*prognotes breaks down and analyzes your favourite metal and progressive concept albums lyrically and musically. Read other entries in this series here.
A split EP brought to us by The Ocean and Mono, Transcendental took Heavy Blog’s EP of the year award for 2015. Despite being an EP featuring artists of differing styles and only two tracks, the record has a runtime of almost 25 minutes and a consistent concept throughout so, without further ado, let’s dig deep into what makes Transcendental so damn good.
The concept of the record is the cycle of life, reincarnation and the journey of the human soul. The main inspiration for The Ocean’s contribution, “The Quiet Observer,” is Gaspard Noe’s film Enter The Void, which draws inspiration from the Bardo Thodol, more commonly known as the Tibetan Book Of The Dead. According to the Bardo Thodol there are three hierarchical bardo, or intermediate states between death and nirvana, in which the human soul can find itself. If the soul can successfully traverse one of these states it is liberated and reaches nirvana, if not then it is condemned to reincarnation and another mortal life, the process then repeating itself indefinitely. The sooner the soul reaches nirvana, the greater its state of Enlightenment. The first bardo is comprised of two stages, and the first of which is entered at the moment of death. To achieve liberation the soul must recognise itself as being one with The Clear Light of Ultimate Reality, otherwise it proceeds down to the second stage. There it must recognise itself with a deity in order to achieve Enlightenment, otherwise it falls down yet another stage, this time into the second bardo. The second bardo is also divided into two stages. In the first stage the soul will be visited by seven peaceful deities, one at a time, and if they respond to that deity with peace and positivity they will be liberated. Should they fail to do so they will fall into the second stage; and this is where it gets really interesting.
In the second stage of the second bardo, the soul meets seven wrathful deities, the buddhist equivalent of demons, jinn or oni. These demons are the very image of terror and horror, hideous beings meting out brutal, torturous and sadistic assaults on all whom they encounter. Yet, these demons are actually the peaceful deities in disguise; and if the human soul can recognise each demon for what they truly are, then they will achieve second-degree liberation (second-degree because they’re in the second bardo). Again, if unsuccessful the soul falls down another layer, this time to the third bardo where they meet the Lord of Death for judgement. Here, they must face up to their own karma as well as the demonic lord and its evil minions. If the soul can recognise that these evil beings are merely projections from their own mind, the manifestation of their sins if you will, then they will achieve third-degree liberation. If unsuccessful, the soul is then hunted by these ghastly apparitions and driven to a difficult choice. It can either go into the Light and find freedom at last, or it can flee and find shelter in the form of a cave. If the soul chooses the latter, the caves into which they’ve hidden are not caves at all, but wombs. Thus the soul will be forced to re-enter the world, its karma determining precisely what it is reincarnated as, the cycle of life and death beginning anew. Now with this context in mind, we can finally turn our attention to the record itself, beginning with The Ocean’s “The Quiet Observer.”
The track begins with somewhat muffled drum work and a soothing, melancholic cello. The wistful peace of the passage evokes a sense that our subject has just died, that they’ve just entered the first bardo. Faint vocals can be heard echoing in the background:
Even here, right at the beginning of our analysis, the context we’ve established means even such simple lyrics are given a duplicitous meaning. Is it that our subject has just died, that their soul has risen from their body and they’re looking to float into nirvana? Or are they trying to rise to a higher place and achieve liberation, yet they float helplessly through the first bardo, unable to attain Enlightenment? In any case, even a cursory glance at the artwork, with its four prominent demonic figures, indicates that our subject eventually finds themselves in either the third bardo or, at the very least, in the latter stages of the second. This is confirmed by the lyrics:
Our subject has been deceived by the wrathful deities and, by extension, they’ve therefore been deceived by themselves, unable to ascend through either the first or second bardo. Yet the final line conjures more questions than it does answers. At what point can our subject now see the truth? Are they still in the third bardo, such that they can now see through their self-deception and reach nirvana? Or has the process of reincarnation already begun, the soul reaching such a conclusion after it is already too late? We then come across a refrain of the first lyrics we encountered, only instead of being faint echoes in the background, they’re now the first demonstration of harsh vocals, shouted amidst fittingly dissonant instrumentation:
The use of harsh vocals suggest an inner struggle, whilst the dissonant guitar lines show that the answer is not an easy one to find, that confusion and chaos are rampant. Despite this, the use of the word light in the first line, rather than rise, implies we are now in the third bardo, our subject fleeing the demons and looking to rise towards the light, the last hope of liberation in this life-cycle. This theme continues throughout the next several passages of the song, our central figure all the more cognisant of what is happening around them, seemingly beginning to find their way to the light. However, if there is one thing which we have learned thus far, it is to expect ambiguities:
Such earthly statements seem out of place for one on the verge of Enlightenment, one who has accepted the very nature of the reality in which they find themselves. They imply that there is some unfinished business on Earth, that there might be cause for reincarnation. The following verse does little to clarify such ambiguities:
Seemingly unable to look past and transcend the memories of their life. On the other hand this verse points out they’re flying to another place – but where? Whilst an initial interpretation suggests they’re leaving the sphere of life and ascending to nirvana, the term void does not fit in within such a paradigm. Void is the antonym of Enlightenment, so where is it that this soul is actually going? There is only one alternative: a cave.
The music is still dark and foreboding here, but it’s also mellowing, with softer vocals and melodic guitar tapping replacing the dissonant lines previously encountered. The soul is now tired of the fight, tired of running, and in need of a quiet place away from everything other than its own thoughts. The irony here is gorgeous, given that the soul has been battling and fleeing its own thoughts the entire time, ultimately falling victim to its own blade. The verse fades out in a disarmingly peaceful manner before a sample, presumably from the film ‘Enter The Void’, hits the listener like a kick to the gut:
This is followed by another cycle of the “Rise, float” refrain and all that comes with it, the remainder of the track also featuring a return of two other passages we’ve come across before: firstly the “quiet place inside” chorus, and secondly the combination of cello and understated drums. Thus the structure of the song itself embodies the underlying concept, passages re-entering the track in a cyclical fashion and reincarnating throughout the course of the song. The intro and outro have a similar aesthetic to them and feature the same instruments, cello and drums, but their melodies are different; just as two lives may be similar to one another without being exactly the same, even though each life shares a common soul. This all makes “The Quiet Observer” one of the finest songs The Ocean have ever written and, coming off of the back of a phenomenal album such as Pelagial, we can’t wait to see what the future holds. But we’re not done just yet. After all there are two sides to this disc, and so it’s time to dive into its second track.
Mono’s contribution, the aptly titled “Death in Reverse,” plays with the concept just as well as “The Quiet Observer,” an impressive feat given its instrumental nature. The track begins with a lone and somber melody on guitar, immediately picking up where The Ocean left off in terms of vibe and spirit. This melancholic atmosphere fits well with both the beginning and the ending of “The Quiet Observer,” yet another reference to life cycles and reincarnation. It doesn’t take long for tremolo picking to emerge, accompanied by an evenly paced kick and a shimmering of cymbals. The track’s intensity then continues to build as they add layer upon layer, the sonic power of the piece growing with each iteration, with each cycle. The drumming helps accentuate this, the snare issuing a martial beat which gives the piece a certain desperation, stirring up a wave of emotions in the listener. Given the track’s title, one could consider this section as describing the final moments before death itself, symbolic of the soul gradually leaving behind its mortal body. However, given that this passage represents half of the song’s total runtime, it could also be interpreted as a representation of the human lifetime as a whole, the build-up representing an inevitable, inexorable movement towards life’s only certainty: death. Alternatively again, one could see it as symbolising the moments immediately after death, a depiction of the soul’s desperate struggle to finally recognise the truth, to reach nirvana and finally liberate itself of this constant cycle of life-and-death. A fourth interpretation is that the narrative of “The Quiet Observer” is being continued, that the soul has found a womb and is once again coming to life, the literal process of “Death in Reverse.” The instrumental nature of their sound opens up even more possibilities and interpretations than “The Quiet Observer” did, the lack of lyrics offering fewer hints as to what they’re trying to communicate.
This remarkably intense passage of the track always seems as if it has reached, or is about to reach, its crescendo, only to keep building, the weight of it all crushing the listener. Counting out the meter of the drums here reveals a steady pace throughout, yet it somehow feels as if it’s getting faster and faster with each cycle, Mono proving once again to be masters of their craft. After the inevitable crescendo passes, the track continues for a further four minutes, an assortment of strings, piano, glockenspiel and even wind samples giving the remainder of the EP a cinematic feel. The use of strings hark back to The Ocean’s use of cello, another common thread between the two halves. Structurally this is also familiar, a mellow and sombre outro mirroring the emotions to be found at the beginning of the track, the intertwining of beginning and end, of life and death, superb. While there are differences between the two tracks, making them two different bodies if you will, it is clear that they have the same soul, both of them following the same concept and emitting a similar vibe and atmosphere. It may appear that we’ve reached the end of our analysis, but there is still an entire aspect of this release which we have yet to fully consider. Stay tuned for this week’s A Gift to Artwork post, where we will complete our analysis by exploring how the themes, music and lyrics discussed here will tie in with the beautiful cover artwork by Florian Bertmer. See you there!