FringeMusic listens to, and reviews, music the world over but, being from Canada, has a special bias for, and does promote, up-and-coming Canadian musical acts that have something interesting to say. The following review is part of our Spotlight on Canadian Music series.
Profile: Lukas Rossi (lukasrossi.com) is an artist hailing from Toronto who lives and works in the United States. He is the frontman for the alternative rock band Stars Down and lends his vocals and lyrics to the 2011 self-titled debut album of Switchblade Glory (switchbladeglory.com), which has garnered consideration for a nomination in the Hard Rock Performance category for the 2012 Grammy Awards. He is best known for winning the Mark Burnett reality-TV music competition Rockstar: Supernova in 2006.
Tattooed across his upper chest in a curve along the base of his neck, Lukas Rossi has the Latin inscription A cruce salus (which, alternatively, means: ‘saved by or from the cross’). He carved his profession of faith into his skin in a half-collar of ink a few years back, yet it is only a few days ago, with the release of his third full-length CD (the two previous ones were: Hollywood 2010, Super Sex Magic 2011), that he has put his musical stamp on his beliefs. As Rossi puts it himself in The Garden: ‘The scars of the tattoos remind me of my sins’. People should not make the mistake, however, of pigeonholing this new record, Prophecy, merely as Christian rock; it has universal appeal and delivers a message about the triumph of the human spirit (and spirituality) and the redemptive power of love, whether in human or godly form.
Lukas Rossi has quietly established himself as an artist that can write exceptional lyrics that delve into the human soul and capture the universal spirit and show an appreciation for, and attention to, the pain and troubles of others with an uncanny understanding of the social environment in which he lives. He always had a way with words and a unique perspective on the world and the ills that plague it. Whether he draws from his own experience or merely taps into a vibe that he channels from paying attention to those around him, he has something important to say and an original, passionate and compelling way of saying it. In this instance, the lens is focused on him and on anguish arising from child abuse and a man’s discovery of God’s love. It is not his first foray into this deeply traumatic topic: several years ago, he wrote a riveting, albeit disturbing, song called Take 2.
Prophecy is a tale of darkness, Lukas Rossi’s personal and courageous journey into his past as an abuse survivor – a ‘symphony of pain’ as he so aptly says himself in the track Magnificent. He pours his battered soul and anguished lyrics into the vocals. It plays like the soundtrack and movie of his life – painful, tormented, full of obstacles – until he reaches the ultimate redeeming grace and emerges from the shadows. It is an exercise in exorcism of his inner demons, a form of cathartic therapy in music, that serves a purpose of self-healing and healing of other troubled souls who have been victimized by the world surrounding them and, in particular, children who have been betrayed by those charged with loving and protecting them and who have suffered at their hands and by their words. It is a disturbing topic that will not resonate with everyone, but that cannot leave you unaffected. History shows that the best works of art (poetry, novels, paintings…) have originated from a place of darkness, because darkness is interesting, it is compelling, it is revealing of the hidden part of ourselves that we dare not always explore. In this latest work, Rossi takes us to the edge of that darkness, and pulls us in.
Prophecy is not your typical CD. It is a rock opera, or rather rock tragedy, of sorts. It must be viewed, and listened to, as a whole, in sequence, which certainly runs counterculture in today’s world where works of music are sliced up into digestible tracks of 3 minutes or so for public consumption, which, quite frankly, is a restrictive straightjacket for musicians, a cap on artistic freedom. This record bucks the trend and does something that few have attempted since the 1970s concept albums: create a single-themed body of music that must be appreciated in its entirety, to get the whole picture. This doesn’t mean that individual tracks can’t stand on their own or are not radio-friendly (California Is Dying, Ignite and Runaway come to mind); it just means that, without the vue d’ensemble, you’re missing something in the telling of the tale.
The sound is loud and gritty, even edgy, yet polished and catchy at the same time. While this is unmistakably a rock (even, at times, a very hard rock) album, there is definitely a classical feel to it. Perhaps it’s because of its Paradise Lost or Faust-like quality, bordering on the literary or philosophical, the juxtaposition of light and darkness, of right and wrong, of good and evil, of damnation and salvation, the chiarooscuro of human existence, or perhaps it has something to do with the classic piano intro in NREM or the richer, fuller sound created by the strings woven into the background throughout. There is no doubt that this is a dark symphony, Conductor Lukas Rossi’s Opus Doloris, Ode to Pain.
The opening and closing tracks, called NREM and REM (Confessions), define this album. They are the bookends to the tale. NREM (or non-rapid eye movement) are the preliminary stages leading up to deep and restful sleep, which is attained at the natural stage of sleep called REM, or rapid eye movement. Viewing the album in its entirety, therefore, the tracks in-between represent Lukas’ dream, or rather nightmare recollection, of his past until he hears a child-like voice trying to wake him up, asking: Are you OK? Can you hear me? Can you hear my voice? Whether this is his representation of God speaking or not is for the listener to decide. It certainly is an interesting concept.
Usually, there is, on the part of many a music aficionado, a personal aversion to voiceovers and sound effects in a musical piece, which abound in Rossi’s Prophecy. This is because it is gimmicky and raises the spectre of studio creations, like the Milli Vanillis of this world (and no one wants that label!), that translate poorly to the live stage, either because the effect is missing or has to be recreated via playback, which opens up another entire can of worms about the authenticity of live performances. There are notable exceptions, of course, Supertramp’s Fool’s Overture being one and AC/DC’s bell intro to Hell’s Bells, to mention another. But it makes perfect sense that Prophecy would be replete with snippets of voices, flashbacks, flashforwards, echoes and cacophony of jumbled sounds since, remember, this is a bad dream that we are experiencing along with the protagonist.
In this vein, the album begins with an instrumental piano piece, NREM, punctuated by the voice of a young child’s voice asking itself existential questions about the whys in life and its place in this world. By far the oddest song (in a really fascinating, can’t-put-the-headphones-down-kind-of-way) is the third track, Caves, which starts off with a woman voicing some theory about the relation between the number 99 and 666, the Number of the Beast, and the presence of Satan in the world. It sounds like an interview with someone on one of those religious channels. Then begins her descent straight to Hell: she is bewildered, she doesn’t understand where she is, she sees caves, she can’t comprehend why she’s there. Powerful stuff. However, the track that has the most disturbing effect is Bless The Children with its absolutely gut-wrenching, heart-rending and unbearable-to-listen-to crying, confused and imploring child at the end, not to mention the recorded message at the beginning of the same song which accentuates the victim’s helplessness by stating dispassionately that the number dialled is not in service. It also has one of the most brutally raw lines: the child asking: How am I still alive? and father telling his child ‘I wish you were not my kid’ and one of the most hurtful of betrayals: a mother walking away from her vulnerable son. (Incidentally, this song also features a really cool rap interlude.)
Speaking of incisive lyrics, The Garden contains one of the most damning confessionals and indictments of all: ‘I confess that I used you, abused you …Some testify and some refuse.’ Words splashed against a tapestry of edgy guitars. In Runaway, despite the more upbeat, ‘pop’ sound: ‘You took my heart ripped from my chest You left a scar I’ll never forget’. He wonders about dying to live or living to die, flirts with stepping to the edge, thinking he can fly, speaks of being forsaken by God: ‘How can I believe in a God that don’t believe in me? How can I believe in the sun? It don’t shine on me!’ (which is mirrored in the spiteful: Where’s my yellow brick road? in Bless The Children). He evokes fatality, destiny: ‘This is my life, the Inferno, burning inside… How can I blame the abuser when the abuser is me?’ But he concludes: We’ve got mountains to move, which is the burgeoning of his pilgrimage of faith. Matthew 21:21 says: "If you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree (i.e., uproot it), but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea', and it will be done", and this can only be done by the power of God. In California Is Dying, he indulges in some Schadenfreude, seemingly relishing the thought that the state, and, in particular, Los Angeles, the so-called City of Angels (and presumably that Babylon called Hollywood, peopled with its horde of false prophets and shallow, artificial people), would go up in flames: ‘You’ve poisoned your harvest…This is going to hurt like hell, I promise you it will… And sometimes the tragic is so beautiful’.
And the final redemption, we find it in the love song Ignite, a tribute from ‘the only one who knows your pain’ and in the title track, Prophecy, a song with a driving beat about a supplicant, a ‘sheep in wolf’s clothing’, before his Maker, begging for God’s love, and he finds his home (‘Faith is the bravest love’) as God reaches for him when he has one foot in the ground, and is hanging from the ledge. And the final words on the whole album are the Child/God telling the hero: I love you. In those three words, he finds absolution and peace and, in one fell swoop, the same words spoken by his abusive father in the voiceover at the beginning of The Only One are replaced by the welcoming love of the Holy Father.
Quite a tale!
(1) Dead Man Walking. A slow, folk guitar showdown intro à la Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead or Alive or somewhat reminiscent of Metallica’s The Unforgiven. This resembles the work Rossi has recently done with the band Switchblade Glory.
(2) The Only One which, after the introductory voiceover, has one of the wickedest guitar licks. This is a difficult track to listen to from a lyrical point of view. It seems to speak of a loved one opening up their veins with a razorblade and of the realization of the protagonist who understands he is not the only one with monsters under his bed or in his head and imagines a place where all the devils are put to die. Riveting, to say the least.
Lukas Rossi both troubles and fascinates with his words and music. He excites the imagination with the originality of his vision and perspicacity but he also delves into the dark recesses of the soul of each and every one of us and dredges things up, and makes us feel. He picks at the scabs of our (and his own) vulnerabilities and re-exposes the wounds. He has a unique understanding of what it means to live -- and survive -- that few of us will probably truly ever comprehend. It is not difficult to be convinced that, due to his past, he has crossed some sort of threshold and tapped into a universal spiritual vibe that places him on a plane of understanding with the entire human race and enables him to express himself lyrically and musically in a language understood by all. It is a gift that he probably does not entirely control. Lukas, in a way, is our Father Confessor and confidante in Prophecy, urging us to peer over the brink of our own darkness and frailties and face our demons and fears as a society directly. Listening to his music and lyrics is a form of expiation or exorcism of pain from the past, a cleansing of the soul, to enable us, and him, to move on. We are locked in a symbiotic embrace in which he needs us and we need him to heal the wounds that have ravaged some of our lives or of those we love.
Definitely our Hallowe’en Music Pick of the Week. It just deals with real demons and ghosts, not imaginary ones.