From Stardust to Sentience: A Thematic Review of White Knight’s 2012 Sci-Fi Concept Album, Astronomica

guitar hero
White Knight frontman Cade Howard evoking the neo-Jungian archetype of the guitar hero, who ventures into the mythic realm bearing only his axe and his musical wits and returns with sick guitar solos to rejuvenate society. (Also, babes.)

I was prepared to dismiss Louisville band White Knight’s 2012 debut album Astronomica when I first delved into it about a year ago. I’d grown accustomed to forgettable lyrics in rock and roll music that seem to function mostly as just another instrument in the band. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — there’s no instrument quite like the human voice, after all. I just happen to like music that tells a story. Astronomica was supposed to be a sci-fi concept album about artificial intelligence, space travel, or something like that. I wasn’t really expecting much except for some loosely-sketched storyline pieced together from sci-fi allusions and mild-to-impressive displays of prog-rock virtuosity. I was wrong. Lyrical images that seemed derivative at first listen kept resonating and reverberating with one another, suggesting a web of underlying meaning that demanded yet another listen. The musicianship was visceral but not redundant, rich but not indulgent, and always in service to the evolving arrangements and thematic narrative. My cynicism was no match. Somebody put their heart and soul into this, I realized.

What follows is not your typical music review. While not neglecting the musical side entirely, I’ll leave it to others to speculate on influences and make creative comparisons to other artists. My interest is primarily in discussing what made me a fan of the album and the band, which is the sheer thematic and emotional resonance embedded in the songwriting.

Like a good book of sci-fi short stories, they represent sincere attempts to grapple with one of the most vexing questions of our era: “in a world in which we are confronted with the terrifying knowledge that our thoughts, actions and feelings may be no more than the predetermined confluence of more biological, psychological, social and technological factors than we can possibly count, what does it mean to live as an authentic human being?” Or, more simply: “Does free will exist, and how do we use it?”

These questions matter not least because so many of the accusations hurled across the political aisle in today’s comment sections and televised sound bites — “brainwashed,” “politically correct,” “snowflake,” “privileged” and the like — can be boiled down to the idea that the opposition is not using their free will properly. In both cases, the hated adversary is being informed with vitriol: “You’re just a puppet. Wake up and see your strings.” Whether controlled by primitive cultural taboos or by conspiring social engineers, the adversary’s great sin (against Reason?) is to give up their free will in order to become an automaton – a mechanical man or woman.

robot
Don’t let that idiot smile fool you.

The narrator of White Knight’s “Mechanical Man” sees these “wolves in sheep’s skin” everywhere, and wants you to see them too. There is a hint of envy toward their blissfully ignorant privilege in his descriptors: “with perfect immunity, they never knew any need” — and more than a little scorn, as well: “They simulate mastication in their minds / I know it’s a lie, I know it’s a lie.” The automata-people are so absorbed in their programmed consumerism that they cannot really taste their own food. They have no consciousness of where it comes from or what work went into producing it; it’s just another commodity in their regularly scheduled programming. The narrator entertains a fantasy of a violent moment of incontrovertible, cathartic revelation of pulling off the sheep’s skin to reveal the “chrome skeleton” underneath (note that the album cover art appears to be a bionic eye.) This rage is perhaps powered by the belief that these mechanical men have spoiled the narrator’s existence, so that now he, too, cannot really taste his own existence. He clings to his hatred in the (rather tautological) belief that as long as he can continue to distinguish between man and machine, he can have faith in his own humanity: “I know it’s a lie, I know it’s a lie.”

Choose Your Own Adventure
It’s good to encourage children to follow their dreams.

The Blade Runner-esque dread of being irreparably contaminated by society’s artifice — embodied in “Mechanical Man” by the throbbing cello underpinning a slow-burning drums-and-guitar scaffold — and the relief from having those fears vindicated is a theme that can be found later on the album. The song narratives are neither wholly separate nor wholly integrated into a linear structure here. Rather than a book of short stories, a more fitting metaphor for the album might be a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book (such as those popular during the 1980’s and 90’s.) One can imagine the different chapters as possible paths taken by an intrepid scientist, some well-intentioned white knight who wants to use Reason to overcome his bondage and live authentically in the not-too-distant future.

One must be wary, however, of believing too much in conclusions reached using the tools of Reason, of mistaking the map for the territory, or taking refuge too deeply in any static fortress from the dynamic flow of events. That way lies dogma, even madness — as discovers the tragic protagonist of “Deep Blue.” The track opens with a gorgeously sanguine progression of mellow guitar chords, evoking a sense of bliss and refuge before a cadre of saw blade guitars cuts in to accompany us into the inner world of this refugee: “Far from the edge of land I will be / Safe and sound on some soundless sea / Distance defined by deep shades of blue…” While my original sense of the allusion to the title here was simply that the narrator harbored deep hopes for an A.I. project which he anticipated would solve all his problems, it’s also intriguing to consider the association of the color blue with law enforcement, imagining the center of the “Deep Blue” project — the place of greatest access to information and his presumed greatest refuge — to be indicated by concentric rings of ever-deepening surveillance. This image has similarities with the Buddhist model of the ego as a mental construct essentially comprised of an elaborate series of defense mechanisms (or “skandhas”) guarding against the terrible knowledge of its own nonexistence.

blue HAL
“I’m sorry, [Garry], I think you missed it. Queen to Bishop 3, Bishop takes Queen, Knight takes Bishop. Mate.” – HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968)
In any case, the surveillance theme would be entirely in keeping with the rest of the song, which quickly dives headlong into the realm of abject paranoia. Mr. Blue is convinced that people are following him, although he is unable to convince anyone else. What happens during the second half of the song is one of the most open-to-interpretation moments of the album: an extended instrumental interlude takes the character of a military march before breaking into an almost orgasmic catharsis of confrontation with agents of the Deep State. Secret police kick down his door and uproot the safe houses of his underground contacts, taking him despite his promise to not or go in peace. The song ends with his being tied up and put on display while “regular people” just look away — no doubt aware from the corners of their eye of this once-functioning fellow citizen now transformed into a cautionary tale. At least now he can take comfort in knowing no one can any longer doubt he was really under investigation, and the practiced public disinterest in his martyrdom will cause anyone who is sympathetic to feel it more acutely. Of course, given his predilection for living in his own head, it’s entirely possible the preceding events were just a schizophrenic daydream or a simulation in an overly responsive virtual reality matrix.

jupiter's butt
Hypnotic warts on the butt of Jupiter.

The preceding track, “Jupiter” sets up the theme of living in an escapist fantasy with poppy aplomb. It’s the breezy confession of a happy-go-lucky, increasingly self-aware addict living somewhere — anywhere — away from home. There’s little sci-fi in this track beyond the admonition “You can’t live on Jupiter” (the image of a stoned Ganymedean off-duty janitor gazing into the Great Red Spot comes to mind,) but lines like “How did you ever get by before you were so sedated? / I’d love to get it all cleaned up, but it’s just so complicated” underscore the emotional poignancy of peering beyond one’s mental box with dreams of change (i.e. liberation from samsara, or at least its less pleasant realms) in a powerfully resonant manner.

If, following the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure conceit, “Mechanical Man” is the generalized scenario that can lead to and be lead to from most chapters in the book, “Jupiter” is a minor purgatory and “Deep Blue” a major one, “Io” is the obligatory cul-de-sac chapter that details the reader’s impending doom in real time as you struggle unsuccessfully to escape from the titular fiery Jovian moon. Far from nihilistic, however, the tone of the song is awestruck, even rapturous. A long track with relatively few words, “Io” builds a soundscape around arcing melodic lines suggesting thermomagnetic phenomena captivating a lone crewmember through his spaceship’s viewports. At last resigned to his fate, the pilot is free to marvel at the spectacle and even take some comfort in his pending oneness with the void. Io has made of him atoms, a symbolic return to the stardust from whence he came. The lines “Let there be night / Absence of light / Silence my tongue / Make blind my sight” are delivered with a spiritual finality indicative of skepticism toward his own incessant, mechanical thoughts and an existential gratitude for the display the universe has granted him in his final moments — a kind of crash landing into Nirvana.

clockwork orange
In Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, a brave volunteer serves as an inward solar jetman into alien moral territory.

The theme of the underprepared human explorer-and-test-subject rolled-into-one is expressed most clearly in the fuzzy jaunt “Solar Jetman,” the sole instrumental track on the album. Immediately following the involuntary exhibition that ends “Deep Blue,” “Solar Jetman” symbolizes to me all of the ways in which our individual and collective tendencies conspire to send individuals and whole populations more or less haphazardly hurtling toward the frontiers of human experience. To be born human, itself, is to be one of the extraordinarily unique and tiny set of living beings within the universe, one of the even rarer set of intelligent, symbol-and-tool-making beings within that — and, in this day and age, the beneficiary of a wholly unprecedented sliver of recorded human history characterized by exponentially-accelerating collective technological augmentation. And that’s to not even touch the chasms of experiential variation that exist within and between human cultures.

The frontiers are where the most informative insights are to be found, but also the place of greatest peril. We are not always equipped to face those perils (though we may not always have a choice) and to return with and articulate the gifts of the frontier, nor society equipped to understand or integrate them if and when we do return. Any knowledge worth having, any power worth wielding, by definition carries a price. It might also be worth periodically asking during our researches if it is a fair price and if we are prepared to pay it.

This is a lesson that the protagonist of the album’s opener, “Creature of Science,” comes to understand well. A tragic hero scientist in the mold of Victor Frankenstein, he declares to us over the operatic opening bars of the track: “I am a creature of science, and I’ve never believed what I could not plainly perceive”. There is a duality of cause and effect here: he is not only professing the empirical foundation of his creed, but identifying himself as a humble creature probably created through the blind mechanisms of a clockwork universe — enigmatic, sure, but probably clockwork himself. He speaks of a momentous breakthrough in his research that has left his contemporaries awe-struck. The nature of the breakthrough is left unspecified, a “black box” mechanism in terms of the album’s narrative, but given its description as “a secret that all have sought for, but none have received” and the album’s lyrical context as a whole, I tend to think that, much like Mary Shelley’s good doctor, the Creature of Science narrator has grasped the secret of the workings of consciousness in such a way that allows him to create, manipulate and/or preserve it indefinitely. Have we not all sought to the Philosopher’s Stone of understanding our own thoughts in order to control them, to inspire new awakenings of consciousness, or to grasp a single secret that might help us tame the Reaper?

trumpenstein
He’s a lean, mean, vote-getting machine, folks. Fred Barbash at the Washington Post actually makes a convincing case that the Frankentrump comparison is unfair to Mary Shelley’s original monster. Still, the 1931 film is more embedded in the public consciousness, and it’s remarkable how many mashups you can find with a Google image search. Whereas Shelley’s monster grappled with existential questions regarding his own nature, the creature in the film (and the angry mob that pursues it) more clearly resembles the stereotype of the dumb-but-dangerous mechanical man.

To grasp a secret is not the same as to anticipate the ramifications of making it manifest, however. Dr. Frankenstein’s creature awoke to experience overwhelming alienation in a hostile world, and made sure that his creator came to feel his pain. The Creator’s black box in Astronomica turns out to be a Pandora’s box that unleashes a cascade of highly unfortunate events: his “children” (whether literal or a reference to his creations) are “poisoned” and he is forced to flee offworld (as the guitar and bass punch into a lovely thrashing stretch) pursued by remote-controlled agents whose “transistors tell [them] where to go.” Perhaps these pursuers are less high-minded applications of elements of his work; perhaps not. Perhaps the Creator is referring to a more subtle form of mind control using a technological idiom. The interpretation of narrative throughout the album, members of the band have told me, is intentionally left open for the listener.

The song’s third and final act takes a turn for the anthemic, warming up the cello bow as the temporarily-escaped Creator, accepting the mantle of prophet for fellow truth-seekers, exhorts listeners to “cast off your shackles, be no more a slave.” Be your own solar jetman. Even as he bemoans the loss of innocence accompanying the terrible insight into the conditioned nature of the will (“we’ll stay reflections of ourselves from better days”) he swears his “soul will sound through that confounding maze.” This hints at the paradoxical goal of his empirical quest: by understanding the ways in which “free will” is a misnomer, he hopes to achieve a greater degree of control and freedom. The irony is thick in the transition immediately following to “Jupiter,” the story of a man who discovers freedom can be maintained indefinitely simply by keeping the goal posts within reach.

Not every solar jetman’s quest for knowledge ends in narcotic bondage or fiery annihilation on some frontier Io, however. Should you choose in your adventure to jettison your ship’s reserve fuel canisters instead of betting the farm on making it all the way home, you might find yourself in a position to engage the target of your quest, housed within “The Giant’s Cave.” A sprawling eight-minute epic that opens with guitars rhythmically screaming like klaxons at high alert, “The Giant’s Cave” remains a staple at White Knight live shows and an inscrutable coda to an album raises more questions than it answers. The narrator’s situation throughout the first section of lyrics is nearly identical to the pilot in “Io,” falling “planet-bound” and contemplating the eventual triumph of entropy over everything. However, the quasi-religious awe that suffuses “Io” has been replaced by a deeper, more existential terror as he enters a mysterious the mysterious Giant’s Cave cave with white-knuckled apprehension over what he will find within.

The Giant’s Cave is the most ambiguous variable on the whole album. It is mythic in stature, a deep space Leviathan that “drops its jaw” and pulls the pilot inside. The lyrics only hint at what is found within: “A simple mark of human design / The work of my own hand and my own mind / An imitation of mankind.” It’s the chrome skeleton of the mechanical man shining forth all over again, but on a Brobdingnagian scale. Why would this be a surprise to the pilot, presumably well-versed in the automata-infused universe of the album thus far? The “correct” narrative interpretation, again, is whatever gives the listener the most amusement. Personally, what makes sense to me is something like this: the Giant is a mysterious, apparently extraterrestrial satellite (reminiscent of the monolith stargate from 2001) detected on the other side of Jupiter. The pilot is the same would-be Prometheus speaking to us in “Creature of Science,” seeking to investigate connections between this object and the mechanoid-related conspiracy that chased him from the Earth. He discovers that the object was sent back through time for some purpose by a future iteration of an A.I. that he himself created.

It’s a stretch to incorporate the Giant into the album’s loosely-defined story no matter how you look at it, but it is, after all, just an exercise. More important is the larger-than-life mythic resonance of the thing, and White Knight’s impressionistic sonic thrill-ride into its depths. To me, the Giant is a close cousin to the “V’ger” entity in the oft-panned Star Trek: The Motion Picture: a massive object heading for Earth that is actually the remains of the centuries-old Voyager 6 probe, augmented through alien technology to the point of achieving consciousness and existential angst over its fulfilled-but-unfulfilling knowledge-gathering mission.

It is interesting that the final lyric of “The Giant’s Cave” is a chanted “I know what you are, I know what you are…” directed toward the entity found in the Giant’s belly. It’s not unlike the speaker in “Mechanical Man”’s livid attempts to differentiate himself from all those nasty mechanical people. The album ends with a human creator ranting against his own creation, “you’re just a machine,” as a way to set himself above the constraining biopsychosocial determinants of his behavior and master his own human nature. The problem is that at the same time he extends the powers of his consciousness in order to rule himself, he expands the scope of the territory which is to be ruled. It’s a bit like one side of a Mobius strip attempting to differentiate itself from the other.

There’s much more that could be said on the topic of free will, but my intention is just to sketch the outlines of how the musical storytelling on Astronomica can serve as a symbolic framework for thinking about the technology-infused anxieties of our time (with due acknowledgment to the heritage of science fiction that informs its lexicon.) It is a work steeped in modern myth, and I applaud White Knight for producing a concept album so accessible to fans of prog rock and science fiction alike. We need more creative types today to apply their mythic imagination to the psychosocial implications of how Science has and continues to redefine and redesign our world. In such a world, all contemporary fiction should be understood as science fiction, and all explicitly “science” fiction should be understood as contemporary myth.

Myth is not only a useful tool for exploring the values needed to address the intractable problems in our rapidly changing world; it is a dimension of the human experience in all times and places. To paraphrase the late, great mythologist Joseph Campbell, mythology is the set of “true” stories every society tells its members that gives structure, context, and resonance to their lives. As the dominant arbiter of truth in modern culture, Science has seemingly left us to fend for ourselves in a mythological landscape defined by the lowest common denominator of what is provable, Occam’s Razor for everything else and a general bias toward the materialistic. Yet the elements of myth are still present underneath, where the rigorous application of scientific reasoning can yield the joys of reliable understanding, where we can think meaningfully about thinking and even acknowledge the limits of pure reason, and where we can feel awe at the phenomenon that we’re even here at all, apparently the living, breathing, perceiving, speaking children of nothing more than reconfigurations of stardust: astronomica.

White Knight has just released their second studio album, This Island Earth, available at Louisville record stores and online at whiteknight.bandcamp.com (where Astronomica and a couple EPs can also be found.) The band has evolved significantly since the days of Astronomica, losing and adding members, but continuing to explore new sonic and thematic territory. The new album offers some truly imaginative sound production and a varied smorgasbord of psychedelic journeys — more modern myths for the information generation. If you like this band’s music, you owe it to yourself to see them live. You won’t hear a song played the same way twice. Catch them at Mag Bar on 6/30 or 7/20 at Gerstle’s.

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