the story of our lives violet burning as reviewed at Phantom TollboothGrand in size, concept and richness of tone, this grower is a TVB high-point.

34 Tracks / 148 minutes

Michael Pritzl may be prolific, but he has been fairly quiet under the Violet Burning moniker of late. This three-disc set makes up for that wait.

One of the great things about Pritzl is that he came from the Indie scene and never got churchified. The Violet Burning has been distributed on Christian labels, but not corrupted by the CCM machine.

In telling the story of our lives, these three discs overlap, but have their own characters. The lavish packaging reflects this, giving each disc its own title and a small icon (a machine, three skulls and a patched-up heart respectively), as well as a visual style in the booklet.

It opens with “Aurora,” a simple, tasty, eight-note riff that serves as one of the themes for the set, reappearing at the start of the third disc.

The story of the title is of a life's journey, battling against the powers that comodify us, squeeze the soul from us and take us away from the beauty that God pours into life. The story element is strongest in the first disc, entitled Th3 Fanta5t1c Mach1n3. In “brothr part 1,” against a mechanical Stephen Hawking-type voice, Pritzl shows these commodifying forces in various contexts, from advertising and technology to the Christian music industry. He sings, “We met them in Nashville / Distribution knows just what you need /’We’ll make you safe for the whole family’ /Sing 'Jesus' a few more times /and we’ll all make a whole lot of money / Brother will guide you.” It is hard to hear this without thinking of Roger Waters, partly because of the vocal sound and partly the experience Pink Floyd had of the music machine (“The band is just fantastic… by the way, which one’s Pink?”). The graphic style in the lavish booklet also shares the visual feel that Ralph Steadman gave them.

The disc is full of wrestling. “There is No End” sings of flood, weight and darkness, but however hard the journey, Pritzl keeps hungering for God (“I fall into your arms a thousand miles from home”) and finding him (“You love me when I don’t want to be loved”).

Highlights of this disc, possibly the strongest of the three, include “Imminent Collapse” and title track “The Fantastic Machine,” which is reminiscent of a Beatles melody strapped to a symphonic version of T Rex’s “Children of the Revolution.”

Although musically direct, urgent and with plenty of strong tunes, bLack as DeatH is the low-point in the background story. The disc logo of three skulls, monochrome images in the lyric book and titles like “Breakdown” and “My Name is Night” make this clear and the sound is correspondingly heavy. The former has something of Neil Young about it early on and Pritzl takes an Iommi-like guitar tone on the latter and the immediate “Rock is Dead.”

These songs have the most light and shade, with cello offsetting the Black Sabbath moods and the largely acoustic “Where Do We Belong” features a humming backwash with falsetto. The slow-burning “Nowhere, CA” is one of three tracks to feature ex-member (and now Smashing Pumpkins guitarist) Jeff Schroeder.

Liebe über Alles has the symbol of a patched up heart, with colour restored to the lyric pages in the book, and it brings the trilogy to a positive conclusion. Contrasting desert, loneliness and huge distance with a song sung out into that empty space, opener “Mojave” makes the connection between a colossal God and a humble heart. There’s never any doubt that the song will reach its target as “the sound will rise to you.”

“Mon Désir” follows, its lyrical touchstones (“All I want is you,” the “Blinding Lights” over Chicago and “New Year’s Day”) all suggest U2, whose “Bad”-era sound often surfaces across this disc and (apart from “The Letting” on the first disc) never more so than on the nine-minute song of praise “Made for You.”

Although not as intensely as on the Drop Dead album, where it was mentioned in five of the first six tracks,  the set-wide image of light features more heavily as the disc continues (“The light that blinds me is the light that binds me”) flooding through the darkness that swept through the second disc.

The release really is a story that starts and ends with home. “Won’t you carry me home” sings Pritzl on the first vocal track and he announces, “I am coming home” in the last track before the set concludes with “Made for You.” But don’t English teachers always stress to pupils that a story must have a beginning, middle and an end? This one is about the getting there, as Pritzl sings in “Finest Hour,” noting that “you’ve carried me these 14,000 days – isn’t that the story of our lives?”

Pritzl’s music has always had intimacy and often a deep vibe (particularly The Gravity Show and the stripped back I Am a Stranger in this Place). Featuring a small man daring to reach out personally to a huge God, this set rings like steel coated with velvet: smooth, reverberating and warm. This richness of tone here makes the co-produced Drop Dead sound thin.

This is a not a simple release to be asset-stripped for the big songs. This is a more even and comprehensive story, with its highs and lows, and different songs for different moods on different days. This complete work is a labour of love to be heard in big sections, just as The Wall is more than “Another Brick” and “Comfortably Numb” – and I’d much rather hear this.

Pritzl’s journey is the struggle against darkness and heartless institutions as humanity reaches out to the blazing glory of God. It is one that we all share. In this respect, this beautifully presented trilogy is also the story of our lives.

Now, where am I going to put that ‘I heart TVB’ sticker?


Derek Walker

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