Once upon a time, in another life, I was a teacher. One of the things that made me a particularly good one, is my love of intellectual games. Discovering the hidden elements of a piece once you knew its context, its history, perhaps some personal details about the artist. In that sense, deciphering the meaning of a piece of literature became this academic riddle, a mystery you had to dig and ponder to unearth and interpret. I loved everything about the process. I loved the learning of the information myself; I found it exciting. And I loved teaching the connections, ie helping students with the clues needed to make those connections, in the classroom.
That love, that academic, nerdy excitement that comes with the expectation of getting to experience something totally new, and trying to discern what it means on a larger, or a metaphorical scale, never went away. In fact, I apply that level of academic, critique to almost everything, from books, to movies, to albums, and to bands. I enjoy that mental exercise, and I enjoy writing about it. Hence… writing reviews and stories in the first place.
I tell you this, because the depth of my style of review is unique. Bands and artists around Arizona are starting to take notice. If you are expecting a 500-1000 word blurb that vaguely tries to give readers the gist of a record so as to hopefully help them on their decision whether or not to buy it, then you are probably reading the wrong blog. Not that there is not a place for those quick read articles, by all means, they are a staple in the way we relay information. However, they are not what I particularly enjoy. So when Kim Dangerous of The Bellwethers handed me a signed copy of Schizophrenic Zen at their debut show at The Spirit Room in Jerome, Az she knew exactly what she was doing.
“It’s a concept album, and I know that’s your thing. It is told through the lens of two characters, and uses literary allusions. I would love to hear your thoughts.”
She was singing all of my languages. I love this kind of thing!
So I approached my listening to The Bellwethers new album like a riddle. I was a detective, a teacher, a student, digging through the lyrics, writing down the connections, and looking for the clues. I asked one question, “May I have a list of the songs and which ones you and/ or Fran wrote?” Kim sent the list, and it included the clue I needed to start my deciphering listen. “Masquerade – we actually wrote our own parts for this one from the perspective of the characters.”
I was on the case.
So…. suspend reality for just a moment, it is fitting, after all, and become a student again.
Down the Rabbit Hole with The Bellwethers:
The Ghost Writer Review of Schizophrenic Zen
Definitions. We have to have an idea of what the heck we are dealing with. So the first stop is making sure we are coming at the topic from the same direction. What is a concept album? A quick Google search reveals the following definition:
“A concept album is an album in which its tracks hold a larger purpose or meaning collectively then they do individually. This is typically achieved through a single central narrative or theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, or lyrical.”
I would add to that, that all albums are unified by some device, that is what caused those songs to be collected as an album in the first place – but that device must transcend being a simple grouping of singles and define the complete work as a larger concept above that. Moving forward, finding this unifying device becomes integral to the understanding of the album.
Album Title/ Art Design. A good place to at least start in any critical analysis is title. Schizophrenic Zen. A Venn diagram of the word schizophrenic might lead to the following ideas. Split. Fragmented. Multiple Personalities. Bi Polar. Mood Swings. Extreme Highs and Lows. Finding Zen is all about trusting direct intuition gained through meditation and thought. So fragmented intuitions? Fragmented insights. Or insights gained through fragments and meditations on moods and changing emotions.
Looking at art design defines some of these fragments and provides clues on themes to look for in the lyrics and music of the songs. The cover is of a chic woman, she is only half in frame, dressed in a black form fitting dress, black boots, and holding a mask, almost as if she is in the process of dropping it. Furthest away from her is a mirror, that she has turned her back on and is walking away from. Within the mirror is a dark, sable expanse and a tall hill or butte with a shock of light peeking across the top. Littered between the mirror and the lady in black are discarded cards, one of them is the Queen of Hearts, and a page of a newspaper or magazine that seems to be from the culture/ review section. The reverse of the record is a map of the world, covered with crystals, time pieces, pictures of the band, old playbills, keyholes, gears and insects. There are two tarot cards: The Fool and The Tower, and an Oracle Card, The Cosmos.
“Note: In the Grand Arcana of the Tarot, The Fool is the symbol of innocence, youthful, idyllic joy and inexperience. Naivety. The Tower is unforeseen change. Interesting side note, is that most old ways must be swept away, or struck down, to make way for something new. The Cosmos is a unifying Oracle that seeks to focus and influence the exchange of consciousness influencing all living things, their creative energy, and the success of those creative endeavors.”
Two characters and literary allusions? Kim’s clue sticks in my mind, as I place the record on the turntable, allow the vinyl to spin for a few rotations, and gently place the needle arm down on the gleaming reflection of white noise at the edge of the spinning black.
For the sake of research, I chose to start with the track that provided a direct clue. “Masquerade” was written collaboratively by both Kim and Fran, they wrote their own parts from the perspectives of the two characters. Stands to reason, that to be able to define those two voices speaking through the songs on the record, I would need to start there. Lyrically, the song is easy. The first verse is the first voice. A character of confidence. A character who is at piece among the bar patrons and revelers. A character who is at home here. The second verse is the second voice. A character of anxiety. A character of fear. A character of mistrust and second guessing. But these two characters want to know each other, want to exchange their masks, meditate on the possibility of who they can be outside of these confines. Using that tool as a key, we can try to decipher the speakers on the record.
Schizophrenic Zen. The title track of the record starts out with jangling acoustic chords and a chanted dirge. Both Fran and Kim shout out the short bursts of phrases, “No rest for the wicked, no peace for the cursed. No sense in crying over the way things were. I’ve got a head full of my own pain”, but after the song kicks in with the electric guitars and a pounding guitar riff that unifies the rest of the song, there is another sense in the lyrics. “Bottles of pills change my brain. My therapist says I’m okay. Fix my heart. Fix my head.” The song is rockous, and easy to pound your foot along to like a kick-drum, but there is no escaping that underlying idea. Fragmented meditations. Two characters. One feels pain and loss, and seems to be battling something exterior, whereas the other seems tormented by something internal, something mental.
All I See. The second voice tells this story. The voice alone in the night. The voice that is fearful of falling. The voice that resides in stillness studying stones. The voice that is calling out for a rescue. As with many of The Bellwethers songs, this song is a solid bar jam. It is a boot stompin’, hand clappin’, sing along that will get any bar rockin’ and rollin’ and ready for a good time
The Tower. Almost as in answer, the first voice comes at us from atop the battlements of this song. The voice that suggests that pain comes in life and we build up walls to seal it away: to seal ourselves away. We take our fears and our secrets and we wall them up, but “the tower will fall. Everything you love. Tower will fall“. But because of the clues laid out, we are forced to read these lyrics like a Tarot reading, and The Tower does not always mean crisis. Often, it means an unexpected change that needs to happen, to knock out the old and make way for the new. But it is scary to let those walls fall down, even if that destruction might lead to a better place. How can one progress through the infinite cosmos, if they are shackled by their own barricaded hate?
Alice On Fire. Welcome to Wonderland! Here is where the second of Kim’s clues, the one about literary allusions, comes in. And as a literature teacher, a fiction author, and a blogger who loves to dig deep, the fact that it is Lewis Carroll is fantastic and wonderful! Critics for ages have been unable to completely agree on the many facets and variables possible within the metaphors and rich allegories in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Additionally, as I have quoted on this blog before, I, like Tolkien, am much more fond of applicable allegory as it puts its trust, and responsibility of comprehension, on the reader and the reader’s experience.
This is important because immediately, Kim’s heart-felt and poignant lyrics hit us with references to exactly what kind of maze we have been taken into. She awakens soaked from another dream. Alice on fire floats on a sea of green. Most interpretations of Alice in Wonderland have her falling asleep by the brook in the beginning, and heading down the rabbit hole, and awakening from this dream at the end. In Carroll’s book he describes her as seeing her reality as floating in an ocean, bobbing between reason and emotion in a body that you do not recognize. In the sequel, when Alice steps through the looking glass, she steps into a sea of green flowers. Or, our character, voice number two, may be just dreaming and awakening on green sheets. Such is the power of applicability. Let’s continue our listen.
Hours at the looking glass/ Euphoric madness ripped to shreds/ Alice on fire grasping for a thread/ Fields of forget-me-nots. Not only are these lyrics prime with Lewis Carroll references, but they also prompt a rather cool inner question. This song is most certainly voice 2, the voice of inner conflict – who is dreaming and grasping at threads of sanity and looking in mirrors. So either our character, our narrator number 2 is Alice, or a connection is being made to the meaning underneath of Alice. Most critics of the novel agree that Alice is allegorical for innocence, the frustrations of youth, and the loss of wonder as we age and change, and the awakening to just out of control the systems of the world are. ie Alice is a version, or a reading, of The Fool. Again, set this in your notepad for now, and let’s continue on.
Still a third layer of the song however is what to do with the lines: Screams of ecstasy escape her lips/ Alice on fire passion hidden in/ Seems like forever since her last kiss. All the metaphor could simply be a layer of smokescreen over a song about a women who has been hurt, and is alone, but has a lover who makes her wake in fiery sweats. And all of this, like a good solid chunk of the record is over solid, 70s rock and blues infused rhythms, hard kicking drums, and just good, fun, rock n roll. It should be noted all of these songs are rockin’, and all of them can make me just lose myself to the groove and the asphalt and just cruise on down the highway…. but if I wanna go down the rabbit hole…….
House of Cards. You may feel at times, reading these in depth reviews, that you are reading a bit of an academic research paper. Good. Moving on. One of the ways I can see to interpret the story of this record, is two lovers. Both torn, one from pain and loss and the other from inner conflicts, anxiety, and fear. One is almost adrift in that world, and the other has sealed himself from it. And somehow… they are coming together: a Tower and a Fool, both lost in a dream, fumbling down a rabbit hole. Under this reading, this song is Voice 1, trying to tell his ‘Alice’ that he is just a simple mind, toeing the line, looking to survive, and justify the lies he hides. But, he would try to be the king of her house of cards if she would be the queen of his heart…. and the Alice in Wonderland references are not necessarily subtle. Additionally, House of Cards could be interpreted as Voice 1’s song to his love when she is not with him, in answer to her waking from a dream in Alice on Fire. Both are applicable, both are justifiable by the text. Man, I really miss the classroom sometimes!
Masquerade. Returning now to the midpoint of the album, knowing the map of speakers who have been telling us the pieces of their story, and knowing that Alice in Wonderland infuses its message, then the end of the song holds a special place. “I’m free of the bonds of time. Maybe I’m a poet, maybe a thief. Maybe a father who knows no grief. Maybe I’m a dream out of control. Maybe I’m too far down the rabbit hole?” But the entire song is about weaving in that masquerade ball, about being comfortable in it, or fearful of it. About embracing it, or resisting it. About freeing the person you are hiding beneath the masks you wear. About fearing who that might be. But needing that tower to fall to have anything good at all.
Our characters are in that rabbit hole, they are descending through those wonderlands of dream, they are questioning their realities, and having tea and Unbirthday parties with chaotic individuals who have lost the meaning of time. Time. As in the clock faces all over the record album. And everything that is, isn’t and everything that should not be, is.
Fractured. In a tune that comes out of the gate like a power rock anthem with grinding guitars and building crescendo drums the grove can have you dancing all over the story teller’s pain. Perhaps more than any other song on the record, this is a dark song, a painful song, a cry from a voice that is lonely, lost, and who can’t feel anything anymore. A voice that is just the remnants and dust of a once shooting star. This speaker is heartbroken. Their dreams have been lost. Ashes to ashes we all fall down. But the song will have you stompin’ like a free wheeling Janis inspired rock goddess….. just don’t think too much.
Born Red. This song threw me for a while, I was pretty sure I wanted to attribute it to Voice 1, but the girl that was being cast away just didn’t fit. There was no way that was ‘Alice’ or Voice 2. But several lines stuck with me through the blues and traditional country inspired guitar lics of the jammin’ rock song. “The past a cage full of ghosts/ Born red from broken hearts/ A million tiny cuts make a million tiny scars/ This is my world/ You’re uninvited little girl”. But the clue to it is the line just before the end, just before off with their heads. “Born bad I understand the Queen is a card in my hand”.
Back to Lewis Carroll. When Alice finally reaches the garden at the end of Alice in Wonderland, and realizes that all of the power, all of the nobility, all of the things that are supposed to make sense are just cards….. she awakens to the fact that in reality she has the power. The beauty of the garden is this awakening and self awareness. The queen… can be discarded. The queen…. can be Uninvited. The queen, and her fear, and her…. off with their heads!….. is just a face in a deck of playing cards.
Tomorrow. This song is sheer heartbreak. It tells the pain that forced the building of the tower. Lines from earlier a father with no pain… resonate very deeply here with lines like I want to drink when I think of you….. I would have liked to know you so you could see that I’m more…. This song could make you cry…. but for the fact that we are left, almost believing… that tomorrow will indeed come, and tomorrow we can build a new life for ourselves.… and tomorrow…. lightning might crash into the top of that tower…. and bring it all shaking to the ground.
Longest Heartbeat and From the Ashes are both fantastic songs, intensely personal, and fitting to the two established voices on the record. Both are worthy of mention, but are not included on the vinyl record of Schizophrenic Zen. They are bonus digital tracks. As I tried to center this review on the record as a Concept Album, I stuck to the vinyl itself.
The Concept. This is a long, thoughtful, and hopefully thought provoking review. I approached it like a literary research paper, something I may have written in college. But the root. This is a rocking, solid, front to back, top to bottom rock and blues album. It has great lyrics, haunting melodies, guitar riffs that make you swoon, and a pounding rhythm section. But, if you dig, it has layers like an onion, and this paper is actually just a scraping of the surface of the analysis and comparison that could be done on this stellar body of Arizona Music. But perhaps it is sufficient to say this:
“Under this beautiful sky, in this amazing, magical universe, we are all stumbling fools, and walls against our scars. We are all Alice, wandering in a world of dream and reality, wishing we could be bigger, but being sorry when we lose the magic of being small. We are all chained with pain, and fearing against hope that maybe one day we will learn to be thankful. Maybe that we will learn to love again. To remember what a kiss feels like. To remember a loved one lost. And hear that heartbeat. And when we wake up from that dream, after the shock of lightning has brought the tower of our own limitations down, and it is tomorrow. We are free to build that new life for ourselves at any time.”
But if all that thinking is too much…. you can still just turn it up to 11 and dance all night!
Keep the Greasy Side Down my Friends!