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Monday, May 09, 2011

In which I overanalyze a goddamn heavy metal record

So I was going to review Thor but then I realized that, although I mentioned The Sword here on the blog way back in 2006, I haven't talked about them since. This is an injustice, really, since they are awesome. However, I suspect this post is going to be less about how utterly righteous Warp Riders (the newest album) is and more about how I managed to analyze it in the car on the way to work.

Oh well. Music fans are supposed to be selfish, right? Very High Fidelity. At any rate, Warp Riders IS utterly righteous--a concept album centered around an original science fiction story written by the man himself, J.D. Cronise (featured in my hot dudes of heavy metal post). The story is that of Ereth, an archer banished from his homeworld of Acheron, a planet which has been divided into two sides of eternal light and darkness due to tidal locking, of all things. Yeah, the band are a bunch of dorks. Excellent! According to Cronise, the bent of the story is more science fiction overall, what with spaceships, moving through time, and the like, but there are fantasy elements as well--Ereth is an archer, after all, and his movements mimic those of the hero on the quest. Overall I found that the story felt like Campbell written by Clarke, which is to say, perfect. Musically the sound varies a bit from previous albums; though none of The Sword's records really have an overarching style, the predecessors of Warp Riders were on the doomier side. Noted by Cronise himself, Warp Riders is a rock'n'roll album. At its height it's totally '70s ("Lawless Lands" has one of the sweetest guitar riffs I've ever heard, though the title track sounds like thrash metal composed by Bene Gesserit sisters), chunky and danceable and very hairy. Even the album art is right on point, harking back to the pulpy sci-fi book covers of the '60s and '70s.

So get to the feminism, Diana! you say. WELL OK IF I MUST. See, Warp Riders, while being the story of a male hero, has some notable lady characters. A trio of witches appears in "Tres Brujas" who correspond to the Maiden/Mother/Crone archetype which The Sword have utilized before. The witches interact with Ereth in various ways ("the first will love you, the second will deceive you/and the third will show you the way") and are aligned with times of day ("the first is twilight, the second is night/and the third is the coming of day"), placing the women at the cusp of Acheron, between light and dark. A magical spaceship is portrayed as female, as ships of various kinds usually are, and further as having been waiting the arrival of Ereth to take command for eons. Then there is the Sisterhood, who perform mysterious sacrifices on behalf of the warp riders in order to allow for time travel, with their leading priestess being referred to as "navigatrix of the star-seas". Finally, in "Night City" there appears a woman on the run, who is caught and shackled and "sold at auction/to the highest bidder" but not before being stripped of all her weapons. These characters call up mythic images of women throughout the ages--the wyrd sisters of Macbeth, the three faces of Hecate and other triple goddesses, the three tessering witches of A Wrinkle in Time; every famous ship in fiction, from the Pequod to the Ship Who Sang; sacred sisterhoods of nuns, feminist collectives, women-only communities such as Lesbos, and as I referred to before, futuristic societies of women such as the Bene Gesserit in Dune; and the fallen woman, the lady of the night, the woman enslaved, used, and brutalized by men from the dawn of history to the present day.

Beyond these corporeal characters, the language of the lyrics is steeped in female symbolism--mentions of wombs, of slipping into and between worlds, curves, and folds in space, the cord of life, passageways, phoenixes and rebirth, and orbs. Women generally and witches specifically have often been painted in terms of liminality, of being on the edge, in between light and dark, sacred and profane, male (as the default human) and animal. The concept of warp has many uses, most of which use female language and aspects: in sailing (star or sea), in airplane flight, in digital images, and of course in science fiction, where the Alcubierre drive allows for faster-than-light travel. This last is used in Star Trek where it is called a "warp drive". All of these uses stem originally from the use of warp in weaving, where the warp is the set of vertical yarns which are held in tension on the loom (the weft or weave are the yarns drawn through horizontally). To illustrate why this word makes sense in terms of space travel, behold the following images:

The first is of warp and weft on a loom, the second of what space theoretically looks like when it is warped to allow for faster-than-light travel. As you can see, the spaceship travels on a horizontal line--the weft--with the vertical lines of the warp twisting and distorting to allow its passage, but remaining intact otherwise.

Does there exist a more perfect metaphor for human history? I mean really. For one thing, the image of woman as weaver is as old as mythology (often coming in threes, as in the case of the Moirae and the Zoryas), and it's clear that the sisterhood and the tres brujas are weavers--of space and time, of possibility. The arcane sacrifice which the sisterhood makes for the warp riders is never stated explicitly, but we can imagine--not that we need to. Women have always made every sacrifice necessary for the sake of men's ambition. Even in Dune, which I find to be shockingly feminist for the time period in which it was written, the Bene Gesserit--awesomely powerful, intelligent, and significant female characters--are waiting for their Ereth, though to Frank Herbert's credit they are extremely active in their waiting. The "shining angel" of Warp Riders, the spaceship destined to save Ereth's life and then to be used by him, the living womb traveling across through the ether to meet her fate; the mysterious "Lady" referenced in the final track, who keeps her promises; the sisterhood who seemingly exist only to make space travel possible: these are the functions of women. Notably, the functions of men--to move at liberty, to fight, to explore, to learn--are also present in the forms of Ereth the voyager (and his phallic weaponry), the pirates of "Night City", and the Chronomancer (a magician of esoterica and strange lore). The male characters space-hop, chill at bars on the Night Side of Acheron, gather armadas, ferret out ancient knowledge from caves and tombs, and generally do the explorer-warrior-sage thang.

If I sound bitter, apologies. I'm not--really! This is really an awesome album. I love the band who created it, I love sci-fi and fantasy stories, I love concept albums. It's totally solid and definitely worth listening to, and it's still on constant rotation in my car. But my appetite for deconstruction is difficult to slake and a story like this is hard to resist, but thankfully, this is one case in which my awareness of certain gaps in the story does not detract from my enjoyment. The ratio of awesome to eh is heavy on the awesome side. Cheers, Swordspeople. And have no fear! I'll get around to Thor eventually.

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