All posts by bradbirzer

By day, I'm a father of seven and husband of one. By night, I'm an author, a biographer, and a prog rocker. Interests: Rush, progressive rock, cultural criticisms, the Rocky Mountains, individual liberty, history, hiking, and science fiction.

Porcupine Tree’s Delerium Years: The Best Boxset You Don’t Own

Image borrowed from the Burning Shed website.

Few bands in the prog world have done as much to shape the last quarter century of the genre as has Porcupine Tree.  In many ways, they defined what is often called “third-wave prog,” giving it a certain psychedelic and hard edge. 

The glorious Delerium Years, 1991-1997, boxset captures the earliest part of the band’s history in a rich way.  Indeed, I would go so far as to say it’s the nicest boxset I now own, and I’m comparing it against/to boxsets/earbooks from Rush, Big Big Train, Spock’s Beard, Yes, Chris Squire, Ayreon, Dave Brubeck, Steven Wilson (solo), and others. 

The Delerium Years comes with the latest mixes of the five major releases from the band: On the Sunday of Life; Up the Downstair; The Sky Moves Sideways; Signify; and the live Coma Divine.  Each CD is individually packaged within the larger box set, though absent the individual booklets with lyrics and liner notes.  One can find all the liner notes and lyrics in the book that comes with the set—more on this below.  The Delerium Years also—rather wonderfully—includes the more experimental Voyage 34; Staircase Infinities; Insignificance; and Metanoia. Best of all, at least in terms of CDs is the inclusion of Transmission IV, a wild 40-minute improvisational rock epic, “Moonloop,” and a disk of previously unreleased tracks, The Sound of No One Listening. Though I love all the music, I’m most taken with “Moonloop.”

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Decorum and the Conservative Soul

[This piece is originally from 2015]

While my memories might verge on the edge of fuzzy nostalgia from time to time, I remember quite clearly what the women and men of the 1970s did in small-town neighborhoods.  In those years, I absolutely loved reading (and researching and writing—though, this would be another post), but I also loved running, biking, and exploring.  I could be. . . rather. . . well. . . hyper.  When I got too hyper and misbehaved, neighbors (usually women, as the men were at work) corrected me.  I don’t ever remember being spanked by a neighbor, but I certainly remember receiving stern “talking to”s.  The worst, of course, came if the neighbor decided to call my mom and let me know that I’d misbehaved.  If it went that far, I’d embarrassed not just myself but my entire family.

Regardless, in the 1970s, it was not just the right but the actual duty of the neighbor to discipline when necessary.  I certainly never questioned this, though I did sometimes fear it.

I also remember eating at a good but not excellent restaurant in my hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas, when I was in fourth or fifth grade.  A man at another table cussed.  When he did, heads turned, but everyone let is slide, presuming it was a one-time outburst.  When he continued to offer foul language at full volume, however, the other men in the restaurant became agitated, formed a small group, and approached the offender, letting him know in no uncertain terms that he had crossed a line and needed to cease such behavior.  My memory is that he needed no more persuasion after the others approached him.  Most likely, the men who approached the offender didn’t know each other, but they had a common purpose once he disrupted the atmosphere.  They knew it, and so did everyone else in the restaurant. 

Why these autobiographical stories?  Because, in 2015, I’m lucky if I can get out of a Wal-Mart without overhearing another shopper dropping the f-bomb, usually at her or his own kids.  What happened between 1975 and 2015?  A lot, apparently.  But, it’s not just Wal-Mart.  It’s in nearly every airport (once distinguished by some class—in dress as well as language), in nearly every shop, and certainly at every gas station.  But, if course, such horrific language is not just in person to person to communication.  TV shows—at least the science fiction ones I like—use sh*t without even the pretense of restraint, and podcasts about culture drop the f-bomb without any semblance of discrimination.

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Can Conservatism and LIbertarianism still Fuse?

When the forces of American progressivism emerged in the 1880s and 1890s, those who would one day be labeled as conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians found themselves quite ill-prepared for the intellectual and political onslaught.  Perhaps the best analyst at the time progressivism emerged, somewhat surprisingly, was E.L. Godkin, the venerable founder of THE NATION.

It was the rights of man which engaged the attention of the political thinkers of the eighteenth century.  The world had suffered so much misery from the results of dynastic ambitions and jealousies, the masses of mankind were everywhere so burdened by the exactions of the superior classes, as to bring about a universal revulsion against the principle of authority.  Government, it was plainly seen, had become the vehicles of oppression; and the methods by which it could be subordinated to the needs of individual development, and could be made to foster liberty rather than to suppress it, were the favorite study of the most enlightened philosophers.  In opposition to the theory of divine right, whether of kings or demagogues, the doctrine of natural rights was set up.  Humanity was exalted above human institutions, man was held superior to the State, and universal brotherhood supplanted the ideals of national power and glory. [Godkin, “The Eclipse of Liberalism,” NATION (August 9, 1900).]

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, Godkin lamented that most Americans found the Declaration of Independence an embarrassment, and the restraints of the Constitution antiquated.  “We hear no more of natural rights, but of inferior races,” he feared.  The great Anglo-Welsh historian, Christopher Dawson, had made a similar point, but it far more poetically jarring terms.  “When the century began, Jefferson was president of the United States, and George III was still King of England.  When it ended Lenin already was planning the Russian Revolution.”

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Socrates on Doing Wrong

From The Crito:

Soc. Are we to say that we are never intentionally to do wrong, or that in one way we ought and in another way we ought not to do wrong, or is doing wrong always evil and dishonorable, as I was just now saying, and as has been already acknowledged by us? Are all our former admissions which were made within a few days to be thrown away? And have we, at our age, been earnestly discoursing with one another all our life long only to discover that we are no better than children? Or are we to rest assured, in spite of the opinion of the many, and in spite of consequences whether better or worse, of the truth of what was then said, that injustice is always an evil and dishonor to him who acts unjustly? Shall we affirm that?

Cr. Yes.

Soc. Then we must do no wrong?

Cr. Certainly not.

Soc. Nor when injured injure in return, as the many imagine; for we must injure no one at all?

Cr. Clearly not.

Soc. Again, Crito, may we do evil?

Cr. Surely not, Socrates.

Soc. And what of doing evil in return for evil, which is the morality of the many-is that just or not?

Cr. Not just.

Soc. For doing evil to another is the same as injuring him?

Cr. Very true.

Tolkien, Wagner, Nationalism, and Modernity

“Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”–J.R.R. Tolkien

[Originally delivered at an ISI Conference, “Modernists and Mist Dwellers,” on Friday, August 3, 2001.]

     When the Swedish translation of The Lord of the Rings appeared in 1961, its author was appalled.  Fluent in Swedish, J.R.R. Tolkien found no problems with the translation.  Indeed, Tolkien often considered the various Scandinavian languages as better mediums for his Middle-earth stories than English, as the medieval Norse and Icelandic myths had strongly influenced them.  His disgust, instead, came from the presumption found within the introduction to the Swedish edition.  The crime: translator Åke Ohlmark had compared Tolkien’s ring to Wagner’s ring.  “The Ring is in a certain way ‘der Niebelungen Ring,’” Ohlmark had written. Indignant, Tolkien complained to his publisher: “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.”  The translator’s commentary was simply “rubbish,” according to Tolkien.[i]

     Ohlmark was not the only critic to make the comparison.  A Canadian English professor, William Blissett, reviewing The Lord of the Rings for the prestigious South Atlantic Quarterly, found several parallels between the two legends but was unwilling to preclude “any direct Wagnerian influence.”[ii]  By the early 1960s, the comparison was becoming common.  In his last interview before his death, Tolkien’s closest friend C.S. Lewis claimed to have wanted to write a new prose version of Wagner’s Ring Opera.  Lewis feared, though, that “at the mention of the word Ring a lot of people might think it was something to do with Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings.’”[iii]  Since the first comparisons in the 1950s, many critics have used Wagner’s Ring against Tolkien.  One famous English poet referred to The Lord of the Rings as “A combination of Wagner and Winnie-the-Pooh.”[iv]

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Remembering 1990 in Music

A few days ago, I felt absolutely snarky and thought, “why not write down exactly what I think of music from the 1980s.”  In some ways, I feel I have the right to do this in a manner I could never for any other decade. 

I was in seventh grade when a very disturbed fanboy tried to kill the fortieth president, and I was a first-semester senior in college when the Berlin Wall came down. 

Yes, I’m very much a man of the 1980s.  Reagan, Rush, Blade Runner. . . how I remember the 1980s.  I came of age in that rather incredible decade.

Life continued after 1989, however, though I wasn’t so sure at the time that it would.

1990 proved to be one of the most interesting years in my personal life when it came to career choices as well as to music. 

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Edmund Burke Against the Antagonist World

Liberty Fund Edition of Reflections.

[Originally published at The Imaginative Conservative]

Should one generation ever consider itself greater than any other generation, past or future, Edmund Burke warned in his magisterial Reflections on the Revolution in France, the entire fabric of a civilization might very well unravel and, ultimately, disintegrate.  Our modern ears have no right to discount Burke’s argument as simple hyperbole.  What takes centuries to build and hone, however, can take moments to undo.  We have witnessed numerous generations since Burke wrote this, and we have seen the arrogance of several, but most especially the Vatican II generation and the so-called “counter-culture” generation of the 1960s.  To this day, we suffer from the arrogance of each.  They each, in the name of toleration, progress, liberalism, and humanitarianism to submit to their teachings blindly.  As one great Canadian and Stoic man of letters argued in the early 1980s, “They shout about love, but when push comes to shove, they fight for things they’re afraid of.” 

Once a generation succeeds in separating itself from past and future, it harms not just civilization but the very dignity of man.  The individual man, unanchored, becomes, Burke noted darkly, “would become little better than the flies of summer.”

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I Never Met Russell Kirk

[First published at The Imaginative Conservative}

At the beginning of his Histories, Herodotus notes that a normal person enjoys 26,250 days in his or her life, no day ever exactly like another.  I’m not quite sure I want to count how many days I have left, assuming I could even know such a thing. It’s certainly very wise of the Good Lord not to let us know such things.

Still, as I think about my own days, some wisely spent, others squandered, I have only a few serious regrets.

One of my two most important—at least as it hovers over my being—is that I never actually met Dr. Russell Amos Augustine Kirk in person.  I had the opportunity several times, but I never took advantage of these.  There are lots of reasons why this happened (or, as the case really was, failed to happen), but they really all came down to the same thing—I took too much for granted while in my 20s.  I seemed invulnerable as did those I loved and admired.  As one of my other heroes, Neil Peart, once wrote, “We’re only immortal for a very short time.”  My immortality seemed rather assured as did that of those whom I respected.  Strange considering my own father died when I was only two months old.  Yet, that happened before I was conscious of the world, and the whole story of his death had much more mythical significance than real influence.

Life has a funny way of teaching us each the lessons we so painfully need to learn, and I was rather shocked in the summer of 1994 when I heard that Russell Kirk had passed away.  I was only 26, but I knew I had missed my chance to meet the great man, a man I had studied intensely for about six years at that point. 

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Approaching Weathertop: Anatomy of a Scene

In his personal recollections of his mentor, hero, and friend, George Sayer remembered that J.R.R. Tolkien possessed the uncanny ability to match his facial expressions and speech patterns to and with the prevailing mood of any given conversations.  “As I saw with him and the Lewis brothers in the pub, I remember being fascinated by the expressions on his face, the way they changed to suit what he was saying,” Sayers recollected. “Often he was smiling, genial, or wore a pixy look. A few seconds later he might burst into savage scathing criticism, looking fierce and menacing. Then he might soon again become genial.”[1] It was not affectation, but sincere intensity. The very same might (and should) be claimed of his writing ability. When the mood calls for levity, Tolkien writes with levity. When the mood calls for depth, Tolkien writes with depth. When the mood calls for contemplation, Tolkien writes contemplatively. As a twentieth-century author, he was an absolute master at this.

One can see Tolkien’s skill in the approach to Weathertop, chapter 11 of book one of The Fellowship of the Ring, “A Knife in the Dark.” Having slowly fled the social and near fatal disasters of Bree, September 30, the four hobbits, Bill the Pony, and Strider the Ranger make their way east of the village, en route to the Elvish safe haven of Rivendell. They won’t arrive in Rivendell until late on October 20, but they have no idea of just how long it will take. Dispirited, the party moves anxiously and uneasily, not sure who in the village had betrayed them to the demonic black riders. The same riders—at least four of them—attack Frodo and his party on the evening of October 6.

On October 4, after an agonizing journey through insect-ridden marshes, Frodo and his party spot Weathertop for the first time. Strider advises a roundabout route, thus approaching Weathertop from the north, a path better hidden from the spies of the enemies. On October 5, the hobbits feel refreshed after a good night’s sleep. “There was a frost in the air, and the sky was a pale clear blue,” Tolkien writes.[2] As the party nears Weathertop, they find themselves on “an undulating ridge, often rising almost to a thousand feet, and here and there falling again to low clefts or passes.” The last looks and leads into the east, seemingly endless in vista, and the party views “what looked to be the remains of green-grown walls and dikes, and in the clefts there stood the ruins of old works of stone.”

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The (accidental) Christian Humanism of Steven Wilson

The Meaning of a Life: Steven Wilson’s Hand.Cannot.Erase.

An Incarnational Whole

One of the greatest things in this whirligig of a world—however fraught with a string of perilous and gut-wrenching disasters—is the mystery of the human person.  And, until God so decides to end this existence, every person is a new reflection of the Infinite.  From the Catholic Humanist perspective, every human is an unrepeatable center of dignity and freedom.  Each person, born in a particular place and time, comes only once, a life to burn as brightly or not, for one’s self or for another, in the time allotted to each of us.  “Dark and inscrutable are the ways in which we come into the world,” the grand Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher, Edmund Burke, understood.  Fewer truths have ever been spoken in such perfect formation of the English language. 

Yet, speaking on the mystery of the person and personhood, Pope John Paul II put it even more beautifully in the penultimate month of 1996.

The mystery of the Incarnation has given a tremendous impetus to man’s thought and artistic genius. Precisely by reflecting on the union of the two natures, human and divine, in the person of the Incarnate Word, Christian thinkers have come to explain the concept of person as the unique and unrepeatable centre of freedom and responsibility, whose inalienable dignity must be recognized. This concept of the person has proved to be the cornerstone of any genuinely human civilization.

As someone who has had the privilege of teaching history and writing biography the entirety of his professional career, I hope and pray that John Paul II’s words and ideas each across everything I teach, think, and write.  As such, I am always looking at and for new ways to understand the dignity of each individual person, however tragically flawed.

Nearly six years ago, such a statement and manifestation of dignity arrived in the most unusual of ways: in the form of a rock concept album by the rather devoutly atheistic, seemingly always grumpy, and unbelievably talented English musician, Steven Wilson.  His album, a sixty-seven minute story about a lost soul, came out on February 27, 2015.  In terms of lyrics and music, Wilson’s work is extraordinary by the standards of any genre.  What should intrigue us most, however, is the subject matter and how Wilson fills it out.  The subject matter is the uniqueness of each human person, and he focuses on the life of one lost soul.

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