It’s funny — since we released The Chaos Game back in February, we’ve been getting a lot of questions about the concept behind the album, loosely based on the first draft of a novel I wrote a few years back. A paralegal destroys and recreates the Universe, which she then has to save by blowing up a mountain!
It’s a wacky and fun concept that Alyssa Blackmire illustrated beautifully for the album art, that made for some fun lyrics (“You can take our lives, but you’ll never take our gains!” from “The Chemist and the Engineer” is a personal favorite), and that really has nothing to do with the music at all.
The concept isn’t honestly all that important to me.
As James explains in this interview, the concept was sort of an ex post facto organizing principle, rather than a vision we set out to write songs to. In fact, many of the songs on The Chaos Game were written years before that novel was even a glimmer in my eye. We wrote some lyrics fresh for the concept (“Angular Sterility,” “Fractometer,” “The Clockwork Pheasant,” etc.) and retrofitted songs in our catalog that seemed to go with the main themes (“Death, She Walks On,” “Nowhere Near the Blade,” etc.)
But as I started hearing more and more questions about the concept behind the concept album, I was starting to wonder if it was a distraction — it seemed like people cared so much about it that maybe we lost the plot somewhere.
What The Chaos Game Is Really About: Anxiety and Acceptance
Well, here’s the thing: the actual Chaos Game, what the novel and the album are both named after, is a mathematical “game” that involves drawing a random point inside a triangle, rolling dice to determine the direction you’ll draw a line segment, and repeating this random process until you generate a fractal. In essence, it shows that even chaos can result in something beautiful and ordered. I love this video about it, because the professor gets SO PUMPED.
I’ve always been fascinated by this outcome. On one hand, it seems a bit miraculous, doesn’t it, that randomness can result in a beautiful Sierpinski Triangle? On the other hand, it’s almost terrifying to me, uncanny, like there’s some Lovecraftian force willing an order than underlies even the most random-seeming processes. It seems deterministic, fatalistic even.
Mandelbrot, Sierpinski saw self-similarity
Underlying nature, causing the causality
That gets us closer to what the album is really about: terror in the face of forces you don’t understand, can’t control, can’t even influence. Imagine living your boring life when suddenly, a god you’ve never even heard of summons you to destroy and recreate the Universe. Anxiety feels like that to me sometimes.
Why the Concept Behind the Concept Album Isn’t Important (Really)
Look: prog is known for concept albums, but I think every well-made album is de facto a concept album. Some are more explicit in their storytelling, like any of Ayreon’s epics. But any time a musician makes a deliberate choice to include or not include a song, to put those songs in order, to choose artwork that goes with that order, you can bet there’s some sort of organizing principle. Some sort of “concept,” even if that concept is “how the artist was feeling at this time in their life.”
I worry that by focusing so much on the story behind The Chaos Game, we lose the real emotion that goes into each of the songs — and it’s that emotion that really means something to me, because I want it to resonate with listeners, be something they can relate to.
What I Was Going Through When I Wrote The Chaos Game
I started writing the novel back in 2011, an extremely stressful year of my life, and the first few chapters were essentially catharsis to me: I was working a job that left me emotionally destroyed each day, but which I was terrified to leave because of the economic crisis. I felt trapped, and my health was suffering badly. The novel begins with the main character, Julia, being summoned away from her equally terrible job to another plane of existence, where she’s told she needs to help destroy the world as she knows it.
I actually wrote “Death, She Walks On” while I was at that job, in a half-dream state. It was a slow day, but I was told that my job would be at risk if I didn’t find a way to look busy, so I was spending hours pretending I had something productive to do. Eventually, I began to doze off a bit, and “Death, she walks on / quiet counting” started playing in my head. I latched onto the melody immediately, mentally repeating it to myself until I could go home and record the demo of the tune.
(Our worst album review declared with authority that “Death, She Walks On” is about “the fear of data,” whatever that would even mean? It’s just about a vague sense of dread. I felt it at all hours on that job, like at any time, somebody could rob me of my livelihood, my ability to pay for the things I needed to survive. It felt like death was slowly marching toward me, no matter what I did.)
I wrote “In a Day” around the same time, too, mostly in the car. There are a lot of complex emotions folded into that piece, but the setting is the Garden State Parkway, where both Julia and I spent a great deal of time commuting to our respective soul-draining jobs. I remember noting that each day, I’d drive by an ugly-looking accident on the shoulder, and I’d wonder when probability would mangle my own car (and, perhaps, my own body).
In a day, how many t-bones and head-on collisions
Can count as near misses in northern New Jersey?
Can we blame the economy? Time’s a commodity
On the black market on the Garden State Parkway in a day.
It’s kind of how we all agreed to play
Some moment we can’t recall, an oath that we gave
On our future graves: asphalt and pavement.
That song was never about Julia. It was about me. It’s something anyone with a hellish commute can relate to, maybe. But James insisted on adding it to the album — something I objected to a bit, because I couldn’t see how such simple singer-songwriter fare would work with all the complex prog tunes — because that was an aspect of my life that I wrote into Julia’s life basically verbatim.
(James was right, after all, and the track fits beautifully into the album. His musical instincts are as sharp as anyone’s.)
Even the Weirder Songs Are More Relatable Than You Think
“Fractals and Coastlines” may be the most out-there song on the album. It garners us more Frank Zappa comparisons than any of our other tracks. The song has three separate characters singing, after all, including a gin-drinking creation god and a disembodied soul that’s been prematurely let out of its filing cabinet.
But here’s the thing: it’s all a metaphor for being trapped in a job you hate.
I hear the engines of the eighteen-wheelers pulling up to the loading dock.
Mondays always smell like gas and formaldehyde.
You never get used to it. You only get older.
You only get experience.
I need a drink — I’m getting too old for this!
All of the souls have been reallocated now!
I swear this job would spell the death of me, but
Demigods don’t enjoy the privilege of sleep — sweet kiss of death!
“Angular Sterility” has the most stereotypically proggy lyrics of all of our songs — “I am not alone here/ could this be my home here/ amid the lucite loam here/ the tesseracts and domes here” — but it’s about finding yourself in a new situation and not knowing whether to be amazed or scared.
“The Doomsday Algorithm,” while superficially about the scene in my novel where Dr. Goethe and Julia destroy the Universe, is about being forced to make sacrifices, especially creative ones — hence the repetition of the phrase, “Kill your darlings.” The end of the song alludes to how hard it is to start creating again after you’ve suffered loss:
Kill your darlings, and my darlings, too —
Everything that meant anything (or nothing) is gone.
I never wanted it to end this way,
But you have brought us another day.
Destruction’s easy. Creation’s something more.
If I still have it in me, it’ll be better than before.
“The Chemist and the Engineer” has a lot of literal storytelling, but it’s really a song about brotherly love and how difficult it is to watch a loved one take a big risk (like, for example, facing down a murderous sorceress in order to blow up a mountain and destroy the source of her magic, or, uh, pursuing your dreams?).
“The Clockwork Pheasant” is similarly literal, but it’s about being terrified to do something, having no assurance that it’s going to work out, but doing it anyway. Like blowing up a mountain and killing a murderous sorceress.
Or, maybe, putting out your first album 🙂
As for “Nowhere Near the Blade,” well, I’ve written about that before.
What’s the Concept for the Next Album?
After all this reflection, I’m really excited about the direction we’re taking our next album. Is it also a concept album? Yes, of course — we are a prog band, after all! But there won’t be a literal story behind the album. The songs all relate to each other — much more closely, in fact, than the tracks on The Chaos Game — but the lyrics are much more personal, emotive. I may write another blog post about how that process has gone for me, because writing such emotionally raw lyrics is very new for me! I actually have Devin Townsend’s Empath to thank for that, as it’s been my creative lodestar since the moment I first heard it.
That’s all I’ll say on that for now!