In Brief: A strong comeback for an underground favorite of mine who had been gone for far too many years. The Special Edition’s worth the extra expense.
I listen to a lot of bands nowadays that lean toward the more electronic side of rock. The combination of pre-recorded loops, synthesized sounds, and the energy of live instrumentation is something that I’ve mentioned enjoying in many of my reviews, and it’s been that way for me since around the late 90s. I have to credit The Echoing Green for being one of the bands that got me started. In the group’s early days (when the word “group” might have been dubious since it was mostly just Joey Belville and an array of computerized sounds), their output was perhaps a bit geeky, what with the obvious love for synthesizers, classic poetry, and 80s cover songs demonstrated on their albums. But I was geeky too, so it struck a chord with me. A turning point came in the year 2000, when The Echoing Green added a full-time female vocalist and filled out their lineup so as to look more like a rock band that just so happened to use a lot of synths. The result, Supernova, was an inconsistent album, but it definitely pushed the band’s sound out of the extremely small niche of “Christian dance music” and a little bit further toward the mainstream. Some darker edges were beginning to show, too, and by the time 2003’s The Winter of Our Discontent came around, it was clear that Belville and company didn’t mind tackling subjects such as depression, doubt, and that “dark night of the soul” head-on. Discontent turned out to be my favorite album by the group and one of my favorites of the entire decade… but then The Echoing Green fell silent. Aside from the occasional single or EP cropping up, it seemed as though they were in a dormant state. By the time they finally got another album out in 2011, they had long since fallen off my radar, replaced by newer acts such as MuteMath, Paper Route, Owl City, M83, and The Hawk in Paris who filled that “robotic music with a beating human heart” niche in my personal playlists. When I finally stumbled across the existence of In Scarlet & Vile a good year after its release, I found out that the band’s sound had continued to progress almost as if that eight-year gap had never happened.
The title alone should tell you something. First, there’s Scarlet. This is basically a fancier way of saying “red”. Red, on the color wheel, is diametrically opposed to green. Green gives me a mental images of life bubbling forth from the Earth, of cleanliness and peace. Red, on the other hand, represents tension, blood, anger, and big glaring warning signs telling you me stay away. And then there’s Vile. Filthy, perverse, contemptible. This is never a word I’d use to describe any of the Echoing Green’s music, up to and including this album. But it hints at something insidious lurking underneath the melodic, danceable exterior. Somewhere along the way, Joey Belville – a man who once had me convinced he knew how to express unbridled happiness in a purely digital form (check out “The Power Cosmic”, for starters) – discovered a strange fascination with the thoughts that give us the creeps. Questions about what evil lurks in the hearts of mankind dominate this album, yet it’s not an unrelentingly dark or depressing affair. Even this far down the rabbit hole, the light of God’s grace still shines through in strange ways, sometimes leading to violent conflicts between good and evil as the human heart struggles to surrender. But it’s a moody affair, to be sure. Discontent had its prettier moments to balance the sad ones, and when it was down in the dumps, there was a beautiful sort of stillness to its lonely vibe. In Scarlet & Vile, on the other hand, seems to spend about a third of its time sulking, another third lashing out, and the final third appreciating the light at the end of the tunnel. It may be the group’s most focused work thus far, at least if one discounts the generous amount of bonus tracks tacked on to the Special Edition (some of which are strong enough that I can’t imagine the album without them – plus, that’s where all the requisite cover songs are this time around, instead of cluttering up the album proper). But it’s certainly a far cry from the synthpop-loving one-man band whose self-titled cassette I took a chance on all those years ago.
As for musicianship, I’d say that the “darkwave” approach does the EG a lot of favors. The band lineup has been fluid over the years, with Chrissy Jeter being the only other permanent member of the group besides Belville. Her role has grown over the years, allowing her to co-write and even take center spotlight when a song simply works better with a female voice. Listening to the two play off of each other is interesting at times – she’s certainly there for a lot more than the “sexy vocal spice” you’d expect from the usual dance-oriented group. Amidst the sometimes bubbly and sometimes harsh electronic sounds, there’s a good amount of electric guitar and even live drums here and there, provided on an ad hoc basis by a number of contributors. The group has certainly learned over the years that it’s OK to break their own rules of doing everything artificially, when a song calls for it. The one constant that remains is that the EG seems to always pose a challenge to our notion that music made by computers is cold and heartless. They’re far from being alone in that regard, since many of Belville’s heroes from the 80s have already proven this, but they were one of the first bands to make it apparent to me, and this still seems to be a top priority for them, no matter how much they experiment with their sound. Lapsed fans of the group who enjoyed The Winter of Our Discontent will probably appreciate the progression here once they get over some of the intentional dissonance. For anyone new to the group, I might actually suggest starting there first and then diving into this one.
1. Heaven (Devil in the Details)
The shift toward a live-band sound is as noticeable here as it was on the grandiose opening track of Supernova. Personally, I think that the live drums and guitars mesh well with the programming and bubbling synths, giving the song more of an urgent energy than it might have had as a purely programmed number. (Plus, the drums on this track are contributed by Iona‘s old drummer, Terl Bryant. I knew there was a reason that they sounded especially “thunderous”.) My mind might have passed over this one on the first few listens due to its superficial melodic similarities to “The Story of Our Lives”, which was the big single from Winter that got remixed six ways from Sunday. It seemed like the group was repeating itself. But then I dug in deeper and learned to appreciate this song’s troubled subtext. Amidst the melodic bounciness and Chrissy’s sweet backing vocals, something’s gone extremely wrong in a relationship that seems heavenly in a guy’s idealized imagination, but looks like hell up close. That sort of love/hate relationship dynamic fuels a lot of the album, actually.
“You’re never gonna take me alive”, Joey sings in his most strained, sinister tone of voice over edgy guitars. So begins one of the most confrontational – and instantly enjoyable – songs on the album. This one’s a story of a conflict dragged out into the light where everyone can see the ugliness of the parties involved, and Joey is quite critical of this person’s habit of playing the victim and putting on a show for sympathy points. It may as well be an indictment of reality television and the way that social media gives everyone a chance to instantly weigh in despite only knowing a fraction of the facts. Just listen to the chorus: “Like radio waves you pass me by/Video takes your thoughts online/Your sullen style… it’s all pretend/Sinking in sentiment sublime/All of your truths are laced with lies/Your violet smile kisses red… like revenge.” It’s one of their most well-written lyrics. These guys sure have come a long way from rhyming “tomorrow” and “sorrow” on seemingly every other track.
The band stumbles slightly here with a song that aims for more sensitive territory, but that comes off as such a faint whisper that the bubbly electronics (which are pleasant to listen to in and of themselves) seem to drown out the vocals. The lyrics could have easily fit on Winter, since the song actually opens with the words “It’s a dark and lonely winter” and goes on to describe a despairing person’s hope as a faint ember, still glowing but struggling to survive. The mood of this one is much like the similarly whispery “Someday” from that album, but I think “Someday” came to a much prettier climax. I do still enjoy this one once I get over the slight irritation of having to adjust the volume just to make out the words.
4. The Huntress
One of the album’s most dissonant tracks is up next – I love the metallic “riff” that it opens with, since it’s got a slight tinge of melody to it, but it’s actually more useful as a rhythm. Chrissy takes the lead vocal in each verse, switching off to Joey for the chorus, and it turns out to be a bit of a dialogue between two characters. It’s a notable shift in style for Chrissy, since most of the songs she’s sung lead on before were the slow, pretty ones, and here, her voice practically drips with malicious intent: “And when we dance, I’m bringing hell in a dress/And with a glance, I’ll leave your heart in a mess/With every word, I’ve got a lie to confess/Your eyes are so committal/This might hurt a little.” Joey’s rebuttal to her forceful advances in the chorus has echoes of the first track, due to how he accuses her of promising pleasure but delivering a lot of pain. It’s a fun bit of role-playing between the two of them, personifying temptation and the struggle to muster up enough willpower to say “no”. It might just be my favorite track on the album.
5. Let’s Go!
One of the more pointed synth hooks to be found on the album shows up here – the upbeat rhythm and the electronic sounds all dancing about can easily trick the listener into feeling like this might be a return to the EG’s old style. It’s even titled to look like it might just be a harmless party anthem. But a quick look at the lyrics reveals a bit of sneering sarcasm, perhaps a bit of a problem with authority. The second verse is where Joey’s little rebellion is at its most intriguing: “Watch your mouth when you’re talking to me/Scrape your knees in disloyalty/Genuflect my audacity/As I step on all your decency.” And Chrissy, despite the sweet tone of voice she’s using, is similarly defiant: “March like a soldier/Left foot first and right down the middle/We’ll give the order”. What they’re rebelling against, or whether he’s offering some sort of commentary on someone else’s rebellion is a bit of a mystery, but I like how it’s all sort of subverted by the happy, glammy musical setting they’ve placed it in.
6. Dead Hearts
The idea of a faintly glowing hope bringing someone back from the brink of total despair is explored much better here than it was in “Flame” – this is probably the moment where I’m most easily reminded of the moody, yet cautiously optimistic tone that prevailed throughout Winter. It’s actually a much prettier song than the title might lead you to believe, and while it isn’t one that tends to jump out on the first few listens through the album, it’s slowly becoming one of my favorites. Joey and Chrissy are in perfect sync here, their vocals playing beautifully off of each other as this meek but fast-moving song gallops toward its free-spirited chorus. With all the talk of dreams and stars and birds in flight, they might be edging dangerously close to Owl City territory, but there’s something in the texture and layering of a song like this that reminds me these guys have been around the block enough times to create something a little more sophisticated than that.
We’re back in sarcastic mode here, for a song that brings back the rock factor via heavy guitars, while also introducing some of the glitchy, idiosyncratic features of IDM. The combination of these elements is just plain fun, and Joey sure seems to be having a blast with it as he dismantles an unnamed rock & roll sex symbol for being too whiny and emo and ultimately, too fake for his own good. Honestly, what’s not to love here? “And so you can’t stop crying/About all this love you’ve lost/At least you have your stories/It’s just too bad they’re boring!” If you’ve ever found yourself irritated with the Adam Levines and the Rob Thomases of the world for whining about being dumped and/or cheated on while they’re being swarmed by endless hordes of fangirls, then this one is for you. (Disclaimer: I still enjoy a fair number of songs by both of those guys. Also, there’s a good possibility that Joey’s just parodying the way critics perceive any musician who writes about this stuff a lot. So who knows, he could be making fun of me here.)
Speaking of emo, there’s no getting around the emotional heaviness of this song (even if, once again, you might miss it since the album has been so consistently up-tempo thus far.) It’s sort of a compromise between glass half full and glass half empty, when I think about it, because for every observation that the world is slowly unraveling and it’s what we selfish humans deserve, there’s a thought like this: “And is grace not something beautiful/That we were made to suffer?/The lucid touch of clemency/And our tears become a sanctuary/We are made to suffer/With tenderness and empathy.” Though it’s a darker reflection, this is the sort of observation that the EG has been getting at all along, I think – that our fears and failures and heartbreak all point us toward a higher power. Maybe it’s just easier to express the difficulty of processing that truth now that (ironically) there’s no Christian record label to push them around.
9. Sanctuary (Glenn Nicholls Mix)
Man, if I had a nickel for every Echoing Green song whose album version is a decidedly different mix from the one that originally surfaced on an EP or their MySpace page or whatever in the months or years leading up to the album’s release. Some of their songs seem to be less about having “definitive” versions and more about whose mix of the song struck the deepest chord with them when the album finally needed to be committed to a physical disc and sent out the door. I can only suspect that this is one of those cases, not knowing when or where the original “Sanctuary” first appeared. This particular version of the song definitely fits the mood of the album, though, ratcheting up the tension with one of Joey’s least melodic and yet most attention-grabbing vocal performances. At several points, his words just seem to drip with bitterness and suspicion, and sometimes it sounds like the guy is actually trying to scream a whisper. It’s like a snake, hissing devious thoughts into your ear. This is fitting for a song that grapples with the violence of God, using words that surprisingly enough aren’t too different from an old Skillet song (and I mean that in a good way; it was one of the things that made them interesting before they started to go mainstream). It’s like the voice of a man at odds with his own rebellious spirit, knowing he can fight the Almighty but never win: “There is violence when you move/Yet I’m stationary/Devastate all my design/And make it arbitrary/You break my legs, yet leave my knees/My will penetrated/I’m eviscerated/Consecrated, LACERATED!” *shivers* This is like, the creepiest worship song EVER.
At long last, we reach the point of surrender. The album concludes on a quiet note, not unlike the peaceful mood of Supernova‘s “Waterfall” or the self-titled album’s “Believe”. The synths still have a dark hue to them as they lurk underneath the song, but there’s a brighter melody floating on top of it, one which seems to breathe a sigh of relief after all the turmoil that Joey’s put himself through. While Chrissy co-wrote most of the album with him, he wrote this one solo, and it’s a simple but beautiful offering of hope to a fellow soul similarly in need of healing. Here, he reaches out a warm hand and points to the source of healing awaiting them both: “If we could pray the words that endear us/Awake the vows inside/The heavens sigh like the groom who sees/The first glimpse of his bride/And takes her away.” Somehow the simple, reverent elegance of a song like this means a lot more to me coming after all of the betrayal and bitterness and violence of the songs that preceded it, rather than just being the obvious ending we’d take for granted at the end of one of a typical CCM album. The EG only does mellow, pretty, inspirational stuff when they truly mean it.
11. Battered & Bruised
The first of the bonus tracks feels like it could have easily fit into the album. This time Chrissy gets a turn at having her vocals get all warped by the sinister machine that is the Echoing Green’s studio, which is fitting for an angsty, bass-heavy song about learning the hard way when to say enough is enough and stop taking someone else’s abuse. Not a particularly happy song, but the resolve to finally burn the bridges and not look back is what tips the scales toward hope here. Interestingly, the liner notes on the band’s website list an unfamiliar name (Mårten Kellerman) as the author for this song, as well as a Scandinavian copyright, so I can only assume it’s a cover from some obscure source, but all attempts to Google it have come up empty.
This song is the odd man out – it’s not fast-paced or beat-heavy enough to force a hook into your brain, not strange enough to be off-putting… and on an album of songs with very strong personalities, it seems to be the meek one that just slipped in there unnoticed. (Which probably explains its status as a bonus track. Can’t complain too much when you’ve got a smorgasbord full of leftovers tacked on to the end of an already solid album.) It’s one of Joey’s more sympathetic songs, in which he sings to someone who feels ignored by the rest of the world about how much her thoughts and hopes and dreams don’t make a difference to them, “But they matter to me/And your whispers sing like sirens to me.” An interesting sentiment, but it takes too long to get to the two-line chorus and the rest of it just feels like drudgery. There’s too much detail about how she keeps quiet for everyone else’s benefit and not enough about the part where she gets to open up to the one guy who cares. Nice try, but this one’s quite a bit under-cooked.
13. King Planet
I have really mixed feelings about this one. It’s always good to see the EG shed new light on some rather obscure cover choices, and in this case it’s unusual to hear them pick one from around the turn of the century, rather than from synthpop’s heyday. I was briefly into Fold Zandura, the short-lived space-rock band who originally recorded this song. (These days they’re probably best known for being the band Jerome Fontamillas was in before he joined Switchfoot, so it’s nice to see them recognized for something other than that.) I must have zoned out to their Ultraforever album a hundred times later in my college years. But this song wasn’t on that album. It was the title track from a later EP that I just plain couldn’t get into. And a quick listen to its near-complete lack of a melody and its bizarre spoken-word lyrics reveals why. It’s an attempt to sum up the vastness of God and His sovereignty over mankind and the universe He put them in. But the scratchy vocals and industrial-sized rhythm just make it sound like a misguided attempt to turn EMF‘s “Unbelievable” into a theme song that could be used as the backdrop for your youth group’s next extreme sports retreat. Some of the lyrics are intriguing (Jyro Xhan always had a penchant for dropping strange astronomical references into his obscure poetry), but the way they’re delivered is just beyond embarrassing, which sabotages most of the catchiness that this song – original or cover version – might possess. (Also? “King Planet” sounds to me like the kind of theme park restaurant you might pass by on your way to ride Space Mountain.)
14. Voices Carry
One of the more recognizable cover tunes in this collection (at least, if you were into music in the 80s – I was still a little twerp, so I didn’t realize this one was a cover until after the fact) is a take on this not-so-happy song originally recorded by ‘Til Tuesday. Fittingly, Chrissy takes the lead for the entire song, since the subject matter kind of requires a woman’s touch to make it work. Like Aimee Mann in the original, she starts off meek, trapped in a cycle where she’s constantly dismissed by the man who claims to lover, whose response to her every expression of feeling and opinion and individuality is “Oh child, keep it down now, voices carry.” It’s a form of abuse that doesn’t require so much as lifting a finger – there’s no physical evidence of it, but the effect on her is still profound. Over the course of the song (which, in the EG’s version, has a bit more syncopation to the rhythm to give it an indie-tronica sort of mood that doesn’t modernize it, but that at least yanks it into the 90s), she goes from quiet resignation to raising her voice in protest, culminating in frustrated bursts of anger as she sings of being told bluntly to shut up. Unlike a lot of the songs that the band has chosen to cover over the years that are just goofy, nostalgic fun, this one feels like it really has something to say and must have been incredibly influential for the woman singing it. I love this rendition so much that I kind of wish it could have been part of the main section of the album.
15. Here Is the House
16. Here Is the House (Mikkel Natas Mix)
The final cover song is presented in two versions, and they’re not so radically different from one another that I feel compelled to write about them in separate paragraphs. I’m actually surprised that it took The EG so long to cover one of their most obvious influences – Depeche Mode. What’s interesting about their cover choice is that they didn’t pick one of DM’s most recognizable songs. But they picked one that tells an interesting (albeit somewhat vague) story, looking back at the four walls that apparently played host to some sort of clandestine love affair. You could look at it that way, or you could look at it as a happy couple’s ode to the house they currently live in (but come on, it’s freakin’ Depeche Mode, who’s gonna go with the happy interpretation?) One version of the song plays it more or less faithfully to the DM version, with the iconic, vintage synth melody and all that. The other is more minimal in its approach, building off of a wobbling rhythm and emphasizing the plucking strings that add a dose of un-computerized class to both takes. I’m honestly not sure which version I like better; they’re both pretty good, and it would probably take a hardcore DM fan who is intimately familiar with the B-side of Black Celebration to offer an authoritative opinion here. My main beef is that the two versions are back to back, on an album that otherwise doesn’t include alternate versions (or, in the case of “Sanctuary”, the original version). I find myself always picking one or the other, or else wanting to change the play order just to keep an intriguing song from feeling redundant.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Heaven (Devil in the Details) $1.50
The Huntress $1.75
Let’s Go! $1
Dead Hearts $1.25
Battered & Bruised $1
King Planet $0
Voices Carry $1.75
Here Is the House (both versions) $1.25
TOTAL WITH BONUS TRACKS: $17.50
Joey Belville: Vocals, programming, guitars
Chrissy Jeter: Vocals, synths
Wil Foster: Programming, synths
John Ball: Guitars
Dave Adams: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.