Track 1: “The Trenches.” Underscored by ambient whistling, rifle shots, and single notes struck on a piano, Brad Birzer’s voice fades in softly at first, repeating, and echoing over itself. He speaks C.S. Lewis’s description of his experience in World War I: “The frights, the cold, the smell of human excrement, the horribly crushed men still moving like crushed beetles…”
Then, cue an electric guitar intro, a chorus of “This is war!” and, finally, drop in some heavy metal drumming.
These are the opening lines and sounds of the progressive rock epic chronicling the meeting, developing relationship, and, ultimately, failed friendship between J.R.R Tolkien and Lewis. Birzer, professor of history, wrote this seven-track album, “The Bardic Depths,” in collaboration with progressive rock musician Dave Bandana.
Birzer, who has loved progressive rock since his older brothers introduced it to him in high school, described the genre as “over the top, with all the pretense of classical music.”
“The Bardic Depths” begins with two tracks, “The Trenches” and “The Biting Coals,” in which Lewis and Tolkien meet each other during World War I. Next, “The Depths of the Soul” and the “Depths of Imagination” explore the deepening friendship between the two men and their sharing of ideas. Finally, “The Depths of Time” is inspired by the ultimate waning of their friendship.
Though Tolkien and Lewis’ lives began to diverge, Birzer’s lyrics extend beyond their declining friendship to a final track: “Legacies.” This final song explores why their friendship left a legacy that neither man could have possibly created on his own.
“The Bardic Depths” will be released by Gravity Dream Records on March 20.
Despite working on “The Bardic Depths” and two prior albums together, Birzer and Bandana have never met in person or even spoken on the phone. They met in 2014 on the Facebook page for “Big Big Train,” a progressive rock band they both love.
While he teaches history by day, Birzer is a progressive rock lyricist by night. He and Bandana, a British travel agent living on the Canary Islands who writes music in his spare time, formed “Bandana Birzer.”
“It was a goofy name. The joke is I am kind of conservative and straight-laced, and Dave is kind of a hippy. So we thought that was hilarious,” Birzer said.
They produced two successive albums together, sharing music and lyrics by email. The first explores child abuse, and the second features a man who wakes up in a space ship with no idea where he is and why he is there. These two albums, however, did not achieve the success of “The Bardic Depths.”
The origin of “The Bardic Depths,” their newest album, lies in the cross section of Birzer’s three passions: progressive rock, Lewis, and Tolkein. In the midst of writing a book on the friendship between the two men, Birzer said he was overrun with ideas about how he could play with time and lace mythology and theology through the album’s storyline.
“There is an inside joke whenever people talk about prog rock; they make fun of it because it is over the top. But it’s meant to be over the top,” Birzer said. “People always joke people write about hobbits and elves. So I said, ‘Dave, let’s play up to the stereotype, let’s write about hobbits and elves, but let’s do it from the perspective of the authors.’”
This sort of broad lyrical scope matches with the musicality intrinsic to progressive rock.
“It’s not a conventional song structure. It is not verse, chorus, verse, chorus,” Bandana said. “It is not a pop album. It is a rock album with a lot of soundscapes and it is cinematic. It’s rock in places and jazz in others.”
The freedom of the verses are meant to reflect and compliment thematic lyrics that stoke the intellect, unlike classic rock which stokes the emotions.
A consequence of progressive rock’s nicheness, is its small community. Anyone involved in the genre at least knows of anyone else, according to Birzer.
This benefited Birzer and Bandana, who were able to build a band around the lyrics and music they wrote by reaching out to friends and sending requests for drummers, cellists, pianists, etc. on prog rock Facebook pages.
Suddenly these two relative unknowns in the genre were collaborating with the great prog rock musicians from all around the world, including Kevin McCormick, coincidentally Birzer’s best from college.
Meanwhile, Bandana was networking from his small island. The rest of the band filled in with a marimba player from Australia, a pianist from Italy, and a guitarist from Los Angeles.
Though they still consider themselves a band, none of these musicians ever met in person. Instead each recorded his own part and sent it to the Canary Islands for Bandana to assemble.
When it all came together, “The Bardic Depths” proved different from the previous albums Bandana and Birzer had produced together, and Gravity Dream Records took notice of the album and picked it up.
“The reason the record company was interested was twofold, I think,” Bandana said. “He liked the sound of it, but also liked the idea of the story behind it the fact that we collaborate; me from my little island, and Brad over in America, and the fact that we had all these other guys get involved in it and some of them are really well known musicians who wouldn’t normally even entertain the fact that someone is saying come play on my record because no one knew who I was. So the fact that these guys actually wanted to come and work andhel on it is an amazing story in itself.”
Now, “The Bardic Depths” is enjoying prog rock fame, and both Birzer and Bandana predict that “Prog” magazine, the crem de la crem of progressive rock culture, will likely review the album in an upcoming issue.
Both Bandana and Birzer hope to continue producing music together, but their future in prog rock depends on the success of the album. Whether or not it sells well,Birzer said he is excited just to have come this far.
“Prog rock is an interesting thing. It starts in the late ‘60s and it always builds on itself. In that sense it is truly progressive,” Birzer said. “You always acknowledge the artists that came before you you want to be original, but your originality has to be based on what has been done by artists who came before you. I think Dave and I tried hard to sound like others who are out there. Even if our piece never makes it into the puzzle, we at least had a chance to say thanks to everyone who came before.”