The Girl Who Had Too Much of Water
Seyminhol’s progressive metal hymn to Shakespeare’s Ophelia is brief but poignant.
Stories can be refracted through multiple lenses — different narrators, points of view and foci. For its fifth full-length studio album, French progressive power metal band Seyminhol decided to retell Shakespeare’s Hamlet with a focus on Ophelia. The resulting work, Ophelian Fields (2018), is tinged with the subject’s peculiar angst, providing a fresh look at a familiar tale.
Seyminhol isn’t new to Shakespeare. After a handful of epic heavy metal releases, the band shifted progressive and in 2015 released The Wayward Son, a symphonic prog metal adaptation of Hamlet that plays like Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film starring Mel Gibson. The ghost, the madness, the deaths . . . Most of the key bits are there, with tracks labeled by act and scene. Seyminhol in its second life likes melodic vocals, gritty riffs, soaring solos and shifting moods. Above all, however, it likes a good story — and stories don’t get any better than Shakespeare’s.
Ophelian Fields is Ophelia’s story. The tracks touch upon only the aspects of Hamlet that pertain to her, from her conversation with her father Polonius in Act 2, Scene 2, in which he confronts her with a love letter from Hamlet, to the graveyard altercation between Hamlet and her brother Laertes in Act 5, Scene 1 after her death . In an interview with Myth of Rock, the band describes the album as “the rest” of its previous album and indeed it does feel like less of a complete narrative than a collection of unused tracks from The Wayward Son.
Those tracks paint an insightful portrait of the subject. Much of Seyminhol’s focus is on Ophelia’s sexual awakening and frustration, and to this end, the lyrics frequently quote the play. Such is the case with “Nymph,” which quotes the Bard’s phrase that best describes Ophelia’s inner conflict. It appears in Act 3, Scene 1 at the close of Hamlet’s famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy: “Nymph, in thy orisons.” Physically and psychologically, Ophelia is a nymph, young and passionate, but in outward behavior she plays a maiden at prayer.
According to the playwright’s text, Ophelia and Hamlet may have already shared a bed, but in Seyminhol’s interpretation, she is a “sweet virgin.” Shakespeare is fond of plays within the play, and here we have a tragedy within a tragedy. Ophelia is sexually maturing, of marrying age, and she has a hot prospect: the future king of Denmark. But her family seems intent on closing that door. Her brother tells her she is of too lowly a station, then her father orders her to break it off before using her in his plan to trick Hamlet, thereby causing irreparable harm between the young man and woman.
Seyminhol’s treatment of Act 4, Scene 5, when Ophelia wanders around singing ribald songs and rambling in the language of flowers pays superb homage to the details. The lyrics to “Her Majesty of Flowers” mention all the flowers that Ophelia does in the play: rosemary, pansies, fennel, columbines, daisies and violets. According to Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, the exact connotations of some of these flowers are uncertain, but pansies signified thought and rosemary signified fidelity in love. I suspect that for Shakespeare’s early audiences, the flowers painted a clear portrait of Ophelia’s inner world.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that men have ill-used Ophelia. In the 1948 film version starring Lawrence Olivier, men repeatedly ignore her, turning away as she sobs in a heap on the stairs or mutters incoherently atop the battlements. Only Queen Gertrude seems to care. She says that Ophelia would have been a fine match for her son, and her description in Act IV, Scene 7 of the girl’s death by drowning in the brook is one of the play’s most moving passages, a eulogy of sorts to the girl’s character:
“Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chaunted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.”
This is an Elizabethan depiction of Death and the Maiden. Death may come for even the innocent who have barely lived. Death isn’t just one recurring event among many in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it’s a central theme explored repeatedly and at length, and Seyminhol has highlighted this by placing a quote from the play in the CD booklet: “The readiness is all.” Horatio warns Hamlet that his duel against Laertes could mean his death, but Hamlet says he is ready if that is his fate. And it is. In his readiness, Hamlet fairs better than most of the other characters, including Ophelia, who die without a chance to confess and thereby purify their souls.
“It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that men have ill-used Ophelia.”
Ophelian Fields, like the play on which it is based, reminds us of the old Latin injunction memento mori: remember you will die. In Seyminhol’s words, “life is a breath, life is too fast” — so live accordingly. Ophelia’s tragedy isn’t just that she lost her love, went mad, and died young. It’s also that she didn’t live fully during the time she had. I like to imagine an alternative Hamlet in which she stands up to her ignorant but domineering father, worships her hothead brother a lot less, pursues Hamlet, and blossoms like a young woman should.
Seyminhol tells Ophelia’s tale with a unique blend of prog, power and symphonic styles. Around a core of Dream Theater are arranged grittier, heavier moments reminiscent of Ghostship Octavius and quieter moments recalling Kamelot. These last are among the most memorable because they’re where Ophelia’s plight comes through most poignantly. Another strength is the intricate interweaving of piano, strings, horns, operatic vocals and spoken word. And all of this with the greatest restraint. This is a short album of short songs in a world that really doesn’t need another sprawling power-prog magnum opus.
And yet we’re used to more from this kind of music and Ophelian Fields would benefit from just that: a little more. It’s an impressive album when you pay attention, but it rarely demands that you pay attention. After a dozen spins, you could be forgiven for sleeving the CD and returning it to your collection without remembering anything about it. The vocalist never wails, the solos barely get off the ground, and the frills come and go before they make an impact. Seyminhol has talent and vision but it doesn’t make you sit up and take note.
Nonetheless, Seyminhol’s handling of the source material is masterful. The band has done an excellent job in following the Bard’s narrative, presenting its conflicts and driving home its themes. If you enjoy progressive power metal, a good concept album or Shakespeare, then Ophelian Fields is worth your attention.
Anne Boleyn: A Life in Prog
Coriolanus and Aufidius: Imperfect Lovers
Bottom as the Most Human Character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Imp of Macbeth’s Perverse
MindMaze’s Resolve: Review