In Brief: If you’ve heard the band before, then you know what you’re getting. Despite the lack of a strong theme, this is still a reasonably solid record.
I’ve probably said something like this before, but it bears repeating: House of Heroes is one of the rare “meat and potatoes” rock bands that really gets me going these days. You know what you’re gonna get with these guys: an album full of solid modern rock and power pop tunes that are as thoughtful as they are fun to listen to, but without a lot of musical gimmicks or overt attempts to change up the recipe. Their combination of we-mean-business guitar riffs, strong group vocals, and the occasional bit of acoustic flair has been done a million times before, and on the surface it’s easy to confuse them with a number of bands ranging from pop-punk to garage rock revival in their sound, with the occasional slightly progressive detour that changes up the song structure if not the basic ingredients. The meal that they serve up is generally predictable – they might put a little garlic in the mashed potatoes or use a different marinade on the meat from time to time – but it’s also good eatin’ every single time. And the band’s fourth album, Cold Hard Want, aims to change things up about as radically as In-N-Out Burger can be expected to change their menu in any given year. That is to say, not at all, because it isn’t really needed if what you’re serving up is consistently good every time.
So, is Cold Hard Want that good, that it needs nothing to make it stand out genre-wise and can stand up simply on the basis of a band knocking out eleven solid songs? Well, after six years of being a House of Heroes fan, I’d have to say… mostly. It comes busting right out of the gate with several examples of HoH kicking butt and taking names, hammering home unrelentingly confident anthems that are sure to catch on quickly with a listener who likes a strong, meaty hook. The only places where the record deviates from this tried-and-true approach are on a few more ballads than any of their past albums dared to take on all at once, a few short interludes that feature nothing but vocals, and the occasional programmed bit that sets the mood for a song without dominating it. These are small changes in the grand scheme of things. Frontman Tim Skipper and his partner-in-crime AJ Babcock have been in the game long enough to know when to shout sky high about something in their hearts that needs a change, how to celebrate when life is good, and how to sit down and ponder the meaning of it all when a song calls for more of an introspective approach. Nothing here hits me quite on the level of the powerful battlefield climaxes of The End Is Not the End, or the wry observations of life in the middle class heard on Suburba, but there are still a handful of tracks I’d call instant classics. Perhaps the album starts to feel a bit weighed down near the end, but it isn’t as cumbersome in this department as Say No More.
Lyrically, Want might disappoint listeners who enjoyed the thematic approach taken on the last two albums. There a loose thread of wants versus needs, and the things a man will do to realize his dreams, that pops up a few times on this album, but it’s far from a unifying theme. A few tracks even feel like leftovers that could have fit in on either of those records, and as a result they feel slightly out of place here (which doesn’t necessarily hurt the quality of the music, since HoH has never changed up their genre that much, but still). I tend to view Cold Hard Want as a transitional phase in the band’s career, much like what New Surrender was for Anberlin – a good album that came on the heels of a much stronger one (in their case Cities) that got a lot of people into the band, and that didn’t quite carve out an identity that spoke as strongly as their best work did. Just looking at the words Cold Hard Want, I was hoping that it might contain some hard-hitting songs about selfishness and consumerism – and there’s maybe one song in that vein. Others are about the unstoppable euphoria that can occur when what you want and what God wants for you seem to magically line up. But most of the album is just about… life. It’s a House of Heroes mixtape. Ultimately, Cold Hard Want finds itself a comfortable spot just below the band’s top tier of albums. It’s not at all a bad place to be, even if the band probably could have done a little better.
1. A Man Who’s Not Afraid
The first of the two acapella interludes comes right at the beginning, and it does a fine job of bringing us into the first song with its lament about life passing by and dreaming of being “a man who’s not afraid of life and death”. The way they transition into a meaty guitar riff on that last high note sure is slick! My only complaint is that I wish this tied in musically to something that would show up later on the album; otherwise it seems distracting because it feels like part of an unfinished song.
2. Out My Way
For all intents and purposes, this is the “title track” of the album, since it’s all about wanting something so bad you’re not afraid to die to see that dream fulfilled. It’s an instant classic for House of Heroes, mining a delicious guitar riff that strikes a perfect balance between simple and powerful, and using a jolting, stop-start sort of rhythm to powerful effect. Here the band is flexing their musical muscles while giving us something meaningful to sink our teeth into – it’s easy to write an aggressive rock song about having sheer unstoppable willpower, but when HoH adds the eternal perspective to it that it’s not just about achieving personal gain, but about finding a way to make your mark and give the world something to remember you by, that’s what sets it apart from your average fist-pumping anthem. The defiance expressed in the chorus is succinct and destined to be stuck in your head in no time flat: “If you’ve got a shot you wanna take/Better hope it buries me (Hey-ey-eyyyy!)/If I go out then so it be/You know I’m going out my way!”
3. Dance (Blow It All Away)
Keeping the pace of the album fast and fun, this song backs off a bit from the brave stance of the previous one and just settles for being a proud anthem about the recklessness of youth. If this was the first thing you heard from the album, and you were familiar with the band’s past work (or with some of their contemporaries), you’d probably have a good time with it but not consider it to be anything all that unusual. It’s straightforward almost to a fault – there’s no denying it’s catchy and there’s some great riffing and soloing and group vocals here, but at this point in the band’s career, it’s almost painting by numbers. A few tracks on Suburba seemed to mine a similar theme of “just go out and have a blast painting the town red and who cares about tomorrow?”, while the ode to danger and recklessness seemed like something that was better explored on “Lose Control” from The End Is Not the End. I wouldn’t complain if I were at a concert the band gave this tune a prominent slot in the selist. But on the album, sandwiched between two more deep and meaningful songs, I feel like they could do better.
4. Remember the Empire
The album’s heaviest and most defiant song is a powerful moment for sure – the riffs seem to borrow from old-school metal at times, while the heavy but danceable rhythm reminds me of something Anberlin might come up with. (“Disappear” from Suburba is also a good comparison.) And there’s a wartime theme to it that would have fit nicely on The End Is Not the End. The song calls for nothing less than a revolution – “Tear the king from the throne!” is shouted energetically at the end of the chorus. Skipper’s vocals are at their most aggressive – not quite screaming but definitely getting harsh and raspy as he calls for anyone and everyone to join the fight – “Fight for the life that our children should have! Fight for every freedom that we never had!” The backing vocals, while they mostly provide a lot of “Whoa!”s and “Hey!”s, add a lot to the song since they’re like the militant supporters of his cause. From beginning to end, it’s a surefire winner and it’s destined to be one hell of a concert highlight. My one nitpick is this very strange, quiet section right after the instrumental bridge that completely kills the momentum, dropping out everything but a quiet guitar and Skipper’s lone voice, repeating “We wrote it down in blood… we gave our lives for love.” It feels like a somber moment that belongs in some other song. Not that I want to squelch the band’s fondness for unpredictable song structures… it’s just that at that point, I’m so fired up that I just want them to run the victory lap and knock the audience dead. Which they still make the time to do once that quiet bridge ends… and it is as awesome as expected.
5. We Were Giants
The album’s first ballad shows up here – a bit early, perhaps, but let’s not forget that a well-placed ballad can be one of the highlights of a House of Heroes disc. “By Your Side” was a perfect intermission at the halfway point of The End Is Not the End, and “Salt in the Sea”, though it got mixed reviews from the band’s fanbase, turned out to be my favorite track on Suburba. Here they mix the intimate with the stadium-sized as an acoustic guitar meets a drum loop, later joined by live drums and electric guitar for more of a full-band feel. This is definitely one of those moments that you can tell they’re hoping to turn into an audience sing-along. Skipper is appealing to a sense of greatness, of being able to accomplish anything due to sheer faith in the grace of God, that has faded over time, maybe to discouragement or just plain complacency. It plays much like any other anthemaic song about recapturing the fervor of your youth. Which is to say it’s somewhat predictable, but also somewhat powerful – it’s hard for a song on that topic to not get to me. It’s the band’s mixture of pop savvy and rock energy that makes this one stand out among the heap of similar songs aimed at the CCM market.
6. The Cop
I’m just gonna get this out of the way right off the bat – putting two ballads together so early in the album was definitely a bad move. That’s not to say that this is a bad song – it may well have some of the most striking lyrics that the band has ever penned. But the sudden shift from non-stop, larger-than-life anthems to this mellow, coffeehouse-styled story song makes it feel like we’ve switched to a completely different album. Finding out that this was aleftover idea that didn’t make the cut for Suburba only reinforces that notion (and it’s mellow enough that squeezing it into that album might have been tricky as well). The story of a man joining the police force and slowly losing his naivete as he watches innocent men suffer and die while the guilty ones sometimes get away is a touching one, and eventually the song does come around and demonstrate why it belongs to this album on a thematic level, as the man finds love and finds something greater than himself to live and possibly die for. This is the sort of thing that I’d probably have saved for later in the album – possibly the penultimate track since it does end on a bit of a cliffhanger.
7. Comfort Trap
It might not be immediately apparent from the anthemic, sing-along nature of some of their catchier songs, but this band is actually quite good at pretending to be a bunch of selfish, cynical jerks when the situation calls for it. A number of songs on Say No More were like that, most notably “Buckets for Bullet Wounds” and “Friday Night”. This song sort of returns to that attitude, with a man insisting that he’s been through enough suffering and he’s got no time left to have compassion for anyone less fortunate – “I’m gonna get nice things and get my way/Even if it means there’s hell to pay/I’m gonna have my cake and eat it too/And what I don’t eat I’m gonna force feed you!” That last line cracks me up, because it’s sort of skewering the notion of the “American dream” while at the same time admitting that it’s alarmingly easy to find yourself worshiping at that altar. The band has a gift for restraint here, with the slinky rhythm and the disinterested, almost whispered lyrics in the verse, only to turn on a dime and shout out the total blast of a chorus. It’s a moody, spoiled brat of a song, the complete antithesis of the “die-for-what’s-right” attitude expressed in some of my other favorites on the album, and I love it for that. This was the sort of song that the title Cold Hard Want actually had me expecting, after all. And when the temper tantrum finally collapses into a manic guitar breakdown at the end, I’m likely to bang my head along with it even if I can’t quite keep up with its off-kilter rhythm.
8. Touch This Light
This one has the sort of rhythm that employs a similar trick to “Remember the Empire”, though it’s not as fast or intense – it’s got more of a breezy, radio-friendly pace to it, though without sacrifcing the rock energy (and that’s despite the use of a little drum programming here and there). It’s mostly the edgy guitar riff that punctuates the end of the chorus and a few lines within every verse that makes it really memorable, but its attitude is infectious too. A lot of the rock-oriented songs that Christian radio might actually go for these days might express such an attitude of total abandonment to the pursuit of knowing God’s heart… but a lot of them are bogged down with unrealistic boasts about how good the singer’s gonna be from now on. House of Heroes doesn’t get caught up in that trap – they declare gleefully that they want to get close enough to touch the light, but the same time they’re fully aware that they’re beggars totally undeserving of it. This song makes no lofty promises and gives no impression that they could somehow offer God anything in an even remotely equal transaction to make up for that illuminating experience, other than to simply say this: “If I could see what you see in me/If I just pushed through the crippling fear/Then I would run with the raging wind/Then I would live again.”
9. Angels of Night
From here to the end, I hate to admit it, but the album kind of drags a bit for me. A very long, sustained chord lasts for a good twenty seconds after the high-energy conclusion of “Touch This Light”, gradually fading into this song, which is a ballad that goes for a sort of calm ambiance but ends up in this sort of murky space where it can’t decide if it wants to be a ballad or a rocker. They try quite valiantly to infuse it with some energetic guitar and drum gfills as it approaches the chorus, and it’s got a lovely enough melody… but the verses just seem to wander off and fall flat, as if some of their colorful features had been stripped away in the production process. The basic concept of the song – while it carries a bit of emotional weight – is too simply stated to really register on an intellectually satisfying level. Someone’s crawling out from the hole they’ve found themselves in after having a lot of hurt piled on them. They need to re-learn trust, faith, prayer – and there’s no guarantee that these things will result in only good outcomes, but still there’s still this appeal to a supernatural power to send back some sort of signal that he’s being heard. The song asks questions and expresses emotions that I think are true to that experience, and it reaches a few crescendoes where the interplay between guitar, bass and drums is really beautiful. But the journey to get there is a bit of a muddled one.
Here’s another moment where I think the band might be falling back on a sound that has become a bit of a cliche for them, without quite doing anything distinctive enough to make a song stand out as clever despite using some of the oldest tricks in the rock music handbook. You can tell that this is gonna be another one of those arena-sized ballads from the slow but booming drum beat and the voices that rise up in unison, early and often, with another round of the sort of “Whoa-oh-oh-oh!”s that are staples of the genre. This is all in service of a lyric that pleads with a lover on her way out the door, asking her to search herself and find one reason to give the guy a last chance… or otherwise to just turn and go and never look back. Basically to end the wishy-washiness. Some interesting observations could probably be mined from the situation by a songwriter who is keen on the intricacies and unspoken thoughts that come hand-in-hand with rocky relationships… but no such insight is shown here. And at the end of a rather turgidly-paced song that is neither strong enough to work as a memorable rock anthem nor vulnerable enough to hit home as a mellow detour, we fade into a rather cliched piano outro, from a band who hasn’t used the piano prominently in the song or much of anywhere else in their music. At that point it just sorta feels like a bad Mae impression.
Now this one’s really different. It’s a bright spot in an otherwise dull section of the album. Much like “We Were Giants”, it opens with a programmed beat, though it’s more upbeat and sounds like something out of an old video game… I’d have sooner expected something like that on an old Fiery Furnaces album than coming from House of Heroes! It’s just a stage-setter, with its fun rhythm quickly being picked up by the drums and its shifty-eyed melody becoming the main guitar riff. It’s a fast-moving, paranoid little song, with the music focused mostly on a snappy beat with little bits of guitar added here and there for flavor… but then in the bridge, the rhythm and lead guitars get unexpectedly heavy during a killer breakdown. I can tell that the drummer and bass player had as much fun as the guitarists here, and to me this sounds like nothing that House of Heroes has tried before, even if it’s still based around those three basic ingredients. The lyrics are some of the band’s most intriguing, finding a man guilty of some unspecified crime (or more likely, sin) hiding out in some hole, fearful that the authorities will track him down. Over time he seems to realize that it’s all going to get dragged out into the light anyway, so the song plays like an internal dialogue in which he debates whether it’s a better idea to just turn himself in and get it over with.
Terrible segue. Just terrible, guys. You get all worked up for a brilliant finish to that previous song with the rhythm growing more relentless and the sirens creeping up, only to cut it off abruptly and decide that now’s a good time to bring in another acapella interlude? It just plain doesn’t work. And as a lead-in to the final song, this little snippet feels dead in the water. It’s too plain-spoken in both its melody and its lyrics (“Everybody pull the curtains to the window of your soul”? Really?), and it just sort of floats there before the final song comes fading in from the silence. This might have some chance of resonating with the listener if it were an ironic or emotional echo of a lyric heard earlier in the album… but it comes right the heck out of nowhere and doesn’t add value to either of the songs surrounding it.
13. I Am a Symbol
It’s probably gonna tick off a lot of HoH fans when I say this, but I find this album’s grand finale to be a rather disappointing one. I’ve heard this track cited as one of the band’s best. I honestly can’t figure it out. It’s certainly got an inspirational lyric that challenges listeners to take a stand for truth, no matter how limited their resources or how weak their social influence, or even how supposedly safe from martyrdom they’re guaranteed to be. This fits well with the grand declaration heard in “Out My Way” at the beginning of the album, and this is the sort of message that calls for a larger-than-life finale… but the group chooses to stick to an ominous, restrained sound for most of the song. It just builds itself up to a climax far too carefully, and doesn’t stay there for nearly long enough once it gets there. By the time the gang vocals finally chime in for the rousing vamp (“I will sing for truth, I will sing for light/When I’m gone the flame keeps burning on!”), there’s just a little over a minute left in the song. And then they back off to a rather weak repetition of the chorus from there. This bold statement of standing up for what you believe in, even to the point of dying for it, calls for something that feels a lot more final – this should have been one of those epic rocking anthems that went on for eight minutes or so, offering the band plenty of space for massively-proportioned instrumental breaks and general over-the-top-ness. I know that sort of thing is hard to pull off without sounding corny or like you’re doing it as a sort of self-parody, which is probably why the band tightened the reigns, since they’re 100% sincere about it. But I think it’s a subject that deserves to be sung about with a great deal more abandon than what I’m hearing, and unfortunately, this leaves a bad taste in my mouth at the end of an album that started strong but then really sputtered out in its final act.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
A Man Who’s Not Afraid $.50
Out My Way $2
Dance (Blow It All Away) $1
Remember the Empire $1.75
We Were Giants $1.50
The Cop $.75
Comfort Trap $1.75
Touch This Light $1.50
Angels of Night $.50
I Am a Symbol $.50
Tim Skipper: Lead vocals, guitar
AJ Babcock: Bass guitar
Colin Rigsby: Drums, backing vocals
Eric Newcomer: Guitar, bass, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.