Birzer Ban­dana’s debut album was released in March. Courtesy.

The­ology, intel­lectual rock, and the liberal arts — these are three main ele­ments of the debut album by Birzer Bandana, a col­lab­o­ration between pro­gressive rock musician Dave Smith and Hillsdale College Pro­fessor of History Bradley Birzer.

Birzer pro­vided the concept and lyrics, and Smith wrote the music for the seven-song pro­gressive rock album “Becoming One,” which was released on Spotify, Bandcamp, and iTunes March 18.

Pro­gressive rock seeks to combine the formal ele­ments of clas­sical music while also embracing the eclectic side of rock and roll music, according to music critic Lucas Biela of

“Rock bands like the Rolling Stones wanted to show pure emotion in their music. Prog is a more intel­lectual genre that shares ideas,” Birzer said. 

Birzer said he used min­i­mal­istic and imagist lyrics to relate Christian ideas and a phi­losophy of the liberal arts without being too obvious or preachy. 

“I didn’t want someone to think this was Gospel Rock,” Birzer said. 

Birzer Bandana has never even met face to face, and yet the duo was able to produce a full length album with music that engages with the genre of science fiction while also con­tem­plating more tra­di­tional themes like the liberal arts and the incar­nation of Jesus Christ.

“One of the things that first drew me to Dave was his voice. He doesn’t have a huge range, but I love how earnest his delivery is,” Birzer said. 

The two men struck up a cor­re­spon­dence over email after Birzer began lis­tening to Dave Smith and Dave Curnow’s joint prog-rock project Salander more than five years ago. Based in Durham County, England, Smith and Curnow have pro­duced six albums together and have developed a small but loyal cult fol­lowing. Smith, who goes by the stage name “Dave Bandana,” is British but recently relo­cated to the Canary Islands, where he per­forms professionally.

A well-rounded musician, Smith plays bass, guitar, drums, synth, piano, organ, and mel­lotron on the album. Despite the incor­po­ration of many dif­ferent instru­ments, Smith still made the vocals a primary element of the album. 

“It was a dif­ferent way of working for me,” Smith said. “On the plus side, I got my own way over every musical decision because there was no one to tell me dif­ferent, but maybe not all of them were correct ones. On the downside, I like feedback but I knew that Brad was happy for me to make the musical decisions.”

Impressed by what he heard, Birzer began an email exchange with Smith that became a strong friendship. Birzer said he never thought it would blossom into a cre­ative part­nership, but when Smith approached Birzer with the oppor­tunity to write a concept and lyrics for an album, Birzer could not refuse.

Despite Birzer’s statement that he “has no expe­rience with com­po­sition or musical talent,” Smith found his lyrics chal­lenging and engaging. 

“I sat and read and re-read the lyrics for a couple of days to get a feel for the concept and the world it was set in,” Smith said. “The lines were short and very staccato with lots of word repetition.”

Once he found his footing in Birzer’s apoc­a­lyptic, the­o­logical lyrics, Smith began writing music to fit the setting.

“I then set about cre­ating some sound­scapes either using key­board sounds or guitar until they became some­thing I liked,” he said. “It was then a case of editing them into song form then adding the other instru­ments and finding a tune to fit the lyrics.”

Birzer said one of his main impe­tuses for the album was a seed which had been ger­mi­nating in his mind for a while after a vis­iting speaker expressed pride in having iden­tified 18 facets of his per­son­ality. Birzer thought this wasn’t the point.

The album begins in des­o­lation, as Birzer writes in the preface to the liner notes which “A Can­ticle for Lei­bowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr.  provide the opening scene, but “every­thing that fol­lowed came from my own love of vast, deserted, and broken land­scapes.” The opening track, “Awash,” prefaces the project with a wall of sound as guitars seem to fill the recording until a violin, played by Smith’s friend Olga Kent, cuts through, placing the lis­tener into a scene of “Deadly, deadly heat,” as the lyrics read. 

The album con­cludes with “Incarnate,” which begins with a simple chord pro­gression on the piano as Smith grad­ually layers his voice over the lyrics. 

One voice sings: “The flesh becomes the word / the image is the whole.” 

Two voices har­monize: “Alone, free, unique, free.” 

And a third voice breaks through between the har­monies: “The errors, hell / the fire, pur­gation / the man is free.” 

The album then dances away with a soaring guitar solo, bringing the lis­tener through des­o­lation and into freedom.

Birzer Bandana already has another album in the works. The duo are planning their next project, which will focus on com­bining science fiction and pro­gressive rock even more closely. Birzer said the next album will have a clearer nar­rative arc cen­tering around three men in a starship. 

“Becoming One” seeks to edify and affirm the unity of the human person. As Birzer writes in “3 to 1”: “Colors shift, forms form, / Shades shade / Colors color / From three to one / Becoming whole.”