Five Billion Years - Shadows of Birds
When I first heard this album, I was incredibly intrigued. Aaron McDonald, the founder, writer, and solitary musician, has a voice that must be heard, and a message that needs to be said. His lyrics and arrangements are done incredibly well and it would be a shame if he were to go unnoticed. Hailing from Hilo, Hawaii, McDonald has been playing for years, jumping from one instrument to another and settling into his niche with the piano and keyboards.
The album opens with a track that may seem like it belongs on a Beatles' album, 'Let Love Be,' a song about lost love that is performed with a nice piano arrangement that is poppy yet sorrowful; it lets us understand that love can be perceived so differently by so many different people. The title track has a slow, minimal, electronic beat that presents us with the notion that as we evolve our accomplishments will wilt away as we do. 'Private Rooms' is a commentary on how we are becoming more introverted, as the lyrics speak of a web-cam girl who can be anything you want her to be but you can never really have her. The lyrics are sexually explicit and perfectly sarcastic, while the song is whimsical and reminiscent of the tunes you might hear inside a circus tent. The idea of society consuming Nature as it consumes us is brought about in 'Plant Life (wwiii)' and is overlaid with dark tones and McDonald's strong, echo-y voice. The ethereal pop tunes in 'Alchemists' is a little more uplifting, suggesting that we all can and should make our own destiny. The synthesizer laden 'I Am Us, We Are You' has a minimal drum beat and a poppy end, evidence that McDonald is fond of experimenting with different sounds and he is not afraid to intertwine several different melodies into one song to form a new, amazing song. A more Victorian type of piano is utilized in 'Hello,' telling the tale of modern medicine and its roots, most notably the obsession 19th century doctors had with the human psyche and the workings of the brain. In the instrumental 'Cat Life (Post War iii),' an electronic keyboard overlays playful tunes, then switches to dark, and back to playful again, keeping the listener in a suspended state of distrust. The tongue in cheek track, 'Poly-Ticks,' is a mixture of light and dark as the lyrics speak of wanting to be better by making others better, but ultimately knowing that most people just choose to take care of themselves. The slowest, saddest track on the album, 'Simple,' is a beautiful ballad about love and the expectations we put upon each other to make ourselves happy. '(Seasons) Scent on the Wind' has a more contemporary feel to it, a fairy-like whimsy that begs us to understand Nature rather than exploit it. The final track, 'Goodnight,' has not only a piano arrangement but utilizes strings as well, giving it more of an orchestral feel. The lyrics are gorgeous and end the album on a fairly light note, professing that one can take all of the pain and misery that the world has to offer as long as one can feel truly happy in the end.
I have had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Aaron that is posted below, but I also became intrigued with the artist himself, as I discovered we had similar musical tastes and views. This album should be shared and listened to by NIN and Tori Amos fans alike, and I certainly hope that I see more of his work in the future. His ability to write poignant songs and create dark yet poppy arrangements is incredible and I enjoyed every minute of the album.
Below you can find an interview with Aaron McDonald himself. Be sure to leave comments below and let us know what you thought of the album!
Tell me a little bit about your background and why you formed Shadows of Birds.
Background... oh that's not terribly interesting. [I] grew up in Hawaii. Started on the drums, moved to guitar, most recently tried to pick up the piano. I think the name "Shadows of Birds" came from the StormThorgerson artwork on the cover of Muses "Absolution" and the image of the silhouettes of birds flickering through trees. It just seemed like wonderfully evocative imagery. [I chose a band name because] there's some kid from Canada that plays teen pop music named Aaron McDonald and is evidently fairly popular.. so I figured I'd be better off branding myself with something more easily find-able on the net.
What/Who are your musical influences?
I can point to my earliest influence [as] being the Beatles 'Eleanor Rigby.' I think that introduced me to the idea that a pop song didn't have to be bass and drums and guitar. Nine Inch Nails was huge when I was younger. I went a bit overboard with them - I was one of those nuts who collected every "Halo", and tracked down "1000 Homo DJ's" for that Supernaut cover, and Josh Wink's Here Hear for "Black Bomb" and on and on, and then found as many bootlegs I could siphon through a 56k modem. "Now I'm Nothing", that Puff Daddy remix Reznor did. This was before you could just torrent an entire discography - I spent way too much time following links through geocities sites when I was young. Yeah, a little overboard. Anyway - Nine Inch Nails taught me I could make music by myself which obviously set me on my way. I got the importance of lyrics from Nick Cave, the importance of emoting from Damien Rice, the Yeah Yeah Yeah's IsIs made me think about image in a new way, the Cure taught me to not take myself too seriously. David Bowie and Bob Dylan taught me that I didn't have to be one thing and that it was okay to alienate an audience if you're doing interesting work.
As for records - Nine Inch Nails "Broken", Smashing Pumpkins "Mellon Collie", Tori Amos's "Choir Girl Hotel", Ministry's "Psalm 69", Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue", Silverchair's "Diorama", most recently Florence and the Machine's "Lungs" are all records that still blow me away when I listen to them. It's hard to say how those have influenced me but they must have in someway; they are just so good.
The theme of the album is “concerned with the human animal.” Can you elaborate on your feelings about that?
Well I'd come out of a decade of pretty severe depression and wrote the last record "Machines" as a kind of letter to my future self and reminder to not be a morose bastard. I either did the Sandman stuff just before or just after that and that was all instrumental music - so basically this time around I wanted to write a record of pop songs but I didn't know what to sing about. I didn't want to write a record called "would-you-like-some-angst-with-that?" so I sat down and very quickly wrote a list of ideas to explore lyrically that I thought were interesting. When I was done with the record I looked at the songs and realized that the common theme was human beings and our relationship with the natural world. I'd even go a little further in saying it's about how we kind of pretend we are separate from it. "Plant Life," for example, is about how if you look at human civilization [it] has evolved over the last several thousand years from independent tribes and colonies to city states, and from city states reaching out and connecting to each other with all of the violence that that entails, and then to where we are now becoming more and more of a collective - if you take that and look at it in the context of a vine or a weed suddenly humanity looks very different. Even the eventuality of something like nuclear warfare or whatever mess we think up next it starts to sort of make sense.
"Five Billion Years", "Seasons" and "Hello" are all similar in that if you take other aspects of us, be they our relationship with time, our mating rituals, or our eating habits, and you look at them in the context of "oh yeah, we are animals, we are part of a bigger natural world." then I think it makes our behaviors and beliefs look simultaneously stranger and somehow more obvious.
At the same time with songs like "Alchemists", "I am Us, We are You", or "Goodnight" we have this fascinating by - product of simply perceiving and surviving in the world that lets us imagine things that don't exist in nature - and then consciously build them. Which is both an obvious matter of natural course, and weirdly beyond and with some kind of manipulative power over nature. I just think it paints a fascinating picture of us - we seem less like this sort of dominating quasi-fascist creature doing with nature, and each other, and ourselves what we will despite the consequences, and more like a cat playing with it's tail or chasing a moth.
Your lyrics are very poignant commentaries on many aspects of our society. How would you describe the overall tone and message of the album?
Maybe I've been watching too much Dr. Who or listening to too much Jason Silva - but I think the ultimate message is to be in awe of the world around you. Be amazing.
How do you feel about the digital revolution of music and has it helped or hindered your success?
You know I'm not sure if I've been affected either way "success" wise by the internet. I think if it were twenty years ago I'd probably have more of an emphasis on performing than I do, and my audience would be predominantly local. This interview would be conducted by a college radio station or newspaper rather than a website - but I'm not sure how much I personally would be affected. I think it all comes down to the amount of work you're willing to put in. Obviously technology has allowed me to record virtually for free so that's a huge benefit - but as I said I think my focus would have just been shifted to performance rather than recording.
That being said I think the cultural influence of the internet can't be overstated. I've been able to listen to everything from Balanese Gamelon music to John Cage to indie rock from Denmark and that's just music. Let me take that back - that's just super obscure music. There's also film, literature, and ideas being disseminated. Intercultural human interaction at an unprecedented scale. I was listening to someone who I believe was talking about world war 1, but they were talking about how very rarely is a culture able to recognize the significance of the era in which it lives. I think it's fairly clear that we are living in an epoch of human evolution. Anyway - that's a bit outside the realm of music - but at the same time all of this goes into an artists brain as they are dreaming stuff up and I think we are getting more and more genre-diverse music as a result and that's super interesting.