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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Sing In The New Year: Helium Vola and Why We Study History

Fur Euch, Die Ihr Liebt is a fascinating little album. Well, alright, maybe not so little: it's a double album full of expansive songs based on, for the most part, medieval lyrics. The band behind the album, Helium Vola, works in a style they describe as "electro-medieval," a blend of choral harmonies, Gregorian rumblings, and synth and drum machine settings that blend together in what perhaps would be best described as a tapestry of sound. 1 And this album is built around an incredible concept:


Oh, alright, fine, this isn't exactly something new. People have been writing songs about love for millenia, and most albums are probably arguably about love. But that's actually exactly the point upon which Helium Vola's work revolves: contemplations about love are universal. This album isn't quite like other albums about love because it's actually a kind of metacommentary about our understanding of love through time.

It's as though Helium Vola traipsed into a pub one day, walked up to the grizzled old entity History and said, "Hoy, vat du yu tink of love?" (They're German, by the way.) And History turned to Helium Vola with a baleful glare, hacked a few times, lit its pipe, and began to reminisce. And slowly, slowly but surely, other denizens of the pub started to put their two cents in.

Is this sounding familiar yet?

See, this here pub/library/state of the art media center that we're in, complete with the crazy back room, Abraxis the Hideous Armchair Rat, and Lord Humongous over there, represents what us academic, pretentious types like to call "discourse." In my own weird way, I'm trying to give you, the reader, a concrete visualization of the conversations we have about things like media, art, philosophy, and history. The way we do that is by sharing our voices in the pub.

So, what Helium Vola is collectively doing is going out to the pub and collecting a record of the chatting going on. They're engaged in something perhaps comparable to what we scholars call "Historiography," which is essentially a historical analysis of other people's histories. Which is, of course, dizzyingly recursive, but try to stick with me here. Historiography is when you take a look at what other people have written about history and show how our understanding of history itself changes over time. What Helium Vola has done here is treat love songs in the same way. Their songs on this album are meta-lovesongs in that they analyze how our understanding of love echoes through history.

The first half of this two-disc album analyzes love from the perspective of its presence. Interestingly, these songs have a quite diverse tone to them, ranging from the overtly lustful (to the point of being almost self-parodying) Friendly Fire to the longing Blow Northerne Wynd, to the absolutely triumphant Ecce Gratum.

Now, these songs are not in a language I speak, for the most part, or in a language that, well, anyone speaks. A lot of the lyrics are in medieval dialects of German and French, Latin, and Provencal. And yet, the music effectively conveys the emotion of the song. Compare Blow, Northerne Wynd to Ecce Gratum:

We can puzzle out--through some familiar words, perhaps, or the tone of the music--a sense of meaning from these songs and the range of love experiences to which they speak. The implicit argument made here is that these lyrics, despite dating back to medieval times, are relevant to our own experiences.

This is one exceptionally powerful reason for studying the past and our interpretation of events. Interacting with this old material in new ways allows us to connect to our distant cultural ancestors. This is connected, arguably, to the point I made a few days about Christmas: one of the reasons for telling stories of the past, or telling stories drawn from the past, is that it affords us the opportunity to experience and share empathy. And, what's more, it demonstrates that art can resonate despite a lack of direct understanding. Remember how I called Ecce Gratum triumphant? Check out the translated lyrics:

Behold, the welcome and desirable Spring brings back joys. The brightly coloured meadow is in flower. The sun brightens everything. Now let sorrows depart! Summer returns, now the rage of Winter retires.

Now hail, snow and the rest turn to water and flow away. Winter flees and already Spring sucks at the breasts of Summer. He bears an unhappy heart who neither lives nor plays under Summer's right hand.

They who strive to enjoy the reward of Cupid rejoice and take pleasure in honey sweetness. Let us be at the command of Venus, glorying and rejoicing to be the equals of Paris.

The first half of the album is thus based around the traditional theme of love, its trials, its loss, its joy, and so on, and the lyrics are largely matched to the style and tone of the music itself, making the ideas accessible across time and language. The message is ultimately one of unified experience and empathy.

The second half of the album takes that theme and violently expresses exactly why this artistic process is so desperately important. You see, the second half of the album is about the absence of love and empathy, and its results. The music of this half is far more jarring, electronic, and often very strange. Check out the wavering tones of Maylab, for example:

Interestingly, though, although the songs remain largely unified in their darker tone, occasionally the music and the lyrics are juxtaposed together to create a scathingly bitter commentary on the moral abyss that is modern free market capitalism. Consider the mournful and solemn Quan Lo Pet, for example:

The song is soft and sounds almost requiem-esque, a mourning song for England, perhaps. The first, and most obvious, contrast is thus the difference between good old Maggie Thatcher's victorious crowing and the apprehensive but almost resigned tone of the vocalist. The second juxtaposition only becomes apparent if you understand the actual lyrics, which are dedicated to lambasting a less than perfect mistress. So, the song as a whole is a somewhat humorous but ultimately quite grim political invective against the rampant greed of Thatcher's ideology.

Perhaps the most powerful moment of the album, however, comes three songs near the end of the second disc. Come Talore, what can probably be seen as the intro track of the group, doesn't seem to be readily available online, but the other two are:

It's hard for me to truly express how overwhelming I find this. For those of you who don't know, Moorsoldaten is a concentration camp song, 2 and probably the single ultimate historical example of just what a systematic abandonment of empathy and love can do to a civilization. What I find so stunning about this arrangement is that the fade from the wrenching and forceful Darkness, Darkness to the plodding Moorsoldaten creates a sense of personal anguish paralleling historical suffering. TO round it all off with something a little more lighthearted, Helium Vola conclude the album with a song from the Spanish Civil War. Wheeee.

The second half thus makes a second argument for why we study history: to try and contextualize or understand atrocity and cruelty. Perhaps, through art, through music, and through taking the time to listen to the voices of the past, we can avoid the horror and suffering chronicled here. The old saw is true: we study history so that, with luck, we can avoid repeating it.

The first half of the album is thus a setup for the crushing second half, and the second half is thus an argument for why the emotions and experiences of the first half are so fundamental and essential to our humanity. It's a perfectly matched whole, and probably one of my favorite albums of all time. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this is the presence of the opening song--A Voi Che Amate/Preghiera--at the beginning of both discs. The contrast between the two versions--one warm, the other foreboding--shows how the two albums are two sides of the same coin, and it takes only a recontextualization of material to highlight the complexities inherent to the art. This is ultimately perhaps the greatest message of Fur Euch Die Ihr Liebt. There are common threads in all the music, whether it be the presence of love in the first half or its absence in the second, and although the forms are stunningly diverse, they are all unified by common experience.

This, to me, is why we study history. For all its sufferings and traumas, for all its dark lessons, we can always put that first disc back in and be reminded of the fundamental shared notions of love, lust, friendship, and devotion which echo to us down the centuries.

History--and discourse--is a pub. But it's also a library, and a club, and a place by the fire where you can sit in your favorite chair, swirl your drink, and mutter "bullshit." And this experience is enriched by the presence of more voices, even if they do steal your chair like the unruly vikings they are. Helium Vola has sought to expand the voices by studying history and discovering the deep cultural and artistic value in the past. This is why we study history: to bring those older voices back into the conversation, even if they're just playing on the jukebox in the corner or the Victrola machine that the one-eyed bar tender keeps behind the bar. I have sought, on the other side of things, to make the pub more accessible to people that might not've strayed into its warm confines otherwise and engaged in the conversation. This is why I study history: so that I can understand it well enough to teach it to others, so they can pass on the knowledge and bring others into the pub.

Ultimately it's all about sharing that common understanding of the world. And, hell, we can extend the metaphor to all the other strange stuff I babble about on here. In a way, this can be seen as just a broad argument for why academia exists, and why I want more people to understand the Liberal Arts.

So, ladies and gentlemen, as we ring in the new year, I want to tip my hat to history, and to historiography, and to Helium Vola. It's been nearly half a year since I embarked on this strange adventure, and I'm quite pleased with where Storming the Ivory Tower has gone. For the next few months, at least, I'm going to be cutting back on the posts somewhat. Three articles of this length per week is doable, but it's burning me out at an alarming rate, so I'm going to see how twice a week feels for a while. We'll see how things progress from there.

Otherwise, though, thank you, all of you, for coming along with me for this bizarre experiment. It's been a blast so far, and I can't wait to see where it goes.

As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.

1 Get it? Tapestry? Ha ha ha ha.

2 But not a Jewish one, as I initially thought and have since corrected. Check the comments for Red Metal Geek's comments on my error.


  1. One slight correction: Die Moorsoldaten was came from a concentration camp for political opponents of the Third Reich, and not Jews specifically. The main difference is that the political opponents of the Third Reich (socialists and communists), were actually the ones rounded up first, and Die Moorsoldaten was actually written in 1933, pretty soon after the Nazis came to power.

    That notwithstanding, this was a beautiful post. It echoes a lot of the reasons why I study history. Seriously one of the best things you've written.

  2. Ah! Thanks, sorry, my mistake. That was pretty stupid of me--I think I saw "Concentration Camp" and just assumed, which is pretty terrible since I know better than that.

    Thanks, though. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I feel like this is one of those posts that will grow on me over time, although right now I feel like it's a bit of a mess.

  3. Also, Lord Humongous needs his own tag.


    Though it would be the most used tag in your blog.

    But that's why you need to do it.

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