Basking in The Shadows
by Loy Bernal Carlos
BEN KYLE'S ROMANTICA: ABOUT THE MAKING OF SHADOWANDS AND THE DEBILITATING DISEASE THAT THREATENED THE ALBUM AND HIM.
He says he was just putting “one foot in front of the other,” aware of his own vulnerability and the need for other people, “other creative minds, artists around me.” According to Kyle, he needed to “rely on the strength of other members of the band to help carry the project along, in a way I couldn’t do so myself.” So instead of him micromanaging, Kyle decided “to give up control and to let go.” The result is a symphony of sorts, a sublime blending of voices in an album that, whatever your predilections, is indubitably as good as it gets.
As a complete body of work, Shadowlands does not quite fall neatly into any one place. To call any of it forlorn or melancholic is to miss the narrative of the album entirely. Sound wise, it exudes a mixture of various styles, tone and influence. Cecil Ingram Conor, for example, is an upbeat ode to Gram Parsons, a confluence of country, bluegrass with even a driblet of Irish folk.
The suave Lonely Star fuses Nashville with Jersey, combining a lot of soft swinging country with a little bit of The Boss’s (Springsteen) rock and roll. Reverse that proportion and out shines St. Paul City Lights.
Where Shadowlands is most profoundly moving is in its slower ballads, which Kyle delivers in a haunting, if not beseeching, tone. Whether declarative as in After the War, Buffalo Bill and Nobody Knows or demonstrative as in Get Back in Love or Give Your Heart A Shelter, all leave an “afterfeeling.” Like aftertaste and afterthought, it lingers. It’s akin to what you feel after a long protracted argument with someone you love, wherein nothing has changed but suddenly the argument seems trivial. It’s similar to that quiet ease you get after a rainstorm.
The album’s piece de resistance is without a doubt, Harder to Hear, which targets not any particular group of individuals or even philosophies. Rather, it describes the overwhelming effect virtual social institutions have on everything we think, everything we do, and, ultimately, everything we are. It is hard to imagine a song that strikes as accurate a cultural chord since Lennon’s Imagine. “I feel that people are saying these things not because this is truly what they believe deep down. They’re doing so because of ego, the need to be right,” opines Kyle.
Music and words set simply and delicately, Ben Kyle imparts a soulful yearning that all but the trolls should find undeniably relatable. Simultaneously, the lyrics describe today’s overindulged world of superfluousness, each mantra-like stanza contrasting both the essential-ideal with today’s reality. Summarizing, we are–as perhaps both Imagine and Harder to Hear observe–our biggest obstacle to global and individual peace. Rarely do songs say so much, so effortlessly.
But effortless is not the word one uses to describe the singer-songwriter’s life. “My health was quickly deteriorating during the making of the album. It was difficult to focus, hard to even just wake up.” According to Kyle, it was not until the band had finished mixing and mastering the album, and all was set to go when the symptoms “went into overdrive.” The album’s release was put on hold for a year as “I struggled to stay above water.”
Kyle suffers from an illness that doesn’t “leave a lot of space in your mind to even deal with what’s happening culturally.” He continues, “It has given me perspective, a lot of this is absurd. There’s so much confusion, turmoil and suffering. But because of this life and death struggle, it made the cultural noise less important. Life’s much bigger than what we’re seeing through this cultural lens.”
He would eventually be diagnosed with a biotoxin illness, also known as Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS), a condition wherein the body of genetically vulnerable individuals have an extreme reaction to biotoxic chemicals produced by environmental factors such as “heavy metals, Botox, xenobiotics, food preservatives, and toxins from stress, Staph, parasites, Lyme, fungal, and viral infections as well as some algae, recluse spiders, and certain types of molds.”
In the musician’s case, toxic mold had been inconspicuously growing within the walls of a house he and his family had lived in for seven years. Unlike two daughters who just showed minor symptoms with the rest of the family exhibiting none at all, Kyle’s immune system’s response was both insidious and debilitating. In its attempt to fight off the toxins, the immune system’s response was causing inflammation and congestion in his brain. That’s apart from the damage the toxins were causing directly. It explained his frequent confusion, difficulty in concentrating, fatigue and even inability to sing or play guitar.
Ben Kyle / Vocals, Guitar, Harmonica
Tony Zaccardi / Bass Guitar, Backing Vocals
Danger Dave Strahan / Guitar
Ryan Lovan / Drums, Percussion
Aaron Fabbrini / Pedal Steel Guitar, Dobro
Jayanthi Kyle / Backing Vocals
Peter Schimke-McCabe / Piano
Fortunately, the help and support of his family, the band, and friends, plus regular rounds of intensive detoxification have given Ben Kyle an optimistic path to recovery. Although not completely out of the dark, Kyle has grown to appreciate even the smallest things.
“How bright and beautiful life truly is!” he declares. “Asher (his youngest) was born in the middle of all this. He just turned one. I’m so grateful, so thankful for the moments with my children. The ability to be present…without the constant static, and conflicts. To be there in peace, with somebody, and enjoy their presence…enjoy what my children are saying. The magnificence of life, that’s what the shadows have revealed to me. I was dying just a year ago. I’m not anymore.”
Life does indeed go on for Ben Kyle. And though he admits some days are still difficult, the good days are increasing. He prefers not to dwell on his own troubles but rather to seek those who need help or need to be served, whether through music or something else.
This turn of events suggest that even in the shadows one finds light. When asked to expound on Shadowland’s message, he concludes “My prayer is that it lands on the right ears, on some good ears. We’re told the more drive you have the more successful you’ll be. I don’t believe in that philosophy of life. Sharing and doing good work. Being fruitful. Contributing to something bigger. I hope that’s what people take away from all this. Darkness teaches us. Darkness can be a friend, the everlasting arms is underneath it all. It’s about love, not ego. Love will get us there.”