Living in The Past

Time Travelling With The Chronicles of Father Robin

With The Songs & Tales of Airoea, Norwegian band The Chronicles of Father Robin proudly repudiates every trend in the music industry.

Simulating the 1960s. Krishna flash mob, Tel Aviv.

Over the past six months, the self-proclaimed supergroup has released three remarkable albums, Book 1: The Tale of Father Robin, Book 2: Ocean Traveler, and Book 3: Magical Chronicle, which combine to communicate an oblique fantasy narrative.

Three and a half minutes into “Unicorn”, the final track of the first album, Andreas Wettergreen Strømman Prestmo sings “I slip/Away from the/Boundaries/Of my senses/While my mind/Tries to focus on/This approaching galaxy/Immortality”.

In an era when even the statements of career politicians veer towards meme-worthy irony, the earnest gravity of these lines might sound like parody, a twenty-first-century reprise of the Monty Python sensibility. But nothing indicates that the band is performing a nudge-nudge, wink-wink routine.

The Chronicles of Father Robin plays it straight.

Nor does the band seem to care that it’s almost impossible to get audiences to listen to an album from start to finish these days, much less a trilogy.

This is album-oriented rock for an era in which three-minute songs are mostly consumed in bits and pieces as musical beds for social media posts.

The Songs & Tales of Airoea demands that we immerse ourselves in its world without a lyric sheet to guide us.

To be sure, the band provides musical clues – the off-kilter polyrhythms of Rush, the diptychs and triptych structures of Yes, the flute of Jethro Tull – as do Lars Bigum Kvernberg’s trippy covers.

It almost seems like a loving satire in the vein of XTC’s psychedelic spinoff band Dukes of Stratosphear. But the irony and exaggeration that fueled those albums from the 1980s are lacking here.

Figuring out what the band’s sincerity means and how that meaning should resonate in our cynical world is difficult.

Although The Chronicles of Father Robin does not explain the story of The Songs & Tales of Airoea, they at least tell us how it came about:

The first sprouts of this concept grew out of a teenage fellowship who shared a joint interest in folk tales, mythology, fantasy literature, psychedelia and adventurous music. It was an exhilarating time filled with fiery discussions where we introduced each other to our latest discoveries and tried to win each other over.

In other words, these three albums represent middle-aged adults trying to realise an adolescent vision.

Even today, when it’s getting harder by the hour to suspend disbelief, teenagers outshine their elders in idealism, committing their hearts and minds to quixotic dreams.

The Chronicles of Father Robin channel that engagement, like grown-ups who devote their leisure time to cosplay or Medieval reenactment.

But they do it so well that they beat down our defences.

Songs like “Death of the Fair Maiden”, “Green Refreshments”, and “Magical Chronicle” come off as tenacious method acting.

More than anything, this quality is what gives The Songs & Tales of Airoea an air of intense nostalgia.

It isn’t simply that The Chronicles of Father Robin are referencing the heyday of prog rock, a half-century on, but that they fully embody that relevance-be-damned mindset of that period.

The word “nostalgia” can describe a wide range of feelings and practices. However, these nuances are too frequently overlooked when we think of popular music that communicates nostalgia for a previous era.

The Songs & Tales of Airoea provides the perfect opportunity to rediscover some of them.

In addition to celebrating the psychedelic escapism that emerged from the ruins of the counterculture, the trilogy also looks back fondly on the period in which that music was being rehabilitated by artists and critics in the 1990s.

And because The Chronicle of Father Robin started working on this project three decades before these new albums appeared, their music also communicates a keen nostalgia for their youthful fixations.

It takes serious dedication to keep working on a project for that long.

Aside from the impediment posed by other professional and personal commitments, the music industry has changed enormously.

When the idea for these concept albums first surfaced, the business was nearing an all-time high. The compact disc reigned supreme and Napster was still a distant speck on the horizon.

If records like these came out back then, they might have caught one of the many “alternative” waves and become a minor hit.

But it is far more likely that they would have barely made it into stores, consigned to the purgatory of the remainder bin.

These days, by contrast, achieving the kind of financial stability that makes holding a second or third job unnecessary is possible for vanishingly few artists. Yet it’s also much easier to reach faraway audiences using the tools of the post-internet to cultivate a loyal following.

Maybe by going about things the wrong way, The Chronicles of Father Robin is doing something right.

While The Songs & Tales of Airoea pleads for the kind of immersive listening that even music critics struggle to summon, it also sounds distinct enough to stand out amid the snippets of songs circulating online.

The band’s dedication to fantasy also seems pertinent to a world where we must turn to the past to find a future worth living for.

The Chronicles of Father Robin’s Norwegian heritage demands consideration here. Although the audience for prog rock was and remains as international as the one for punk, the band’s multi-layered nostalgia resonates with particular force in their native land.

For Norway, the 1970s were the dawn of a political Golden Age, in which the nation’s vast North Sea petroleum reserves enbled the government to invest heavily in social programs and the arts.

Although environmental activism was strong in that era, the sense that this wealth was bound up with a death wish for the Earth didn’t become widespread until the end of the century.

It seemed like magic that a primarily rural nation with a population smaller than many American states could take such good care of itself while making major contributions to the international scene in peacekeeping ventures like the Oslo Accords.

The Songs & Tales of Airoea doesn’t tackle this specifically Norwegian history directly. However, the lyrics draw from the same Norse mythology that inspired the Medievalist J.R.R. Tolkien and other fantasy authors.

There are moments when the albums’ self-contained quality, their dogged rejection of the so-called real world, feel like the best meta-horror.

Films such as The Village, The Others and the Charlotte Perkins Gilman story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” come to mind, narratives in which we suddenly perceive that the story we have been following so intently isn’t safely confined within generic conventions but is interwoven into the fabric of everyday life in a most disturbing way.

For all of its apparent escapism, the psychedelic mindset The Chronicles of Father Robin so forcefully channels always treated acid as a double-entendre, indulging delusion to eat away at the “life lies” that shore up our damaged reality.

The Songs & Tales of Airoea is undeniably great headphone music, perfect for tripping out. But it might work even better as a critique of a world where every journey comes at a high price.

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Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.