03/10/2005 § Leave a comment
“Inspiration cannot be summed up by an act of will. To labour towards it, is, in effect, to move in the opposite direction. The fact is I don’t think up most of what I write. It’s dictated to me.” – Pirandello
I was impressed by the lyrics to Atrox’s Terrestrials, not just for their grasp of the unusual but for their sheer joy and revelry in the freakish and the absurd. To this day I have not come across anything more inventive in the lyrical side of music. A perfect song is the amalgamation of music, meter, ideas – the more remarkable the better – and execution, but this is not a feat that many bands have the capability of accomplishing. This could either come down to an unwillingness or an inability on the part of the artists to concoct something truly creative through language or a subconscious determination to prematurely ballast the lyrical structure of their compositions so that the song completes itself.
Good lyrics are not paid enough attention to. There may be scores of bands writing lines in Gothic Metal that deserve no more credence than those that wrote them, but there are also a lot of genuinely startling passages that warrant recognition where it is not received. The fact that the average listener finds it hard to dissect songs and to see them as radical hybrids of separate art forms, music and words, to distinguish the two separately, judging them on their own virtues separately of the ties they posses to one another, may go some way towards explaining this. However, there are many albums where even the critics will not mention anything about the lyrics, which strikes me as something heterodox. Of course, as fanatics in music it is the music itself which is going to gain the lion’s share of their opinion and accreditation rather than the words, but to ignore or simply not to recognise some of the more salient examples is a terrible waste.
One of the pioneers of the genre, Theatre Of Tragedy, were the first to really concentrate on the lyrics of the songs as a wholesome ingredient within the music. However, their Norwegian roots did not do much for the lyrics always making sense, since what foreign lyricists – or linguists – fail to grasp, is a true sense of the vernacular. Writing in some form of bastardised Middle English, lines such as “Thine voice is oh so sweet, ryking for me: ‘list and heed’, thou say’st, chancing to lure” may make some semblance of sense, but others, such as “Fair and ‘guiling copesmate Death, be not a malais’d beggar; claim this bloody jester!” just sound ridiculous. This is simply not how people communicate. It’s all very well trying to create something Gothic and exotic with the lyrics, but I’m sure that Chaucer and many of the Middle English poets would be laughing at such attempts to emulate – endearingly, accurately or otherwise – the tongue of their era. Nevertheless, I imagine that the majority of the European fanbase doesn’t have the slightest idea about such literature.
How much of a problem this is depends on how much importance is attached to it, and it seems that a lot of people don’t think it that notable. Why, if they did, would it be possible to pick such lyrics apart and account for all their inconsistencies and fallibilities so easily? Surely the best lyrics are those they are purely admired and extolled without being privy to any form of criticism. One way to avoid this is to take Aesma Daeva’s tack, which is to affectionately borrow lyrics from many poets and songwriters, from John Dowland to John Keats. Such reverence has its shortcoming also, since though it means that the songwriter cannot be criticised for their work lyrically, it leads one to question what possible results we would come across if they did happen to write the lyrics themselves. Would it truly be that awful? One can only assume that it would be until proven otherwise.
Much of the time it seems that good lyrics come from the unlikeliest of places. I was truly astounded to read the lyrics to Cadaveria’s Far Away From Conformity. I can only barely imagine what kind of occultist nastiness this woman gets herself embroiled in. The lyrics to Opera IX’s Black Opera were similar in their depictions of black masses and the dark arts but the very way in which they were described were totally beautiful. It seems that it doesn’t matter exactly what is being written about, but what it important is an ability to describe even the most evil of things in the most ornate of ways. Though I’m sure that songs such as The Divine Rapture accentuate this point [“transfixed by an absolute lightning of freedom, he freed himself in an uncensored dance, he turned his thoughts into words and his words into actions, and his moan was like a sweet chant”] Cadaveria also showed an ability to talk about totally personal things in a similar median – “I will quench your eyelids forever so that you stop feeding yourself with other’s memory, presage of intimate speeches and of obscure and obsessive fantasies, unavoidable condemnation, complicity, extraneousness, I will never know your truth, nor you mine.” Such private musings are rarely open to explanation by the artists themselves when challenged directly. More often that not, you’ll find that musicians are unkeen to talk about the real meanings behind the more personal of their lyrics, which is ironic considering the wealth of people who will hear them. It seems that the most important form of catharsis for the musician is the expression of the personal idea and conundrum, rather than its entire absorption and understanding by the audience. The musician does not choose their audience members after all.
One can go a stage further than this. I remember being told that Tuomas Holopainen takes most of his vocals from diary entries and that no band member is really allowed to know what the subject of the songs he writes addresses. It does seem that there is definitely a feeling a restriction within him, the only way in which things can be truly expressed being through lyrical exposition. This is both a healthy and unhealthy process, since though it gives the individual the ability to express thoughts and ideas, it is also a form of dehumanisation and abandonment of personal responsibility, separating conduct from introspection. Sometimes it feels that only through words such as “If you read this line, remember not that hand that wrote it, remember only the verse, songmaker’s cry, the one without tears, for I have given this its strength and it has become my only strength” can we get an insight into the mind of this kind of composer.
Lyrics can also be used for personal and political means. After Forever’s earlier lyrics carried a far more political slant which has now of course traversed over to Epica. In the absence of Mark Jansen to write lyrics for them, After Forever’s lyrics have now become increasingly sensation-based, addressing news-based issues and pointlessly tackling social ideas of the dysfunctional family and child abuse. I say ‘pointlessly’ since though the expression of the ideas was quite thorough, it failed to address its own reasoning or to leave a moral behind. It’s fine to postulate ideas, but for such postulation to be of any worth there must be some positive conclusion, some feeling of discovery inherent in the analysis.
These isolated examples are by no means engulfing the scene with their prowess. They are only isolated through dint of their exclusiveness. Most lyrics seem only present because the music has to have words attached to it, otherwise we’d all be purely gazing at a bunch of instrumentals. About 75% of lyrics in Gothic Metal are actually not worthy of any note at all. They fulfil the most basic of functions – to flesh out the music. It is here that we find the most dire examples of lyricism in the genre. Such travesties range from the clichéd [“come to me, Ravenheart, messenger of evil” – Xandria/ “morning star, shining from afar” – Sirenia/] to the intentionally catchy and also clichéd [“set me free with your love, set me free” – Lacuna Coil]. It certainly makes sense that lyrics such as these go unmentioned, or if they are mentioned, then purely for their banality and facileness.
However, if uninfluenced by the media and the desire to write, release and sell the next record quickly, not every writer is in control of that which they produce on paper. It’s naïve of a musician to think that every note they write and every word they pen is a decision they are in total rule over. Just because something emanates from the individual does not mean there is a direct force of control between the signifier and the signified. I’m sure there are many occasions where artists are under certain quantities of pressure in order to produce something effective, attractive and sellable which may impede real creativity, but there are also plenty of lyricists out there who are able to produce startlingly good song lyrics in spite of the amount of pressure they are under. In a way, the duress you are subject to is immaterial; it is only the finished product that proves who the real sculptors are.