Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Attraction of Evil

Today I went to the Hieronymus Bosch Art Centre in my hometown of Den Bosch, which has opened on April 27 this year (somehow forgot to go there earlier). It's great!

Of course -- and unfortunately -- it only contains reproductions of our town's most famous artist (the real paintings are in different musea scatterred across the world), but I still think they did a great job: a local church -- not the St. Jan itself, although that would have been *extremely* cool -- completely refurbished to display Bosch's art.

What the hell does this have to do with Symphony X -- the artery of their newest album: Paradise Lost -- is displayed on the top of this post -- some of you might wonder.

Well, I recently bought that album (I know it's been out a few months: I'm just not so up-to-date in the metal scene as I used to be), and something struck me: the 'evil' parts of the story (album, concept, whatever) were brought with much more verve -- with a single exception -- than the 'good' parts. In a roughly similar way, it struck me that Jeroen Bosch was at his best -- with one single exception -- when he was painting scenes involving 'evil', rather than 'good'.

(Disclaimer: I'm an atheist, or an agnostic atheist, if you want: I can neither prove nor disprove that god exists. To me, though, it seems that evidence is mounting -- incrementally and fast -- that this Universe does not need a creator, so, with Occam's Razor in mind, I choose to believe there is no god. Hence, I see 'good' and 'evil' as highly relative, culturally applied concepts. I'm more frustrated that we don't apply our -- supposedly -- increased intelligence, but old habits -- see Bosch's "The Seven Deadly Sins" -- die hard, or as Egan has it in Diaspora: 'God is dead, but the platitudes linger'. Make that also 'attitudes' if you like.
In short: I'm both amused and exasparated by humanity's incessant need to simplify: divide everything in 'black' & 'white'; 'good' & 'evil'; and 'us' & 'them'. Don't be so lazy and grow up: embrace complexity, and enjoy learning!)

To get back to Symphony X: Paradise Lost (loosely based on John Milton's epic poem) is a very, very good album, even great, but somehow just stays short of being brilliant. It's somewhat frustrating, because at times it soares to great heights, signalling that this could have been a classic.

InsideOut -- their German record company -- certainly hasn't spared any costs: great production, top notch artwork (courtesy of Warren Flanagan), superb packaging (I bought the special edition with the extra DVD). Point is, at their best Symphony X sounds like a high-octane mix of Dream Theater, Yngwie Malmsteen and Manowar. Take the seventh song on the album: "The Walls of Babylon". The first three instrumental minutes are almost pure Dream Theater (think 'A Change of Seasons' and 'Awake') with a touch of Rainbow (remember "Gates of Babylon") layered with church choirs (bombastic? This is just warming up!). Then, as Russel Allen starts to sing -- and he's in superb form -- then it shifts gears into Malmsteen speed with Manowar bombast: monster riffs fighting dominance with massive vocal choirs, building up speed and power until they converge (I almost said convulse) into what is probably the most massive and bombastic chorus of the year:

War Hammer of the Gods
bring down the Walls of Babylon

Just fantastic: if you decide to go the bombastic route, then don't do it halfway. And Symphony X are at their best exactly when they turn up the grandiosity to eleven. Typically, their most bombastic songs are when 'evil' takes the main stage: the afore-mentioned "The Walls of Babylon", opener "Set the World on Fire" (after the semi-classic "Oculus Ex Inferni" intro), the speed monster "Seven", and most specifically the heavy atmospheric, deliciously slithering "Serpent's Kiss" (with the great quiet classic choir and church bell interlude, starting as the guitar solo approaches lightspeed, which makes the song even more heavy), and the überhammer "Domination" (superb bass intro, Michael Romeo riffs with ultrafast licks that will make Malmsteen himself drool, Russel Allen succesfully impersonating Lucifer, and a solo section that is nothing but purest fireworks).

The moment they change viewpoint to the 'good' side of the equation, like on "Eve of Seduction" and "The Sacrifice", they loose steam, impact, and conviction. It's still quite good, but just not spectacular. They try very hard with the closing song: "Revelation (Divus Pennae Ex Tragoedia)", but don't quite reach the heights of the first five songs.

I mentioned one exception, and it's the title song: "Paradise Lost", where the loss of paradise is mourned with devastating verve and elegance. Allen is phenomenal on it.

But that is the only one where the 'good' viewpoint shines: everywhere else it's easily outclassed by the 'evil' songs.

And while it might be today's rock'n'roll cliché that most bands are at their best when they're running at (or depicting) the wrong side of the tracks, the only bands in Hieronymous Bosch's time where church choirs and the lone troubadour (OK: maybe that's not fully historically accurate, but grant me my witty comparison, OK?). Still, when looking at the reproductions of his works, I found that Bosch was at his most inventive and creative best when he depicted scenes from hell, or scenes involving 'evil'.

Paintings of 'good' like Terrestrial Paradise , Ascent of the Blessed and even The Epiphany (doesn't the 'fourth king', who certainly isn't 'good', make it more interesting?) are -- in my humble opinion, and I'm sure art critics will laugh at it -- greatly outclassed when Bosch depicts the dark side of mankind in (for example) The Temptation of St. Anthony, The Hermit Saints Triptych (especially the bottom of the left panel), or The Haywan Triptych .

The exception is, of course, The Garden of Earthly Delights : here the left 'paradise' panel is of the same class as the right 'hell' panel (although even there the 'paradise' panel is small invasions of symbolic acts of sin).

Two examples that humankind's fascination with what it considers 'evil' is very, very old. An allure that seems to fire inspiration. It makes me wonder: is it through this fascination with 'evil' that we tend to evaluate downbeat stories as more plausible than upbeat ones?