Utopia is a place where everything is good; dystopia is a place where everything is bad; heterotopia is where things are different …
– Walter Russell Mead
Heterotopia is a difficult concept to define succinctly. The word comes from the Greek roots, heteros (other) and topos (place). So a heterotopia is an other place, somewhere that is both here and elsewhere, real and imaginary. That perfectly describes Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, a parallel world under the streets of London, invisible and inaccessible to the ordinary inhabitants of that great city. Whether Gaiman’s fictional realm of London Below inspired Lainey Schooltree to write her rock opera, Heterotopia, I can not say but in the Crotchety World the two go together like peaches and cream.
To label Heterotopia a rock opera invites comparison with albums such as Tommy, Quadrophenia and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. So let’s compare. Like those three archetypal rock opera albums, Heterotopia is a double album and it tells a story. Its first track even shares its title with track 1 on Tommy; it’s an instrumental called Overture.
Where Tommy‘s Overture uses French horns, a backing choir and an acoustic guitar solo to introduce an album of considerable variety, Heterotopia‘s settles us down with a hybrid classical/rock piano concerto. It’s a stirring opener reminiscent of Renaissance at their best and a very promising start.
The next song, Rocksinger, takes us away from the Who‘s classic rock and Genesis‘ prog rock down into the half-light of pop/rock and begins to tell the tale of Suzi, who unwisely wishes away her soul when her rock star ambitions come to nought. From then on the songs take us into a fantasy world much like the one that Rael finds himself in when he sees that incongruous lamb on a Broadway sidewalk. It’s a world full of strange things and even stranger creatures. Take the Cat Centipede, for example.
Suzi’s incorporeal soul is now lost in otherspace while her zombie body continues to inhabit the material world. Free from the shackles of her spirit’s moral compass, Zombie Suzi revels in her soulless existence. Suzi Spectre, on the other hand, can only look on, horrified and helpless.
Searching for a path back to the world of solid objects and a way to return to her body Suzi Spectre meets Metanoia, a leitmaiden, who provides welcome reassurance and a little guidance. Her theme is slower, calmer, almost comforting.
Suzi Spectre is beginning to understand this other world but the prospect of returning to her former life remains impossibly remote. It takes most of the second disk to find Enantiodromia, a leitmaiden cast to the bottom of a deep river where she must sleep forever unless someone not of this world can wake her.
The vestiges of Suzi’s real-world life enable her to wake Enantiodromia, who gratefully agrees to fuse Suzi’s body and soul once more. But there is a heavy price to pay, for Enantiodromia, once the Fount of Light and Life, has become the Black-Handed Reaper and she will destroy everything that does not belong in the immaterial world, including the reconstituted Suzi Body and Soul.
Does this tale have another twist and a happy ending? Crotchety Man isn’t telling. But you can read the story on the schooltree.com website, which gives an extensive commentary and the full libretto.
Heterotopia stands up well against the classics by The Who and Genesis. It’s not as varied as Tommy but imagine Kate Bush instead of Peter Gabriel on The Lamb … and you’re getting close to what Lainey Schooltree and her band have achieved. This album is undoubtedly a rock opera, but it’s a little bit different, a little bit other, too.