Created on Thursday, 26 July 2012 Written by Derek WalkerThe Violet Burning frontman takes us through The Story of our Lives - and a bit of his own...
Before we go any further, just think how many triple albums you know of – not compilations, but new or live material. Now, who has recorded them? The chances are that your list includes either ex-Beatles (George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Paul McCartney’s Wings over America) or mega-bands’ live work (Yessongs, The Band’s The Last Waltz or ELP’s Welcome Back my Friends...). Take these out and you will probably be left with The Clash’s Sandinista! and little else.
That is what astounds me about the Violet Burning’s (TVB) current release, The Story of our Lives. A relatively little-known band has ventured into the territory of artists who have millions of pounds and a global audience behind them. TVB has not just made a triple album, but the limited edition includes an 80-page book, full of glossy artwork. It includes all the lyrics and each song has its own image alongside them. The third album’s songs feature colour photographs, the second album’s pages feature monochrome photographs and most remarkably, the first has its own Ralph Steadman-like custom cartoon images.
I had to ask Michael Pritzl, who is The Violet Burning, whether he was bravely ambitious, secretly loaded or had a liking for bankruptcy.
His answer boiled down to passion for the music and a drive to produce ”beauty and truth in a world where… it's all become quite shallow, and the roar of the river of mediocrity pounding through our culture has become quite deafening,” adding that he wanted “to see if we could quietly stand apart from that river.” Stand apart he does, although ‘quietly’ is not an adjective that I would choose for this project.
Essentially an experiment in excellence, The Story of our Lives fulfils Pritzl’s long-held dream of producing a story-based concept album about the expedition of life, “using the villain of the story, "br0thr", and his machine voice to help give perspective to the characters' journey.” It was strongly influenced by two books by the Pulitzer-nominated author, Nicholas Carr: The Big Switch and The Shallows.
It is worth hearing the story from its author’s perspective. Those with the hard copy of the project will recognise the artwork he refers to.
Unlike the villain of the piece, the protagonist does not have a name, which may suit Pritzl’s purpose, as “The story is about our lives, each one of our lives: dreamers, mothers and fathers, orphans and widows/widowers and the journeys we all go through in this broken world we live in.
“In Part One: The Fantastic Machine, we start with our character and their heart and soul being wired in, as “Where it All Begins” starts beautifully and begins to rage with Jeff Schroeder's screaming, bending lead guitar, while the vocals drive home the commitment to ‘love you till the day I die, sing it to the sheltering sky.’
“We flash forward in the art and see the characters walking on the path through the field of lights toward the machine city in the song “Lights Out.” In their hands they have their gifts, their lights (‘with our lights out, this is the way home’) Light represents our gifts, our story, our love, our hope, our dreams, our longing. We carry those things through the journey of our lives. At the end, you can hear the characters come to the gates of the city as the machines roar and begin to speak over the vibe and beauty of the end of the song.
“The heavy rocking “Graves” takes us into the city (‘into the dark we go, machine has got no soul…’) and there we meet the character that glues much of it together, br0thr, over a classic Pink Floyd vibe of chords falling.
“Looking at the lovely illustrations, we see the juxtaposing of br0thr versus the real Cherubim that appear in other illustrations, with wings and covered in eyes as is the tradition. The ancient idea is that the Cherubim were in some ways the creatures that filtered the prayers and songs of broken people up to this merciful creator.”
Pritzl explained that br0thr is jealous of the Cherubim, wanting that affection, but is still only a machine, in particular, “the massive world system/machine we are all a part of, unless you literally live ‘off the grid’.“
The clues are in the familiar advertising slogans that br0thr keeps mouthing in his mechanised way, such as “Where do you want to go today?" and "Because you are worth it."
But then comes the point where I had misinterpreted the lyrics. br0thr also says, “I was looking for Jesus, singing out here in the streets... we met them in Nashville / Distribution knows just what you need... sing Jesus a few more times and we'll all make a whole lot of money..."
I had seen this as indicating that he was complaining about the experience of meeting the machinery of the Christian music industry, but Pritzl – with great grace – explained that the system he is writing about is bigger than just that one expression of it.
“Actually there is no real message about the 'music industry'. I don't honestly have enough experience with the music industry to write 34 songs about it, let alone even one song. I do know a few people in the industry and most of them are awesome people, who love music.
“The whole idea is to tie in the bombardment of the world system and all of the corporations/institutions vying for our attention in this world, while touching on the ones that aren't so obvious (including the music industry, the church industry, the dating industry, the advertising in our email/smartphones, the not-so-secret privacy laws where every one of our keystrokes are monitored so they can better advertise to us).
“All the while, br0thr is telling the bigger picture, ‘Reward yourself… making tomorrow better...’ Against this backdrop, the singer sings, ‘the years go by, a new machine...’ with ‘churches entertaining me in place of theology… but I'm still looking for Jesus, singing out on this lonely street’ and then he says, ‘I am lonely, I am broken, I am ALIVE.’”
At this point in the album, the feedback of “Machine Beat Sabbatha” begins to rage and the character’s prayer and conviction rises. Pritzl describes this section, which includes “Imminent Collapse,” as “some of the heaviest and best rock the Violets have done.”
Pritzl then revealed a couple of background details about the point when br0thr returns, spouting his slogans.
“br0thr's gonna make sure that she is the right girl for you” is “a tipping of the hat to Pink Floyd and a comment on the internet dating world,” while “turn off the radio / the artists now will play for free" is an observation on “the value of art and music now being given away for free or for an email list signup."
“And so The Fantastic Machine story continues. In the end, our character realizes they don't belong; they choose the path that leads through the gates of death and we see our character’s lifeless body, held by the Cherubim beyond the gates of death.”
As evidence that he is not secretly loaded, Pritzl mentioned that – in order to earn more funds for the project – he took a job in an aircraft parts factory as part of the team that fixed their broken ancient networks and communications systems. The factory had dozens of huge machines and it is some of these that he recorded on his i-Phone and placed into the songs to enhance the mechanised feel.
Pritzl’s commented more briefly on the second album in the set: “Part 2: Black as Death explores the loss we experience for those of us who've had loved ones depart this world and for those of us who've come to the end of precious seasons, where change is so heavy it feels like death: the loss of a relationship, a job, graduating High School or College. This is perhaps my favorite section of the three. The songs are among the best I've ever written.”
Despite the gloom of the title, there is still beauty to be found, still a light in the darkness, life in death. I am not sure how much this is an intended redemption or how much Pritzl exploring the disappointments in his own life and how faith has been the source of pushing forward through the hurts.
Part 3: Liebe über Alles is the German for ‘Love over everything, or as Pritzl puts it, “‘Love over ALLLLLL things’ and I would stretch my arms out as I said it in English...
“Our character, having chosen death, now lives on and continues the journey home outside the machine with love songs and psalms and the story of how faith, hope and love meet us on this broken and challenging road through life that we are all on.
“In the end the character comes to the conclusion that actually comes from my Catholic/Anglican faith. A prayer that we pray before Eucharist says, ‘Lord of All Creation, out of Your infinite love, You made each of us for yourself.’ Those things that are wrapped up in the two commandments of Jesus, "Love God and love one another," are the real things that we are made for, not this world system/machine that is always trying to get our attentions. Our affections belong toward serving/loving God and one another, our true religion: caring for the widows, the orphans, the poor, the sick, the prisoners, the needy...
“In the final song the character comes to the end of the road with the song “Made for You:” ‘Every corner of my heart... This was made by you /Lord of every song, I've been kissed by you / like the stars and the sea in the moonlight/ we were made by you... for you.’”
Vibe and Sound
Going back over TVB’s back catalogue, it struck me that the sound has always been vibey – shimmering, electric and textured – but this release had taken the sound quality up a few levels. Pritzl agreed.
“Yes, we wanted to make something special, so years ago I began to really study sound and invest in tools that I felt captured sound in that classic rock feeling. Obviously, making the self titled at Dave Jerden’s and Marvin Gaye's old studio taught me a lot, but my love for the albums that touch me the most by Pink Floyd, mixed with my desire to explore my childhood love of rock by Black Sabbath and Deep Purple led us to a pretty beautiful sonic palette.
“Also, without a record label funding our recording, to save money I ended up recording and mixing all of it, which was a first for me, but I do think it came out sounding wonderful. A big part of making great sound is having musicians like my close friend and drummer, Lenny Beh, who really raised the bar on his playing and spent a lot of time learning to strike his instruments a certain way. Recording musicians who have the ability to make their instruments ‘sing,’ as it were, makes us as recordists look very good.”
Pritzl has recently been working with Beh on a stripped-back version of songs from The Story of our Lives, tentatively entitled Pedimento, which features him on acoustic guitar and various drones and Beh on violin. It will probably be the first primarily-acoustic work since TVB’s I Am a Stranger in This Place, which had a very vibey feel to it.
Pritzl recognises that mood that is so hard to define. “The key for me as a writer is that I have to deeply feel something. In 95% of my songs, there is usually some spark, some feeling, something in the progression, the melody, the lyric (or a combination of them) that is sort of the Pascal "the heart has reason, which reason knows not..." type of feeling.
“It's interesting because I really notice it when I strip the songs apart. Take “Finest Hour” from Part 3 of The Story of our Lives. On the album it's one of the fastest tempo songs and has some cool bending guitar lines; but when stripped down acoustic on the new Pentimento version, it's one that – with the combination of lyric, melody, chord progression - is simply quite lovely to me.”
After a sometimes tempestuous relationship with churches, Pritzl seems very settled in the sort of fellowship that is like home. “I love our church,” he said,” and actually it's the first time in over 20 years of being affiliated with various evangelical movements that I've been so refreshed, blessed, changed and excited about church. I don't think I've felt this way since my conversion in a Catholic chapel as a teenager.
“I love the pure doctrine of the Anglican faith. Of course, there is no perfect church, not while there are humans involved, but I am finding my soul and spirit being shaped in a very deep way. I find the Anglican ancient/future practices include many of the great things I've loved about the Calvary Chapel/Vineyard, other evangelical/emergent faiths I've been a part of; but the liturgy, collects, prayers, confession of sin, Eucharist and the outstanding teaching of Bishop Todd Hunter – along with the sung worship at our little Anglican community – is changing and impacting many, many lives. It's quite interesting what God is building with us all.”
Explaining “ancient/future,” he said, “It's the mixing of the faith handed down to us by our forefathers, with a clear understanding of our culture as it is now and how we each fit into the Story that God began writing centuries and centuries ago.”
He also paraphrased Hunter’s analogy of a five-act Shakespeare play, where you have seen the first three acts, you know the final act, but the fourth is missing. We have the history of the faith; we believe that God will judge fairly at the end; and it is up to the church to make the links.
Hunter is clearly not a remote bishop and Pritzl’s enthusiasm for his teaching got me looking up the books that he has written. Pritzl considers him to be wise, humble, learned, inspiring and like a big brother to his congregation, but it must also help that the two have shared remarkably similar paths over the years. Both have been through Calvary Chapel, Vineyard and Alpha, before ending up in the Anglican tradition.
Pritzl took a quick detour to mention that his time at Vineyard was quite short, as they didn’t like what they heard about TVB’s self-titled album. Despite not hearing the music itself, the reports that it was a ‘very dark’ album were enough for Vineyard to exclude him. “Yeah, that church was pretty whacked. I didn't last long before they considered me insubordinate. I think they went out of business within a year or so after ‘handing me over to Satan’.”
It seems that Pritzl is now in a more settled place where he is free to create quality art as his part of that fourth act, blending the story of his life into the bigger narrative.
“We are all in different places, different situations, each of us turning to the Maker of Heaven and Earth, hoping that we can make a difference, looking to see how our lives fit into His story, the same way that Abraham, Isaac, David, Paul, John all played their parts in the greatest story ever told.”
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