Talking about how we are addicted to the Internet isn’t exactly plowing new ground. However, five or six years into the “smart phone” era, artists are starting to fully ponder the implications of being connected all of the time. We all know the guy at the party or the dinner table constantly checking down to look at their phones instead of paying attention to present company. Maybe we’ve been that person. Examining this behavior further it’s not just being connected, but what these connections are telling us.
Michael Pritzl and Derek Webb each separately released albums over the past two years that were concept albums loaded with metaphors about the Internet. Each songwriter asks different questions and makes different observations while covering similar ground. What I find fascinating is that these two different artists from two different backgrounds found the same subject matter to examine and placed their fictional characters into stories weaved across a series of songs.
Sonically, the two albums could not sound more different. Pritzl’s band, The Violet Burning, sears and vibrates through electric guitars as Pritzl meticulously selects tones that bite, snarl, and then chime throughout the three CD’s. The sound isn’t a massive departure from previous Violet Burning albums but for some determined selection of sounds from the guitar. Derek Webb, on the other hand, goes for simplicity with nylon string guitar, but adds a chilling array of samples from Sacred Harp choirs. The brassy shape note cries from the choir are digitally altered behind Webb and causes hair to rise on the arms and neck when they reach crescendos.
In The Story Of Our Lives, Pritzl’s protagonist is assaulted by br0thr, constantly barraging the listener with mixed messages. br0thr gives you everything. br0thr makes you miserable. br0thr is all you need. It’s the conflicting and confusing torrent we read every day in our Twitter stream or Facebook feed, the advertisements on the corners of every web page. By the end of the first CD, the character in the album is filled with despair, even considering death as a better option leading into the second CD titled Black As Death.
While the character in The Story of Our Lives finds it difficult to cope with the neverending flood of information, the character in Ctrl finds he is unable to live without it. The songs describe a person discovering a world in his dreams and filled with sorrow when he wakes. All the person can think about is getting back into the dream world, falling asleep again, because the dreams in his slumber are so beautiful, so awesome, and so addictive. By the time the album reaches the song “Attonitos Gloria” (Latin: stunned by glory), the dream world is overwhelming, inescapable. Only a few songs later he cries out “I Feel Everything”, the flood of information is too much. Much like Pritzl’s character, he cannot take it anymore and the heartbeat in the background slows to dead tone accompanied by the Sacred Harp singing “Fare thee well, fare thee well.” Webb includes a twist in his album. There is more to the story. Earlier in the year he released a techno-inspired EP SOLA-MI. Inserted into the middle of Ctrl, the EP tells the story from the other side. A girl is asleep within a machine awaking for the first time, feeling everything for the first time. While the hero of Ctrl sleeps, the girl is alive. The hero wants to escape forever into the virtual world and the girl desperately wants to be real.
So what is the solution to all of this? Pritzl in the third album declares “Liebe über alles!” Pritzl writes that man was made for connection and communication to others, but more importantly the protagonist and all of us were created by and for worship of a Holy God. We become free of the flood of information and tune into the Spirit of God. Derek Webb postulates that there are two possible endings. Either the protagonist awakes from his dream world and accepts the work of living in the real world or he reaches singularity with the girl in the machine and remains trapped in a semi-awake world he cannot control.
Let’s not go too far and declare either Webb or Pritzl Luddites. Both are avid users of technology and use it frequently to communicate with listeners. Each one however, has realized there is a sting in the tail and these albums are a cautious warning. Find what’s important. Pursue that which is important. Don’t let the noise of others get in the way. Like every technology, online communication is constructive and destructive. We can choose to recognize our proper place like Pritzl’s character or remain trapped in slumber dreaming of being awake. Pritzl and Webb have each crafted powerful stories that I’m using as reminders in my own life.