Ever have that one awesome favorite that is nothing like anything else you like of the same type? That’s me and the Cruxshadows.
The Cruxshadows are a darkwave band. If you don’t know what that is, just think “goth”; the two things aren’t synonymous, but there’s enough overlap to use as a shorthand. The Cruxshadows are an unusual example anyway; they turn downtempo music into upbeat experiences, skillfully mix strings with electronica, and have lyrics that celebrate heroism, self-sacrifice, and the value of life itself.
And if you think “upbeat,” “heroic,” and “value of life” can’t go with people who dress like that, then you might need to read further. The Cruxshadows aren’t just my favorite band. They’re some of the best people I’ve ever met.
Discovering the Cruxshadows
I first came across references to the band in John Ringo’s books. Ringo likes mentioning some of his favorite books and songs. His first book has a cameo from SF&F giant David Weber (who later coauthored a series with him); his Council Wars has an actual character from the Sluggy Freelance comic strip; and he used the cessation of Schlock Mercenary — a daily comic that has never missed an update or resorted to “sketch days” in over fifteen years — as a tongue-in-cheek mark of when civilization collapsed in his zombie apocalypse Black Tide series.
After the third time I saw a reference to this song called “Winter Born,” I finally looked it up on that newfangled “YouTube” website. I wasn’t expecting much. I mean, come on, goths? I’m not a fan of trance or electronica, and their music mixes both.
But then the violin started, and somehow that made the rest of it meld together seamlessly. And after that came the lyrics.
And in the fury of this darkest hour
I will be your light
You’ve asked me for my sacrifice
And I am winter born
~ “Winter Born”
That is, by the way, the original video upload of the song I listened to most of a decade ago. And no, I don’t know what the train means.
Now, to give you some perspective, at the time my music library consisted of Celtic/New Age, Oldies, Irish folk and rock, and the occasional Catholic song. There wasn’t much else. Even after I started listening to the Cruxshadows, I didn’t get into similar artists, even other stuff (like Nightwish) that John Ringo recommended. My current playlists are dominated by instrumentals, ranging from classical composers to movie and video game soundtracks. I play them while working, because anything with English lyrics is distracting.
When I want those lyrics, though, the Cruxshadows are my go-to choice.
There are two things that really draw me in on it, and I’ve already mentioned both. The first is that I’m partial to violin music. Long, steady notes that make the imagination soar, the sort that can only come from instruments in the violin family. The Cruxshadows use this a lot, and meld it into the electronica in a way that turns something that might be harsh and grating into a stirring musical performance, like a work of art with a dance beat.
The other is their lyrics. They don’t delve into the stereotypical cynicism or apathy that often characterizes other darkwave artists. Even when they cover topics like death and loneliness, they have an approach that celebrates sacrifice, heroism, honor, and duty. Their music is defiant, rather than despairing; joyful even when singing of sorrow. One of their most popular pieces, “Marilyn, My Bitterness” is the best breakup song I’ve ever heard. It acknowledges the pain of heartbreak, but leaves you feeling completely unashamed for hurting — not depressed, not hiding, but shouting to the world that you’re still here and no one’s managed to break you yet.
I’ll absorb this agony
I’ll carry all this pain
I’ll wipe away this emptiness
I will purify this stain
My wings will fold around me now
For once a one was two
And my memory is a monument
That will always stand for you
~ “Marilyn, My Bitterness”
Their music takes these stereotypically “bad” topics and flips them deliberately. They don’t just uncover the purpose of such things, they actually make them inspirational.
The trials you are now facing
They are not greater than your will
For there is nothing under heaven
You cannot overcome
See the door that lies before you
And know this too shall pass
The confrontation of your fears
In strength drawn from the past
~ “Eye of the Storm”
That song Ringo kept referencing, “Winter Born” (subtitled as “This Sacrifice”) is from the album Ethernaut. That album draws on the Trojan War for inspiration and motifs, and the title “Winter Born” is a reference to an epithet for the Trojans themselves. (It translates roughly as either “they’re really dangerous” or “they’re doomed,” which just about sums it up.) The song itself is about sacrifice for a greater cause, and the willingness to die so that the innocent do not have to.
While I was at DragonCon last year, Rogue — the stage name of the Cruxshadows’ songwriter and lead singer — described what inspired him to write the song. He’d seen an Associated Press photo of an American soldier in the Middle East — a photo he’s never been able to locate again — who was obviously wounded in at least two places. The soldier was holding his rifle in his off-hand, using his right arm to shield a small child behind him. Rogue said he stared at that photo for a long time, trying to imagine the mindset of someone who wasn’t just willing to sacrifice his life on the off chance that he might save someone else’s . . . but rather someone who was willing to leave his home, travel across the world, and protect people he didn’t even know. To literally put his body between danger and the innocent.
The result was “Winter Born,” which is their most popular song, especially among the military for fairly obvious reasons. I highly recommend listening to it when you have the chance.
So bury fear, for fate draws near
And hide the signs of pain
With noble acts, the bravest souls
Endure the heart’s remains
Discard regret, that in this debt
A better world is made
That children of a newer day might remember
And avoid our fate
~ “Winter Born”
The music wasn’t just good; it helped me examine difficulties in my life and work through depression in college. It really resonated with my Catholic faith, a faith that struggled to find solace in prayer but was firmly rooted in the philosophical underpinnings of Catholic teachings. I kept wondering if Rogue himself was Catholic, and was happy to find out he was. In fact, I understand from a conversation I had with someone who was there that Rogue’s wedding was celebrated in the Tridentine Rite.
This isn’t “Catholic music” by a long shot, but rather something that resonated with how I saw the history and teachings of my Church. He said during a panel that he deliberately draws on his own faith for these lyrics.
Do not injustice to another
Defend the weak and innocent
May truth and honor always guide you
Let courage find a life within
Stand up when no one else is willing
Act not in hatred or in spite
Be to this world as a perfect knight
Even if it means your life
As a side-note, for you Regina Doman fans in the audience: Listen to the song “Defender” and tell me that’s not a perfect soundtrack for Waking Rose.
They say this cause is lost
And she will not return to me
They say that she is gone
And this is just a shell unliving
And through the dark of the morning
She fades, but I will not leave here
Fight back the demons around us
Love lives, and I will defend her
I didn’t have a whole lot of money for luxuries like buying music, but I kept listening on online radio sources. Then a couple years ago I bought the album As the Dark Against My Halo, and let me tell you . . . that album is amazing. Every song except “Matchstick Girl” (which is too sad for a guy with chronic, unmedicated depression) is in my normal rotation for exercise, cleaning my house, or playing a video game. “Valkyrie” and “Halo” (the later being the source for the album title) really helped me firm up a few things for my novel, and if you’re reading this after it’s been published you might see how.
And if I fall,
Give me the strength to rise unbroken
And where I stand,
The courage and will to fight
That when I dream,
These eyes discern my purpose and believe
That should I die,
Self-sacrifice becomes this victory
The best song, in a personal sense at least, was “Angelus Everlasting.” I was happy, but very unsurprised, to hear Rogue say that it rivals “Winter Born” for his personal favorite. It’s quite possibly the best anti-depression song in the history of mankind. Certainly the best in my own personal experience.
Reaching Through the Darkness
Last month, I wrote a post on what it’s like to be depressed. That was a rewrite of something I’d posted on Facebook almost exactly a year ago, and right before I went to DragonCon and met the band. It was in response to a really bad low I’d suffered in the previous weeks, and I had decided it was high time that I put my experiences into writing.
In fragments of an instant
The chaos has returned
And all that was left to sentiment
Beneath the banner burned
And as that voice was slow receding
Into echoes, memory
My doubts were re-ignited
And fear awakened from its sleep
~ “Eye of the Storm”
It was the worst low I’d had in four years, both in terms of the length of time as well as the depth of the depression. That previous low had forced me to set certain rules for myself to manage things, because I never wanted to be that low ever again.
In that essay, I mentioned how I’ve had to use tricks to help me through it, such as art therapy or talking to friends. This time, nothing helped. I was trying to distract myself with gaming, audiobooks, podcasts, talk radio . . . distracting myself and keeping me away from dwelling on my own emotions. They were all temporary, and did nothing to drag myself out.
Then I had to go on an errand. I got in my car and realized I hadn’t loaded any new things to listen to on my phone, and the only guy on the local talk radio station at that hour was (boo, hiss) Michael Savage. I sighed and queued up Cruxshadows.
In love everlasting
Hold tightly to the spark
Though the darkness surrounds you
Remember who you are
I’ve found it here always
And I hope you’ll find it too
In love everlasting,
The angels are standing next to you
~ “Angelus Everlasting”
By the time I was home an hour later, I was crying. I mean I was literally driving while wiping tears from my eyes . . . but I was feeling better. For the first time during that low, I felt like I had a chance of getting out and back to normal. Every song that came up seemed to be telling me that there was hope, that I had meaning in my life, that it was worth struggling, that I was not alone.
When you’re depressed, the hardest thing is believing you’re not alone.
I Will be Your Light
Over the next week, I continued listening, gradually getting lifted out. Then I went to an alumni event at my old college, continuing to listen to Cruxshadows, when I was driving home I suddenly realized that I wasn’t in my low anymore. I wasn’t quite back to normal, but I wasn’t depressed either.
I wrote that last original essay and posted it the next day, wanting to get my thoughts down and shared. I didn’t know how long it would be before I slid back into a deep depression, so I wanted to hurry while it was still fresh in my mind. I needed to feel like there was some upside to the experience, something that made it worthwhile. The response I got seemed to justify the effort.
I did, in fact, backslide a bit; not as low, but not back to normal. I was distracted enough to not even remember that Doctor Who was back until almost air time, and the only reason I was going to DragonCon at all was because I didn’t want to explain to Declan why I changed my mind. I hoped it would be good for me, but I wasn’t sure it was going to be worth it.
When I got to DragonCon and was looking over the schedule, I noticed that there was a Cruxshadows Q&A session and decided to attend. I wanted to attend their concert, but found out it was at 1:30 AM on Monday, and figured there was no way I could do that with how far away our motel was (about four blocks, which is difficult in a wheelchair; I can walk, but there is no way I can do a con without a wheelchair, then or now). So I figured that the Cruxshadows panel was the closest I could get to the concert.
I was a little late, and sat there listening to the questions and the band’s answers. Eventually, I decided I wanted to let them know how they’d helped me without even meaning to.
I got up and went to the microphone that stood there in the aisle. I was going to tell them about my recent low. I was going to tell them how the only thing that penetrated the depression this time was their music. I was going to mention some specific songs, and thank them for what they did and say I was very glad to be there to tell them.
Instead, all I was able to choke out was “I deal with a lot of depression . . . your music helps.”
This is not the normal course of events. I do public speaking. I can take control of a crowd. Some of you in the audience have heard me speak, either on a podcast or live in a lecture hall. I know from experience that I can talk for hours with little preparation, and make lots of jokes and get people to relax. I’m not a comedian, but I studied standup techniques to combat my earlier social awkwardness and I’ve gotten used to “performing” in front of a crowd. I get complimented on my ability to moderate a panel of loquacious authors or answer questions and give advice about creative writing. Once I helped out with an astronomy event that clouded over, and the professional teachers running the event had me handle the crowd and give an impromptu lesson on astronomy and astrophysics that kept the audience interested. People come to ask me about history, theology, philosophy, literature, politics, and other things because they’re used to me standing up and looking confident and in control.
Not this time.
I couldn’t get another word out. I was right on the edge of breaking down, and it came on me so suddenly I was afraid I might not even be able to continue standing. I turned and limped back to my wheelchair, feeling utterly humiliated and wondering why I’d even bothered trying.
The purpose of one becomes the purpose of all
A phalanx made from what we believe
A ghost or an angel, a wish or a prayer
Just open your eyes, your heart, your mind
And breathe . . .
Then I noticed the crowd was waving at me to stop, and pointing back at the band. I turned to see that Rogue had jumped down and was running over to me to give me a hug. Now, I don’t mean a casual “nice to meet you, stranger” kind of hug. This was the sort of embrace you give to an old, dear friend who’s having a rough time. It was the sort of hug I’d gotten as an eleven-year-old boy from Pope St. John Paul II — the first time I’d ever felt comfortable in a church. Both moments spoke more and louder than words ever could.
There are very few people I feel comfortable getting a hug from. It sucks, because it’s also difficult for me to process the idea of anyone caring for me without physical contact. It just doesn’t feel natural with most people; just a select few, and most little kids. It’s an Aspergers thing, and hard to explain without going into detail about autism symptoms. That’s why I compared this moment to meeting JPII. Those are the only two adults who instantly got on the “hugs are okay” list.
Both band members and people in the audience complimented me on doing what I did. I was able to explain to them one-on-one the sort of stuff I had been unable to say in front of an audience. One band member even mentioned to me how they, the band members, would listen to their own music when feeling down. JoHanna (violinist) and Brent (co-author of the upcoming Cruxshadows rock opera, Afterall) became almost instant friends. After the crowd had moved out, Rogue stayed to talk with me one-on-one for nearly an hour about music, movies, Catholic stuff, Harry Potter, Tolkien, Lewis, and other things.
Basically, the Cruxshadows are among the nicest people you will ever meet. And as I told Rogue, his three-year-old daughter Anmi (Angelina Miette) is almost as cute as my niece at that age . . . but I’m biased. (Anmi is a lot less people-shy than Emily was, though. She was stealing the show by playing monster-peekaboo with some band members while Rogue was answering questions.)
Before the panel, I wasn’t all that interested in going to the reading of the first act of Afterall. I decided I wanted to after they described it. After the way they made me feel so welcome and appreciated, I decided it was the most important thing for me to do in that time-slot. I could tell my friends thought that was peculiar, considering what else was happening at that time, but I also didn’t tell them what had happened at the panel. In fact, no one who wasn’t there knew about it until I talked about it on Facebook. I couldn’t put it into words any other way.
And by the way, Afterall was pretty awesome. I really hope it winds up playing in DC, whether or not it shows up on DVD. They only read the first of two acts, due to time constraints, but it’s fun, funny, mysterious, and leaves you wondering what’s really going on by the end of Act One. I can’t wait to see it live.
Live in Concert
That night, as we were going back to our motel, I mentioned (yet again; this was kind of a broken record for me) how I wished we were in a host hotel. Then it would have been easier to go to the Cruxshadows concert, since I could have made it on my own. Declan then immediately offered to stay back with me and help me get to the motel, while our other two roommates went to bed at normal hours. (Well, normal for a con.) He was the only reason I was able to get there.
The concert was amazing. I risked my eardrums (note to self: next time, bring ear plugs) and got all the way up to the stage as the crowd was forming. Some of the fans were trying to get me right at the edge, but there were two teen girls who weren’t budging. An older lady (who said she was glad I was along because she could lean on my handlebars throughout the show) got rather upset at them and asked them, referencing the Cruxshadows song “Sentinel,” “That’s the hill where you’ll make your stand?” The girls didn’t budge, doing their best to ignore both her and me. I tried to assure her that I was fine there, and though I was wishing I could see the stage better at many points in the show, I really was in a pretty good spot even for sitting down.
That close, you didn’t just hear the music, you felt it. And it’s designed to be felt anyway, so it added to the fun even though I’m surprised my ears weren’t ringing badly after it was all over. It was so loud that you couldn’t hear yourself sing along, but we gave it our best — particularly during “Winter Born.”
I’d told Rogue I wouldn’t be able to make it to the concert, and I’m pretty certain he spotted me because at one point when he was high-fiving audience members, he paused for half a second, looked surprised, and smiled directly at me. I didn’t have a chance to speak to him after the concert, as he was surrounded by fans, but I’d like to think he was grateful I showed up. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but he’d seemed genuinely disappointed when I’d told him I couldn’t come.
I did run into JoHanna there, after it was over. She ran off the stage to see me, obviously delighted I was there, and wanted to make certain I would contact her on Facebook. Did I mention how freaking nice these people are?
Seeing them all in concert was a lot different from the videos online, either the official music videos or the fan-recorded clips. You get more of the way they not only interact with but also feed off of the crowd, and you can get a feel for each band member’s style. I particularly found myself impressed by Rogue’s wife Jessica, once a dancer and now their drummer. I’d seen a little bit of her style online, but quick clips don’t tell the whole story. She’s good. And (remember, I’m partial to violins) seeing, instead of just hearing, JoHanna and David interweaving their parts was really fun.
There was a nice pause in the concert, by the way. A friend of the band was there, making stuff out of balloons in the audience (including a balloon version of Rogue himself). Rogue invited him up on stage, followed soon after by the balloon-guy’s girlfriend, a former band member herself. (If someone can tell me their names, I’ll edit this part.) After some joking around, Rogue added that the other man “has something he’d like to ask you.” Some gasping (from the girlfriend) and cheering (from everyone else) later, the couple was engaged.
You can see some crappy photos from my phone here, including some shots from the marriage proposal.
Declan and I got back at four in the morning and both had a glorified nap before breakfast. I don’t know about him, but it was worth every moment of lost sleep.
This Nail Shall Represent Hope
Mood plays a large part in how much my fibromyalgia hurts, and it magnifies other pain in turn. The crowds and the elevator-hogs caused a lot of stress for me. Even without that, trips like these tend to leave me shaky, achy, and grumpy.
Well, except for this one. I was feeling better at the end than when I’d flown out in the first place. That hasn’t happened since . . . um . . . *thinks* . . . never. By the time I pulled up in my driveway at home, I was realizing that the whole trip had been justified just by how I’d completely pulled out of my depression. I was feeling better than I’d felt in a very long time. Sure, I picked up some travel-stress on my way back to Maryland, but honestly it was all feeling worth it.
I’d once had the opportunity to go see the Cruxshadows in concert in November 2008, because I was finishing up my last semester at Christendom and they were playing in Winchester. I decided against it, needing to concentrate on my thesis and not really wanting to go to a loud concert. Plus, hey, I like the band’s music, but I figured the odds were against me liking the band members.
I was thinking about that after actually meeting them, not without a lot of irony. Yet while it might surprise you, I decided at the same time that aside from some what-ifs, I’m glad I waited. There’s no way that the event I skipped could have been as fun an introduction as this one was.
Since posting the old version of that essay on Facebook, I’ve heard from others who had similar experiences with their songs, most of them thinking that they were the only ones who felt that way. I’ve also heard from others who have picked up some of their songs to listen to, and not only people who have suffered through depression.
There are a lot of other songs that I could have put into this essay. This is just an introduction. If you thought this was interesting, I encourage you to explore more. Listen to the samples I put here, then ask for suggestions if you want more, or start with this anti-depression playlist I made for someone last year.
To all Cruxshadows members past and present: thank you. You touched my life and made my world a better place to be.
Then tell me what really matters
Is it the money and the fame?
Or how many people might
Eventually know your name?
But maybe you touch one life
And the world becomes a better place to be
Maybe you give their dreams another day
Another chance to be free