“What is truth in this life?” is among many questions found on orchestral pop duo The Brilliance’s second album, Suite No. 2 World Keeps Spinning: An Antidote to Modern Anxiety. The concept record, premiering today on American Songwriter, wrestles with humanity’s current state and their own mental brokenness.
Childhood friends John Arndt and David Gungor work as composer and songwriter, respectively, and their separate gifts come to create a masterful blend of classical music and modern electro-pop music. “We have VHS home videos of the two of us as one-year-olds banging on musical instruments in a room together and yelling at each other,” says Arndt, whose crafty, sticky blends serve to underscore Gungor’s richness with a pen. He adds, “In many ways, the story of our relationship is a story of partnership and collaboration since we were young.”
The new set was recorded at Sonic Ranch Studio in Tornillo, Texas, and comes in the aftermath of 2018’s Suite No. 1 Oh Dream, a commissioned project by World Relief and centered on DACA dreamers. The follow up fit a similar rubric in creating art with wide resonance. Songs like “Must Admit,” “Facebook,” and “Just Be” puncture the tensions surrounding mental health and the general havoc across the world.
“The music is always about something larger than ourselves or our own self expression,” says Arndt.
“World Keeps Spinning” – and it’s needle-point lyric (“We live for more than just the end of the world”) stands as the backbone of the album. “I had this one night where I sort of mashed up all these classical pieces into it. There’s Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor and Stravinsky’s Firebird, and I found it gave the music a number of layers that made it that much more compelling,” Arndt explains. He draws upon his work as an arranger to “add orchestral melodies and instrumental layers to create some musical depth to a track. One thing I’ve been working on in creating new music is realizing that if you can reference other ideas or other melodies that people already know, you’re able to create more layers in meaning within one given track of music. It has a multiplier effect.”
For him, Firebird “represents earth in its grandest, most overwhelming, 2001 Space Odyssey sense,” and Bach’s piece embodies “the history of intelligent life on earth,” he says, emphatically. “It’s all of the things we think are so important and all of our conflicts, wars, achievements, and stories. At the end, the earth wins out. That concept became the bedrock for this album.”
Suite No. 2 boasts a talented roster of musicians, including McKenzie Smith (St. Vincent) and Tyler Chester (Joan Baez, Christina Aguilera), and orchestra players and choir members from Biola University in La Mirada, California.
Stitched between synthetic layers, thrashing against sweeping, cinematic string work and angelic chorus melodies, a theme of personhood quickly emerges. “Throughout the record, there are echoes of humanity,” offers Gungor. “So many times, in the west and as an American, my personhood is only defined as ‘I think therefore I am.’”
“That’s great, but on the other end, it can be super lonely. What if I think differently than my community? What if I am struggling with anxiety and I feel all alone? One of the things about being human is we’re always connected to humanity’s past and humanity’s future,” he says. “As you deal with anxiety and you look inward, it will always, even if you look for peace on the inside, lead you to people around you. I hope people honestly look inward about their anxiety.”
Perhaps the most urgent question the duo asks on the album is: is this the end of the world?
John Arndt doesn’t really have the answer – but he has a deep understanding that could lead us there. “The first time that concept [of the end of the world] was presented to me is related to our upbringing. We had a conservative, evangelical upbringing, which we loved in many ways. I found myself thinking about the idea that things were going to end, and the Rapture was going to happen,” he considers. “So, it was this thing of ‘oh, don’t worry about the earth because Jesus is going to come back and fix it all’ or ‘these battles are life and death battles and there are cosmic battles…’”
15 years ago, he walked away from such a rigid tradition and way of thinking to find his own meaning. “I thought I found a more tolerant, open-minded and less intense way of thinking. Then, I realized you see that way of thinking everywhere and in every ideology where they believe they are part of a conflict that is the biggest conflict ever.”
Arndt then weighs a recent political event – the airstrike which killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani – and how social media played into our apocalyptic fears and bloodlust. “It didn’t take much for so many of us to be talking about World War III and how everything is bad. We tend to thirst for it, I think, on some level. If we have a mission as a band, what we’re looking to do is tilt the scale that points to a more peaceful world.”
He adds, “This album is an exploration around the tensions and the anxieties that lead many of us to feel like we’re in an apocalyptic nightmare.”
Gungor chimes in to highlight the end-game of the album, at least thematically: “People thought empires would last forever, and they burned. This album is wrestling with the ideas of existential dread, but then, it’s about coming to a place with how to deal with it so much that we have solved anxiety. We get to a point where we’re willing to talk about the things that make us anxious. By the end of the record, you get to a place of gratitude and needing each other.”
Below, The Brilliance dissect five of the album’s standout songs, from songwriting to production.
Arndt: “This was birthed out a personal experience. Through that, I also discovered the Bach piece that anchors it. The whole intro has a darkness in it. It was a peak anxiety moment, probably the most pressure I’ve ever experienced in my life. It involved a long term relationship ending, and it was also a work relationship. It was the first time I had ever experienced chest pain as a it related to pressure in life.
It was the first concept of ‘this pain in my chest, I can’t give it back, so I don’t exist until there’s nothing left.’ The way it mashed with the music is very personal. Once you get to the rest of it, yes, there’s an unpacking of the physical feeling of anxiety in a way as an adult how the months and years, and the responsibilities and commitments tack on – there can be this suffocating zone. The piece doesn’t offer answers, but it is certainly a picture of being stuck.
Gugor: John was living on a farm outside of New York City. He was an artist in residence at a commune, a very eclectic place. There were Budhuist, mindfulness practitioners and some ex-episcopal nuns who developed a nature-centered liturgy and found ways to do retreats and foster beauty. I was visiting John and read this thing that said ‘Blessed is the Dreamer.’ I remember we wanted to write around it. As we were writing, part of the theme that kept coming up was this idea that we all live in a world of heroes.
We’re all starring in our very own show and looking for someone to save us. Humanity becomes our own vision of what we think humanity should be. You get this menacing theme: what happens when people feel like they own the truth? Often times, truth becomes violent. What happens when someone has a different take than you? You somehow feel you need to be a little aggressive or get defensive. It becomes weaponized.
“I Shall Not Fear”
Arndt: “What’s important and beautiful with how it feels like you’re in church is the first line and the whole idea of the song being about the value of doubt. That’s coming from a choir. A week before, there were the Mosque shootings in New Zealand – I mean, it all piles up – and there was a sense in the room as we were recording that it was a vigil for them. It’s so easy to have this type of faith or stand with this type of certainty that leads to violence. This is an appeal to doubt and to doubting your assumptions and beliefs.
It’s giving yourself a chance to step outside of yourself and your view and see if there is value to the opposing view. With the internet, you feel mobilized for a cause, and that sometimes can lead to the worst results. We sometimes substitute the idea of faith with certainty, but as a matter of fact, certainty is the antithesis of faith. For you to have faith in something, you’re doing it in spite of doubt and the fact you know you can’t fully explain this.
Gungor: It’s really easy in friendship to be like “oh, I know what they are thinking” and be so certain in your own view. To be able to be like ‘“maybe I’m wrong” or “maybe they had different intentions” inspires curiosity. That’s always needed in friendships or relationships. There’s a sense of humility to it.
Arndt: Well, a huge part of our musical conception is our love of classical musical, instrumental musical, and film score. David conceived of this project by experiencing his brother-in-law playing a cello piece in Carnegie Hall and that experience of silence and just listening to music. That became the framework of how we started our collaboration. It all happened in one moment, and it was all based around this time of deep personal pressure from me. The melody came in a moment – and the moment I played it and felt it, I started crying. I immediately connected with it, and I felt it expressed something.
I was then trying to find a way to turn it into more of an orchestral piece. The way it exists in the concept of this album is letting go. You can’t explain things, and you can’t win everything. You can’t understand everything. You’re not going to solve everything. Let it go. It becomes a transition. You have all our existential fears and doubts leading up the album until you get to the 30-second piece called “I Wanna Know,” which becomes a turning point. We begin to figure out how to let go of these anxieties. Instrumental music is often the gateway to that – to self reflection and meditation.
Gungor: I was going through similar things as John was – like dealing with anxiety for the first time and really being able to try and figure out how to address that. During that time, I was part of study through John Hopkins, and it was a two-year study. Part of the study, you meet with a doctor of psychiatry. You have six months of prep, and then, you do these sessions. You go into the hospital, take this medicine, and you trip for like eight hours. It’s very intense. You’re under a mask, and you’re all hooked up to make sure your vitals are OK.
The mantra I came out of that with was learning to be and trying to let go. So, this idea for “Just Be” and my own personal sanity became my mantra. One of the ways we addressed anxiety, I got a psychiatrist, and I got on medicine. Even though on medicine, there are still times when you’re dealing with anxiety really hard. Meditation really helped. I had to give myself space. The reason for the line “the universe feels everything” is through the whole study, I went through some really painful memories. While I was there, I kept feeling this overwhelming thing of “the universe feels, the universe feels…” Then, I went to this place: who am I? Well, I am part of the universe. It’s a simple set of lyrics.
Arndt: When John showed me that song, I said, “Oh my god, I have the perfect middle section.” That’s the beautiful section from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. The instrumental section that is in the center where you become the universe, I envisioned a beautiful cosmos, and you’re seeing all this beautiful stuff. That’s a transcription of Stravinsky, and it was a way to conceptually tie the album together and also musically tie it together.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Stanley