It was with trembling hands and a humbled soul that I removed the headphones, having just finished my first full listen to Beyond the Bridge’s debut album, The Old Man and the Spirit. I had come across something miraculous, wondrous, and beautiful; a true work of art, and had to pause a moment to appreciate how the music had changed me. Moments like this are rare in music, some bands can have a massive body of work, all wonderful, and yet only touch this height once or twice. The fact that this was a debut just stunned me all the more, usually bands have to work years, even decades, to develop a sound like this, and this band nailed it on the first shot. My curiosity got the best of me, as it usually does, though luckily I had to go no further than their website to find what lay behind the maturity that they show.
Beyond the Bridge originally formed as a prog rock band in Frankfurt, Germany in 1999 under the name Fallout, but was short lived as the members went to pursue higher studies and careers. In 2005, guitarist Peter Degenfeld-Schonburg, with the idea for Old Man and the Spirit, worked with keyboardist Christopher Tarnow to build the basic structure of the album. Best friend and former bandmate bass player Dominik Stoltzim was in, and with the help of producer Simon Oberender they added drummer Fabian Maier and lead vocalist Herbie Langhans. The other lead vocalist, Dilenya Mar finished out the lineup. With the lineup solid, they went to the studio in 2008 to start recording, and after three years, finally released the complete album in early 2012.
The album is a concept album, in every sense of the word. The basic story is that an old man, in the final stages of his life, is in a state of frustrated despondancy, and in his desparation, calls out to a spirit to find meaning in his life. The spirit who answers his call embodies all the wisdom that man cannot achieve, but lacks the real life experience to make sense of it. A deal is presented by her, in that if the old man surrenders his memories, he will be given the wisdom. Though simplistic, the story is deftly handled, and leaves enough room for the listener to interpret it via their own emotions and experiences, further involving the audience in the story in a personal way by letting their own emotions intimately ride the tale with the music. This works perfectly, so perfectly that I was moved close to tears on a few occasions, reflecting upon where the music took me to in my own personal life, and how my memories and emotions mirrored those of the old man. Would I be willing to sacrifice them for the ultimate answers? Were my most cherished possessions sacrificable at all? Such is what this work left me to ponder.
Musically, this thing is a straight up prog metal monster. From the textbook opening thunder of chords to the closing dreamscape of bliss, it dishes out a gauntlet of wondrous sound, covering all the best things that good prog has to offer; the beast of an instrumental in Triumph of Irreality, the soul searing ballad Worlds of Wonder, the staccato verbal onslaught of The Struggle, the soul crushing distorted beatdown of The Primal Demand, and so much more, it carries its message with authority. Grounded by an extremely solid bass and drum performance, the other instruments dance and play around like caffeined up kids on the first day of summer, free and with the sole purpose to live for the day.
Vocally, it is near perfection. Langhans’ male lead is matched perfectly by Mar’s female. Langhans captures the myriad emotions of a man on his last legs, struggling with a decision men were not meant to make, with perfection. His Old Man brings the listener intimately into the piece, making us ponder our own connection to the emotions he deftly expresses. Most of all is the blunt honesty he plays the part with, never do we feel like we are being deceived by what he is saying or feeling. As a counter, Mar’s portrayal of the Spirit leaves us to wonder if the Spirit can give on what she promises the old man, her beauty and wonder portrayed to such perfection, but at times a darker, more soulless side comes through. It leaves wide open the idea that her deal is a one sided grab for her own lack of humanity, that the promises will be false, and the Old Man will end up suffering all the worst. It makes the choice for the Old Man, and the listener, that much more difficult.
Thematically, it is structured so unbelievably well, I am in awe with every subsequent listen. Though the songs don’t tend to run together, they are tied musically in a fantastic fashion, and each piece is a stand alone work. Lyrical and musical themes are repeated throughout, but are built upon with each use, the words expand with emotion, the music expands with intensity. This works wonderfully to build the gravity of the outcome, and ties the listener even closer to the struggle that the Old Man has to face.
Spiritually, this thing hit home, deeply and with a tender message. We all have a part of us that wonders, at times of unrest and despair, whether there is more to the struggles we face on a daily basis. We must find worth in our occasional strife with existence. The one piece of wisdom I left this album with is that the value of our lives is not procured from within, or from above, but from around. The interactions, experiences, and memories we value most are those with loved ones involved, not the ones born of solitude. Our spouses, our friends, our family, our children, the memories of the moments we share with them, from the profound to the mundane, are the benefits reaped by our daily struggles. It is that which colors our soul.
IF you question my sincerity in praise, I must say first off, no, the band isn’t paying me off, this album is that damn good. The seven years in the making, the musical education held by all, the bonds shared, they come through in every note, this album is a true labor of love, a masterpiece. I have given this piece over fifty listens in preparation for writing this review, and I am far from being burnt out on it, so what the heck are you still reading this for, go out and give this piece a spin!!!
Oh, and Lady’s interview with the brainchild of Beyond the Bridge, Peter Degenfeld-Schonburg is here!