In Brief: Who’d have thought that the accompanying soundtrack to an audiobook would turn out to be Falling Up’s best album? These guys continually surprise me.
Falling Up has been a fascinating band to follow on their descent further and further into the rabbit hole over the last several years. I mean that in the best way possible – not a descent in terms of a drop in quality, but in terms of going deeper into the imagination of the band’s lead singer, Jessy Ribordy. The man might be a bit of a savant, though I’ve only realized this recently. Looking as far back as the band’s 2004 debut, Crashings, and the subsequent albums that the band recorded for BEC before breaking up, reforming, and deciding to go label-less with their records directly funded by fans via Kickstarter, one can easily see the progression. They started off as mere college-age kids, somewhat caught up in the trends of the time with their fusion of nu-metal riffs, otherworldly electronics, and fast-flying, verbose lyrics (including the occasional rap verse) demonstrating a restlessness to conform to a single genre, even as they got pegged as contemporaries of Christian bands like their buddies in Kutless, and mainstream sensations like Linkin Park. Anything remotely rap or urban-influenced was gone by the time of their second release, Dawn Escapes, and by the time Captiva rolled around, they’d lost a few members and settled into a far more diverse sound – not as frenzied as the one they started out with, but more expansive and evocative, with the lyrical inspirations for Ribordy’s tongue-twisting songs, mixed-and-matched titles and all, becoming increasingly tangential to the Bible verses cited as their inspirations. As their imagination and their ability to hint at fantastical concepts behind their albums without ever explicitly telling a story grew, their fanbase shrunk, as did their label’s willingness to fund their bizarre flights of fancy. Fangs! was apparently the last straw, with its tales of golden arrows and goddesses and rocketships hardly connecting at all with the CCM fanbase they’d built up until that point, and the record yielded no hits and there was no tour to support it as far as I could tell. That was my favorite record of theirs thus far, and when the band broke up in 2010, it was a sad sign of a career cut short by an industry that seemed like it was a poor fit for such an imaginative group in the first place. Falling Up wasn’t trying to be difficult or to be non-conformists – I figured Jessy’s brain was just wired differently than that of the average songwriter, and the band had admirably chosen to take the risk of following his muse.
Anyway, I talked at some length in my review of their comeback album, Your Sparkling Death Cometh, about how that breakup was short-lived and how the band found a better way to connect with a smaller but incredibly devoted group of fans who were willing to take the ride with them. For a completely independent album, YSDC actually appeared to make some concessions, making the spiritual themes slightly more obvious on a few mellower songs that might have had a shot at popularity on more progressive Christian radio stations with some label support behind them, but also not shying away from more adventurous space rock odysseys with correspondingly sprawling track lengths. Then a lightbulb came on. Jessy realized that just as there were two sides to his songwriting persona – the fanciful, storytelling side and the more confessional, spiritual side – there were also two sides to his fanbase. Thus, in 2012, The Machine de Ella Project was born, consisting of two strikingly different full-length albums that explored the opposite extremes of this band’s personality. The first of these albums, Hours, was actually conceived as a soundtrack to an entire novel that Jessy had written and decided to release along with the album in audiobook form. Musically, it’s the most frenetic and up-tempo thing they’ve done since Dawn Escapes, though it maintains the rhythm and synth-heavy sound that they’ve explored from Captiva onwards, upping the ante on that sound by having very few moments where the music actually slows to anything resembling a relaxed pace. The second, Midnight on Earthship, was much more down-to-Earth (pun possibly intended), almost coming off as a solo record, with its slower, more faith-based songs based almost entirely around the simplicity of a piano and/or acoustic guitar, maybe a little synth, and apparently not much involvement from the rest of the band. Interestingly, both of these albums were released in tandem, a song or two at a time (along with the corresponding audiobook chapters in the case of Hours), over the course of several months. Not wanting to hear an incomplete story and inadvertently bias myself toward the earlier tracks on either album that I would have had longer to digest, I held out until the entire project was completed in February and then chose to dive in.
Now, because these two albums are so wildly different from one another, and because I’ve spent significantly more time with Hours than I have with Midnight on Earthship, I’m going to focus solely on the former in this review. I may cover Midnight on Earthship at a later date, but to cut a long story short, most of it doesn’t really hit my sweet spot. Part of my fascination with Falling Up over the years has been due to how baffling their songs can be – I enjoy having an album to dig into that clearly has some sort of a backstory linking the different songs via shared snippets of lyrics or melody, but that I might never fully understand due to the actual story behind it all never being written. Hours presents the tantalizing prospect of finally getting to hear such a story – and let me tell you, it’s a doozy. Even before hearing a word of the audiobook’s first chapter (and be warned, it’s a five-hour investment with story elements that shoot straight out of the sci-fi stratosphere and end up in the realm of the supernatural – we’re talking trippy, out-of-body-experience type stuff, not Jesus-is-my-pal type stuff), I was fascinated with the music on Hours, finding so much melodic and rhythmic and lyrical goodness within its twelve tracks that it easily stood out to me as Falling Up’s best album. Now that I’ve finally made it through the audiobook (which I chose to digest slowly, taking in one chapter every few days or so just as I might normally read a book), I find myself wishing that other Falling Up albums could have had their own companion novels. Shoot, this story may even reference plot elements from some of those other unwritten stories (including the one from Jessy’s side project The River Empires). Or it may just be that certain phrases and plot ideas tend to resurface in Jessy’s mind from time to time. I’m the type of listener who is fascinated by the things he knows he can’t fully understand. If you’re the type to cry foul because it isn’t apparent what it all means on the first pass, or even because the obscure lyrics in most of the songs don’t always seem to line up with the corresponding chapters of the audiobook, then this probably won’t be a worthwhile investment for you. That may be true even for those who enjoy more conventional “concept albums” put out by their favorite prog rockers. In fact, there’s probably a very small subset of listeners who will be willing to invest the time or energy that it takes to truly explore the world of Hours. In some ways, its intricacy may well doom it to obscurity. But I don’t base my favorites on what other people seem to like or, even on what I expect to make a huge cultural impact. So even if I’m the only person I know so far who feels this way, I’m still proud of these guys for coming up with the first truly amazing album of 2013. (Even if half of it was technically released in 2012.)
1. The Contract
The album begins in a busy whir of activity, synthesizers ticking away the seconds of a clock stuck on fast-forward, while a fast-paced, tricky rhythm plays behind and around the beat. Drums have been a more prominent feature than guitars on most of Falling Up’s later albums, but on this one, it seems like they really let Josh Shroy go nuts, rarely settling for a conventional 4/4 meter even if that’s what the backbone of the song is built around. Vaguely, but intriguingly, Jessy describes a brilliant and dangerous idea hatched by the protagonist in his story, someone willing to put his life on the line for a chance at a scientigic breakthrough. As he anticipates the outcome of his experiment, the chorus repeats “My heart beats like a helicopter” again and again, with the vocals eventually reaching an excited scream. I don’t believe I’ve heard screams on a Falling Up album since “Moonlit” on Dawn Escapes – the harder-edged rock vocals don’t sound quite believable enough for this to work for the band all the time, but within the context of the story, it hints that there’s reason enough for the characters involved to be terrified.
2. The Climb
“Float by open windows”, begins this song, starting off at what initially seems like more of a relaxed pace. Hey, aren’t those the exact same lyrics that “A Guide to Marine Life” began with on Captiva? Where that song described a dive to explore shipwreck, this one describes a climb into the seemingly infinite rafters of a brightly lit gymnasium – my interpretation is admittedly influenced by the audiobook here, but I’m purposefully not going to give away very many plot elements as we get deeper into the album. As the rhythm, initially a comfortable, swaying 6/8, builds in intensity and complexity, the song gets more and more intricate to match, eventually melting into a long coda with washes of spacey synthesizer, horns sounding off like some sort of alarm system, and background vocals drifting in and out, creating a compelling, melodic collage that surprises me due to how it stretches the song out to six minutes in length without it ever seeming tedious. There’s a washed-out female voice as the song trails off, but it’s so drowned in effects that I can’t make sense of what it’s singing – no doubt an obscure piece of the puzzle left for only the most curious among us to investigate.
3. Finn Hatches a Plan
This song, in its own roundabout way, introduces us to the lead character’s love interest. The music itself doesn’t hint at anything romantic, as a chugging two-note guitar riff bangs up against an irregular drum rhythm, finally settling into a more familiar triple meter again for the chorus (and actually earlier on in the verse, even if Josh is doing his best to trick you into thinking it’s 4/4). The synth hook here is probably one of the strongest and most memorable elements on the album, and the song twists and turns in interesting ways at it wanders back and forth between 5/8 and 6/8. While “The Climb” assured us that our lead character wasn’t terrified of the exploratory journey he had launched, this one indicates that a classmate he cares dearly for is incredibly scared, and throughout it, he assures her, “I am your protector”.
4. The Rest Will Soon Follow
The album’s most instantly memorable song hits us right away with a fantastical, music-box sort of keyboard melody – it’s almost as if the band had been inspired by one of those old commercials for Disneyland’s electric parade. Jessy’s work in the keys and lead vocals sticks to the set rhythm unwaveringly, while Jeremy Miller‘s bass and Josh Shroy’s drums seem to be doing their darndest to throw us off of the rhythm, creating a jarring effect that at times can sound like the CD is skipping (except I’m listening to this on an iPod, so this can’t be the case). I don’t want to say that it’s a “jazz” style of drumming, necessarily, but if you’ve listened to that kind of music and you’re used to players dancing around the spaces where the expected beats would be, then you’ll probably adjust to this more easily than your average pop or rock fan might. I love it, because the song keeps me on my toes, and it pays off in a huge way when the drums and guitars take off in a straightforward, soaring chorus, which repeats a sort of mantra, “It carries us, it guides us to Earth.” Jessy’s lyrics hint at super-human achievements here, and I love the alliterative manner in which his word roll off the tongue: “It was always a little lower, a little under your breath/’Cause you don’t see all the different angles and different angels they test/So you give up ’cause there are all these different pieces/And it’d take you an infinite time in an infinite sequence.” They do lean pretty heavily on the anthemic chorus, following it until it fades into a seemingly infinite echo of voices, and a casual listener will probably have noticed by this point that there are a lot of repetitive choruses on this album. But with all of the bizarre lyrics and complex rhythms and so forth being presented, I think it’s good to have that middle ground between the band’s exploratory side and their accessible side, and this song stands out as an excellent example of both sides fusing together seamlessly.
5. Aeva and the Waving World
Another one of the album’s longest songs isn’t slow and drawn out like you might expect a six-minute track to be on most “art rock” type albums – it kicks in immediately with a slamming synthetic beat, and lets that beat remain constant throughout the song, like a steady heartbeat despite the maze of guitar and synth melodies that we might otherwise get lost in. There’s a metallic tinge to the vocals and seemingly everything else on this song, which brings to mind some of the outer-space imagery that I’ve imagined while listening to Your Sparkling Death Cometh and Fangs! The chorus, which is one of the album’s most repetitive with its mandate, “Now walk the Earth!”, certainly adds to that notion that the characters are somewhere in orbit, waiting to come down, but I know from the story that this isn’t quite what’s going on here. I love how the song, without losing its rhythm, drifts off into a mechanical bridge which slowly gives way to machine-like synths and a pretty cool breakdown from the rhythm guitar and the drums – real live drums, with the cymbals crashing on every beat just to add to the sense of ever-deepening dread. A troublesome character is introduced in this chapter, though she isn’t directly referenced in the lyrics beyond the title. If it bothers you that a song would be named after something not mentioned in the actual lyrics, then honestly, you probably lost patience with Falling Up a long time ago.
6. On Growing Things
My one small complaint about Hours is that it doesn’t feature any ballads, any moments where we get to catch our breath and assess the most recent developments in the story before the next act draws us deeper and deeper into the impending chaos. The opening minutes of this song are the closest thing you’ll get to that sort of a mellow mood, with the gentle piano chords and Jessy’s more sensitive vocals initially sounding like something from the companion album, Midnight on Earthship. But as the guitar chimes in with a melodic fanfare, and the drums once again began to build intensity, the song becomes something else entirely, giving way to some of the most climactic moments on the album. It took me some time to fully appreciate this song, because it’s less about pile-driving us with a solid hook and more about building to a big emotional moment so that they can let it all fall away and then build back up to an amazing finish. Notably, this song does that with less of the synthesized and electronic stuff than most tracks on this album use – there are still synths and even some canned strings (used beautifully given the band’s home-grown budget limitations, I might add) in the final stretch of the song, but the real strength of it rests on the interplay between the piano, drums, a gorgeous guitar solo, and vocals that range from mellow and comforting to hoarse and screaming. I’ll be honest – while the screams didn’t bug me too much in the first two tracks on the album, I thought it sort of interrupted the otherwise graceful mood of this song when they came in at the end of this one. I understand its significance in the story, and now that I’m used to it, it doesn’t overpower my feelings for the song the way it used to. Just be prepared for them to cover a lot of stylistic ground over the space of six minutes on this one.
7. Intro to the Radio Room
This would be my other favorite on an album where seemingly everything is competing for that position. With its pounding, almost tribal rhythm and one of the absolute most breathtakingly beautiful chorus melodies I have ever come across in my lifetime, this one’s locked in a dead heat with “The Rest Will Follow” for the prize. Honestly, both would easily make the cut in a list of my Top 10 Falling Up songs overall, if I were to make such a thing. You might not expect the machine-generated sounds of a synth-heavy rock band like this to stir up messy human emotions, but there’s something about that chorus that, I kid you not, damn near brings me to tears. Heck, just the words alone are beautiful: “I’ll lay beneath the willow/Close my heavy eyes/Dream that I will shine for you/And then I will be something/Perfect in your eyes/And I would make your dreams come true.” But I feel like Jessy’s voice quite nearly cracks as he sings it – I’ve never considered him to be a terribly versatile vocalist in the past, but you can really feel that something about this song was special to him. The melody is exactly the kind of thing that would accompany a huge emotional reveal if this were the soundtrack to a movie – like a character finally professing to love another character with their dying breath or something. (As it turns out, this chapter of the story seems to be about something else entirely, so don’t consider my description of this one to be a spoiler.) It seems that the band knew they had a winner here, since they take that melody for not one, but two victory laps – first, after a break in the song when all you hear is the vague sound of a harp in the background before the drums kick in again, and then finally, when the song seems to be winding down, there’s a mystical sort of vocal hum, going over that melody one last time, as if the film I’m imagining in my head had flashed back to some sort of innocent childhood melody, one which now strikes the audience with a profound new meaning as the young character wanders off into the woods and the screen fades to white.
8. The Outsider
And now for something completely different. While still electronic in nature, this track brings in an exotic, almost middle Eastern vibe, using a tabla for rhythm and an exotic, semi-acoustic sort of guitar sound that I don’t quite know how to describe. Jessy’s vocals are almost sinister here, which is a stark contrast to the previous song, threatening us with some form of paranoia-incuding mind control: “They want you pinned down/And they’ll warm your skin now/Then you’ll feel a silver pain/As they shoot those pills to tame you/Maybe they catch you, maybe they catch you.” The song transforms into more of a traditional modern rock sound as it goes on, but those exotic elements underneath remain constant, and I love that this late in the game, this deep in an album that doesn’t always make it easy to tell one convoluted song apart from the next, there’s a song like this which is so clearly distinct in its sound and the type of mood it wants to communicate, that it serves as a sort of dividing line between acts of the story, raising the stakes on danger just as “Aeva and the Waving World” did.
9. Blue Ruins
If I’m honest, I have to accuse the band of repeating themselves slightly here, because the off-kilter riff to this song feels an awful lot like the one from “Finn Hatches a Plan”, to the point where I often get the two songs confused. This one doesn’t have as catchy of a riff or melody, though it’s no less action-packed – from here on out it’s pretty much a flat-out sprint to the finish line, in terms of the album’s pacing. It could well be that this song was designed as a sort of fraternal twin to “Finn”. But the subject matter here is completely different, caught up in the wonder of fascinating things that the characters have discovered and must now keep secret from everyone else. I give the band a lot of credit for their willingness to play with tricky rhythms here – I think the entire song is in 6/8 even though Josh is doing his darndest to make me hear patterns of 5 and 7 where they don’t actually exist.
Speaking of obscure rhythms, this track begins with drums, and pretty much only drums, banging out a rhythm in such a stark, mathematically complex manner that I can’t figure out just what the hell is going in until the piano chords come and I realize that they’ve been holding steady on 6/8 for five tracks in a row now. (Which admittedly doesn’t help with the whole “telling songs apart” think when you’re new to the album.) This one brings to mind some of the more spacious, low-key tracks from Fangs!, which I think was where the band first felt comfortable letting the rhythm section carry a song almost entirely on its own. There is more of a traditional guitar-driven chorus here, but once again, rock energy is just a small ingredient, not the main focus. The main chorus hook here – another memorable one as Jessy cries out the word “Stardust!” again and again, is accompanied by an whistled echo of sorts, and I’m telling you, if you’ve ever seen an episode of The X-Files, this track will bring that show’s theme song to mind almost immediately. Even more baffling is the stuttering rhythms heard in the bridge section, in which the drums and guitar are following each other note-for-note in a pattern that seems apparent to the band but that evades even a seasoned rhythmic sleuth like myself, in terms of working out the time signature. Is this some sort of code? We’re getting dangerously close to Dream Theater-like levels of math rock nerdiness if so. (Not that Falling Up, with their general avoidance of lengthy solos, over-the-top operatics, and plain old showing off, would remind me of Dream Theater in any other fashion, but hey, it was the first thing that came to mind.)
For the first time on the album since literally the first track, we return to the fast-paced common time that, way long ago, was the band’s default mode. Not that you’d ever confuse this for an old-school Falling Up song, but the more guitar riff-driven style is definitely there, with the occasionally off-beat drumming bringing us full circle back to “The Contract”, despite the song not sounding like an obvious clone of that one. You’re guaranteed to get at least one track per Falling Up album named for some word that Jessy may well have made up from the ether – try “Arafax Deep”, “Exit Calypsan”, “Murexa”, “A Colour Eoptian”, or “Mscron” on for size. While a lot of the words fly by amidst the band executing their tricky riffs and offbeat rhythms in inexplicably perfect sync, taking a gander at the lyrics reveals some of the album’s most obscure and tongue-twisting phrasing: “This mechanic soul is so attainable/That I’ve been caught in wires/Tangled in tesserracting telegraphic tales.” Try saying that five times fast! Yet it all comes down to a simple and very approachable chorus, hinting at a promise made to someone important, one that was apparently kept, but perhaps fulfilled too late in the game: “And now, I wish you were here/It’s all that you hoped for/And now, I’ve given my life/For all that you lived for.” The band has a fun little jam session during the outro for this one, with the lively drums bending and delaying the rhythm every so often as the guitars and bass noodle about, playing off of the lopsided rhythms.
12. In Echoes Forever
You’d expect an epic-length finale given the band’s exploratory whims and the scope of the story being told thus far, so it’s interesting to me that they reign it in and conclude with a track that runs less than five minutes, for a change. (This makes it the second shortest on the album, after “The Contract”.) Just listening casually, you might not even realize you had arrived at the final chapter, as seamlessly as this one takes off running, all aglow with its cut-short rhythm and its stadium-sized, echoing guitars. Hours doesn’t end on anything resembling a somber note – it ends with a chase and a threat, as the lead character apparently threatens to hunt down the big bad and expose his true nature, bring all of the damage done into the light: “So you want deliverance that fourteen years couldn’t bring/Or you want to bury all the evidence so far down/Or your dreams are always coming true/Either way you still find you take a life, for a life, for a life…” This is interesting on several levels, the first of them being the lyrical call-back to “Circadian” from Your Sparkling Death Cometh, which had a similarly complicated rhythmic structure and also spoke of catching someone in the act of burying evidence, the second being the way that “For a life… for a life…” echoes furiously like a broken record as the song fades out as the album ends, implying a never-ending cycle of retribution, and third and final… Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but if a listener familiar with Falling Up’s past work listens to the behemoth final chapter of the audiobook (which, all by itself, is nearly an hour long), they’ll discover a plot twist and a musical motif to accompany it that hints rather strongly at a link between this story and the one apparently told by the earlier concept album Fangs! Whether this is a thrilling or infuriating development is left as an exercise to the reader. I’ve got enough time on my hands to actually go back and listen for new details in those old albums, but once again, I don’t expect to ever figure it all out, or even necessarily that there is one clear, overarching story hidden in the details that the band actually expects anyone to figure out.
As for the audiobook itself, while I’m not factoring into my rough estimate of the album’s worth (since I think the music on its own is plenty interesting without it, even if from the band’s point of view, it’s really just a supporting piece “inspired by” the book which is the main attraction), I do find that it enhances the listening experience. For those curious enough to venture forth, I’ll warn you not to expect the typical family-friendly work of Christian fiction. This ain’t no Adventures in Odyssey. (And I suspect that for many of you, this will be a good thing.) The main characters in the story are all teenagers, but let’s just say they deal with some violent situations that would frighten a lot of grown-ups. Jessy’s words can be quite descriptive at times, owing to the hyper-perceptive vantage point of his lead character. If this were a movie, it would require make-up jobs worthy of an episode of CSI and a special effects budget easily eclipsing The Life of Pi to make it all come to life on the big screen. And I’d find most of that fascinating to watch, even if some of it might turn my stomach a bit. Just hearing it all described didn’t bother me in any way, but particularly squeamish listeners will probably want to turn back at the first description of a character’s death. It’s important to remember that what you’re hearing is a work of speculative fiction, not grounded in the understanding of modern-day science or religion, just to avoid nagging questions of what “message” they’re trying to deliver, as if there needs to be one beyond just celebrating the limits of a storyteller’s imagination. If you’re willing to bend your brain a bit and come into it with no expectation of a specific agenda, then you may well come out as fascinated by it as I did. Otherwise, none of the more troubling aspects of the story are immediately apparent in any of the music or lyrics, so you can just enjoy Hours as you would any of Falling Up’s previous albums.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Contract $1.25
The Climb $1.75
Finn Hatches a Plan $1.50
The Rest Will Soon Follow $2
Aeva and the Waving World $1.75
On Growing Things $1.50
Intro to the Radio Room $2
The Outsider $1.75
Blue Ruins $1.25
In Echoes Forever $1.25
Jessy Ribordy: Lead vocals, guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, programming, electronics
Josh Shroy: Drums
Jeremy Miller: Bass, keyboards
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.