Concept albums are a blessing and a curse. They give thinking songwriters room to develop ideas, but they also often expose how shallow and confused those ideas tend to be.
The World’s On Fire, the latest album by the Vermont band Over Orange Heights, is an exception. Composed by the group’s leader, the 41-year-old lawyer and former Marine intelligence officer Adrian Otterman, it addresses a growing sense on the Right that the “War on Terror” may have morphed into a War on Freedom.
“Due to concerns regarding government reprisals,” reads a mock disclaimer on the back cover, “including politically motivated IRS audits, ongoing active Internet/social-media monitoring, indefinite detention without due process and/or assassination by the FBI or CIA pursuant to the USA Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Acts of 2013, those involved in the recording of this album hereby publicly state that the views contained herein are not necessarily their views.”
“I was always proud of my nation,” says Otterman, “but perhaps simplistic in my views of good versus evil.”
The World’s On Fire reflects Otterman’s de-simplification. “The realization that one’s closely held beliefs may be wrong or that one’s understanding of the world has been manipulated is painful,” he admits. “This album is the art that followed that pain.”
United by Otterman’s yearning lead vocals and lyrics that challenge military-industrial complexities, the 11 songs flow together with an ominous folk-rock, progressive-rock calm. Given Otterman’s background and Christian faith, the questioning—rhetorical and otherwise—feels sharper than it might coming from a leftist or anyone else whose default setting is “might makes wrong.”
“A nation without a foe can’t be saved,” he sings sarcastically in “False Flag,” concluding that “it’s just history repeated. …” In “Conditioned”: “Something’s got a hold on you. / It’s planted deep inside. / Is it false or is it true? / Your doubts are justified.”
Lest anyone miss the point, “The World’s On Fire Reprise” finds Otterman reciting the following: “We have been conditioned through the use of entertainment, war, pharmaceutical products, and advertising to believe that we are ‘free’ when in fact, we are all slaves of the rising Marxist oligarchy. The watered down notion of freedom to which we cling is actually tyranny in disguise. …”
The liner notes, meanwhile, feature “suggested readings” and/or “additional thoughts” from George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Edward Bernays, General Smedley Butler, and the Psalms.
“People instinctively know that they cannot trust their media, their universities, their scientists or even their government,” Otterman says, “but they can’t quite find the words to express their frustration. I hope that this album gives them some words.”
Another album that might enhance the vocabulary of global-events watchers is Now: XXXVI (Frontiers) by the venerable pop act Chicago.
On the whole, the current Chicago configuration—which includes all three original brass and woodwind players and the composer-singer-keyboardist Robert Lamm—is no more politically articulate than any of its others. (The new Lee Loughnane composition “America” makes Lee Greenwood sound profound.)
“Naked in the Garden of Allah,” however, takes risks. Lamm, the song’s co-composer, has said that it’s “about this past 10 years we’ve spent in the Middle East, screwing everything up.” But sung from the point of view of Middle Eastern Muslims, lines such as “We are naked, we are innocent, we are deadly … We are broken, we are impotent, we are lost” have an immediacy that renders partisan analysis moot.
They sound, in fact, a lot like how Over Orange Heights’ various narrators are feeling at their most disillusioned. —A.O.