This can be said of the other Heavy Rewinds I’ve written as well, but this time we’ll be mostly focusing on a single album from a band’s discography. While Sieges Even produced many albums, only two of them are worthwhile of our attention and from those two, The Art of Navigating By the Stars is the one masterpiece. While Paramount is also a good record, the rest are really best forgotten: they feature a band unbalanced, with progressive tendencies to make even the most rarified stomachs curl. Their vocals are unhinged, their structure is non-existent and, in general, they seem to exist for their own benefit rather than for the listeners.
However, we’re not here to talk about sub-par albums, we’re here to talk about masterful ones and that’s what we’ll do. The Art of Navigating By the Stars is perhaps the best progressive, modern rock/metal album of all time. Yep, I said it; there are no brakes on this superlative train. It features an impossibly tight mix between the softer sides of progressive rock, robust and intense “heavier” passages and amazing, emotional vocals. The album is a concept album in the sense that it uses the same metaphorical language to describe a mental journey, the protagonist’s attempt to piece together his life after some world-shattering event. This event, and the images used to come to terms with the mental states it creates, are at the core of what makes this album work. Let’s dive in.
The lyrics are about half of the album’s charm; they’re incredibly well written, intricate images used for all sorts of emotional and mental states. Therefore, this article will be a sort of hybrid between a Heavy Rewind and a *prognotes articles. We’re going to spend a lot of our time on the lyrics of this phenomenal story. In fact, let’s take a look at some from the opening track, “The Weight”, to get us started:
“A god beat light nails
Deep into the flesh of a summer night
Words fell from a paper moon
To come alive in a lonely room
Time was standing still
As giants broke the cardboard sword
The old bridge sank into the river
All certainties disappeared
Roads and rivers are winded in a circle
Around the curled up monumental me
Outside looking in time and again
Feeling the weight of a jaded dream”
These few lines introduce not only the setting, that same disastrous event we referenced earlier, but also the main imagery that will accompany us throughout. That is a nautical language, drawing on the theme encapsulated in the album’s title. Water, charts, boats and more will be our mainstay through this journey, often describing not only the mental state of the protagonist but his self awareness as well, the image of himself that he sees when looking in. As far as music goes, we find the heaviest riff on the album in this track, providing its backbone. While not yet flourishing into their full potential on this record, the drums are also an important ingredient, utilizing powerful cymbals to accentuate the track’s progression.
The next high point of the album can be found on “Unbreakable”. This track first tests the true mettle of the drums, beginning to establish them as the most important instrument on the album. Their performance right after the climax of the track is some of the best backing drums in progressive metal’s history, beautifully embellishing the deceptively simple structures of the returning verse. The lyrics continue the maritime theme, this time capturing the essential quality of what this journey is all about: self exploration and, more importantly, self-work.
“Tonight I’m drilling holes
Into the blueprint in my chart
To drain the liquid shades of gray
That ran like rivers from my monument
To reach the core to breathe again
Find the long lost words
My credo and my curse:
“We few, we happy few””
Note the William Shakespeare reference in the last line; that’s from Henry V, right before the battle of Agincourt and calls to our mind the images of frightened troops facing great odds yet confident in their victory and glory. Fittingly enough, the album chooses this moment to dive deep into what makes it tick. “Stigmata” is a masterpiece of drum/bass interactions, featuring the best collaboration between these instruments in the last few decades (Superlative Train, choo choo!). When the line “walk with me” comes, just ignore it and listen to the drums instead and how the bass works with it. Sheer, progressive mastery.
The next peak is right next door, with the quietest track on the album coming in. “Blue Wide Open”, wherein the protagonist find himself in an open sea, reflecting calm, faith and an emotional center but also underlined with pent up anger, contains not only some of the best lyrics of the album but also some of the best guitar work. There’s a riff in the main verse (there’s no real chorus) that repeats just once and is so beautiful it makes you cry with longing. That feeling is compounded by the aforementioned lyrics, beautifully tying the scape into the overall imagery of the album:
“Riding on a sea spray
Falling from the sky
Riding on a sea spray
Blue wide open sea and sky
just like an echo of light
Canned in the heart of the stone
A wayward pulse beating in the stillness
Beneath the snow something’s breaking through”
There are many more moments on this album which are worthy of our attention. Closer “Styx” brings the imagery into fruition while also repeating on the musical theme presented in the first track and thus, in true progressive fashion, turning the album into a circle. However, for the sake of brevity I’ll finish with one last request: go listen to this album. It distills something about the spirit of what progressive metal/rock is that I can’t simply convey in words here. Sure, the drums are great and so is the bass. To be sure, the lyrics and the guitars are a big part of it. But when the parts are added up there’s some mysterious ingredient or element that resists parsing. It’s not exactly below the surface? Above the skyline? An aura of greatness or a shard of empathy? Whatever it is, it elevates The Art of Navigating By the Stars into one of the most personally important albums I have. Come share it with me.