Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sort-Of Reviews in Not-Really Stereo: "Here Comes Science" and "Act II: The Father of Death"

I finally got my meat-space copy of Act II: The Father of Death by the Protomen (I also got their bag, finally replacing my Air Force surplus carry-all of ten years) and have had time to digest it. I've been sitting on Here Comes Science for a while, since they came out in the same week, so I gave myself some time to think about that one as well.

Here Comes Science makes me laugh because a friend of mine (the philosopher who was instrumental in getting my sorry ass out of Objectivism) made a mix CD of They Might Be Giants and Sesame Street to test a professor's claim that the two are indistinguishable. So here they are with deliberate children's educational music, which I imagined would be even less distinct from Sesame Street, and... well, the answer turned out to be both yes and no.

Meet the Elements and The Bloodmobile are early-on examples of songs that I could see right at home on Sesame Street. But then there are songs like Science is Real and I Am a Paleontologist which cast scientists in a rock-star sort of light, which I fuckin' dig. Mainly, though, I find the album to be a breath of fresh air, giving some straight dope on science to kids in ways that they can appreciate and understand. For example, Put It to the Test carries a line that I almost want to get tattooed on my forehead: a fact is just a fantasy unless it can be checked.

But even better than the CD itself is the companion DVD that comes with it, containing music videos for all eighteen tracks (Here Comes Science, the song, doesn't count) strung together with contextualizing shorts narrated by John & John. Kids will laugh and be tricked into learning, but the educated viewer/listener will catch some covert lessons on falsifiability, the tentative nature of science, the importance of technical distinctions, and the place of humanity in the cosmos and on Earth. Even the liner notes are crammed with neat little things like a timeline of the Universe's life and the history of science (including the first articulation of the scientific method in 1021 by Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham - a new one on me!).

So I recommend this album to everyone without reservation. If you're not a child, just imbibe your intoxicant of choice and check out the music videos, it will be perhaps the most erudite stupid-fun you could possibly have. My friend Melissa called it "a big fuck-you to religion," and the Hell of it is, she's right (more on this in later posts).

My feelings on Act II are rather thoroughly mixed. Let me first compare my experience of The Protomen (or "Act I," if you prefer) to this second album. I listened to it many times before ever seeing the liner notes, and it took a few play-throughs to grow on me. In particular, Unrest in the House of Light struck me as disorganized and sloppy until I adopted the idea that the whole song is a crescendo to the last line: You cannot win. I didn't like Vengeance until I had gotten over my falling-out with punk rock. I'm going through the same thing with Act II: even though I really like that they "turned the horns up to eleven" (as one of my friends put it), Keep Quiet and Light Up the Night are pretty eighties-tastic and rubbed me the wrong way at first, while the middle of the album drags a little to me. Compare this to the Morricone-esque opening tracks, and I think a little bit of alienation is to be expected on my part. Also, if you know off the top of your head who Ennio Morricone is, please let me know because I just might love you.

Then there's the matter of extra-lyrical narration. Both albums have narration in the liner notes which is in no way communicated in the songs themselves, and in both cases, these extra narrations are married rather happily to instrumental bits devoid of lyrical content. The upshot is that the reader/listener can read along without interrupting the experience at all (I used my internal narrator rather than reading as quickly as I could), and I think it's awesome that this stylistic device was preserved.

Switching gears, I don't like that the Protomen seem to have relied on this device more in their second album than in the first. Throughout The Protomen, the action was always clearly communicated through lyrics and music, so that one could get a "good enough" picture of what was happening and who was speaking just by listening. In Act II, this is impossible; the exile of Dr. Light could easily be confused with a train ride to imprisonment, as it is unclear from listening alone whether Light is convicted or acquitted (which matter alone says quite a bit about the state of that world!). After this ambiguous event (and a curiously suggestive instrumental number), the next speaking role is given to Joe, who simply starts singing Breaking Out without ever being introduced.

That's my only substantial complaint about the album: as a rock opera, their storytelling is a bit sloppy when compared to the directness and clarity of their first release. Or maybe they're just being more economical with their units of storytelling, I don't know. It also bears mentioning that the major character developments of the first album are not mirrored by similar developments here: the action is all about how Wily completely ruins Light's life. This is very much a prequel which sets the stage for the released-first-but-chronologically-second part of the story, and for that, I think the lack of profound character development can be forgiven.

Everything else is either improved or just as good: the thematic unity is preserved, but presented in the form of smooth transitions from song to song rather than the variations on a central chord progression that ran throughout Act I. While the "genre pallette" is not as broad, the level of musicianship is about as high, and some of the production values are cleaned up (they even start distorting the sound at the end, which makes me think they're meant to be played in chronological order). At the end of the day, you'll probably like The Father of Death if you liked The Protomen, and I recommend listening to Act II first if you ever listen to both albums in one sitting.

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