This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might’ve known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?“. These were the words of Private Witt, played by James Caviezel, in the 1998 Terence Malick film Thin Red Line. The passage has become one of the iconic monologues in modern cinema, and in the process has been the inspiration behind two great pieces of music.
Texan instrumental quartet Explosions In The Sky were the first to use it. “Have You Passed Through This Night?” was the centrepiece of the group’s classic second album, Those Who Tell The Truth Will Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Will Live Forever. It was the first of their records to gain widespread release, and was the one that cemented their reputation as one of the best and most exciting instrumental bands around. The sampled monologue introduces the track which goes on to do a fine job in conveying the confused, scared and unsettled mindset of the soldier. The theme of the embattled Private, thrust into harm’s way for reasons he cannot understand is further pursued in the marvelous cover art of the album by David Logan. It is a woodcut depicting the legend of the Angel of Mons, who supposedly appeared on August 22nd 1914 and helped the vastly outnumbered British Expeditionary Force repel a German attack.
James Lavelle’s Unkle used Private Witt’s words in their track “An Eye From An Eye”, the standout cut on their unfairly maligned Never Never Land LP. I don’t know what it is about Lavelle, but he’s always managed to get the backs up of a lot of journalists right from the early days of Mo Wax. Perhaps it’s his taste for grandiose projects, or the fact that he was running a label whilst still in his teens and had the presumption to think that he could create music too. Whatever it is, his music has seldom been given the credit it deserves. “An Eye For An Eye” incorporates the sample within the track, rather than using it as an intro as Explosions do. The song also samples the Undisputed Truth’s version of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s “Ball Of Confusion” (which supplies the title). The whole thing is underlaid with an urgent beat creating a dark masterpiece worthy of Mezzanine era Massive Attack.
These two tracks are very different, but come from the same starting point. Both are laden with a sense of foreboding, but express this in a completely different musical language. Both are made by musicians who have obviously been deeply affected by the film, and who have been inspired to make something great. “Does our ruin benefit the earth?” – no, but would it be crass to say that it does inspire great art? (I thought it might).