Guest post by Rosa Nadine Xochimilco Sánchez
Minutes to Midnight’s new album After 1989: A Trip to Freedom is an incredible story and musical journey by Simone Silvestroni. It feels very personal while being uncompromisingly political. Each song is poignant and strong, showcasing a different historical moment or time, all along the main character’s path of discovery. I absolutely love the story and the songs, especially the way historical audio samples are woven throughout the album, anchoring it in reality, and making it feel incredibly emotional and genuine.
The subject matter of the concentration camps, the Cold War, and the Berlin Wall all underline the music, and the two things are inseparable from each other as the stories are told. There are echoes of Pink Floyd and The Who in its cinematic scope, as well as darkly emotive lyrics and vocals you might find in tracks by Wolfsheim, Covenant, or Nine Inch Nails. The use of mixed sounds to help develop the story also call upon techniques used by Cirque du Soleil and Gotan Project; and the album even calls back to the works of Robbie Robertson and VNV Nation by including deliberately chosen samples.
All of these techniques combine to bring together the bouquet of emotional notes which set the story and songs in a carefully constructed web of conflicts and questions, inviting us to follow the pilgrimage hand in hand with the main character.
We begin with Skinny Kid, a driving song which sets the stage for the landscape ahead. Setting up the why and the how of the story, we are introduced to the past and the concept of loss and longing within this family. With a memorable melody, the vocals coax you into what will become a meaningful tour through the past of this character and others, the focus often shifting, but the vision remains the same.
With a piercing guitar track and potent lyrics talking of “faceless strangers” and “a dream has swollen,” there is an inevitability in the language, a feeling that the stage is set and that we are here for the duration. Perhaps my favorite turn of phrase is that “He can’t stop the corrosion/ He’s losing his grip,” as there are so many layers to the lyrics, yet all of them are relatable. By the end of the track we have joined the trek toward truth and ready for more.
A Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot On A B-29
A Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot on a B-29 begins to show us the darkness in the story to come. The lightness of the music, using the xylophone as the faint tinkling of bells, is in direct contrast to the message of American president Harry Truman talking about the need to drop the Atomic Bomb, and a lovely gentle introduction to what will become a deeper feeling of disparity between the public and private spheres of the characters as well as the inconsistency between what the politicians are saying versus doing.
Truman’s message of saving American lives feels hollow knowing how many people died in Hiroshima, and we as listeners can really feel that dissonance through the music Silvestroni has written; this discrepancy between the message and the delivery, the words and the actions.
In The Logic we move forward in the narrative, continuing with that same sense of dissonance and uncertainty. We as listeners feel unsettled as we are given both soft saxophone and hard guitar melodies at the same time, creating the feeling that something must be wrong. The lyrics are persuasive and pleasing to the ear, while their message is one of deep concern.
There is almost a sense of sensuality to this song, luring us deeper into the story, despite the lyrics clearly telling us things are wrong in the world. Despite the lightness of the musicality and the transition to delicate female vocals, we know we are being led down the garden path. “I’ve got my side, you’ve got yours/ We keep an eye open wide indoors” is incredibly heavy in concept — showing that trust is lost even within the family, making our story even more complex.
Being a student of history, and particularly this time period in America, 13 Days was such a pleasure to listen to, especially with the incredible choice of samples in this song. John F. Kennedy’s participation and handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis is a key moment in history, and a poignant time in America. While that alone makes this one of my favorite songs on the album, the opening guitar riffs make sure the listener knows that things are changing. The music and the lyrics continue the downward spiral of reality that began in The Logic.
The play on words in the lyrics makes you feel like you are under some sort of spell, but going down Alice’s rabbit hole at the same time. Despite being specifically political, this song brings it back to the personal with Helen being wistful and wishful at the same time, showing the real hope against the continually growing darkness.
The underlying bass guitar begins as background, but despite a more prominent guitar solo, it slowly becomes the primary music behind the vocals, technically representing the nuclear escalation we are experiencing in the Cold War and the uneasiness we feel due to that loss of control.
Unter Den Linden
Transitioning into Unter Den Linden, as the audience, the music cues us to know that this is the “let’s go” song in the album; the barricade has been built, and it’s time for action. This the call to arms for the audience. The language and the music combine to make us feel that the main character’s journey isn’t theirs’ alone, but one that we are all on.
Being the fifth song on the album, we are far enough along into the story to know what is happening, and what we want to happen. We are in the trenches with the main character and feel close to them. “Wake Up/ Gotta go now to the place we can’t be afraid of/ Join me” is an emotional call and response buried within the song; for at this point, there is a definite emotional turn for the listener, it isn’t just their story, it’s our story, and we feel it with a gravitas that has slowly crept in, almost surprising when you realize how invested you are. When we hear “This time I can be me/ This time we’re gonna be free” we are right there ready to join the fight.
The next song, Love Field, is my favorite in the album. It is the most emotional and heart-wrenching; it’s the zenith of the anxiety and uncertainty they’ve been feeling. Continuing with the dissonance of the cheering crowd against the serious music, once again juxtaposing our feelings and what we want to happen versus what we already know happened in the past.
The amazing sample accompanies the guitar building and building to what we know will ultimately be pain. What’s different here is that while we know we are listeners, voyeurs to the story, it does not feel that way. We’re not experiencing this from a distance, we’re all neck-deep in it. The lyrics of “Shaking his hand/ Bringing roses to her” are both simple and poignant. They are things we would do, could do; everyman sort of activities. The chorus continues with this, it could be us waving, cheering, shooting, reporting, dying. It is the reality that we can’t escape the situation and the reality of history no matter whom we are.
This use of JFK’s assassination to echo the darkness of the worst parts of the 20th century and the countless deaths and incredibly cultural pain that accompanied those events.
There, in the sea of feelings, we come to Requiem, a song that has our hearts in our throats. Here, we are allowed to feel sad, and it really lets the audience process all that they’ve experienced so far. It’s a hard transition from the death of JFK to that of Martin Luther King Jr, both assassinations, and both assaults on the hope of a brighter future.
The application of a beautiful sample reminds us that we have a choice. That there, in the depths of despair and loss, we can still choose love over hate. We are there with our main character as we realize we too are in the middle of everything, perhaps complicit even, but that we have a choice of where to go next.
The Day Before
The Day Before begins our path back through Europe as we revisit the musical themes and feelings from Skinny Kid, our opening song. We are invited to look at what is happening with our main character, and how they are changing. It’s 1983, and a chance for re-evaluation. It is a deeper opportunity for us to look at ourselves as well, of how we choose to live and how our choices can deeply affect us and others.
The song is the twin to Unter Der Linden as it is the group collective in action. It is the lines blurred between individuals when we are all looking for freedom. While we remain beholden to the world around us and the machinations of the politicians around the world, the quest for independence runs like a strong current through all people.
A pause on our journey, Berlin 91 continues the emotional wave of The Day Before and is a patch of light through the clouds. “The wind of East Berlin is ruby red when lost in your hair” is an excellent line and is incredibly evocative as we see the use of color to show feelings in a different way. It acknowledges the darkness we have traveled through, and calls for us to really feel the meaning of that change.
We can reflect on our journey as the main character reflects on their own, and the powerful language of the recurring chorus is a hard line against complacency. “That was me watching the no man’s land/ This is me changing the life I planned.” It’s poetic and stalwart, and just as much as a call to arms as the feelings from Unter Den Linden. This is an incredibly powerful song and an excellent choice for the penultimate moment on the album.
The final song on After 1989: A Trip to Freedom is Sachsenhausen. The journey is so powerful on this album that I initially struggled with this song simply because I didn’t want the journey to end. The opening with the birds signals morning as opposed to mourning. It finally is a new dawn for our character, and really for each of us that has accompanied them. We have hope again, there is birth and rebirth.
We have come full circle, back to the camps, and we stand with our hero, speaking softly but strong as ever, and just as ready to fight fascism, defending the hope of the world against the darkness. The fantastic layering of vocals gives us the feeling that all incarnations of our main character are singing together, along with their ancestors — a kind of chorus through time — to all be there together, all in this together. Backed by gorgeous acoustic guitar we are comforted by the feeling of everything being together, of layers and layers of feelings finally settling into place.
The final emotive notes of the album are that of longing, but it is still loving. We look back at the journey we have traveled, but are looking out at the horizon to our bright future at the same time.
This album is a marvel of time and place as well as the use of music and lyrics to convey feelings and experiences that simply can not be conveyed with text. While the history of this time is incredibly dynamic, it is too often told in a cold and distant way, completely eliminating the intimacy of a true story so many of our relatives experienced.
Minutes to Midnight’s album is magical and haunting, giving the listener a way to both experience and reconcile the horrors and joys of the past; a journey of choices and consequences, a path of emotional growth. It is at once rock opera, gothic melancholy, family legend, and historical account, all blending together to create an album unlike any other. Technically brilliant, there are new things to hear each time, showing the absolute dedication of Simone Silvestroni and the intricate crafting of each and every song.
Ultimately at the core of all the beautiful lyrics, very deliberate melodies, and incredible choice of historical audio samples, this is the story of family. At the beginning we see the main character as apart from us, as other, and by the end, we are there with them, looking out at the lights, revisiting the jail, and remembering the experience as if we ourselves lived it. This is an amazing album full of great songs, many of which I found myself singing after just a few listens.
I look forward to sharing it with family and friends who love history and great music as well as DJs who I know would love to have several of the tracks on their dance floor. A great project, well developed, and beautifully accomplished, After 1989: A Trip to Freedom, is a journey I look forward to going on again and again.
Rosa Nadine Xochimilco Sánchez is an author. Small press founder and publisher of Xochimilco Press, she has published two books of poems: Blue Bones, Blood Roses, Black Eyes and Hearts Aflame, Still Burning.
Featured image photo and album cover by Silvia Maggi.
Photo of RNXS by Phil Gevaux.
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