Album Review: The Near Future (I Fight Dragons)

My expectations for The Near Future were sky-high. I have considered I Fight Dragons to be my favorite band since 2010. For awhile, I was an active participant in the Advance Guard (their dedicated fan base). I still use a pixilated avatar that Carlos Sarthou, an Advance Guard member from the Phillippines who knows his way around video game art, created based on my self-description as the “Singing Geek” for my profile picture on a prominent social media site, and I think I always will. I read The War of Art based on Brian Mazzaferri’s recommendation of it to me as a creative writer, and I doubt this blog would exist if I hadn’t read that excellent book.

IFD is a force to be reckoned with in my life.

So perhaps it was inevitable that I would be a little disappointed by their latest offering. How could it have possibly lived up to my sky-high expectations, founded in my experience of a band that still had Bill Prokopow and was still working double time to find its footing? No matter how good the album is, there is no way it could have lived up to the mythic proportions I had assigned it in my mind.

This is a review of not only the aural experience of The Near Future and the narrative conveyed in its lyrics; this is a review of The Near Future as an experience, bearing in mind that I experienced it as an outsider looking into a frame that I had desperately wanted to be inside (I wanted to back the Kickstarter, but I was flat broke; I wanted to contribute a vocal track for the closing chorus, but I hadn’t backed the Kickstarter… etc.), someone who made the practical decision to buy the digital edition rather than vinyl (I don’t have a record player, and in case you didn’t catch this the first time, I’m pretty broke).

For anyone who doesn’t have the attention span to read all the way to the end of this review, the rating is 4 out of 5.

Now let me tell you why.

Side A: The Story Cycle

If you zoom out far enough that you don't have to scroll from side to side for the visual, the text gets hard to read.
If you zoom out far enough that you don’t have to scroll from side to side for the visual, the text gets hard to read.

Brian has created, in song, a rendition of the first two-thirds of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth: “Separation” and “Initiation”, but no “Return”. Note that our hero’s choice to join his Linked otherworldly counterpart in the exploration of Somewhere Else in Time and Space also has mythic precedent. There is actually a note about this as the first Stage of the “Return”:

“When the hero-quest has been accomplished, through penetration to the source, or through the grace of some male or female, human or animal, personification, the adventurer still must return with his life-transmuting trophy. The full round, the norm of the monomyth, requires that the hero shall now begin the labor of bringing the runes of wisdom, the Golden Fleece, or his sleeping princess, back into the kingdom of humanity, where the boon may redound to the renewing of the community, the nation, the planet or the ten thousand worlds. But the responsibility has been frequently refused. Even Gautama Buddha, after his triumph, doubted whether the message of realization could be communicated, and saints are reported to have died while in the supernal ecstasy. Numerous indeed are the heroes fabled to have taken up residence forever in the blessed isle of the unaging Goddess of Immortal Being.”

As I listened to these songs on Side 1, I couldn’t help but remember what Brian said to me in his email interview, when I asked him about the extent to which life should be considered a quest. The monomyth holds primal appeal, but its fierce expressions of justice and hushed reliance on supernatural benevolence oversimplify reality. I would like to think that I have reached a point in my life in which I value lived experience and the world. When I come across a musical artifact like The Near Future that records such incredible technical proficiency, replete with complex instrumentation and shimmering, vibrant harmonies, yet matches it with the black-and-white abstraction of the monomyth, I am left whimpering, “Yes, but… there’s more! Tell me about the rest of it! I WANT TO HEAR YOU TALK ABOUT THE REST OF IT TOO!”

Here is a prime example of what I am talking about: there are three individuated characters in the story cycle: a nameless eighteen-year-old human, a girl from another world, and her grandfather. But all of the actual lyrics are from the perspective of the human. When it’s the girl or her grandfather’s turn to speak, the listener must rely on the content of the album’s accompanying graphic novel, their voices are not actually reflected in the songs by more than the abstraction of the chiptune. This really frustrated me, because from my perspective, they were the people in the story who had the most interesting stuff to say! I understood that the story wasn’t really supposed to be about them, it was the human and his quest, but even though he was the character the reader was primed to identify with, I couldn’t really relate. Maybe because I’m not a male eighteen-year-old, trapped between the binary pair of innocence and experience (expressed more broadly in Song II, “Eighteen”, as “all” and “nothing”). I’m a woman, and I have made the transition into the experienced phase of life. I would really have liked to have heard more from the girl that the human rescues. She clearly has a story to tell. What is her native world like? Why did she and her grandfather come to this world in the first place? How does she feel about having to depend on this youth for help? We know she’s beautiful, but is she young, like he is? Unfathomably old? Truly eternal? This is the sort of stuff I care about and the graphic novel, as gorgeous as it is, supplies few details, sketching the girl’s story in very general terms.

Side B: Where the Magic Happens

Brian at his best, telling it like it is.
Brian at his best, telling it like it is.

I never would have imagined I’d be typing this a couple of days ago, when The Near Future was still an anticipated bliss, but is in The Near Future‘s second set of songs that my love of the band gets vindicated. The only real criticism I have of these tracks is that there are only 5 of them:

  1. “No Strings” I was of course familiar with from the preorder download, and would get a thumb’s up from me even if it only had the line “I can be anyone I want when I’m alone,” which always makes me pause.
  2. “Pretend” was hands down the best song on the album. It perfectly captures my feelings about cultural hegemony and is much more political than Brian is likely to admit on-record.
  3. “Chicago” amazed me because it perfectly captured the way I used to feel about the city when I was a teenager, the excitement and love that faded over the course of the years when I lived there (2008-2011), yet I know Brian actually grew up there as opposed to jaunting in from the suburbs like I did as a kid. I would have thought he’d come to take it for granted long before me. Well done, sir. My hat’s off to you.
  4. “Always” is a better love song than “With You” off of Cool Is Just a Number, and that’s saying a lot. Its artwork in the accompanying booklet is especially sweet.
  5. “Jimmy and Sally”, the most lyric-intensive song of the album, is essentially a Mahayana Buddhist song, whether Brian realized it while he penned it or not. Jimmy and Sally are trapped in Samsara, the song’s anonymous narrator is a Bodhisattva who recognizes his ego is an illusion, and the narrator is determined to remain in Samsara until Jimmy and Sally attain enlightenment and can come with him. No one gets out until everyone gets out: Mahayana 101.

I’m glad I have a copy of The Near Future. I recommend it as a musical investment to anyone who enjoys chiptune, rock, chiptune rock, or power pop. I’m going to listen the hell out of it for years to come. But I wish I hadn’t hyped it up so much in my own head. There was really no way Brian, Packy, Hari, and Chad could have delivered the album I thought I would hear, and I really have myself to blame. Well done, gentlemen.

Overall Rating: 4.0 out of 5. (Told you!)

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