*prognotes breaks down and analyzes your favorite metal and progressive concept albums lyrically and musically. Read other entries in this series here.
Salutations and welcome back. In case you missed our three previous installments, we are going through The Dear Hunter’s brilliant Acts series and analyzing its story, characters, motivations, and deeper meaning. So far we’ve gone through Acts I & II with a fine-toothed analytical comb, and last we left our protagonist, he was running away from his failed relationship with the calculating prostitute Ms. Leading in The City via boat. Act III takes us far away from everything that’s transpired thus far as we travel all the way to Europe on the frontlines of World War I. Faced with the gruesome horrors of war, The Boy must face both the harshest realities of life, though he’ll quickly learn that even out here he cannot escape his history.
Musically and lyrically, Act III is darker, more aggressive, and often more ambitious in scope while still offering plenty of callbacks to the previous two albums. Though most will state that they prefer Act II slightly, I’m of the opinion that Act III is a stronger album overall in several ways, not least of which because a whole lot more happens in the story. Enough setup though. Let’s dive into the gritty details that form Act III: Life and Death!
“Writing On A Wall”
Come away young man where the ground is red and you need a mask to breathe.
Oh it’s been so hard, but your luck could change if you’d just roll up your sleeves.
We had tried our best to warn before but it didn’t get you far.
Now we’re here again with a wish to mend your agonizing scar.
Oh look, it’s our friends The Oracles back with another cheerful premonition/warning! Setting the scene for the coming story, The Oracles tell us that The Boy has joined the army to fight in Europe during World War I. The exact or even approximate location is never specified, but it’s safe to assume that he would be fighting along the Western Front on the border between France and Germany. It is also safe to assume that this takes place either in 1917 or 18, as the US entered WWI several years into the conflict. And though it never says how The Boy got involved in all of this, it’s certainly easy to conceive that he voluntarily enlisted essentially on a whim, figuring that it would be an appropriate escape from his past and could fill the voids left by his mother, Ms. Leading, and everyone else.
As for the content of the lyrics here, after referencing the sheer scope of death and casualties present from The Great War — as well as the poison gasses and chemical warfare that probably most-defined it — The Oracles appear to be mocking The Boy’s mindset and motivation for joining the war effort. They then claim that they’re offering up another chance for him to heed their words and avoid further pain, all too aware of the fact that he ignored them before.
Open eyes young man vigilantly hands and a heart prepared for pain.
You will lose much more in this vicious war,
Past and present stay the same.
But the time to come can be altered some if you listen to our song… do we sing in vain?
Does the fact remain “there is nothing can’t be done?”
The Oracles warn that things are about to get a whole lot worse, and furthermore, he will continue to lose those he deems to love in some way as he already has twice. But before they offer up any further words of wisdom they essentially give up the ghost and question if any of it matters since he’s going to ignore them anyway. There’s a nice callback in them asking if they sing in vain immediately following The Boy in “Vital Vessels Vindicate” flippantly referring to “The almighty tongue with prose spilled in vain.” With our protagonist so blindly following his own misguided instincts, it’s all but certain that nothing can be done to prevent the hardships and events about to occur. Better luck next time, Oracles!
“In Cauda Venenum”
Though The Dear Hunter and Casey’s work as a whole are certainly far from being what one would normally describe as political, writing about war offers ample opportunity to provide commentary on all sorts of topics ranging from what causes us to go to war to the myriad horrors present during and the equally horrific consequences after. There are several moments throughout Act III that highlight the cruelties and psychological traumas on individuals due to warfare, but the interesting thing about “In Cauda Venenum” is that it lays its harshest commentary and critiques on the individuals who ultimately create and fuel wars by sending others in.
The song’s title is a latin phrase that literally means “The poison is in the tail,” or put another way, something that starts off normal enough but waits until the end to reveal its true horror. It’s easy enough for leaders, be they political, military, religious, or otherwise to beat the drums of war and drive the masses into bloodlusting frenzy, but it’s not they who have to suffer the ultimate sacrifices and consequences of their actions. It’s the ones who lack power and are sent to the frontlines who must bear that burden. The poison lays in the rampant bloodshed and taking of lives of those already in a position of weakness under those who command them. There’s also something wonderfully meta in that phrase that applies to the album’s greater arc, but we’ll come back to that later.
We’re biting our tongue, (biding our time),
An apparition; awoken
With an urge to own and occupy
Who ever said this was easy?
A majesty’s massacre floods the fields of red
Blood on your body naturally rushes the blood to your head
To your head!
Hopping into the center of the action, The Boy comments how soldiers must transform themselves out on the battlefield and strip their own humanity in order to “awaken” the urge to take possession of and control land, materials, and lives that are not their own. Those not out fighting but controlling how the war is fought have the same urge within them, but they only deal with these in abstract, not the literal manifestations of these. Not that the tasks of commanders and leaders are easy and free of guilt (at least for those with a shred of empathy), but it’s neither as immediate or existential for them as those having to carry out the orders.
And now with our hands in line, these arms move tonight
And we cry “We can not allow this,”
“This is terrible.” With ideals we’re idle as they lust for more.
But oh, if we settle the score
We’d never been so excited to see you before.
One of the many problems with warfare is that it’s incredibly difficult to stop the wheels from turning once the engine begins. As individuals we see the bloodshed and atrocities of war and wring our hands in anxiety or shout about how awful it all is. Few people have problems identifying that the consequences of war are terrible, but in spite of our ideals that we don’t want to inflict that kind of cruelty upon the world, they’re ultimately futile when put up next to the need to not lose or be vanquished by the enemy. Everyone is aghast at the casualties of war until our side comes out victorious, at which point the populace turns around and speaks about how it was the right course of action and that the lives lost were necessary and acceptable because they weren’t lost in vain. Thus there’s often very little that can be done to end the bloodshed until one side destroys the other, and no amount of high-minded morality and ideals can change that.
In the cradle you’re helpless,
But on our feet we are fatal.
How we evolve and grow into
Twisted beasts with desire for disorder.
The observation here is that we are born innocent and incapable of inflicting intentional harm upon others, but we are bred and taught to become creatures both capable and eager to wreak havoc and create disorder in the world.
Oh! What a terrible, terrible game we play.
Replacing a bond for a body and the players;
Politicians who say what they need to say.
What would you say…?
In the sharpest critique of the song, The Boy remarks that governments essentially sell the worth of soldiers’ lives through war bonds (a popular staple of both World Wars before it was decided that it was perfectly fine to run up national debts in order to finance huge international conflicts into perpetuity), which the governments use to keep the war machine running. It’s a game in which soldiers are only the pawns to the politicians, who will tell the public anything to keep them on their side. It was considered an act of patriotism and a way for the non-fighting public to feel actively involved in the war effort (something that is virtually non-existent these days), but the tradeoff is that they’re actively contributing to more death and destruction without having to witness any of it first-hand. Once again the poison is reserved for those who are chosen or who have chosen to fight.
Oh, when I think about your eyes
Oh, when I think about your smile
Oh, when I dream about your lies
Traveled all this way just to find love
As our protagonist ruminates on the cruelties, hypocrisies, and paradoxes of war, he has a brief flashback to his time with Ms. Leading, and suddenly all of the misery he felt there doesn’t quite seem so bad. He enlisted in the army and came all the way here to escape that and find love, but just as the same as before, The Dear Hunter is seeking love in all the wrong places. He will not find love here. This is where love, along with everything else, comes to die.
“What It Means To Be Alone”
The above video for “What It Means To Be Alone” is actually far less about that song itself rather than the 3 or so tracks that follows it, but it does provide a lot of extra context for what I’ll be talking about soon enough. In the meantime, for this particular song we find The Boy still in the middle of the battlefield, though we are now firmly planted in what is currently transpiring.
Oh, you were born with the sun.
And Oh, you will die with the moon.
And everything you thought you had you lost.
But now you’d never lose what you don’t have.
Prayers from above, never answered quite enough.
Now the only one you have is you.
With this cruel and bitter heart,
You were cold and in love,
Left here naked in the sun.
Run scared from this cruel and bitter world.
This has only begun as the bombs are bursting on.
This is one of the few songs in these albums that’s quite straightforward and unambiguous in its meaning, so we won’t spend too much time here. It is at this moment when he sees the full scope of death and destruction around him that he begins to realize that he made a huge mistake in coming out here. He may not have had much back at home or in The City, but he had more than he does now. Here he is truly alone and on his own to fight for his survival. Not even prayers to God can save him.
Smoke arose on azimuth glares.
Bodies brewed in frigid winter air,
Where families’ sons are robbed beneath their feet
And hearts concede “ad ova”
The angel sings “ad astra”
Our eyes to the sea,
We thought that we had a cause for suffering
And reason enough to die alone
In case you didn’t already know what the word “azimuth” means (I did not before writing this), it’s used as a way to indicate direction based on where stars are in relation to the horizon and is most often used for ships and for artillery calculations. In this context it essentially means smoke was arising from off in distance towards the horizon. The imagery here paints a vivid and horrible picture of bodies strewn everywhere, men’s lives taken all over the place from stepping on landmines. “Ad ova” in latin roughly translates to “to the beginning” (ova meaning egg, or a symbolic inception or origin), and “ad astra” translates to “to the stars.” In the context of the song here, this seems to mean that while the men on the battlefield try to think back to what they left behind before the war, it is a futile effort as they will wind up dead and amongst the stars. Finally, The Boy remarks that they all thought and were told that this war effort was a valiant one and that they were fighting for freedom and high-minded ideals, but the reality of war is far bleaker and more complicated than that — a theme that will be revisited time and time again throughout this album.
The following 4 songs form a miniature song cycle within the album as The Boy encounters 4 objects, individuals, or groups that are manifestations of war and humanity at its worst and most cynical. The first of these is, as the title suggests, an enemy tank, a product of that war as a response to the realignment of traditional military tactics caused by trench warfare. Though rather unwieldy and very unreliable compared to the models that would be developed and become a staple of militaries worldwide henceforth, they could still pack a punch. More importantly, they became emblematic of the world’s entry into mechanized warfare, a symbol of the machine-like hardening that such wars would have on those participating.
Eight wheels lusting for the lives of infantry (His bearings shift)
His turrets turning from accountability (He takes his aim)
We sing our final song and soon this verse is over
He makes advances ’till his wheels cease to roll (His God is smiling)
His God is smiling on his cold mechanic soul
His plot is perfect if it sees no contradiction
There is no sign that he shows a sign of slowing
That concept of mechanization plays a large part in this song, as The Boy melds the tank with its operator together into a single, terrifying being. As the machine mows down infantry, he notes the lack of “accountability,” not to any person in particular, but to the concept of basic human morality. He envisions this being as lacking any consideration of human worth, and worse, rather than saying he has no soul, The Boy paints him as possessing a twisted one in which he believes he is carrying out his God’s wishes. The tank is neither all man or machine, but it takes the worst aspects of each and mutates them into a cold, killing thing.
You’ve stained your skin and I won’t stick around, around
Long enough to count the hearts that hit the ground
So long ago was I one of them?
Your urgency hastened by his ingenuity (It’s just a matter)
Matter of moments ’till your body is debris (So say a prayer)
His plot is perfect if it sees no contradiction
In the chorus of this song, The Boy reacts to two separate things that unite his past and present (as The Oracles noted, “Past and present stay the same”). Noting the dead soldiers around him whose skin are stained with blood and dirt, The Boy, in a moment of flight instinct beating out fight, decides to run away from the battle. In the same moment, however, he draws a comparison of hearts/lives hitting the ground to the fate of the men who dealt with Ms. Leading from Act II. Everywhere he turns he finds human suffering, and in this instance he wants no part of it. He spends the following verse running for his life from the steady, relentless destruction of the tank behind him.
And still he moves on
Arm and iron conquer heart and soul
And what of those in silent disconnect
Sundry souls akin in consequence
Begging for bliss beyond the pain
Relief is just a turret’s turn away…
Once again he conflates the man and the tank into a singular, hybrid being (“arm and iron”) that will conquer those who only possess flesh, hearts, and souls. But then he expands the metaphor past the tank to all of those in war “in silent disconnect,” who cut away at their own humanity and become hardened by the necessities of war to turn themselves into remorseless killing machines. For these individuals the only relief for the many pains of life at war is to take more lives to fulfill their perfect plots. This song shows that while our protagonist may be many things — naive, impulsive, foolhardy, etc. — he has not yet been transformed by his environment into machines with flesh like those around him who are still alive. He would rather hold onto that shred of humanity (and his life) and flee rather than disconnect from his heart and become another tank.
“The Poison Woman”
The seed of the apothecary, an heir to aided ends
She loves the sound they make as they expel
A breath, the soul from their chest
She laughs a little, but never makes a sound
She swears she’s offering you something savory (What lies she tells)
So take a drink, her product’s number one (Right down the hatch)
And now, it seems, a smooth intoxication, well,
Just one drop is more than enough
After The Boy escapes the relentless destruction of The Tank, he flees into a nearby city, where he discovers an individual only known as The Poison Woman. She uses her knowledge of medicines and drugs (it’s implied that she comes from a family of doctors or people of medicine) to destroy and take lives in a completely different way from the tank. Using deception, she offers soldiers drinks laced with poison to their demise. It’s never stated explicitly that she favors one side of the war over the other or that she has any motivation for what she does other than pure malice and enjoyment in killing. Perhaps she just really dislikes soldiers being in her town or has had some rough experiences with them to the point that it’s hardened her, similar to how the war has hardened the man in the tank.
She never dwells on penitence,
Advancing in a haze
A million men have reached an end,
A side effect of incompetence
She laughs a little, but never smiles
Similar to the effects of war that turn men into eager killers by stripping them of their humanity, The Poison Woman has a similar effect as she preys on the soldiers’ trusting nature and turns it against them. As The Boy encounters her and sees what she does, the lessons he half-learned in Act II are reinforced — that few people are who they say they are, and that you can’t really trust anyone.
She has her superstitions
They’ve got their rationale on call
(They never saw it coming, they never stood a chance)
She’s got a new tradition, involving ethylene glycol
(They never saw it coming, they never stood a chance)
She has no apprehension, habit sustains her wickedness
(They never saw it coming, they never stood a chance)
With the weight of the world on her shoulders, she
Don’t want none of the sins as they unfurl in her palms, in her palms
Take this bottle
For those who are not up on their knowledge of chemicals, ethylene glycol is a compound most commonly found in antifreeze. It’s known for its sweet taste and for the potent alcohol-like intoxication it produces when ingested in small quantities. Likely what would have been happening in this situation is that The Poison Woman was offering drinks to soldiers looking for some good booze or hooch, and given that the fatal effects of ethylene glycol are generally not immediate (victims usually die of kidney failure a couple of days later if they don’t overdose), it would be difficult to pin her down as responsible.
Perhaps given The Boy’s preternatural suspicions though, he does not fall for the woman’s tricks and confronts her about it. The implication here appears to be that once confronted, she reveals that she, in fact, does feel an incredible amount of guilt and burden from what she does (supporting the idea that she doesn’t do this because she enjoys killing but more as a defense from soldiers and a reaction to the things war make people do). She winds up offering The Boy a bottle of the ethylene glycol, which he accepts. Given how these things go, this will surely turn out to be Chekhov’s bottle.
An innovative mind
(We watch spirits move)
With plans awry
Who can save us now?
This song never fails to give me chills. It’s really unlike anything else the band had done up to this point, and they channeled dark proggy energy from the likes of Radiohead (it’s not difficult to hear shades of “The National Anthem” or “There, There” at points) to great effect. Although it’s pretty light on lyrics, there’s still a whole lot to pull out from what’s there.
After his encounters with The Tank and The Poison Woman, our protagonist meets the third incarnation of war (the first two representing destruction and deception, respectively), this time embodying callous greed. He sees The Thief (who we learn from the music video for “What It Means To Be Alone” is named Pierre) stealing money and valuable possessions from either sleeping or fallen soldiers. Once again we find an individual taking advantage of those who are “oblivious,” which is one of the more common threads throughout the series. Those who have not hardened and altered themselves to protect against the harsh realities of the world will be taken advantage of by those who have. It was the case with The Priest and Ms. Leading, and it is so here with The Tank, The Poison Woman, and The Thief.
Love seems barren when cash is king
Wealth here for the bleeding, what good will bring
More than I could ask from those who sleep
A crooked mind, an honest heart ancillary
When The Boy confronts The Thief and asks why he is doing what he’s doing, The Thief responds that money and possessions will do the dead no good anyway, which is a totally logical and rational thing to say except for the fact that it’s completely self-serving and cynical. The Boy responds with as much, noting that The Thief appears to have an honest heart but a crooked mind, which allows him to twist and justify morality to his own ends — once again, much like we’ve just seen from both The Tank and The Poison Woman. Love and other pure-minded concepts have little place where there is so much at play that crushes those who are idealistic and innocent.
I’ve got the time tonight
Though it’s certainly not explicit whose perspective these particular lines are from, I think it’s a possibility that at this moment The Boy might be deciding to follow The Thief’s lead and join in on the corpse-robbing, which would certainly mark a transition away from his seemingly high-minded morality towards embracing the darker aspects of life that he’s witnessed time and time again.
Going back to the “What It Means To Be Alone” music video, we get some minor plot elements that aren’t spelled out through the songs alone, most notably in this track. After confronting him about the nature of what he does, The Boy asks The Thief how to return to his camp (he points to an insignia on his jacket resembling the symbolic tree we’ve come to know and love). The Thief brings him to the edge of a battlefield and points him in the right direction, though he tells him he should leave this things behind because they’ll only weigh him down. Unsurprisingly, once The Boy does so and takes off, The Thief promptly takes those possessions for himself. This moment leads us to the climax of the first half of the album, in which our protagonist encounters the worst that the war has to offer.
Here they are
A panic floods the field
They play the part, performing oh so well
Returning to the battlefield, The Boy finds himself caught up in crossfire and, worse yet, we meet the most terrifying manifestations of war yet: The Mustard Gas brigade.
With empty cause, they carry on
A twisted soul, an apparition
Born of a beastly brand
They butcher purposely
(Just have the sense to run away)
Unlike the three characters we’ve just met, there is clearly no underlying justification or rationale to what these individuals do. They kill because they can and because they want to. The enemy is nothing more than a pest that needs to be butchered and eliminated. There is no shred of humanity left in them, and your best hope is to run away and escape.
Scream at the sky and beg
Beg for a reason he would allow this
Look to the sky and say
We would be better off without this
Who would allow this?
Calling back to “What It Means To Be Alone,” The Boy once again prays to the beings above and pleads with them to end this misery, only to find silence. What God would allow for such perversion of humanity and create beings capable of this? How is one supposed to survive and remain free of sin and guilt in a world where such things exist? These are the critical questions that will prove to be a turning point for our protagonist. The arc of this song cycle presents The Boy with numerous figures and challenges to his strong sense of morality, and in the end, the only logical conclusion to make is that in a world run by those who breed hatred, greed, and destruction, morals and aspirational desires of love have no place, and those who stick by them will be at best manipulated and robbed of what they hold dear, and at worst, thoughtlessly massacred.
We’ve never felt alive
But none of us can die just when we want to
We’re stuck in this disguise
With leather skin these eyes designed to haunt you
But do we haunt you?
Taking on the perspective of the soldiers in masks wielding mustard gas, they creepily portray themselves as inhuman beings, neither alive or dead, but simply there. Their gas masks serve as a disguise to hide what they’ve truly become and present themselves to others as beings lacking in any identity whatsoever. It’s highly effective (and affecting) imagery, as we imagine The Boy just trying to make it back to his base alive and finding himself surrounded by mustard gas and these unfeeling spectre-like beings. He ultimately succumbs and falls, closing out the first half of the album. Of course he’s not actually dead because it wouldn’t be much of a story without the titular character, but his near-death experience will be sure to have a lasting effect on him and put into motion events that will bring his past and present even closer.
That’s all for now! These posts have been taking far longer to put together than I originally anticipated, but I promise that the final installment (for now) will come out next week before Act IV’s release [heavy breathing].
Until next time: The flame is gone, the fire remains.