In Brief: An engrossing, imaginative comeback from an often-misunderstood band that barely even broke up for long enough to justify calling this a “comeback”.
I tend to take musicians at their word when they speak up to explain their art, their intentions, and their future plans. I’ve noticed that as the boundary between artist and fan has grown increasingly blurred with the advent of social media, not everyone affords their favorite musicians the same courtesy. Pick just about any artist page on Facebook, read the comments on that artist’s status update, and you’ll often find the unfiltered thoughts of fans who mean well, but who often end up telling the artist things like, “You guys should go back to the sound of your first album; you made better music then”, or “When are you guys gonna put out another album?” when whatever they last put out is still less than a year old and sometimes dead in the water to a fanbase who doesn’t fully understand it. But the worst is when a band chooses to break up. Fans will respond with an outcry that I’m sure is meant to be loving, but sometimes it can amount to “No, you guys have to put your personal plans on hold and keep making this music because I ENJOY IT!!!” Artists are often sorry they opened the floodgates to receive such self-centered comments in the first place.
I saw some of this when Falling Up rather suddenly announced their demise in January of 2010. No time to plan for a final album, no farewell tour… just the handful of shows already on the books and that was it. I knew I’d miss them – their fourth album Fangs! may well have been one of the most fascinatingly weird albums in recent years to come from a band that could have once comfortably fit under the umbrella term “Christian rock”. Most of their fanbase didn’t know what to do with it, since it was very much art for art’s sake, with little to no commercial aspirations, which is something a songwriter can feel like he owes himself after years of tension between his own muse and having to crank out singles for the label (and to be fair, most of Jessy Ribordy‘s songwriting was fairly unorthodox even on Falling Up’s most youth group-friendly hits). It seemed that the band had quite rightly realized the fans were moving on, and since a few of them had side projects in mind that they wanted to pursue, it was a logical time to call it a day. I believed them when they called it “a permanent break” and I felt reasonably satisfied that they had at least closed the book with one of their most interesting chapters.
Well, never say never. It was a mere nine months before Falling Up announced their reformation, with the same three members who had been there at the band’s premature end, and with a new album due out in 2011. I was perplexed, but ultimately intrigued. I knew the motivation was partly due to artistic restlessness on Jessy’s part, and partly due to financial need. His side project The River Empires had produced a sprawling, cinematic folk album in 2010 that I found fascinating, but that I knew had been expensive to make and would probably be doomed to obscurity – and the plan was to make six more like it. Attempts to raise money for a second River Empires disc via Kickstarter were unsuccessful (despite my offering to pitch in), so that effort rather quickly got transferred to funding Falling Up’s reunion. If this went well, it’d bring them some extra windfall to fund the new River Empires project. If not – well, there’d be no record labels or other intermediaries to blame, just the harsh reality of making music that only a small niche of people seemed destined to appreciate. No sooner than the new Falling Up disc was announced, fans were chiming in with hopes that it would return to the more youth-friendly, power-chord heavy rock sound of Crashings, with relatively few people sticking up for the more expansive soundscapes of Captiva and Fangs! This was disheartening to me, but perhaps inevitable. For this new record to succeed, it would need to carefully weigh the band’s artistic aspirations against the need to win back old fans. For a while I feared that this would necessitate a more commercial sound that had been largely unflattering when they had tried it here and there in the past. This group was either at its best when they bent expectations a bit and the words took a bit of unraveling – when one had to pull back and look at the intertextuality between the songs to get the bigger picture. So it was to my pleasant surprise when they announced that Your Sparkling Death Cometh, despite having the shortest track listing of any Falling Up disc so far, would actually be their longest album. Even with a more conscious effort to “rock out” on several of its tracks, there’d be plenty of room left for expansive ambiance, unusual yet familiar segues, and for a larger story to suggest itself amidst the cinematic flourishes. That was a project that I still wanted to support, and I was proud to help put them over the top of their fundraising goal.
Your Sparkling Death Cometh, despite the awkward and somewhat overdramatic title, arrived in late June, and I’ve got to say that it fulfills its goal of being an intriguing album even if it isn’t quite as strong as their last few discs. The image of an upside-down astronaut on the cover seems to suggest a subtle continuation of a story they may not have been explicitly able to finish, since it recalls one of the protagonists of Fangs! Lyrics, while much more clearly referencing love and grace and the supernatural, still turn unexpected corners and require unraveling, so the project feels largely uplifting without ever seeming preachy. Much like the title of one of its tracks suggests, Falling Up evokes a sense of wonder, taking snapshots of a journey towards redemption that can at times be harrowing and alienating, but that ultimately leaves the listener with a sense of being cradled in some restful place far better than here. It’s never as hot and heavy as the non-stop rockers that populated Crashings and Dawn Escapes, but I’ve felt that backing off from this approach in the latter half of the band’s career has suited them better, drawing more attention to the variance between the songs, and making it more apparent when one song references or repeats a motif from another. Moments of high drama still about, but they’re more notable for their loud, ringing melodies and the added beauty of strings, keyboards, and crashing drums than they are for nifty guitar riffs. Anyone who enjoyed playing air guitar along with Falling Up songs probably lost interest when lead guitarist Tom Cox left after Dawn Escapes, and this disc isn’t likely to win them back. Those obsessed with pure bpm’s and those who detest synthesizers will probably find the album running on empty close to 50% of the time. But for the rest of us, those willing to trust a band on a journey to find themselves in this age of new media and diminishing returns from the old major label guard, this is still a pretty exciting reunion, a cause to celebrate the ingenuity of a band that needed the cash but that still didn’t succumb to artistic defeat in order to get it.
The opening track is actually the album’s longest, slowly morphing from a calm wash of synthetic sound to a dramatic refrain with sparse but jagged guitar chords ringing out over the landscape. Strings rise up like vines around this imposing, rocky refrain, which settles back into a calm verse that welcomes the listener into Falling Up’s spacey fantasy world. The lyrics seem to describe a man on a mission, crossing silver seas and other abstract geographical features, apparently to expose some sort of vicious cover-up. The chorus, memorably as it is, deviates from the easygoing rhythm of 6/8 to a time signature that I can’t quite figure out, but that seems to morph effortlessly with the lyrics where emphasis is needed: “And they’re BURying ALL of the EVidence/MY GLAMorous WORDS will CATCH them/BURying ALL of the EVidence/Some THOUsands of EYES are WATCHing.” That looks awkward typed, but coming out of the speakers, it’s an exciting, action-packed chorus. The fact that the song melts away from there to a point of almost complete quiet in the final verse, Jessy nearly whispering over piano, only seems to make the final chorus that much more majestic. This sounds like nothing Falling Up’s done before, and it’s a fascinating way to welcome fans back who thought they’d lost the band forever.
2. The Wonder
The second track, which rises up seamlessly from the ashes of the first, feels more straight-ahead when judging from initial impressions – Josh Shroy‘s highly syncopated drums in the verse are interesting, but when it resolves to your typical 4/4 beat and pedestrian power chords for the chorus, it feels like ground that Falling Up has tread before. The subtleties sneak up on repeated listens. First, there’s that melody which seems naggingly similar to “The Chilling Alpine Adventure”, a track buried so deep within Fangs! that a lot of folks might not pick up on it. Second, there are the lyrics, which talk about the heart being a perfect wonder, and it’d be easy to interpret that soaring chorus as an anthem of thankfulness to God, except for that first line that doesn’t seem to fit: “You have made a terrible plan.” Turns out the whole song is directed at something that is very much the opposite of God, an enemy that seaks to tear down, to bring insecurity, to destroy one’s self-worth. And the song takes a defiant stance of immunity against this, with verbal imagery that aims a little higher than your typical “screw off, Satan” sort of song that might come from other CCM rock bands. Ultimately, while I think they could have done more to make it stand out musically, it’s a fun track with a solid hook, that at the end of the day tries to give a little more depth to a well-worn topic.
3. Blue Ghost
This, the first track released as a sneak preview for fans who were keeping up on the album’s progress, is a pretty good synthesis of old and new Falling Up. I have no doubt that its chorus – which has a “sharp lift” to it much like that of “Circadian” – could be catchy enough to grab some radio play. Especially with its surprisingly clear statement: “Grace comes like a thief in the night.” Falling Up doesn’t give out freebies like that very often. Yet the song is still shrouded in a welcome aura of mystery, tumbling along on its syncopated rhythm as the melody pours over drum fills and glittery keyboards and even a long, fairly indulgent auto-tuned segment during the bridge. Plenty of “indie” artists have used auto-tune ironically, to the point where it isn’t really amusing or special any more, and yet for Falling Up, it provides a sense of continuity, since it was played with in a few songs on Fangs! that were meant to sound literally spaced-out. The tension between grace and sin seems to play out as a metaphor – one being the freedom of floating in the depths of space, admiring the starry skies and whatnot, and the other being the bondage of invisible wires, that might give someone the illusion of flying if seen from afar. It’s no coincidence that both this song and “The Wonder” have mentioned wires in their opening verses. When Falling Up repeats words or phrases that wouldn’t show up in any generic song, that’s your first clue that there’s a thematic link between the songs.
No, that’s not a typo. And no, I don’t have a clue why they left that “o” out. But you can bet that you’ll actually hear the word “diamonds” somewhere on this album that is not this song, because that’s just how Falling Up rolls. While the titular jewels might not be mentioned, the song certainly sparkles enough to live up to its name, being an easy-going, synth-heavy track with an absolutely glittering chorus. Once again, I’m sure Christian radio will love it, this time due to its clear mention of God and the overall feeling of wonder that it tries to evoke. And I don’t feel that this is a bad thing at all. The lyrics, while few, express a feeling of being plucked from a strange place and being given worth when one is used to worthlessness and restlessness. They’re abstract enough that, just like an actual diamond, you may see different colors when considering the song from different angles. But that’s what I see, and while I can’t picture the lyrics being one-size-fits all enough to work in a congregational setting, I love that it’s an expression of gratitude written in language that is most comfortable and personal to the songwriter. “Through the window/I can see your sunlit golden eyes/You’ve got me so caught up, oh my God!” Isn’t that how songs of praise are really meant to be sung, anyway?
5. The Light Beam Rider
It took me a few tries to really notice this one. It certainly seeks to close the first half of the record with the same sort of action sequence it opened with, though one consequence of having a similar 6/8 rhythm on tracks 1, 3, and 5 is that they can blur together for the very same reason that they stand out. This one doesn’t have the dramatic quiet of “Circadian” or the indulgent weirdness of “Blue Ghost”, so it stands out in more subtle ways – mostly for the lyrics which seem to be several steps removed from easy interpretation (“So take your heart and cut some holes out/Breathe in slower speeds, let gravity take its heed/Of rhythms in a mellatronic rise and recede/A tragical note resonates.” Say what?), and for an unusual electric guitar motif during the bridge that I probably didn’t pick up until five or six times through the album, due to it being echoed in an unexpected place later. Falling Up will still throw you a bone here with a comparatively clearer chorus, which seems to reiterate a theme of grace that the album seeks to explore: “We are no more than criminals to take what we never had/No greater love comes from all we know, a Grace like we never had.” Perhaps most poignant is the final line of the song, which is deliberately left hanging after the music dies down to mere ambiance: “And when we die, there are holes the size of the things we fear would be left behind.” Right at this moment, they pull off a subtle but effective key change as part of a beautifully executed fade into the next track.
Early in Falling Up’s career, you wouldn’t find slow songs as effortlessly beautiful as this one. They tended to play at breakneck speed so much of the time that something more mid-tempo and less guitar-oriented like “Arafax Deep” or “Contact” could have seemed like a ballad in comparison. I think being able to slow down and create peaceful soundscapes has been to their benefit as the group grew more experimental, and this track is a good example of that. The synths that lead into it are accompanied by a wash of vocal sounds, layered simply but effectively, setting up a song that is 100% calm, though not without a melodic chorus that easily gets stuck in your head. “If your heart’s an ocean, I will drown/And beneath the waves, there will be love.” Certainly we’ve heard similar sentiments about God before, as far back as the Bible itself. But it’s how the instruments are staged that makes this unique, from the gentle glow of the keyboards to the subtle “guitar solo” in the bridge, if you could call it that – there’s no distortion, no shreeding, but simply the bare beauty of sustained high notes run through some sort of space-aged filter. Listen carefully to the segue that follows this one – it’s much in the vein of those little in-between tracks that were named but not numbered on Fangs!, and it actually turns out to be a string reprise of the chorus from “Circadian”, which melts from major to minor key as once again two tracks are bled together with no discernible gap.
This eerie track is one of Falling Up’s moodiest songs, which is surprising given the surrounding sense of calm. It’s an odd mutant of a song that seems content to be a slow-burner, with a chorus that seems to want to jump into action, but that doesn’t quite know where to go from the repeating line that constitutes its only burst of energy. A man and his son are trapped in a room in this song, and one gets the sense they don’t have long to live, which leads to a story that tells of despair but also a stubborn hope that peace lies after death, as the father gives these emotionally charged exhortations: “Close your eyes now, this is the last strength you’ll have/Remember your life; it was a brilliant color/Remember your mother; she was a glowing ember/Remember your heart; it had a Perfect Owner.” The chorus seems like one last gasp of disillusionment, though – and I mean that somewhat literally, as Jessy cries out: “Was it all smoke and mirrors?” This could be an poignant story that leads to a tear-jerking climax, whether happy or sad, but at somewhere around half of its near seven-minute run, it peters out into a complete noodle-fest of faint vocals and keyboards (or perhaps that’s a guitar; it’s hard to tell) that have been auto-tuned to death. This is one moment of apparent spontaneity that I could have done without; it’s long and repetitive and doesn’t really lead us anywhere.
“What the heck are vates?” I first asked that question way back when I studied the lyrics to Captiva‘s opening track, “A Guide to Marine Life”. I couldn’t find anything on the word, so I just assumed Jessy had made it up. Now I come to find out that I was asking the wrong question – I should have asked, “What the heck is a vates?” Because Wiktionary tells me it’s “A poet or bard who is divinely inspired”. So noted! Understanding that meaning may help unlock this song a bit, because it’s all about a vague “they” who criticizes our protagonist for not going with the flow of society. The reason why he can’t, if we pay attention to the title and the greater context of the album, would seem to be some higher calling that he’s responding to. But even if you only had this isolated song to work from, it’d still come across as a message of defiant individualism: “They looked back to see if I was following them/But I never really left at all/They looked back to scream that I’m the terrible one/I just finally found my heart.” You can make of it what you will. Musically, it might be guilty of remaining mid-tempo within a sea of similar songs – this album has really mellowed in its back half. It’s not one of the more musically remarkable tracks despite its moody piano chords and its bridge which attempts to change up the time signature, but doesn’t seem to really go anywhere. More interesting is another musical segue at the end, which finally causes the neurons to fire in my brain and recall that this is where I’ve heard that guitar solo from the bridge of “The Light Beam Rider” – except here it’s a vocal melody. Oddly enough, it also seems similar to a riff from the chorus of “Blue Ghost”. Either Falling Up plans this stuff carefully, or else I’m just imagining things.
9. Forms and Shapes
I needed a little bit of convincing to like this track as well. It seems pedestrian at first, picking up with a tempo similar to “Vates”, almost as if we didn’t need the segue to break up the flow. An acoustic guitar strums along rather generically, and for a moment I think that this is going to be as middle-of-the-road as “Maps”, which was one of my least favorite tracks on Captiva. Turns out it gets better as the undercurrent of synths and keyboards comes to the forefront. What’s eerie is how this one seems to be an intentional prelude to the album’s finale, holding its own as a down-tempo yet still catchy pop song, but hinting at what’s to follow by grabbing bits and pieces of a melody that will soon come to haunt us. Again, you’ll likely have trouble sorting the bridge out, but then a bit of clarity rises up out of nowhere during the bridge: “You’re formed lovely/Mysterious lines have traced you out a beautiful life/It’s poor, but resonates the sound of Falling Grace.” Whoa, is that a call-back to Crashings, and possibly even the origin of the band’s name? This track probably takes more time than it needs to with the dark shadows that hover about in empty space that segue into that finale, but it’s a serviceable song nonetheless.
10. Slow Waves
It feels like this one takes a while to get going, but the track title is fair warning – you figure this one’s gonna go more for pure ambience and pile it on slow but thick. And that’s exactly what it does. Jeremy Miller‘s bass hasn’t been a prominent instrument on most of the album (he’s also the wizard behind a lot of the keyboards to have become so integral to Falling Up’s sound), but here he gives us a dark, mechanical, unchanging bass line that actually makes a pretty cool backdrop for a memorable song that repeats itself more than it should have the right to. There’s just one stanza that Jessy sings again and again, his voice getting more and more obscured by the growing ocean of sound as time passes: “They had my lungs on machines/Their rhythm is pumping air/I’m terrified/But I won’t let my hope go/I won’t let my heart keep from leaping out/It’s leaping out.” Those few words could potentially tie together a number of seemingly disparate story threads, and I haven’t quite worked it all out in my mind, but it’s fascinating to think of this in light of the heroic sacrifice hinted at in the final act of Fangs! The melody, as I hinted earlier when “Forms and Shapes” was teasing at it, is an inescapable one, particularly where Jessy hits the words “terrified” and “leaping out” – there’s this little lift there, this sense of hope permeating the murky water, that manages to be quite distinctive even when another song quotes it out of context. We get another bit of indulgence at the tail end, after Josh’s incredibly solid drum groove and that bass line fade away, and we’re left with a hidden tracks of sorts, which is really just a few brief bursts of mechanized vocal sounds separated by silence, sounding like gibberish at first but eventually resolving to the words “Breathe free”. Let this wrap back around to the beginning of the album, and you’ll get an idea of how finely tuned the entire song cycle is.
Despite being a bit sleepy at the end, I’m pleased at the way Falling Up bridges two worlds with this release, bringing together the more direct approach that their earlier fanbase appreciates with the more esoteric nature of their later stuff, and allowing both to co-exist rather effectively. It does mean that Your Sparkling Death Cometh runs the risk of puzzling fans from either side depending on how adventurous and understanding they’re willing to be. Consequently, it might not be the best records for new fans to start with – I might sooner recommend Captiva, and then a side trip to Crashings just to get a handle on their history before tackling this one. Nevertheless, this is still a sturdy piece of work that reminds us Falling Up still has a future ahead of them, should the fanbase show enough interest to make it worth pursuing. Now, to deal with the question of how Jessy’s gonna have time to work on that next River Empires album with his old band back in full swing… ah well, I won’t stress about it right now.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Wonder $1
Blue Ghost $1.50
The Light Beam Rider $1
Forms and Shapes $1
Slow Waves $1
Jessy Ribordy: Lead vocals, rhythm guitar, keyboard
Josh Shroy: Drums
Jeremy Miller: Bass, keyboard
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Originally published on Epinions.com.