Review – The songs of “Black Ribbons”: Part 1

Review – The songs of “Black Ribbons”: Part 1

One of the best albums to come out this year is “Black Ribbons” by Hierophant.  It’s a deeply layered examination about the nature of truth in the world, and what really matters at the end of the day.  In my review of the album, I talked about its overall themes and message.  I pointed out that, like most brilliant art, it should experienced and interpreted by each listener – allowing your own worldview and inherent biases to shape the ultimate value that you derive from the work.

This time around, I want to dive a little more deeply in to each song, and share my experience with, and interpretation of, each of them.  In part one, I’ll analyze the first 12 tracks on the album.  Shooter has said in interviews that this is a “loose concept album”, and not every song directly ties to the overt messages of the album.  He told

I knew I wasn’t gonna write an album about a blind kid playing pinball. It wasn’t gonna be something where each song had to deal with this topic. It was gonna be more about this personality that was on the radio, and these songs were gonna be the catalog of material by this band. So it relieved me of having to feel, not that it was actually ever an issue because I went into it with certain songs that were personal and all that, but I didn’t feel pressured to make it all tie together. But I had a handful of songs that had this social commentary and I knew that they were gonna be the ones that Will o’ the Wisp introduced.

With that in mind, I’ll share my thoughts on each song, and how they either directly drive the underlying narrative of “Black Ribbons”, or indirectly move the story forward by their soul and story.  When all is said and done, however, I encourage you to listen to them for yourself.  Think about them.  Form your own opinions.  Let me know what YOU hear in these songs.  After all, thinking for yourself is the best way to live your life, and it’s the best way to enjoy “Black Ribbons”.

* One note.  In the world created by and explored through “Black Ribbons”, Hierophant released three albums: “Bohemian Grove” in 2009, “Well Wishers” in 2010, and “The Illuminated” in 2011. I’ll discuss the albums themselves more in a future post, but for the purposes of this review, each song is identified with the album that it was released on.

Wake Up (from “Bohemian Grove”, 2009)
From the opening chords of “Wake Up”, you know that you are in for something special.  With a large nod to Pink Floyd, and a healthy dose of electronica, you are off on the journey with Hierophant.  Everything that you need to know about this album can be found in this track.  The belief that we are not being told the truth by those in power, the belief that the individual is what is important to society’s survival, the belief that relying on the loved ones around you is the only way to prosper – it’s all there in this song.

Shooter provides an intimate and seductive vocal; all while still railing against “them”.  What I love most about the song is that just as you are settling in – relaxing in to the lyrics – it slams you in the face with a sonic wall of rebellion, almost physically shaking you, imploring you to “wake up”.  It is a stark and violent moment in the song, and one of my favorites.  The song also includes some of my favorite lyrics from the album:

And they’ll try to turn me against you,
So divided, we’ll turn to them
Because anything strong cannot be conquered from without
Before first being conquered from within…wake up!

Truer words have rarely been spoken.  Unless and until you destroy the moral and cultural fiber of a country, it cannot be conquered. The process of dividing people up in to groups and then pitting them against each is the identity politics that we have seen rise to prominence over the last 50 years. Getting people to distrust their friends, family, and neighbors is the quickest path to controlling their lives.

As the song winds down to it’s inevitable conclusion, it pulls out one of my other personal favorite lyrics:

Life is a movie,
We are all actors,
Don’t let them edit you out….

To me, this speaks of the willingness of some to sacrifice freedom, or voluntarily censor themselves, in the interest of the State.  We are all equal players on the stage – everyone one of us.  Unless you consent to being edited out if the picture, you will have your say.  Don’t let them edit you out.

Last Light Radio 11:01 PM
This is the first installment of commentary from Will-o-the-Wisp.  The album is structured around the final broadcast of “Last Light Radio”, before the government commandeers the airwaves for “government approved and regulated transmission”.  Stephen King channels his inner Art Bell and Alex Jones on these interludes, perfectly capturing the cadence and tone of a late night political talk show host.  We learn that Will-o-the-Wisp is going to use the last hour of broadcast time to play the music of Hierophant for us – the one band that the government doesn’t want us to hear.  Will gives us a very direct explanation of the albums message:

The most important truth is love.  All you know, and all you need to know, as the poet says.  Or was that beauty?  What’s the difference? Love your family, love your neighbor, love your enemy as yourself.  Go on loving – it’s what humans do best, and the one thing THEY can’t kill.

Then, with a healthy dose of rebellion, a smattering of skepticism, and a whisper of resignation, we are ushered in to the next song.

Triskaidekaphobia (from “Bohemian Grove”, 2009)
Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number 13.  In this case, that fear manifests itself as the fear of “13 o’clock”.  When “Last Light Radio” goes off the air at midnight, 13 o’clock will begin the new era of government control of the airwaves.   Unlike the moody and aggressive tone of “Wake Up”, this track has a bit more of a straightforward structure.  It’s still has an interesting mix of acoustic guitar and keyboard work, anchored in the middle by the piano theme found in the first Will-O-The-Wisp interlude.  That piano creates a slightly haunted feel, very atmospheric, and effective as the backdrop for a searing guitar solo.

Don’t Feed the Animals (from “The Illuminated”, 2011)
This song so quickly interrupts the previous track that it almost feels like it is feeding on it.  It is an aggressive, industrial inspired sound, with shades of Nine Inch Nails, and a taste of The Beastie Boys.  The vocal is raw and stark, at times sounding like it’s being sung through a bullhorn.  I love the guitar work throughout the song.  The entire track grabs you by the neck, drags your through the street, and then ends so quickly you are left in momentary shock.   With the animals representing the basest, selfish side of human nature, the song can be seen as a warning against those that would tear down and consume society – those that would choose to live only for their own gratification, unconcerned with the world beyond their own desires and wants.  A society rooted in narcissism is one destined to collapse.

The Breaking Point (from “Well Wishers”, 2010)
This song stands in stark contrast to “Don’t Feed The Animals”.  It has a feel that will be a little more comfortable for longtime Shooter Jennings fans.  It still veers strongly into the pseudo-industrial, Pink Floyd-esque sound pallet that the album established in the first three songs – but it starts as a more traditional country/rock song.  Again, I love the tone and the timbre of the guitar work in this song.  It has that warm, sharp edged, humming distortion that cuts through each song like an electrical current, (think Joe Satriani by way of Brian May).

The “Well Wishers” album from Hierophant is said to have been “more introspective”, and this song is among the most personal on “Black Ribbons”.  Shooter provides a raw and searing vocal throughout, screaming and imploring his love to do no more for him than push him to his breaking point.  It’s an honest look into what it takes to build the foundation of a strong relationship.

Last Light Radio 11:16 PM
In this interlude, we learn a little more about the world, as it has become.  The city is silent, but for the movements of government troops. The public is not allowed to congregate anymore, not allowed to move around freely.  Will-O-The-Wisp perfectly describes the process by which tyrants separate a people from their freedoms:

They create a problem, then offer a solution.  They scare us, then offer relief, and we fall on our knees in gratitude.  They create a war, promise peace, and we walk into their traps like mice.

Put in more current language – “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste”.  That’s especially true when that self same government has a hand in creating the crisis’s that they then try and solve.  In a world where so many people are happy to trade freedoms for the feeling of security, it’s not hard to see how you could build a road to tyranny, one brick at a time.

Everything Else Is Illusion (from “Well Wishers”, 2010)
This song further explores the theme that government and the media can often present a version of reality at odds with the truth.  Those trying to destroy freedom will use the very tools of a free society – the press and speech – to undercut the freedoms that those tools represent.  It also talks about the duty of those serving power to act their conscious as well.  In the intro to the song, Will-O-The-Wisp dedicates it to a soldier he sees standing on a street corner – asking if he really knows who he is.  Too many times in the past, good men have allowed bad things to happen under the guise of “I was just following orders”.  Those men refused to think for themselves, refused to take responsibility for themselves – refused to look for the truth.

The verse of this song has the same backbeat, chanting cadence of “Come Together”, mixed with a harmony-laden melody more at home in a Southern Gospel hymn.  It’s an effective juxtaposition of styles that rolls into the bridge and chorus of more straightforward rock song.  Then, out of nowhere comes an abrupt break that serves to introduce the song’s title:

Like Isis you blind their eyes, with your institutions
Love is the only truth, everything else is illusion

Is the Isis mentioned here the Egyptian goddess of motherhood, magic, and fertility?  Is it the Institute for Science and International Security?  I’m not sure.  I think what matters is the underlying message.  As the song swells and builds towards conclusion, you are swept along with the mantra, feeling the inevitable draw of the song’s climax.  You hear a single truth repeated over and over again – don’t believe what someone else tells you – believe what you know and feel for yourself.  Believe in the love you feel.

God Bless Alabama (from “Well Wishers”, 2010)
This songs springs directly out of “Everything Else Is Illusion”, but presents a diametrically opposed experience.  It has a late 70’s country rock vibe, heavy on both the acoustic guitar and a greasy electric guitar in the chorus.  It is one of the most commercially accessible songs on the record.  Written for Shooter’s daughter, Alabama, by her godfather Matt Reeser – the song serves as a guide for those that are going to inherit the world.  Where “Everything Else Is Illusion” speaks of the dangers of propaganda, this song speaks to the beauty of truth.  It’s the flip side of the coin. The song says:

There are many roads to follow
The only safe one is the truth

In that lyric we see the choice that people have – to follow the truth, or accept the lie.  We also see that one force that drives us is the desire to leave our children something better. Until you learn to live for more that just yourself, until you understand the love a parent feels for a child, it’s far easier to ignore the hard choices, and accept the security that “they” offer.

All of this Could Have Been Yours (from “Well Wishers”, 2010)
I’ve read that this song is about Shooter’s experience with the country music industry in Nashville.  Through that lens, this is a personal story about rejection and loss.  When juxtaposed against the broader themes of the album, you can also look at the song as a lament for a world that has moved on and left you floating in angry seas – alone.  You can see it as a requiem of sorts for all of the things that will not be there to pass along to your children.

With the mournful piano as its base, Shooter cries out, remembering what was, and wishing that Alabama could grow up in the same world. Unfortunately, the world that he knew has been slowly destroyed, piece by piece, lie by lie, freedom by freedom.

It was so beautiful,
It was so peaceful,
All the destruction,
It was quiet.
And all of this would have been,
All of this could have been yours.

As we heard in “Wake Up”, you can’t conquer a strong nation unless you do it from within.  “All the destruction, it was quiet” talks not of an armed invasion, but of a silent coup, carried out in the open for all to see, with the approval of the masses.  Every small loss of liberty brings us one step closer to tyranny, and every obfuscation of the truth lessens us all as people.

Last Light Radio 11:29PM
In this interlude, Will-O-The-Wisp introduces the concepts from Carol S. Pearson’s book – “The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By”.  In it, she talks of six archetypal phases that we all journey through during our lives – The Innocent, The Orphan, The Wanderer, The Warrior, The Martyr, and The Magician.  These fit nicely with the Tarot symbols used in the music and artwork – one could argue that “The Magician” could easily be seen as the Hierophant in the major arcana (and in fact Will-O-The-Wisp mentions that his time at the Magician is drawing to a close – he will not longer be able to bring the truth to the masses).  It’s in this discussion that we get the first glimmer that Will-O-The-Wisp is not going to go quietly into the night.  He mentions that – “today I feel like a martyr, tomorrow I’ll be a warrior”.  That speaks to his mindset – that he will be continuing his rebellion against the new order.

F*ck You (I’m Famous) (from “The Illuminated”, 2011)
This is an aggressive, catchy, and unapologetic song, with strains of Everlast, Limp Bizkit, and the Beastie Boys. Will-O-The-Wisp sets this song up as the story of man’s journey from Innocence to Orphan.  It’s a great insight to the true meaning of the song.  It chronicles the journey to a place where you don’t really care about anyone but yourself – a place of narcissism and disdain for society and society’s norms.  It’s a place where you believe that you are fine, part of the privileged class, and the hell with everyone else – a place that allows the slow, subtle creep of tyranny to take root without you even noticing.  It’s a commentary on the mind numbing aspects of the celebrity culture that permeates much of the country today.

Lights in the Sky (from “Bohemian Grove”, 2009)
If Pink Floyd had written music with the Steve Miller Band – this is the song they would have created.  It’s got a distinct Steve Miller, “Into the Future” vibe, with vocals and guitar work that would have been at home on the “Wish You Were Here” album.  The best thing about it is that it all works.

Taken with “F*ck You, I’m Famous”, I think this song is a cautionary tale about believing what you hear just because if comes from the mouth of a celebrity, the pen of a journalist, or the bully pulpit of the government.  The song says:

Lights in the sky tell me that I love you,
Tell me that I need you.
Lights in the sky tell me that I want you

The “lights in the sky” are those elites in power who want to shape and mold what you think and what you care about.  After all, they know better than you what is right for you and your family – right?  Much like “Wake Up”, this song warms about succumbing to the soft seductive whispers of popular culture and group think.  It warms about willingly accepting your place in the Matrix without thought or question.  Remember – if you chose to blindly follow the “elites”, they are going to lead you to a world where they are the haves, and you are the have-nots.

Click here to read part two of my review of the songs of “Black Ribbons”.

© 2010 – 2011, The Word Zombie. All rights reserved.

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