In the Future
By Christopher Alexander | 24 March 2008
I was Icarus, and I fell. I didn’t realize until then that one doesn’t experience emotions during such an act. I didn’t feel terror, I didn’t feel rage, I didn’t feel a grace by the end that soon awaited me. I didn’t feel the wind anywhere on my body, on my face, my bare arms, under my tunic. I didn’t remember what it had felt like moments ago, flying in the sun; I didn’t remember the heat on my arms as my wings burned and flared like gun powder. My life didn’t flash before my eyes. I didn’t regret anything; I didn’t feel pride in regretting anything; I didn’t remember doing anything at all. I was only aware that I was falling.
I did, however, hear music as I fell: the opening, lumbering riff of “Stormy High.” Somewhere in my brain (the scientists tell us the left side) I was aware of the phrase’s sheer lunacy: a riff in 7/8 with a triplet feel, played by two guitars and a bass, or was it twenty, and did it matter? The song was raising memories that my certain death would not: a past life as a music critic, as a musician, as…Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath? The riff shifted its harmonics up two tones, then fell down as sirens sang to me. In mind’s eye I saw waves crash against the rocks, felt the wind against the Cliffs of Moher and its chill. But in my fall, I felt nothing. Drums started and stopped, a man began singing about dying. The song was pretty good. I had been falling a while.
I would continue to fall for another five minutes. I had forgotten that I was even listening to anything until I felt the whoosh of the water. Later I would imagine that the melodic, economical “Angels” had taken the velocity out of my fall, as if I was a slip of paper falling to the water. Because I didn’t shatter—I continued to fall in slow motion through the ocean. A single bass note sounded out, an envelope filter toyed with its dimensions, four drum notes sounded. This, I knew, was “Tyrants,” and now my senses had returned. Between the music and the ocean I was reminded, of all things, of the underwater level in Metroid III. The man was telling me I would die by the sword, a woman joined him in harmony. Naked now, I began to swim, and as I did so guitars began to swell. The woman was singing in Mediterranean modes; I looked above the water and saw the sky was a shimmering orange. I found a cave, and swam in. I found a door. I opened it.
I walked into my junior English class, except the classroom was enormous, and I was still naked and wet. I took my seat. The music played on over the loudspeaker, out of sequence from its parent album. Tom drums and a scratchy Hammond organ announced “Evil Ways”; it was not the Santana song, but I still thought the debt was more than titular. John Wilson thought so, as he turned in his chair to face me. “Man, this Black Mountain album is on some Uriah Heap shit or something.” Except it wasn’t John Wilson, it was Gloria, my old psychiatrist. He/she sang “Night Walks” to me, and it was beautiful. I tried to tell him/her it reminded me of Things We Lost in the Fire era Low.
“Your voice stakes out the middle ground between Grace Slick and Patti Smith,” I said. The organ accompaniment hit a IV chord and he seemed to grow twenty feet. I turned my head up so he can better hear me. “I never knew it could be so vast, let alone so beautiful. It is like reading Rilke in German.”
It immediately occurred to me that I had no idea what it was I was saying.
I felt on the verge of comprehending something when my teacher, who was really my mother, commanded me to the board to diagram “Bright Lights.” I was at the board with a plan, a list of classic ’70s rock influences—the usual suspects like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, the not so apparent ones like King Crimson and Badfinger, and sprinkled with more recent touchstones like Boris, Sleep, and even Radiohead. I could visualize the DNA wave in my head: the influences formed the nucleotides, and all of it twisted by a haze of marijuana. But the chalk kept disappearing in my hand. Whenever I went to get more, it also disappeared, grinding down to nothing on the board. I was panicking; the music was a quasi-chromatic intoning of the title. It felt like it was supposed to be scary, but it was actually pretty silly: the chalk was way scarier. I turned to face the class, and remembered my nakedness. Just then, the door burst open from a torrent of salt water. Loud guitar riffing was heard. I ignored my classmates and tried to keep my head above water. When I finally submerged, I find I could breathe underwater again. The music responded accordingly, filled with gurgles and indistinct vocal moaning. I swam to the surface of the water, a glimmering orange and black. When I submerged, the music again changed dramatically—and where was this music coming from. I intuited something wasn’t normal, but again right before the moment of understanding I was distracted. The air was on fire, like Mordor: bits of brimstone flew by me in tandem with the drum fills. None of it hurt me, but I knew I had to get back under the water. I turned back to swim, but the water had dried up: the music dissolved in a final echo, and I was trapped in the fire. Now I really panicked.
At this moment I heard what sounded like “When the Levee Breaks.” In fact, it was exactly “When the Levee Breaks”—it was my cell phone’s ring-tone. Scared by its ring, I stood up in bed and answered it. On the other line was Scott, Cokemachineglow editor and known organized crime boss. “Toph-uh, baby,” he said, and I could hear the cigar in his teeth. “Listen, I know it’s been a while, but something came up. Nool’s in law enforcement now and we have to make the Glow a little more, uh, respectable, if you know what I mean. I was wondering if you could give us a few sentences on the new Black Mountain album for this week’s review. No big concepts, no one act plays, no time travel: just two sentences that sum up the album. We have an, um, intern to fill in the rest for you. You’re on! Go!”
I was awake alright. “Um, In the Future is a great second act, blah blah blah, a consolidation of strengths, blah blah, better songwriting and more ideas, something something Foucault, Led Zeppelin, stoner rock. Um.” I tried to recall my dream. “It reminds me a lot of being in High School.” There was a pause. “Will that be helpful?”
I heard Scott say something in Spanish to someone, and then he returned to the phone. “That will be perfect, Alexander.” And the phone went dead.