On March 17 René Breton released their first album as a full fledged musical ensemble. Featuring twelve tracks the quartet recorded and released on Fifth Ace Records, this offering is all the more interesting because it is accompanied by a thin tome of short stories and drawings. Twelve tales, each with its own visual representation, fill the hard covered pages, adding further depth to each musical score.
Drawing inspiration from the human subconscious, René Breton’s music floats from your speakers. A few simple chords, with melody in between, from Ryan Hurtgen’s piano open the album with “Fifth Ace of Anchors.” The track sounds almost as if it belongs in a European concert hall in front of powdered wigs and corseted women as violin strains begin to soar above the steady drumming of Tobin Sio. The score is completed with a modern rock symphony, vocals combining to produce an elegant harmony that pulls you in as the overture draws to a close the way it began, Hurtgen’s piano murmuring into silence.
Defying the music industry’s attempts to pigeonhole every act into easily definable categories, the foursome’s musicality smoothly meld genres into a gleaming composition, old meeting new as they’re bound together. “Botswana” exemplifies this versatility as the second track immediately shifts gears. While Hurtgen’s (who wrote, or coauthored all twelve tracks) style is still apparent, a burst of Africa fills the first thirty seconds with the help of a marimba, banging percussion and a chorus of voices in unison. A few short lines about love flesh out four minutes of tribalesque percussion before the tempo seizes, drifting off into the introspective ponderings that dominate Hurtgen’s writing.
Heavily influencing Asleep in Green’s subject matter are the ideas espoused by the French surrealists of the early twentieth century (André Breton authored the Surrealist Manifesto). Troubled, longing and triumphant by turns as it glides through topics ranging from Anne Frank to the French Revolution of the late 18th century, the band’s melodies weave tales through their instruments as they surround Hurtgen’s softly refined vocals.
Insight into the mind of the composer is offered quite willingly if time is spent reading the stories paired with each song. Along with the picture drawn for each by Hurtgen (minus one), three vantages give a complete view of the thoughts that created each.
Existentialism is a school of philosophy that states life has no meaning other than the one we create for ourselves. The tales told within Hurtgen’s volume are full of these two schools of thought as stories are told about love and the crisis that is humanity. They are stories about the destruction of native populations by AIDS and the white man, about lost love and the conundrum that is time surrounding a three act play that is almost heartbreaking. Taken together they paint a world rent by our own shortcomings and misgivings that is occasionally pierced by the beauty we are capable of creating.
Hurtgen and Sio met at a concert in Nashville and began forming the otherworldly sound that characterizes their music. After spending some time as a duo they began looking to expand their outfit. The addition of Dan Hoisington on lead guitar and Brian Arenz on bass allowed René Breton to begin touring last fall in preparation for the release of Asleep in Green.
Throughout the album all four play off one another expertly while Hoisington and Arenz assist on vocals. To create the breadth of sound accomplished in the final release a number of other musicians assisted on various tracks including the East End United Methodist Church Choir (directed by Ryan Hurtgen) on “Gibraltar” and gorgeous strings.
Asleep in Green ends with a ballad, soft, dreamy and melancholy. “Soft Grey Ghosts” tells the story of a lost love come to visit one evening. “Veils of sadness came over me and I started crying, as if I was thinking about the good times of the past with someone I knew I would never see again. It was you. But you were here.” The stories and songs fit well and while the ending is sad, it’s not hopeless. Life moves on and we all start anew. Sometimes the ghosts can be smiling as we sail on.
Hurtgen himself leaves us with questions, his own uncertainty conveyed in the first story of his book. “When Frost asked the scientist how time would end, the scientist replied with three words: Fire and Ice… In this state, I cannot feel spiritual, I cannot feel purpose… I often feel like this Thing, that it is a huge waste of time, asking questions with no answers, wondering how I fit into this universe.” His writing is almost a stream of consciousness, cleaned up but still raw enough to give an English teacher fits. What is the point of all of this? Why are such atrocities allowed and heartbreak in a world that can allow such joy? As with most philosophy we are left to meditate upon what we have learned, uncertain.
Stirring up the feelings of everyone you’ve ever loved and lost, the end is the same as it ever was. Beauty overrides the sadness to allow acceptance. We are temporary residents of this experiment and who knows when we’ll wake up. This waking life is a gift we’ve been given. You can count the steps as the album waltzes quietly into silence, leaving you with the echoes their music created within.