Category Archives: rock

Schooltree: Heterotopia

When I heard that Lainey Schooltree was composing a rock opera, I could hear my own inner Boromir at the Council of Elrond. It was as though I had just heard the news that the One Ring was to be brought to Mordor. 

One does not simply write a prog rock opera, Lainey. The black gates of the music industry are guarded by more than just Orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. And the great Eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland. Riddled with Arianna Grande and DNCE and Beiber. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly!

Never one to back down from an epic musical calling, that’s precisely what she set out to do. Fortunately for us, she succeeded and Heterotopia is the prog rock opera you’ve been waiting for.  A project four years in the making, Heterotopia is a sprawling 100-minute epic which earns a place alongside Tommy, The Wall, or any other comparable effort you can name. Yes, it’s that good. 

Heterotopia is a sort of metaphysical Hero’s Journey mixed with gothic fantasy. It’s a pomo Alice in Wonderland meets Lord of the Rings by way of Neil Gaiman. It’s a story of a down and out singer named Suzi who is disillusioned with the music industry, but finds her reality shattered when she follows a 100-legged cat down a rabbit hole into an alternate reality called Otherspace. While in Otherspace, she discovers that she has detached from her physical form and may not be able to recover her corporeal self. Worse, Otherspace is slowly being overrun by an encroaching darkness which threatens to enter the physical world and Suzi finds herself faced with an existential choice.

As good as it is, Heterotopia walks a very interesting tightrope. It has a seemingly populist heart, but it’s counterpoised by an overall vibe of gothic gloom. It may be a difficult pill to swallow for those expecting the kind of ecstatic emotional peaks one might reasonably expect from a rock musical.  As a work of progressive rock, it’s an unmitigated triumph. Heterotopia is a cornucopia of musical riches for even the most rabid prog head. It has all of prog’s virtues and none of its vices. It has epic melodies, knotty riffs, angular rhythms, squiggly synth lines, dense harmonies, and plenty of odd metered nerdity. There’s also plenty of old fashioned arena sized, fist pumping rockage. None of it feels excessive, and all of it is ultimately subordinate to Schooltree’s impeccable instincts for songcraft.  It is short on any kind of extended improvisation, but when the guitar jam and synth freakout finally arrive, it’s some serious lighters-in-the-air shit. 

Schooltree’s prog bona fides are unimpeachable. She has clearly done her turntable homework. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is an obvious musical and thematic touchstone, but Schooltree hacks the prog genome and produces a refreshing and satisfying mutation of her own. Heterotopia reaches for the towering heights of Yes, Genesis, Queen, Supertramp and even deeper recesses of the family tree like Klaatu and Gentle Giant. I’m even going to second Jon Davis at Exposé by saying that Heterotopia bears some similarities to early Saga. One also detects the unmistakable DNA signature of Broadway musicals like Into the Woods and Jesus Christ Superstar coursing through its bloodstream. Musicals should be judged on the strength of the vocal storytelling, and Heterotopia doesn’t disappoint. Schooltree has an equal gift for the anthemic hook, the spectral vocal choir, and the spooky incantations of Dreaming-era Kate Bush. The songs are packed with hooks, but Schooltree always manages to subvert your expectations with a clever turn of phrase. The catchiness of the songs is offset by lyrics filled with ghosts, zombies, illusions, and pits of darkness. Schooltree is one of those artists who writes the most beautifully captivating melody or irresistible pop earworm, but when you listen to what she’s saying, the subject matter often belies the emotional tenor of the music.  

The drama of Heterotopia centers around Suzi’s quest to reclaim her corporeal self. In order to achieve this, she must confront the fallen queen of Otherspace, Enantiodromia. The mythological surface of the piece is merely a vehicle for some rather morbid existential ruminations over the nature of consciousness, death, and free will. By combining prog, epic fantasy, and abstract philosophy, Heterotopia has certainly sealed a trifecta of high concept artiness. There’s a Nietzsche reference or two to be found amidst the Foucauldian mindfuckery. The central theme seems to revolve around the line between reality versus illusion, and the extent to which the latter shapes the former. Prog has always been a platform for big ideas and epic narratives, and this conjunction of mythic storytelling and philosophical speculation places Heterotopia squarely within the canon of classic prog.  

All of which returns us to the unique position this work occupies.  Prog enjoyed a cultural moment back in the 70’s and, to a certain extent, the 80’s. Nowadays, progressive rock of this kind caters to a niche audience. The type of prog that Schooltree is offering will doubtless please the faithful, but whether this particular delivery system will move the meter beyond the prog laity remains to be seen. It’s a Hero’s Journey, but the metaphysics are pretty abstract and the tone is very dark. Beneath the patina of mythological fantasy, Suzi’s tale involves what appears to be a standard dramatic arc tracing her fall, redemption, and resurrection, but it remains strangely suspended in a state of perpetual discord. Even when it reaches its conclusion, it sounds triumphant and the music signals resolution, but you’re left with lingering questions. Suzi’s transformation is obviously meant to be a profound shift, but there’s something slightly underwhelming about it. This is where Heterotopia tilts towards postmodernism. Schooltree herself says that the central idea is that “reality is an illusion”, and this insight is supposedly what liberated Suzi to shape her reality. This is a fairly standard postmodern premise, and it’s an idea that has been explored pretty extensively in every corner of the artistic world for some time. 

However, none of these concerns detract from the heroic achievement of this record. There is a level of ambition and flat out artistic brilliance in this work that simply cannot be denied. If this sounds like your thing, buy it now

U2 Live at TD Garden – July 14, 2015

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U2 are easy to take for granted.

They’ve been so huge for so many years, it’s easy to dismiss them as mind numbing pablum. Their mawkishness and sentimentality begs for ridicule.  I’m accustomed to hearing musicians deride them and make snarky comments just to get a few easy “likes” on social media. 

The funny thing is that I really like U2.  I always have. 

My wife suggested that we see them and since I hadn’t seen them, I realized I’d missed out on the very phenomenon that has sealed a bond with millions of fans and placed them in the firmament of rock in the first place. 

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And boy, am I glad I did.

U2 are a band who’ve earned the superlatives.  They are the consummate Big Time Rock Band. 

For over two hours, U2 reminded me that love is the healing force of the universe and that maybe, just maybe, we can redeem ourselves through rock music.  Perhaps most significantly, they reminded me that sometimes the most transgressive, punk rock thing you can do as an artist is to write a song about your mother and actually affirm the gift of life and express love. 

In a pop culture world overrun by narcissistic wankers and smug, detached handlebar mustachioed would-be hipsters so consumed by their cynical sneering and ironic, postmodern deconstructions, U2 come across as the real radicals. 

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The music succeeds on so many levels.  It’s got a missionary sense of purpose, but never forgets that rock and roll is a secular church.  It has equal reverence for Motown, Jimi Hendrix, Kraftwerk and Elvis, but never forgets its Dublin roots.

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It’s music that says “All I want is you” and means every word.  They are a band so grounded in the emotional truth of what they’re laying down, it’s really difficult to remain unmoved.

The tour is called the Innocence to Experience Tour and naturally, as the title suggests, the show traces the arc of their development as artists and men. 

Visually, this show was a marvel.  There was a giant rectangular structure which served as a projection surface and an elevated stage.  At various points in the show, the screen showed animated renderings of their neighborhood, star constellations, oceans, nighttime cityscapes, and a virtual Johnny Cash among many other things. 

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Dublin’s favorite sons paid homage to their formative years with several selections from their latest release, “Songs of Innocence”.  I was especially moved by their rendition of “Iris”; Bono’s tribute to his mother. He set up the song with a story about his mother’s death and how it served as an opportunity to deepen his artistry.  “We all find ourselves orphans at some point in life,” he said.  As someone who lost his own mother, this sentiment hit home for me in a big way.  

U2 have never been shy about their political convictions and openly proclaim their desire for peace, justice and love in many songs.  The scars of violence in Ireland were transformed into a plea for justice for victims of terrorism in “Raised by Wolves” and a pared down “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.  Photos of victims of IRA violence were woven into a devastating digital collage while the words JUSTICE FOR THE FORGOTTEN hovered over the images like a command from beyond the grave. 

“We must never give in to fear.  There are people who hate freedom.  Who hate rock music. Who hate women.  We must never give in.  We must send the love that’s present here and radiate it everywhere so that it reaches every community,” exhorted Bono. 

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Right on, man. 

At midpoint of the set, they began to lean more heavily towards the classic canon and the show gathered momentum. 

“Bullet the Blue Sky” revealed U2 at their rockist best and successfully channeled Cream and Band of Gypsys.  Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen churned out a thunderous groove that bored into the center of the earth while Edge’s searing sheets of feedback and noise soared over the top.  A kaleidoscopic mashup of Wall Street trading pits and American iconography served as the visual companion to Bono’s Morrisonesque declamations.  “America is an idea. I want to be part of that idea”. Nice work, guys. 

The highlight was without question their transcendent rendition of “Pride”.  “This song is for peacemakers,” declared Bono. He stepped back and allowed the congregation to carry the wordless vocal phrase; gently goading the crowd to ever increasing intensity culminating in full throated ecstasy with each chorus.  This is the kind of secular devotion that is often attempted but rarely matched. 

For their encore, they delivered a trio of gems; “Beautiful Day”, “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.  By the time the chiming chords of the latter began, the crowd was in the palm of their hands.  Once again, Bono didn’t even sing the first verse and simply allowed the song to be carried by the reverie of the crowd.

They exited the stage one by one until all that remained were the sounds of Edge and Bono. The show ended just as it began. Bono sneaked in a line of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power”.

Message received, gentlemen.  Thank you for bringing it home. 

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