Monday, 30 May 2011

"Never Tease Wolves Who Arrive at Your Door:" On the Splendour of Progressive Rock Band Aragon

In 1996, an acquaintance lent me two CDs. One was IQ's The Wake (which made an IQ fan out of me) and the other was Don't Bring the Rain, the first full-length CD from the lesser known Australian progressive rock gem Aragon. And I took to the latter immediately.

The band was formed in Melbourne in 1986 by Tom Behrsing (keyboards), John Poloyannis (guitar) and Les Dougan (vocals), and added two more members – Rob Bacon (bass) and Tony Italia (drums) – after having spent months writing songs. Don't Bring the Rain was first released as a mini-LP in 1988, but as it made some success in Europe, the band recorded extra tracks for a full-length CD release, which saw the light of day in 1990 (and reached my own hands some five to six years later). Bacon left the band even before the release of the CD, however, and Italia followed suit in 1991 (albeit for different reasons), leaving the band in its original trio format, in which it has remained since.

After having been introduced to the band, it was not long before I had bought Don't Bring the Rain myself as well as their 1995 concept album Mouse, and the preceding six-tracks mini-CD The Meeting (1992), which is actually Act 5 of the concept album served up as a kind of work in progress teaser (in fact, in 1999, Mouse was re-released by LaBraD'or Records as a double-CD incorporating The Meeting in its proper place in the story). I also managed to track down the rarer 1993 release Rocking Horse and Other Stories, which collects material from demos and the like, including the 20-minutes epic "Rocking Horse." While this material is recorded in lesser quality, it nevertheless provides a good glimpse into the earliest stages of the band, and "Rocking Horse" alone makes the CD worth getting.

By the time Mr. Angel was released in 1997 (as the band's first recording in their own studio and their first release on LaBraD'or Records), I was eagerly anticipating the album. At the time, it represented something of a break from the progressive rock found on Don't Bring the Rain and then developed in the concept album format on Mouse, and while I know that this slightly more pop-rock oriented music disappointed some of my friends at the time, I liked it (albeit in a different way than the earlier CDs).

That being said, when the band's latest album to date, The Angels Tear (2004), I was not in the least bit saddened by the fact that the band was returning to their progressive roots. Rather the opposite.

So what is that makes Aragon so fantastic in my humble opinion? Well, one need only consider the great melodies and the fantastic lyrics, wonderfully interpreted vocally by Les Dougan. Dougan's vocals are quite particular, and I know people who find them hard to digest (just as some people have a hard time digesting the vocals of Rush's Geddy Lee), but the emotion expressed is raw, beautiful and gets me every time.

Or to let you sample their greatness on your own, allow me to present four highly recommended tracks I found on YouTube.

First out, "In Company of Wolves" from Don't Bring the Rain, the playful lyrics of which I absolutely fell in love with the first time I heard it:

Secondly, "The Changeling" from The Meeting (and consequently Mouse), which certainly gives a good sense of where and what the band was about during this period:

Thirdly, a step back into the past, Aragon's epic 20-minutes song "Rocking Horse", which is a really well-constructed song with a good set of narrative lyrics:

And finally, I would like to leave you with a sample of the band's latest release. "Growing Up in Cuckoo Land" is the opening track on The Angels Tear:

And for those of you who find this stuff interesting, I can also inform you that the band is currently working on new material. While there is not yet any set release date, this is indeed great news for all Aragon fans out there – old and new!

(And lest I kill any people from the suspense, I better end this post with a quick tie-in with the preceding second anniversary post. The blog's new sibling (of sorts) arrived not on the day of the anniversary itself, but half an hour into the following day (as if to ensure a celebratory day of his own). So, as predicted, I was indeed elsewhere as the post went up, but after many an hours wait, my son deigned to grace us with his presence. And that, as they say, is that.)

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The Musings of the Mad Swede: Year Two

Before you say it: I know, I am off-schedule. I am in fact five days early, as the next post was not really due until next Monday, May 23. But then again, who could miss an anniversary, or the opportunity to celebrate it? Not I, apparently.

It is now two years ago, on the date, since I first sat down and wrote my mission statement of sorts. And I still stick by it. Sure, there is since October 31 last year an obvious change of publishing pace, but the central parameters of the mission statement still holds and that shift itself is more of a logical extension of those parameters than a break from them.

One year ago, also on the date, I sat down and took stock of my first year as a blogger. Having tried my hand at it, I mused on whatever success (however such a thing is ever measured) I had had in my endeavours. At the time, I noted that I was still more or less on target with the 51st post in 53 weeks (yes, I admitted to having been off target by two posts) and now, 52 weeks later, I have added 38 posts, counting this one (i.e. the 89th). And still, it is not just a number's game.

Looking back over the past year, I have dealt with a host of different subjects: like why censorship does not work, but also the darker sides to freedom of speech and why even these cannot unproblematically justify legal censorship. I have discussed Dutch literature and Swedish comics. I have confessed myself as a literary Satanist and shown my new-found appreciation of Master Word Smith Taylor Mali. I have mused on why feature films are not the filmic equivalents of novels and why it is important to let artists be artists of whatever medium might be theirs. I have celebrated the genius of Jim Henson's Muppet Show, the (lyrical) brilliance of Marillion's Fugazi and the fantastic nature (in both senses of that phrase) of Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children. I have reported from last year's Göteborg Book Fair (in two parts at that). And I spent a month looking into various aspects of writer Adnan Mahmutović (scriptwriter, author and scholar).

Heck, I have even written a faux Post #100, the content of which is not too shabby (if I may say so myself), even though its basic numerical premise mayhap reveals its author's lack of mathematical inclinations.*

All in all, I would say it is not too shabby an accomplishment.

As a final aside (which I cannot refrain from including), this year's anniversary is in some sense doubly significant for me. Two year's ago words came from my head through my fingers into this virtual space... and onwards into the real world via your noggins. Much like Pallas Athena sprang fully formed from Zeus' head in the days of antiquity; if one is partial to such mythical excesses of origin. This year, however, as this gets posted (thanks to pre-scheduled computer wizardry), chances are quite great that your humble scribe is elsewhere, either celebrating or yet nervously anticipating the arrival of another wonderful creation of his. If the date itself proves to be auspicious (in a manner of speaking), I surely will not mind the synchronicity. But I am glad that this humble page will then at least have two years seniority over its sibling of a kind. Because let us face it: much as I love this space of words and phrases and sentences and thought, I fear that it will always play second fiddle from now on.

At any rate, next post will be on Monday May 30 (so as not to generate too vast a gap because of this five days early post), returning us to the current regular interval (i.e. every other week, Mondays at noon). See you then!

* In all honesty, I was quite baffled when I discovered the incongruity whilst preparing this post. The fact that this, as noted above, is post #89 did not quite match the preceding (and incorrect) claim that what is consequently post #85 could ever have been #100. On the bright side, this will allow us to celebrate the 100th post yet another time no more than eleven posts from now. Let us see if I cannot come up with a matching numerical theme for it, eh?

Monday, 9 May 2011

Twisted Endings

In the wake of recently having watched, and been majorly disappointed by, the fifth season of Supernatural, I would like to talk about stories with a twist, or perhaps more specifically stories that end with a twist.

Now, the phenomenon is nothing new. Far from it. In all honesty, I doubt whether there is ever a time when it is not in use somewhere on the globe, in some narrative medium. However, I believe it is equally true that there are occasions when the phenomenon waxes in usage and becomes (for the lack of a better word) trendy. This could arguably be seen in the mid-nineties when the success of Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects seemingly created a wave of films using twist endings.

One of the more successful ones to come out of that wave was M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, which in many ways (unfortunately) led Shyamalan into making a full blown career of films ending with a twist. (In fact, having no actual twist at the end would probably be the most surprising twist a Shyamalan film could have nowadays.) What makes The Sixth Sense, like The Usual Suspects, so good is the fact that the twist at the end works. And there's the rub. In order to tell a good story with a twist ending, one needs to understand the mechanics of the phenomenon.

A twist ending just for the sake of the twist is rarely any good. At the very least, in the few cases where it is, there is very little enjoyment to be had by revisiting the tale. More importantly, a twist ending must be carefully constructed and worked into the story proper. This quite naturally interacts with the first parameter, as it quite strongly suggests that a twist ending will not save a bad story. It will just be a bad story with a twist ending, and quite possibly a bad twist ending at that.

To exemplify: I remember creative writing exercises in primary school where one had a session in which to write a story. Mostly the sessions were too short to really allow for carefully constructed narratives, and it was nigh inevitable that time would run out somewhere in the middle, paving way for twist endings involving the annihilation of the Earth by nuclear doomsday devices that had no real place in the story prior to their surprise appearances at the end. Surprising, why yes. No one could see that one coming. Simply because this had no foundation in the story told. It was the kind of surprise which breaks the suspension of disbelief and all sense of narrative logic.

In reality, of course, life does not necessarily move along narrative lines. Events happen from left and right somehow, but interestingly, whenever we try to narrate these events, we do tend to at least try to induce logical relations between things, try to establish neatly visible lines between any effect to some sort of given cause. In fiction, this becomes a central rule of the game.

I believe it was Russian author Anton Chekhov who said of short fiction writing that if you introduce a gun on the wall, it needs to be used before the end of the story. While this rule requires modification of sorts to be applicable as a general rule for fictional storytelling (whatever the medium and whichever the length), I still find it useful to illustrate the core point when it comes to functional twist endings. That is to say, the ending while aimed to be a surprise for the reader/viewer, nevertheless requires the sensation of being obvious or a given once it has jumped out of the box.

The nuclear annihilation of the world above is clear not such a thing. It is surprising simply because it is a twist that attaches itself to the story from without. The good twist ending, on the other hand, is something which the narrative subtly builds towards, albeit without revealing its hand to soon. At least ideally. The art lies in pulling that balance off in the reader/viewer's mind, which may well be an intricate high wire act: to be enough grounded without being too obvious before it is all revealed.

Clearly, detective fiction is a fertile ground for this kind of practice at its most basic level. Nobody would want to read a whodunnit if the murderer at the end was revealed to be a person never mentioned in the story. The surprise would no doubt be phenomenal, but it would pretty much be a case of giving someone a puzzle where you take pieces out of the box and replace them with pieces from another puzzle (by default making the puzzle unsolvable).

Unlike whodunnits, however, most stories with a twist do not introduce themselves as puzzles. At least not in quite the same manner. And that, in part, is the root of the surprise. As readers/viewers, we are given a carefully constructed puzzle but without being told that it is a puzzle. We are given all the pieces, but subtly presented; most likely not even as pieces.

This is why I never appreciate reviewers who talk about twist endings. As you may recall, I have talked about spoilers as a very clear example of bad reviewing. While the mention of a twist ending might not seem to be a spoiler (well, as long as the actual twist is not revealed), I would argue that it in fact is. As soon as we are told that the narrative is a puzzle to be solved, we will look at it in a different manner. Just like we read whodunnits constantly trying to figure out who the killer is, we will read/view the narrative with an eye to figure out what the twist will be, instead of being utterly surprised by it.

And a good twist will surprise us. And part of that surprise will be how on Earth we did not see it coming.