The Violet Burning - The Story of Our Lives:
Liebe über Alles, Black as Death and The Fantastic Machine
For all that, though, Amplifier does not win the Ambition Award for the year. It pleases me to no end to report that 2011’s clear, runaway winner is Michael J. Pritzl. And I doubt anyone will surprise me more this year than he has.
For more than 20 years, Pritzl has led The Violet Burning. He’s done it for so long, in fact, that he’s the sole remaining original member – for some time, TVB has been a rotating cast of musicians with Pritzl at its center. They’ve made a lot of albums, and in fact they’ve made a lot of different kinds of albums, from the expansive self-titled effort in 1996 to the tidy and worshipful This Is the Moment in 2003 to the roaring, explosive Drop-Dead in 2006.
But he’s never made an album like the one he’s just dropped. It’s called (deep breath) The Story of Our Lives: Liebe über Alles, Black as Death and the Fantastic Machine. It is two hours and 20 minutes long, spread out over three full-length CDs, and it’s a cohesive concept album, the kind where themes from early songs resurface in later ones, and a main character goes on a journey, coming out the other side a different person entirely. It’s a vast, impressive achievement, and even after 20 or so listens, I’m not tired of it – I hear new things in it each time.
It is, in short, the finest moment of Pritzl’s two-decade recording career. And even if you’ve never heard of him, you should hear this.
I’ll start with the sound. This record is LOUD. It is the rawest, most aggressive thing Pritzl’s name has ever been associated with. There have been times in the past when the Violet Burning has felt like a bedroom project, like a studio-created entity. There is no point on The Story of Our Lives where they do not sound like a real live band, playing their hearts out. There’s a palpable energy that never flags over two hours and 20 minutes, even during the more sedate final third. I don’t want to give the impression that this is all Black Sabbath slash-and-burn guitar rock – there’s plenty of Pritzl’s trademark beauty here – but aside from seeing them live, I’ve never heard TVB rock out like this.
The album is subdivided into three chapters: The Fantastic Machine, Black as Death and Liebe Uber Alles. By and large, Black as Death is the heaviest, and Liebe Uber Alles the quietest, but the songs are not evenly divided by type. The album plays like a single thought, like a beginning-to-end trip. Its opening chapter, The Fantastic Machine, also feels like a single song – its 15 tracks blend together like a pocket symphony. It’s a work of tremendous scope, and though there are no standouts, the entire thing is consistent. It is Pritzl's Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and the reference is not incidental - this often sounds like prime, early Smashing Pumpkins.
The story of The Story of Our Lives follows a character who, overwhelmed with the world around him, chooses death. He then moves through metaphorical and emotional hell before ending up praising the heavens. The Fantastic Machine’s first real song is called “This Is Where It All Begins,” and it sets the tone – the clean, quiet guitars suddenly give way to a massive metallic explosion. “I love you in the fading dawn, I’ll sing it though my breath is gone, home, won’t you carry me home…”
The Fantastic Machine then follows our main character as he makes his way though the world, and watches it destroy him. The two “br0thr” interludes take aim at the Christian rock machine Pritzl spent years in, but also illuminate the architecture of the world's media machine and systems that we are all a part of. When Pritzl sings “the lights have gone,” it’s heartbreaking. The molten “Firstborn From the Dead” is the last sign of struggle here – from there on, it’s all surrender. The gorgeous “The Letting” finds Pritzl singing “I’m not dead yet, I’m not gone, but I’m leaving soon,” and in the album’s whispered closer “Leaving (But I Don’t Want to Leave You),” our hero chooses death.
Black as Death announces itself as the loud one right away with “My Name is Night,” and follows it up with the chaotic, swirling “Maelstrom.” “I’m falling in too deep, please get this out of me, I’m haunted, I’m haunted,” Pritzl screams, his voice in astounding form. But this chapter is not all gut-punches – the dark “Sung” is perhaps the emotional low point, our character as far away from the light as he’s ever been (“I sang for you, all my life for you, now I’m sung”), but it’s followed by the wonderful “In Ruin.” Over a web of clean guitars, Pritzl sings, “Ain’t it just like love to be stronger than this death.”
And then,Liebe über Alles. The title of the album translates to “love over all things,” and here the light begins to trickle down. The delicate “Mojave” leads into the U2-ish “Mon Desir,” and then into the rollicking “Finest Hour,” the album’s most upbeat moment, and the one that gives the album its name. “Now you’ve carried me 14,000 days, isn’t this the story of our lives…”
It is all sunrise from this point on, but it feels earned, hard-won.Liebe über Alles brings our character face to face with love, both earthly and spiritual, and it’s gorgeous. “My heart belongs to you, the only song I ever knew,” Pritzl sings in “Cardiac,” and then drives it home in the title track: “And in the end, all we’ve got, love and love alone will outlast death…” “Change of Heart” is the ultimate expression of romantic love here, and the nine-minute finale, “Made For You,” takes us to heaven: “Lord of all light, I was made for you, lord of all creation, I was made for you…” The extended coda is joyous and magical, and feels like a massive release, an exultation shouted to the heavens. It is, in short, classic Violet Burning.
Perhaps the best compliment I can give this three-CD set is that, had any one of the three been released on its own as the new Violet Burning album, I would have been happy. But with all three, bound together in a case that resembles an old book, with 80 pages of notes and pictures, well… I’m ecstatic. Michael Pritzl has been very good for a very long time, but even his biggest fans are in for a shock with this record. With The Story of Our Lives, he has delivered his magnum opus, his crowning achievement.
If you’ve never heard the Violet Burning before, well, there’s almost no point starting anywhere else. This is the record Pritzl’s been working towards for his entire life. If you want to hear his stuff, this is the one you need to get.
-Andre Salles, Tuesday Morning 3 AM Music Blog
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