing passages of the album show:

“Soil…
Bleeding the fight from me,
this contemplated toil.
Dig through the soil
to find that we have none.

Treading soft and lightly, down,
Wearing the scars to remind me now

Wait for it.
I swear I will.
Die for it…
You’re safe now.
Home.

Soil…
Bleeding the fight from me,
this contemplated toil.
Dig through the soil
to find that we have none.

Home is right here.”

This closing of the first album, will be crucial for the second one, as this purpose and emotion guides The Soldier when raising The Child. Join us next time as we delve into the fascinating second album, bringing the story of The Soldier to its bitter-sweet close.

Read Part II here.

-EK

Comments

Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.






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