The headline from a February article from The Guardian posed the question, “where are all the protest songs?” Though the article is British-centric, its general argument is applicable to both sides of the Atlantic. Folk music expert Malcolm Taylor is cited in the article saying that “protest songs are no longer seen as an effective form of communication” and that “today’s discontents prefer Facebook and other social media” to proliferate their thoughts of protest.
Looking at the underground scene of neofolk and martial industrial bands, it is quite surprising how many are overtly political yet neglect to tap into the protest song formula of yesteryear. Most projects focus on either political theory or conspiracy theory rather than contemporary politics. What political subject matter they do tackle is usually addressed either by music-only instrumentals or via sampled speeches; traditional lyrical poetry is rare. For example, Von Thronstahl‘s album Bellum, Sacrum Bellum!? is a concept album critical of the Bush administration and the Iraq War, yet the bulk of the album’s content are samples and lyrics lifted from other sources. The Eurasian Artists are probably the most overt political arm of music in the underground scene today, with TSIDMZ‘s album Ungern Von Sternberg Kahn containing samples of protesters chanting “free Palenstine” in the song “The Fourth Political Theory” and “death to Israel” in “Palestina Al Maut Li Israel—War Mix.” Much like Von Thronstahl’s album, the source of protest is from samples and not from original lyrics. While political discontent is present, it is being delivered via post-industrial genre techniques, but in the process the message loses its intimacy. It could be argued that these politically charged songs are simply conveying someone else’s protest, someone else’s battle, and not their own. Structurally, the neofolk genre is aligned for protest songs, but applying the question posed by The Guardian, where are they?
Last year, Timothy R. attempted to fill this gap with Grave Needs, an album from his Time Moth Eye side project with the Spectral Light as the accompanying backing band. Perhaps recognized for his acoustic project Stone Breath, Timothy’s Time Moth Eye project is mostly a solo endeavor wherein he invites friends as guest musicians and incorporates non-acoustic effects, samples, and loops into the music. Grave Needs was born from an accrual of many songs that did not fit the Stone Breath formula, which is not as political, but he needed the means to document them:
“I had these protest songs and various odds and ends that weren’t going to fit on the next Stone Breath albums. Rather than to forget the songs or just let them collect dust, I had some time so I decided to make an art/music set.”
Though born from odds and ends, Grave Needs has thematic cohesion. The album’s preamble in the booklet laments about the Greek goddess Hecate defecating in senators’ mouths, John the Baptist beheading presidents, whipped money lenders, and saints presiding over flaming police cars, no doubt set aflame from a Molotov cocktail. To echo Peter Finch‘s character from the 1976 movie Network, Timothy is mad as hell and he is not going to take this anymore.
Grave Needs consists of a staggering twenty-seven songs spanning two discs. The apocalyptic nature of many of the tracks recalls the 1960s work of musical duo and scene godfathers Changes. The majority of songs are original compositions and improvisational pieces, but a handful of songs are adapted from other sources, such as the works of British folk musician Sydney Carter, Scottish World War I poet Charles Hamilton Sorley, and anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre.
“Rats in the Cupboard” is an original composition that feels as if it is coming from a 1960s era folk protestor on a university campus. It’s short, catchy, memorable, and packed full of double meanings: the references to rats, crows, and goats consuming things can be taken both literally and metaphorically. “While the Stars Burn Out” goes for a mystical approach in sound, the title and accompanying artwork convey a campfire feeling. The lyrics also take the multifaceted approach, dealing with environmental issues and the feeling of futility to challenge the hegemony. “Thisisnota Raga” is a particularly unique song in that it evokes a folk jam session with nearly twelve minutes of plucking strings on the banjo. It is soothingly hypnotic. Sarada, a frequent collaborator to Timothy, provides vocals on “A Dead Calling,” “Bird of Prey,” and the traditional song, “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier,” giving the songs a Renaissance feel. “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier” has, of course, been appropriated to the various conflicts that America is currently engaged in, but the marching drum in the song still anchors it to historic conflicts such as the Revolutionary War or Civil War.
When it comes to physical packaging, the releases from Timothy’s various projects have always been above and beyond, from intricate boxsets to lathe-cut records and handmade curios. Part of reason for such exuberant releases is to appeal to folks who prefer the physical format over digital versions—a version to hold and be immersed in:
“I try to make things interesting, nice to look at. I feel like if it’s just a CD with a two-panel insert, no lyrics, and no other information, well then, it’s not much more than the digital version. I don’t know if I succeed, but I hope people like the weird formats, interesting packaging, etc. That’s why I do that stuff.”
The design and packaging of Grave Needs mirrors Time Moth Eye’s prior release in 2012, Undeath, which was a limited-edition CD set packaged as an artzine. Grave Needs is packed inside a paper-bound booklet, with a disc inside each cover. The interior pages contain lyrics, credits, and many illustrations, all done by Timothy. The black-and-white pages and handwritten typeface replicate the D.I.Y. zine format, but it looks much better than photocopied pages. The black-and-red cover of Grave Needs depicts a playing card: the “ace of crows.” The image came to Timothy as he was sketching concepts for the album. For him, the image is both political and mystical, with crows being a particularly special symbol. Politically, the monkey wrench in place of a scepter subverts the idea of a ruling system and replaces it with one of a different sort. Mystically, the wrench also acts like a wand, giving the ace of crows a tarot card feel.
Grave Needs is a meaty release, and Timothy does not falter in delivering the goods. From protest songs to traditional folk and long improvisations, there is something in the album that any listener will identify with. The sheer quantity of songs with a similar makeup does make this release a little daunting to passively listen to and requires a bit of participation and focus from the listener at times. But that’s the nature of a protest song—to spur some action—and Grave Needs demands action from its audience.
02) Grave Need
04) The Crow on the Cradle
05) A Mirror for Death
07) The Jesters Harp
08) A Dead Calling
11) The Mouthless Dead
12) Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier
13) The Partisan
14) Bird of Prey
15) Rats in the Cupboard
16) Germinal (1)
17) Germinal (2)
19) Rondel of Merciless Beauty (Fleance)
01) Blood on the Snow
02) Written in Red
03) While the Stars Burn Out
04) Thisisnota Raga
05) Dead Gods, Dead Masters
06) Five Hands
07) Black Night Wake