There is a foggy layer of dread over every Franz Kafka story. It’s why we’ve incorporated the adjective, Kafka-esque into a lexicon of moody descriptors, one of the short listed reasons American college students slump off the railway station in Prague. They want to seize on that gloomy, infamous air.
German post-rockers Prag 83 have delivered an album, loosely based on the works of Herr Kafka, who, for the uninitiated, was the original paranoid nebbish. Only unlike his post-World War II descendents, Kafka had fascist demons and hardly a stitch of a sense of humor to accent his ideas.
The album Metamorphoses, named for perhaps the most famous short story in Kafka’s collection, opens with “A Hunger Artist” as bleak and ominous as the source tale. Most of the rest of the tracks allude to Kafka’s canon and the musical interpretation is, at times, sanguine and genuinely evocative. There are haunted corners in the rich mix, hushed production that only alludes to catharsis and a keenly droned out vocal style that emphasizes ambience over annunciation.
I’m partial to a few tracks on this, especially “Amelia” and “The Devil’s Heart” each of which rolls a gentle acoustic guitar that feels like a tiny shaft of human spirit through the ash laden clouds. But is that enough? Can a thread of triumph and a few bursts of gorgeous instrumentation really add to the source mystique?
A survey of this album’s audience would put me at the top. I’m literary. I’ve read and analyzed all of Kafka’s work multiple times. While Metamorphoses is by definition, Kafka-esque, it’s hardly as intriguing though. By virtue of aligning their work with the brilliant existentialist author, whose translation into the digital and social media age comes across as all kinds of humorous, Prag 83 plays its heavy hand in a heavy way. Bravo for the effort and ambition to approach the subject but the execution loses me. Take the Kafka references off of this record? Then I’m not quite so disappointed. Perhaps then I am not the target audience?
In the end, Metamorphoses works as a prog-rock album but it does not work as literary homage. The end track, which we crawl through the cobblestones to get to, yawns rather than ascends and while it pulls on post-rock strings elegantly, it doesn’t satisfactorily add to my dread. Perhaps it’s fitting. Kafka tales aren’t known for their twist in the end. Theirs is the twist in the beginning, which is too bad proving that some books are, well, best interpreted as books. (Erick Mertz)