What separates human from machine? In 2016, humans seem able to program a machine to do almost anything. And yet even well before now, countless authors such as Isaac Asimov hypothesized distant future worlds where machines overrun human civilization. Perhaps our temporal convergence towards a technological singularity has made those of us who prize the human experience more protective of those elusive human qualities that computer technology chases after replicating. Is this quest truly a rat race, or are we on the cusp of the grandest technical achievement in human history? Perhaps the last bastion against the age of technology will be the creative arts. After all, every dictatorship’s first major act against its people is the suppression of free speech and expression. Without self-expression, life would be deprived of the majority of its meaning.
The Swedish progressive metal act Wolverine evolved from a dark and somewhat sinister brand of melancholic progressive metal into an emotional vehicle for the five members’ most painful emotions, on the overwhelmingly cathartic Communication Lost, a diary of a band broken apart and fragmented into many disparate shards, desperately trying to fit themselves together and overcome their own bitter hurts that corroded their lines of mutual communication. No falling out is more tragic than when it was no one’s fault, just the inevitable outcome of a collective apathy. All that the five members shared at that time was the same bottomless depths of loss. On the aptly titled Machina Viva, Wolverine doggedly persevere in their ardent pursuit of all things human, even the most unbearable pains and anguishes of the human experience. For to close oneself off to the possibility of pain is to close oneself off to the ability to live. To become part of the machine we fear.
I began visiting the ProgPower USA festival every year since 2013, when Wolverine was one of the four bands that finally convinced me to make the trek to Atlanta despite not having a job or any income at the time. At a time when I was losing my passion for music as I knew it, PPUSA recharged that passion in a quite dramatic way. Out of those four bands, Wolverine was the one I knew the least about and was the least (yet still very much) excited about seeing, and yet they left me with some of the most precious memories in my entire time as a music fan. I had the privilege of watching the band perform an acoustic set, the ideal forum for them to bare their souls in an even more vulnerable and intimate way than on the voluminous Center Stage. No matter what incredible moment graced the rest of the festival, including an absolutely tremendous set from Myrath and getting a name drop on stage from Michael Eriksen of Circus Maximus, Wolverine’s heartbreaking performance of their dolorous piano elegy What Remains was the only moment of the festival to move me to tears. Dozens of fans leaving that concert had felt the same intense empathy with the everyman’s emotional struggle in Wolverine’s music. And for me, having spent time with the band members, especially singer-lyricist Stefan Zall and drummer Marcus Losbjer, to understand the living heart behind the music, it was a moment of almost familial bonding that happens to me at least once every festival. I could never experience such an emotional connection with an artist’s work and not feel like I had known them forever. Nowadays, music that does not come from the heart and soul is almost depressing for me to listen to. Wolverine’s music may be depressing sonically and emotionally, but it is nobler to be willing to experience such real human emotion than to shut it out and become a living machine.
The production is a large leap forward from Communication Lost, which felt recorded in the basement (although this actually enhanced the despondent mood of the album) and muffled the bass and cymbal sounds. Machina Viva’s drum tone is enormous and punchy, the bass crystal clear, the keyboards thick and layered, the guitars striking a happy medium between clear and industrial, and the vocals entirely audible and often discernable without a lyric sheet. The “loudness war” is nowhere to be found, as the dynamic range is utterly gigantic. The elite professionalism of the final product demonstrates Wolverine’s commitment to continued growth despite, even because of, the adversity they had faced together many years ago.
They quickly reinforce this impression by opening Machina Viva with their longest song ever, the 15-minute The Bedlam Overture. It explores the multifaceted nature of the darkness within, the root of all problems in the world, deconstructed throughout the remaining songs. The soothing synthesizer wash at the beginning of time is blotted out by a muted Rhodes piano bleeping in abstruse time signatures, as concupiscence seeps into the strands of DNA running through us. The rhythm section of Losbjer and bassist Thomas Jansson thuds into the ground with a cavernous diving bass as their newest member, guitarist Jonas Jonsson, swells single notes into disembodied echoes of pain, his right hand seemingly absent from the strings while his left hand slides legato across the fretboard, akin to Allan Holdsworth but in far darker musical context. Losbjer’s drumbeat begins its inexorable trudge toward doom almost endlessly throughout the entire piece, despite many meter changes around it. The cymbal crashes constantly while the snare is offset against the meter, accumulating contradiction.
The presence of keyboardist Per Henriksson becomes overpowering, engulfing the entire band in a wash of scattered chatter, between a Morse code-like pattern of electronic bleeping and crashing waves upon the distant shore. The synthesizer hovers like blurry headlights flickering in and out of sight in the distance, akin to The Cure in their comforting yet gloomy splendor. From inside the secure shelter of the lighthouse, we can dimly see the ominous approach of a portentous storm.
Losbjer’s snare and ride cymbal trickle gently across rocky time signatures, the waters steadily climbing over one rock and then the next as fluid clean guitar lines patter over each surface. Henriksson’s organ burgeons into an eerie choir of souls praying in vigil for their threatened city, as the guitar riffage turns into an intense and stormy Katatonia style dirge, the drumming barely remaining afloat on a beat that is itself collapsing on itself. Two chords grind the music to a halt as Zall’s vocals enter atop the tranquility of the lush guitar trickles and gentle drumming, the secret that the storm has been chasing after with malintention, echoing in silenced screams from the lost souls who died with the hope of the world on their lips.
Countless millions have lived the life of a martyr for the cause of human dignity, their rebellion not one fatal act of defiance, but a whole existence committed to resisting the loss of what makes us human. For it is better to die as a human than live as a machine. As to become a machine is to die as a human anyway – and sooner. Their shadows lie gathered beyond the deathly veil stitched by the muted guitar, a homely Moog patch glowing faintly with dulled brightness, their presence disembodied, stolen from us by their deaths. And yet their spirits are embodied in the values that they stood for, leaving permanent imprints behind on our world. Death is just a word to them, its sting no longer able to harm them. For the living, they are a distant comfort, the hope to someday transcend the travails of this present existence, and in the meantime, memories that live on in the hearts of the good and noble. They are the strength from which we draw our hope, the hidden warriors in the ageless war between good and evil.
An outburst of tense guitar chords wipe away this moment of clarity, the solemnly looming organ drawing the battle lines as Losbjer’s already swaying drum rhythm is sent off balance into ever more unstable syncopation, threateningly veering away from the state of perfect balance. Distorted guitar floods into the mix, its Tool style steely cadence slicing up and down as the weight of the raging waves seeps into the weakened ship on which the masses flee, as the constant crash cymbal stoically marches towards an impending capsize. The powers that be, the men behind the curtain, promise to usher in a new age of perfection and world peace. But when their hour comes, they will declare everything pure and noble as an infection upon the earth, everything which they proudly seek to eliminate and declare to the world their victory. They attract the weak and the prideful with a promise of power and significance in our ordinary lives, and yet their ways poison the soul. Love is their disease because it will destroy everything that their lives and agendas are built on. Yet those who are afraid of love will find themselves running from it all their life, closing themselves off to compassion in a self-destructive endeavor. Those who embrace love can tap into the conduit carrying the accumulated wealth of the human experience, to find the courage to fight for the preservation of our humanity. Either way, love will govern our existence.
As a policeman, Zall witnesses the worst of humanity every day. But he has endured fighting with monsters without becoming a monster himself, through his connection with the goodness buried within the indomitable human spirit. He exhorts us to breathe and center ourselves to find the stillness within, to tune ourselves into harmony with our innate goodness. Our kind roam different lands than the children of darkness. We are meant for a greater destiny than one shrouded in blackness. Yet we willingly acquiesce to it when faced with the storm. As staring into the eye of the storm will inevitably put at risk everything we hold dear.
Zall’s snakelike whisper hisses and slithers as merciless waves of drums and guitars crudely batter aboard. In the blink of an eye, the one he loves now struggles for every one of the breaths he has just begun to treasure. As the water chokes away her last breath and her spirit departs from her body, he takes his last breath in the life he knows. His next breath is as shrunken and hollow as her now silent lungs. His concern for the ship sinking becomes insignificant next to that of drowning in his own grief. The ship heaves and lurches in a heavyset, wobbly 7/8 under cavernous surges of guitar riffing, as Henriksson’s Moog solo fiercely spirals deliberately towards the hapless craft’s final demise.
As the hungry sea swallows the wreckage of a past life, it extinguishes the last lights, leaving behind only the empty shadows painted by the barren keyboard backdrop. The last echoes from another congregation of dying souls dissipate from the aching guitar solo into the doleful gray skies. Jansson’s bubbling fretless bass solo weeps in mourning over the senseless tragedy. But as the coldness abates for one fleeting second, a faint light dares to shine into the desolate gloomy night, afraid to disturb the peace found in this hopeless silence. For in times of overwhelming darkness, one candle seems insignificant, a vain gesture that makes the inevitable end a painful struggle rather than a numb insulation. But instead, one candle makes any darkness no longer absent of light, and therefore, no longer darkness. The reappearance of Zall places the choice firmly into our hands: to let ourselves gently slide into the comfort of a quick watery grave, or to valiantly swim ashore towards that miniscule beacon of light, sweating and exhausted, but in the end, alive.
The same pain and suffering that tempted him to drown have granted him something worth swimming ashore for. For never could he endure such trauma at the hands of evil and no longer take a side. And never could he ally himself with those who sought his death by completing their wicked task for them. Amidst the scattered bearings of the syncopated drumbeat, he finds a sense of direction towards righting such great injustice, and by so doing, saving himself from the inner darkness threatening to consume him. Even as our vain pretensions are scorched into dust, the inner instinct towards good still lies smoldering beneath their ashes. To give up after having persevered for so long is to waste not only the hope for future victories ahead, but the countless victories of the past that we have won simply by surviving. But to unlock our inner light is to tear the veils of lunacy from our eyes and see through the delusions fed into our minds by the elite, to the resilience of humanity that has preserved us to overcome the worst of threats to our existence for many thousands of years.
Jonsson’s explosive guitar chords set a match to the candle inside his heart, turning his inner spark into a raging fire, not just devoted to transcending his will to nothingness, but to rage against those responsible for the dying of the light. The steadily growing dissonance between the notes and Zall’s singing heralds the coming of another storm, this time returning to its source with a vengeance. Henriksson’s synthesizer laid over the monolithic towering chord is alternately mournful and triumphant, as although there must be much bloodshed, there will be victory when the storm has settled. A frightening siren emanates from the keyboard and reverberates through streets stained with ageless malice, as their inhabitants scream in feral rancor but go unheard, and Losbjer’s snare quickens their footsteps into a sprint. But though the wicked run from their fate, what refuge have they to run to? The despondent timbre of the French horn, a new deployment in Machina Viva’s sonic arsenal, captures the final moment of somber reflection upon the necessity of the deed, before the chorus enjoins us all to cling to our goodness that lies inside, lest when the flood waters wash over us, we be swept away with the tide.
For the wicked are cunning and deceitful. Out of fear, they seek to conform everyone else around them into machines driven by their own fear, whom they program to become tools of their own bidding. We must not allow ourselves to become machines, and when life’s circumstances provoke us to shut down to avoid the worst of the human condition, we must break free from the cocoon of despair the world weaves around us and emerge to our fullest potential.
The chorus resurfaces like a mantra, resounding deep within enlightened souls until it races across the mountains in a clamor that deafens the throng of millions to the malevolent voice whispering intently in their ears. The rush of sound brings back the life that had been stripped away from them in their hollow existence as slaves to the machine. Now this ground that was once hollow, devoid of life since it was sown with the seeds of sin, must become hallowed by our valiant efforts to restore humanity to its former innocence. Can minds once clean white slates of innocence, now tainted with color, be bleached in white again?
Now that the curtain of evil has been torn away to expose the façade, the skies turn blood red with anger against those who have ravaged creation. We ask heaven why so much destruction runs rampant in the world, but shrivel away in guilt for our crimes when heaven asks us the same question. Jonsson’s riff figure towers and thunders as fire rains down to judge the wicked, Losbjer’s toms crashing into skyscrapers built on sand and scattering the city into a scene of bedlam. The chosen flee to a new life as the crashing china cymbal topples buildings like flimsy dominoes, and the Rhodes riff with volume swells carries the detritus out to sea. For the wicked have met the same destiny as their victims, only their souls will instead drift forever in the blackness that engulfs the smoldering dust of Babylon. Henriksson’s keyboard whines and whirs in the void, before it swallows their last moments of contemplation upon the great futility of their lives.
Machina combines the best of Depeche Mode meets Anathema, threading a pulsating electronic drumbeat through a building repetitive musical progression like a constantly grinding gear, its clanking machinery groaning as it barely manages to stay in the same repetitively programmed lockstep, under which Zall’s vocals slowly simmer throughout the piece. Reverberating guitar notes throb and whine like air raid sirens as the unrest accumulates from two rhythms contradicting each other, and the anxious syncopation and inexorable haste of the 7/8 meter. Zall’s voice seems cloaked behind the veil of coldness painted by Henriksson’s barren synth backdrop, through which peer only fleeting glimpses of humanity by way of the lush twinkling piano. In between Communication Lost and Machina Viva, Zall endured the trauma of divorce from his wife of 13 years. If The Bedlam Overture was the workings of the machine upon humanity, here would begin the day-to-day chronicle of its effects upon their relationship, and its aftermath.
Zall’s voice drifts through a monotone sea, smothered by the regime of conformity. He feels his soul detaching from his body, crying out silently in despair as it floats by him, gradually swirling around the void towards its pitch-black center. Many years of his life have been built on what is now an untruth, stripped of meaning by his quest to fit into the boxes the world has manufactured for us all. Love cannot be confined to a box, as its claustrophobic squeeze gradually crushes the ties that bound them together, an unfeeling wall rising between them to suffocate a bond built on drawing breath as one until death. Where once their communication was like open books adorned with undying devotions, now the poet has fallen silent and communication is lost.
Jonsson’s distorted guitar pokes in, chugging mechanically like a steam engine running out of control, plummeting towards a broken track ahead. The keyboard and piano flicker more insistently, the voice of humanity fighting to be heard above the robotic cacophony. But the entire band dramatically stops as Zall intones “I am you” through the ghostly muted reverb, his sense of self now completely engulfed in the wash of weightless mist, rapidly vanishing towards the event horizon. The man he once was is unrecognizable, buried underneath a common façade, bereft of the uniqueness bestowed upon every human being. He has become another of the millions of empty faces cast adrift together in a lonely crowd. For to hide oneself from another is to become someone else.
The guitar punches back into the mix, this time without processing and at full volume, in rhythm with the electric drums, no longer the distant groaning of gears, but the deafening heartbeat of the grinding machinery itself. Every spin around the soulless machine harmonizes our heartbeat with its own, until our hearts are controlled by its every cold breath.
The music bulges towards an impending towering climax as the two bars of 7/8 meter are augmented with an additional beat to make 15/8. The machine exerts the sweeping dominance of a four-on-the-floor beat while maintaining the urgency from the 7/8, as Zall’s voice laments to the skies above, his eyes struggling to focus through the darkening cloud as it hungrily devours the weakening light. He is trapped in a spiral of monotony, and any direction he goes is towards the center, a futile effort to avert surrendering to the reality of his cold and hollow existence inside the machine. Soon there will be no escape and he will be consumed by the manifestation of his own inhumanity. In one last desperate attempt, he tears the mask of lies from his eyes, but only rudely awakens from a dream into a nightmare.
Pile of Ash leaves no time to breathe before Zall’s voice spills out involuntarily in a sudden flood of emotions after walking into a once happy home for two to find her gone forever. Yet instead of all at once, each torrent of emotion is unleashed in slow motion, a cruel mercy as while it prevents him from collapsing into unconsciousness from shock, it prolongs each stage of agony until it feels just about to heal, then tears open a new wound, each one deeper than the last. Everything but guitar and voice is silenced by numb shock. His every breath is as hollow and labored as if she sucked all the air out of the room as she left. Soon after, the blood stops pumping within his heart as his soul cannot breathe in the vacuum she left behind. With every second, a part of his heart breaks and leaves a cut that bleeds into the next one, a chain reaction that shatters it all into pieces.
Zall’s voice weakens into a trembling falsetto as every touch of his foot upon the ground sends her laughter echoing throughout the house, returning to him as a tantalizing whisper vanishing into thin air. Every door he opens, he walks over the threshold carrying only decaying memories of that joyous day when his arms carried her instead of holding his delirious shell desperately upright. Every happy memory now brings him to tears because it only serves to remind him of something that will never be again. Even as every piercing surge of pain racks his fragile skeleton and leaves bruises inside his battered soul, he knows that when everything has broken, there will be no more pain to feel. That someday healing must begin, if only because he physically cannot feel any more pain until the moment it starts healing. And then he will be comforted by knowing that every moment of pain is proof of his continued healing, his rescue from the machine through a vivid encounter with the human condition.
Although pain has set his world aflame, burning away all the traces of his past existence, the scorching fire has triggered feeling inside his heart once grown cold, infusing Zall’s voice with a renewed vigor amidst its plaintive lament. Even as his life crumbles into a pile of ash, the blackest of ashes will fertilize the one lonely seedling of hope left in the tear-stained soil. Before the composition can wither away into a terminal state of nothingness in which he would forever wallow, he pushes with all his might against their empty bed to stand upright on his feet with a melancholic triumphant swell of volume, his voice soaring far above the doldrums. Now the shroud of sadness that envelops him has an opening through which he can see for the first time since the moment he walked inside. In the midst of his sorrow, he can now silently defy it with a smile as he can draw his own breath again, his eyes firmly focused on a glimmer of hope faintly shining through in the fading afternoon light. For no matter what trials we endure, as long as breath remains in our lungs, the wheel of time continues running unabated whether we wait for decades merely for the end to come, or live the rest of our lives to the fullest. But only one path is the way to overcome the pain. Even if every step he takes down the road to his recovery were paved with tears of the past, he can now live in the present, and move forward into the future.
A funereal French horn rings out from the sky saying One Last Goodbye, as the glimmer of hope goes dim for the foreseeable future, and night descends upon the bleak abode of sorrow. Despite his resolution to overcome, the road to healing is long and painful. Losbjer’s jazzy drumming shuffles pensively atop Jonsson’s Fates Warning esque solemn arpeggio filtered through the muddy Wolverine ethos, a pleasant yet endless shade of gray bleaching every corner of the house. The wind lies so still he can feel the chill of his breath haunting him with a constant reminder of his solitude. His thoughts drift back to the day he left for work that morning, taking for granted that he would see her face at the door. With every second that his knock returned void, the awful truth became apparent that the last kiss she ever gave him was merely a token gesture that had become as casual as a perfunctory nod. That it was already too late and he was too blind to have ever have seen it coming. The touch of her lips now burns upon his face like venom, once the panacea for any suffering he could have endured in the outside world, and yet now multiplying it. Henriksson’s ethereal synth swathes her presence in a gossamer veil dangling in the air, as threads of weeping guitar reach out towards the veil and then dwindle away into nothingness along with the cruel torture of the mirage.
Jansson’s bass throbs inside his ears like a heartbeat. For so long had his heart beat in unison with hers, that he had forgotten the sound of his own. But he knows it must be his, and though it is proof that he is not inside a dream, but alive, it is also proof that his nightmare is also real. Their hearts had grown so apart over the years that his own heartbeat had fallen out of rhythm, and it labors to keep his blood pumping all alone. Undoubtedly, she must have suffered the same apathy as him, or she wouldn’t have left. But in the wake of her departure, why does it feel like all the rain is falling on him?
The torrential rain inside his heart begins to condense into a misty blanket of synthesizer and breathy vocals, as the moonlight begins to shine through his window. Even as his face lies buried in his bedsheets, he catches its white glow through the corner of his eye, hearing the faint echoes of millions of voices. They offer him a temporary release from the escalating torment inside his mind, serenading him with a beautiful siren song that draws his ear to listen to a story much like his own.
Elegiac guitar chords flutter through the deserted dusty bedroom window, as Zall stares out with eyes numbed from agony into the faint lonely moonlight at the rows of people below draped in veils as black as his, all carrying their own hurts and yet all hurting together. Pain is one of the only certainties in life. Pain unites everyone. And yet pain makes everyone feel alone together. Millions still feel so alone in their pain that they bottle it up and remain silent, never to be healed. Millions more have found the courage to let it out and taken the first step down the arduous path to healing. While Zall’s paralyzing anguish and loss are powerfully felt through a mournful vocal crescendo, Wolverine’s music becomes the means by which he exorcises his negative emotions not by wishing them away or covering them up, but letting them happen, to take their natural course and undergo what may be a slow healing, but a more complete one. One that will allow whatever has broken to mend itself stronger. One that will leave scars behind, but as proof he has survived.
As the last of the mourners vanish into the distance, they take his solace with them, leaving him at the mercy of an overwhelming rush of panic. He frantically races to every door in the house, pounding ceaselessly, hoping against all hope that he forgot one. Then he sees the faint glow of a lamp across the longest corridor. Racing to it, he turns the corner praying to find someone there, only to realize it was merely a lamp he hastily neglected to turn off that morning. Zall’s voice cracks and shivers in despair ever so briefly as the light bulb flickers out at his approach, as if understanding his disappointment, but sadly having to confirm what he already knew was true. Yet though his efforts have returned void and the wounds pierce his soul ever deeper, he has purged himself of denial. He has proven his devotion to pursuing love despite the endless grief from losing it. Falling in love may have been the source of all his pain, but it was also the source of all his joy in life. If the first cut is the deepest, those who survive it will endure with faith that nothing ahead can be worse than what they have already endured. That whatever trials may still come, they too shall pass.
Fragile acoustic guitar flutters into the air and disappears too quick to be touched, its cascading 7/8 meter imbued with ephemeral joy, as Zall realizes how quickly time can slip away, taking with it everything we take for granted. What was once a happy time is now forever locked inside a memory, a moment in the past. Some part of him will always remain in the past with it, and the past will control our present and our future. But yet when he takes the joy and the meaning from those moments, not trying to change what has happened, but trying to change what will happen next, that he can make his present and future as bright as his past once was, and potentially stronger.
Zall emotes gently in insubstantial, formless tones, his breath pattering upon the window like raindrops. Every happy memory brings another rainstorm into his heart, and yet he beckons to the rain to wash him away, to willingly embrace the pain of no longer having for the sake of remembering the beauty of having had. For the flood of memories is a solace, a conduit to the joy from before this ordeal. The only way to overcome the pain of losing love is to remember the joy of having felt it, so that some day, we might learn to love again.
Jonsson’s emotionally wrought guitar solo soars thankfully as much as it cries dolefully, not just waiting for the storm to pass, but dancing in the rain. Grateful that someday the rain will end, and the past will be washed away. The morose scene of Losbjer’s shuffling snare leading the French horn into a funeral march is visited by the spectral voice of the one he loved. Hidden so far behind the mix she is almost imperceptible, she sighs faintly in unfathomable misery, yet with a mysterious note of resignation and acceptance. Even though she is gone, she forever changed his life, so much so that a part of her will ever remain imprinted on his soul. Having known how colorless life was as he drifted away from her love, he knows that the imprint she left has made him better. And he would have rather lived ten wonderful years with her and lost her, than never have lived in those years at all.
When the chorus reappears, the parade of mourners passes by him again, and now he understands that they were looking for something, and what it is. Something they had lost and were searching for again. Love. The most elusive component of replicating the human experience. The word that will never be spoken in a world of machines. And yet love cannot be contained in a word. It transcends time and space as much as language, recognizable just by its presence, or lack thereof. In Zall’s moment of despair, his apparent abandonment by love, he still recognizes his crucial need for love, for he knows now what living without love feels like. Even as the French horn tolls the midnight hour throughout the vacant blackened corridors, heralding the oncoming night that he knows will feel longer than the past 13 years all by itself, he carefully guards the smoldering embers within his heart to hold back the enveloping darkness for just long enough to see the next day.
But the thought of sleeping alone for the first time in over a decade is as terrifying as the day he first slept alone as a child of four. Flailing, screaming, pleading for someone to come back inside the room and allay his monstrous fear. The reality of adjusting to normal life sinks in so rapidly, so inescapably, that he finds himself blindsided by another cataclysmic wave of pain.
The fortress protecting the last unspoiled inner sanctum of his wounded heart is battered and pounded by an unhinged doubled keyboard-guitar riff, which dominates the eight minutes of Pledge. Its time signature slips from 14 beats to 13, then back again and then from 14 to 12, and its notes hocket between two patterns of two repetitive notes, one pair a tone lower than the other, a multiplicity of threads of his life’s purpose and meaning unraveling at their seams. The only thing left to treasure in his life is her memory, but even that is receding into the recesses of the past, as her absence becomes gradually more apparent. Zall’s radio-rant voiceover furiously bubbles with the self-reproaching angst of Aenima-era Tool, his tone hollow and weathered as the main riff simmers underneath inside an ominous acoustic guitar figure. So often the acoustic guitar is an instrument by which we express our most intimate of devotions to another human being, and yet here, it is warped into a hymn for the broken, the song sung after that relationship withered into dust.
In retrospect, the last days of their relationship were nothing but a rat race. Seemingly, everything was all right, but in reality, he was trapped in circles, going nowhere. When she left, she broke the chains that bound him to that futile endeavor. And yet at the same time, they loosed a torrent of emotions that blows down a life built from flimsy twigs. The riff explodes back into battering intensity, as Zall’s voice lacerates through its incisive edges, exploding with enough thunder to rattle the windows. She had sworn to love him and honor him through sickness and health, for better or for worse! Those vows that once lifted the weight of the world from his shoulders now come plummeting down on him, threatening to crush him at any moment. Never in his life could he have imagined words of unconditional love would wound him so straight to the core. Henriksson casts a perilous layer of synth atop the rampaging main riff, blistering with accumulating anger at the one responsible for his ruin.
The acoustic guitar line cascades up and down, futilely reaching for the metrically consonant, stable 4/4 meter, but always falling short, even falling further away from it as beats slip away from each measure. The awful realization gradually begins to sink in that he was chasing something perfect that he could never reach. How could he have so vainly trusted that everything would be perfect? No longer is she the one to blame, as the guilt now weighs upon his shoulders, carrying the ghosts of thirteen long years. Every chain he has broken from the past leaves a scar behind on his heart. The only way to alleviate the piercing agony of separation seems to be to patch up the ties left behind in ruins. A way to salvage some manner of a relationship with the person he fondly remembered her as. But with each compromise, each concession for the sake of preserving the scattered fragments of the past, she still controls his life as if they were still together.
A parting like this is a sad necessity. Its sting in the tail is the amount of emotional and personal baggage it leaves both parties with. We had pledged to remain bonded for life, and hence whatever chains we broke free from, we can never be fully divorced from our past. Only time will tell if the chains we escaped were actually stronger than the chains that we bound ourselves into. No one ever wins. And yet with hope and perseverance, we can avoid losing ourselves and, despite our trying circumstances, make the best of what remains.
Jonsson’s guitar chimes threateningly, an alarm warning of grave danger ahead. As much as they try to squeeze themselves together, they fit like a square peg and a round hole, and the harder they push, the more intense they relive the turmoil that drove them apart. Darkness will descend upon us both, goading us to act upon the resentment, the hatred, the betrayal, negative emotions that wage war within our soul against the virtues that we swore to uphold at the altar. They are a ticking time bomb that will blow up in our face if we cling to them. They are manifestations of the darkness itself, and the only way to dispel them is to let go. As the guitar arpeggio resolves its dissonance, he begins to accept the consequences of his decision, only hoping that someday, she can do the same.
The chorus pounds with the savagery of a pair of hands grasping a neck. The past has him gripped by the throat, stealing every breath from the present. Everything that he once was has become a burden to carry along the walk to the cross, upon which the nails are driven in by their pledge. Two words that changed their lives more so than all the rest put together. If our vows end when death do us part, then on the day we break the vows, a part of us dies.
The guitar is ripped out of the arrangement as only the bass holds the main riff together, leaving behind a hollow, brittle shell of encroaching silence that sadistically tortures him. One moment, the silence offers deliverance from the chaos raging inside his mind and heart, and the next, it intensifies the chaos as it reminds him of what he has lost. A screeching metallic Evergrey type solo guitar piece heightens the heavy tension, accelerating the momentum of the monolithic main riff until it plummets over the edge. The staggered rhythm sharpens into a straight 7/8 and its notes into a mechanical single-note riff, every monotonous strike of the guitar strings accumulating an urgent tension emphasized by Henriksson’s eerie Porcupine Tree-esque descending shadowy synth melody. Losbjer cuts his ride cymbal into half time compared to the beat, his drum pattern acquiring some King Crimson syncopated qualities that add tinges of unrest to the placid solitude.
Zall’s voice wisps gently through the shadows, weary of the long night. As the night wears on, he clings to it, with nothing else to cling to and be his companion. But though the coldness remains until the morning, it is tempered with the enduring hope of dawn. He can finally draw a breath out of the suffocating silence. The dawn brings him out of the confines of his prison into the real world. Though light shines hopefully in the distance, the bitter cold still reigns over the earth. Though it has prepared him to fight, it has also brought the battle to him. Yet he is more confident of his victory against even the vilest darkness outside himself, than of hers, even against the lightest shade of gray within herself. For in fighting oneself, one must always lose.
Far away, a homely Mellotron blankets the musty hotel room in which she has carved out her meager existence with the dull light of a lonely street lamp. It casts a feebly hopeful glare across Jonsson’s threatening guitar chime as his exhortations echo inside her head. To let her toxic emotions go, collapsing in on themselves and ceasing to tear her apart. To embrace the dawn instead of hiding in the darkness. Until that day comes when she can, he is better off building his new life away from her.
As his former life is swept away in the engulfing deluge of the chorus, he lets it purge his emotions. As everything he knows that remains tied to his darkest emotions is destroyed, he ponders for the first time that perhaps in the end, his ordeal had a purpose. He would never have left willingly, and thus he experienced such anger when it ended. But if he knew what he knows now, he could perhaps have summoned the courage to take the most courageous step he made since making the pledge: ending it. For better or for worse.
Emerging towards the brightening glimmer of light at the end of a once endless tunnel, his only fear now is that he wants no one who comes after him to suffer through the night like he has. His relationship may have crumbled into the dust, but there was still worth and purpose to be found and salvaged from the wreckage. The children he shares with her are his greatest blessing, one that he would have suffered all over again just to love and cherish afterwards. But they will someday face a struggle of their own for their livelihoods, and When The Night Comes is his not-so-passive observation as they stumble and grope through the same tunnel he did, hoping that his path can illuminate their way out, lest they be mired in the darkness that he so narrowly escaped.
Its Opethian pastoral folk acoustic strumming casts the indigo glow of dusk upon each and every one of us. We all come to at least one defining moment in our lives when we must confront darkness face to face, in whatever form it takes for us. The struggle may seem never ending, and for some a futile endeavor.
Why fight to a long, protracted, painful end when eventually we all die anyway, and we could just surrender instead?
But in turn, why surrender to despair when there is even the tiniest possible sliver of hope?
Zall’s Erik Rosvold type rhythmic vocal mantra pulsates sturdily above the nocturnal glow of the vast countryside. With every mile of unforgiving knobbly pebble that blisters their feet, the road becomes more oppressive. But each rising note keeps their heads from looking down at our scars, but up towards the end of the road. The further we walk, the closer we are to home, a day on which our scars will have meaning, and those with the most scars will find the most healing. Though the winter cold doggedly follows behind on the trail of tears, electric chords ignite the frigid arrangement, their bucolic tone coupled with Losbjer’s carefree hi-hat dance. The wisdom of his journey through the night resonates, he hopes, inside their mind, and as an anthem for everyone struggling against the dark that suddenly begins to forcefully hammer at the door.
The weighty chorus’ pounding half-time guitar chords are hammered into the skull by Losbjer’s relentless kick drum, rooting us all to the spot as the ghosts of our past extend their clammy hands to claim us for their own. But it cannot touch the parts of ourselves that are uniquely ours. It can only lay claim to our baggage, our dark secrets and tragic flaws. The eternal night is chasing every one of us, every minute, and those who fear what lies ahead of them in their future will succumb to what lies behind them in their darkest past. To try running away from the past with its dead weight on our backs is to waste our breath until we have nothing left to resist the oncoming oblivion. But to jettison the things that weigh us down is to run free, away from the blackest caverns of the tunnel and towards the distant light at its end.
The frosty acoustic strumming abruptly cuts back in for the second verse. As the temperature approaches absolute zero, all movement and all change will cease. Thus to surrender to the coldness will freeze us inside a lonely cell of complacency, shutting out everyone else that loves us and cares for us, to flatten our emotions into mere words on a screen devoid of meaning, like a robot that can walk and talk like a human but is unable to feel. But like many ages ago in the battle for humanity, the smallest spark of flame can melt the thickest wall of ice. And it is through soldiering on through the coldest winter that, though we grow weary of the struggle, we nurture the fire. For the longer we endure, the more strength we find buried within ourselves, and the longer we persevere.
The band cuts completely out, leaving Zall’s voice to drift into the insubstantial shadows of the past behind. He knows that leaving her father who has always been walking beside them to forge her own path in life may be painful for his daughter, and yet even more painful for him, the one who sacrificed so much of his livelihood and endured so much heartache from having brought her into the world. He knows he will witness his child fall and be bruised, cut, scratched, and broken. What kind of loving father would he be to willingly let her suffer the same wounds, and not catch her, not be the guardian that he has promised her daily to be since the day of her birth? On the contrary, what kind of loving father would shield his child from every possibility of being hurt, and in return, every possibility to transcend an emotionless machine-like existence and grow into the woman he always wanted her to be? A woman who, someday, will unite with a man like her proud father to carry on not only his name, but the legacy of everything he stood for?
Ultimately, he realizes that to let her go may feel like losing love all over again, but is the only way to ensure that love once lost can be found again. As she ventures into the great unknown ahead, the truth and wisdom of her father’s presence can never fully depart from her, as his memory trails behind her like a spirit guide, taking the spectral form of a Morton Harket esque reedy falsetto before materializing into the pre-chorus. As the chorus swells around them and climaxes into a second phase fraught with primordial dissonance, he takes comfort that even the quietest whisper through the din will now be heard. That when the night comes, she has known enough of love to choose the path of love, to resist the oncoming winter and find her way to the spring morning. And for the first time since the day loneliness welcomed him home, he can salvage his future from the wreckage of the past.
Jonsson’s emotionally driven guitar solo victoriously breaks through the pounding rhythm as the distant light of the morning to come shines from Henriksson’s keys. Even as she disappears into the brush of cold acoustic strumming woven together with the gloomy cello, the guidance from the guitar remains, Losbjer and Jansson’s rhythm section slicing through the dense thicket of the backwoods, resolutely fighting through every obstacle. When the instrumentation abates to leave the weeping cello reverberating into silence, the tears of mourning are no longer just that. Tears of a father as he loses the innocent young daughter he once knew, but also gains the grown woman who has kept the fire he passed down to her burning through everything and everyone that tried to snuff it out. Tears of he who may someday walk her down the aisle to find himself staring across the pews, to see himself come full circle.
But as the years wear on, the time that brings him closer to that moment also becomes his Nemesis. The inspiration for the song is Losbjer’s chronic arthritis, which will gradually constrict his ability to play drums over his lifetime. Described as the consummate musician in interviews with Wolverine, music has become his life’s work, and every limitation with which his disease might strangle his passion would fundamentally change the very foundations of his life.
Zall voices the dialogue between himself and his nemesis, from the intimate piano intro as he stares his new diagnosis in the face, to the burgeoning darkness of the verses as he bluntly addresses a now fearsome foe, all the while underscored by the ticking clock of the urgent 7/8 meter. Every ounce of strength it gains, comes at his loss. But it is not just a foreign, alien enemy spawned from our worst nightmares. Arthritis being one of the medical conditions that is self-inflicted, his destruction comes from within himself. He could just as well be seeing his face in the mirror, pointing a gun at his head. Try as he might to explain the sight away as a hallucination of his aging brain, he knows himself too well. As his body fights with itself, his inner darkness also comes out to wage war with his inner light. Together, they comprise the sum total of the human condition. But what matters is what half of him is the stronger one. Though the physical limitations of age may make the flesh weak, if the spirit is willing, the battle within oneself can be won.
As his years grow shorter, he laments ever more the years he spent running miles away from reality. Zall tragically sustains the word “wasted,” but though he seemed to have wasted years running in the wrong direction, in the end, they were years spent revealing the right direction. Now the years he has left become ever more important. The struggle of fighting against his nemesis has led him to discover a new way of life, where every breath, every step, every seemingly small victory over mundane struggles, means something more than it once did. Where previously unknown parts of ourselves that had gone dormant, mere footnotes within the book of life, begin to write our next chapter. Loss becomes the catalyst for gain, reversing the deathly ravage of his nemesis. Let it consume everything he once was. The pile of ash will simply be the fuel for the phoenix’s fire.
The trademark Natural Science-style revolving 7/8 keyboard lead imparts color and verve to the arrangement of the third verse, soon translated into a ravenous guitar riff. As his eager nemesis grows hungrier, his hunger for life grows more eagerly. As it grows more greedy to destroy him, he grows more prepared to be rebuilt. He bravely throws himself to his nemesis like bread to a starving dog. As he finally stops running from it, but confronts it, he soon counter-intuitively finds himself finally able to escape it, through which Wolverine embark on an extended instrumental odyssey with all the momentum of a runaway train.
Jansson’s bass drives the entire passage’s momentum, clattering and rumbling constantly underneath an accumulating avalanche of King Crimson style dissonant chords and collapsing drum fills, until the bass breaks down into an intermittent mechanical throb on the first beat of every measure of 3/4, revolving itself back around to the original 7 by inserting measures of 2. The cryptic rhythm structure is sustained by Henriksson’s synth solo reminiscent of Richard Wright or Rick Wakeman, with spidery bass ripples undulating underneath, poised to take the lead and expand the rhythm and melody of the section in any possible direction. Meanwhile, the synthesizer looms constantly in the background, ever so quietly inching upwards on the scale, feeding off the amassing momentum of Losbjer’s trademark contrast of a syncopated snare accent with a constant crash cymbal. The meter flattens out into 6/8, its sense of space imparting an airiness to the stately guitar solo, gradually squeezed out by a syncopated drum fill as Jonsson transitions to a faster phrasing, continuously squealing onto the same stratospheric note on the top string of his guitar. The symphony of triumph has reached the clouds above, as one note victoriously punctures through the darkened skies in answer to the cry for help Zall sent through them long ago. The drum rhythm accelerates as the straight 4/4 meter swallows the entire arrangement, but then slips into a precarious 7/4 by truncating the final beat away. A foreboding synthesizer edges the waveform towards a dramatic collapse as the final note falls off the previously established melodic structure, into midair as the rhythm section falls silent.
As the rush of victory fades, only the original piano theme remains, modulated up the scale, another year closer to vanishing into white noise. Even as the life begins to flow into his years, his years are still flowing out of him just as quickly as they once were. Knowing how much potential has lay within him all these years, life before his condition seems lifeless and empty by comparison, a great irony when it is the future that will be his undoing, and the past in which he never knew this affliction. Yet though the chorus echoes regretfully in his mind, his only regret is not to have moved into the present sooner. Like the loss of his most near and dear relationship, he would never have subjected himself to this pain willingly. But he has refused to let himself be defined, limited, diminished, dispirited by any tragic circumstance, and not by shutting himself away in the eye of the storm in the futile hope that someday it will pass him over unscathed. For while he may avoid the eye of the storm for seemingly forever, he will remain imprisoned within its walls until the day the breath leaves his body as surely as if the storm had destroyed him. Or until the day he surrenders himself to the rage of wind and rain, holding onto nothing but his heart and soul, keeping faith that though they alone will endure, out of them will emerge himself washed clean and pure. Jonsson’s final guitar solo starts resolving itself back to the root note with a sense of relief as the stormy keyboard backing ebbs away, and the thunderous drumbeat slowly softens into a gentle splash that gracefully dissipates into nothingness.
As with A Beginning from the previous album, the desolate album closer Sheds represents the world in ruins after the storm has subsided, entirely devoid of metal, its rhythmic motif barely discernable and its concreteness barely knit together. Lyrically written by Losbjer as a portrait of individuality subsisting within social repression and rejection, it examines a wispy vestige of humanity shrouded behind the veil of the droning machine. Muted chords from an organ, vaguely similar to a church organ, hum constantly throughout the piece akin to Pink Floyd, the inexorable heartbeat of the machine. Zall’s voice flickers into existence, unfiltered and vulnerable, as if he was addressing us personally from the other side of a dusty old keyboard in his basement. Dank, shabby, run-down, but raw and intimate. Not polished, doctored, artificially enhanced to be perfect, but perfectly imperfect in its honest humanity.
The world has rejected him. She broke his heart and time seems set out to ravage his body. Though he is happy to have endured intact, to have a place to call his own as lowly as it may be, the droplets of water that moisten its matted floor are not the gathering of mist from the evening air, but the overflowing river of his tears. A man secretly happy is despairingly sad from the outside. A synthesized fretless bass weeps out his despair, the last gasps of emotion remaining inside his hardening heart. Arctic coldness from the world outside has enclosed him inside the shelter of his stuffy basement. He protects the internal fire within the walls he has built to insulate himself, permanently shielded from any possibility of being hurt again.
He has everything he could seemingly want. A place to hide away from everyone as soon as someone casts at him a scornful stare or a rejecting word. But a Sigur Ros inflected angelic piano and choir interlude casts the faintest of lights into the blackest night. Somewhere out there in the vast wasteland is someone else who has endured the same grievous hurts, and still persevered in giving and receiving love. Its heavenly whisper calls to him, to open up once again and let himself accept with the possibility of hurt, the possibility of love. All he wanted, all his life, was acceptance, and its promise seems on the surface to be empty like the last. It seems foolish and preposterous to trust so unreservedly again. But underneath is a certain intangibility to this mysterious entity that begins to batter at his fortress of doubt. There is something ageless and beautiful about it that stirs his deepest instinct, gone dormant for many years, to trust it.
One moment of trust, as hesitant as it is, gives way to two. Yet with each moment, he fears opening himself further as much as he witnesses his healing whenever he does. He knows that the barren arctic world of conformity has no place left for him. He might as well be from another planet, so backward and closed-minded are the people who have shut him out. So what place could there be left for him to start over in a new life, where no one will ever shut him out again?
He stares at himself in the mirror, on the edge of giving up on everyone. He is a unique person unlike anyone else, and so no one knows him, and that is why people have treated him with hatred. And if no one knows him, who could truly choose to freely love him? Though his reflection stoically returns his gaze, the presence that reached out to him is anything but cold and spurning. It glimmered with love far beyond anything he had ever experienced. It knows he is unlike anyone else, and he knows that it knows. So how could it ever love anyone else exactly the same way as him? No one can be justified in hating him because no one is like him. But everyone is justified in loving him even if he is like no one else. Precisely because there is no one else who can receive it as purely.
With this revelation comes the one which finally cracks his self-imposed shell. Though the fire inside him lights the doorway to finding himself, he cannot unlock the door on his own. The presence seeping into his basement carries the key. Love will keep his fire burning against the coldest winter, through the thickest darkness. But he cannot preserve the light by hiding it from the dark, for if he waits forever with his lamp lit but hidden under a bowl, it will eventually be snuffed out with his life, never having accomplished anything. He can only find himself by giving himself away. Though he might fear his flame someday running out of fuel, as he shines a ray of light back, it reflects back from the mirror, far more brilliant than whence it came. In giving himself away, he takes control of himself at last.
The first morning sunrise illuminates the dusty corners of the basement as glowing light burns within his soul, and the tears strewn on the floor begin to vanish into the clearness of the air. This house where his heart was shattered into pieces has now become the house where love rules over all. It swings all the windows he had shut over the years wide open. Love allows everyone who holds the key inside the door whose lock cannot be opened by hate, or anyone who lives by it. Those for whom love is their disease shall never turn this dwelling into a house of plague by spreading their infection. But love casts a warm healing aura into the freezing air outside, inviting all inside. Only those who follow its trail and let go of themselves can find their way and meet him at the crossroads to a new beginning.
Through a steadily rising cloud of synthesizer pokes the piano and choir, shining like the first ray of sunlight after the flood that wiped away the earth. As refracted guitar notes echo dimly through the oncoming silence surrounding us all, we hear a love greater than anything we have ever imagined calling to us through the pitch-black night, waiting for us to let down our walls and be transformed from machine into human.