(This is a review of the new album “Sigma” by The Alarm by way of a very personal story about one of the included songs. If you just want the nuts and bolts, feel free to skip to the end).
It has been, so far, without a doubt, one of the worst mornings I’ve ever experienced in my life. This is September 2017, and I’ve been up most of the night with one of own kids at a UCLA Medical Center, and after just minutes of sleep, I find myself driving out to visit my mom, who is dying in a recovery center in San Pedro California.
In between hospital visits, I manage to make it home, and look at my email. There, among the “male enhancement” SPAM, password reset notices, past due notices from self storage companies, and various responses from doctor’s offices, trust lawyers, hospice workers, mental health professionals and real-estate brokers, is an email from Mike Peters (MBE-2018) with the simple title “For Your Ears Only”. It is a We Transfer of the Viral Black album, a precursor of sorts to the new album, Sigma.
Usually I would listen right away, but I have no time this morning. I auto-download all the tracks into a folder while walking the dog, and then I do something I have not done for years. I go into the garage and find a fresh CD-R disc in my battery drawer, and while in the shower, I burn myself a CD.
So I’m in my car on the way to visit my mom and I pop the CD into my car stereo. I actually do not know how the CD player works, as I’ve never used it before, but thankfully the car is smart enough to play it automatically. Within seconds I’m pulled back into a time, a decade-plus before, when I would imagine new track listings for Alarm albums from the huge batches of songs Mike and Co. produced in aughties like the In The Poppy Fields Bond and The Counterattack Collective.
Back then I’d strategize songs and sounds and concepts and then burn CDs like they were 80’s mix-tapes, pop them in my car, and drive to work to have a listen. Long before we had world-wide database of songs that could be listened to at a moment’s instant, a CD mix was the best way to imagine how songs might play as they led from one to another in a track-listing for an album Sometimes I’d send my track listings back to Mike Peters, and sometimes in rare cases, my imagined track listing might make it onto actual CDs.
I’ve already heard a couple of the songs from the Viral Black album, like “Two Rivers”, “Peace Now” on live tapes, but I’m fascinated to hear studio versions and how they sound on a CD mixed together. The drive is almost an hour that morning to get to Los Palos, the place where my mom is fading away. It gives me precious time and the perfect chance to give the album a proper listen. It’s distracted listening unfortunately, as I try to connect the songs to the turmoil inside my head about my kid’s situation, my mom’s deterioration, and the complete and utter and exhaustion in my bones.
“Two Rivers” and “Peace Now” are indeed as brilliant as I imagined them to be. Snatches of new songs filter through too. “Beautiful” reminds me of my kid, “Heroine” reminds me of my mom, and “Cenotaph” makes me want to jump right out of the car and fight whatever demons are currently on my tail making my life a living hell. However, it is the last song on the album that shatters my world that day and becomes my soundtrack for the long weeks and months ahead: “Armageddon In The Morning. “
It’s inexplicable sometimes how a person connects so deeply with any one song. I fell in love with “The Stand” by The Alarm when I first heard it in 1983, maybe because I was so angry at the other kids at school and it empowered me emotionally, or maybe because of the unique sound of guitars and the wild spray-painting music video that made me feel like I found something truly unique? I fell in love with “Prison Without Prison Bars” from The Alarm’s Change album in 1989 maybe because I was a first year college student trying to break away from my dad’s stranglehold on my life and lyrics spoke directly to me, or maybe because the song is perfect mix of lyrics and power chords, and I just love the sound of the instruments at a fundamental level?
“Armageddon In The Morning” starts with a processed electronic beat not unlike Kaleidoscope and Festival Of Light from the In The Poppy Fields Bond, but quickly adds perfect measures of deep bass acoustic strum and distorted guitar.
The beat instantly gets my head nodding at the law breaking speed of 68 MPH on the freeway, and I wonder “WTF is this?”, in the best way possible.
The vocals come in and they are of the sing-songy rap variety I first heard on the unreleased, proto “Shine On” song “Planet Earth “ from so many eons ago. Yet here, they are perfected. There are times in Mike’s lyrics where he has decided to purposely not go for the rhyme, and most of the time it works. I think, in retrospect, that is because he saved all of the perfect rhymes for this song. Armageddon In The Morning is literally filled with creative and poignant lyrics that call back and rhyme with near perfection. It occurs to me at that moment in the car that Poetry absolutely does not have to rhyme, but when it does, and it’s done well, it can be transcendent. .
The refrain comes quickly, but is it the full refrain? It’s hard to tell at this point. I’m then blasted with some brilliant harmonica, and the verses start again in earnest. Then I hear the first set of lyrics that catch me off-guard.
They go like this:
“Is this what drives me to pursue”
“The seconds of joy that stick like glue”
“To the strings that I strum for you”
And I’m thinking “WTF? This is awesome!”
And just when I thought I’ve heard the crux of the song, and I’ve gotten a view directly into Mike Peter’s soul, he sings this, in what I realize is the actual refrain for the song, and it doesn’t rhyme at all, and it doesn’t matter one bit:
“To the left”
“To the right”
“No longer knowing what the difference was”
“To the east”
“To the west”
“And the failure to recognize what we’ve lost”
“It’s Armageddon In The Morning”
And I’m simply blown to smithereens.
Yes. This is exactly how I feel.
Kid on the brink.
Don’t feel alive.
Can’t drive 65.
Gotta get to hospital bed so I can make choices no one wants to make. From this day on nothing will ever be the same.
It’s God-damned “Armageddon In The Morning” this morning and Mike Peters has crystalised the whole thing in a song that rocks and you can probably dance-to at the same time.
I’m now banging my hand on the steering wheel and bobbing my head side to side and tears are flowing into my eyes and I’m thinking
“This is what music is made for, this is why I love music, this why I need music in my life”
Brilliant bit after brilliant bit.
Power Chords crash.
The word “A.R.M.A.G.E.DoubleD.O.N” is spelled out with kids voices as the back up.
“F’ing brilliant” I think.
“I still Want more….” Mike sings.
Me. Too. Mike, Me Too.
Then comes this part. It’s sort of break at about 4:25 in the song,
“I’m just a passenger up in the sky”
“Last I heard the seat belt sign turned on”
“To the left”
“To the right”
“Any way any how”
And I’m thinking to myself “no f’ing, way! I just had to fly to Apple on Monday, and I remember marvelling at those signs in the airplane cabin myself for no apparent reason, except maybe THIS reason, and now I think Mike is singing directly to me but of course he isn’t is he?”
Then the power chords hit me again.
This is my song.
The song I needed right now.
And like so many other times in my life.
Mike Peters and The Alarm have come to my rescue.
The song has still has about 4 more minutes to go, because it’s the most epic, amazing, awesome Alarm song ever.
It keeps going and I keep singing along even though I don’t really know the words, and I keep drumming the steering wheel with one hand, and at the same time, dangerously drumming my right leg with the other hand at, again, 68 MPH down the 110 Freeway. I think the song’s been going on for almost 7 minutes if my car clock in any indication.
Just when it MUST to be over Mike sings this:
“Through the battle, I will carry you”
“Through the battle, I will carry you”
Like a lost lyric from Blaze Of Glory or a missing song from the Declaration album.
I’m floored and I’m singing along, and I’m thinking about my kid’s struggles now, and what I have to do to save my child, and I’m saying out loud to no one “yeah I’ll carry you through the battle buddy, I’ll carry you through”.
Then the song ends with a burst of furious drumming and power chords and I’m a total mess. A total smiling, devastated, inspired, destroyed mess.
And right when it ends, I hit the back button on the car CD player hoping it will repeat the song, and of course it does repeat because as far as this song is concerned, everything is going right today, thank God.
It’s an island of “right” in a sea life of that feels so damned “wrong” right now it’s hard to fathom or keep up.
I pull into the Los Palos parking lot, with a couple minutes left in the song in my 2nd play through. I swerve around the cracks and pieces of asphalt that dot this aging convalescent facility, and park my car so I can have a view of the massive shipping containers being unloaded at the port of Los Angeles a couple miles away down the hill.
My mom loved the ocean, and especially the ocean view from her childhood home in San Francisco, but this view is different. Almost too functional. This view of the ocean in San Pedro shows how the sausage of suburban life in America is truly constructed, and it’s not prettied-up for gentrified consumption. I’m glad she can’t see it from the little room she shares with two other people. To be honest, she wouldn’t know what she was looking at anyway,as she is mostly blind now.
But I’m not ready to go in and face her yet.
Instead I sit in the parking lot, and let song play through one more time, and then I turn off the car and sit in silence for bit.
Mike Peters once wrote a song from the magnificent 2010 album Direct Action called “After The Rock And Roll Is Gone”. In that song there is a lyric that goes like this:
“After the sound there comes a silence”
“I hope I can live without”
“The crashing of these drums and these guitars”
I think about that lyric a lot. Maybe too much as it applies to the 2nd ½ of my life.
What does it mean to me?
Maybe it’s this: you can’t know true peace unless you know true turmoil and see it through to the other side?
I guess I could sit in this car in this glorious silence forever, a respite from my own personal Armageddon In The Morning, and never go into Los Palos, never go home, and never face the horror the next several months will prove to hold, but I don’t.
Instead I push through.
Maybe out of a sense of duty to my mom and my family.
Maybe because, for the past 34 years I’ve been inspired by the songs of a rock band named The Alarm to get off my ass, and do what I need to do to get my life in order.
Maybe it’s because, really, I’ve got no other choice.
And as I open the door, I realize something.
By pushing through, by truly figuring out how to help my kid, and by doing right by my mom, it’s not Armageddon In The Morning for me at all. No. Instead, It’s going to be Armageddon In The Morning for those demons on my tail. The ones that could so easily pull me into the abyss. I must shake them. I will shake them. It’s their end, not mine. I’m just beginning my fight.
They won’t succeed.
There is one more line from the song Armageddon In The Morning that resonates over and over in my head as I close the car door, and turn towards the entrance to Los Palos.
“Have you ever stood up to be counted on”
“Or is it others you depend upon?”
It’s a good question. For much of my life I’ve let things happen to me. I’ve fled to the relative comfort behind digital screens and pop culture references as way to avoid very difficult topics about life, the universe and everything.
That won’t work any more.
Real life has just smacked me in the face with a one-two punch.
As I walk up the ramp towards the double glass doors, I realize I am now the guy who needs to step up and be counted on.
“Armageddon In The Morning”?
And now I just might be prepared to face it head on.
The song Armageddon In The Morning has it’s official release on June 28th, 2019, appearing on the album “Sigma” by The Alarm.
Sigma is the genre-smashing new album from Mike Peters and The Alarm. It culls tracks from both the Blood Red fan club album, (Brighter Than The Sun, Time, Love And Understanding, Prisoners) and the Viral Black fan club album, (Heroine, Armageddon In The Morning, Two Rivers Reprise) while adding a whole slew of new tracks (Blood Red/Viral Black, Can You Feel Me, Equals, Psalm, The White Count).
The previously released tracks are highlights from their respective albums. Time has been thrillingly remixed here and sounds especially wonderful. Heroine is as stripped down a love song as we could ever expect from The Alarm. Prisoners is so eighties it could not be more eighties. In fact, if the eighties were looking East, Prisoners would travel all around the world and kick the eighties in the ass from the West. If Green Day or Weezer made this song, it would be a massive hit. Two Rivers reprise is the naked piano and vocals version you didn’t know you wanted.
The new songs are a mix of genres and styles that help push this album into a very different place than previous Alarm albums.. Blood Red/Viral Black is the “in your face” defiance we have some to expect from this band over the past two decades. It has echoes of 70’s punk mixed with the power-pop sounds of a band like The Plimsouls. Can You Feel Me sounds like a latter day track from the Goo Goo Dolls hit factory. Psalm and Equals (with Dave Sharp on guitar) are near-perfect MOR rock songs that could appear on the soundtrack to any movie willing to invite them in. The White Count with its’ massive bass, feels very very new wave. It’s the closest to a song from the Direct Action album on the whole collection This might not be a single, but it’s the soul of the record.
Let’s talk about Equals for a second. Mike Peters raised a few eyebrows with the song Neutral from last year’s “Equals” album. People (myself included) asked “What does he mean by that?” “Does he sit on the fence?” “Why doesn’t he take sides?”. Mike Peters responded on my podcast saying that Neutral was not a political statement, but about not giving any ideas the benefit of the doubt just because of the source, and instead trying to find answers from all places if they are good answers. “Equals” on the other hand, is an answer to those naysayers. It’s as much a political statement as “Neutral” was not.
“Love can heal all divides”
“All together we are all equal”
“No descrimation of anyone”
“Of any kind”
A simple idea maybe, but one it feels like many people have forgotten in 2019.
The album’s penultimate track is the magnificent, aforementioned Armageddon In The Morning. I can say no more about this song, except what I said above. Go read it.
Sigma is filled with memorable, professionally crafted and produced tunes, which is exactly what I expect from The Alarm. In the historic times of 2019 the album’s infectiously positive spirit and inspirational drive are hard to ignore. Four decades on, The Alarm still have the unique, innate ability to motivate a person to positive action. Honestly, could we ask for anything more?
You can purchase Sigma here:
You can listen to our podcast about The Alarm, Never Let the Fires Die, here:
(c) 2019 Steve Fulton