Our readers are well aware of the wide-angle conservative lens that is the purview of The Imaginative Conservative’s co-founder Bradley J. Birzer. But what would it be like to set the fruits of Dr. Birzer’s expansive vision to music? In case you were unaware, the question is not a rhetorical one; the answer is readily available in this new album, “The Bardic Depths.”
The Bardic Depths (Gravity Dream Music, March 20th, 2020)
“Depths of Soul”
The Bardic Depths
Readers of The Imaginative Conservative are well aware of the wide-angle conservative, Christian, and humanistic lens that is the purview of Bradley J. Birzer. He has written magisterial book-length studies of J.R.R. Tolkein, Christopher Dawson, Charles Carroll, and Andrew Jackson, and Rush drummer Neil Peart (!), as well as a definitive biography of Russell Kirk. All of that while constantly contributing essays to TIC and other online venues, lecturing hither and yon, and remaining firmly rooted in his beautiful family and in the faith and liturgy of Catholicism. Now, what would it be like to set the fruits of Dr. Birzer’s expansive vision to music? To those who know Dr. Birzer well, it will come as no surprise that it would be progressive rock music, of which he is a lifelong fan and an enthusiastic advocate. And in case you were unaware, the question is not a rhetorical one; the answer is readily available.
For the last several years, Dr. Birzer has been involved in a fascinating musical collaboration with British progressive rock multi-instrumentalist Dave Bandana. The collaboration is fascinating not only because of the intellectual and spiritual weight that Dr. Birzer’s concepts and lyrics bring to Mr. Bandana’s composition and performance, but also because the two men have never met in person, and have reportedly not even spoken to each other until quite recently. Dr. Birzer’s home is in Michigan, where he teaches at Hillsdale College, while Mr. Bandana resides “across the pond,” working from his studio in the Canary Islands. The collaboration began when Mr. Bandana, having “met” and become acquainted with Dr. Birzer via email, invited the latter to contribute concepts and lyrics for a CD, resulting in Becoming One, released under the name “Birzer Bandana” in 2017. Of Course It Must Be followed in 2018. The creative sparks that fly between idea man and music man are already apparent in these two exploratory releases. Now the sparks have burst into full flame, as they emerge with a new band name, a new label, and a new eponymous CD, The Bardic Depths, which was released on March 20th. They are the first band signed to Gravity Dream Music, a label run by critically acclaimed prog-rock musician and producer Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf).
On the two Birzer Bandana releases, Dr. Birzer provided the concept and the lyrics, with Mr. Bandana handling music, vocals, almost all of the instruments, and production. Becoming One was inspired, in part, by Dr. Birzer’s reading of Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz. Of Course It Must Be presented itself as even more mysterious, but still having a rather post-apocalyptic ambiance. I liked both releases, but I was not fully prepared for the heat and light of The Bardic Depths. When I first heard it, I was already struck by how much more quickly I warmed to it, though I worried that this was mainly because of my own friendship with Dr. Birzer. But now, as I am putting together this review in its final form, I am listening to it for the fifth time. Dave and Brad’s debut release as The Bardic Depths is a remarkable work of art. With the awesome support of Mr. Armstrong, and with a number of top-notch musicians lending a hand, I am tempted to say that the Birzer/Bandana collaboration has become “a force of nature” (as the saying goes). But that cliché will not do in this instance. What they have become, I would say, is a force of culture. Dr. Birzer’s concept and lyrics are in a sense “minimal,” but seldom in progressive rock has less been so much. Mr. Bandana’s sense for how to welcome and draw out the power of Dr. Birzer’s ideas is uncanny. For readers who are not intimately familiar with “progressive rock,” I recommend in this case taking the “progress” in “progressive” in a sense much closer to Bunyan than to “progressives” in contemporary political discourse.
The inspiration comes, via Dr. Birzer, from the friendship that developed between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1930s and 40s. Admirers of both Lewis and Tolkien will immediately recognize that, while the central concept of the album is friendship, its mise en scene is war. The opening track, “The Trenches,” announces it in a number of different voices: “This is war.” With only short, punchy phrases, we are brought not only into the horrors of World War I, but into the sweep of a history and a literary tradition punctuated by war. Odysseus, Leonides, Cato, Wiglaf . . . This (as in “this is war”) is what they all felt. This “is what a generation felt.” This is what Lewis and Tolkien felt. The survivors are freed to study, learn, and befriend, but with dark times ahead as well as behind. The lyrics leave so much to the imagination, but the imagination is given its wings by the fearful/brave and foreboding/triumphant texture of the orchestration, and of Mr. Bandana’s vocals. The survivors grow in friendship, and wonder if they will “bow down” and worship “the iron crown.” In “The End,” they can affirm that they never bowed down. Depths are sounded: of Time, of Imagination, and of Soul. The song titles are enigmatic, but they exude a sense of propriety, a sense that they belong. Throughout the symphony are sprinkled references of significance for and in relation to the two friends at its center, moving freely between places they had been, places in fiction (including their own), and other places above, below, and in the world. What binds all of the places together is what binds the two who dwell in them: the bond of friendship that somehow finds transcendence, love, and peace in the insistent immanence of conflict and strife. “Legacies” brings the work to a close, but not really to an End: “we kept the faith,” the two friends can say. That is their legacy.
To you who may not yet have heard the album, none of this conveys the breathtaking heights to which the musicians and producer ascend. The language is that of the progressive rock pantheon, with clear echoes of Yes, Genesis, and Pink Floyd, among others. But you must not take this to mean that the album is merely derivative! The language is perfectly fluent, and its speaking here is an embrace of tradition that allows the tradition to live and to speak again confidently, both with and beyond old formulas. One can hear the passion for the project in the players, and in the production that turns the amazing playing into numinous aural textures. These artists are palpably invested in their art, and are brought together in a musical conviviality. The story of their seemingly haphazard gathering, much of it accomplished in cyberspace, is as amazing as the final product. Spoken word is incorporated effectively at various points, most arrestingly in children’s voices, but also prominently including the voice of Brad Birzer.
Solos on keyboards and guitars span a range from the excellent to the awe-inspiring. A standout soloist is saxophonist Peter Jones, who plays on “Depths of Time” and “Depths of Soul.” Saxophone is not unheard of in progressive rock, but it is rare to hear a saxophone solo of such subtlety and (OK, I know this is getting repetitive) of such depth. And Mr. Jones does it twice here. I am reminded of words attributed to John Coltrane: “I think the main thing a musician would like to do is give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things that he knows of and senses in the universe.” Mr. Jones goes a long way toward doing that here, in a context where the others involved are all straining in the same direction. And all animated by an idea and a few words, elicited from the mind of our friend, a friend of the permanent things, Brad Birzer.
Listening has been (and I think will continue to be) an experience of spiritual renewal for me. It begins to quench a thirst that I may not have fully known I had.
You really need to hear The Bardic Depths.
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 “Dave Bandana” is the stage name of Dave Smith.
 If you do Facebook, there is a video of Bandana hilariously telling some key parts of the story. You can find it here.
The featured image is courtesy of The Bardic Depths Facebook page.