Rome | Flowers From Exile / A Passage To Rhodesia | | 2009 / 2014
“I know not for how long we were standing there, facing each other without uttering a word. I did not move, nor did he. I waited, but without fear, in complete tranquility. It occurred to me that this was the moment to which all events, since the birth of Urug and myself, had irrevocably led. It had grown and ripened in us, outside our will, outside our consciousness. Here it was, for the first time, the crossroad on which we could finally meet each other in utmost honesty.”
– Hella Haasse, The Black Lake, 1948.
A double review by Maximus
As I sat down to begin this review I had little idea of what it would be about. Oh, I knew that it would juxtapose arguably the two most related Rome albums, that it would emphasize the deeply personal nature of the music against a faintly ideological background, that it would expose the band’s essentially existential vision, but in connecting them and explicating their most exigent meanings I was failing miserably. My mind was clear enough, my will was willing, my hands smelled of soot from the fire I had just built, but the page remained blank. Vague suppositions, rootless generalizations, sterile germinations mingled together as the flames in the fire place increased; homeless imagery and blind insights contradicted one another as the room grew warmer. The fire was very soon roaring with hostile abandon, taunting me with its fierce creativity – but the page remained blank.
That this wretched review was even written at all is due more to the merits of the music than any ability of mine, and this is already proven in how I finally did start writing: I hit the play button. I queued up A Passage to Rhodesia and, upon hearing the first few notes of “The Ballad of the Red-Flame Lily”, everything fell into place; I knew exactly what to write. The music itself conveyed its meaning to me, and I could not help but grasp it instantly. In those few seconds the entire plan of this endeavour was laid out internally, implicitly.
This rather needless anecdote becomes less so if we are aware that this broaches a broader and much more important matter, namely that Rome really are ‘all about the music’. We frequently hear about how certain bands are not ‘political’, that they care only for their art and not any ideological messages that their music might express even while using explicitly political imagery and lyrics. Sometimes they are being honest and the aesthetic is incorporated to introduce some wider point, but more often these artists claim ‘apolitical status’ to avoid whatever stigmas come with being an openly ‘fascist’ or ‘racist’ band (whatever those labels mean).
In Rome‘s case, however, the story is different. First of all, the main man Jerome Reuter is on the left wing, so there was never going to be much controversy there. Secondly, Rome truly are concerned first and foremost with the music, and with meaningful music that strives to reproduce something more universal than ideology, more powerful than politics. Clearly the lyrics are influenced by the lyricist, but even in handling such obviously political events as the Spanish and Rhodesian Civil Wars they are always about something more than what happened historically.
Rome‘s lyrical spirit consists in Reuter’s outstanding ability to approach a human reality separate from anything literal or particular, or rather than a shared human reality is drawn from something particular. Anything that might be construed as ‘politically motivated’ would be better construed as something that simply seeks to understand and empathize with the human condition, for that is what defines Rome – music that is not meant to divide but to bond, music that is not meant to preach but simply to be. Despite the inordinately high importance of Rome‘s lyrics, they are still subordinate to the music as a whole, as something trying to capture a key portion of humanity in artistic form. This fact is precisely how Rome are indeed not a political band, but one of far greater ambitions and integrity.
“I don’t believe in nations, nation states, anything like that. If anything, I identify myself as a European. I have roots in different countries. I feel like home everywhere in Europe. This doesn’t mean I would be advocating for the EU the way it is today or anything. That’s not what it’s about; it’s all about the cultural heritage. Also, every country is different and that’s what I like about it.”
– Jerome Reuter
We have wanted to explore Flowers From Exile since its release date, but something always prevented that from happening. Flowers is an enigmatic, ambiguous album, and the impression it makes was never fully apparent; our comprehension of it was never complete. With the release of A Passage to Rhodesia, however, the shape of the earlier album becomes more definite, more pronounced, and altogether more obvious; this is so by virtue of the general rule that one thing becomes clearer in comparison with a second thing, especially if they are closely related. In test-driving two cars of the same year but of rival companies, for example, one can get a better idea of each car, of what their strengths and weaknesses are, of what they are best suited for. An awkward, inept metaphor, to be sure, but the essential point should be clear, and that is what these two albums do for one another: they perceive the same themes from different angles and thereby shed light not only on the subject, but on each other as well.
Flowers From Exile is ostensibly about the Spanish Civil War, about Reuter’s family heritage, about the Republicans defying the Nationalists; this is sufficiently clear in the liner notes, the album art, Reuter’s interviews, a few of the album’s samples. Where this is not clear, however, is in the lyrics themselves, which give no solid reflection of the history that inspired them. This is because of what we said earlier, that Rome use a particular event to convey a universal idea, and the particulars therefore matter only insofar as they produce something more pertinent to the drama of human existence. The subject is still the Spanish Civil War, but it is something used as a conduit for a myriad of different.
What Flowers From Exile is really about, then, are those things which we might learn from studying the subject matter, principally in respect to the ‘human dimension’, viz., how the Civil War (and sectarian, political violence in general) affects our being on an experiential level. This is specifically constituted by such values as brotherhood strengthened by adversity, selfless love, and a longing for freedom not so much from authority as from the world itself, from the way it shackles us to vacuous pursuits and meaningless ‘rewards’. The ideals which society prizes are not worth their price, and Rome’s response is to suggest a new set of ideals worth fighting for, ideals we can experience, such as fraternal companionship and a joyful detachment from a culture of death – Verzicht, a renunciation of the world.
“Be free of whatever they teach
Of whatever they preach
Free yourself of their entrapments
Of their weapons of mass distraction
Free yourself from the bondage of time
And place and status
For what peace do they give?”
The real beauty of this album consists not in its idealism, however, but in how it portrays our persistent failure to live up to society’s ideals; reality is far more confused and chaotic than our high, lofty principles allow for, and in not recreating them in our lives we open ourselves up to a frightening dissonance between what we believe and what we do. This vulnerability is terrifically expressed through songs that contain no moral, and adhere to no clear narrative but rather to a certain ‘atmosphere’, if you will, a definite, unmistakable feeling; greed, envy, desperation, homelessness, treachery are all utilized in showcasing a once lively hope turning into a defeated, lifeless despair. The sad, spiteful, metaphorical “Odessa”, for example, is a love song turned sour while “A Legacy of Unrest” implies betrayal and a cold-hearted practicality. These are perhaps instances of an ideal falling into wrath and cynicism once reality has undermined them.
The absence of a clear, linear narrative in any which song means that its literal meaning often escapes the listener, eluding definition through disconnected verses and equivocal statements; it is virtually impossible at times to discern exactly what a song is about, at least in any concrete, tangible sense as we would understand what a typical story is about. By foregoing the literal dimension, however, a different avenue becomes available: let us call it the existential dimension. Apart from the final two songs, the denouement in which Rome finally make their meaning explicit, Flowers From Exile is concentrated on conveying an eminently human experience, a human reaction to an increasingly antihuman environment. Certain phrases, certain words serve to build this intimate dialogue with the listener who is directly impressed by the song’s emotive landscape. In “We Who Fell in Love With the Sea”, for example, there is a queer mingling of vague longings and faint hopes amidst an irrepressible remorse or inner anguish: the verse “For what binds us to our grief / Binds the sculptor to his clay” is an eloquently pathetic lament that perfectly epitomizes the ‘existential’ spirit of this album (and Rome in general).
It is not really the Civil War nor even its participants that are being referenced but modern man himself; principles and promises are well beyond us, wild abstractions held aloft in some distant void, yet we feel their effects in this place, in this time. There is a recurring theme of brotherhood present, and it is not truly addressed to the Republican soldiers as it might be supposed, but to all those who have been betrayed by the idols and ideologues of the 20th Century. This war-torn world we have wrought has dissociated man from himself and from his fellow man, which resulted in some of the most catastrophic horrors in human history, from the Worlds Wars to vicious genocides to brothers fighting brothers. The words ‘betrayal’, ‘treason’, ‘desertion’ are frequently invoked and it is no coincidence: we have trusted in some ideal or other, and they have all sold us out. Flowers From Exile therefore presents a disenchanted fraternity, a solemn brotherhood who no longer put their faith in worldly ambitions and idle illusions but in each other, in love, in a real, imminent freedom:
We know nothing of hatred
Nor their jealousies, nor their enmities
We laugh and dance in perfect composure
This is our beauty”
No song represents this camaraderie more than “The Accidents of Gesture”. Anglicizing part of the sample from the first track, a piece of poetry from Garcia Lorca, the chorus defiantly pronounces: “We shall remain invisible, for we travel light / We do not rush toward the light / And we dance if we can, with our eyes closed / All along the borders, all along the road”. This charming, blunt, sublime passage exemplifies the distance between the voice of the exiles and the mean of men, the fragile standards of society. They are ‘invisible’ because they do not heed the same ‘laws of wealth’; they ‘travel light’ because they do not have the burdens of possession, of ambition and avarice; they ‘dance if [they] can’ because of their joy in each other and in the freedom they share, not because of their hatred or envy of others. Likewise in “We Who Fell in Love With the Sea”, this sentiment is echoed: “We are the most alive, the most rootless / …We feel there’s no place / No home for us but this land / This land is mine, this land is yours”. The exiles ‘stay on the move’, for their home is always with them, for their home is the heart. “Was uns eint ist der Verzicht!” is the cry in “The Accidents of Gesture”, for the bond of their brotherhood is renunciation:
“Detach yourself! Detach yourself!
For there is a war deep in our hearts
And that’s where all battles ought to be fought”
The most profound idea to consider in this album is that there are things of much greater importance than our political convictions, even if we die for them. Yes, there are right and wrong ways to build a State, yes, it is well and good to fight for what you believe in, but this is an age rended by political turmoil, by unnecessary idealistic divides. All these things we fight for invariably become wholly impersonal; there is no real loyalty, for loyalty presumes personality. Instead our fealty is to ideals, or to the State which commands us to fight, warriors and non-warriors alike. Despite all of our efforts to convince ourselves that we are fighting for something good for our people, more often than not, whatever that ‘good’ might be, it is not worth the price. We have placed so much stock in the differences between us that we neglect the far more essential things that we have in common. Rome‘s statement here is borne of a burdened heart, a heavy grief, a disconsolate retreat from utopian dreams and frail manifestos; it is an existential response to empty ideals, an organic reaction to the mechanical monster we have made. The title of the intro infact serves as the album’s address, an address “To a Generation of Destroyers”.
Flowers From Exile is simply the naive faith that love, joy, and freedom are more attainable and more rewarding facets of human existence than the issues which inspire wars; but it is more perceptibly our struggle to reconcile ourselves to the fact that reality firmly contradicts this, our crisis of coming to terms with a world that will never reproduce in fact what we value so dearly in theory. For real love, real joy, real freedom are only guests here, fleeting visitors to our human order – their true home is elsewhere, far beyond this fallen Eden. For we ourselves are only guests here, wandering strangers with immortal souls but prone to mortal maladies – this is our grief, our pain, our exile.
The Colony of Southern Rhodesia was not like most other African colonies. Unlike states in the French Equatorial Africa or those of the German East Africa, which remained indigenously populated overseen by white leadership and bureaucracy, the Rhodesia region was flooded with European pioneers looking for a better home away from home. These settlers created the inextricably multiracial character that helped cause the nation’s rending later on, but they also ruled it upon declaring independence from Commonwealth authority in 1965. This leadership was constituted by the Rhodesia Front Party, who, headed by the conservative Ian Smith, eventually declared the Republic of Rhodesia in 1970, but the world still refused to recognize their legitimacy. They were a white minority government that acted as a last bastion of Christian conservatism not only against the menace of the communist East, but against what they saw as a liberal degeneration in their parent country, Great Britain.
“The mantle of the pioneers has fallen on our shoulders
to sustain civilization in a primitive country.”
– Ian Smith
This was the fragile environment that led to the Rhodesian Bush War (1970-79). Dissatisfied with minimal efforts on Smith’s part to compromise with black inhabitants, the deeply marxist African nationalists gained momentum amongst their fellow blacks and waged brutal guerrilla warfare in which atrocities were committed by all sides. With dwindling external support (chiefly Portugal’s withdrawal from the region and South Africa’s self-interested concern for their own minority rule), the Rhodesian government collapsed, ultimately giving way to Robert Mugabe’s dictatorial presidency. It was thus, as a song on this album’s second disc is called, the “Ending [of] an Era”. (As the second disc is comprised in the main of instrumentals and samples, and because it does not bear much relation to the typical Rome album, it will not be discussed hereafter.)
A Passage to Rhodesia does not give voice to the white government of Rhodesia, nor does it give voice to the black nationalists: neither would be sincere, for neither really share Rome‘s point of view as explained in the previous section. Instead, it gives voice to the common man, to the white families who settled the country generations ago, who farm, trade, hunt, fish, and soldier the land. To presume any kind of empathy with the warring factions would involve taking sides when Rome‘s genuine aim is to evoke a more meaningful emotion than political moralizing; their aim is to capture the essential feeling of the Rhodesian community at this turning of the tides.
That ‘essential feeling’ is similar to that shown on Flowers From Exile: fervent prospects and high ideals converted by the sad shades of reality into bewilderment and the anguish of change. In the lyrics Rhodesia is idealized as a coveted jewel, grandly personified as a ‘young queen’; she represents the promise of a new, improved life, of an escape from bitterness and division. But this is ‘a hollow promise from hollow men’, and any flickering of hope is swiftly smothered by the incontrovertible presence of defeat.
“Down flew her golden crown
And she lay slain on the frozen ground
For this is the beauty of Passage: we can actually feel the pain, the dark, festering wounds opened up by fate’s inevitability. Their hopes were never going to be realized, at least not permanently – that is the gradual realization of this album’s narrative. The expectations of the white settlers were in reality just dreams, and as dreams they were unable to survive awakening in a post-colonial world: “So long, Europe / You’ve been sanctuary / O, how far removed we are / From the dreams that you’ve preached”. All that remained as their adopted home fell away from them was the fading memory of those dreams; their once powerful, confident optimism crushed absolutely by an environment they no longer mastered now becomes a lingering reminder of how proud they once were, and how empty they are now: “We all felt Rhodesia’s youth ebbing away” (“The Fever Tree”).
The voice in Flowers From Exile spoke cynically of ‘a generation of destroyers’, of human society resolved on self-destruction, of a lifetime spent in slavery to radical ideals; it spoke of a band of brothers who were united by their common renunciation of this futile chaos. A Passage to Rhodesia likewise speaks of exile, of being uprooted from one’s home, only this time the voice is that of the ‘idealists’: the settlers supposed that their former way of life, that of the colonial-style rule on the part of a small minority over a very large majority, would endure the quickly shifting Zeitgeist, the changing of the guards. This, of course, was not possible: the nationalism that defined the European continent, that tore Europe asunder, had come to define the African one as well, and in either case it was clear – white imperialism was dead. The sad, nostalgic voice of Passage represents a last stand against the inevitable, the inexorable.
“We were fighting on the wrong side
Of a losing war, and time
Has made orphans of us all;
Has made cripples of us all.”
So the perspective comes from the ‘idealists’, but in this case they are also the exiled. They brought the struggle to South Africa (along with a great many good things), yet their loss breeds the suffering so poignantly captured by this album. With the kind of pristine, visceral poetry that comes with any Rome album, Passage reveals Rhodesia in forms of sorrow, bitterness, unrest, and a defiant dignity; it particularly addresses Rhodesia in what we might call ‘indigenous’ metaphors, viz., “You’re the crocodile that eats the sun” , and “One must go for the throat when hunting leopard”, and “For you were but a boy with the freedom of falcons in his heart”. In a word, there is as intense and genuine a love for Rhodesia on the part of the white settlers as there is on the part of the black nationalists. For that kind of debate is not the point of this album; one would infact be hard-pressed to argue that there is any kind of political point present.
“This is no time for amnesia
And what soil would hold us together now
If not the soil of Rhodesia?”
The ‘point’ of A Passage to Rhodesia, then, is of course no touting of ideology, no choosing sides. The expression here is simply expression: this is the sad story of a people torn from their homes by a civil war in which no compromise proved to be possible. It is moreover another statement on the kind of turmoil that is seemingly native to human existence; political plight and inter-social destructive tendencies are inherent in our species, impossible to escape.
There is, however, again like Flowers From Exile, a rather different tone established in the album’s conclusion, principally in a lyrical way (though we can also contrast in a musical sense the gentler, more peaceful “Bread and Wine” to the more despondent, reactive “A Wilderness of Spite” that comes before it): “So friends, let us drink to this memory so fine / For not all is lost when there is still bread and wine”. Upon the realization that the ‘pathetic attempt to fashion this place to our own alien ways’ was indeed untenable, there is a profound consolation in the simple things of life; the ideal has failed, but the ideal becomes peripheral when you still have bread and wine, when you make friends and family the centre of importance. The exiles from Flowers sought joy, freedom, and brotherhood in their retreat from the ‘ways of the world’, but the exiles from Rhodesia seek only peace and community (though we are reminded of the Flowers verse, ‘we share the sweetest black bread’, showing us the value both albums place on the simple pleasures necessary to us being men).
For all of the darkness and melancholy and explicit sorrows evoked by Rome‘s music, there is almost unfailingly a glimmer of light shining through at the end of it all; a faint hope that suggests maybe all this pain and suffering is not worth it when we can dream more modestly and stay closer to home. Ultimately, however, Passage is not about what one ought to do or what is right; it is about what every other Rome album is about, the imperceptible intricacy of the human soul, the grave flights of emotion and angst inspired by the violent, embittered mechanics of man’s existence. It is about our deepest mental experiences, our anguish and shattered hopes transcribed into music.
Your body to the hounds;
Couldn’t bury you in hallowed grounds,
Slowly they run,
These black tears
Into the River Aeeth
No flowers grow on Rhodesia’s grave;
No flowers grow on the River Aeeth
Aeeth is a grave’s name
Aeeth is that pale tomb of shame
And on we go
On the road,
Thus far one might be forgiven for thinking that this is a review of a novel or a book of poetry, and not of a musical recording. I submit for our defense the recollection that music and poetry have always been intimately connected: the folk traditions of primitive peoples for example, worked music into their religious rites; music is an integral part of the preeminently poetic Mass of the Catholic Church; the poetry of our great operas is as important as the music itself, and so on. Bach’s fugues, Hoffmann’s ‘absolute music’, the various genres of contemporary music are the exception, not the rule. Essentially, music exists to ‘sublimate’ poetry, to elevate an idea into a higher expression to make it more intuitively and aesthetically accessible: “The composer reveals the innermost nature of the world, and expresses the profoundest wisdom in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand.” (Schopenhauer)
There are, however, certain artists who are more ‘poetic’ than others, and that Rome are one of them explains the nature of this review. The genteel stature of Reuter’s lyrics would earn him a place as one of the foremost contemporary poets, but as there is hardly any worth in that distinction at present, it would suffice to forego it and simply deem his work excellent. Whatever verbose and extravagant excesses come out in his elaborate, multi-layered lyrics are excused by the almost overwhelming meaning behind them, a meaning that often seems to require a scholarly exegesis to determine for certain, but a meaning that is strikingly, instinctively felt by the listener.
With that said, these are still pieces of music, and therefore require treatment as such. Now, one important thing that Rome do is build a unique, organic, cultural atmosphere wherein the listener can deduce the location or environment that inspired the music; instruments (and the chords played on them) native to the region are used, appropriate languages are utilized, other samples such as political speeches, snatches of poetry, and wind-whistling are peppered throughout any which Rome album to help give it a distinct mood, setting, and intent. By establishing this, the rest of the expression becomes very natural; the album’s idea is smoothly introduced as though it were anatomically attached to the musical body.
The environment that inspired the music comes full circle as the music manages to recreate it in a more artistic, that is to say in a more meaningful sense. For the music of Rome (as in all music, but it applies especially to Rome) is bound up in the core idea of the album, the idea that inspires all of the inter-related themes and motifs that in turn shed light on their inspiration. Flowers From Exile, for example, is inspired firstly by the historical reality of the Spanish Civil War, and more deeply by what we discussed in section II, the renunciation from worldly ideals. The objective, then, is simply to recreate this on a musical level – and succeeds wonderfully in doing so. The waves sliding on to the beach in the sorrowful love song (which is likely a personification of the Spanish nation) “Odessa” provide a peaceful backdrop that accentuates the track’s deep pain and remorse and perhaps loss of innocence; the sounds of war that hammer out the background of “The Hollow Self” provide an emphatic vindication for the statement of intent spoken therein: “Schwerter zu Rost – Herzen zu Staub” (Swords to rust – hearts to dust).
So the aesthetic climate of Flowers From Exile is founded: the solitary violin, the Latin-esque guitar melodies, the occasional reminders of war through bombs and recitations of killed Republican poets, and a vaguely Spanish sort of melancholy pervades throughout the album to give it an unmistakable impression of Iberia, and of Iberia at war. This is moreover solidified by the string-dominated songwriting; unlike the more martial, far more Germanic Nera and Masse Mensch Material albums, percussion is not a principal mover here, only something secondary. This allows the album to breathe more freely; it is a very spatial atmosphere and, given the atmosphere’s singular dependence on the acoustic guitar, this more than anything else is what lends Flowers its markedly Spanish character.
Being set in a former British colony, A Passage to Rhodesia is unique amongst Rome albums in that it is the first to be written entirely in English: the samples, the lyrics, the album title, everything is in English. From the first this makes it more difficult to create the same sort of fluent, synthetic atmosphere that Flowers possesses, which is undoubtedly one reason why it is the lesser album: it is unable to reproduce the same cultural impression and thus the link between the album’s idea and the music is not quite as strong. Whether this is due to the fact that this takes place outside of Europe, which means that some of the ‘European ambience’ that typifies this band is slightly lacking, or that Rome did not try to really incorporate African traditions (which, given the thoroughly Western identity of the band, would not make sense anyway) is not perfectly clear; what is clear is that the music suffers somewhat from the absence of the ethno-cultural intimacy that was so potent in earlier albums.
That is, however, the last negative to be said in relation to this album, an album that surpasses every Rome effort released since Flowers From Exile, all of which suffered from inconsistency and a wavering conviction, a wavering direction. There is no such complaint to be made of Passage; from front to back this record is solid both in quality and thematically. Despite being written from a variety of perspectives, they are unified so resolutely that there really is only one perspective, which is that of Rhodesia. The lyrical themes that were expounded in section III are as impressively harmonized musically as they are poetically, which means that Passage is bound together as a single compositional unity, not an arbitrary selection of songs. This is the touchstone of any good album, and Passage succeeds marvellously.
As ever, together with his lyrics, Reuter’s voice is the most important component of this LP. The tainted promises, the finality of rejection, the crusading idealism, the sincere sadness, all the latent emotion held in the album’s narrative are unleashed in Reuter’s anguished, tortured tenor; he captures all of it into a bundle and releases it again in a beautifully pitched array of armed sentiments and colourful convictions. From the trumpeting chorus of “One Fire” to the defiant will of “Hate Us and See if We Mind” to the broken, pitiable lament of “A Wilderness of Spite”, Reuter’s voice is central to everything, the crucible of all that makes this album so poignant.
Like Flowers From Exile, Passage is oriented around the guitars rather than the drums, though the vocals play a stronger role due to the more subordinate part that the guitar phrasing plays. The riffs are still there, of course, but they take on more of a rhythmic position to better supplement the powerful vocal melodies. The percussion is likewise scaled back, with the principal exception being the anthemic “One Fire” which opens with a deep bass drum and does not relent, beating right into its highly martial chorus. The sampling is likewise limited, mostly consisting of the odd speech by Rhodesian settlers or Zimbabwean nationalists that, besides the lyrics, offer the only significant connection between the music and the country. This sort of ‘minimalism’, as it were, is precisely why the vocals take centre stage.
It has always been difficult to nail down what Rome are stylistically, what genre they belong to. They used to be closer to neo-folk and martial industrial, but their more ‘popular’ accent in the later albums made these terms truly obsolete while calling them ‘pop’ or ‘folk’ would be insulting. While this labeling or classifying a band’s sound is normally of secondary importance, Rome themselves call their music ‘chanson noir’, and this is actually extremely accurate, for what else is a chanson but poetry set to music? There is indeed an unquestionably ‘neo-chanson’ character to Rome, particularly since the explicit aim of the chanson is to express an idea through the twin media of poetry and music, with an emphasis placed on the former art – and this is nothing less than what we said at the beginning of this section.
Consider “The Accidents of Gesture”, for instance, the supreme song of Flowers From Exile. With the ability of Nick Cave (a chief influence of Reuter’s) to tell a story in paradoxically vague and yet spirited, warm, and strong terms that directly approach our thirst for pathos, this song winds its way in very simple chords to form a monument of poetic expression. The basic rhythm operates as a spine that generates the continuity, the excited commitment between brothers fearlessly defying the world; the vocal melodies are impassioned, and so very convinced of the truth which they are conveying. This song epitomizes both what we will call ‘neo-chanson’ and Rome as a whole, for this song singularly expresses the beauty of raw poetry sublimated into music!
“We shall make our movements lighter
Like the boys on the wire
To regain the joy and fierceness
The essential man”
Both Flowers From Exile and A Passage to Rhodesia are melancholic intrigues concerned with home, community, war, and the turmoil that follows shattered hopes. The notion that an ideal separated so far from reality that it becomes isolated and abstract, and therefore not worth all the bloodshed and personal trauma it causes, is explored vigorously. These albums indirectly emphasize the irony that, in an era whose motivating ethos is centred around a strict materialism and is philosophically highly pragmatic (manifested through scientific positivism, industrialization, commercial economics, etc.), there should be such remote, lofty ideals that are fanatically adhered to.
This gives rise to the thought that perhaps this is a result of the present divide between our ideals and the real world in which we live. Let us give an example. Whereas God, who is the greatest ‘ideal’ imaginable, was once experienced as an imminent reality within society, the nature and simple fact of his existence has been questioned and speculated on to the point where he himself is just another abstraction; the orthodox conception of God is not compatible with the mechanistic, empirical worldview which has come to be a central motive of modernity.
So we have charismatic, evangelical preachers making God into something either exclusively emotional, a ‘prince of peace’ in the most mundane sense, someone to turn to as one turns to a friend for help, or a magician of cheap tricks, a miracle man capable of healing us of our bodily ailments rather than our spiritual ones; or we have academic philosophers who, if they do not reject his existence outright, make him into something totally abstract and ‘impersonal’, something to complete a sophistic system, or into something equally meaningless such as the pantheistic sentiment ‘God is everything’. Even within the Church, the traditional preserver of Christ’s actual presence amongst us, there are certain trends (‘liberation theology’) in which the Son of Man is seen more as a victim of ‘oppression’ than of our own hateful sins, a saviour in a merely socio-economic sense rather than in any truly soteriological sense. This is the most powerful illustration of how something ideal, i.e. something comprised not at all of matter but of intellect, has become divorced from our environment, and therefore stripped of its most important meaning for us. So we fight for ideals that grow increasingly remote from us, from what we actually love and live for.
To apply this back to our subject, both of these records share political backdrops; they are not the focus, since as already stated Rome are not so much politically as they are personally motivated, but they are nevertheless an important part. In Flowers From Exile, for instance, there is the intense ideological contest between nationalism and republicanism, two ‘ideals’, as it were, that were sliced off of the Spanish corpus and set against each other. While in healthier times the conflict was almost always between one country or city-state, more or less unified (certainly in ideology), and something exterior to it, for instance the Moors, the past few centuries have seen the dissolution of that unity, and from that dissolution the remaining fragments battle one another for domination (which is never fully resolved or accomplished). Instead of territorial or dynastic disputes, in which only a small part of a country participates (chiefly the warrior caste with accompanying levies), or crusades intent on destroying something that threatened the quasi-unity of Christendom (the Albigensian Crusade), modern wars are ideologically- and economically-driven; whether it be nationalism, communism, socialism, ‘democracy’, or whatever, the ideology becomes something more important than anything else (except perhaps for the coin to be gained), and it consumes a nation entirely – not a small part of it, but the nation in its entirety: Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?
It is exactly this that we are speaking of in reference to Rome’s preoccupation with the personal; excepting a few peripheral statements in which Reuter’s leftism may be detected, these two albums are far more developed in regard to their address to man in himself, not to man as a political player. This really is existential music in which anything abstract, anything foreign to man’s psyche is only accidental; all that matters is man’s internal debate, his own civil war waged to resolve and reconcile different thoughts, feelings, psychic wounds, desires, ideals, and so forth. This is music that encapsulates man’s most serious reactions to the world outside himself and universalizes it, makes it accessible to the rest of us; we then identify with it, and in so doing experience catharsis, a purification of our pains in our vicarious attachments to these songs.
There is a song on one of the Rome albums between these two that represents what they are more than any other, even if it might not be as good as many of their other songs. Regardless, the track is called “Sons of Aeeth”, and it opens with these lines: “Sons of Aeeth we are / Sons of the rain / They’ll know us by the grief in our songs / And in the prayers we pray”. “Aeeth” is, as far as we can tell, a name of their own creation, but it comes up again in a line from A Passage to Rhodesia: “Aeeth is a grave’s name”. This language summarizes the whole of Rome‘s project, firstly in that their principal aim consists in searching through grief, expressing themselves through grief, for suffering is ‘aesthetically beautiful’ and the essence of human life can be understood through suffering; secondly Rome try to empathize with the listener, and in so doing they create a brotherhood, a friendship found in suffering, and so we are all sons of Aeeth.
And yet, despite the undeniable immediacy of life’s pains and contradictions, Rome also express a light beyond the darkness, a distant hope for reintegration, for why else do we pray ‘the prayers we pray’? We know Rome by their grief caused by simply being human, and we know Rome by their prayers for a final sanctity and peace of mind: no more wars, no more needless loss, no more ideals except those firmly entrenched in the heart for ‘that’s where all battles ought to be fought’.
“Sons of Aeeth we are
Sons of the rain
The’ll know us by the grief in our songs
And in the prayers we pray
They forced our bodies into the ground
Wrapped in black and red
But we live on in dwe and river
We are not dead
Forests afire, hearts aflame, eyes aglow
Sons of Aeeth
To whom we owe this night we do not know
Sons of Aeeth
So here we stand
With no words to waste
Your world is falling now
Like all things made in haste
The sea below us
The heavens above
You call it hatred
We call it love
Forests afire, hearts aflame, eyes aglow
Sons of Aeeth
To whom we owe this night we do not know
Sons of Aeeth
Forests afire, hearts aflame, eyes aglow
Sons of Aeeth
To whom we owe this night we do not know
Sons of Aeeth”
Flowers From Exile
1. To a Generation of Destroyers (1:48)
2. The Accidents of Gesture (5:10)
3. Odessa (4:37)
4. The Secret Sons of Europe (3:13)
5. The Hollow Self (1:58)
6. A Legacy of Unrest (4:51)
7. To Die Among Strangers (4:02)
8. A Culture of Fragments (1:09)
9. We Who Fell in Love with the Sea (4:13)
10. Swords to Rust – Hearts to Dust (3:53)
11. Flowers From Exile (3:12)
12. Flight in Formation (5:36)
A Passage To Rhodesia
1. Electrocuting an Elephant (3:12)
2. The Ballad Of the Red Flame Lily (4:38)
3. One Fire (3:42)
4. A Farewell to Europe (3:06)
5. The Fever Tree (3:20)
6. Hate Us and See if We Mind (4:21)
7. The River Eternal (3:35)
8. A Country Denied (4:04)
9. Lullaby for Georgie (4:06)
10. In a Wilderness of Spite (7:58)
11. Bread and Wine (7:06)
12. The Past is Another Country (2:32)
1. The Road to Rebellion (2:35)
2. The Declaration (4:43)
3. A Short 1000 Years (2:48)
4. A Deafening Silence (3:26)
5. The Great Divide (2:58)
6. Matabele Land (5:22)
7. Open Grass / High Ground (2:57)
8. The Rape Gate (2:54)
9. Wreaths (2:04)
10. The When-Wes of Rhodesia (3:36)
11. Gesture Without Motion (5:12)
12. Ending [of] an Era (1:09)