Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Critical Analysis of "The Human Equation"

This is the rough draft of my philosophy Internal Assessment. If anyone cares to proofread it and make comments, that would be greatly appreciated.

“The Human Equation” is an album by progressive metal musician Arjen Luccasen (under the stage name “Ayreon”) that tells the story of a man who is confronted by his emotions while trapped in a coma. Characters personified as Agony, Fear, Love, Reason, Passion, Rage, and Pride take the man through his past experiences leading up to the accident that put him in a coma and eventually alters his perception of his life and identity. The man’s wife and best friend unsuccessfully attempt to communicate with the man as they sit by his hospital bed. The story ends with the man waking up and realizing that the encounter with his emotions was purely science fiction and only a simulation of “The Human Equation,” an equation that calculates human reasoning and rationale.

The story of “The Human Equation” poses the question “what is the self?” From a philosophical perspective, the album directly brings up two distinct theories to answer that question, both of which work within the context of the album but are flawed when applied to more realistic examples. For much of the album, the main character’s emotions appear to take an existentialist point of view on the self. However, the story’s end relates more towards the theory that the self is nothing but a shell for calculated decision making.

The theory of existentialism is initially the most obvious theory that the album presents to answer the question it poses. Using the examples found in “The Human Equation,” existentialism makes sense. Before the main character went into a coma, he perceives his life to be about nothing more than success. He follows a very generic existence without meaning and he ends up in a coma after attempting suicide. However, his confrontation with his emotions changes his perspective and gives his life a new meaning. From a literal perspective, nothing in his life actually changes. He still has his wife and best friend by his side, and he still works at the same job by the album’s end. The only thing that changes is his perception of life’s purpose. This ties into the existentialist idea that an individual creates the purpose or meaning of life. Only after thought does the man find a reason for living, and that reason is nothing more than a change in perception. It could even be argued that the man’s new reason for living is made intentionally vague in order to support the idea that the essence of life varies from person to person.

The twenty-day period of thought that the man has with his emotions during his coma can also be connected to proof of his existence. Even though the album does not explain whether the man’s emotions are a figment of his imagination or simply a connection with himself during the period that the existentialist theory is presented, it can be assumed that at least some part of himself reached a state of a purpose through thought and rationale. This can be compared to Renee Descartes’ theory of “I think, therefore I am.” In direct contrast with the album’s ending, the man’s encounter with his emotions is proof of his existence within the world that the album takes place. From an existentialist perspective, the fact that the man can rationally give his life meaning is proof that he exists and that he gives his life its own essence. This is once again an example of existence proceeding essence, as well as an example that simply being able to alter perception and meaning suggests that there is no single meaning to life. If there is no specific meaning to live that is common among all individuals, then one could say that there is not a specific self past what is perceived by the individual.

Furthermore, the man’s past is revealed periodically throughout “The Human Equation,” as the events of the man’s past are used heavily in influencing his new found purpose. This yet again ties into existentialism, but it also brings up a question that existentialism cannot answer. To use another example from the album, it is obvious that the main character of the story creates his new meaning through reflecting on his past interactions with the world. However, it was his past experiences that initially caused the man to live the life of meaningless misery that ended with a suicide attempt. Yet his perception changes when he reflects upon his actions. This brings up a dilemma. The theory of existentialism revolves around the events that a person goes through creating perception. In the case of the album’s story, the man behaves far differently with each recollection of the events. As the events are happening, the man becomes suicidal, and yet his life is filled with joy after recalling those same events in his head. What has changed besides the man’s perception? The events he recalled have not changed, which means that perception can change regardless of events. If that’s the case, then do the events a person goes through really matter? If perception can change through nothing but thought, is there something in the thought that changes? In context with the album, it would be the emotions the man uses to recall the events. However, the difference between the album and real life is that the character in the album has a finite number of emotions that confront him. In reality, emotions are not that simple and the sheer complexity of emotions makes it difficult to understand what exactly causes perception or even rational thought.

The complexity of existentialism makes it too difficult to prove, as the theory itself can only be justified through an individual’s perception of perception itself. Thankfully, “The Human Equation” provides another less complicated theory to contrast its previous existentialist perspective. The album’s ending has the characters being written off as purely an experiment of a program that shares the title of the album. The human equation program simulates rational human thought. In comparison to the story of the rest of the album, that means the experiences of the man were nothing more than an experiment of existentialist thought. In comparison to the real world, this questions the science of the human body in comparison to the human mind. Can every mental thought in the human brain be traced back to the function of the human body? The differences from person to person may be nothing more than differences in DNA. Unfortunately, there really isn’t a way of knowing for sure, as this once again depends on perception.

Rational thought is what connects the two aforementioned theories, and defining rational thought may be a question needed to be answered before truly defining the self. If existentialism is true, then rationality is not absolute. If that is the case, then the self is not absolute and it varies over time. If the self is purely a shell, then the self is absolute for each individual, yet still varies from person to person. If that is the case, then rational thought is purely a calculation of the events experienced by each individual shell. The most significant difference between the theories is the one is everything except a human equation, while the other is nothing but.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Top 100 Songs of the Year (60-51)

No, I'm not dead, and neither is this site. A ton of reviews and list updates will be posted soon. Trust me, after all that's happened in the past few months I need this site more than you could ever imagine, so I won't be giving up on it anytime soon. Anyway, here's the first of many new updates.

The Howling
Within Temptation
The Heart of Everything

Unlike the two previous Within Temptation songs to appear on this list thus far, “The Howling” does not represent a drastic style change for the band. Even though Within Temptation successfully transitioned to a more accessible sound, “The Howling” still sounds like a symphonic metal song. That’s not to say it sounds exactly like their old stuff, but “The Howling” is the one song from The Heart of Everything that doesn’t make a full transition into accessible hard rock. For that reason, it is also the best song on The Heart of Everything. Granted, Within Temptation’s new style isn’t bad by any means, as both “Frozen” and “What Have You Done” made this list, but songs like “The Howling” are an example of Within Temptation at their most comfortable. There is something about the symphonic sound that compliments Sharon den Adel’s voice beautiful. Her voice is powerful by itself, but “The Howling” sees the rest of the band aiding Sharon’s voice in ways that didn’t quite translate on the rest of The Heart of Everything. From the aforementioned symphonic elements to the heavy metal riffs, “The Howling” is a complete Within Temptation song, and it ranks among the best symphonic metals songs in a year that was stacked with high quality symphonic metal.

Never Walk Alone… A Call to Arms
United Abominations

Politics has often been at the forefront of Megadeth’s lyrics, so it only makes sense that Dave Mustaine continues to speak his mind on United Abominations. In that sense, Megadeth has returned to their 80s form by once again being lyrically relevant. On the other side of things, songs like “Never Walk Alone” might be an even bigger testament to the greatness of Megadeth. “Never Walk Alone” takes a break from the politically charged lyrics that make up most of United Abominations, and replaces them with a more personal side of Dave Mustaine that comes across as just as powerful and intelligent as any of Megadeth’s prior political lyrics. Mustaine’s guitar work is equally beautiful, as the instrumentals include some of the most melodic riffs of Megadeth’s career. The combination of the beautiful lyrical content and melodic instrumentals make this one of the best love songs of 2007, as well as one of the finest songs Megadeth has recorded in the last decade. That’s not to say that “Never Walk Alone” is a classic, but it is a welcome diversion from Dave Mustaine’s opinionated politics that is every bit as compelling as any of Mustaine’s political lyrics.

Cry of the Black Birds
Amon Amarth
With Oden on Our Side

"Cry of the Black Birds" is a much more melodic song than the usual Amon Amarth offering, at least from an instrumental stand point. There's nothing here that's particularly more complex or more unique than the many other melodic death bands of today, but Amon Amarth ranks near the top of their genre for a number of reasons. First off, Amon Amarth's vocals are brutal. Not brutal in the way that you'd normally associate with forms of death metal, but instead in a more melodic way. The vocals are kind of a controlled brutality that are deep, dark, and are perfect contrast between heaviness and melody. "Cry of the Black Birds" take advantage of that contrast even more than most Amon Amarth songs. The aforementioned melodic riff is still heavy enough to contend with some of the genre's heaviest and most brutal, but the deep vocals add a level of brutality to the song. The result is a very strong mixture of melody and brutality, thus making "Cry of the Black Birds" one of the best songs Amon Amarth has recorded yet, as well as one of the best melodic death metal songs of the year.

Breaking the Silence

For some odd reason, there’s something magical that happens to power metal when you add a talented female singer to an already great sound. Firewind’s “Breaking the Silence” is a case in point. Firewind’s already outstanding power metal sound elevates to something even more majestic with the addition of the exceptionally talented Tara Teresa. The contrast between excessively fast and technical guitars and beautiful melodic female vocals is simply indescribable and an unparalleled sound when done right. “Breaking the Silence” contains the phenomenal guitar skills of Gus G. and combines it with the aforementioned stunning vocals of Tara Teresa. In all fairness, there isn’t much to song past that, and it doesn’t quite have the feel to it that one might expect from Firewind, but “Breaking the Silence” is at its best when it’s a duet between Gus G’s guitar and Tara’s vocals. During those moments, the song shines, and it ranks among the best power metal singles of 2007.

Ghost Opera
Ghost Opera

Kamelot’s combination of power and symphonic metal was done to perfection on 2004’s The Black Halo. That unique sound creating one of the finest in modern metal, but it’s unfortunate that the band has focused more on the symphonic aspect throughout Ghost Opera. Much like the title track and lead single, Ghost Opera wasn’t a bad album by any means, but it just didn’t live up the hype that the band created from the outstanding Black Halo. In fact, Ghost Opera is one of the best symphonic metal albums of 2007, just as title track is among the best singles of the year in that genre as well. For better or worse, Kamelot has transitioned into a full-fledged symphonic metal band, and the result is a song that features some truly outstanding symphonic elements. Roy Kahn’s vocals are excellent as usual, and the band’s varied instrumentals keep the song interesting long after the first listen. “Ghost Opera” improves on the symphonic elements band implemented on The Black Halo, and it’s a fine symphonic metal song on its own, but it’s hard to shake the fact that the genre-bending instrumentals and epic story of that album didn’t make an appearance in 2007. Still, “Ghost Opera” is a borderline masterful offering from strictly a symphonic metal perspective, and

The Larger Bowl
Snakes and Arrows

Rush has always been a lyrically driven band. Some may not understand Neil Peart’s often complicated and metaphorical lyrics, but the man has been one of the best and most intelligent lyricists rock has ever seen. “The Larger Bowl” is a contrast to Peart’s usual lyrics, as they aren’t any epic stories, deep metaphors, or social commentaries. Instead, “The Larger Bowl” is a much more personal Rush song. Peart’s lyrics strike a perfectly balance between melancholy and beautiful, and while “The Larger Bowl” is one of the darkest songs in Rush’s discography, it is also one of the most emotionally involving songs of the year. Part of Rush’s greatness comes from the band’s ability to change and evolve over time, and “The Larger Bowl” is an example of yet another revolution in Rush’s sound. This is a far more personal and even simplistic song that the typical Rush offering, but Peart’s lyrics still have layers upon layers of complexity in their most simple state. Like any Rush song. “The Larger Bowl” is an intelligent and thought provoking song, and while it happens to be one of the band’s most personal to date, there is still enough to complexity in the lyrics and instrumentals to be a true Rush song.

The Hinderers

Daath's major label debut album, The Hinderers, is easily the best major label debut of the year. Although not as weird as the brilliant "Dead on the Dancefloor," nor as heavy-hitting as the outstanding "Cosmic Forge," "Subterfuge" is the perfect introduction to a metal band poised to make a big impact in the world of music. Daath's genre can best be described as “industrial death metal,” which is a genre that includes very few others. In all actuality, labeling that makes them seem more unique than they actually are, as all the elements of the music have been done before. That being said, their combination of many different styles of metal music is astounding, especially when they are being played at the quality that Daath has shown they're capable of. "Subterfuge" is an excellent example of that. The song mixes exceptional death metal vocals with a strong riff that features a variety of tempo changes. No part of the song is unique, except for the song itself, if that makes sense. It's the combination of everything Daath does on this song that makes it one of their best efforts. That's what Daath does throughout the full album, as they mix industrial metal with death metal, metalcore, and even some instances of thrash metal and power metal. It's a rather unique package to listen to as a whole, and "Subterfuge" makes a great listen on its own. Daath is definitely one of the most intriguing metal bands to come along in quite a long time, and while it is certainly disappointing that their vocalist recently departed the band, they should one to watch for in the future.

The Great Cold Distance

Compared to the best of Katatonia, “July” is a fairly typical offering that is mostly unspectacular. However, much of what Katatonia has released recently has pushed the boundaries of what is possible in metal, both lyrically and musically. “July” may do that to extent of “Ghosts of the Sun,” “Into the White,” “My Twin,” or “Deliberation,” but one of Katatonia’s strengths is their consistent mastery of the doom metal sound. Even Katatonia’s filler compares favorably to even the best songs released in a given year, and no other band is quite like Katatonia. As has been heavily publicized, former growler Jonas Renske can no longer and must now rely on his limited range as a clean vocalist. However, Katatonia is a far more talented band than most, and they understand doom metal more than any other band this side of My Dying Bride. Even filler like “July” are far more creative and unique than the best of what many quality metal bands can produce, and Jonas Renske’s clean vocals create a wonderfully depressing sound that exemplifies what both doom metal and dark art in general is all about.

Constant Motion
Dream Theater
Systematic Chaos

If instrumental complexity was the only aspect of a song that mattered, “Constant Motion” would be one of the absolute best songs of the year. At this point in Dream Theater’s career, that may very well be all that matters. Unfortunately, “Constant Motion” doesn’t have enough past its stunning display of instrumental talent to be praise at the same level as some of the other progressive songs released in 2007. Lyrically, the song is almost entirely insignificant, but Dream Theater is simply astonishing at doing what they do best. Each of the 5 members are masters at their respective instruments (including James LaBrie, who is one of the most underrated vocalists in metal). It’s unfortunate that Dream Theater no longer appears to be attempting to break new ground or even evolve their sound at the very least. However, it’s hard not to marvel at talent of Dream Theater. The instrumental complexity of “Constant Motion” is nothing short of incredible, and Dream Theater deserves praise for delivering on what they have attempted.

Hard Sun
Eddie Vedder
Into the Wild

Yes, recording a cover song for a major motion picture as the lead single for your solo album may not usually get you a high spot on an end of the year list, but Eddie Vedder’s “Hard Sun” isn’t your usual cover. The original “Hard Sun” was a simply beautiful ballad by Canadian artist Indio that is unknown to many. Vedder’s version doesn’t stray far from the original, but such a beautifully written song deserves to be heard by a wider audience. Vedder has been known more for his lyrics than voice, but “Hard Sun” is a reminder that his passionate vocal performance shows a level of understanding and appreciation for the source material that goes beyond simply being a fan of Indio’s work. Both the lyrics and vocals are nothing short of beautiful, and there’s no doubt that Vedder does the original justice. Add in some fantastic backing vocals from Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney), who could very easily be called underused in the song, and you have one of the best covers of 2007 from one of the better movies of the year.

Audioblog coming tomorrow, next part of the list coming later this week, and new reviews coming as soon as possible. Damn, it feels good to post again.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Untitled Update

Alright, I know I lied when I said frequent updates were coming soon. This time, however, I believe I'll be able to keep my promise. My Top 100 list is nearly complete (with the exception of proofreading), so I expect to have that finished and posted by the end of the month. Also, I will be reviewing as many albums as possible, and I will write full reviews upon request. I still plan to write a full review of the new Ayreon album (which I promise will be finished soon). I have heard and graded the following albums from 2008, so let me know if you want a review of any of the following that I have not yet reviewed:

Airbourne- Running Wild: C-
Avantasia- The Scarecrow: B+
Ayreon- 01011001: A
Bullet for My Valentine- Scream, Aim, Fire: D+
Children of Bodom- Blooddrunk: B+
Jack Johnson- Sleep Through the Static: B
Lenny Kravtiz- It's Time for a Love Revolution: C
Louis XIV- Slick Dogs and Ponies: D
The Mars Volta- The Bedlam in Goliath: A-
Meshuggah- obZen: A-
Protest the Hero- Fortress: B
Simple Plan- Simple Plan: C-
Sons & Daughters- The Gift: B
Tarja Turunen- My Winter Storm: C

I also have the following albums either ready for listening or still in the process of being graded:

The Black Crows- Warpaint
Black Tide- Light from Above
Cavalera Conspiracy- Inflikted
Dengue Fever- Venus on Earth
Die! Die! Die!- Promises Promises
Eluveite- Slania
Flogging Molly- Float
Ghostland Observatory- Robotique Majestique
Ill Nino- Enigma
Kingdom of Sorrow- Kingdom of Sorrow
Korpiklaani- Korven Kuningas
Murder by Death- Red of Tooth and Claw
Nada Surf- Lucky
Nine Inch Nails- Ghosts I-IV
The Presidents of the United States of America- These are the Good Times
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks- Real Emotional Trash
Vampire Weekend- Vampire Weekend
Why?- Alopecia

So yeah, I'm still here and reviews actually coming soon. Also, I'll be previewing this year's Sasquatch! Festival, which I purchased tickets for last week.