Much virtual ink has been spilled online about “The Hero’s Journey” and most of it is pretentious and misinformed. Despite the intents of its shady progenitor, one Joseph Campbell, the concept of the recurring myth of the path that a hero must take from humble beginnings to ultimate victory is mainly a literary device. It is used to connect to a basic perception we have of our own lives; one which envisions us on some sort of road to becoming a better person, whether that is more successful, richer or more internal, philosophical goals. This idea gives us a sense of purpose, a feeling that, even when life seems confusing and meaningless, we are treading some sort of path towards an end goal.
Furthermore, when we say “literary device” we do not mean to limit the idea just to literature; on the contrary, music plays a large role in the telling of the hero’s narrative and the vector of the hero’s success. This idea has been prevalent in music for centuries: Wagner‘s Der Ring des Nibelungen for example, written in the 19th century, tells the epic tale of Siegfried, one of the origins of the Germanic dragon slayer myth and other Germanic sagas. One could cite many more examples; think of Led Zeppelin‘s “Achilles Last Stand” for instance. What is that if not a cry to the wanderlust and adventure of the hero, the wanderer, the traveler?
Enter metal. Obviously the thematic tools of the hero are part and parcel of writing metal: the genre focuses on power, will, individualism and conquering ourselves/others. However, have you noticed how wildly present the idea of the road is? From the early days of the genre, through heavy metal and power metal, and all the way to death and black, this concept of a path that we must take appears everywhere. How do these images fit into metal and what are the end results? Can we narrow down a certain genre that utilizes it more and what are the specific quirks this motif takes when used to create metal songs?
We won’t be able to cover all examples of this theme, for obvious reasons, but we really wanted to take a closer at what seems to be a central pillar of the metaphoric structure of metal’s narrative. By looking at two recent examples, we’ll try to analyze and better acquaint ourselves with the idea of The Road, The Path or The Journey as it appears in metal. The two albums we’ve chosen don’t only serve our goal exceptionally, they are also exceptional albums from this year in and of themselves: Dreadnought‘s mind-boggling masterpiece Bridging Realms and Elder‘s fantastic, 70s drenched Lore. So, here we go. Hold on tight as we embark on our journey into the belly of an idea, the crossroads of wonder, adventure and music.
The first things one might notice about both Lore and Dreadnought are their eye-catching artwork and the fact that both are deeply rooted in their own conceptual constructs. Lore takes a more straightforward and earthly epic approach to narrative, its vibrant artwork depicting vast, sun-kissed peaks and impressionistic valleys and waterways and complimenting the hero’s journey to enlightenment present throughout. Dreadnought‘s gorgeous and beguiling artwork however implies a journey through space and time itself as the hero or heroes attempt to pass through a black hole to another “realm.” Though certainly “The Journey Album” often takes the form of a concept album — one in which a singular narrative story or conceptual theme is explored through the duration of the work — one is not necessarily indicative of the other. In these instances we’re far less concerned about the lyrical and conceptual content of each (though they’re certainly worth exploring on their own) and more with musically how these two distinct groups succeed in creating a sense of movement and momentum. By the end of both Lore and Bridging Realms, there’s a distinct feeling of being transported somewhere from point A to point B and of having a fully-rounded experience filled with the kind of travails, sights, and sounds one could, well, write an epic to. What is it exactly that creates this sensation, and what can these two albums tell us about how we listen to and interpret music as a whole?
First, let’s get some of the more obvious similarities out of the way. Lore and Bridging Realms are constructed very similarly, both featuring 5 tracks spanning a little under an hour, and almost all of these tracks (save one for each) run over 10 minutes in length. And though it’d be easy to overplay the surface-level commonality shared here, it does speak to two critical elements employed and subverted by each group: time and space. Journeys require a certain amount of physical time to develop. Inherent in the concept of The Journey is that there is quite a bit of distance between the start and end, and each piece of the journey is critical and must carry a certain weight to it. Repetition of melodies and themes is crucial to building the musical universe in which our journey resides, but where other bands and albums have failed to earn the lengthy runtimes bestowed upon them, Elder and Dreadnought avoid the common compositional pitfalls found in similar albums. Instrumental sections resist turning into meandering jam-outs or lazily-constructed crescendos and variations on a theme. Every solo, every riff, and every moment of quiet is important and earned, building up a tapestry that forms a brilliant image viewed close up or from afar.
Journey Albums like these two not only use musical “time” to evoke weight and importance, but they stretch and manipulate it. This is the “space” aspect, in which pacing and finesse make all the difference, and a quiet interlude can speak louder than any thunderous outburst could. Elder guitarist/vocalist Nick DiSalvo is a master of using little more than a few melodic ideas to construct sweeping instrumental sections and guitar solos that take a life of their own. They build, they die, they breathe, and when the time is right to propel the journey forward again, guitar riffs interlock with the deep pocketed groove of bass and drums to herald back in DiSalvo the narrator. Lore‘s title track (the longest of the bunch at 15:57) is the greatest embodiment of this. Six and a half minutes in, Elder had put together a fully-formed aggressive track featuring an epic intro, a couple of appropriately howling verses, and a killer solo interlude. Many bands would have ended it there, but then DiSalvo and crew tear the bottom out from beneath it to reveal a haunted dreamscape. DiSalvo re-enters with a beautiful and bright lick, a glimmer of light that becomes matched in momentum by drummer Matthew Couto and bassist Jack Donovan. DiSalvo’s riff repeats over and over, but the intent and execution change in subtle ways. It gets louder, meaner, grittier. It finally explodes into a brief rip-snorter of a solo and settles into a fuzzed-out stomping theme before finally coming back full circle to the opening theme in the last minute or so. By then though its meaning and intent have been transformed by the journey of the piece. That is Lore in a nutshell. It is both rather minimalist in its instrumentation and universe of sounds, but it is utterly maximalist in how it utilizes those sounds and the tools at their disposal.
On the other side, Bridging Realms employs a far more sprawling and eclectic mixture of elements but ultimately to a similar effect. If Lore is a solemn road traveling through hinted landscapes and extrapolated ideas from minimalist origins, Bridging Realms is a mighty Roman via, carving through space with the grandeur only the truly massive constructions can command. The musical ideas are far-stretching and far-gazing, encompassing a host of different genres and musical combinations. Over the helm of this mighty vessel reign supreme the twin vocals of Kelly Schilling and Lauren Vieira; they represent something that is often needed in journeys of this intricacy, and that is a beacon. Supporting them and perhaps exemplifying the paving stones that are the constant character of the road are the drums. They confer a sense of urgency, pacing and context for this entire album. No matter what experimentation happens above them, the drums on Bridging Realms are experts at making sure everything makes sense. However, this wouldn’t be a mighty adventure if all we had are grounding parts. To serve as the broad brushes of this creation and the marvelous colors which paint the way we have a host of instruments: guitars, strings, woodwinds (flute and sax are abound throughout) and the vocals once again, this time in a much changed role. By mixing all these different influences with the more “steady” elements of the album, Dreadnought introduce us to an element of utmost importance in Journey albums: a sense not only of space but also of location. It is quite easy to lose listeners in albums of this scope; the way to make sure that they stay with you is to give them a sense of where they are in the larger piece. This is accomplished by clever composition, leitmotifs and, most of all, a sense of purpose and goal that helps the listener understand where all of this is going. The last track off the album, self titled, is a great example of all of these elements: it opens with a hushed intro, gathering power and breath for what is the culmination and arrival at the destination of the Journey.
Slowly, much like the album itself, it introduces its elements: a piano is achieved and the drums intensify. All this leads to the return of the harsh vocals, which had been slightly absent from the middle of the album. The middle part of the song is all chaos but its controlled chaos: we can recognize patterns we know in the shifting guitars and subsequently in the screamed vocals. This all condenses into one place, into the ending of the track. As expected from crescendos, it is large and loud and epic. But it’s also clever, including little hints to where we’ve been and what the album has tried to say. Thus, it contains a smaller version of the album within itself, a sort of map to the road and how it makes sense.
The other key to these two albums’ success in conveying the sense of movement and journeying lies in their simultaneous embracing and blatant disregard for genre conventions. Both Lore and Bridging Realms are heavily indebted to the influences of classic doom and progressive rock — two genres known for long, ruminative material. Elder tend to stick more to overdriven stoner metal with a heavy emphasis on classic Sabbathian riffs mired in Electric Wizard-like bass-heavy molasses. The result is a beautiful tension between DiSalvo’s vocals and guitar often performing the role of the hero attempting to propel himself forward and being held back and obstructed by musical roadblocks and detours every which way. The trio had already cemented themselves as a more-than-capable stoner group in previous releases like Dead Roots Stirring, but Lore digs deeper and thinks bigger by incorporating more progressive elements of 70s classic rock while keeping them grounded in a modern context. This push-pull of old and new creates a sound dripping in nostalgia and familiarity but with a freshness that keeps their journey and album from becoming too predictable or staid.
Bridging Realms on the other hand holds its originality in the shifting of the standard balance, a remixing of the light and darkness often employed in metal. The chiaroscuro usually used places its weight on the dark: blast beats, growls and distortion more befitting black metal or blackened doom are usually the predominant elements. The “other” influences, whether they be classical, 70s or whichever, are the breaks in between of the heaviness. Dreadnought however believe in organic writing and placing each part where it fits. Therefore, none of their choices feel forced: “Oh, this is where the quiet part comes since we’ve had a few minutes of noise”. No, we are dealing with a tale here and in a tale, each part has its own time, mood and meter. Therefore, a lot of the album wouldn’t even be described close to metal: quiet parts filled with clever pianos, sparse drums, airy winds, and dreamy strings. But when the darkness kicks in, it’s darker for being that rare. When the transitions occur, they feel natural, smooth and necessary. This is how the idea of purpose, of an objective, of a timed movement towards that objective, indeed of the Journey itself is conveyed.
So to get back to our original question: what is it that we perceive in music such as this that creates such a keen sense of movement, story, and a path down which we travel? It requires a bold sense of musicality — one that plays with the rules and conventions of the artists and musicians before them but is unafraid to take chances and create sounds and combinations of sounds that are either new or exciting to the listener. Inherent in the Journey is a sense of risk or some sort of stakes, and playing it safe musically will never appropriately convey that risk and adventure that the album seeks to explore. Beyond that, like any good story itself, the Journey Album must introduce and employ contrasts of mood, dynamics, and tempo to make the best use of musical space and time. It must ebb and flow, knowing when to create and build tension, when to hold that tension, and when to finally alleviate that tension in a cathartic burst of energy or peaceful release. And in the end, it must do this while feeling cohesive and a singular piece of work. Even if it’s not strictly a concept album, it should build a musical vocabulary that is at once broad enough to maintain interest throughout but consistent enough to feel part of the same universe. Ultimately, it must capture the imagination and transform sound into a spectrum of images and emotions to transport us into the center of the action as participants or spectators.
One could certainly make the argument that this should apply to most music in general, regardless of genre or greater intent. But these expectations and necessities are heightened when constructing albums such as these. It all seems fairly straightforward and obvious until you listen to the bands who do it well and realize it’s not in the slightest. There are far more examples of bands who fall short of accomplishing all of this well than ones who hit the bar, let alone raise it. And though metal — which exists largely as a vehicle for exploration of extremes in mood, texture, and intent — should be uniquely suited for The Journey-themed song cycle, the ones who succeed are only those who dare to eschew the strict conventions that their genres and their fans often seem to demand of them. Rather, they must weave together material that feels natural and true to the path they each set out on — detours, deviations, obstacles, victories, and all. For as we all know, the road not taken often produces the greatest journeys of all.
-EK + NC