Artist: House of Heroes
Album: The End Is Not the End
In Brief: A blast of a post-modern rock album that tells a pre-modern story with surprising relevance. You get more than you bargained for with this one.
A lot of the albums that have found their way into my collection lately are the kind that take careful listening, in a quiet environment or on headphones, to pick up the subtle details and realize what sort of beautiful ambiance lies beneath a seemingly cold exterior. A more “active” setting such as the car or a social gathering may not work the best for such albums, because the details can get lost in the surrounding noise – it’s not the type of music that is meant to compete with distractions. But every now and then, the reverse happens – an upfront, catchy, in-your-face, loud-and-proud rock album comes along that is so persistent about going for the jugular that “close” listening is the wrong way to approach it at first. You have to simply crank it up and have fun with it, and you can analyze it more deeply later on. That seems to be the case for the latest from House of Heroes.
I know this because I went about listening to The End Is Not the End the wrong way the first time around – during a busy day at work, immediately preceding a much-anticipated vacation, and bogged down with too much stuff to do. So it didn’t leave much of an impression. I forgot about it for a few days, but roughly one week later, during the road trip that my wife and I embarked on, I popped it into the car’s CD player for a second listen, hoping that it would serve the purpose of keeping me awake and alike during a long drive along an undulating Interstate through the Colorado Rockies. It certainly did the trick. I was immediately hooked at track one (well, two, since it starts with a brief intro), and amazed at the consistency of the fourteen (!) songs that followed, not necessarily loving them all right away, but certainly amazed at how many different lyrical quips and hyperactive guitar riffs and little theatrical bits caught my attention, at how much there was to get lost in here. It’s been hard to stop listening to it ever since then. The disc now sits proudly within my year-end Top 10 list, having the unusual distinction of being the sixth five-star album that I’ve had the honor of discovering within 2008. This obviously makes it an improvement over their already-good debut Say No More, which had its own unpredictable strength, but which fizzled out a bit in the back half, feeling longer at 12 tracks than this one does at 15.
Stylistic touchstones are difficult to name for House of Heroes. The Ohio-bred band definitely takes a page from their labelmates Relient K, starting with a poppy take on punk and expanding it into songs that often deviate from the expected verse/chorus structure, but HoH tend to stick more to the “meat and potatoes” lineup of guitar/bass/drums/vocals, occasionally dropping in a string section or a bit of programming like any modern rock band might, but generally not relying on keyboards and other supplemental instrumental parts to get the job done. They have a sort of “jock emo” stance that you might expect from Jimmy Eat World, but sometimes what might start off as a rockin’ love song twists and turns its way into something more insidious, something that you realize describes a character who isn’t at all the quiet, sensitive type. And throughout their songs, there’s a recurring “flirting with disaster” sort of feeling that you might get from one of Anberlin‘s older albums. This band has a knack for lyrics that establish characters and stories, even within the confines of what might sound like an innocuous radio single. The breakup songs and occasional jabs at the music industry or society’s selfishness in general that peppered Say No More were a start in that direction, but here, HoH blows the concept wide open, seemingly constructing their album as a series of vignettes based on imaginary soldiers from various historical wars, their wives/girlfriends/mistresses back at home, and the various political and personal conflicts that arise from such situations.
This isn’t not a “concept album” in the sense that it tells a linear story, but it masterfully sidesteps the status quo of modern rock music by using this backdrop as a framing device for most of their songs. Woven throughout are some hard questions about justice and mercy, definitely informed by the band members’ Christian faith, but not jumping to the easy “let’s just love everybody and all will be okay” conclusions you might expect to hear from a “Christian rock” band. It’s something that informs their music rather than being an agenda for it. Some of the topics explored here, while not inappropriate by any means, would definitely make Christian radio a bit uncomfortable about what exactly this band’s message is – but that would most likely be a consequence of playing specific songs out of context. (For example, there’s one love song written to a Communist, a few others that seem a bit possessive and even creepy, and a few songs might even be interpreted as protests of present-day wars if not for the surrounding songs to establish that this is an imaginary work of historical fiction.) I’m cool with this. I like it when a band who comes from the same type of faith background that I come from can still pose questions that I’m not entirely sure I know the answers to.
If any of this sounds like fun to you, then put on your helmet and camouflage, and bring your rifle, and let’s hop into the Wayback Machine for a trip about 60 or 70 years into the past. I can’t guarantee what side you’ll be fighting for, but it’ll be one hell of a battle!
If this dramatic little string section intro seems dropped in from somewhere else, that’s because it is. More on this later.
Give us this moment to shine
Me and my Bride of Frankenstein
A beautiful bird on a line…
A few toots from an organ get this bouncy little love song started, which at first feels a lot like “Buckets for Bullet Wounds” due to its jaunty rhythm and it somewhat sneering bravado. The difference here is that we’re starting with romance instead of politics… or at least, it seems romantic if you don’t look too deep. What House of Heroes appears to be doing here is taking the usual tendency of love songs to refer to someone as “mine” or pine away over what it would like to “have” them, and taking it to its ambitious extreme – “If you were mine, I’d have the world! I’d have the world if you were mine!” It’s a hell of a catchy chorus that reveals a hell of a possessive attitude. Is it really that much of a compliment to refer to a lover as “a beautiful Bride of Frankenstein, a beautiful drop of iodine”? The answer is no, and if you picked up on that, then you’ve got the hang of this band’s approach. They want you to look past the facade, because you’ll hear more of these “love letters that get it all wrong” elsewhere in the album. It doesn’t hurt that the band employs all manner of hand claps and gang vocals and slap-happy bass licks to make this quite one of the catchiest “shoulda been a hit single” songs of the entire year.
3. Lose Control
I am the answer that you misunderstand
I do the evil that an honest man can’t
I live in shadows that the enemy casts
I have no future and I have no past…
The rushing guitar attack in this song is like getting knocked over by an aural tsunami – it’s a loud and proud taunt from “an enemy unknown” who offers a serious of riddle-like clues, daring you to say his name, if only you can figure out what it is. Could it be… Satan? Is it something more down to earth, like a “bad boy” suitor just out to score a one-night stand? Is it something more abstract, like the personification of lust or greed? One could come up with a lot of potential explanations, but thus far I’m still scratching my head over this one. I’m certainly hooked by Tim Skipper‘s throaty singing approach – he throws a lot of power behind the sustained notes in this chorus, making it another sure-fire power pop concoction guaranteed to bowl the listener over.
4. Leave You Now
When you sleep, don’t dream of me
I don’t want to break your heart ’til I’m breaking free
When I get out, I’m gonna run with you
We’re gonna make our way to America…
While I don’t want to keep comparing tracks on this album to their counterparts on Say No More (because that would imply that the band is repeating themselves, which they’re not), I will say that this song’s melody and its more laid-back approach that gets increasingly aggressive as it goes really reminds me of “Friday Night”. That being a highlight of their last album, I can’t complain. It’s where the group’s more anthemic, Jimmy Eat World side comes out, but this time around, instead of the lyrics feeling like they’re ripped from a high schooler’s journal, it feels like they’re ripped from the journal of a P.O.W. or a political refugee of some sort. It’s a sort of love letter to a woman back home – Skipper gushes with dedication about how he’s done hard labor for years, and during all that time, he remained faithful and never gave her up. (This could mean he didn’t cheat on her, or more interestingly, it could mean he didn’t rat her out as a collaborator involved in whatever war crime he’s doing time for.) But lest this hook-laden love story get too mushy, there’s another round of backhanded compliments just around the bend: “Yeah, I can’t leave you now. Yeah, I got nowhere to go anyhow.” (And just when you’re thinking, “Hey, that’s not very flattering”, Skipper goes and interjects, “How’s that for a compliment, girl?”, basically acknowledging with a sly wink that you heard him right.) It’s an all-around fun affair, with an excellent guitar solo from Jared Rigsby and a little more of the free-spirited, clap-along goodness that made “If” such a blast.
Talking out all these hours almost everyday
Still you fill my lungs, still I’m walking grace
Until I’ve unlearned everything
Except to trust, I can’t if I’m too afraid…
With so many go-for-the-jugular, bouncy rockers piled up at the front of the album, there’s guaranteed to be one that gets lost in the shuffle – and for me, this is the song. There’s nothing bad about it that I can identify – it might just be that the lyrics lose a bit of cohesion due to the way Tim Skipper and bassist A. J. Babcock trade off vocals throughout most of the song, occasionally overlapping one another. It’s a skillful arrangement, but the song feels like its pace was made a tad too lethargic for it to “pop” like the others did, in order to make sure this stuff doesn’t fly by too quickly. Despite the relative complexity of the vocal approach, the lyrics here are actually much more straightforward and honest, looking squarely at the inherent risks of falling in love and admitting that there’s no easy way around having to feel pain if one chooses to dive into a relationship with genuine intentions. This is stark contrast to the cockiness expressed in a song like “If” – now the guy who thought the world would be his if he could just get the girl is finding out that keeping the girl might just turn his whole newly-acquired world on its ear.
6. In the Valley of the Dying Son
And then I felt it with a chill up my spine
There are no words to use that truly describe
The glory of the angel, or the terror in me
Tonight will be my ending, or tonight my new beginning…
Certain songs in the band’s past – most notably “You Are the Judas of the Cheerleading Squad” and the sprawling opus “Angels in Top Hats” – showed a certain “progressive” tendency, taking jagged pieces of edgy, alternative rock songcraft and fusing them together into a mini-suite that defied the conventional expectations of what back-to-basics power-pop acts like these are supposed to sound like. For all of the skill demonstrated, House of Heroes can be a bit abrupt when moving from one section of such a suite to another, which is why I initially approached this humdinger of a song with hesitation. There’s a killer mixture of danceable, bass-driven rhythm with jagged, snarling guitar riffs here, giving the song a schizophrenic nature which is actually quite amusing – it’s in-your-face one minute and then meek and easygoing the next. There appears to be a sort of dialogue between God and a frightened soldier going on here – the man is questioning the morality of killing his enemy, wondering if this guy is a “good man” too, wondering how God could ever let a travesty such as war happen. Just as it begins to escalate to a shouting match, the band pulls a doozy of a change-up on us and drops the tempo from upbeat 4/4 to slow, grinding 6/8, complete with a squealing guitar solo and some rather ghostly backing vocals threatening to drown out the last vestige of sanity. Then, a moment of calm. Man somehow realizes that God is not his enemy. The slick bass line and the tempo pick back up again. Man shakes his fist at the sky once more, this time not in frustration, but as a gesture of solidarity. “I’m living to shine on!” he proclaims. What that means in this context, I have no clue. But that was seriously awesome.
7. Code Name: Raven
And I don’t hate my enemy
I hate the cloud he’s brought over my land
There’s no virtue in killing a man
Neither is there virtue in being afraid to stand…
Another dense rocker follows, this one opening with a dizzyingly fast triple beat (you’ve gotta love the urgency of Colin Rigsby‘s drum rolls on this one), before stripping itself back to more of a cartoonish-syncopated march, in which the lyrics are anything but cartoonish as an intelligence operative ponders whether he might end up being the next victim broadcast to the world with a bag over his head in one of those Al Qaeda videos. (OK, so I made up the Al Qaeda part. I have no idea what time period this song is set in.) While this would obviously be a travesty, the protagonist has a certain resolve here – true defeat lies not in death, but in giving up on basic human decency and allowing himself to hate his enemy. It’s heady stuff, but the song plows forward with a bit of spirited military chanting and a “death before dishonor” sort of outlook on life. There’s a lot of subtle wordplay here that’s difficuly to catch the first time through – I’m particularly amused at how the cliche “Loose lips sink ships” is turned into “Loose lips synch -” with the last word being shushed by the rest of the band. But the main sentiment of the song rings out loud and clear – “I’d rather die than live without mercy and love.”
8. By Your Side
And we were soldiers then
Our bodies in the sand
And like that sand through our hands
Go our grandest plans…
The sensitive acoustic thing isn’t a side of HoH that we normally get to see, and I suppose most rock bands who did the “obligatory acoustic ballad” would leave it to sum up life and love and the universe in some vague way at the end of an album, but these guys use it instead to merely close one chapter before opening another. It’s a soldier’s tribute to his fallen brother, a comrade who dreamed with him since childhood of the heroes they’d grow up to me, who enrolled in the military the same day he did, and who was apparently killed in a firefight. The one who remains is now promising his brother, “Just to see your face for one moment, I’d cross the ocean again”. He’s distraught, but he knows that “The end is not the end”, that death is not the final word, and that’s what keeps any sense of bravery alive within him. Lots of Christian singers have expressed similar sentiments of longing to see a loved one again in Heaven, but few have made it so compelling by way of a first-person narrative such as this, where the surrounding context adds extra weight to the story being told in this otherwise mellow song.
9. Journey into Space (Part One)
Baby, baby, if there is eternity
Then it must be made of love
How else could I hope in all this death?
Don’t ask me why this song is subtitled “Part One” when it doesn’t have a part two. Maybe it’ll show up on a future album. Whatever the case, what we’ve got here is a decent return to the band’s usual up-tempo material, still honing in on the subject of death and the eternity that transcends it, but focusing more on a loved one who is still alive, perhaps a worried wife or girlfriend far away from the frontlines. He is trying to reassure her, but he can’t promise he’ll come back alive, so he does his best to offer her confidence that the cause he may die for is a worthwhile one. We don’t know what war he’s fighting or whose side he’s on. Perhaps it’s immaterial. He notes that the God he believes in doesn’t take sides. (So why the war? Is it self-defense? People who believe in the same God fight each other all the time in real life, so anything’s possible.) He remains firm on the point that no threat of turture or murder or whatever else can take away their faith, the thing that assures that he will meet her again in the next life if not in this one. I haven’t talked about the music as much converning this song because it doesn’t stand out to me as much – I like the “spacey” guitar solo but in general, the hooks and riffs aren’t as strong as most of the album.
10. Sooner or Later
It always seemed like we had no time
Like the world would end if we closed our eyes
So we held our breath, and we took the dive
We never had a chance, but I’m happy we tried…
This comparatively more lighthearted song about love won and then lost almost feels out of place at this point in the album. Again, I can’t find as much about the musical performance that stands out to me – it’s straightforward enough to seem like a bit of regression, something that would have fit better on Say No More, but I guess every album has to have its low point, and this song still ain’t bad. It’s more of a “live for the moment anthem” (like we’ve never heard one of those before!), reminiscing on the brief existence of a couple who thought they had it all, and whose relentless wanting for more led them to lose it all. There’s some sort of a lesson to be gleaned here about enjoying what you have now to its fullest, but it’s all a bit vague. House of Heroes seems to be more poignant on the “taking life for granted” topic when the protagonist of their song is still caught in the middle of utterly not getting it regarding his romantic relationship du jour. I will say that isolated lines offer a bit of a connection to other thoughts expressed throughout the album – the song opens with the line “I’m not your enemy, baby”, and the issue of humans not being each other’s enemies is a big one on The End Is Not the End. “We placed our bets on broken hearts” also seems to make this song the antithesis of “Dangerous” – maybe this couple took the honorable risk and lost?Plus, “Baby’s on fire like the colors of fall” makes for a nice segue into…
11. Baby’s a Red
Ooh, little red
It’s not like McCarthy said
Though we differ on religion
We both support the working man…
You’ve gotta love the band’s gumption here – they went and wrote a bouncy love song to a Communist that, had it been recorded during the era it references, would likely have landed the band on some sort of a blacklist here in America. This brings a whole new perspective to “Loving your enemies” – this guy’s in so deep that he doesn’t mind the political and even religious ideological differences between them, nor does he seem to be fazed by the fact that he could face execution if it’s revealed that they’re intimately involved. It’s interesting how “Russian spies” and other remnants from the Cold War days have become a bit of a cliche in spy movies nowadays – it makes a song like this seem so cute, so whimsical. But how would it play out if this baby’s heart was in Tehran or Pyongyang instead of Stalingrad, or really any place that we, the “good guys”, currently don’t like? Wow, too deep of a question – I’m making myself uncomfortable. I need a distraction to get my mind off of this heavy political stuff… Hey look! Over there! There goes that string section from the beginning of the album again!
Come, come one and all, and sacrifice your pride to find a new beginning
Open up your ears and eyes to see our minds are still in need of changing
If we knew the truth, would we even care at all?
Or be pulled under?
I’d never classify House of Heroes as a “punk” band, but they’ve flirted with a good range of styles on this album, and this would probably be the closest they’ve come to playing a “punk rock” sort of song. It’s there in the fast, jumpy rhythm, the raspy, incomprehensible shouting near the end of it, and the overall sense of urgency. The more laid-back verses and the tiny bits of electronic spice, not so much. (There’s also the fact that the song has more than three chords, I guess.) They definitely went for an alarmed, unsettling sort of feeling for this one, and it makes sense for a song that’s all about how we’re oblivious to our own impending doom. It’s the same thing Incubus sang about in “Warning”, and that Thrice sang about in “Lost Continent”, just sped up. The flood waters are rising (whether you want to take that as an analogy for our morals, or as a literal comment regarding global warming), and we’re too busy debating the existence of the water to get off our butts and do anything about it.
I’m in love, but I’m tasteless
I only want what’s bad for me
I’m in love with the spaces
With the spaces in between….
This would be the final “cocky love song” on the album – truth be told, I didn’t like this one at first, because it seemed a little bit too obvious about how its character thoughtlessly moved from one pretty face to the next and how the band kept finding ways to stretch the word “faces” into as many different rhymes as possible. (Seriously… “chases”, “tasteless”, “waitress”? Yeah, not their finest bit of penmanship. But still fun.) What’s interesting is that this character seems to know his hedonism is destroying him – he compares every failed attempt at finding love to getting “shot down”, and he acknowledges that it’s his “death wish come true”. Musically, it’s another one of those songs that oscillates between a subdued verse and rather raspy chorus – Tim Skipper seems to be almost shouting the chorus at times, but this sort of serves to ramp up the intensity for the climactic song that follows next.
In the graceless world, I was graceless
I’m just a murderer, ’cause murder was my only chance
Go on, wretch it out, am I faithless?
The ears of God hear everything…
This song is the proverbial day of reckoning. It could be about the haggard veteran looking back and regretting war crimes he got away with that eat at his soul, or it could be about the oblivious civilian wasting his country’s hard-won freedom on superficial sexual pursuits. Either way, this person feels like he’s taken advantage of the innocent, and those voices haunt him relentlessly. There’s a strange mystique to the band’s approach, stripping back to minimal bass and drums for the most part during the verses, as the man’s hushed confessions come out in the form of uneasy prayers, eventually building up to a dramatic pause before the punishing, raspy-throated chorus that screams, “Cut! Cut! Cut! Cut a hole in the night! The voices of the innocent are coming to life!” Much like the bridge from “In the Valley of the Dying Son”, the ghostly backing vocals are positively chilling here, and it’s easy to see why this man can’t sleep at night. House of Heroes pulls off a move that would honestly be a faux pas for most Christian bands who cared at all about their artistic credibility when they drop in a sample of a preacher during the bridge, who brings the song to a fervent boil as he rails about our greatest sin – which turns out to not be murder or some form of sexual deviancy or anything that typically elicits gasps from the goodie-two-shoes church crowd… it’s really the inability to believe that we are forgiven that enslaves us. In not so many words, they’re reiterating that reeeeeeeally scary passage about “the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” by pointing out how we have a need to repent of the very mindset that keeps us from fully believing that our repentance even matters. It’s heavy stuff, powerfully communicated as the preacher’s words come to an exclamation point and the band takes off with an absolutely sick electro-industrial-dance-rock-something-or-other breakdown that finally culimates with the haunting background vocals fading into the distance. This is Christian rock at its best – it transcends stereotypes, it points inwards and questions our hearts rather than railing on the sins of the rest of the world, and it truly challenges us, while at the same time not forgetting that this is rock music, and providing a pummeling instrumental performance to that end.
15. Field of Daggers
Spread wide Your wings, O God, relieve this scarlet fever
Catch every tear of mothers in mourning
Bring life to tired hopes, buried in fields of flowers
Bring many sons of battle to glory…
Now begins the war to end all wars. A somber drum march fades in, and our long lost soldier, left to survey the ashes of the spiritual warfare that he’s been entrenched in for so long, finally manages to lift up his head and find hope in the one who can redeem him from his irredeemable acts. Sure, they’re laying the religious language on a bit thicker here, but it’s been earned. It’s the allegory that most of the disconnected stories of love and war on this album have been pointing towards. It’s a Psalm for the modern age, and the band doesn’t clean up their edgy sound to celebrate it – they fully intend to go out on a musically intense note, which they do with panache as an emotional guitar solo gives way to a declaration that “He was and is, He is and is to come, He holds the key!”, and then a final drum roll speeds everything up and gives us one last fiery blast of electric guitar goodness, backed by dramatic staccato strings, to go out on. When that comes to a sudden end, the bridge section is beautifully reprised by the strings, bringing the record to a satisfying thematic close in much the same way that it opened.
16. The Young and the Brutal
Save the bees! Is it World War 3?
I’ll afford my car, but not gasoline
So who do we believe?
But wait, there’s more! The band might be attempting too much of a good thing here by daring to place a zippy, irreverent little epliogue after such a perfect final chapter (kind of like “Whatsername” at the end of Green Day‘s American Idiot), but I think there’s a reason for this song’s existence as a hidden track. Suddenly we’re smack dab in the middle of the modern age, as is made clear by all of the references to bland suburbs and “Xanax teens” and rising gas prices and post-modern boredom. How’d we get here from the glorious, heavenly transcendence of the previous song? Maybe there’s a new protagonist now – one whose war is not against Nazis or Communists or fanatical terrorist cells, but who instead finds himself battling the apathy brought about by sterile, safe, subrbia. Maybe this song is hidden after the close of the album because “the end is not the end” – one hero may have found redemption, but there are several more wandering lost after his story ends. That could be the reason. Or it could just be a fun song they recorded about faith and doubt in the mind of an angsty teenager that didn’t fit anywhere into the album, so they said “What the hell” and put it here. Your mileage may vary.
It’s rare these days, in this climate of iTunes and single downloads and everybody so hyped up on what the next big radio sensation will be, to hear a young and fully modern rock act with a penchant for writing catchy, poppy melodies and big old power pop riffs that is so committed to making a true rock album – a collection of songs that works as a whole and that is engaging from end to end. That would be a commendable accomplishment even if I couldn’t relate to any of these songs. House of Heroes simply did what they knew best – no radical reinvention, no attempt to fuse together new genres of music or anything crazy like that – and they ended up outdoing themselves and most of their peers in the process. At this point I’m just coming up with more ways to say the obvious that I’ve been saying all along, which is that The End Is Not the End is an awesome album, and if you’re at all curious, you shouldn’t hesitate to check it out.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Lose Control $1.50
Leave You Now $1.50
In the Valley of the Dying Son $1.50
Code Name: Raven $1.50
By Your Side $1
Journey into Space (Part One) $.50
Sooner or Later $.50
Baby’s a Red $2
Field of Daggers $2
The Young and the Brutal $1
Tim Skipper: Lead vocals, guitars
AJ Babcock: Bass, backing vocals
Colin Rigsby: Drums, backing vocals
Jared Rigsby: Guitar, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.