Hidden Window by Be’lakor – a harbinger of coming wonder

How do you follow something as grand a masterwork as Vessels? If Hidden Window is any indication, Be’lakor has plenty left to give us.

Five years ago, I did an in-depth analysis of Vessels. Be’lakor themselves tweeted that they thoroughly enjoyed reading it. After listening to and reading the lyrics for Hidden Window, I felt a similar urge to dig deeply into the song and see what treasures I could unearth.

This post is going to assume you’ve listened to the song and are familiar with the lyrics or have them handy. No preamble, let’s enter the mountain.

From Fall to Rise

I want to take an extensive look at the rhyming structure used in the song. Most of the verses follow an ABBA rhyming structure, where the first and last lines rhyme, and the middle two lines rhyme. This does two things. For one, it creates a sense of outside and inside the verse. As you read the lyrics, you get a rhythm of go in, come out, go in, come out. This mimics the daily rhythm of the song’s characters, who spend day after day entering the mountain, mining, and exiting again.

Secondly, you’re constantly kept off balance by the changing rhyme. You start with the first line of a verse, move to the second which doesn’t rhyme, you get a little bit of closure from the third line, the fourth line maybe makes you think of the first, but then the next verse begins and you’re thrown off again. There’s a stumbling to the lyrics, a deliverance of unease, accentuated in the vocals by the sometimes sped-up delivery of a verse’s third line. The outer lines give a nice framing to the verses when written down, but that framing doesn’t come through when those lines are vocalised, and that’s intentional. This is masterful, deliberate use of rhyme (and lack) to strengthen the themes of the song. There are only four verses that don’t use ABBA for their rhyme. Let’s look at them in detail.

The first is a verse that follows an ABAB rhyming structure:

What if he knows that I saw?
And what if he decides to strike?
But what if it was nothing more
Than light’s deceit and failing sight?

This verse marks the break between the two halves of the song (in terms of lyrics, not runtime). The first half sets the scene of the characters and the setting without getting into specifics. The second half, starting with the verse above, has us diving into the mind of the central character who grapples with his friend’s theft.

You could argue that if Be’lakor wanted to mark the break between halves with rhyme structure, they should have had the previous verse do that, which describes the actual “observation” of the theft. However, by maintaining ABBA for that verse, we are caught by surprise – the rhyme doesn’t tip us off that something is changing. Instead, there is a long musical interlude which punctuates the break more than any lyrics could do. The piano is introduced here, and it’s mellow but hurried – there’s tension even as our point of view descends into the mind of our main character.

Which brings me back to the ABAB verse. The vocal delivery is more subdued than in the other verses. Coming out of that melancholy musical interlude and all those prior off-kilter verses, the smoothness of the rhyme structure here provides relief, reflecting the tantalising, tempting thoughts of paranoia that haunt our character. Although doubt lingers, the character has at least partially bought into the thoughts that lead to the song’s eventual tragedy.

The guitars then resume, and we go back to ABBA, with our POV moving back out into the third-person. Music and rhyme complement each other excellently.

The second exception to the ABBA rhyme structure is the climax of the song:

In pebble’s bounce, the avalanche
In falling drop, the bursting dam
He gripped the pick, and looming, then
Swung an arc that killed his friend

Whereas the previous verse we focused on was centered on thought, this one marks the song’s definitive action. The music rises to its height here, and for good reason. This verse is the only one with the rhyme structure AABB. With its focus on action, the rhyme provides a sense of progression, of moving forward from one thing to the next. The verse invokes an avalanche in the lyrics, and it reinforces that with the lines moving irrevocably from one rhyme to the next. The riff at swung an arc stops and hangs, and it feels like a point of no return, you can imagine the movement of arms and torso to power the swing, which follows through on momentum, until it makes contact, marked with the chord on killed emphasising the end of the arc.

Notice we are not given time to grieve. Where there feels like there should be an ode to the moment, there’s instead a ferocious, frantic moving on. We immediately move on to the next verse:

He barely saw their third had fled
As febrile haze evaporated

And with it, certainty faded
Abandoned now for churning dread

I went back and forth a lot over the rhyme in this verse. “Fled” and “dread” definitely rhyme, and if you were just reading the verse in a normal speaking voice, it would be ABBA because the emphasis in “evaporated” and “faded” isn’t on the last syllable. However, the vocals in the song hugely elongate the last syllable of the middle two lines, which turns this into an AAAA(!) verse – all the lines rhyme to remove cruft and bring us deeply into the character’s panic, bringing us into the moment now, even as we’re processing the death that’s just occurred. The guitars insist we listen with wonderful leads that aren’t as piercing as they were in the climax. The word dread then leads straight on again into the last verse, which has structure ABAB:

Endless whispers from the void
Each offering narration
He searched the body frantically
And begged for vindication

The structure is the same as the previous ABAB verse because this verse, as with that one, narrows onto character thought. This seems counterintuitive, but even though the action here is critical, only one line out of four describes it. The other three describe the character’s mental state, pleading, please let me be right, please tell me I didn’t murder him for nothing. The riff here is a brilliant descent into dread, each measure seeming to draw us down into a pool from which there is no escape.

I want to call out one other thing here: at least from the lyrics, we don’t get an answer. The last visual we have is the character rifling a corpse in panic as (at least in my mind’s eye) the camera slowly zooms out of a cave in which the final candlelight is sputtering out.

However, the lack of answer is answer itself: he can keep searching forever, but he’ll never find that treasure. The last chord of the song, and the finality of the ABAB final verse, definitively states that the story’s over. If the lyrics had outright stated that he found nothing, it wouldn’t have been half as effective. We know, even if it’s not said, just as, probably, the character knows too. It’s a fantastic example of a writing principle: describe what’s there, not what’s not there.

Overall, Hidden Window is lyrical excellence. I adore the sheer intention that permeates every line, and the use of rhyme to complement the themes of the song is unmatched.

This concludes my main analysis. The two next sections will be a couple of smaller thoughts I have about the song, and I’ll wrap up with my hopes for the upcoming album.

Would Finally Snuff

The lyrics do have at least one weakness. In the first verse, we have closest friends now that their greed / had burdened them with things to hide. The song mocks the “friendship” between the characters, implying that it’s a grudging friendship, born out of opportunity only. But the climax of the song has swung an arc that killed his friend. The friendship here is being played up for emotional effect, which contradicts its depiction in the first verse. We could imagine that over the timeline of the song the necessary friendship blossomed into something genuine, and was then tragically destroyed by the onset of paranoia, but there’s nothing in the song to indicate that.

A Note on Tragedy

One last note about the story. Plenty of Be’lakor’s songs have fantasy or supernatural elements to them, such Venator or The Dream and the Waking. Let’s look at the two verses in Hidden Window that describe the journey from onset of paranoia to climax:

From just a flicker in the mind
The thought would twist, consume, then grow
And with each wave, doubt would erode
Til all he knew confirmed his bind

Those ancient paths bore only fear
That, left unchecked, had overflowed
To shatter balance he had known
As shrinking walls began to near

The first of these two verses is decidedly human; it is located entirely within the mind of the character. But in the second verse, it’s the ancient paths that bore only fear. This is possibly an implication that there’s something in or about the mine itself that is influencing the character. The last line of the verse, however, seems to overturn this, as shrinking walls is definitely a perceptual thing.

Then we also have the first line of the final verse: Endless whispers from the void. Literally, this seems to be an external void feeding whispers into the character, but in context I read it more as a multitude of thoughts assailing the character’s mind in that darkest of moments.

So while, overall, the song pretty strongly implies that this whole sequence of events is just the product of stress and emotion, the ancient paths line is a little sliver that hints at the mountain itself playing some part. I love this little bit of ambiguity, but at the same time, the story is all the more tragic because there are most likely no other influences here. We can very plausibly imagine a situation like this happening. It’s just people being people, but the song is a masterpiece in elevating the tragic, terrible detail and feeling of this story.

Parting Thoughts

Even five years later, I still get the occasional comment on my analysis of Vessels. People have gained insight and enjoyment from it, and I hope this post does something of the same.

It’s clear that Be’lakor is still crushingly effective at using their signature style to deliver dread riffs, and their lyrical chops have actually gotten even better, which is incredible. Vessels is delectable, but five years has definitely been long enough to savour it. Bring on Coherence. I’m more than ready.

Glimmers

Growing up believing with your whole being that a perfect God has an infallible purpose tailored individually to your identity means that, when that bulwark faith is ripped away, it is near impossible to find anything that compares. It is difficult to feel that a purpose like that can exist in a world without a benevolent, guiding force.

So far, after the ache of piecing together what remains of my identity without faith has largely been numbed, my search for purpose has ranged from wholly passive to what feels like stumbling in a random direction once every few months when my motivation flares.

I retain the lingering habit of my earlier days of eagerly awaiting the end of the workday or workweek so I can do what I like, but when I get home, I am often met with boredom and overall lack of desire. Bursts of fixation are welcome, and I stride into new hobbies and interests that captivate me for a few weeks or months, before they too fade away. So far, the list includes philosophical study (a semester), axe throwing (most of a year), sailing (10 months, reluctantly ongoing), archery (2 months), drawing (a week), game development (a month), and 3D modelling (a month). That last one is still hanging around in my head, but not by much. Do I pick these things hoping to find purpose? No, I suppose not. But on some level, I hope they lead me to it.

The last couple of days, I have theoretically — and that’s a heavy caveat — conceived of a scenario where I believe I would find purpose rivaling that of one chosen by God. That scenario would be working for SpaceX, helping to make their Starship program to take people to Mars a reality. I have high confidence that SpaceX will be the entity primarily responsible for making humanity a multiplanetary species, and they will do it within my lifetime. Nothing calls to me as much as this.

I currently work a quite comfortable job. I do not have to do much overtime. I am paid very well. I have opportunities for learning and advancement. Throughout my 6-and-a-half year career so far, I have taken great pains to ensure good work-life balance for myself, and have been successful in doing so. In the hypothetical scenario where I got a job at SpaceX, I would be knowingly and willingly throwing that away and essentially dedicating whatever years I put in to the cause. But, for the first time ever, I cautiously believe it would actually feel like a cause, and not just a job.

The specifics of the scenario aren’t the point, though, especially given it’s a highly improbable scenario in the first place. The key takeaway for me from this post and my musings over the last few days is that if I have identified one possible scenario that could give me the sense of vital, grand purpose that I crave, there could exist other scenarios, with much higher probability of occurring than this one, which do the same.

In other words, I have established that it is possible for me to find a sense of purpose even without faith.

Focusing on the only other thing

There are only two possible states for the mind to be in: internal reflection, or external focus. Internal reflection is what you typically consider thinking – you’re puzzling over something, figuring out to solve a problem, replaying a memory in your head, etc. External focus is when you turn a corner and a stunning view makes you gasp, or you really feel the warmth of someone’s skin on yours. Of course, the mind is almost always doing both of these things at once, but the reason I’m reducing the mind to these two states is because it’s really helpful to me in dealing with overthinking and anxiety.

When I get anxious, I start thinking about a past event or an imagined future (the only kind of future, really, right?). If it were just that, it might be fine. But my brain then goes and starts this cannibalistic recursion where I think about my own thoughts about something, endlessly imagine possible permutations, replay the same event over and over again… it’s a downward spiral. Sometimes I lose a lot of sleep over this because I just can’t stop. When I’m in this state, it’s impossible to divert the mind from anxious thinking to calm. No matter what, the anxious thoughts take priority and barge in again.

The only other option is to get the mind feeding on something that isn’t internal. The only other option is focusing on the sensory input that the body is sending in. Consider your heartbeat, or the mindfulness classic of your breathing. This is an endless stream of data, never static, always changing, and it’s something that the mind can do nothing about. It’s the biological equivalent of watching waves crash or a fire crackle. Ample fuel for the frenzied mind to consume, and it provides you with a real alternative to indulging those unwelcome thoughts.

It does take practice to learn to focus on those things instead of being led along by the mind. I and many others are unused to truly focusing on the present. This is what mindfulness teaches. I use Headspace, which costs money (though there is a free trial), but there are heaps of free options for guided meditation and mindfulness apps. I meditate for 10 minutes a day in the mornings before work, and then sometimes use a sleep meditation if I’m having a rough night. When I started, I did 5 minutes a day and skipped weekends. That’s all it takes.

I’ve heard a lot about meditation, with people claiming that it’s transformed their lives. It hasn’t quite been that impactful for me, but it’s a very significant tool in my battle for mental health. When I stop using it, I notice demonstrable, significant declines. When I pick it back up again, I find improvement. This post, as well as encouraging others to give it a try if you feel like it might help you, is a reminder to myself that even if I feel like it’s not helping, it’s definitely actually helping.

Waking Up

So that while paralyzed in thought

I will always have an alibi

Just another excuse to hesitate

Delaying true progress with passivity

Paralyzed – As I Lay Dying

The past year has been one of great change for me, and yet not enough change. It’s been the first year where I’ve felt like I’ve started, started, to take an active role in shaping my life rather than just letting things happen to me. 

I turned 28 yesterday. I did wonder if we should perhaps round our ages to the closest birthday – wouldn’t it be more accurate for me to tell people I was 28 for the six months preceding my birthday, and six months after, until I flipped over to the point where my next birthday was closer than my last one? 

Anyway. Waking up. This last year I’ve allowed myself to think things that I wouldn’t have thought before. I’ve known for a long time that I don’t want the “normal” path through life of a suburban home, kids running around in the backyard, and putting on a buttoned shirt for my day job. I have been graced by utmost fortune in finding a life partner who doesn’t want these things either.

Let’s briefly review the most notable things that happened to this random internet stranger over the past year:

Firstly, I moved interstate, out of my own suburban home with a backyard and into renting an apartment with my partner. I’ve since gotten targeted ads on Instagram encouraging me to “escape the rent trap” and give myself back over to the mortgage hellhole. Let me be clear: I love living in an apartment. There’s no lawn to mow or weeds to pull, there’s no plants to water, no retaining walls or infernal bark chips or black tarp or pavers or paving liners. If I want nature, I can walk five minutes to the nearby lake and make googly eyes at all the adorable ducklings waddling around (I do this frequently). My suburban home is still sitting there in a different state, being rented out, giving someone else the same flexibility that we have now: if we get tired of the place in a year, we can go somewhere else. Freedom. 

Secondly, I switched from working for a company of 500+ people where I was doing projects for defence and coal miners, to a startup where I’m one of 3 full-time employees. I’m contributing positively to the climate change disaster by building renewable energy storage systems instead of taking money from the soulless husks who are actively dooming the whole damn world. The fact that I was able to find a job like this in Australia of all places is something I’m incredibly grateful for. 

It’s not enough, though. I don’t mean this in a greedy sense, but my career is something that I’m still very much figuring out, and is going to be my main focus for the year to come. I’ve opened my eyes, but I haven’t yet sat up or gotten out of bed. I’m so, so grateful that I’m not still asleep, letting myself be steered without taking part in the steering.

Thirdly, I dyed my hair blue. This seems minor compared to the previous two items, but it is the first time I have expressed myself through my personal appearance, and I love how I look with it. It’s another thing that my previous self and circumstances would not have allowed, and I hope to keep pushing the envelope on those things. Maybe a piercing next?

Fourthly, I started a second degree. This one will lead to no career progression or upskilling, but I hope to glean a sliver of wisdom from it. I’m studying philosophy. This represents a couple of things: one, that I’m allowing myself to study something just because I’m interested in it, and two, that I’ve sufficiently come to terms with my loss of faith from a few years ago that I’m ready to venture into vaguely related areas again. I’m only doing it part time since I’m working at the same time, but that’s plenty. So far my studies have focused on ancient philosophy, since it serves as a grounding for most of what came after, but we’ve also covered basic concepts of social justice and applied it to modern day problems of immigration, wealth distribution, and climate change. I’ve also spent a fair bit of time on critical thinking skills, and analysing written and visual arguments to extract their rational core. This last in particular I have loved. 

Fifthly, I’ve started working with a professional life coach. I hope to use this to accelerate the waking up process and get to the point of taking charge of my life quicker, but I need to be wary of outsourcing my progress to my life coach and using her as a crutch. I doubt that will happen, but it’s noteworthy.

Sixthly (is that a word?), I’ve taken up the new hobbies of competitive axe throwing and sailing. Neither of these things are things I ever thought I’d do, but there you go. Axe throwing is just a plain bit of fun and makes you feel like a viking, while yacht racing/general sailing is a gesture towards my increasing desire for freedom in all aspects of life. Contrary to what you might think, you can get sailing experience for free/very cheap, at least here in WA. Owning a boat is expensive, but sailing itself is not.

Seventhly(!), in the very last days of the previous year, my partner and I sat down and crunched a bunch of numbers regarding our finances. Yes, boring, I know, but the results indicate that in 20-25 years… we could stop working if we wanted to. This is of course barring any disasters that occur, but the thought that I could be free by my late forties or early fifties is… well, it’s something. It’s a timeframe. I’m not going to say it’s comforting. Whether by design or emergent property, it seems that you need at minimum a couple decades of solid income and solid investment to accomplish something like this in modern day capitalism, provided you’re not starting with vast sums of money, which we aren’t. The trick now becomes not to squander away or sacrifice the next two decades, because that end date may never come, but to live a varied and full life, and strike a balance between investing in our future, spending to live it up now, and using our money to improve the world.

In between all this, my search for purpose continues. By practically all accounts it’s been an incredible year in retrospect. I’m on vacation until next week, and I’ve noticed that every year, being buried under the tumult of work along with all the activities described above means that it is a lot harder to actually reflect and plan ahead. So I thought I’d write this while my head is above the water, so that I can look back and appreciate all the progress I’ve made.

A key reflection point for me actually occurred on NYE, where we were all doing a few of those shitty personality quizzes for fun. One of the questions was “Which of these do you find most important?”. There were four options, but the two I remember were “knowledge” and “freedom”. I remember these because in the past, maybe even up to a year ago, I would have instantly chosen knowledge. Intelligence and knowledge were unquestionably the most valuable traits to me. This time, however, I chose freedom and was happy with my choice. I’ve undergone a fundamental shift of perspective over the past twelve months, and I’ve finally given myself permission to do so.

What is it that the child has to teach?

The child naively believes that everything should be fair and everyone should be honest, that only good should prevail, that everybody should have what they want and there should be no pain or sadness.

The child believes the world should be perfect and is outraged to discover it is not.

And the child is right.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

Optional addendum: a note about the pandemic

For those of us in the first world, the whole pandemic situation has been seemingly unprecedented. The counting death tolls, the daily drama, the lockdowns, the incredible vaccine development speed… we’ve all reacted like this has never happened before, and maybe it hasn’t, not on this scale. But remember that while the first world may have had its first share of this sort of situation in centuries, people in third world countries continue to struggle with the likes of malaria and ebola. Even the freaking bubonic plague is still kicking around. We’ve had the Siddharta Gautama experience of shock at seeing a sick man, a corpse, for the first time. Our poorer neighbours have to live with terrible sickness daily and worse besides, and have done even when we were healthy.

And that’s all I’ll say about that.

Empathy: The Cornerstone of Good

Earlier this year, I was given an opportunity to deeply examine my core values. In this context, values are how a person wants to live their life and how they want to behave, rather than things they want to achieve or get. In the exercise I did, I was presented with a long list of possible values and told to select 5-6 that I identified with the most. I thought such a thing would be easy, but in reality I couldn’t get it down past about 10. The most interesting part, however, has been that in the few months since then there have been different periods of time where a subset of those values, say 3-4 of the 10, resonated with me and drove me much more deeply than the rest. I’ve found that in different situations I’ll look to different parts of my list of values to drive my behaviour. On the other hand, I’ve also found that one of those values, empathy, has been a strong, constant force in my life, and has not varied by situation like the others have. Over time, I’ve come to realise that I consider empathy the most important of all the values I hold, and I want to explore why that is.

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s feelings, thoughts, and situations from their point of view rather than your own. It is putting yourself in their place. There are many values and behaviours that are widely considered good, such as love, compassion, and generosity. I believe that empathy is the key to them all, and if someone adopts empathy as a guiding force in their life, it will lead them to love, compassion, and generosity, as well as other good values.

The reason for this is that empathy leads to open-mindedness.

Being able to put yourself in another person’s situation and understand them, particularly if it concerns a viewpoint or belief you disagree with, may actually lead you to realise the truth of a viewpoint other than your own. If you’re able to put yourself in another person’s frame of mind effectively enough, you will see the reasoning or emotion behind their decisions. Having seen this, you can then more accurately decide if you agree with their viewpoint or not, instead of relying on your own preconceptions. Open-mindedness is important because humanity is discovering new things every day. In the future, we may stumble on something that has the potential to change our lives in a positive way, or that requires strong action to prevent a negative outcome, and it is only if we are open-minded that we can recognise the truth of a new situation, move with it and learn from it, rather than resisting it and staying in place. Empathy is key to that, especially on an interpersonal level.

The above paragraph is really the crux of this post. Everything else stems from that. If you’re open-minded and empathetic, you can find things to love about people that you may strongly disagree with. When someone in a struggling situation asks you for help, empathising with them will lead you to the reasons for helping them, drive you to act out of compassion instead of selfishness, and to be generous with your assistance, not paying heed to your own needs or expecting reward. This covers the three values I listed above. I’m sure you can fill in the blanks for others too.

I want to look at a more specific application of empathy, because it underlies many things that are relevant to now and the immediate future.

Empathy reduces inequality
Inequality is a broad term, but empathy can help with most forms of it. If the rich empathised with the poor, actually understood what living in poverty meant, they might be more moved to part with their own wealth and power to improve the lives of others. If a perpetrator of abuse empathised with their victim and understood the damage their actions were causing, they might recognise that they’re doing the wrong thing. If, hypothetically, the politicians in a government empathised with suicidal offshore refugees that they’re keeping trapped in a situation that has been internationally condemned as a violation of basic human rights, they might be more moved to get those people the medical care and chance at life that they need.

We can look at inequality on a much smaller scale too. It is well-known that often, managers don’t understand the problems their employees face. This leads to managers putting up obstacles for their workers instead of tearing them down. If managers were either directly exposed to their employees’ working situations on a regular basis (often impractical), or if they were able to empathise enough from listening to their workers, they might be able to serve their workers better and maximise their performance because they understand what their workers need.

To give a personal example, my understanding of gender inequality was practically nonexistent until I met my girlfriend. Interacting with a woman on a regular basis and learning about challenges, obstacles, motivations and fears that are completely inconceivable to me as a male, but that real women around me have to go through and have gone through every day, has given me insight into situations I’d never imagined. Sometimes, I try to imagine myself as my girlfriend in a particular situation, weighing up everything she’s told me about how she has to go through life, and this gives me a different perspective on the world, one that is less biased and less one-sided. As a result, I am moved by the plight of women and those of non-binary gender, and willing to support all those who strive for gender equality. It is empathy that has done this.

Implementing empathy
Of course, actually applying empathy in this way can be hard. Empathising with someone requires some understanding of their situation. You can only empathise based on the data you have about a person, so learning more about the people around you may help you in placing yourself in their situation. On the other hand, I’ve sometimes found it easier to empathise with strangers than with some people I’m close to! Empathy can be very difficult, particularly when you don’t want to empathise with someone. This can happen when someone does or says something you very much disagree with. Understanding their position is uncomfortable, because understanding why someone acts in a way contrary to your own ideas may mean that your ideas are wrong, and that’s a scary thing for anyone to face. And so, even as empathy can lead to open-mindedness, it also requires a degree of open-mindedness to begin with. This is something that I’m still struggling with, but I’ve come to realise that moving towards having empathy for everyone around me is a worthy goal, as empathy can serve as a moral beacon that informs and directs other worthy values. This is not an easy task, but definitely a worthwhile one.

Intention, and a poem

As I learn more about writing prose and learn to more consciously apply things like structure to writing, I’ve found that my writing has lost some of its rawness. When I first experimented with writing more than five years ago now, I would start with a burst of inspiration or a strong emotional experience. Seizing on this, I would sit down at my computer and write whatever came to mind. There was no prior preparation, no planning. Thoughts and feelings would be messily converted into words and set down on the page. Snow is a good example of this. I wrote this in one sitting, all the way back in 2013. When Snow was published in the Writer’s Drawer Print Anthology, one of the comments on it was “I’m not sure if this is even a story.” The commenter was right. Snow is a snapshot of what I was feeling when I wrote it. This is great for venting feelings, but it doesn’t make a good story – there’s no narrative structure, no character arc, no real message. If my goal is to write short stories and novels, I need to be more measured and purposeful.

I subconsciously realised this a few years ago, and attempted to make my writing more structured without explicitly knowing what I was doing. It was only a few months ago that I fully understood that I was starting to reach the limits of self-training. I know what I want to do (write good stories), but I lack crucial insight into how to do it consistently. This year I’ve started taking concrete steps in remedying this, and the stories I’m working on now have already benefited.

This does mean, however, that I cannot just pour my brain onto paper and call the result a story. Of course editing will be required after the first draft is written (and the second, and the third…), but what goes into each draft must also be intentional – not every idea that comes into my head is a good one, and whilst I knew this already, I’m consciously thinking about it whenever I now write. So, what my prose has potentially lost in closeness to my bare thoughts, it will more than make up for in purpose and clarity. Improvement.

There are times, however, when I still do that soul-to-paper distillation, and the poem below is one of those. Undoubtedly, good poetry is just as calculated and careful as prose, but I find I can more easily express my instantaneous thoughts without reservation in a poem. Those snapshots of mind work better for me in that format.

This brings me to the last point: this blog itself. When I started it, I intended it to be a “professional” blog, or what I thought a professional blog had to be. I don’t have many posts on here, but some of them, like my review of the Earthsea series, try a little too hard and as a result come across as a bit artificial. I’m going to keep it a bit more real from now on, so here’s a poem that’s 100% real to finish off.

 

Cleric

Fence on which a planet sits
Goddess gazing from above
Tingling surface, teeming whits:
“Must see power, not just love”

Bitter champion hunts in fray
“Love you, Goddess, you’re my foe”
Sights through scope to wish away
Fleeting happy, crushing throe

Hunters rest, the champion breaks
Clings to faith but drinkers laugh:
“Evil sickness, killing quakes”
Denies her now on their behalf

Goddess cries then, streaming rain
Thunder, power in her sobs
Turns the stars with sorrow, strain
Thankless mission never stops

 

What Star Wars: The Last Jedi reveals about the Force (and the Jedi)

If you don’t want spoilers, stop reading now.

I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. Star Wars: The Last Jedi just came out, and in it, we’re given probably the most in-depth treatment of the Force and its nature that we’ve gotten in a Star Wars movie. Out of all the elements of Star Wars, the Force and its users have unquestionably been the thing that has kept me coming back. You can have all the rebellions and oppressive regimes you want, but the main reason I love Star Wars is the mystical power and the laser-sword-wielding heroes and villains that use it. The latest movie contains a bit of new detail about the Force and the Jedi, and I’m super excited to unpack it.

In particular, there’s a side of the Force that has always been somewhat implicit in its portrayal, but one that is pointed out more directly in the latest movie than it has been in the last few: the idea of the Force as spirituality. Luke calls himself “the last of the Jedi religion”, and A New Hope in particular uses the word “religion” in reference to Force-adherence several times, so I’ll be examining that as we go along in addition to everything else. Let’s dive into what we know already about the Force, before The Last Jedi.

 

The Force is everywhere

The ever-present nature of the Force is asserted multiple times in the movies. The Force isn’t a distant deity, but is portrayed as an all-encompassing network that infuses the universe and brings everything together. And so, if the Jedi are a religion, then they’re possibly a pantheistic one. Luke passes on what he learned from Obi-Wan and Yoda to Rey, saying that “the Force is not something the Jedi have.” At no point in the franchise are we given to understand that the Force is something local to individuals or to a part of existence. It is in all things at all times, though we do know that places or people can become a “vergence” in the Force where its influence is particularly concentrated. The cave on Dagobah is one such vergence, and Anakin Skywalker himself is another, as attested to by Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace.

 

The Force is used

This sounds obvious, but I wanted to delineate it explicitly: the Force is used as a tool, as a means to an end. The Jedi, and other Force-users, utilise it to jump, push, pull, electrocute, choke, stop blaster bolts mid-flight (which is the coolest depiction of a Force power ever), communicate with the dead, sense thoughts and feelings… the list goes on. The uses are countless. To this end, the Force starts to bear less similarity to a deity and more similarity to qi, as an innate part of existence that can be utilised to perform normally impossible tasks.

 

The Force has a will

Here’s where things get interesting. Firstly, it’s easy to see the Force as merely a tamed power responding to the hand-waving of people attuned to it, but it is made clear that the Force has a will of its own. “[Midi-chlorians] continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force.” Qui-Gon says in The Phantom Menace. If you find the very mention of midi-chlorians or the prequels offensive, on the Millenium Falcon in A New Hope, Luke asks Obi-Wan: “You mean it controls our actions?” Obi-Wan responds, “Partially. But it also obeys your commands.” These quotes cements the fact that the Force not only acts because of people, but through them.

Episode 7, the first of the new trilogy, and probably my favourite of the Star Wars movies, is aptly entitled The Force Awakens. It could, of course, have been a series of coincidences that brought Rey into close proximity with weighty events affecting the galaxy, but it seems more likely that the Force worked in some subtle or miniscule way to shape things ever so slightly. Snoke notices, after all. “There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?”

 

The Force is respected

An essential part of most religions is some aspect of worship or reverence. The easiest reading of the Jedi as a religion would be that the Force is their deity, but the points I’ve already made above put holes in that idea. Clearly, the Jedi do not idolise or worship the Force. They use it for both incredibly trivial things and very powerful things. Still, there is an abundance of respect for the Force as a concept in the Jedi Order. For example, they care a lot about bringing balance to the Force, a topic so important that prophesies have been made about it.

Secondly, “May the Force be with you” is a frequent saying in the Star Wars universe. This saying is just as often said to those who can’t feel the Force at all as those who can, and so it implies that the Force doesn’t merely serve its users, but it influences all people, even if they’re not aware of its influence. It’s not just like saying “good luck.” Look at the reactions of those to whom this phrase is spoken, and the tone of those who speak it, and you’ll see that the statement has weight.

 

The Force is an afterlife

This one’s easy: Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin appear in the physical world multiple times after dying, Yoda teaches Obi-Wan to communicate with the long-dead Qui-Gon, and death itself is referred to as “becoming one with the Force.” The Force relates to life and death at a fundamental level.

 

The Force has two sides

The light side and the dark side. The duality of the Force is absolutely vital to the Star Wars stories. You either follow the light side, doing good and helping others, or you serve the dark side, taking for yourself and hurting those who get in your way. You can “turn” from one side to the other, and of course the first six movies chart Anakin Skywalker’s epic journey from the light side to the dark and back to the light again. The transition is seen as something of a moral event horizon: once you pass a certain point, you have “turned” and that respective side of the Force now influences your personality and your decisions. To that end, we’ve only really seen Force-users that are pretty clearly on one side or the other. They have conflicted feelings about what they do, but right up until that fateful encounter with Mace Windu and Palpatine in Episode 3, Anakin is on the light side despite his mounting concerns and drastic actions (although I’m sure that Anakin’s exact moment of turning can be debated). Likewise, as Darth Vader, he serves the dark side right up until he picks up Palpatine in Episode 6.

Also worth noting is what side of the Force you’re on is influenced not just by what you do, but why and how you do it. Acting out of anger or hatred moves you closer to the dark side of the Force, and indeed, a large part of Darth Sidious’ plan to turn both Anakin and Luke involved getting them to kill out of anger.

Many people have criticised the Force’s black-and-white depictions, but to me, it was always refreshing to come to a universe where good and evil are relatively clear-cut, and those two sides clash (often with lightsabers). As we’ll see, The Last Jedi adds nuance to the simplicity of the Force without undermining it.

 

The Last Jedi

Right, so that’s what has been established by the movies before The Last Jedi. What does this latest instalment add, and how does it affect what I’ve listed?

 

The Force can be used to link minds and project images of people

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke reaches out to Leia while he’s dangling from the bottom of Cloud City. She “hears” him, understands where he is and comes to his rescue. In The Force Awakens, we see Kylo Ren extract information from people’s minds against their will. The Last Jedi expands on this concept greatly. Snoke links Rey and Kylo Ren’s minds so that they don’t just hear each other, but can see and touch each other through the Force. Kylo Ren claims that Rey couldn’t be initiating the connection, as “the effort would kill you.” Snoke links the two of them to manipulate them and manoeuvre Rey into coming to see him, but after Snoke dies, the two communicate once more, towards the end of the movie. Whether it’s a deliberate act or whether Snoke’s interference left a lasting impact on their minds isn’t clear, but I’m leaning towards the second option, as at no point do either of them “reach out” or otherwise appear to make an effort to connect to the other. It’s possible that they’re linked in this way for life.

As an aside, I found the connection and the interaction between Rey and Kylo Ren the most compelling and interesting part of the movie. I loved how their relationship isn’t binary or simple, but a complex thing. They’re on opposite sides, but Kylo Ren sees them working well together, while Rey wants to redeem him and bring out the good in him. What’s more, Kylo Ren knows he’s done terrible things (“You are a monster.” “Yes I am.”) Their confrontations are personal, deep, and vulnerable for both of them. These sequences were an absolute joy to watch, and I hope this connection between them plays a large part in Episode 9.

But back to the Force. Rey and Kylo’s connection is different to how Luke makes himself appear to the Resistance and then to Kylo Ren on Crait. For one thing, Kylo Ren makes a point of noticing that he can’t see Rey’s surroundings when they’re connected, and I’m for now assuming that Rey can’t see his either. Luke, however, can clearly see Crait and what goes on around his projection as he walks around obstacles and through doorways. This appears to be a one-way enhancement, as obviously no one on Crait realises that Luke isn’t actually there. This isn’t, then, a direct link between minds, but the manifestation of an image that moves and acts like a person. Like Rey and Kylo’s mind-bridge, this also appears to take a huge amount of effort, as we see Luke visibly sweating with the effort, and collapsing with exhaustion once it’s over. The strain of this kills him shortly after, triggering his transformation into the Force.

 

The Jedi had a birthplace

Han tells Rey and Finn in The Force Awakens that Luke vanished in search of the first Jedi temple. In The Last Jedi we see he’s found it on Ahch-To. Given that the planet is mostly ocean, with small islands dotting it, it seems unlikely that the Jedi “evolved” on Ahch-To, unless they were originally aquatic or amphibian. The island that Luke lives on obviously has native sentient beings, the Lanai, but Luke calls them caretakers, and doesn’t say that they were the first Jedi. Of course, the first Jedi could have been a different sentient species from the same planet, but then why would none of that species have been seen in the film? To me, it seems most likely that the Jedi formed organically on a different planet or planets, and then picked an obscure, out-of-the-way planet on which to devote themselves to study and training. Perhaps other sources of canon will shed more light on this in the future.

 

The Jedi had sacred texts

We see “the original Jedi texts” on Ahch-To. Let’s be clear about this: these things must be unimaginably ancient. We’ve never seen a book before in the Star Wars movies: even the Jedi Archives in Attack of the Clones were all holograms and electronic data. We don’t know exactly how old the books are, but both Luke and Han have used the phrase “over a thousand generations” to describe the Jedi. In a galaxy with such a menagerie of species as the Star Wars galaxy, a generation could mean anything, but even if we take an ultra-short generational lifespan of 10 years, that’s at least 10000 years the Jedi have been around, and probably a lot more. It’s a wonder the paper in the books didn’t crumble to dust when Luke touched them, but it’s entirely possible later technology was used to preserve or strengthen the original books.

The existence of these books also makes me reconsider my “the Jedi developed on another planet” theory above. If the Jedi came to Ahch-To from elsewhere, then they must have already had spaceflight by the time the first Jedi temple was established, at which point it makes no sense for them to still be using books. The books make it seem more likely that the Jedi natively developed on Ahch-To, and then expanded elsewhere. It’s also possible that while Ahch-To held the first dedicated Jedi temple, the actual origins of the first Jedi were offworld. Perhaps, then, the books are early journals or writings of people discovering the Force who later got together and decided to study it in a dedicated manner, consequently establishing the temple.

Interesting here is Luke’s use of the word “sacred”. He’s upset at this point in time, because Yoda has called down lightning to destroy said texts, so it’s possible he’s just trying to make Yoda feel bad with an impactful word, but in either case, the word “sacred” has several meanings, one of which is “embodying the laws and doctrines of a religion.” This is the one that seems to apply because, as established beforehand, the Jedi don’t really worship anything.

 

Force ghosts can do more than communicate

Speaking of Yoda calling down lightning: before The Last Jedi, the only thing Force ghosts could do was appear and speak. This changes drastically with the destruction the ancient Jedi library. I wasn’t sufficiently surprised by this until a friend pointed it out as something we haven’t seen before. Let’s analyse this. We know that when someone dies they become “one with the Force”, so their essence/consciousness/soul/whatever you want merges with or returns to the Force. Does this mean Force ghosts can manipulate whatever they want about the universe? Since they’re part of the Force, can they influence it in the same way, or even at a greater level than they could while a part of the “physical” world? And how about the fact that Yoda physically taps Luke on the nose with his cane? We don’t know for sure whether Luke actually felt something when Yoda did it, but it implies a greater level of interactivity for Force ghosts than we’ve previously seen.

Let’s look at the progression of Force ghosts chronologically. Yoda unveils at the end of Revenge of the Sith that Qui-Gon has “returned from the netherworld of the Force”, learning the path to immortality. He says he will teach Obi-Wan how to communicate with Qui-Gon, which of course means that Yoda has established communication with him already (we see brief, one-way flashes of this in Attack of the Clones). As all living things are bound in the Force regardless, my personal interpretation of the “immortality” line is that it is preserving your individual identity after death, instead of merging back into the Force at large (I might have read this in a novelisation somewhere, but I don’t remember.) It follows that Qui-Gon teaches Yoda and Obi-Wan this transcendence power, which of course explains their bodies vanishing upon death. They, then, would pass this onto Luke. Since Yoda uses a word like “returned” in reference to Qui-Gon, then it seems that those part of the Force after death are still subject to the laws of time, or some version thereof. Qui-Gon was able to learn a skill after death. It follows, then, that Force ghosts can expand on their presence and influence in the afterlife. Given Yoda’s proficiency as a Jedi Master, it would then seem that he’s the first to unlock the ability to affect the physical world as a Force ghost, which he demonstrates in a surprising fashion. Yoda may be an exception due to his strength, but it remains to be seen how widely this new ability will be passed on to other Force ghosts.

The one big hole in this theory, is, of course, Anakin Skywalker, who appears at the end of Return of the Jedi as a Force ghost. He did not transcend the same way Obi-Wan, Yoda and Luke did, he simply died. It’s possible that the ghosts of Obi-Wan and Yoda passed on their abilities to him straight away, but I’ll freely admit I’m stretching it here.

The point of this section is that Qui-Gon demonstrates that abilities can be learned after death. Yoda has simply learned something that possibly no other individual has before, and it remains to be seen whether this ability can be passed onto others.

One last note. When Yoda burns the library, he tells Luke that “That library contains nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess.” Of course, the obvious interpretation is that Rey already knows what the books held, but I bet you anything Yoda already knew that Rey had taken the books and put them onboard the Falcon, and so his statement was also meant in a literal sense. The library, being the tree, was empty. Rey had all its contents.

 

 

The legacy of the Jedi is safe

A large part of the movie’s plot centers around why Luke feels the Jedi need to end. He learns of their past deeds (probably informed by the ghosts of Obi-Wan and Yoda) and the fall of the Republic, feels that his own mistakes in dealing with Kylo Ren are a result of the same hubris and pride that felled the Jedi, and so judges that the Jedi are a failed idea that must be left to die.

But at the end of the movie, when Luke confronts Kylo Ren, he proclaims that “I will not be the last Jedi.” He doesn’t say this with defeat or regret, he says it with grit and determination. He has been convinced that the legacy of the Jedi is in safe hands, that the tradition is worth carrying on. What caused him to change his mind?

I believe it’s a two-part thing. For one, Rey demonstrates the same drive that Luke did in Return of the Jedi: they both have a connection to a dark side Force-user who they believe can be redeemed and returned to the light. Perhaps Luke sees something of himself in Rey, and, well, when he did it, it worked. Darth Vader was turned and the Sith were ended. For all Luke’s talk of the Jedi’s failure, he himself embodied the biggest victory the Jedi have ever had.

But the second and probably more important factor is, once again, Yoda, who I felt imparted some genuine wisdom in this movie. He berates Luke for sequestering himself on the island and focusing on the mistakes of the past when he should be trying to improve the future. Yes, mistakes have been made, but Yoda emphasises that failure is “the greatest teacher,” and Luke has, after all, passed on the knowledge of the Jedi’s past failures to Rey. She knows about them, and is equipped not to repeat them. The keystone of Yoda’s teaching is put into place with the line “We are what they grow beyond. That is the burden of true masters.” In this, he is telling Luke that while Luke may have reached his limits in terms of understanding of the Force, it is Rey’s place to surpass him and improve upon what he has accomplished. This, I think, is the thing that gives him the pride with which he tells Kylo Ren that the Jedi will go on.

 

 

“Balance in the Force” may have meant equality

Ah, yes. “Bringing balance to the Force” has been a keystone of the Skywalker saga. After all, Anakin was supposed to be the Chosen One of prophecy, the one to bring balance to the Force. Certainly according to the likes of Obi-Wan, he fails at that. “You were supposed to destroy the Sith, not join them! Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness!” To Obi-Wan and perhaps the rest of the Jedi, balance in the Force meant that the dark side had no major claim or hold. In this view, the light side of the Force is the Force’s balanced or natural state, while the dark side is an aberration, something immutably wrong that needs to be corrected.

The other view, of course, is that balance in the Force means an equal amount of dark side and light side power, and in this view, Anakin probably did help bring balance to the Force. He destroyed most of the Jedi, then the last Sith Lord (having turned from being a Sith Lord moments before killing the Emperor).

While I of course can’t condone Anakin’s methods, I hold to the second viewpoint, that the light and dark sides are supposed to be equal, and I believe The Last Jedi gave a small amount of credence to that idea. Inside the Jedi temple on Ahch-To, there is a symbol in the pool of water on the floor (I will update this post with an image once they’re available, I can’t find one at the time of posting). Crucially, it is split into a light half and a dark half. This is, I believe, a nod to the idea that the Jedi Order’s original purpose was to maintain balance, both internal and external, between the two sides of the Force, with their dedication to the light side developing later.

If true, this could have a lot of implications. I think it’s unlikely to ever be confirmed, because Star Wars is a story about good triumphing over evil, but it’s an interesting thought.

 

Conclusion

The Last Jedi was probably one of the deeper Star Wars movies we’ve gotten. It had its occasional strange moments as all movies do, but I enjoyed it a lot, and I must say that I’m enjoying the sequels more than the original six movies so far. Episode 9 has a lot of threads to tie up. I’ve focused on the Force and the Jedi plotline in this post, but there’s of course the whole fate of the Resistance, and what will happen to Leia (who I’m very surprised survived the movie), Finn (who I felt was skimmed over a little bit in this one), Poe (who I felt really shone) and all the rest. It’s going to be a long two-year wait.

Did I miss anything important? Is there something else you think I should cover? Let me know in the comments!

Subtly Literary – The Earthsea Series by Ursula Le Guin

There’s a lot of debate on what constitutes genre writing and what constitutes literary writing; a quick Google will get you any number of different opinions and comparisons. I’m going to add mine to that list, not to inflame further debate, but purely so you’re aware of what I mean when I use the terms in this and forthcoming blog posts.

So it’s pretty simple: For me, genre writing is writing that is primarily about the story, and literary writing is writing that primarily uses the story as a mechanism for communicating or reflecting on something else. That’s it. This definition will likely change as I mature and learn more about writing fiction, but for now I think that’s a good baseline.

You shouldn’t feel pressured to prescribe to my definition of these things, but there’s one thing that I hope you’ll agree with me on: neither genre nor literary writing is intrinsically superior. The Google searches I mentioned above will reveal that countless people, and especially writers, are convinced that whichever type they write or read is better than the other. They should know better. As writers, we should celebrate different forms of writing, not condemn them. Personally, I find genre writing good for the escapism. When I want to disappear from this world and enter another, I read genre. On the other hand, when I want to gain insight about the world, or if I want to learn more about what literary writing looks like (because I’ve read way more genre than I have literary) then I read literary. Both have their uses, but neither is better.

It’s also worth noting that most writing will have elements of both. Even the most dedicated  genre writers will have moments in which they inject their personal views into their work, and all literary fiction writers have to maintain at least a veneer of story, otherwise they’re just writing non-fiction.

The blend of genre and literary writing, the synergy between plot and deeper meaning, is something that Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series excels at. It’s probably the best mix of the two that I’ve read so far, and so I’m going to talk about the series briefly. This review won’t be nearly as organised as my last book review, but I’m hoping it’ll still be useful. We’ll start off spoiler-free, but there will be a clearly marked spoiler section later on.

The Earthsea series spans five novels and a volume of short stories. The first novel was originally published all the way back in 1968(!), so this is a series that has been written over a long time. There are some parts where you can tell, especially if you read the whole series back-to-back like I did, but Le Guin’s writing doesn’t slacken. The great part about her writing is that the themes and issues she’s commenting on through it all tie naturally into the story. None of it feels forced, though the representation of real world issues becomes stronger with successive books. The story itself is layered, the characters well-constructed and the setting deep and expansive, though Le Guin doesn’t overload the reader with exposition. The first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, serves effectively to introduce the setting and familiarise the reader with everything, and in the sequels you’ll notice is that there will be threads placed in each book that the next book capitalises on. Considering how long it took for Le Guin to write this series, that takes some good effort and planning; each book is a complete unit and none of them end unsatisfactorily, but Le Guin always leaves herself enough material to neatly link a new book into the series. Each novel has its own plot and I don’t doubt that Le Guin would have no trouble introducing new elements without prior foreshadowing (which she definitely does), but it makes them so much more satisfying when they’re linked in with a tie to a previous character or event. In the foreword to “Tales of Earthsea”, which is the volume of short stories, Le Guin talks about how some of the short stories came about: she was “researching” some of Earthsea’s history so she could better write The Other Wind (the fifth novel). She says “When I was asked to write [another Earthsea novel]…”, so it seems that she hadn’t actually planned on writing it, but nevertheless the story flows on naturally from The Farthest Shore.

Even at the surface level, Earthsea is delightful to read. Ursula Le Guin is incredible at metaphors; her sentence-level writing is very pleasing. An example is a ship’s sails: “long and white as swan’s wings.” Her writing is compact and not too wordy, but rich and flowing and easy on the eye, and she likes her description, which aligns well with my reading tastes. I feel like a lot of fantasy places primary emphasis on dialogue, with immersing the reader in the world placed taking second priority (though maybe I’m just reading the wrong fantasy). Le Guin doesn’t compromise on this. Description and dialogue interface comfortably in her writing, and little snippets of colour and texture surprise the reader all throughout her books. In this way, Earthsea has served as a reminder to me of the possibilities of fantasy, and reading it told me that the way I like to write is okay too.

The plotting is a little slower than some readers might be used to, though that doesn’t actually mean it drags. Earthsea pauses to contemplate what is happening within it and the characters reflect on their actions and desires. This is not a sword and sorcery series; don’t expect battles and swordfights (though there is conflict). Expect, instead, a journey of discovery of the setting’s mysteries, as well as the characters discovering themselves. Plot threads intertwine nicely, and the climaxes are formidable, but I think they’re intentionally written not to be overwhelming: the series has a subdued tone all throughout that implies the reader should be thinking about the events, not just reading them. This is important, because although some of the themes and social issues the books tackle are out in full force and plain sight, there’s also a lot that isn’t obvious, and taking the time to fill in the gaps yourself only makes it more satisfying.

I’m now going to directly talk about events in the books, so stop reading now if you don’t want that. Go and read the books instead. They’re amazing, and have my wholehearted recommendation. To wrap up: no matter whether you want to run away to a different world, or to think more deeply about your own, Earthsea is great. Le Guin says that the novels should be read first, before the short stories, and I agree. Find these books and read them. You’ll be wiser for it.

The rest of the review contains spoilers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a theme of environmentalism to the books that I honestly didn’t notice until I read Le Guin’s Wikipedia article. On reflection, it’s definitely there. Every spell or use of magic has a consequence for the natural world. “Rain here might be drought in Osskil,” is a phrase used a couple of times. Le Guin urges us to live in harmony with our world and not to impose our will on it. I don’t identify with environmental issues as much as I do with gender issues (which is the other big running topic that I’ll get to in a bit), but it got me thinking and the idea of an intrinsic equilibrium that magic can disrupt lends credence to, for example, the archetype of the stoic wizard who only uses magic when absolutely necessary. When I switched to reading a different series after Earthsea, for a little while I was surprised that experienced spellcasters were freely using magic without caring, and after I remembered I wasn’t reading Earthsea anymore, the other book felt a little shallower. It’s a system that encourages thought and reflection on the impact that our actions have on the world, which it seems is the whole point.

I mentioned gender issues before. At the start of A Wizard of Earthsea, a couple of sayings are mentioned: “Weak as woman’s magic,” and “Wicked as woman’s magic.” Reading this broke my immersion in the novel for a bit, because I was surprised that a female author would actively put this sort of discrimination in her world right from the get go. It’s only two books later, in Tehanu, that planting this seed pays off. Tehanu takes a huge diversion from the tone of the first two books, and brings a variety of gender issues front and centre, often brutally. The most obvious ones are rape and violence against women. Personally, these are issues that are very important to me and ones I want to help make better in the real world, but as a man I suffer from a fundamental lack of perspective, and this isn’t the sort of thing you can just ask about in social situations. Tehanu, both the character and the book, provides some of that missing perspective. Reading the third book made me experience perhaps a tiny fraction of what women have to live with in the real world, and it affirmed my view that feminism is an incredibly necessary movement today. I was able to experience something of the ever-present fear of rape and objectification that plagues real people right now. This, more than anything, was the effectiveness of the book. It at times reads almost like a horror story, especially when Handy and his thugs show up at Tenar’s house, and the comparison is perfectly appropriate, because there are few things more horrific than rape.

One of the reviews of The Other Wind on the back cover says (and I paraphrase) “The magic of Earthsea remains as potent and as necessary as ever.” Necessary is the key word there. I don’t know what effect the later books would have on someone who didn’t support feminism, or on someone who was in fact a domestic abuser or a rapist, but I think it’s something someone could point to as a resource; the only trouble is that it somewhat relies on reading the first two books beforehand. Also, I want to reinforce the fact that the in-your-face issues that come up in Tehanu and continue to a lesser extent in the last two books don’t actually jar with the setting. Le Guin weaves it all naturally in, and uses the character development as an integral part of exploring the magic and the history of Earthsea.

It’s pretty clear that Le Guin longed to have her voice heard on these issues, but crafted the series patiently so that it drew the reader into its setting, so that the reader knew to listen by the time the issues came up. Tehanu makes the reader uncomfortable, but because it’s the third book in the series the reader is already invested and less likely to put it down. If it came first, I think many would. Le Guin’s foresight here is as much a sign of her mastery as the writing itself. The Farthest Shore and The Other Wind take these issues and continue discussing them, as well as branching out to others. It’s a refreshing read, balancing between immersing the reader and making them think about their own circumstances. I’m very glad that Le Guin sought fit to write about the problems she does, because they’re things that really, really need talking about, and her books might help people get a better understanding. They certainly did for me.

Vessels by Be’lakor – storytelling at its most primal

Music has the potential to make someone feel more in five seconds than a novel can in five hundred words. Music has this ability to speak to our emotions in a way that is both vague and intensely piercing. When you combine this ability with storytelling, you get one of the most effective and most unique creative avenues in existence.

Be’lakor have always been great at storytelling: gems such as Countless Skies, Venator, Outlive the Hand, and In Parting showcase their lyrical prowess. They’re also awesome at making metal music; songs such as Abeyance and Remnants are two of my favourites. So when I heard that the Melbourne-based band were going to write a concept album, I was thrilled. That album has been out for some months now, and my hype was absolutely justified. Let’s dive in.

The Sound

I’m a guitarist and a beginner drummer, but I’m honestly not that great at paying attention to qualities of sound, nor am I awesome at describing these. So let me just say on this that the Be’lakor sound hasn’t changed massively. It’s a polished and improved take on the sound they’ve consistently based their music on since the start. The low, bassy rhythm sections pierced through by high lead riffs won’t be a surprise to anyone acquainted with Be’lakor. There are a few acoustic sections, and the guitar there has a sound that’s warm, but not so warm and metallic that you can tell that new strings have just been put on (I’ve listened to a lot of music that’s guilty of this). At the same time the tone of the acoustic guitar doesn’t offset the mood of the rest of the music.

One random detail about the music sticks out to me, though: the snare drum. It’s got that hollow ring that isn’t overly present in the loud sections but in the quieter bits really hits home the sense of subtle disturbance that Be’lakor prides itself on. Good stuff.

The Music

Also not going to spend too much time on this by itself as I’ll dive deeper into this when discussing the lyrics, as the cohesion between the music and the words are what’s really remarkable about this album.

Be’lakor did say that Vessels would contain bits that would surprise some people. I’ll touch on a couple of these later, but it’s worth noting that while some parts might at first seem musically odd, once you become familiar with the songs and listen through a few times it all fits in together. Overall, the riffs are solid and supportive of the song in any given moment, the occasional piano section serves to bring a sense of melancholy, and the drums are clever, which is really important in making metal music stand out, as so much of metal drumming is very basic. This album is worth listening to for the music alone, and if you want a showcase, listen to An Ember’s Arc. That single song has pretty good examples of pretty much the album’s entire range.

The Story

I’m going to discuss both music and lyrics in this section as it all fits in together. I’ll step through song by song, talking about what each one brings to the concept as it evolves, and then finish with some conclusions about the whole thing.

Obviously, there’s heavy spoilers for Vessels below.

#1 – Luma

Straight off the bat, this song contains some unexpected bits: the high lead riff here makes me think of glam metal. But the buildup (this is an intro song, after all) is effective: it sets the scene with two short verses talking about “a thread that runs through all”. This is an important line, and I’ll get back to it later. One thing surprised me about the song is that the first word actually spoken (in the fade-in right before the main section) is “destiny”. That word is not in the lyrics booklet. Also worth noting.

UPDATE: As pointed out in the comments below, what I’d originally misheard as a distorted utterance of the word “destiny” in Luma is actually the quote: “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.” These words are in the lyrics booklet, but on a page on their own before the words of Luma. On reflection, they don’t really seem to tie into the plot, apart from the reference to the sun. The fact that they’re on a page by themselves before the title “Luma” and the rest of the words makes me think that maybe they’re “outside” the concept of the album, and perhaps they’re just a thematic quote meant to set the scene.

#2 – An Ember’s Arc

Let me start off by saying that, musically, this is probably my favourite song on the album and one of the best songs Be’lakor’s ever written. It ranges from quiet contemplation to heavy confrontation. The formulation of the lyrics is great as well. In particular, give the introductory drum beat up to about 1:00 a few listens through. Awesome use of the high tom, but in general that part is just pleasing to listen to.

The song gives us our first big insight into the album’s tale: it discusses the formation of a star. Be’lakor doesn’t often reach for the skies with their lyrics, but this is done excellently. The riff at around 3:30 is probably my favourite part. In any case, we get a sense of primeval gas clouds coalescing into “a crucible for their collapse”, and the song explores the chaos of stellar birth (which is supported really well by the music). We find out that the star forming is in fact the sun, and the second half of the lyrics discusses two particles meeting and ultimately forming a particular photon. “Free at last, it’s final form, / The photon dashed for Earth.” Thus the song directs our expectations to Earth for the next song, but be warned that this is not Earth as we know it.

#3 – Withering Strands

At almost eleven minutes, this is the longest song of the album, and it starts off with a pondering, slow riff that leads into a recurring riff that will be something like the hallmark of the song. We learn of a small plant that the photon from the previous song directs us to. Overshadowed by titan trees, this plant has struggled to survive, with little light reaching it. The song almost mourns for the plant even as it dies.

But fortune changes: one of the trees around it collapses, and light pours through onto the plant so that it’s “Transformed by the day / As the fuelling light forged.” One small thing that irks me about this song is that some of the verses are repeated in different parts of the song. With such lyrical depth it’s a shame to see words reused, but perhaps it’s so that greater attention is paid to the music in those bits, or maybe Be’lakor just wants to reinforce the words. Another thing worth noting: at around 6:05 the rhythm guitar drops away leaving the lead guitar to echo hollowly, and we hear a wordless grunt from the vocals. Keep that in mind as well, because over the course of the album we’ll see recurrences of animalistic sounds that seem to be less for random emphasis and more to mark the primality of the situation in that moment. I’ll come back to this later.

The plant towers up, but the penultimate verse of the song warns us of its fate: “Fixated above, / The sky its sole purpose, / Its oblivious growth / Led the insects to surface.” The music here (at 9:26) is dissonant and striking, with strong accents that make me think of hammer blows.

Insects rise up onto the newborn tree and tear it down. This plant that we’ve seen on the brink of death that was saved has now been finally destroyed, and this sets the tone unequivocally for the album: this is a tragic tale. Expect no happy endings here. The final verse fades away with a lingering scream and the music vanishes, leaving only a foreboding, almost ticking sound that brings to mind clocks and mortality.

However, this seemingly desolate moment was where I got my first sense that maybe this isn’t all the album’s saying. I got a tiny hint that there’s something underneath. Remember that there’s “A thread that runs through all”. The next song confirmed my theory and it’s there that we start to identify the grand story that Vessels is weaving. Onwards.

#4 – Roots to Sever

I love how Be’lakor works the softness of the piano into otherwise heavy riffs. It gives your ears some room to breathe and your mind some room for contemplation. The intro gives way to a fast, rushing couple of verses that describe the final death of the plant from the previous song.

The piano returns, almost marking those two verses as an interim, then our attention turns to the insects that killed the plant. “Among them, one drone like any other” is our next character. We learn of two insects that have nurtured an egg, which is forbidden under the rule of a Queen. This fits in well with our knowledge of real insects like bees and so gives the fiction some authenticity.

However, the Queen finds out and the two insects are cast out, with their egg smashed on stones. There’s a line here that’s really, really important thematically: Be’lakor calls the broken egg “An offering to slake the earth” and this casts a light onto the harsh nature of the Earth that Vessels depicts: this is a world that has an actively malign nature. It hints at the foundation underneath the recurring tragedy we’ve seen depicted: the suffering of the two insects and their child perhaps makes the earth relent in its demand for sorrow, because “Despite its lot, the child emerged.”

The newly hatched insect searches for more of its kind and is watched by “A pack.” You can already see what’s going to happen here, right? The pack follows the tiny insect as it searches for its swarm, and once it finds them, the pack attacks.

This legitimises the theory that I’d started to hold since Withering Strands: there’s a cycle of tragedy here. The photon was consumed by the plant. The plant was consumed by the insects. The insects were consumed by the pack. See the cycle? Again, there’s this nagging feeling of dissonance inside me at this point in the album: there’s something connecting all this. But what? The rest of the album reveals the truth to us.

Roots to Sever has some awesome riffs, both in ringing guitar harmonies and the strong rhythm underneath. The drums here are strong but not overwhelming. They punctuate the guitar but don’t drown it out, and that’s one of the best qualities of Be’lakor’s drumming: the guys behind this know which instruments need to shine at which parts. Excellent polish.

Can I also point out that Be’lakor is able to set the mood really well? 4:18 and onwards really encapsulates a feeling of oncoming dread.

Another point: more animal-like grunts at 3:17 and 3:21. I’m strengthened in my theory that these parts serve to draw attention to particular points.

#5 – Whelm

That title. We immediately think of “overwhelm” since that’s the common word, but “whelm” by itself gives the same meaning with a more primitive ring. Perfect for the setting.

This is probably my least favourite song on the album. It has some good moments musically, but a lot of the riffs just didn’t sit right with me (the lead guitar at 3:05 is a huge exception; that’s amazing). Still, there’s some things worth drawing attention to.

Excellent uses of the words “chitin” and “ichor” in the first verse, talking about the death of the insects. This mirrors Roots to Sever: the final death of the characters of the previous song are summed up at the very start, and the rest of the song concerns the new focus. In this case, the pack.

Really important lyrical choice: “A rushing mass of fur and claws, / The host would move as one.” Keep the word “host” in mind, because it explains something that happens later in the album.

So at this point we expect some tragedy to befall this pack, and we’re not wrong in our expectation: as they travel the pack has to cross a river. We get a sense that this pack doesn’t hobble itself for the wounded: “Provided each could keep apace, / Those creatures feared none” and “Dispensable – when it should break, / The rest would let it sink.” So we know exactly what’s going to happen: one of the creatures falls while crossing the river and is “shattered on the rocks.”

5:40: A lingering, inhuman scream from the vocals. The creature that fell is watching its pack leave it to die. This sound goes on for a long enough time that it’s actually a little disturbing. It focuses our attention on the pain the creature is experiencing as it dies.

The cycle has continued: one of the pack has been consumed by the river. We’re close to finding out why.

#6 – A Thread Dissolves

Remember that thread mentioned at the very start? Well, the title tells us pretty clearly that it’s now dissolved in the river. This connection between all the characters in the story becomes a little more cohesive.

In the lyrics booklet, this song has no lyrics, but you can hear words when you listen to it. They’re all from the next song, which is interesting.

#7 – Grasping Light

Here we go. Here are the revelations.

Just downstream of where the furred creature died, a man contemplates life by the river. This song gives us the most direct explanation of the connection between all that’s been happening in this album: “To follow the river is to follow the arc.” Which arc? An Ember’s Arc. “To follow the river is to follow the thread.” Which thread? The “Thread that runs through all,” the thread that has now dissolved in the river. “Something of that ember lives! / He feels it bide, he feels it wake / Looking out, but at itself.” It’s the ember. That photon that started everything, that photon’s energy has travelled through all our characters. It hit the plant, which was eaten by insects, which were eaten by hunters, one of which has died and released its energy into the river!

Amazingly, this song also contains what seems like the crux, the delivery of the album’s climax: “But a vessel, adrift, / Not a theft, nor a gift, / That was all – / But a pulse.” Notice the name drop? The album here is trying to tell us, through the words of the human as he contemplates, that all these creatures are just vessels, that there’s nothing beyond them, that it’s all meaningless tragedy. But how can this message be effectively delivered when the entire album before it has shown us an immense cycle that connects all these creatures? Tragic, yes! Heartbreaking, yes! But it’s nevertheless there: all these creatures are part of something greater that started with the star. Vessels, after all, hold something within them! In this way the album incredibly and masterfully subverts and mocks the stereotypical death metal message. It’s through delivering that message at a surface level that the album has shown through deeper connections that message’s flaws. That is the amazing part.

But we’re not done. One more song to go. The man continues the cycle by drinking from the river in which the pack creature died. “To drink from the river is to meet with the arc.” The song’s title plays into this: the man is Grasping Light, because he’s grasping the energy of the ember as he drinks. We know that he’s doomed, but we also know that he’s a part of something now, and the final song will show us the part he has to play in the cosmic web that Vessels has crafted.

#8 – The Smoke of Many Fires

That opening riff. This song has a few jewels like it, and I’ll try to point them out, but that opener beautifully brings up that tragic expectation that we already have.

The man steps away from the river to go back to his clan. A lilting lead cuts through the background with sad notes. We know the man is doomed, and his doom becomes apparent soon.

“He soon found a failing, / Of flesh, and of mind – / They were no longer robust or bright.” The man has grown weak. Why? “What he could not have seen / Was the sickness upstream.” Remember the pack from before, in Whelm? Remember the choice of words? “The host would move as one.” What do hosts carry? Diseases. The man drank water with the blood or innards of the dead creature in it and has quickly fallen prey to the death it carried. “What he could not have known / Was the blight of the bone / In each ebb and each flow he had tasted.”

4:47: Absolutely amazing riff. Piercing and gut-wrenching. “It was then that he heard the sharp crackle of torches, / Carried past him by men from his clan.” He’s going to be burnt alive because “Those he loved feared his illness would wander.” Still that riff sounds out, and to me it’s one of the most emotional moments in the album, because it brings across the feelings of panic that the man must be experiencing at this point. The riff gives way to the only ever time I’ve heard a wah-wah pedal being used to communicate tragedy. The quiet bit after 6:40 or so is our final goodbye, our final contemplation of all that we’ve heard, but bizarrely there’s almost an assonant note at 7:15ish. Why would a spark of positivity be injected here? Our answer arrives with startling force.

“At the heart of the blaze, awareness dissolved / Light ascended devoid of desire / From a trail intertwined, / Life and death strewn behind, / To the stars, it returned, from the fire.”

Because in light of all this tragedy, all this death, the cycle is complete: that photon’s energy has been converted back to fire and is now on its way back to the stars from which it came. That ending is wonderfully tragic and bittersweet, and the music leaves that lingering feeling of shock, both filling and draining, that is the signature of a great tragedy.

Conclusion

What else is there to say? If you’ve read this without listening to the album, then you’re missing out; there’s a substance and energy that I can’t come close to communicating just in this post. The messages hit harder with the music. If you’ve heard it through before, I hope my reading of it has given you some additional insights. Vessels is an expert subversion of death metal that uses the genre to its fullest capacity. The storytelling here is primal: characters aren’t named, but are facets of nature and the world that Be’lakor has dealt with since Venator or even earlier. The music is stellar, and synergises with the words. The whole thing works together to weave an awesome story and is a perfection of what Be’lakor has been cultivating for a while.

A personal aside: one of my previous favourite bands, Parkway Drive, reached this exact same point with the release of Deep Blue in 2010. That was a concept album and my favourite album of theirs. Their albums after that weren’t to my liking and I drifted away from them. I hope the same doesn’t happen to Be’lakor.

But there’s a final point, something that I’m sure isn’t intentional but it’s awesome to pretend it is. Look at the album art:

Those look like kind of like people, right? I showed the cover to someone I’d listened through the album with and asked “What kind of people are these?!” Her response: “Well, they’re deformed, they’ve got bone disease!”

Oh no. “The blight of the bone.” The man’s clan didn’t burn him quick enough, and the disease spread to them before he died. Isn’t that a perfect, final gut-punch, even if it’s imaginary? This is my headcanon for the album, and an awesome finish to an emotional journey.

UPDATE: So I got a welcome surprise when I tweeted Be’lakor with this review:

Be'lakor liked my review!

It’s not every day that that happens!