*prognotes breaks down and analyzes your favorite metal and progressive concept albums lyrically and musically. Read other entries in this series here.

Welcome back! In case you missed the first installment of this run, we are going through The Dear Hunter’s brilliant Acts series and analyzing its story, characters, motivations, and deeper meaning. When we left off in Act I, our main characters, conflicts, and set pieces were put into motion. Ms. Terri, a harlot who escaped her employ at a brothel called The Dime in The City, was raising her son at The Lake and The River. Her son, The Dear Hunter/The Boy, knows nothing about his mother’s past life but knows that there are dark secrets that she is not telling him. All the while, The Priest/The Pimp who runs both The Church and The Dime is searching for Ms. Terri to either bring her back or end her life.

This brings us to Act II, which is generally held in the highest regard by fans of the band. Building off of the adventurous musicality of Act I, Act II is bigger, bolder, and far more varied in style. It’s an incredible showcase of the songwriting capabilities of Casey Crescenzo, and now with a full band to work with, the music truly blooms and takes off just as the story really starts to unfold.

And with that, let’s dive into Act II: The Meaning of, & All Things Regarding Ms. Leading!

“The Procession”

The blood
How it paints such a scene
Foul routine pedigree
Mouth agape, stuttered hands attempt to flail
And finally agree
Her heart ceases its rhythm
Somewhere trumpets decay
In the front by the well wishing wishes that deny the stale smell in the bay

Opening track “The Death and The Berth” picks up immediately where “The River North” left off in our fourth wall-breaking orchestra tuning up and preparing to play. After the minute-long intro, “The Procession” makes a grand entrance in classic prog rock opera fashion. The lyrics propel us immediately into the middle of a gruesome scene as we find a woman in the process of being murdered and letting out her final breaths of life. As was foreshadowed throughout Act I, the victim is Ms. Terri. We can only assume that The Priest/Pimp’s men have finally caught up with her, and after resisting being taken back to The Dime, they murder her instead. The details around this are murky, and some have theorized that it’s actually The Dear Hunter who kills his own mother, but that frankly makes no sense from a character or plot standpoint. Nevertheless, Ms. Terri has met her fate, and the description of her demise is unsettlingly beautiful, in part by refusing to illustrate the violence itself in favor of its aftermath.

There, no one cry
Place these over her eyes
We are broke and alone
We are broken alone

There enters our protagonist, who perhaps always knew this was a possibility even though he did nothing to prevent it from happening. He takes stock of his situation and realizes that he doesn’t have a penny to his name or anyone to look after him. He is still torn from internal conflicts, and now with this his life has been torn apart with seemingly no recourse. He buries his mother alone.

She’s inanimate
Bloodless elegance
Fatal fascination breeds a bloom of misery
Helpless hiding tongues
Bathed in revulsion
Her lies unfinished
Beauty wilting premature
But we can’t be too sure
No you can’t be too sure

He looks at the lifeless body of his mother as he buries her and thinks about how her lies and his inability to find out the truth from her has led to this. His “fatal fascination” with her life and the circumstances of her death will likely lead to no good, but he must find out the truth. There will be no literal funeral “procession” for Ms. Terri, but a metaphorical one in which her son will carry on her life and “unfinished lies” to discover the meaning behind all of it.

Reserved, always playing the part
Of the boy left alone
He proceeds to the road
Beyond the home he’d learn to call his own

One life for another

Having buried his mother, The Dear Hunter resolves to stop acting like the timid and broken boy he’s always been, collects his meager belongings and leaves the only home he’s known, armed with a vengeful decree to avenge his mother’s death and end the life of the person responsible. “One life for another” has a double meaning here. In his mother’s life ending, he’s finally allowed to start his own life in the bigger world, but it also takes on a more Biblical meaning, taking “an eye for an eye” to its logical conclusion.

 

“The Lake and the River”

I’m trying to get through these write-ups without spending too much time talking about the music and my personal feelings about it, but I simply can’t resist with this track because it’s my absolute favorite in The Dear Hunter catalog. From the beautifully intertwining melodies of the intro to the amazing chorus, absolutely epic bridge filled with changing meters, right down to the extended postscripts, it’s just a masterfully-constructed piece that represents the absolute best of what this band can offer. Lyrically-speaking, this is one of the most symbolically-rich and dense pieces in the series, in spite of there being very little actually happening to advance the story.

Everything you’d live and die for
Reasons leading you through here
Perished matriarchal bonds
Failing innocence of love
When the world beckons your approach
It swallows you whole

Picking up immediately from “The Procession,” our protagonist is leaving the safe confines of his childhood home, realizing that there is nothing holding or binding him to there. The world is beckoning him to explore it, but the prospect is terrifying.

You’ll believe what you’re led to believe
In the hands of ghosts we’re never responsible
Wait to see what you’re meant to see
The veil lifts when you expose your soul

“The Lake and the River” is in many ways meant to be a companion piece thematically to “1878” (another piece rich in symbolism and thin on plot) off of Act I. Here we see The Boy grappling with the same ignorance and innocence that defined his upbringing in the former track. Led to view life and think about things a certain way by his mother, he comes to terms with the price he’s paid for not taking responsibility for his own self at all. Now that he’s being forced into the world he will see and experience many new things, and his true self will reveal itself through the process.

Pray’d I would leave this place someday
Joined to alarm from long ago now unconcerned
Euphorically floating upon wax wings; where is the sun?
I still see her face, her beauty, her grace
Transfixed like a light in front of me
It follows my soul
And swallows me whole

The other most notable thematic repetition in this track is the allusion to the classic Greek myth of Icarus, who attempts to leave the island of Crete on wings of feathers and wax presented to him by his father. As has been popularized throughout the ages, Icarus is told not to fly too high or too low, for the sea would dampen his feathers and the sun would melt the wax. As we all know though, in an act of hubris Icarus ignores his father’s advice and flies too high to his own demise. Here the myth is employed to represent less hubris than The Boy’s own happiness borne of ignorance. He chastises himself for having lived a happy life so devoid of knowledge about the outside world, “euphorically floating” on his own wings of naivety throughout childhood. Now that he is being forced to venture beyond his familiar surroundings he is finding himself utterly unequipped to handle any of it. His blissful ignorance has led him straight towards the sun, and the inevitable descent will be painful.

And yet, understandably, he cannot shake the memory and image of his mother. It’s haunting him and holding him back, preventing him from doing what he knows he needs to do. But he marches on in spite of it all.

His branches reached so far before
His leaves were bold extremities with great control
Wasted along; he died alone

Once again, another “1878” reference. I somehow neglected to mention this aspect in my Act I analysis, but this is the second time now that this old, gnarly tree (presumably the same tree that adorns these albums’ covers) has come up. There isn’t a whole lot of clear meaning one can easily pull from both of these instances, but according to things Casey has said, this old, intimidating tree sits along The Lake and has always scared the protagonist as a boy. The tree (which has now been gendered as male), appears to be a representation of the protagonist’s unidentified and absent father, if not as an actual person then as a concept of an intimidating father figure (alternatively, the tree/“the father” could also represent the concept of the unknown, which is in direct opposition to The Boy’s sheltered existence). In this particular instance, it seems that as The Dear Hunter is forced to pass the tree on his way out, he is finding its terrifying grip on him lessened. It no longer has this terrible power over him, and thus the tree symbolically shrivels up in the process.

She’s inanimate, bloodless elegance
Fatal fascination breeds a bloom of misery
Helpless hiding tongues, bathed in revulsion
Here lies possibility wilting premature

Here we have an almost identical reprisal of the chorus from “The Procession,” this time sung in an almost desperate raspiness. The main difference here from the original is the transference of meaning from Ms. Terri onto The Boy himself. Whereas it was originally Ms. Terri’s “beauty wilting premature,” now it’s possibility of the life that could’ve been for our protagonist but wasn’t. Just as he confronted his fear of the tree and forced it to release its grip on him, here he is officially letting go of his childhood and the life he had been leading.

But the right hand hates the left, and the sea’s upset with the sky
So we press on in spite of the spite
Happiness is a knife when the world’s on its side and your mind’s on fire

There’s a whole lot to unpack in those three lines, and we get both more Icarus references and “1878” reprisals. The first half of the first line is merely another representation of The Boy’s internal conflict between his past and future lives, and the second half is our Icarus myth, though with a twist. Icarus was told to fly the middle path, such as it were, but perhaps there is no middle path because the two sides (the sea and the sky) are in total opposition to the other. In the end one must choose a side and deal with the consequences, even if both result in falling to their death. In light of that, what else is there to do but press on, even if we know it won’t end well?

The knife in the third line makes a reappearance from “1878” (“Fell in another hole, for the knife, for the knife”). We now learn that the knife represents happiness and the price we pay to achieve it. We make sacrifices and cut at our being to obtain it, which is what Ms. Terri had to do to raise her son to be happy. Here the knife is used to explain how counterproductive happiness is in a world that is not what it seems. Reality will not bend to your will, and happiness is the knife that will cut you in the end as a result of your naivety. It’s a grossly cynical view of the world, but then again, this is coming from a teenager who just saw his hooker mother killed in cold blood, so this isn’t exactly a story rich in optimism.

Trying to find the trouble with the trouble I’ve found
Begging my god to make the wheels go round
Eat so much but I never get full
Earth opened up and swallowed us whole

Finally we move past The Lake and The River. Our protagonist makes his way onto a train (likely sneaking on since we can probably assume he has no money). As he does so our Greek chorus (perhaps stand-ins for people working the railroad in the background) reappears, making the third reference to being swallowed whole by the world. Here they express what our protagonist is experiencing as he enters a world full of trouble. He’ll see and experience so many horrible things, but the experiences will only propel him forward, forever searching for more of what he seeks, be it knowledge, love, or “truth.” Little does he know what terrors are in store for him.

 

“The Oracles on the Delphi Express”

Possibly the most well-known song in the TDH Acts canon, “The Oracles on the Delphi Express” is a bit of a stylistic outlier for the group. Though it’s certainly not the only time the band would employ playful vaudevillian musical touches evoking early 20th Century America, this track is the most overt they’ve been with it. With it’s mischievous mood and insanely catchy chorus though (not to mention a grooves and riffs that could’ve been taken straight from Donkey Kong Country of all places), this is by far one of the most fun songs to sing along to in the series.

Moving along, with our protagonist on the train known as the Delphi Express, he encounters entities known only as The Oracles. Once again pulling from Greek mythology, Delphi was the location in ancient Greece of the Temple of Apollo, which was the home of Pythia, The Oracle of Delphi. The Oracles were believed to be the vessels from which the gods spoke. They were worshipped for their divinations and prophecies, and Pythia, as the mouthpiece of Apollo, was known to be among the most powerful of The Oracles.

Stick with us, throw your morals out the door
You aren’t in the land of the river and the lake no more
Makeshift schemes, we’ve got plenty here for you
Lock away your dreams and throw away the key

Unsurprisingly, upon encountering these Oracles, our protagonist is immediately warned to throw away everything he knows of his previous life and heed their words. As in many Greek tragedies, the gods or humans speaking for the gods intervene to warn the protagonist of the pitfalls and dangers he or she will encounter (often in the type of cryptic terms one would expect from a prophecy), all before, of course, the protagonist winds up ultimately fulfilling the prophecy in the end anyway.

You’ve been stuck in the middle of patience and animosity
With a lust for solidity, and a cryptic history your luck’s running thin

Essentially laying out our protagonist’s struggles, in this repeated refrain The Oracles continuously warn The Dear Hunter to not continue with his plans to uncover the mystery of his mother’s past, her death, the identity of his father, or anything else. He would be better off remaining in The Lake and The River, and continuing will only end badly for him.

Crimson hands, brandish words which masquerade
If you flee from grace your souls can not be saved
Big steam ships, exits illustrate the flaw
Don’t be ashamed of your amore faux pas
When the bombs go off you’ll know right where you are

Of course they wouldn’t be proper oracles without actually offering some prophecies. We get five of them here, and at the risk of providing spoilers of sorts for those who are reading along, here’s roughly what they all translate to. Prophecy one refers to the track “Red Hands,” in which The Dear Hunter’s relationship-to-be falls apart. Prophecy two refers to the fallout of the relationship, with his “flee[ing] from grace” perhaps being a nod to The Priest, who will be entering the story shortly. Prophecy three alludes to the end of Act II in “Vital Vessels Vindicate” and our protagonist’s hasty exit from The City. Prophecy four is another reference to the doomed relationship featured in this act, and prophecy five takes a leap all the way into Act III, and given the general timeframe that the story takes place (early 1900s), you can probably make a logical leap as to where that’s going.

With the repetition of the chorus The Oracles continually warn our protagonist to stop what he’s doing, turn around, and avoid this entire mess. But this wouldn’t be a particularly good story if he possessed the good sense to do that, so of course we shall be moving along straight into The City, where we’re about to be formally introduced to The Priest’s place of work.

 

“The Church and the Dime”

As many of the songs in these albums are want to do, the ringing church bells at the end of “Oracles” bleeds right into “The Church and the Dime,” and with it we shift perspective from our protagonist to those who occupy The City and the brothel known as The Dime. Similar to how “The Lake and the River” was a companion piece to “1878,” this track is the successor to “The Pimp and the Priest.”

She prayed to the man with the twin in a mask
But the world is numb and cold
And the boy, all alone, casually wandering home
Unaware of sobering reality

The man “with the twin in a mask” is none other than The Priest, who, as we learned in Act I, moonlights as the owner of The Dime and as a pimp preying on women. “She” in this case is ambiguous, though it’s possible that it’s a character we will be meeting very shortly, Ms. Leading, who is one of the women who are in The Priest’s employ. Regardless of who “she” is exactly though, it’s clear this individual is one of The Priest’s women, who likely first came to him during the day seeking spiritual guidance and wound up selling her body for his profit. I don’t believe in this instance that “the boy” is the same as The Boy, our protagonist, as he would still be on the train to The City and certainly not wandering home. It’s possible that this is another teenager who frequents The Dime and is unaware of the twisted duplicity present in how The Priest operates.

Faster, save me. Harder, I can’t…

(Breathe in, breathe out)
Let them all fold, let them all fold
(Breathe in, breathe out)
Let them all fold, let them all fold

Echoing the refrain from “The Pimp & The Priest,” we get both the perspective of The Priest’s customers looking simultaneously for salvation and satisfaction as well as The Priest’s as he casually exclaims “Let them all fold.” This line is intended to be a rather flippant remark (one that becomes increasingly aggressive throughout the song) as The Priest wishes to allow his flock to succumb to moral decay for his own benefit.

Hearts finish here, love decays while call girls perform
He waits alone, playing parts to soothe lovers through
The lust and the sighs, the Church and the Dime
The cryptic clientele all careening inside
The puzzling facade steers pure from the divine

Further elaboration on how The Priest/Pimp exploits his clientele on both ends. Guiding men full of desire (and love unrequited) to women who will satisfy them in the basest sense but wring them dry financially and emotionally, he waits patiently for them to return to The Church to confess their many sins and soothe them. Though in the end to complete the cycle he must steer the “pure” of heart from the “divine” — or in this case, the divinity of The Church — back to the hollow confines of The Dime.

Many wishes of hunger were wronged
By the Pimp and Priest’s thirst for a fault
All the anger from a lover’s lament
Force fed in the stomach of sin
Welcome to the world

And in the conclusion we get another variation on that conceptual theme. Putting another spin on the lyrics from the second verse, this is basically saying that the hunger of those seeking spiritual fulfillment in The Church are guided to The Dime, and in the aftermath of those experiences — anger, sorrow, guilt — are twisted into creating “sin” for The Priest’s parishioners, thus always giving them a reason to return. As for the final line, well, this is horrible and cynical thing that The Priest is doing, but the world that these albums exist in is both horrible and cynical, so you better just get used to it. At least that’s what The Priest would love to have you believe.

 

“The Bitter Suite I & II: Meeting Ms. Leading/Through The Dime”

She had the summer’s smile with winter’s skin; she moved
A silhouette to serenade the soul
She spoke with words beyond me and slowly I pulled away
To receive a gesture implying an answer I didn’t have
So I then smiled
Responding, alarming
“Yes”

Her hands were the first that I’d ever felt; she breathed
Her lips hid her tongue from the world; she danced
To the doors, endearing, she carried me
“What’s your name?” conceding “Ms. Leading”
She kindly suggests
To her room
To rest my head
So I responded, unalarming

This song’s a doozy. Switching perspectives several times throughout, this is one of the more straightforwardly plot-driven tracks on the album, though it’s certainly not lacking in gorgeous imagery and descriptions. We find our protagonist in The City, where he encounters a charming and fetching young lady by the name of Ms. Leading. The lyrics here do an amazing job in capturing The Boy’s wide-eyed enchantment at this woman, unlike anything he’s seen before. This is likely the first time he has known this kind of desire (admitting that she’s the first woman he’s touched that he’s felt this kind of desire for), and the feelings are undoubtedly overwhelming. She is also full of mystery though, as she is described more like a spirit or otherworldly being than a human woman, and he describes her lips as hiding “her tongue from the world,” as if he already knows that there’s more to her than she’s letting on.

Nonetheless, swept up in the moment (and like pretty much any teenage boy who meets a pretty lady would), he follows her in daze as she leads him back to her “room,” which just so happens to be in The Dime, for as we quickly learn, Ms. Leading is not just any woman, but one in the employ of The Priest/Pimp, just like The Boy’s mother, Ms. Terri (which, of course, he still does not know anything about).

Where’s her heart, where’s her heart?
Mimicking the matriarch
He’s naive; blissfully
Ignorant and trusting but now

In this transitional verse splitting the first and second half of the song, we pull away from The Boy and hear again from our “narrator,” The Oracles. They see what he’s doing and, resigned to his fate, question Ms. Leading’s motives (all while alluding to her profession matching that of Ms. Terri’s), and sigh in his naive ignorance that is leading him into something he knows nothing about.

(Step right in!) Let her hips guide your desire
Hey, kid, get a job
Hey, kid, get a job
(They have ways!) To satisfy, satisfy what you require
Touch, taste, feel
Two times, the dime
But the perks are more than price and the guarantee is clean
(We know what the men all want) And they know it isn’t free

(Take a chair!) You’re not alone, the beds your home tonight
Hey, kid, get a job
Hey, kid, get a job
(Wait right there!) We’ll magnify and maximize your inner fire
Touch, taste, feel
Two times, the dime
Cause if you boys are nice, the ladies here are clean
(We know what the men all want) And they know it isn’t free

And with that we follow The Boy and Ms. Leading and get our first good look at the inside of The Dime. I’ve always loved the kinda twisted and seedy old-school Disney-fied feel of this part (back when it was totally cool to have your main character, who happens to be a baby elephant, get absolutely trashed on booze and suffer a horrific alcohol-fueled nightmare trip). The imagery here is crystal clear, and you can just imagine it all play out in front of your eyes like the musical it’s trying to be.

Her history is left behind
The ignorance has room to breathe
They play a part and act a scene
The prejudice and the guilty

Switching back once again to The Oracles, they remark upon how with The Boy, Ms. Leading is allowed to have a moment of authentic “love” without her history and the baggage of her profession weighing her down. Each of them are playing a role here necessary to make the “scene” work. It’s all predicated on obfuscation and lies though, and like The Oracles know, the listener also knows that this is likely to be a bumpy road ahead for the two of them.

 

“The Bitter Suite III: Embrace”

Darkness, hesitation
I fell into her arms
Breathe in, this is amazing
Breathe out, this is amazing
She removed her clothes and all of the world shined
Now that we’re alone all of the world shines
First hot breath, then cold hands
Intrusion, but aware
The fire inside was all light and she bloomed
And I never knew life could ever be this good
The distant sighs, the clothes on the floor
The bedding a mess, she sings for more

We fall beneath the sea in the back of our hearts and fail to breathe until we resurface again

She had the summer’s smile with winter’s skin
And all along with words beyond me she welcomed me in

Not too much to say about this one that isn’t already obvious! If you don’t know what’s going on it might be time to have the conversation about the birds and the bees. The track plays out at peak rock opera emotion though, and it’s a gorgeously-written piece of music that really captures the passion at play here. The lyrics also do a good job at mirroring themes we’ve seen pop up throughout (“Breathe in/breathe out,” the reappearance of “fire” in reference to Ms. Leading as another reminder of her connection to Ms. Terri, and the almost identical repetition of lyrics from the previous track in our introduction to Ms. Leading). Beyond that, pull your lighter out and just get lost in this one, imagining the curtains drawing in as we reach the mid-point (or “intermission”) of this album.


I actually did not intend to end this post here, but given how much there is to say about all of this, I figure it’ll make more sense to split this analysis up into two posts, the second of which will come later this week. Come back soon to read on about what happens to our two lovers in the cold, harsh light of day.

Remember: The flame is gone, the fire remains.

Read Part III here.

-NC

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