One of OSI’s most distinctive features is Kevin Moore’s lyrical style, with its unorthodox, fragmented narrative and disjointed sprinkling of imagery. Though it uses symbolism, the symbols almost seem to be akin to the notes of the music themselves, establishing a tone rather than conveying a message clearly. Or, perhaps, the unclarity of the message is precisely the point. Though it’s addressed to a ‘you’, it’s never clear that it’s actually being said to them, or indeed to anyone; though it tries to communicate, it always seems to be rather stuck in introspection, with the other person nowhere in the vicinity. If there is another, they are distant. There is a ‘you,’ but an alien ‘you,’ alien in such a way that language fails to directly communicate.
In a sense, this is a phenomenon fairly common in introverted music; ‘A Pleasant Shade of Grey’ is another prominent example of this alienated ‘you’, of music which is in essence first-person, but takes on an ostensibly second-person form. However, while APSoG is generally quite direct in its communication, and derives a lot of its strength from this, OSI seems to display a reluctance to speak directly at all, and bases songs around images such as that of an actor, a boat, a voyage on the sea, and so on. While APSoG’s addressee is generally portrayed as a person, a soul as it were, in OSI the furthest you’ll generally get is the addressee crystallized and represented solely in actions: ‘Don’t start telling me love is a symphony / Point that phone at the floor,’ ‘[T]he cold, hard look in your eye,’ ‘That’s my bedroom door you’re kicking,’ ‘You move mysterious,’ etc. They don’t really have an existence outside of this image, and in the song they are represented as nothing more than this, an image. Of course, APSoG did have a generally more positive and intimate strain running through it (as in Parts IV, VI, IX, etc.), which probably wouldn’t have been compatible with such a representation, while OSI’s albums, though varied, generally vary rather on the continuum between anger and alienation.
If OSI’s addressees are allowed to speak at all, it’s generally over the phone or some other indirect medium, as in ‘Kicking’ and ‘Terminal;’ even here, it’s often with some reluctance, with ‘Kicking’ asking them to point the phone at the floor, and ‘Terminal’ following up the mention of being called with, ‘Here’s another clue: I’ll be gone / Before the daylight saving is through.’ There’s a general failure of communication, with the lyricist alternating between almost pushing away the other person’s voice, as in the previous songs, and being unable to comprehend their speech, as in ‘Radiologue’ (‘Heard your voice / Calling through the noise / Wrote it in the radiologue. / Hurt my head / Wondering what you said / So I threw it overboard’) or ‘The Escape Artist.’ In ‘Once’, they discover that the addressee ‘has got some words of their own’, but immediately follow it up with, ‘Let’s try to hide it for / This story, this story.’ In ‘Better’, ‘You’re not talking and I’m not talking, / The dog’s not talking and no-one’s talking at all.’ The other character is not given a voice, or some way to express their thought, but rather you seem to have a state where neither them nor the lyricist is communicating directly, and hence also a collapse of direct speech in the lyrics.
In that case, then, the reduction of the other person to images complements an overall lack of direct communication, so that things are transmitted only through symbolism and implication; an emphasis on connotative rather than denotative meaning, so to speak. Though there may be something which lies beneath the surface, nonetheless the fact that it is expressed through symbols is not separable from this ‘essence’, but rather characterizes it: it is essential to the experiences and emotions which OSI tries to convey that these indirect symbols are their most adequate mode of expression. To put it otherwise, an OSI which were predominantly direct and communicative in their expression would represent something quite different to the current band. In OSI, there generally isn’t frank expression so much as a repression of meaning under multiple layers of symbolism. However, the reason for this is that the subject-matter is a general relationship in which frank, direct expression between the participants is not an option, or at least not an option indulged in; the alienation that characterizes the music as a whole is, to some degree, a result of as well as a reason for this breakdown in communication. If language fails to communicate directly, it’s because people fail to relate directly, and the indirect mediation in the one case mirrors that of the underlying reality.
This turn towards imagery in order to express a sense of alienation is also present to some extent in A Pleasant Shade of Grey, although there counterbalanced by the more intimate strain running through it and accompanied by more direct lyrics. For example, the recurring image of the ‘shifting sands’, letting nothing bleed into nothing, and so on, compared with the more direct address of, say, parts VI and IX. However, the use of these images is interesting in another way as well, insofar as their power is derived not solely from the images in themselves, but also from their repetition. When the ‘shifting sands’ reference arises again in part V, a large part of its effect, which makes it one of the more powerful parts on the album, is the fact that it references the earlier part III and carries contextual associations from their earlier usage; its being used in a certain musical and lyrical context earlier gave it certain symbolic associations independent of the image of shifting sand by itself, and these are recapitulated through its re-use. The images therefore become, as it were, symbolic morphemes within the overall paradigm of the album and song.
However, it is also significant that an image or scene is here used as a bearer of meaning, rather than any direct communication intervening. In the aforementioned ‘shifting sands’ repetition, as with many OSI’s uses of imagery, much of the effect derives precisely from the fact that the significant moment marked by the repeated lines in part V, forming as it were one of the ‘low points’ of the album (not in terms of quality, in terms of emotion), is marked out only with this image rather than any direct statement of what is going on. In the first place, it’s fairly clear why the use of images and symbols would be more accommodating to this sort of repetition than a direct statement, insofar as the former carry already within themselves a suggestion of something ‘beneath the surface’, which is necessary if the repetition itself is to become constitutive of meaning, while direct statement tends to have an essentially plain, explicit meaning in itself which would obstruct attempts to give it a sub-surface meaning unless this implicit meaning were directed against the direct statements themselves (as, for example, when a statement is repeated in a context which undermines its previous usage.)
Further, however, the sense that the image has of containing depth is both concretized and made more acute by the repetition, which in the first place makes this image an integrated part of the overall paradigm of the piece, while earlier it was merely illustrative and symbolic, and in the second place augments its initial depth with a further one applied through the repetition itself. The image comes to take on a more holistic significance in the music; rather than being merely a particular image at a particular point in the music, it characterizes and submerges the entire problematic of the music, now serving as a part of the music’s overall vocabulary and raised to a part of the musical paradigm. As it were, it extends this paradigm, crystallizes into a part of it, and hence also forms a part of the overall viewpoint and mental atmosphere into which the music inducts the listener.
This allows for images such as these to be especially effective when their placement complements the overall musical movement in such a way as to make this extension of the paradigm correspond with and intensify the direction in which the music is already going. For example, when the shifting sand line is repeated, APSoG has just moved from the divided intimacy of part III to the more consolidated one of part IV, but then has taken a lurch towards the negative and returned to the isolation of the second part in part V, a movement which reaches its lowest point at the recurrence of the shifting sand verse, which now contains within it the force and momentum of this entire movement and, due to its paradigmatic qualities, asserts this overall movement as a whole in the strongest form.
Of course, for OSI, without this overall dynamic going on, such a movement would not be possible, but on the other hand its lack also means a more concentrated focus upon constructing an overall scene and paradigm out of its images, which APSoG could not do due to the need to switch to the more positive, communicative side of things more frequently. While APSoG can be more akin to a tidal wave with its use of dynamism and the ‘past’ of the music to apply force in the present, OSI are a bit more like submergence and drowning.
Imagery: Some types.
In speaking of images, however, we must take into account the fact that imagery is not monolithic, but rather divided into multiple types of images, so that to go further we must make a few basic divisions among image types and functions to allow us to be more specific in our observations. One of the most common types of basic image is what we may call the ‘analogical image’, in which the point and semantic signification of the image derives from the similarity between it and another situation or experience, and the image is used to show us something about the latter situation. Here, the point is the image’s fidelity to the situation of which it is an analogy, its illustrative quality, and it becomes stronger as an image the more its own development can be traced alongside that of the original situation. For example, in early Fates Warning, in songs such as ‘The Apparition’ and ‘Exodus’, the image of a physical journey is used to illustrate a different form of journey, where the analogy between the different forms of journey is the basic point of emphasis and foundation of meaning. The one type of journey gives us a representation of the other journey in essentially direct, literal terms, and the two journeys appear as essentially in unity due to this. Here, the image is emphasized not in itself, but in its representational quality, as when one uses a map to navigate, and therefore treats a certain length on the paper as being in actuality a far greater distance.
Another, less common, kind of imagery is what may be called the ‘obscure image’, in which the image takes on a greater degree of independence, and the focus moves from denotation to implication. This is the form of imagery most prominent in OSI. Here, the image’s significance ceases to be that of representing something lying beneath it and rather becomes that of, through its own implications as an image, constructing what lies beneath it. The image hence takes on a greater degree of autonomy, where a greater emphasis must be placed upon the image itself in terms of shaping its implications, etc., as there is no analogical framework from which it can derive its significance. The image must derive its significance from itself, and while it is still not being paid attention to in an aesthetic sense so much as one of implication, and the depth ‘below’ it, now this implication appears as something less clearly defined and constitutes the overall impression of the image rather than its referent. Due to the fact that its elements need not either represent specific analogical symbols, which can be mapped out onto elements of the situation for which they serve as an analogy, or be judged in an aesthetic sense, this form of image allows for a great deal of ‘blurring’, by which the image need not be clearly pictorial but rather constitute a general sense of setting.
Unlike analogical imagery, here meaning does not appear as something given which expresses itself through imagery, but rather the image comes to take on a sense of independence from meaning, and hence internal to this overall form of image is a destitution of meaning which suggests a departure from communicative discourse. This form of image complements an overall sense of alienation, through disabling the ability of meaning to be expressed, and reducing it to an overall vagueness, a totality of implications projected out from the image itself. Insofar as meaning is dominant, and the image a means of its expression, the subject – the lyricist – is also dominant, and uses the image as a free means to express themselves; however, due to the subordination of meaning in obscure imagery, the subject is reduced to an offshoot of these images themselves, existing only as they allow it, and direct communication is replaced with a collapse of linguistic expression, such that the language itself appears autonomous and the subject dependent upon it for sustenance, having no existence outside of the image.
The subject is replaced with a basic montage, which cannot communicate directly but only has existence as a web of implications, whose previously clear meaning is replaced with a mass of connotations. The person is displayed only as something vague and amorphous, not producer but product. Corresponding with this is OSI’s presentation of both the lyricist and their addressees only in terms of images and actions.
One reason why OSI’s lyrics have their somewhat cryptic allure is the fact that they always seem to contain a back story, a history of conduct, but this history is almost never explicitly described. It is rather assumed; the speaker knows what has happened, but you don’t, and hence the narrative of the story appears fragmented: start-stop and blanketed by black lines. This is enhanced by the imagery, which often serves to allow a history to be told, and to give a seeming summation of the situation, but nonetheless does not do so because the story is told in imagery which abstracts from the lyricist, the addressee and their relation, and hence which appears essentially inessential to the actual focus of the song. Whether it is set in a boat, a theatre or a road, this appears as an inessential detail, as a detail which has no literal significance, but rather only serves to construct the overall setting for the song’s imagery.
Even in the absence of a clear setting, as provided in ‘Radiologue’ or ‘Memories, Daydreams and Lapses’, OSI’s songs do have some sense of overall context, or paradigm. This can range from the, ‘I set the scene in a magazine,’ and, ‘I cracked the code of the episode,’ of ‘Go’ to the ‘machine’ and screaming of ‘All Gone Now’ and the storytelling of ‘Once.’ This form, however, is merely a scene for the actual relationship of the protagonists of the story, for the actual point of the story, and hence can be seen as setting a stage for this. Just as a stage forms a setting on which actors perform a story, without this story being actually set on a stage, so here the stories played out in various locations and contexts takes place beyond them. They are, as it were, metaphorical, while the real ‘point’ of the song lies beneath them. However, at the same time, this ‘point’ remains obscure; the characters are trapped in the actors.
While for analogical imagery, the setting appears as something consciously molded by the author for communicative purposes, for OSI it appears as something simply given, pre-existent. It forms a part of the presupposition already observed, the overall backdrop. The point is not, ‘this stands for this,’ but rather the imagery appears as given and is allowed to free its tendrils where it will. The effect of this is, further, to create a paradigm, a ‘musical language’, which appears pre-made, in which all of these various symbols have their meaning. This is the overall paradigm which the listener enters during the song, given that the music and lyrics are both from the perspective of the lyricist; the images, even though they may not appear initially meaningful to the listener, are presented in such a way as to make them clearly imbued with meaning, to make them, as said, ‘symbolic morphemes’.
What this consists of is the formation of an overall meaningful context within which a line or image is represented, and which thereby stamps it with a certain role in the mind of the reader. Through this, its repetition or development will be able to summon back this significance, this imputed meaning, and hence will form a part of the ‘musical language’, or paradigm, in which the listener shall be submerged. The first requirement of this is the vagueness of the image, without which the meaning of the image is not imputed by its context and implications, but is already present in the image by itself; hence, a certain melody representing bravery, say in an epic opera, or the entrance of a specific character would generally not be able to fulfill this function on a musical level. Rather, some level of obscurity is demanded, which prevents the repetition from degenerating into a cue. These are not simple leitmotif ‘guides-to-feeling’, but rather the underlying obscurity of the music transforms their function into something quite different from a simple guide to how to react, precisely because here there is no guide.
OSI’s ‘musical language’
The overall aim which OSI’s music reaches towards is the creation of a music in which every gesture appears imbued with meaning. This can only be done through the creation of an overall musical paradigm, or language, in which they do in fact become meaningful for the reader. For an example, we may look at the song ‘Blood’:
It begins with the music sans vocals, as most OSI songs do. These repeat a single melody, to which additional, more percussive, elements are continually added. Note here how the percussive elements appear essentially built up around the original melody, and mirror it in their organization; the two are intimately connected. There is an essential unity of paradigm asserted here; the meaning of the one element merely complements the other, it does not depart from it. The same applies to the electric guitar when it enters, as well as the keyboard; all build upon the same basic pattern. Their association with the other parts of the song becomes indivisible from them.
If one wishes to construct a given musical language within a song, permeating it thoroughly, it becomes necessary to have repetition which plays a prominent role within the song’s composition. This song exemplifies that to some extent; just about all of the various musical layers and figures used within the song cleave to this basic pattern in some way, from the drum pattern at 2:38 to the keyboard melody which follows it. The song forms an indissoluble whole. Hence, you get the quality of submergence talked about earlier.
At the same time, however, you have differentiation. Various changes in dynamics and instrumentation take place; for example, the pronounced shift between the electric guitar and a simple keyboard melody at around 0:56. These various elements gain their meaning from their place in the whole. Hence, each change in dynamic, or shift from percussive to melodic music, serves as an elaboration of the meaning of the musical ‘units’, or patterns, involved; it adds to their semantic content. This means that their meaning is ultimately unstable; they gain new aspects to their symbolism with each repetition and the context which surrounds it.
This possibility arises from their overall ‘simplicity’ and lack of detailed elaboration; once a melody becomes too complex and long, this possibility would cease to apply, and it would gain too great a degree of autonomy. The overall pattern must be ‘memorized’ subconsciously, and hence not be too long or complex for this to occur. Now, the use of repetition to establish an overall atmosphere isn’t exactly unique to this song; another notable example is, of course, the song ‘Black Sabbath’. However, what sets this apart in some ways is the number of different layers of sounds, instruments, and so on; while the repetition on ‘Black Sabbath’ is imposing, here the variety of forms taken by the single pattern creates a sense rather of omnipresence, hence of submergence. Rather than any one melody asserting itself as primary, all of them swim around, creating a multifaceted image.
While the repetition of a single musical unit, or two similar ones, in ‘Black Sabbath’ serves to emphasize and bring out completely the meaning inherent in this riff itself, the variation of units in OSI leads to a situation where their significance becomes inherently contextual, and hence none is defined purely in itself. This, firstly, leads to a sense in which the motives become ‘vague’, lacking a specific denotation of their own; due to the centering of the whole piece around a specific ‘pattern’ which is nonetheless only expressed through divergent units, these units themselves become ‘de-centered’, deriving their structure from a pattern which isn’t heard rather than being in themselves autonomous. For example, compare the keyboard melodies in ‘Blood’ with the more straightforward repetition of Redemption’s ‘The Origins of Ruin’:
It’s clear that the melody here takes on a more defined, sentimental significance, while that of ‘Blood’ has always to be related to its context in listening, and hence has a significance intrinsically related to the overall progression of the song. It can have aspects added to it by the addition of other layers of music alongside it at a certain point, or alternatively by being isolated from previous companions; in each case, this depends upon its positioning within the whole structure. It hence derives its meaning not solely from its own properties, but from its place within the whole narrative.
This quality, that of belonging to and forming a narrative, is the other main consequence of OSI’s contextual approach to musical units.* Through the overall development of the song, albeit around a common axis, the various musical units come to form patterns between themselves, and the song takes on an essentially narrative bent; or, to put it otherwise, if the significance of the musical unit is contingent upon the overall movement in which it takes place (eg. a shift from electric guitar to keyboard), then this movement itself comes to be meaningful, and hence we are forced to pay more attention to the song’s development and overall narrative. The narrative form is partly a consequence of this emphasis upon development and partly one of the commonality of the various musical units, all interrelated in their composition and fitting roughly to a basic pattern of their own; due to this, each development of the music appears as a further manifestation of this ‘central’ pattern, and hence united in a single narrative.
To summarize, then, the music takes on a narrative form due to the fact that its development becomes a focal point, and becomes essential to every aspect of the listening process. There is, one could say, a ‘story’, a complex situation going on behind the varied sounds and shades of emotional intensity, rather than the song representing the distillation of an emotional state as in the Redemption song. The ‘story’, in musical terms at least, is created by the focus on development as opposed to the autonomy (autonomous expression) of the various separate parts of the song. Now, in a way, it is true that this kind of creation of a ‘story’ in music is nothing new in itself, even discounting classical music, and its application on an even higher scale is the principle of what is popularly known as the ‘concept album’ (Not to say, of course, that there aren’t concept albums which don’t have much focus upon creating a story in this musical sense, such as Operation: Mindcrime.) Nonetheless, OSI’s specific use of this form is, if not ‘unique’, still nuanced enough to deserve consideration apart from that of the form by itself.
Unity and disunity
OSI, as we have said, have not only an emphasis upon musical development, but also form their musical units around a more or less unified pattern, something which most concept albums do not. Their songs are more ‘centered.’ This is due, in part, to the fact that they generally work on the level of the song, and hence they can take a far more concentrated approach to musical unity and variation than if they had to keep it up for an album’s length. One can see this in comparing OSI’s albums to a concept album, say APSoG or Sider’s ‘Labyrinth;’ in the latter, there’s a necessary degree of dynamism within the album, both between and within the songs, which means that while there is a focus upon the development from one part of the music to another, these parts are nonetheless quite different, as is required by the narrative and its progress, while in OSI they’re a lot more unified and stand out as iterations of a common function. The difference between parts IV and V of APSoG, or even between different sections of part V, is a lot more pronounced than that between the various sections of ‘Blood’, whether heavier or ‘lighter.’
The story in Fates Warning’s album is situated within the overall context of motion and development, where a story is palpably shown to the listener, as it were narrated to or acted out for them. The album is focused primarily upon the subject and the development of their feelings through the 50-minute duration. In OSI’s album, on the other hand, all of the various developments that take place within a song are closely linked to the previous ones, generally conforming to them either in pattern or in atmosphere, and hence you don’t have the same sense of being shown the action. There isn’t the same sense of a focus on the subject and the development of their feelings throughout, and this is in part a result of the subtlety necessitated by the unified structure of OSI’s song and the minimalistic nature of their musical units. This minimalism and unity would mean that a song which was meant to represent such a subjective development, in the manner of APSoG ,wouldn’t be able to get the necessary degree of variation between feelings to create a powerful narrative. Looking at ‘Blood’, for example, even in the variation from an electric guitar passage to a keyboard one, there isn’t really enough of a break to ground a song based on a subjective narrative, and the two rather seem to represent two aspects of the same matter rather than a wholesale development.
Of course, Fates Warning do at times use a similar form of continuity, with a great degree of recapitulation of past verses and musical phrases, and it’s quite instructive to see when they do so. Generally, the repetition seems to take place precisely to strengthen a sense of entrapment and submergence; for example, the repetition of the, ‘Let nothing bleed into nothing’ verse and accompaniment between parts V and VII, or the similar repetition of the ‘shifting sands’ verse between parts II and III. It forms a significant part of the rich associations taken on by the ‘So where do we begin?’ verse, which through its repetition does similarly come to take on an association with the album’s sense of entrapment, although this forms only part of its varied connotations and dimensions. A great degree of the repetition’s power comes from its continual reassertion of the alienation of the lyricist from the addressee as something inescapable, which is why the repetition of the ‘shifting sands’ passage in V, for example, is perhaps the most powerful encapsulation of that part’s overall atmosphere, and forms a trough which must be followed by an upwards, more positive movement.
In the Fates album, nonetheless, this development and submergence serves quite a different one to that present in OSI. This is because, as mentioned, there is a greater degree of dynamism within the album as a whole, so that these repetitions are staggered by the more ‘positive’, intimate sections, such as parts IV and VI. The more positive parts generally take the form of a growth or construction, creating a feeling of almost building up something out of nothing; for example, if you look at the use of the rain imagery in part IV, it seems to gradually be elaborated and created:
Only us breathing.
And the rain, keeping time,
Dividing the silence,
In a distant thunder.
The structure of the verse itself is expansionary, slowly growing outwards from ‘listen’ to the more continually elaborated image of the last three lines. Likewise, if one looks at the structure of the parts IV and VI on the whole, there is a similar movement; part VI, for example, begins with a very tentative, underspoken introduction which slowly expands into the song, while part IV only enters into its more intimate atmosphere with a subtle, yet very powerful, inversion of the opening acoustic riff, marking a soft beginning to a powerful song. Even in album-wide terms, they move from the more tentative, abstract part IV to the more concrete part VI, which attempts to fact the issues and overcome them, and finally the straightforward statement of part IX, which seems to represent an even more definite statement of intimacy. Overall, the effect is almost like one of light slowly growing through the cracks.
From this, the repetition in the ‘negative’ tracks comes to take on a clear role, namely that of countering this progression, negating it, and thereby becoming ever more powerful the more it appears that we have progressed. It asserts in effect that the apparent progress was never concrete, that in reality things still are as they were; hence, that despite the attempts to inch oneself out, one remains imprisoned. Therefore, the straightforward instrumental of part X has a more intense effect, due to its following part IX, than part II had earlier, despite the lack of vocals and elaboration; part II, of course, does serve to induct the listener into the overall mindset of the album more than part X could do in its place, but by part X the overall framework has been laid, and the power of the section can now rely to a greater extent on simply its position relative to the rest of the album. APSoG’s structure does, in a sense, prevent it from becoming less interesting over time, as it overall represents a development carried out through antagonistic elements, and hence grows more, not less, powerful as one ‘gets into’ it.
APSoG, then, uses the repetition in a way which somewhat parallels OSI’s own atmosphere, hence illustrating its potency in creating an atmosphere of ‘submergence’, while at the same time using it in a way which is ultimately based around APSoG’s overall dynamism, and hence differs from OSI’s own usage. It gains a significant amount of its strength from its appearance alongside a more Echo Us-like constructive pattern in parts IV, VI and so on, and hence is also allowed a far looser degree of unity than OSI, due to the fact that the power of the repetition and submergence can now be derived through the succession of ‘positive’ parts by reversions to the earlier atmosphere, rather than needing the same sense of omnipresence that OSI does without this means of asserting continuity. Hence, when looking at parts V and VII, for example, you don’t have nearly the same degree of compositional unity that OSI have in ‘Blood’, and indeed at times this becomes a strength, by allowing the use of more direct repetition (eg. the ‘shifting sands’ verse, the ‘Let nothing bleed into nothing’ chorus) to have a far stronger impact due to almost underlining the point, while for OSI you don’t leave the prevailing atmosphere, and hence the return to it can hardly be a point of emphasis.
What, then, is the significance of this ‘centering’ of OSI’s music in terms of its development? In the first place, as we have said, this centering takes place through the interlinking of the various musical units used throughout the song,which hence appear to rotate around a common axis. On the other hand, this axis is never presented by itself, but always through the motion of varied musical units. The songs hence come to take on a narrative structure, one where the various transitions and developments become an object of focus, while at the same time keeping these transitions constrained within a common structure. As it were, it hints of dynamism without actually giving into it, or making a complete break. There’s a sense almost of stagnation despite the transitions, that though there is a story, the song is not acting it out.
Further, what the presence of this unheard centre creates is a sense of something lying beneath the various musical units, a sense of their implicit unity despite the variations. This is made even more forceful through the actual interweaving of them in the composition; for example, in ‘Blood,’ where the keyboard melody comes to be played simultaneously with other musical units by the end of the piece, hence creating a sense of their being united expressions of a given situation. This unity creates an atmosphere where the narrative implied by the music is not acted out through it, but is rather placed as a centre which the music never reaches directly.
The music’s motion implies narrative, but this motion always takes place and returns to a common centre, a common pattern which the various units follow. However, this common pattern is represented only in these fragments, and therefore appears as something ‘hidden’, and the basis of the narrative is hence kept out of plain sight. Though there is a focus upon development, and upon the reason for development, nonetheless this development is not itself the story, but rather floats around and expresses the story. Hence, you have on the one side the identification of a narrative, a story behind the music, created by its motion, and on the other hand the essential pattern behind the music and its development remains obscured, and so also the story. There is something deeper beneath the various musical units, but this cannot be directly accessed, just as OSI’s addressee can only be seen in various actions.
In APSoG, due to the lack of a common centre the unity of the piece is formed by an underlying logical coherence to its various developments, by its thematic continuity; the conflicts between alienation and intimacy, etc., are played out and developed in such a way that the one side appears just as much a part of the whole work as the other, and can be seen only in the light of the other. Because this theme, this conflict, is treated of and developed throughout the piece, its various developments appear unified precisely because of being developments of this basic conflict. It is, ultimately, the coherence of the development between conflicting atmospheres which keeps the whole project unified. In OSI, on the other hand, the various parts of the piece are unified by their general adherence to a common centre, despite their multiplicity. The parts are unified insofar as they refer back to the common thread of the piece, the common patterns and underlying atmospheres which characterize it. On the other hand, as we said, this also leads to the phenomenon that these parts themselves appear ‘de-centred’, and their meaning comes to depend upon the underlying pattern which is unheard, and therefore so does the meaning of the overall movement and narrative. We get multiple impressions of this narrative, from the satellites which orbit it, but are not presented with its central essence.
Because the musical units derive their meaning to a large degree from their fitting into a common pattern within the whole piece, while at the same time representing only a particular incarnation of this pattern which may be quite different from the others (eg. the harsher electric guitar sections compared to the softer, keyboard sections), they therefore both create a feeling of submergence due to the overall repetition, and centre the meaning of the narrative upon the non-present centre. Therefore, in the music by itself, you have already the sense of a hidden story, of a failure to clearly communicate, expressed. The music doesn’t communicate its meaning, its essential ‘point,’ clearly, but rather only expresses it through a mass of implications from without, from the divergent musical units, which imply a basic pattern and narrative without going directly into it. Within this context, even the subtlest gesture or sound can become imbued with meaning, due to its casting off further implications, as well as allowing further repetition through providing a degree of variation on the side. The principles of this musical structure form the foundation of OSI’s lyrical style.
Lyrics and the musical language
OSI’s lyrics build upon this musical basis, and form a part of the music through giving it a more explicit narrative structure. They are to a large degree integrated into the music, forming simply another facet of it, rather than being completely independent. In a sense, the vocals only bring out what the rest of the music has already created, while at the same time deriving their strength by playing on the various associations and implications thrown up by the music itself. Through introducing images of its own which are associated with the underlying textures of the music, it creates further, more concrete, associations which, through their correlation with the music, also take on emotional implications.
The lyrics serve, on the one hand, to more firmly establish a ‘subject-matter’ for the music, and thereby give it a more concrete stage on which its implications can act. In the most general terms, this can usually be said to relate to subjects such as war (‘Hello, Helicopter!’), politics (‘Free,’ for example) and interpersonal relationships (‘Terminal,’ ‘Once,’ ‘Kicking,’ etc.) What this does is to further the sense of a ‘centre’ present in the music by giving it an overall, unified theme. Just as the music derives a decent amount of its power by hinting towards a centre, so the lyrics enhance this effect by giving the music a rough ‘thematic’ centre, with which the music then comes to be associated. This almost serves to ‘complete’ the music’s own effect, and give its sense of implication a more concrete effect, while still not getting rid of it. Doing this – giving a thematic sense, a sense of setting, without destroying the effect of the music’s allusory quality – is one of the main tasks of OSI’s lyrics, and their form and imagery reflect this purpose (whether consciously or unconsciously) quite strongly.
(Even in OSI’s very occasional instrumental pieces, such as ‘Horseshoes and B-52s,’ a lot of power is gained from the general associations with war and social sterility which the track takes on as a result of its placement on the album. While a strong instrumental in itself, it still benefits from the thematic associations surrounding it, and this becomes an important part of its overall effect, as it were creating a setting for our experience of the song, with all of the various connotations that settings can hold.**)
In order to create a setting, OSI use images and ‘scene-setting’ (eg. the use of acting terminology in ‘Bigger Wave’, or ‘Go on ahead’ in ‘Go,’ which are not imagery in a conventional sense, but nonetheless serves a similar function). However, at the same time, the emphasis is not upon creating a simply physical setting, but rather an emotional, connotative setting. As such, rather than trying to give an elaborate description of surroundings, fragments of the setting are broken off, and devices such as repetition are used to provide them with associational value. For example, by repeating an image, or even a line like, ‘Get into character,’ the image is given an increased depth of symbolism, and emphasized to a greater extent. In a sense, it appears closer to the ‘centre,’ due to becoming a part of the music’s established language rather than merely an isolated image, and hence its associations become much more relevant; its repetition contributes to its meaning. This is quite recognizable from our discussion of the music itself, and by this overall, fragmentary approach, the feeling present in the music is hence retained in the lyrics.
Through this, then, one has the form of what we called ‘obscure imagery:’ images which are utilized more or less for their own sake, but not for their aesthetic value. In a song such as Holocaust’s ‘Caledonia,’ while the gradually intertwining spiritual and earthly imagery is used more or less for its own sake, it has an aesthetic significance rather than an associational one; the emphasis is upon the growth and elaboration of the image for its own sake, and on having the listener participate in this process. The point is a growing assertion of harmony, which is continually growing and is yet maintained, and this harmony is assured by the fact that the image appears something desirable, something beautiful; the focus is hence aesthetic. The listener allows themselves to participate in its construction because of these aesthetic qualities. On the other hand, in an allegory such as that of the Tortoise and the Hare, while there is definitely a focus upon associations, and upon the parallels of the story to human life, (allegorical images almost always contain a didactic, or, if you prefer, pedagogical element), the image is by no means taken in itself, but is rather in a process of continual, direct application. You have animals that are basically human because the animals are to be understood as human. Conversely, in order for images to function as semantic units, and base themselves upon associations, neither of these cases are possible.
We have also noticed that, in OSI’s music, direct communication is cast off in exchange for a constant orbit and probing around the centre, and this approach to imagery also preserves this feature. This can be enhanced at times by the use of slightly looser standards of English, most notably in ‘Terminal,’ with lines such as, ‘I wanna have fun like we used to did,’ and, ‘Maybe I can love you complete,’ which mean that even in the most direct, honest parts of the song, there are still clear traces of an inability to communicate directly; even when closest to the centre of meaning, the singer can’t quite reach it, and hence these ostensible outpourings become rather painful reminders of alienation. Even when the grammatical structures are somewhat more conventional, OSI still remain frequently averse to any straightforward rhetorical progression, bringing in episodes which don’t necessarily seem to have any connection one after another in such a way as to leave an impression of a speaker whose focus and subject-matter float around from sentence to sentence, as in:
On the first day,
I set the scene in a magazine
And now I've hurt someone.
In the next scene,
I cracked the code of the episode
And now I'm having fun.
Where the sudden alteration in imagery marked by the switch of ‘scene’ for ‘day’ creates a multiplicity of imagery, which is nonetheless shown to be connected by the temporal congruity of ‘on the first…’ being followed by ‘in the next…’, or:
I'll be gone now, either way that the wind blows.
I'll be back though, leave a light in the window.
When the waves die down, I'll be halfway round and I'll call you.
When the sun blocks out hold the radio up to the phone.
Where the first two lines may seem coherent enough by themselves, but the subject then floats onwards further and further away, to the point where the sun is blocking out. In both of these examples, you have something paralleling what we’ve already observed in the music; the placing of these various lines and images in succession creates a sense of continuity and unity of meaning, but at the same time their connection is disturbed by the fact that they are not in fact united in terms of image, and hence not a logical development of the same image. The underlying unity, the centre, is implied, but what is immediately apparent is not united and can do no more than imply it. Of course, this lyrical continuity is only possible because of the music underpinning it; the fact that the lines follow each other is not by itself enough to imply a unity of meaning, or at least to make one palpable, but rather this is established by the continuity of the music beneath them. If I were to write, for example:
‘Who is in the barn?’
‘‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’.’
‘What a roast beef!’
‘There’ll be no mutant enemy,
We shall certify.’
The continuity on the page would hardly be enough to make somebody reading it feel that it was anything more than a random arrangement of disparate fragments, and any continuity analysed in it would be purely intellectual rather than something actually palpable in the reading process. Of course, there is a difference, if one oft forgotten, between something which can be made coherent by intellectual analysis and something which actually gains coherence in reading from its seeming incoherence; that is, between a glorified code and a piece of art. As Clark Ashton Smith commented, on a different form of art: “Poetry which, while perhaps offering something to the intellect, offers nothing to tempt the imagination, has sterilized itself, and is no longer poetry.” *** Purely intellectual continuities, which aren’t active in the reading process, could be found here, albeit with some strain, but are not really sufficient to establish actual, felt continuity in the artwork.
On the other hand, OSI are able to get away with some uses of sampling which run very close to the the above example in their version of ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.’ There, the musical continuity is sufficient to allow many and varied sources to be represented without any real feeling of incoherence. In fact, one of the most notable things about that song is the sheer density and variety of the samples used, complemented by the longer-than-average length. One could even imagine the above example ‘poem’ gaining some coherence if used as samples in a piece of music, so long as the music itself had continuity, although at the same time enough variation to give sense to the variety of the quotations used (the same music which accommodates ‘Who is in the barn?’ may be less hospitable towards grammatical advice.)
OSI’s lyrics, then, essentially further the underlying sense of alienation, of a failure of communication and inability to speak and convey meaning, which the music contains implicitly. However, a simple lack of communication, seen in a purely negative sense, does not itself seem significant, but rather needs an overall context to gain emotional resonance. It needs, as it were, a ‘story,’ to give it some substance. We have also seen that OSI’s music contains a narrative element, a sense in which there is motion, and focus upon the developments in the song and their significance, while on the other hand within this motion there is still a sense of stagnancy due to the underlying unity of the music. There is a story, but it is not ‘acted out’ in the music. This can now be seen in relation to the recent discussion of lyrical continuity and discontinuity; though there seems to be a unifying ‘principle of motion’ behind the music, a reason for certain progressions of imagery (eg. the temporal progression from the ‘first day’ to the ‘next scene’), hence a story, at the same time it isn’t set out in terms of a continuous narrative, or acted out, but is rather simply implicit.
This could also to some degree explain the power of OSI’s placement of their story in the past, as a ‘backstory.’ In OSI’s music, the sense of a narrative is developed by the development of the music and the reliance of each musical unit upon its relation to others to establish its meaning. However, at the same time, in this process it does not gain its meaning in relation to an overall, absolute development in the song, but rather is simply absorbed into the song’s overall ‘musical language,’ as a term which, alongside the rest of the various phrases, characterises the nature of the underlying unity of the song. It is crystallized into a part of a single paradigm, which dominates throughout the song and in which the listener is submerged, rather than signifying an advance. It forms just another drop in the ocean in which you already drown, rather than being the the first droplet of a new rain. Due to this, the ‘story,’ in relation to which the images and phrases gain their meanings, must be placed in the past, as something which happened, and due to which the various emotional progressions occur, but which is now crystallized in images rather than actively occurring. Hence, the hidden backstory.
The main exception to this is the ‘war songs,’ such as ‘Hello, Helicopter!’ or ‘When You’re Ready.’ In these cases, there is a sense of being placed within the present, but a present where one is essentially helpless, and all of the action which goes on is in essence alien to one. You are simply a spectator to the play of the gods. ‘Hello, helicopter.’ Of course, this would hardly be the case if one were part of the suffering party in the war, and as such is much more appropriate when the lyricist takes the perspective of somebody in the dominant nation (‘I know what we’re doing.’) Of course, it’s also closer to reality, but that doesn’t stop most war records from taking the perspective of the sufferers; the point isn’t so much what the artist’s initial motivation for choosing a viewpoint is, but rather why it works with OSI’s music, and hence the motivation for completing the song and publishing it. The author is the first reader. Of course, the war songs also sound somewhat different to the rest, although there are underlying commonalities, but a more detailed examination of this would require a post of its own, and hence shall be done in a later post.
If you were to look at OSI’s music, you could say that there was on the one hand the meaning, the ‘positive’ element of the piece, and on the other hand the inability to speak it, the ‘negative’ (‘negative’ in the sense of ‘negation,’ not ‘bad’) element. If you have only the inability to speak, you have basically a meaningless silence; this wouldn’t get us anywhere, except maybe to a John Cage rip-off. If you have only the meaning, then you could hardly express the sense of alienation which OSI generally focus on. Rather, what OSI do is to place the positive element, the action, either in the past or ‘outside’ the lyricist, in such a way as to allow it to crystallise into something distant which the lyricist can be alienated from. The past was reality, and still is reality - it still plays an important part in our present state - but at the same time it is no longer such. And, of course, it is no longer living, but rather irreversible.
Closer to the centre: Conclusion.
OSI’s music is characterised by a tension between the centre, the meaning, on the one hand, and the inability to communicate directly on the other. Some of the strongest moments in OSI’s music are those in which they come closest to the centre, hence seeming to encapsulate the entire song in a short segment, although of course this is only made strong by by the context provided by the previous alienation. For example, ‘Can’t go on, can’t go back’ from ‘Radiologue,’ or ‘The heart, the heart beats for blood’ from ‘Blood.’ These are generally telegraphed by a corresponding musical change, making them stand out and enhancing their summative nature. In these sections, you seem to be closest to the essence of the music, to what it represents, and their power derives to a great degree from this nature.
Of course, these usually end up being used as a ‘chorus’, as for example with ‘Can’t go on, can’t go back,’ or ‘alone’ in ‘The Escape Artist.’ Nonetheless, in ‘Blood,’ this rather represents a conclusion to the song, and likewise to the album. OSI’s conclusions have always been strong, from the title track of ‘Blood’ to the song ‘Standby,’ whose short length emphasizes the power of the chorus. On the other hand, the conclusion of ‘Free’ is a bit different from these, not ending with a ‘summative’ moment like these, or being structured around one, but rather taking the form of an surprisingly conventional country-ish song, albeit infiltrated with Kevin Moore’s less conventional lyrics.
Once OSI have established their formula, or rather their personality, they’re free to assimilate whatever they want, to give their music a structure completely different to that which is usual, and to even use this difference as a strength. It’s a song which gets much more powerful once you know OSI’s other songs, once you know OSI’s general personality, and can hence appreciate this as manifested in this song; once it can be seen as not a quirky country tune, but a quirky OSI tune. One of the common signs of a powerful artist is the ability to shift between styles without losing your essential style, or ‘sound;’ the sense that you’ve created a personality strong enough that it can be heard clearly despite everything else changing. John Mortimer can do it, OSI can do it; but can your average party Thrash band, or chorus-centric Euro-power band? The author isn’t dead unless they kill themselves.
OSI are a subject which we’ll probably return to quite frequently; there’s a lot to say about them. Their discrography extends from the more political ‘Office of Strategic Influence’, which had the most conventionally metallic construction, to the more personal ‘Blood,’ probably their most coherent album; within these, there are some softer songs, some heavier songs, and some which mix the both: what is the significance of this alternation? Their discography is not static, but still expanding; their newest album comes out on March 27th, and seems that it shall promise plenty to digest. There’s still a lot of ground to cover, and more shall emerge soon enough. For now, though, I’ll leave you with ‘Our Town.’
* Even in ‘Home Was Good’, the song seemingly closest to Redemption’s, you have the introduction of a narrative element as soon as the acoustic guitar section enters:
The opening sounds like it could well be an introduction to a song along the lines of ‘The Origins of Ruin,’ and the first verse wouldn’t be inconsistent with this either, but the introduction of the acoustic guitar changes that and makes the song seem to have a more narrative element, a story of some sort. Notice at the same time, however, how the acoustic section seems to almost be based upon the structure and notes of the previous section. Also, of course, one area where it differs from the Redemption song is in the lyrics, which already suggest OSI’s musical style over Redemption’s.
** Likewise, in the following near-instrumental song, a single sample repeated once creates a great deal of power precisely through through its introduction of a sense of subject-matter:
Of course, this sample only works because it seems to express what is already implicit in the music, and the voice’s enunciation seems to imply the same difficulties of communication as the song.
*** From the previous note in the Black Book:
“Poetry, though its proper concerns are not primarily intellectual, [is] none the worse for having behind it a keen and firm intelligence. But intelligence alone does not make poetry, as glaringly exemplified by the latter works of T. S. Eliot, which, while no doubt profound from a philosophical standpoint, has little or nothing of the bardic magic and mystery; all such elements have been ruthlessly sacrificed, leaving an obscurity which, unlike that of Gérard de Nerval, is devoid of color, glamor, and the allurement of new imaginative meanings and analogies which would justify obscurity.”
He also comments, in a remark which could be connected with this topic, that: “Personifications, when used in poetry, should be vitalized in some signal way.”
While I don’t necessarily always agree with Clark Ashton Smith on his views of poetry’s purpose, in this case he seems to have a point. Essentially, conscious obscurity in art must have a use, rather than merely allowing English students a convenient subject for dissertations; obscurity must contribute towards meaning, not merely hide it. As such, when faced with obscurity, it’s often quite useful to not simply try and dissect it to find what lies beneath, but rather to look at what this obscurity contributes to the piece when read or heard.