It's no secret my musical taste is pretty questionable. And part of that deeply questionable taste is an abiding love for symphonic metal concept albums. But there's concept albums and there's concept albums--not everything can sustain an entire article. You have to have a really compelling story, like say, an alien on a galaxy-spanning rampage in search of the perfect cup of coffee.
Kamelot's album Silverthorn is such a story. I'm continually fascinated with this album, in fact, because of the concepts it's particularly preoccupied with, and the way its recurring symbols haunt it, lurking within a twin(n)ing and reflexive narrative. Silverthorn is really an album about trauma and how the failure to grapple with trauma leads to further violence and trauma, all in the context of a Victorian gothic setting. This is interesting to me because it feels like a departure to me from the kind of masculine posturing present in so much metal, and it's also deeply engaged with a kind of hauntological tradition, a tradition of gothic ghost stories in which the repressed returns with a vengeance and the boundaries between the natural and supernatural are hazy at best.
Now, critical to the album is one particular motif which haunts the contents, a set of notes that I'll call the Silverthorn theme--not Silverthorn the album but its namesake, a beautiful silver-tipped cello bow.
It is this cello bow that in the climactic scene of the narrative becomes a murder weapon.
Yeah, I wasn't kidding when I called this a gothic story. This is a story where extended families die out in mysterious circumstances, characters chase ghosts through labyrinthine churches, and people get stabbed through the heart with musical instruments as part of sinister plots. And part of the reason I love this, like I love most metal really, is that it's simultaneously ridiculous in the extreme while also being carefully composed and deeply compelling. This is the space that the Gothic at its best tends to inhabit. Think of Bill Sikes being chased by the ghost of the murdered Nancy in Oliver Twist, ultimately being driven by this possibly imagined pursuit and the very real pursuit of an angry mob to an accidental self-hanging. This is our domain for this album and core to understanding it, I think, is this interplay between the over the top and the emotionally resonant, as well as the ambiguous status of the haunting.
Anyway, the Silverthorn motif, which can be found in the chorus of the title track ("Pale in the moonlight, the bringer of pain...") haunts the album, weaving back and forth across its narrative as the reverberations of the story's central trauma rattle an entire family to pieces. If this is a somewhat ambiguous ghost story, the ghost just might be the Silverthorn motif itself, a melody that the main characters can never seem to escape.
Now I don't think this is necessarily an album where you have to understand the story in detail to understand the music. The album gives enough details to help you puzzle out some of the basic story, and the very compressed narrative of the (shockingly pretty damn good) video for Angel of Afterlife provides an overview, albeit one that has an odd relationship to both the album itself and the written story of the album (more on this momentarily). The basic thrust though is that this is a story about a tragedy that befalls a family and how they fail spectacularly to grapple with that tragedy. Which of course I love, people failing spectacularly to deal with the world is kinda my bread and butter; it's why I'm an Evangelion fan. So this family of nice Victorians has two twin sons, Robert and an unnamed narrator, and one younger daughter, Jolee, and the story starts with an accident involving the three children where the sister is dragged by a kite that the three of them are playing with into a river and is swept away. The boys, blaming themselves for her death, and terrified of punishment, hide their knowledge of how the accident occurred, but mark their skin with a word to remind them of their involvement in her death: