Friday, March 03, 2006

Violet Burning DVD review, plus a shameless plug

A couple of weeks ago I got the new(ish) live DVD by the Violet Burning. I've been meaning to write some observations and a kind of review of it, but frankly I've been stumped.

I should immediately disclose that I'm a big fan of the Violet Burning, and have been for well over a decade now. It would not be an exaggeration to say that their music, along with the music of other such honest artists as Mike Knott (and his various projects, like the Aunt Bettys and LSU) and Adam Again, by giving me the spiritual permission to feel however it was that I felt, saved my life as a teenager.

While these were "Christian" groups - in the sense that the groups were comprised of people who identified themselves as Christian, and in the sense that they were at least nominally affiliated with "Christian" record labels - they were also honest about their struggles with their faith, and with integrating their faith into their daily lives.

So much in "Christian" art and music has been an attempt to portray an ideal world and an idealized experience of faith. In seeking to "honor" God, artists and labels have edited out anything which God (or the paying customers) might find distasteful. There has also long been the flawed notion within Christendom that to portray a behavior is to endorse a behavior. As such, to discuss doubt or sin might be to encourage your audience to sin, or to plant a seed of doubt.

This has inadvertently cut all of the meat [note: as a vegetarian, my tongue is here firmly in my cheek] out of "Christian" music. To deny human tendencies toward sin and human experiences of doubt is to strip the Gospel of all of its liberating power. These artists (and many, many others), in standing in such sharp contrast to the mainstream of Christian music, gave me a Christian artistic expression which I could actually buy.

The first band that I ever really loved was Nirvana. Before I encountered their pensive angst I thought that I had loved music, but I had really only parroted or rebelled against my father's tastes. I had picked groups like Led Zepplin, REM and the Beatles because my dad had good taste, which rubbed off on me. I picked groups like Def Leopard and Van Halen because I had no taste, despite my father's best intentions.

But when I heard Nirvana, all bets were off. Their bottled up rage, and their indiscriminant expression of it, hit me right where I was. My body was changing, my mind was racing, my voice was cracking, my life was confusing, and I was angry about it. I wasn't angry at anyone or anything; I was angry as a state of being. I had a kind of ontological rage which was perfectly expressed in the music of Nirvana, the soundtrack of my adolescence.

But I also had a kind of religious encounter, an experience of the presence of God, and an experience of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I embarked on the long journey of sanctification, a journey on which my rage had no place.

The Violet Burning was one of many artists which helped me give honest vent to my anger. The didn't deny the power of that emotion, nor did they condemn it. But neither did they endorse it. The experienced it, and its antidote. So I have long been a fan.

But the problem with being a fan, and setting out to write a review of sorts as a fan, is that fans often grossly misjudge a band's work. They (we!) tend to err in one of two ways. Either we

1.) heap gushing and infatuated praise on the mediocre work of a once great artist, or we

2.) misjudge the daring and adventurous work of an artist shedding its metaphoric creative skin, and stretching artistically.

When I err, I tend to err with the later. For instance, I am a huge King's X fan. I own (and semi-regularly listen to) every King's X album. But ever since Tape Head, when I first listen to a King's X album I hate it. That's because with each new album they discard their former sound. What a great way for an artist to stretch and grow (and alienate fans!). But it disorients me. I've come to admire their former sound. I've grown accustomed to it, and added it to the soundtrack running constantly in my mind. As such I listen to the new material with some expectations for it, and those expectations are initially frustrated. As such I need to trust that they know what their doing.

So I listen to each new album several times, forcing myself to notice each new detail, asking myself why they would chose to make this sound instead of all of the other possible sounds. By the tenth listen, or so, I'm sold. Pure genius every time. Of course! I say to my self. Why didn't I see it earlier? I didn't see it earlier because my mind was still clouded with my expectations for it. Until those expectations have been so frustrated as to depart forever, I can't really hear the new music. Because to hear it, you have to listen to it with an empty mind, devoid of poisonous expectations.

So, a couple of weeks ago I ran into a little bit of spare money, and spent it on the Violet Burning's live DVD, The Loudest Sound in My Heart. The title sums up their sound perfectly. The Violet Burning is where mysticism meets modern rock. Ethereal sampled sounds and sonic dissonance lay behind layered crunch guitars and moving distorted bass lines. The acoustic drums dialogue seamlessly with sampled digital percussion, driving the band and rocking the sound.

But principally the group is about Michael Pritzl's haunting vocals. Blessed with a powerful voice, nearly limitless range, a poet's heart and the stage presence of a veteran actor, Pritzl brings the audience into the heart of each song, ushering them into a kind a mystical musical experience.

Pritzl has long been the Violet Burning, writing the songs and surrounding himself with various willing and able musicians. But now, armed with the stable lineup of Daryl Dawson on bass, Doug Heckman on guitar and Jason lord Mize on drums, the Violet Burning has finally released a product which aims to capture the power of their live performances. [note: not to sound like a gushing fan or anything, but the two best rock shows I've ever seen were both by the Violet Burning, and both sported this lineup, which has been together since 2002] This brings me to what has stumped me for the last two weeks, and kept me from writing this earlier. I can't decide whether or not the DVD really does capture the power of a live show by the Violet Burning.

The sound comes from single live show in Vienna (and can also be found on a live cd by the same title), and, despite the inherant difficulties in getting a good recorded live sound, is almost flawless. The picture, however, was compiled in a unique way over a three year period in venues from around the United States and Europe.

At each show they put two camcorders on stage, and had several different people film with them throughout the night. After three years the had enough good footage to edit it to correspond with the soundtrack from the recorded Vienna show. The result is very creative, but often disjointed and jolting.

They make no effort to get the picture to look like one of their live shows, and make no effort to cover-up their methods. This is to their credit, and speaks to their integrity and creativity. However, flying from shot to shot, angle to angle, show to show within each song could give the viewer one hell of a headache. After all, for any single song you fight have visual footage from three years of live shows, some during the day, some at night, some indoors, some outdoors, some at festivals, some in clubs, some in churches. Additionally a number of different effects have been applied to each visual feed. The result is a picture as distorted as their screaming guitar sounds.

At first, sad to say, I hated it. But having spent money on a product by such a dearly loved band, I also hated that I hated it. But I was also determined no to let my expectations (and my past experiences at shows by the Violet Burning) ruin my experience of this product. So over the past two weeks I have forced myself to watch it almost every day, and I have to say that, like the best in creative rock, it grew on me.

I loved the sound from the get-go. Starting with the fantastic love song "Gorgeous" (my wife's favorite song, by the way), it grips your heart and never lets go. "Moon Radio," "Berlin Kitty," and "Fabulous, Like You" rock like nobody's business. Driving modern rock, like the best of U2. Truly powerful rock and roll. But the slower songs are even more powerful.

My favorite moment was "Gone Gone Gone," a tortured song which wrestles with the reality of balancing the divine calling of music with having healthy relationships. Consider this line:

Hollow songs in holy words are all I've ever known.

But, of course, his other, the partner in dialogue with the song, wants more than that. How do you balance your loves? Must you choose between a stable domestic life and the demons that drive rock?

The Violet Burning is at their best when they are using dynamic changes to create an atmosphere that invites the listener into the world of the song. This creates an emotional experience, a mystical encounter with the music itself serving the sacred. In this sense the Violet Burning is one of the most "Christian" bands around, even if they are more of a cross-over group. Their music does not speak about their relationship with God, it invites you into that relationship.

This is particularly evident in "Forty Weight," a sing which first appeared on their worship album,Faith and Devotions of a Satellite Heart. Sung almost as a canon, it layers prayer on top of prayer, using powerful mytstical images:

Oh God be merciful to me
Lift me from the earth and cover me
I wait for you

followed by

Lord, my cup is empty
Won't you come now and fill me up

These and other prayers alternate, then stack on top of each other, layering into a frantic crescendo of devotion.

The DVD (and the cd) also features a song resurrected from my favorite album of all time, their 1996 self-titled album, "Underwater." That album more than any other work captures what I think is the heart and soul of music. Each song is both secular and profane, offered to God but mired in the depths of the human experience. "Underwater" is a quintessential track from that album, and I loved hearing a new incarnation of the Violet Burning playing a new interpretation of that song. The lyric fits the music perfectly, and captures the essence of this mystical encounter, this merging of the secular and the sacred.

The song is an image of the religious life as a fight, trying to breath in water. As such it captures the imagery of baptism. Under the water the voice of the song asks a poignant question:

Is it healing me or drowning me?
The more I live the less I know

After wrestling with the distance between the images and the sound I finally decided that, if their experiment doesn't work, then they've still recorded and released a fantastic live album. But ultimately, even if the creativity of the DVD's images were brought about by fiscal reality (they are a truly independent band, with no label paying for the production costs up front), I think that it does work. I think that the strange and often distorted and disjointed images, taken from a series of live shows over a three year period, while not capturing any single live performance, usher the viewer into the kind of experience that they would have at a live show by the Violet Burning. And what an experience that it.


[note: from here on out my not-so-mad computer skills are being put to the test because my son destroyed my mouse. I went to the store, bought a new mouse, tried to install it, and for a series of reasons which make no sense to me (and probably have to do with the fact that the mouse I bought was somehow defective and will be returning to the store from which I bought it as soon as I finish typing this) it doesn't work, either.]

This pseudo-critic (finally got to that post script) has put his money where his mouth is and put something new into the world. While I am not a musician, I do dabble in music, and my twin brother is one hell of a musician. So I wrote a few songs, got together with him to put them to music, and have now posted some of the resulting demos (written between 2003 and 2004 and recorded in 2004) on myspace. You can find them by going to my myspace site.

I've added a sidebar item to this blog with a link to that site. You can find it under the heading Sandalstraps' Songs, just before you get to the Theology in/of the Culture War section.

Please check it out. I hope you'll like it.


Tom said...

"Fabulous Like You" just plain ROCKS live. I have not heard the rest of that project but look forward to it.

Tyler Simons said...

The sound comes from single live show in Vienna... The picture, however, was compiled in a unique way over a three year period in venues from around the United States and Europe.

If Phish ever released a DVD like that, I would never, ever watch it. That would be so annoying! For them, and, I would hope for the Violet Burning, the music played during a concert can't be separated from the surrounding environment -- and the venues on a Phish tour are more similar to each other than the venues you mention TVB visiting.

I've listened to a lot of live recordings (and, perhaps forgiven a few too many poorly recorded ones) one of the best parts is imagining what it must have been like to have been there. This is still present when you watch film from a live performance -- you can see what they're doing, but you're still not in the room, you have to use your imagination.

I guess I'm saying that it doesn't sound like there's much of a creative interaction between the band and the audience with this release, and that's part of the essence of live performance, isn't it? Maybe this is part of the headache-inducing aspect of the video.

It either testifies to my penetrating insight or my unyielding presumptuousness that I'm willing and able to pontificate about a video I've never seen by a band I've never heard. Maybe it testifies to the thoroughness of your analysis, Strappy.

Sandalstraps said...

Phish's music is more context dependent because so much of it is improvisational. The Violet Burning, while they make an emotional connection with their audience, don't vary their lives shows so much, and don't leave much room for spontaneity within the music.

Where they alter their show is not in what they play, or even how they play it (the same notes at roughly the same tempos and dynamics each night), but rather in how they perform it dramatically. While they are not a theatrical band, they do have a theatrical element to their performance. It is very subtle, but it is there.

For instance, when Michael Pritzl sings he also mimes. Not in the since of a guy with white face paint and a black suit pretending to sweep, but in the sense of a performer trying through his motions to draw you into the performance. On a line like

I'd love to get you on my skin

He would draw attention to the image by dropping his gigantic hollow body Gretch guitar, letting it hand from the strap around his neck, and rubbing his forearms.

A subtle yet dramatic performance which you really must see to understand. To describe it makes it seem contrived, over the top. Like a glam rocker going through the motions. But, like I say, he is more of a gifted actor, with a musical approach that borders on mystical poetry. There is an element of eroticism to it, but the eroticism is not the sort of hyper sexualized eroticism of Davie Bowie or even Mick Jagger or Steven Tyler. Instead it is the mystical eroticism of the Song of Solomon. Rather than being center on the self (the performer) as subject and the other (some sexually desired figure) as object, it removes all objects and brings the audience into a kind of relational moment in which all are subjects in a mutual relation with God.

The aim of mysticism is union with God. The aim of the live performance is a kind of mystical union between the performer and the audience and God. The soundtrack really captures this. At first I thought that the video detracted from this. Now I think that the video generalizes this, bringing the viewer into the entire series of shows in a single moment.

But this may be the fan in me talking, rather than the critic.

In any event the band, and especially their live cd and DVD, is worth checking out. Given your taste in music I would be very surprised if you didn't like them.

If you'd like a free sample you can get to their myspace page from their website. At their myspace page you can see and hear parts of their live product.

Tom said...

Link to The Violet Burning's Myspace profilehere.

Tyler Simons said...

Your right about the context-dependency of Phish's live stuff, but the aspects of TVB performance you describe sound similar to David Byrne's in Stop Making Sense, and that film would, in my mind, lose a lot if it weren't the sound and video didn't match. The immigrant song on the Zeppelin DVD that was released a couple years ago matched music up with an unrelated performance, albiet without the self-consciousness that you claim for the TVB film, and I didn't like it, either. There isn't much improv in Immigrant song.

Anyway, I'll see if Netflix has the video. Otherwise, I might have to wait until Laura and I invite ourselves to your place in Kentucky on our way to her family's place in Virginia -- we drive through Louisville every time.

The Silent Screen said...

SPAM you very much.

Sandalstraps said...


Come on over.

The Silent Screen,

You guys suck. Stop SPAMing me. I'm trying to listen to Pet Souns here!

Just kidding, of course, about everything but Pet Sounds.

The Silent Screen said...

I love the smell of SPAM in the morning...

It smells like victory.

Click here... You know you want to.

Tom said...

Sorry, I couldn't resist. I'm getting help... seriously.