For many, the holidays are the most “joyful and triumphant” time of the year. But for others, it’s the bleakest. A 2014 survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 64 percent of those with diagnosed mental health issues feels that the holidays make them worse.
So while it might at first seem unusual for Cincinnati’s johnnytwentythree to release a “comeback” album two days before Christmas, given the motive and story behind it, the timing makes sense — it’s a heartbreaking tribute to a former bandmate who took his own life.
Formed in 2002, johnnytwentythree was much-buzzed-about in Cincinnati music community due to its unique music and performances. The five musicians’ expansive, expressive and evocative instrumental sound (a particularly dynamic brand of Post Rock) was captivating enough on its own, but sixth member Stephen Imwalle’s artistic visual accompaniment — a component of the band’s persona as crucial as the music — made J23’s live appearances mesmerizing events.
The band began working on a new project in 2009, but everything stopped in 2012 when bassist Joe Maier committed suicide. Joe wasn’t just the J23 musicians’ friend and bandmate; his wife and the mother of his children, Brianne Maier, played violin and J23 guitarist Michael Maier is his brother.
The album project the band had started was coincidentally inspired by the documentary The Bridge, which was the result of a year of filming at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, capturing several jumps from the bridge and interviewing family members and friends of those who perished. The song J23 composed in response to the film became “The Bridge,” which is filled with the group’s trademark swelling atmospherics, cascading guitars and musical, pulse-quickening drums by Brian Tyree. That song became the basis and title track of the group’s since completed album, a tribute to Joe Maier’s life and struggles, that is described as “a candle lit for those who are gone (and) a light for those left.”
The musical and visual work of J23 always possessed the ability to effectively communicate emotion without the overt expression vocals can provide. And The Bridge bleeds melancholy, reflecting both the dark state that leads one to make such a drastic decision and the cataclysmic, often lifelong sorrow it casts on friends and family. Sonically, The Bridge is a thoroughly absorbing listen, and those who can directly identify with the topic will likely notice how much of it feels like a recreation of the turmoil that swirls around in the consciousness of everyone touched by such tragedy.
Knowing the source of the music’s darker tones makes it an even heavier listening experience. If you listen to The Bridge in its entirety (as the band intended it to be heard) and you don’t at some point get chills, tears welling in your eyes or lumps forming in your throat, your capacity for empathy is probably deficient. If you’re dealing (or have dealt) with the kind of profound despair that sparked the album’s creation, while it can be a cathartic listen, you might find yourself needing to take a few breaks.
The album does feature several voices, including poetry by Abraham Smith on the tracks “Keys to Freedom” and “Shipwreck” (“Your death is not kind/Your death is not benign/Your death is a shipwreck”). There are also children’s voices — the track “After the End” closes with a child (presumably Joe and Brianne’s) softly saying, “Daddy, I want you to come back home… love you.” Personally, each time I listened to the album, that moment stopped me in my tracks. It’s incredibly overwhelming.
The Bridge is “mood music” of the highest order, in that it is inspired by the same kind of emotional weightiness it conveys, a testament to johnnytwentythree’s unique musical and artistic abilities. If you appreciate works of art that move you so deeply they have a visceral, physical effect, from a modern musical perspective, there are few better examples than The Bridge.
But while the music and concept are darkly transportive, the project is not devoid of hope. There’s inspiration in the band members channeling their anguish into a memorial to their departed friend that honors his memory by helping others, both through the music and more directly. Proceeds from sales of The Bridge go to the aforementioned National Alliance on Mental Illness, a large grassroots mental health organization that provides assistance and educational programs across the country.
Contact Mike Breen: mbreen@ citybeat.com.