In Brief: It’s an electronic-and-yet-not sci-fi-fantasy album for headphone-donning music junkies who want something to listen to in between obsessively re-watching episodes of LOST. Or something.
Falling Up is a rare bird within the vaguely-defined genre known as “Christian rock”. They’re a young band which started out with tons of youth-group appeal due to a vaguely nu-metal style that was en vogue at the time. And they’ve managed to mature their sound with each recording in a way that doesn’t sound at all like a band selling out to keep pace with an aging audience now into middle-of-the-road worship bands and bland adult contemporary ballads. They’ve been on a fairly major CCM label – the same label, in fact – for their entire run (BEC Recordings, the somewhat more “grown-up” subsidiary of Tooth & Nail), and yet the message behind their music, in stark contrast to labelmates such as Kutless, Jeremy Camp, and Bebo Norman, has only become more obscure with each release. They’re a band with overactive imaginations, whose lyrics might have allowed for a gloppy song of devotion like “Falling in Love” or a combat-the-teen-angst anthem like “New Hope Generation” back in the early days of their debut Crashings, but who have gravitated more towards the realms of fantasy and sci-fi to get their point across (assuming there is one!) in recent years. Even in the early days, there was plenty to get lost in, as unusual phrasing and bizarre song titles in between the more standard stuff seemed to suggest God changing the direction of gravity on faraway, exotic planets. There seemed to be a Christian allegory lurking behind it all, as if it wanted to be the musical version of a C. S. Lewis novel or something. But unless one cheated and consulted the Bible verses cited next to each set of lyrics in the liner notes, one would often have no idea that there was any sort of double meaning to these eccentric, but catchy, futuristic rock songs about dragons and archers and planetariums and supernatural track meets. This was the type of material that dominated 2007’s Captiva, which was a departure from their past work due to its heavy dependence on synthesizers. Suddenly, the lyrics could no longer be obfuscated behind and endless wall of fast-paced riffing and vocal harmonies. Fans who were accustomed to the non-stop rawk had to stop and scratch their heads and figure out whether they could still dig where this band was coming from.
And now we have the latest strange concoction from Falling Up, which is amusingly titled Fangs! And it’s a whole ‘nother deal. While the musical progression is perhaps logical after Captiva, there’s still bound to be an adjustment period between that record and this one that will have a pre-existing fan convinced that this is the band’s worst effort yet. Then it’ll slowly start to sink in. Where there was once a lack of confident guitar leads (though there are a few) and upfront synth melodies (those are pushed more into the background this time), you’ll find an interesting emphasis on the band’s rhythm section. Suddenly bass guitar is almost as important as the lead guitar. And drums – well, this is one of the few rock records that seems to put the drums out there as the lead instrument. It’s disconcerting at first to hear little but the rhythm, the voice of Jessy Ribordy, and some background ambiance dominating the landscape on so many tracks, but after a while it becomes strangely hypnotic. There’s still melody here – some of the band’s strongest hooks show up throughout Fangs!, if you can get past the fact that the lyrics are so bizarre that they don’t exactly roll off the tongue at first. But be not dismayed. There’s a reason for that.
You see, the science fiction trappings of Fangs! don’t just extend to the spaced-out music and the outlandish song titles. The disc appears to be the band’s stab at a concept album, one which takes a story that could only possibly make sense in Jessy’s mind and which translates it to a handful of central characters and repeating motifs, in such a way as to reveal a little something more about itself with each listen. Understanding the premise of the story is nearly impossible without doing a little extracurricular reading (sorry, no direct Bible quotes to put you in the ballpark this time!) The band explains in written form that it’s about the citizens of a planet called Neptuenn (yes, really spelled that way), whose children are poisoned by the clothes they wear and who attach the clothes to golden arrows that they fire into space to cure themselves, only to one day find the same golden arrows targeted right back at their planet… or something like that. I don’t fully understand it. And I don’t know that there’s some great moral to it that makes a big lightbulb blink on over my head at the end of the album. It’s abstract, but for that reason, kind of intriguing. It’s actually refreshing, since I’ll take just about anything but the predictable “rah-rah-God” stuff and/or thinly veiled attempts to score generic mainstream hits from Christian rock bands these days. Due to the highly interconnected nature of these songs (complete with non-numbered transitional tracks between several of them) and the almost impenetrable language, I wouldn’t expect Fangs! to be loaded with potential hit singles. It’s not an album that is designed to be listened to in pieces, even if individual songs do jump out and grab me more than others. (There is a bit of a slump in the middle, musically speaking.) But it is an intriguing piece of work, one which might just be the most confounding and yet satisfying “alternative rock concept album” in this vein since Radiohead‘s OK Computer. (Yeah, I know, that wasn’t actually a concept album. But it sparked my imagination in a very similar way. And before you ask, Falling Up and Radiohead don’t really have much in common musically.) For those who don’t mind the steep mental price of admission and who can get over the “Christian band” stigma, I think there’s a lot to be discovered here.
1. A Colour Eoptian
The strayers bite their tongues
‘Cause they feel the tingling violence in their lungs
But I was forced to speak, proclaiming Golden shapes…
If you don’t count the mysterious electronic gurgling, which is apparently a separate introductory piece entitled “Blooming from the Corner”, then the album proper starts right away with its two most prominent elements – a big, melodic vocal hook and loud, crashing, and surprisingly un-modified drums. It’s a song that hurtles us forth into a mysterious adventure, keeping the same “action factor” that started the band’s early albums, but relegating the guitar to more of a rhythmic, supporting role. Little bits of electronic buzz eat away at the vocal melodies here and there (particularly during the mysterious bridge, which foreshadows a song from later in the album), but the real star of the show here is Josh Shroy, whose thrilling drum rolls dominate the landscape, taking the song out when all hints of melody have dropped off.
2. Lotus and the Languorous
Stumble out, your breathing speaks
As heavy in the prose
Salt beyond our lady Satuernn’s Reef
Has wounded several more…
The band keeps things up-tempo on the second track, but takes more of a sideways approach, with Jessy’s vocals even more heavily digitized and some tricky rhythmic syncopation. They almost sound like a futuristic Deas Vail here (well, except for the fact that Jessy’s voice is comparatively less androgynous). This song feels like the preparation for an intense launch into space – I have no clue why the lyrics mention such cryptic things as “dancing on the ceiling” and being “strapped down to the anchors”, but I’m more than willing to go along for the ride as the frenetic guitars and drums get locked into a jam session that kicks the song up a notch, suddenly dropping out at a false ending and then slamming back in for a chilly outro that gradually fades off into space. It’s hard to rock out and be highly inventive at the same time – this song accomplishes both with great is.
3. Streams of Woe at Acheron
This starry night, the blue of seas
Are lifted off the ground
So poised and still, the figures hold
That I will not be found…
This one’s more of a straight ahead “rocker”, at least by this album’s standards – it’s more clearly based on a driving rhythm and more of an orthodox, power-chord-heavy guitar approach, which occasionally drops out and lets Jeremy Miller’s electronic keyboards fill the empty space. We may have a bit of a thematic key to the album’s story here, as Jessy mentions pulling the fangs out, encountering an archer, and finding something called a “green lift” (which apparently, in his made-up vernacular, is a cure for poison. Yeah, you have to read up a bit to even vaguely understand this stuff.) Musically, this isn’t the album’s most inventive track, but I do enjoy the Captiva-esque ending with the brief piano solo.
4. Magician Reversed
Don’t ever speak of stars
If you formed from different parts
‘Cause you know I lied there drunk that night
With the armour at my side…
This is one of the more groove-based tracks on the record – it’s all cymbal-heavy percussion and moody bass at first, and at this point I’m seriously starting to doubt whether the genre tag “Electronic Rock” that I assigned in iTunes is an appropriate descriptor. It’s still got that futuristic, glossy sort of feeling, and yet at the same time it’s just the raw instruments. This song helps to set the scene of the kingdom in which our story takes place – a king is plotting war while playing with his mistress’ hair, and the song appears to be sung from the point of view of a man who has some sort of secret liaison going on with said mistress. Gold mines and a place called the “discoveratory” are mentioned as well – there’s some sort of political power play happening here that is driven by either science, magic, or just pure greed. What the song lacks almost completely in support from the guitar, it gains in rich vocal support, before fading back to just the drums, the rhythm of which are then picked up by what sounds like wooden spoons banging on metal cans, in a short transitional piece appropriately called “The Discoveratory”.
5. Golden Arrows
They watched me breathe dust
Calling out to free us, weakened at the knees
Drawn bows that track the languorous
They were in panic, with plans for the newest planet’s fate…
We’ve definitely come to rest in a mellower section of the album now – this song might come charging out with thick guitars, but it’s got a slower, more mysterious pace to it, as our protagonist wanders the far reaches of a foreign planet in search of his “goddess”. (If it throws you to hear the phrase “Oh my goddess” from a “Christian band”, then you’re not alone, but even a basic understanding of the album’s fairytale context should satisfy the curiosities of all but the most reactionary and imagination-lacking of listeners). You’ll go batty trying to remember that this song’s title belongs with the song, given that the phrase “golden arrows” is used in the songs before and after this one, but not actually within this one, which instead makes mentions of “the languorous” and probably also a few references to other songs that I’m missing. (The referrals back and forth between songs on any Falling Up album are about as convoluted as your average season of Lost.) More rich vocal harmonies and a bit of simple but effective guitar playing adorn this one, and it too pulls off a slow fade out into deep space at the end – the effect is much like that used in Thrice‘s song “For Miles”.
6. The King’s Garden
The sky has scrapers now
The streets are made of clothes
Embroidered on every single sleeve…
What’s this? A Falling Up song built almost entirely around the acoustic guitar? I certainly never expected this from them. At first, it’s kind of thrilling, because you can even hear the squeaking of fingers on the strings here and there, and this is all quite organic for such a science fiction-obsessed band. Then I realize there’s not a whole lot else to this song, save for a fairly repetitive chord progression and some barely-there lyrics… this is really more of an interlude that just happens to have a few words interspersed. Placing it in between the tracks that surround it probably wasn’t a wise idea, because the album is seriously lacking in energy right around this point.
7. Panic and Geo-Primaries
To know you are tangled
In the coral colored Queen’s dress
As her figure leaves the ground
And this is creeping, moving on it’s own…
Here’s where the nay-sayers (well, at least the ones who are paying attention) will accuse Falling Up of repeating themselves, while the faithful will gush about how brilliant and interconnected their songwriting is, even across multiple albums. This languid track, with its stumbling drums and lazily paced vocals, appears to be a sequel to Captiva’s “Arch to Achilles”. You won’t realize it at first, until midway through they borrow that same chorus: “Breathing in the dark, they’re finding who you are.” After that point, the primary melody from “Arch” brings the song to its rather long, dragged-out conclusion. The bizarre dream Jessy had which inspired “Arch” may be a key to better understanding Fangs!, but if that’s the case, it seems odd to bury such an essential clue on a completely different disc. Taken just as music without trying to understand the meta-story, this is the album’s weakest track. It makes the mistake of lingering too long on a melody that sounded a lot more engrossing when played on the piano two years ago, rather than slowly oozing from a distorted, spacy guitar.
8. The Moonn and Sixpence
If you would untie the knots on your boats
I promise you that I could lie
Neptuenn has changed, and I needed to loose
The rest of the bodies at sea…
RAWK!!! Okay, I hate to be superficial when Falling Up is clearly trying to create a mood and tell a story, but we needed the jolt of energy at this phase. This track starts with the heaviest riff that I’ve heard from the band since “Moonlit” from Dawn Escapes, and by most band’s standards, that still isn’t all that heavy – but they’ve brought back the more frenetic feeling of a song like “Lotus and the Languorous”, and that’s a welcome change. There’s some sort of espionage here, as our character overhears plots of war and treachery, and embarks on some sort of strange aquatic mission to undermine it all. This track might suffer from what I call the “Captiva disease” – starting off with a promising rhythmic backbone but then reverting to more of a straight-faced, power-chord approach for the chorus. That slightly hurt some otherwise inventive songs on the band’s previous disc, and it results in this track not quite having the bite that it should, but it’s still an interesting piece.
9. Goddess of the Dayspring, Am I
I have found seas under the floorboards
I have stood above the wooden planks
Crossed the wandering walls to find none of their wars!
The album’s bounciest track takes off here, weaving together some important themes in an emotionally climactic moment, which finds our hero racing against time to throw a monkey wrench into the world of underwater gears that he’s discovered, while somewhere back on land, the death of his lover is mourned. (It’s like two different chapters of his adventure being told at once – one part action flick and one part melodramatic chick flick.) The chorus sticks in the head like no other, thanks once again to the rich backing vocals, as our hero pleads: “Have you forgotten me for flowers in your head? Still I run my hands over your dress.” That last phrase could be misinterpreted all too easily as something less innocent than what it actually is – again, this is where it helps to go beyond the lyrics as presented and understand the story as hinted at in the liner notes. These words are being spoken at the goddess’s funeral, as our hero touches her lifeless body for one last time and mourns the fact that he got her caught up in the whole thing. It’s sad, and yet… catchy. (Bonus points for those who recognize the bridge of this song as the chorus from a song heard earlier in the album.) Don’t ask me what the deal is with the drum outro, which quickly fades into a completely different rhythm that gets all chopped up amidst the floating pieces of electronic beats and snippets of vocals. An interlude called “Our Lady Satuernn’s Reef” is labeled in the official track listing, but it’s positioned before this track, and yet there’s nothing in between “The Moonn and Sixpence” and this song, and nothing labeled where this interlude should be. Strange!
10. The Sidewinder Flux
Wait for poisson streams
Drink in laced with strobing streetsBreathe in slowly, you will forget They stole me in the night, while you slept…
Things slow back down here for another reflective piece, which is largely driven by bass and drums, gently floating along in 6/8 time while the band mournfully croons, “Breathe in slowly, you will forget”, as if to immerse our protagonist in his underwater mission and try to hold the memories of his departed loved one at bay. There’s a nice little harmonic interlude in the middle of this song which couldn’t really be considered a “guitar solo”, but which is pretty in its own subtle way. When your band’s rhythm section is pushed to the forefront and the guitars are used sparingly, every small bit of melody seems to count for something. The eerie, glowing fade-out at the end is apparently another traditional piece called “Gears Under the Water”. It’s appropriately titled – you feel like you’re ominously floating towards a humming machine.
11. The Chilling Alpine Adventure
Lead us to Neptuenn, we deserve worse!
We know it’s the last who drown at their birth
Have you just lost your own mind, under pretty lights?
Due to the similar rhythm and tempo, it might be easy to confuse this track with the previous one, but there’s a little more “snarl” to this one, and a little more of a sense of direction. There’s a bigger, more dramatic chorus, one which seems to promise victory our death as our hero makes his move to bring these mysterious gears grinding to a halt. The foreshadowing from “A Colour Eoptian” is finally revisited here, as the watery refrain of “Down, down, down, where are the stirrings of old?” finally gains some context. I mentioned Lost earlier, and I must say that it’s hard to listen to this song without thinking of Charlie’s uncharacteristically heroic sacrifice at the end of Season 3.
12. Swimming Towards Propellors
Out of the shutters and the sills
And within the mourning and the chills
You work the turning world…As Falling Up album closers go, this one’s a bit of a letdown. It doesn’t reach the dazzling heights of a track like “Arafax Deep” or “The Dark Side of Indoor Track Meets”. Nor does it have the simple ear candy value of “Into the Gravity”. In fact, there’s barely anything to it – just slow, icy keyboards, a few brief verses, and yet another refrain about “golden arrows” chorus buried behind a ton of reverb. It’s barely two minutes long, functioning as more of a bookend or a eulogy than a true climax and resolution. Perhaps the intent is to leave the story open-ended – the slowly sung phrase “You work the turning world” is the last thing heard, and it makes me wonder whether the mission was to stop the gears or to start them, and whether our hero succeeded or failed. Even more perplexing is the listing of a piece called “The Signal From Forum A” at the end of the album’s tracklisting, while on the album I hear absolutely nothing after this song’s last chilly note fades into silence. Are you allowed to name a composition after the 5 seconds or so of silence that form the buffer between your last note and the physical end of your CD? Beats me.
I’m sure I’ve clearly established at this point that if you go into Fangs! hoping to “get it” and take away some grand message right away, you’re probably going to be disappointed. I’m fine with digging into a mystery and letting certain aspects of it not make sense. That’s part of what art is, and while I can’t say that Falling Up has made a masterpiece here, they have made me insatiably curious about what they’re trying to accomplish here and what they might try next. That’s a good thing. I don’t mind being befuddled when the music is as immersive as this album’s best tracks are. I’m not even sure who the audience for such an album is supposed to be, but if you’ve found yourself trying to imagine what it might sound like as you’ve read my description of it, then this you might just want to grab a copy of Fangs! and sink your teeth into it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
A Colour Eoptian $1.50
Lotus and the Languorous $2
Streams of Woe at Acheron $1
Magician Reversed $1.50
Golden Arrows $1
The King’s Garden $.50
Panic and Geo-Primaries $.50
The Moonn and Sixpence $1.50
Goddess of the Dayspring, Am I $1.50
The Sidewinder Flux $1
The Chilling Alpine Adventure $1.50
Swimming Towards Propellers $.50
Jessy Ribordy: Vocals, guitar, keyboards
Jeremy Miller: Bass, keyboards
Josh Shroy: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.