Category Archives: Music

Culture, High and Low

Spirit of Cecilia twitter account says — “We love culture, high and low” — that does sort of mirror my interests. Reading and writing about classic Liberals, British and American — reading and writing about extreme metal, Scandinavian and American, tend to be my hobbies. Sort of occupying the two margins of culture — ancient and high, and then what some would term as low and loud I guess.

Thanks to Prof. Birzer for inviting me, and providing another platform to convey ideas.

Every Soul a Battlefield: Rush’s HEMISPHERES

A review of the 2-CD remastered version of Rush, Hemispheres, 40th Anniversary Edition.  Please note: I have NOT seen the deluxe edition yet.  It should be arriving soon.

An album that wants us to find the whole person.

Hemispheres represents Rush at its most progressive best—that is, until 2012’s Clockwork Angels. 

Indeed, Hemispheres represents Rush at its earliest progressive best. Caress of Steel might be more wacky; 2112 might be more anthemic; and A Farewell to Kings might be more diverse in tone; but Hemispheres is an album without flaw. Even though much of the album came about at the last minute and with little thought, Geddy and Alex were certainly at the height of their musical experimentation, and Neil had moved from writing short stories and prose poem to write a full novel and creating its own logically consisted internal world. Having already explored the mystical fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, the bizarre individualism of Ayn Rand, Peart now embraced the work of one of the most complicated and best philosophers of the modern age, Friedrich Nietzsche. What made all the glorious pieces of this majestic moment in Rush history come together, though, was certainly Terry Brown’s flawless production and Hugh Syme’s surreal art.

The inspiration for Peart’s exploration of Apollo and Dionysius.

It would be hard to exaggerate Brown’s productions skills. On Caress, everything felt like a razor’s edge cutting through the haze of psychedelia. 2112 felt righteously angry, a call to arms to protect all that is good in western civilization. Farewell felt justly wise and statesmanlike, three intelligent men challenging the corruption so comfortably residing in their midst. Hemispheres, however, perfectly combines classical myth and 1970s era space opera, allowing a narrative that explains the Aristotelian notion of moderation while clothed in the tragic prose of Nietzsche and yet still giving us a Skywalker-esque hero in Cygnus. “Let the love of truth shine clear.” The first side ends with the apotheosis of Cygnus, becoming not just the god of moderation, but the most integrated and indispensable man yet to emerge in the universe. [Make sure to go to page 2–by clicking below]

The Genius of Sam Healy and NAO

A review of North Atlantic Oscillation, Grind Show(Kscope, 2018). Out today.

Ok, I’m in the confessional. Bless me, Sam Healy, for I have sinned. Well, sort of.  When North Atlantic Oscillation came out with their first album, Grappling Hooks, I was stunned. Just stunned.  I had it within days of its initial release, back in late 2009, and it seemed (and still seems) to be the perfect mixture of prog and pop. Truly art rock in the best sense of the term, following in the line (of tradition, not sound) of the Beach Boys, XTC, Kate Bush, and Tears for Fears.  It opened my own mind and soul to a million possibilities in music and art, and it also introduced me to the label, Kscope.  Kscope, I’d assumed, was the British prog equivalent of Pixar in the United States—a techno fun house of intense creativity and unending paths into realms unknown.

When NAO released Fog Electricin 2012, I wasn’t sure what to think of it.  I liked it very much, but, for some reason, it didn’t resonate immediately with me. It was clearly intelligent (to the point of just being downright cerebral), but it seemed a bit cold to me. Then—and I remember it as a glorious moment—I tried it again, roughly a year after its initial release. Something hit me profoundly just as the album hit the 13-minute mark in the middle of track 4, “Empire Waste,” and the entire album just clicked for me.  In prog rock, typically, one expects the song breaks to mean something, the start of one idea and the end of another.  Not with NAO. The great breaks come in the middle of songs, not at the beginning or the end.  I didn’t catch that until my listen of Fog Electric, a year after its release.  To this day, a half decade ago, I regard it as one of the finest albums I’ve ever heard.  If pushed, it would certainly be in my top 25 all-time favorites.

The Underfall Yard: Big Big Train’s Tribute to Unsung Heroes and Everyday Miracles

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. —G. K. Chesterton

Underfall Yard Cover

I first came to Big Big Train in 2010 through their generous offerings on http://www.bigbigtrain.com. Back then, they gave away downloads of most of the songs on The Difference Machine and The Underfall Yard. Their marketing technique worked – I was soon ordering hard copies of every BBT album I could find. I continue to buy, music unheard, any new release of theirs, and English Electric, Folklore, Grimspound, and The Second Brightest Star have provided hours of listening delight.

However, if forced to pick one BBT album to take with me to a desert island, I would not hesitate to choose The Underfall Yard. This is the first album to feature David Longdon, and his contributions raise the album to an entirely new level. Even though the liner notes list only Greg Spawton, Andy Poole, and David Longdon as members of Big Big Train, future members Nick D’Virgilio and Dave Gregory are integral players on every song. Add in Francis Dunnery (It Bites) and Jem Godfrey (Frost*), and you have an ensemble that is unmatched in contemporary prog.

Continue reading The Underfall Yard: Big Big Train’s Tribute to Unsung Heroes and Everyday Miracles

Music and the Arts Over Partisan Politics

Named for St. Cecilia, patroness of music and the arts, this blog, Spirit of Cecilia, highlights music, art, poetry, fiction, history, biography, and film. These fields of enjoyment and expression are creative and interactive, requiring both a transmitter and a recipient to achieve their fullest potential and profoundest effects.

It’s my hope that these fields, which we might usefully and with slight reservation label the humanities, can accomplish far more than partisan politics to expand the frontiers of knowledge and deepen our understanding of ourselves as human beings created by an awesome God.  Anger is not a constructive starting point for connecting with strangers or political opponents if the goal is mutual understanding. Hard logic puts strangers and political opponents on the defensive, causing them to question the logician’s motives and work through whatever problems and challenges the logician has presented.  But aesthetics: they provide pleasure and the kind of sensory experience in which people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs share and delight. This is not a grand claim about the universality of standards of beauty but rather a plain statement about the obvious draw of humans to phenomena that stir in them strange and wonderful emotions, that cause them to think about the timeless questions that the greatest minds over the centuries have contemplated with differing degrees of gravity and intensity. The fact that we have music, art, poetry, fiction, history, biography, and film at all suggests a certain commonality among human likes and desires across places and cultures.

I am an administrator in a law school, a recovering lawyer you might say, who happens to have earned a doctorate in English.  I am grateful to Dr. Bradley Birzer for including me as a contributor to the Spirit of Cecilia and have high hopes for what it can achieve. Life is difficult for everyone at some time or another.  Wouldn’t it be great if this site were a forum where friendships are built, ideas are exchanged civilly and in good faith, and a profound awareness of our shared humanity served as the predicate for our interpretations and communications?  I look forward to writing in this space. May it flourish.

–Allen Mendenhall

Cecilian Ode #1

A Hymn for St. Cecilia, composed by Herbert Howells [1892-1983]

Sing for the morning’s joy, Cecilia, sing,
In words of youth and praises of the Spring,
Walk the bright colonnades by fountains’ spray,
And sing as sunlight fills the waking day;
Till angels, voyaging in upper air,
Pause on a wing and gather the clear sound
Into celestial joy, wound and unwound,
A silver chain, or golden as your hair.

Sing for your loves of heaven and of earth,
In words of music, and each word a truth;
Marriage of heart and longings that aspire,
A bond of roses, and a ring of fire.
Your summertime grows short and fades away,
Terror must gather to a martyr’s death;
But never tremble, the last indrawn breath
Remembers music as an echo may.

Through the cold aftermath of centuries,
Cecilia’s music dances in the skies;
Lend us a fragment of th’immortal air,
That with your choiring angels we may share,
A word to light us thro’ time-fettered night,
Water of life, or rose of paradise,
So from the earth another song shall rise
To meet your own in heaven’s long delight.

— Text by Ursula Vaughan Williams [1911-2007]

This is the first in an occasional series exploring the Cecilian Ode, a uniquely English poetic and musical genre that spans the centuries from the late 1600s to the present.  More to come!

— Rick Krueger