Powerful Themes (1/4)

I’ve mentioned before that I have, in essence, four favorite bands. There’s Blind Guardian, whose magnus opus Nightfall in Middle-Earth tells the story of the Silmarillion; then Rhapsody (of Fire), who sing of the Enchanted Lands; of course Kamelot, the only American band I really like; and finally Týr, who hail from of all places the Faroe Islands.

These four artists are in some ways quite similar. They all, except Týr, play a style of music known as power metal (though all in quite different ways); Týr plays what I think is a related style, viking metal. (Incidentally, all of them blur at least somewhat the lines the demarcate their genre – I don’t think you can be a great band if you view genre definitions as unbreakable.) It seems to me, however, that though these groups are quite similar in style, their subject matter differs greatly.

This post will be about Blind Guardian.

This German band portrays itself as a group of wandering bards, singing tales to lighten the hearts of those that hear. This fits perfectly with their band’s theme, which I postulate is that of mythopoeia.

Many of their songs – “Imaginations from the Other Side”, “The Bard’s Tale”, “Skalds and Shadows”, etcetera – are about this very idea. Take these lines from the last of those:

Just hand me my harp
And this night
Turns into myth
Nothing seems real
You soon will feel
The World we live in
Is another skald’s
Dream in the shadows

Not all of their songs are about this directly – NiME itself is entirely a concept album, after all – but they all reflect this sentiment. All of the songs are, I think it could be said, self-consciously artistic; they are not just acts of mythopoeia, they are about acts of mythopoeia. They are about, though often indirectly, art – about telling stories.

Take “A Past and Future Secret”, about the King Arthur legend. A minute or so in, you hear this chorus:

My song of the end
I had seen it in my dreams

And take that concept album NiME that supposedly had no self-reference. First of all, they chose as the basis for their concept album the Silmarillion, written by the master of mythopoeia, Tolkien. Second, the album is constructed so that every actual song has an “interlude” to go with it – not really a song, just a short dialogue or somesuch to bring the sotry along. Track 5 is “The Minstrel”, and in it Fingolfin says,

So I stand still
In front of the crowd
Excited faces
Whar will be next?
I still don’t have a clue

And so on and so forth.

Finally, there’s the fact that their latest two albums are titled “A Night at the Opera and “A Twist in the Myth”. The significance of that should be obvious.

Now, what do I make of this?

Clearly I think they do a good job with it. After all, they’re one of my favorite bands. I have many of the same concerns, obsessed as I am with writings random stories and Wesnoth/Orbivm campaigns and trying to make them into actual art not just amusement.

But still, I wonder – is the meta-ness of this all really a good thing? If the best art is about making art, then how is art actually about anything? It can be taken to the extreme, and it then becomes too self-referential. If there’s nothing to ground the art it has no value.

So Blind Guardian’s meta-art seems to me to be, in a way, dodging the question. They should be singing about something else – what, I’m not sure exactly. And they do, much of the time. The problem is that the subtext is always “what does this mean for the bard and his audience?” That might not be a problem, but it strikes me as somehow wrong.

Also, if art ought not to be about art… it seems to imply that art is not the highest calling. That there are better things to do with your time than what the artist does. In which case, why should the artist bother? I find that a rather depressing thought. I know intellectually that art isn’t the most important thing we can do in this life, but it is very hard to motivate yourself to make art if you don’t have that illusion to some extent. At least it seems like that to me sometimes.

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