Written by lead singer/songwriter, Daniel Botkin
4. The Fall of Man
This song started as a simple Mellotron riff back when we were finishing up Titans. We didn’t really know what to do with it at the time, but we thought it had potential, so we logged it away with the rest of the half-finished ideas and song skeletons. As the stories and themes of American Blood started shaping up, I thought the groove and feel of those string parts would make a solid foundation for what would become the conflict in the album’s narrative: The Fall of Man.
This is where we meet the enemy and find out what we’re up against. But who am I fighting? Who are the bad guys? Murderers, criminals, the ‘system?’ Yes, this is a battle between good and evil, but maybe I’m assuming too much by thinking that I’m the good guy. If I’m honest, I know that the things that led the ‘bad guys’ to do terrible things also live inside of me. Selfishness, greed, pride, anger. I’m just as broken as the worst of them.
So the thing we’re battling in this story is our own brokenness. A reminder to take the log out of my own eye, and consider the ways I have turned to evil. The sinful propensity towards violence and greed, my machiavellian drive to preserve myself at the cost of others.
I’ve inherited a curse, a fatal flaw that goes all the way back to Eden and the day we left. Sin is in my nature. Revenge is in my blood.
3. American Blood
The title track serves as a sort of exposition to the album. It lays out the main plot points and themes of the story, and concludes with an introduction to the central question, or dilemma. You can give all of the orders, if there’s no one else around. I can have everything my way, I can follow my own dreams and work for my own success, but really, the only way to have things go exactly the way I want is to isolate myself from the concerns and needs of others.
When I first started thinking about the idea for this song, I was trying to find ways to talk about the challenges and pitfalls modern Americans face, particularly people from my generation. And really, such a wide-ranging subject is hard to write about with any precision, so the song has pretty broad, somewhat ambiguous strokes, but I tried to craft the song in such a way as to pull the generalities into focus on the bridge, and zero in on the heart of the issue. I didn’t set out to write a political commentary, per se; I was more interested in a cultural commentary, something provocative that raises the cultural mindset into focus, and hopefully raises some questions along with it. I don’t know if it comes across as provocative or preachy, but it’s a sermon I need as much as anybody else. I don’t consider others. I don’t give freely of my time. I’ve even fantasized about living in a post-apocalyptic world as the last human alive. So much space, so much freedom. So much death. If left to my own devices, I would obliterate the universe or banish humanity to some distant rock out of my way so I could have things the way I want.
That’s where this idea of raising my crown up came from. I was thinking about how I fight for control, how I fight to build my own kingdom. Though none beside me, I am a king of American Blood. I can rule my own little patch of wasteland if I want. But I’ll have to go there alone. And I have to remember that man was not meant to live alone. That getting everything we think we want won’t really satisfy us in the end. I have to remember that God made us to know others and to be known. To love my neighbor, and to love Him. And he calls us to a different kind of Kingdom, one of sacrifice, where the last shall be first, where the greatest among us is the servant. An upside-down empire ruled by a King who gave up his throne to die for others, Where loss of one’s life is the truest way to find it. Where the cross is higher than than crown.
2. A New World
A New World was the first song that I finished writing for the album, and I’m really happy that it remained as the opener. Last week I talked about how the track order of this album had an intentional progression, and how helpful that process was to its creation. But there were also challenges. The flow of how songs sound together is just as important as the story they tell, so it was somewhat risky to decide which song would be first before any of the others were even finished. I suppose I was aided by my ADD tendencies on this point. A New World was the first song I completed, but I already had a dozen or so fragments and ideas that I was working on, which made mapping out the flow of the music easier.
The original idea was to write a classic love song, something that speaks to a broad human experience. It turned out to be more about setting out into the unknown than about love, but I suppose that’s a large part of what love is. I think a lot of the feelings we have towards those we love can be expressed in the question, 'would you come with me?' We’re reaching out for somebody who’s willing to stick with us through the hard points, someone who values us more than the material possessions around us.
Those questions were fresh in my mind, anyhow. My wife and I had just packed everything we own into a Uhaul and moved across the country from small-town Idaho to Minneapolis. And we had been married for a whole week solid before we hit the road. So really, we were leaving all we knew behind. There was plenty to be afraid of, living in a big city for the first time, working a new job, beginning a marriage, leaving friends and family behind. But it was a lot less scary going through all that with Laura by my side. The fear of the unknown can even become its own adventure when you’re heading into it with someone you love. The sorrow of ending one sweet chapter and saying goodbye is real no matter what step you’re taking, but it can be overshadowed by the promise and potential of a new chapter’s beginning. It was good to remember that Laura and I weren’t leaving our old lives behind, but rather we were setting out to begin a new life together.
There’s also an element of pilgrimage in the song, a nod to the explorers who set out in search of the ‘New World’. It’s the beginning of the adventure of the American Blood story, and I wanted to start with a reference to the journey from Europe to the Americas to communicate the idea that this story is about a search for home. New territories and land to claim, but more than that, a place to be free. After all, the Pilgrims weren’t just after the real estate. They were seeking a new world where they could worship according to their beliefs.
The production on this song was pretty straightforward. One of my favorite parts of the song is the interlude before the bridge when the everything opens up. We added some distortion to the room mic on the drums, which gave Jason’s cymbals a beautiful sort of trashy crunch. It’s an almost chaotic sound that forces the song forward, accentuated by the guitars’ back and forth stabs along the ascending progression.
One last thing to note about the song is the opening lyric. “We’ve heard the whisper of better lands” is a nod to the song Running South, and the line “or did they, like the hearts of man, hear the whisper of better lands”. It was a subtle way of signaling the continuation of some of Running South’s themes, and picking up this LP where the last one left off.
One of the significant things that set this album apart was the way the track order was put together. On Running South and Titans, the songs were written fairly sporadically, when inspiration struck, and were then added to the existing body of work until there was enough material to put an album together. The song order and flow was then figured out based on what made sense with the songs we had.
This time around, I tried something a little different. I knew I wanted to write an album, which meant we would need about a dozen or so songs. But materializing that many songs out of thin air is a daunting task. It’s a paralyzing, writers block-inducing task that can seem impossible when you’re starring at a notebook full of blank pages. But I had a mini revelation one day while reflecting on the shortfalls of pop christian music on the way home from work: I didn’t need to create a small world ten times over, I needed to create a story with ten chapters. A big world with distinct pieces. Valleys of sorrow and peaks of triumph. Darkness and light.
It suddenly hit me that writing an odyssey could be easier than writing a song.
I mean, what kind of a story can you really tell in 2 verses, a chorus, and a bridge? Can you really pack a decent worldview, experience, or story into 3 minutes? And therein lies the great weakness of pop music. And the great limitation of culture’s streaming-based music consumption habits. The vinyl LP might be making a comeback, but we’re still not used to sitting down and listening to an album from beginning to end. Which is a shame, because we’re missing out on hearing a piece of music in the way the artist intended. We’re missing the bigger picture.
From the beginning, the LP American Blood was intended to be heard from start to finish, in order, all the way through. The songs can be listened to on their own, but they are really parts of a bigger story. The first song, Prelude, was meant to sound just like that: a Prelude. The foreshadowing of things to come that signals what lies ahead. Originally, the song was nothing more than a violin playing the melody from the title track, American Blood, as a nod to the “main theme”, as it were.
As the album came together, however, I thought that we needed a stronger first impression right off the bat, and started playing around with a few unorthodox ideas to try to grab attention. I had recently been to a performance by an African Children’s Choir called Watoto, which inspired me to start thinking of creative ways to use vocal arrangements. I had a simple melody idea to work as a counterpoint to the strings, but it didn’t quite work as a single vocal line. I added a few layers to beef it up, and before long, I had 7 or 8 vocal tracks that had taken over the song. I was a little unsure about it, but the band got behind it, and we decided that it was just odd enough to work as a prelude to the album. Once we decided to feature the vocal arrangement rather than the strings, we discovered that the courtly, marching rhythm of the melody enhanced the idea of a prelude, or a processional. It is the grand entrance of the players. The setting of the stage. It is the introduction before the curtain rises and the lights come on.
Keep watch for more "Song Stories" coming each week.