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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.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Sweetest of Sounds Turned to Raging Thunder: Silverthorn and Ghostly Trauma

It's no secret my musical taste is pretty questionable. And part of that deeply questionable taste is an abiding love for symphonic metal concept albums. But there's concept albums and there's concept albums--not everything can sustain an entire article. You have to have a really compelling story, like say, an alien on a galaxy-spanning rampage in search of the perfect cup of coffee.

Kamelot's album Silverthorn is such a story. I'm continually fascinated with this album, in fact, because of the concepts it's particularly preoccupied with, and the way its recurring symbols haunt it, lurking within a twin(n)ing and reflexive narrative. Silverthorn is really an album about trauma and how the failure to grapple with trauma leads to further violence and trauma, all in the context of a Victorian gothic setting. This is interesting to me because it feels like a departure to me from the kind of masculine posturing present in so much metal, and it's also deeply engaged with a kind of hauntological tradition, a tradition of gothic ghost stories in which the repressed returns with a vengeance and the boundaries between the natural and supernatural are hazy at best.

Now, critical to the album is one particular motif which haunts the contents, a set of notes that I'll call the Silverthorn theme--not Silverthorn the album but its namesake, a beautiful silver-tipped cello bow.

It is this cello bow that in the climactic scene of the narrative becomes a murder weapon.

Yeah, I wasn't kidding when I called this a gothic story. This is a story where extended families die out in mysterious circumstances, characters chase ghosts through labyrinthine churches, and people get stabbed through the heart with musical instruments as part of sinister plots. And part of the reason I love this, like I love most metal really, is that it's simultaneously ridiculous in the extreme while also being carefully composed and deeply compelling. This is the space that the Gothic at its best tends to inhabit. Think of Bill Sikes being chased by the ghost of the murdered Nancy in Oliver Twist, ultimately being driven by this possibly imagined pursuit and the very real pursuit of an angry mob to an accidental self-hanging. This is our domain for this album and core to understanding it, I think, is this interplay between the over the top and the emotionally resonant, as well as the ambiguous status of the haunting.

Anyway, the Silverthorn motif, which can be found in the chorus of the title track ("Pale in the moonlight, the bringer of pain...") haunts the album, weaving back and forth across its narrative as the reverberations of the story's central trauma rattle an entire family to pieces. If this is a somewhat ambiguous ghost story, the ghost just might be the Silverthorn motif itself, a melody that the main characters can never seem to escape.

Now I don't think this is necessarily an album where you have to understand the story in detail to understand the music. The album gives enough details to help you puzzle out some of the basic story, and the very compressed narrative of the (shockingly pretty damn good) video for Angel of Afterlife provides an overview, albeit one that has an odd relationship to both the album itself and the written story of the album (more on this momentarily). The basic thrust though is that this is a story about a tragedy that befalls a family and how they fail spectacularly to grapple with that tragedy. Which of course I love, people failing spectacularly to deal with the world is kinda my bread and butter; it's why I'm an Evangelion fan. So this family of nice Victorians has two twin sons, Robert and an unnamed narrator, and one younger daughter, Jolee, and the story starts with an accident involving the three children where the sister is dragged by a kite that the three of them are playing with into a river and is swept away. The boys, blaming themselves for her death, and terrified of punishment, hide their knowledge of how the accident occurred, but mark their skin with a word to remind them of their involvement in her death:



The album's structure as a whole largely fluctuates between the perspectives of the narrator and Robert, with breaks in the narrative representing overall events coming together. I'm pretty sure the more developed backstory for Silverthorn came in some sort of special edition, but luckily someone has put the story up online, and the story is actually pretty solid in its own right, a cool little gothic horror story. I recommend reading the whole thing, it's not particularly long, but I'm going to recount the basic details here.

After the accident that kills Jolee, the family starts to disintegrate. The mother in the story, Vivienna, a famous cellist and owner of the titular Silverthorn, responds to the tragedy by retreating into her music ("She hid behind maple and built a fortress of sound") while the father Alastair becomes an alcoholic and takes out his anger on the increasingly rebellious Robert. This to a large extent sets the events of the story in motion: the parents basically check the fuck out of their kids' lives and the result is disaster.

There's a series of tragedies in the backstory that don't really appear in the album proper but they're worth noting because they tie into the whole sensibility of the ghost story--the content that makes this album a hauntological horror story. After Jolee's death, the wider extended family starts dropping like flies, plagued by freak accidents that bring down cousins and aunts and so on. At each of their funerals, Vivienna plays the piece that she first composed in response to Jolee being her last child, the Silverthorn Theme.

Finally, however, there is no one to play the theme: Vivienna dies and Robert, sick of Alastair's violent abuse, leaves the household, but not before he and the narrator brand each other--yeah, seriously--with the word "Veritas," leaving themselves with mirroring scars that testify to their (perceived) guilt. Robert seems to return however, for Vivienna's funeral: at the funeral, and in each of the following funerals for the still apparently cursed extended family, the Silverthorn melody would sound, though the narrator was unable, at any point, to locate his twin in the twisting labyrinth of the cathedral.

Eventually, the curse seems to claim Alastair as well, though if you watch the video for Sacrimony you'll see Alastair's death comes at the hands of Robert: a heart attack after a violent struggle. This is one of many ambiguities in the tale, ambiguities like memory itself: how much of the curse is happenstance, how much is supernatural, and how much is Robert on a vengeful rampage? It's unclear and in fact the album, the narration, and the video do not seem to sum up to a single agreed-upon reality. It's difficult writing a summary, in fact, because keeping all the contradicting details straight is basically impossible. It is as though the central trauma in the story has shattered the continuity of memory itself for the twins, allowing space for these ambiguous ghosts to enter.

The narrator around this time meets two significant people. Aurora, the woman who is to become his wife, and the priest Alpheus, who tends a small chapel on the family estate. Yeah, the dude had a whole piece of architecture on his land and didn't realize it for years. What can I say, it's upper class Victorians. Whatever. Anyway, for a time the narrator seems to find his redemption and forgiveness through the kindness of these two guides.

But this is a Victorian gothic story so it's not gonna last.

After a funeral for some aunt or other in which the Silverthorn melody plays again, though no one else seems to hear it, the narrator goes to the chapel desperate for forgiveness and reveals the whole story to Alpheus who tells him that his prayers have been answered. He returns to his house, however, to find Robert waiting with the cello... and Aurora dead, stabbed through the heart with Silverthorn. Consumed by grief, the narrator does not resist when the constables arrive and Robert proclaims that it is the narrator who has killed Aurora, that the narrator is the returned Robert. Because you gotta have the evil twin usurp the good twin's identity, obviously.

The story proper actually begins with the result of this: in Sacrimony (Angel of Afterlife) we see the narrator imprisoned, going mad, carving his story on the walls of his cell. So, this is an album with a framing narrative basically, an album that starts, not unlike The Wall, or uh, Twilight I guess, starts with the crisis point then zooms back to the start of the narrative (Jolee's death and the immediate response of the family as depicted in Ashes to Ashes).

Now, with that climax clear, it's easier to discuss the way trauma seems to operate in the album, and how it exists as a kind of "ghost" within the album's musical medium. Silverthorn the album is haunted by Silverthorn the cello bow and Silverthorn the motif. This motif, particularly after the climax of the narrative in which Robert kills Aurora, reappears a number of times and to my mind it represents the recurrence of trauma and the way that these characters are unable to escape their experiences or move past them. Each of the brothers here has their own particular arc, and those arcs are punctuated by this recurrence, with elements jumping in and out of the metaphorical and the ghostly and the real like an optical illusion shifting between two states.

This is a major part of what the Hauntological represents. If you've been following my review series on Patreon you know that lately I've made a lot of use of China Mieville's essay on the Hauntological and the Weird. In this essay, he argues that the Hauntological and Weird in horror are both responses to industrial capitalism and its nightmares. The Weird focuses on the external--entities like William Hope Hodgson's strange horrors that seem to emerge from some outer-space that humans can't fully comprehend, and Mieville is particularly interested in how Hodgson's twisted landscape in The Night Land parallels Hodgson's experience of no-man's land during the First World War. Meanwhile, the Hauntological comes from within, from the repressed, from the violence that is hidden becoming apparent and manifest.

So, the Hauntological is deeply tied to trauma. The Hauntological might be, in some sense, trauma, a kind of rebuke recurring through time. So, if Jolee as we will see keeps manifesting in the narrative to rebuke and to commune with the characters, this is both a haunting AND a representation of trauma. The curse might be Robert or it might be an actual curse. Veritas is a physical record of violence, a metaphor for trauma, and a free-floating sign that works in complex ways through the album on a meta level as the question of just what the truth is becomes muddier and muddier. Silverthorn as melody is given the explicit power to trigger the narrator's trauma (" I was suddenly trapped in a nightmare and my body responded, shaking me violently and drenching my black mourning attire with sweat") and this power manifests as the physical object Silverthorn appears as a murder weapon. It is an instrument of violence regardless of what sense of "instrument" is being used. The album's haunting is characterized by unresolved tension between states of being, the natural and the supernatural.

It is this idea that opens the story, after all. The album starts with Magnus Dei, with lines that recur later in the album: "Give me a sign, sing the words of innocence and broken pride, make my conclusions fail. Send me a sign, heal this broken melody, because each day I die in Hell." That one portion, heal this broken melody, from the outset underscores the importance of the Silverthorn theme, and the recurrence of Robert appearing at funerals and playing this theme.

This setting of the stage continues in Sacrimony. We get, in the first verse, the concluding line "Is this for real or just a dream?" This line in one sense is about the narrator's fate, locked up for his brother's crime, but also this history of the word Veritas and the culpability that the narrator feels in the death of Jolee and the hidden truth of those events. The idea of "truth or illusion" then recurs throughout the narrative, and it's notable I think that the album begins with the narrator at a point where he finally feels pressed to explain the full story--we only get to hear the story because of the final lifting of this veil of secrecy.

Interestingly, while Kamelot had, apparently, a broad overall sense of what they wanted to do with this story, the written narrative is actually by Amanda Sommerville, who really fleshed out the scenario as told from the one brother's perspective. My understanding is that Sommerville was particularly interested in the ambiguity of the story, and that ambiguity emerges much more strongly in her text than in the video for Sacrimony or the album as a whole. There are a number of suggestions that perhaps the doubling of Robert and the Narrator is only illusion: that they are one and the same and the narrator's anguish has caused him to compose a villainous alter-ego. That's not new for gothic fiction either, but what interests me here is the fact that we've got another level of indeterminacy, not just because the narrator might be unreliable but because our three accounts ostentatiously fail to line up on key details! Even as the story is tied to the idea of telling the truth leading to redemption, actually locating the truth becomes difficult. As I noted earlier, continuity itself seems to be shattered by the death of Jolee.

Speaking of Jolee, the album also immediately introduces Jolee after her death, as a ghostly presence. This introduction comes in the form of two sort of aspects (another possibly imagined duality), a vengeful side of her personality and a forgiving side, and it's pretty unclear whether this is a sort of literal expression of Jolee as a (dead) person or just sort of a manifestation of the narrator's guilt. The "vengeful" side, screamed wonderfully by Alyssa White-Gluz from Archenemy, runs: "Leave me alone, erase my memory. Don't want to hear, don't want to see, don't want to think about the lie that follows me." Jolee's forgiving aspect, sung by Eliza Ryd in contrast, is an altered version of the chorus up till that point: "When the wrong turns to right in my celestial light I'll heed your testimony." We have a contrast here between his fear of damnation and need for redemption expressed through the lie that follows Jolee as leading to a kind of curse, but salvation coming in the form of testifying and admitting the truth, even if that truth is painful or, as noted above, impossible to assess.

What exactly is Jolee's place in all this? She appears repeatedly on the album, interacting repeatedly with the narrator and with Robert, and Solitaire and the end of the video for Sacrimony suggest that the narrator (at least as I read the song) has in some way found a way to commune with her. But given the nebulousness of this ghost's existence it's probably worth asking what the characters think has happened to Jolee.

Song for Jolee is probably the most moving song on the album, one that I can basically not listen to without crying. Here we get this just... incredible window into the fucked up sense the narrator has of salvation. The second verse is just astonishing:

"There's a princess captured in a wooden frame
I'd trade eternity for one last look at you
Not playing by the rules
We played the game of loss...
I'll keep on writing to the angels
So you're safe till the moment we meet again"

If you spend any time at all thinking about the implications of this, of course, it's horrifying in the extreme. The narrator seems to feel that he needs to constantly beseech the angels to assure his dead sister's safety. That's... holy shit, I mean what kind of nightmare conception of Heaven do you have if that's a necessary task? It really shows the obsessive retreading of grief that this character experiences, that this is an endless activity without capacity to heal, done in the absence of any sort of external support for his grief. 

If Jolee represents not moving on from trauma, the narrator and Robert experience very different ways in which this ghost manifests. For the narrator, it is in obsessive reminders.

For Robert, it is as a rebuking spirit.

Veritas is I think the first song where we really get Robert as a distinctive voice. His response to trauma, and his father's abuse, is to become violent himself. Now, I personally read this as the song where Robert finally confronts and fights Alastair, leading to Alastair's death. It fits the timeline, and it fits the tone. But it's really notable here the contrast between the narrator and God--if the narrator's response is to pathologically beseech, Robert's is to pathologically usurp, to seek to take the place of others, whether God or the Father or his twin brother in the mirror.

This is also a song where Robert disavows all possibility of moving on, by basically ignoring the ghostly Jolee's pleas to not be such a murderous asshole, and her apparent claim that in fact she had a happy life even if it was a short one. This is also, thus, where we get Jolee as a voice distinct from the narrator's need for redemption, a voice of peace and consolation that is distinct precisely because it is completely ignored by Robert. I mean, don't get me wrong, Alastair is a bastard, but we get a sense throughout Robert's arc that he has no way of really stopping once he gets onto this path of rage, and there's an element here of cool motive still murder--Robert does ultimately stab someone with a cello bow.

I think we pick Robert's story up again in Falling Like the Fahrenheit, after Aurora's murder. The chorus here is wonderful:

"Falling like the fahrenheit
     Someone will always lose
You will never see another sunrise
My cyanide in paradise
     That someone's always you
I will never see another sundown in your eyes"

There's that rhyme here that indicates we should tie together the second and fifth line--someone will always lose/that someone's always you--indicating that for Robert, too, the trauma of Jolee's death is a ghost that recurs inescapably. This is the only moment we get with Robert where he really is vulnerable as a character, the chorus revealing that even after he has revenged himself on his father and stolen his brother's life Jolee's death still lingers, cyanide in paradise.

In the second verse we get: "Let me share a melody with you... Every single note is bound to send a flower from this world to wither with a smile," which recalls the narrator's notes to heaven. The Silverthorn motif here is revealed as a kind of message from Vivienne and Robert to Jolee, an attempt at hopeless one way communication. This, paired with the recurrance of the Silverthorn theme during the climax of the song, suggests that Robert is trapped in a cycle, reproducing the central trauma and keeping the ghost alive and haunting himself.

I mean, wow, christ. It's hard to really pick a favorite track on this album, but Falling Like The Fahrenheit might just be it. Like, I think what's critical here to recognize is that this isn't a victory for Robert in any real sense, and it makes the ending of the story make quite a bit of sense. The narrator ultimately carves his story on the walls of his cell and, in response, he is called to testify again. This time he relates the whole story, supported by Altheus (yeah remember him?) and Robert does not contest it, and is led silently away to prison, leaving the narrator finally, apparently, freed.

Robert, even at his moment of absolute triumph over the family that effectively abandoned him, the moment when he takes what is "righteously" his, is tormented by his inability to find a way back to his beloved sister, the sister that earlier he scorned when setting out on his path of revenge.

Just as Jolee's death recurs, always losing, always lost, so does Robert always lose, able only to escape through the very music that haunts him and his brother. When Jolee asks him "Do you think salvation waits for you?" the answer, implicitly, seems to be no, he does not. The world is growing cold and there is nothing left for Robert in this world or in the world to come.

The ending of the narrative is not the end of the album. The album really ends with two songs that summarize the album's trajectory and themes, which is really interesting to me. The album is somewhat nonlinear in timeline, which easy to pull off in Shakespeare and hard to pull off in something purely musical, but it fits together surprisingly well.

Prodigal Son zooms way back into the backstory with the funeral for Jolee. Chronologically, this is the first instance of the Silverthorn theme appearing in the narrative, while it is the second to last time it appears on the album itself. The song begins with an organ and a hymn kind of arrangement for the theme, with lyrics clearly directly responding in grief to Jolee's death. This is a song that presents the narrative while looking forward in awareness through time. The second part, depicting the twins' branding of themselves with Veritas, concludes with:

"The truth made of iron
Will seal it with pain
Until death our secret remains
Until death our love remains
And in death our love re-framed"

linking together love, truth, secrecy, and trauma. The last line is particularly interesting for its suggestion that Jolee's death was a moment of reinterpretation, a point where the previous apparent love of the family became something toxic and haunted. Why, after all, were the boys so terrified of sharing what was, in every account, an entirely accidental death? Alastair, it seems to me, probably didn't just suddenly become a violent abusive asshole, or Vivienna emotionally abusive through neglect. This line, and the response of the twins, suggests that the family's "love" already had the potential for tragedy within it. The ghost was already there, and it is the death of Jolee that reframes the image in a way that lets them perceive it correctly. And, I think, the final line might also be heard as "refrained"--just as a musical score might contain a refrained theme, a repeating motif, so does this love and this trauma reverberate and recur.

I think the purpose of this recursion here on a narrative level, and particularly the reiteration of the moment when the narrator and Robert burn "Veritas" into themselves, is to sum up the broad trajectory that follows from the moment that sets them on their narrative's path. But the album suggests that they're not really responsible for this decision in the sense that it's their fault that things fall out the way they do.

This is illustrated with the third part, which divides the two perspectives with a fairly simple moral: "Given love or given hate determines everybody's fate in life." This is a problematic message to be sure for the way it suggests that people who have particular experiences are destined for certain paths. I'm not gonna defend that really. But I think the core important thing here is primarily the way this conclusion loops back and looks at the way the narrator and Robert were essentially abandoned by their parents in their grief. The final admonishion, "Be careful what you give," is clearly not directed at the twins but Alastair and Vivienne.

Each of the twins' individual verses here explores the way that they have been burdened by their experience of tragedy and trauma and I think that there is a kind of redemptive compassion for Robert here, an understanding that his suffering is a mirror to his brother's. In some sense this album is a gothic tragedy and key to the tragedy is understanding that Robert need not have fallen so far.

Even in the context of the album's happy ending, there's still a kind of suggestion of the cyanide in paradise, now representing Robert's fall. In the final song, Continuum, we hear first a triumphal song suggesting the narrator's final redemption but after a minute of silence we get a solitary cello line, playing the Silverthorn theme slowly. That to me is a reminder that this is a continuum between the two brothers, that there's a happy ending but only for one character, and Robert hasn't escaped his trauma, and in that sense this legacy of pain still exists unresolved in the world. The point of that I think is to acknowledge that Robert is the antagonist of the piece but he's not what we could call an unambiguous villain; that he, too, is ultimately a victim. Everyone in the narrative is sort of a victim of circumstance, happenstance, and possibly Spooky Curses, and the children in particular are victims of the inability of the parents to support them in their grief and to pay enough attention to notice when their kids are BRANDING LATIN WORDS INTO THEIR FUCKING FLESH.

What makes Silverthorn a powerful and meaningful album to me, then, is this way that through the vehicle of the gothic, hauntological horror story in which rebuking spirits exact a toll on the living for a hidden crime, we get a whole album basically exploring trauma in various forms, an exploration that is deeply sympathetic to the tragedies that all the characters experience. Silverthorn is a tragedy, and at its heart perhaps the most painful tragedy is the division between the twins, born "a minute away, but now worlds apart," only children, one behind a palisade of pain, one a slave under the belt of misery, following blindly after their sister, after their parents, and after a melody played by a silver-tipped cello bow.

Storming the Ivory Tower is produced because of the generosity of my patrons. You, too, can become one of these generous patrons by subscribing to my Patreon. For $1 you can read the rough draft of this article; for $2 you can see some alternate versions of the graphics for this article and read commentary on their composition; you can hear the podcast for this in which I both sing, and cry, occasionally at the same time, for $3. And don't forget that for $5 you can read my most recent article collection on My Little Pony, Neighquiem for a Dream, and will be supporting my next collection, A Bodiless and Timeless Persona: Essays on Homestuck and Theme, finally coming in the next couple of weeks!

1 comment:

  1. This is a really good article, and theres an almost poeticism to the wording of some parts which really clicks in my head because my brain likes poeticism. The ending is especially fantastic for tying everything up and back to the themes, so this was a fantastic article I think.


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