It’s not every day that an author of fiction also plays in a metal band, so when Prognosis came up on our radar, we jumped at the opportunity. Instead of the standard interview, we decided to let vocalist/guitarist Phil Weller explore in a freeform way the interesting relationship between writing lyrics for his progressive metal band and writing short stories. The twist here is that the stories are actually embellishments of the lyrics that make up the songs on Prognosis’ début Definition. (Grab a copy right here!) Read on for a thorough exploration of his writing process, and how each track and story weaves together - although the stories themselves you’ll have to pick up elsewhere.
Phil Weller: I always have been a writer, and always will be. When I was eight years old I began, for my own stupid amusement, writing stories about the misadventures of a talking baby called Goo Goo. Following that, at 11 I began penning my own James Bond-fashioned shorts about a secret agent called Darren Darko – who in my mind looked like a strange cross between Bon Jovi and Pavel Nedved. When I was 14, I was introduced to the world of journalism, and 10 years later I write about music and sports for a living. But since Darko’s escapades never scored me that Hollywood franchise, I never wrote fiction again. It always remained though as this itchy little thought at the back of my mind and so, looking at this theme curled around the lyrics to our début album, Definition, I challenged myself to start writing fiction again, to write shorts based around some of the lyrics of those songs.
The Definition album was released on September 21st, 2018.
It started out as a bit of fun, a vanity project just to see if I could realise what was whirling through my imagination. Then it grew legs and began pedalling. By the time I’d written the first drafts for three or four songs, it didn’t feel right to stop there. Now, each of the six main tracks on the album (the three interlude tracks not included) have their own twisted tale as accompaniment, and I honestly couldn’t be prouder.
So, what’s the difference between writing lyrics for songs and writing dark short stories?
Well, each case was different. As we do with the music in Prognosis, every time I set upon expanding upon and embellishing the story told within a song, I wanted to try something different. And so these stories all span different styles, moods, and genres, with whatever I was reading at the time often having a great influence upon my own writing, subconsciously or otherwise.
Towards the end of writing Definition, we started to become aware of a lyrical thread weaving its way through each and every track. We hadn’t set out to pen a concept album, but when we took a step back and assessed our lyrics – written between myself and bassist/vocalist Danny Daemon – we saw how our apathy and disdain towards the negative sides of humanity, what defines us as a race, could be traced throughout. Here, lying in our collective words was something subconsciously tying the album together.
There was “The Sycophant”, which tells the tale of a sinner who cons his way into heaven; there was “High Road” which spoke of the difficulties of romantic relationships, and there was “Drones”, too, which spoke of futuristic, dystopian warfare and mankind’s historic lust for power and dominance. Then there was “Waste”, whose lyrics are very personal to me, their meaning brought on by my being stuck in the middle of family conflicts. I was surrounded by unnecessary bitterness and conflict; through that song I channelled the emotions that conflict stirred within me, with its chorus begging for those involved to “forgive and forget, ‘cause in the end time won’t wait for you.”
Make sure you take the “High Road”...
Through Danny’s lyrics, namely “Echoes” and “Downfall”, I saw that same theme enveloping their lyrical skylines like an ominous storm cloud. I saw songs about someone struggling for social acceptance, an outcast who felt they needed to be someone they weren’t just to fit in, and a song very much inspired by the Sophie Lancaster tragedy in “Downfall”, which spoke of bullying and people’s inability to accept and conceive that other people can be different to themselves.
“Downfall” was the first story I finished writing. Reading through Danny’s lyrics I found some contradictory moments which each, in turn, seemed to ruin the story ideas I was planning as I read through them. In Danny’s lyrics, the character who is bullied has his torment filmed on smartphones and plastered across social media, a moment which became central to my story. But then, through certain lines Danny wrote, I didn’t quite understand what happened next. “To the ones that swore then lied, your time will come” related to a court of law – swearing to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, but then the bully ultimately lies to try and save himself.
Yet there were other lines which hinted at a self-ignited revenge and retaliation from the victim. Much of these lines have actually now been changed to the ones you’ll hear on the finished track, but some of that essence remains in lines like “I’ve reached my breaking point,” and “the accused deserve everything they get.” To me, justice isn’t the justice the character has in mind here. So did the bully get taken to court, or did our victimised character fight back?
But my confusion inspired another idea. What if this character, a schoolboy who gets ganged up on and attacked on his walk home from school one evening, lived out different realities in his head whilst he lay on the dirt covered in blood? Different realities where his next actions shaped very different looking futures: Justice, Revenge, and Isolation. Our character is imagining what he could do next so he can get his revenge in the best way. Can he rely on the legal system when his bully’s father is a rich, connected and notable figure; does he have the strength, zeal and predatory instinct like that of his bully to hit back in the same way?
Cover artwork for the “High Road” single.
So that is a story told through four parts, with the first one leading up to his attack, and the three different realities then playing out, ones peppered with twists and turns with hints of corruption and some of mankind’s other dark vices, which I included to add further dimensions to the album’s (accidental) lyrical concept. Whereas with Danny’s lyrics there was anger in its chorus (“You’ve just got to stop/I’ve reached my breaking point”), and hope in its final verse (“to the ones that shout it loud/your voice is heard”), the short story takes on a darker look at humanity via corruption, alcohol addiction, and more. The anti-bullying stance rings true in both versions, but how they do so is very different.
With “Drones”, a song about how machines could replace “the human touch” in warfare, I gave it a War of The Worlds flavour. Set in a dystopian future where these killing machines had destroyed a city due to their inability to distinguish between an enemy soldier and an innocent civilian – depicted as a teddy-clutching child on the single’s artwork – as well as their inability to feel mercy - a positive human trait - it follows a man as he makes his way across the ruinous city to find his lover.
It’s dark and shrouded in a sense of hopelessness, the machines have won, all is lost, the moment our protagonist helps two grieving parents bury their child particularly poignant, there are elements of positivity bleeding through. Lyrically, I’ve always been drawn to writing about darker subjects, as I tend to write when I’m troubled, upset or angry – and besides, who likes a happy metal song? But I’m also a massive fan of Rush, who I’ve always seen as masters of singing about an important matter, but also addressing it with hopefulness and a brightening lift towards the end. While that methodology is much more prominent in the lyrics to “High Road” and “Echoes”, I wanted to draft a little hope into the “Drones” tale too.
I didn’t want it to end there; I had found myself completely embroiled and immersed within this dystopian and disturbed landscape that I felt this post-apocalyptic tome alone didn’t fully colour. “Drones” was just a snapshot, a chapter in a greater tale, which led me to write my most detailed, complex and, I think at least, intelligent story of the collection. In “Melting Winter” there is an origin story about how the city came to be in this state, with the premise for that: What if George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four whilst living in the evil, politically-domineering fictitious world he created? But it probes far deeper than that.
The band’s fun unboxing video for Definition.
The idea for the song came about once the music had been written. It was aggressive and dissonant, with scope for a lofty chorus (I had Muse in my head) and so I knew I couldn’t write about a happy subject. So, I began to look through the news and think of a nightmare that could become a reality and drones seemed a great way to go. Since then, Muse, Dream Theater and Megadeth have all toyed with that same idea, proving it is very much in the public consciousness right now. I think these stories add to that futuristic/dystopian mystique in an entertaining yet damning way.
When it came to conjuring up a tale around “Waste”, I wanted to stray from what the song was really about because of just how personal it was to me. I could have divulged in detail the horrible feelings that dwelt in my stomach every time another bitter family feud broke out, and I could detail the soap opera levels of drama that often marked their crescendos, but it didn’t feel right.
It was around this time that I became hooked on Steven Wilson’s track “Happy Returns”. There was something in its narrative - a letter to a long lost brother - that I found so dark, arresting and sad. And at this point I was having fun telling the stories through different stylistic narratives – “The Sycophant” with its repetition and rhythm, “Downfall” with its different ‘realities’, and “Drones”, which began life in the third person but suddenly became so much more real and gritty in the first person – and so this provided another opportunity to do something different.
This story, set in India, is told through a combination of a letter and diary entries between lovers who were torn apart, unfolds with a powerful sadness; imagine if Steven Wilson had written Romeo and Juliet. The line from the song’s chorus “time won’t wait for you” haunts its entire length, like a ghost of what could have been. While other lines in the song are referenced throughout, keeping it tied, like many of these stories, to their accompanying song, it was that line that I built the story up around.
Cover artwork for the “Drones” single.
Elsewhere, with “Echoes” I decided to go off on a complete tangent. I’d worked on ideas about societal expectations, outcasts, and acceptance, with one set in tribal Africa linked to superstitious beliefs around lightning, but nothing stuck. I knew the line about lightning striking twice (a metaphor for second chances) in the song was my springboard into its tale but I struggled to find a concept I truly fell in love with.
Being a lover of all things space and sci-fi, however, it was always my intention to write at least one intergalactic tale with aliens and cosmic awe in the collection. So, here I took that line and created a completely different world and meaning with it, but one which still stays fairly true to the lyrical point of the song, and how it ties into the overarching concept of the album. This story, also my shortest by far as I wanted to challenge myself with brevity - something you could read on your lunch break - follows an alien with wanderlust.
No one on his home planet ever leaves, despite them all having the technology to explore the entire universe with ease, but our protagonist is different and, despite his father’s demands, he leaves his planet. He lands, in a bolt of lightning, on Earth and let’s just say that he’s not treated all too well. Then, when his father comes to Earth on his own bolt of lightning (see what I did there?) things escalate dramatically. I think its succinctness really hammers its point home, but the fewer spoilers for this one the better.
When writing the stories I wanted some little Easter eggs in there for those eagle-eyed enough to spot them. There are more obvious things like the importance of the seasons across the stories, and what happens in what season makes a big difference, and colour is just as important with regards to the bigger picture, but away from that there are lyrics tucked discretely into sentences and song titles by other bands snuck in there too. Perhaps most people will miss them all completely, but for me at least it was fun to play around with that. The song titles referenced are often songs I was listening to at the time of writing.
You know what you have to do... stream the full album now!
In the end, I think I’ve struck a nice balance between keeping the spirit of the song lyrics alive within the stories – “Drones” puts you slap bang in the middle of that same world whilst “The Sycophant” keeps the gothic, God-fooling nature of the song and yet brings it into a medieval context, whilst “Waste” emphasises the ephemerality of life – the poem that precedes it on the album also precedes the story and is dedicated to my Auntie, a mother of two who has been fighting terminal cancer for around 10 years.
But these stories also have their own personalities, too; they aren’t always bound in chains to the lyrics and their parent song. Maybe people won’t like the stories, maybe people will think it’s cool that there is another dimension to the songs on the album. I certainly can’t think of another album which offers this, but either way, this was all about scratching that itch lurking in the back of my mind. Saying that, I think that while that itch has been scratched, a much bigger can of worms has opened.
I have already begun thinking about my next project, tying my love for writing and the band together; how people react to the book will determine if it ever makes it public, but either way I plan to spend many late nights typing away on my keyboard and escaping into crazy worlds of my own imagining for many years to come.