In Brief: A triumphant comeback for a band who had one heck of a legacy to live up to. Where their previous records were mostly hit-and-miss, this one keeps delivering the goods all the way through.
Five Iron Frenzy seems to have built up an almost memetic reputation on the Internet during the 10 years that they’ve been gone. It might be due to our tendency to remember “the dead” with much loftier amounts of fondness than “the living”, and though no one in the band actually died (contrary to how an old song or two might have trolled us), fans certainly mourned their passing in 2003. The group was so deliberate about offering a fond farewell to their fans in the form of their final tour in 2003 and subsequent double album The End Is Here in 2004, that I really had to respect them for it even though I had never been 100% blown away by their work in the past. I certainly enjoyed the band’s unorthodox mix of humor, religious devotion, and wry social commentary – the kind of thing that wasn’t afraid to step on the toes of its audience in one track while delivering a straight-up dose of cartoonish nonsense in the next. Their style, a colorful smorgasboard of ska, punk, and whatever other genres they threw at the wall to see what stuck, lasted well past its expected sell-by date, perhaps because the band was so adept at making fun of itself that we all genuinely believed they didn’t care if they sounded way out of style. Here in the 2010s, ska may well be so dead that it oughta replace disco in the phrase “better than disco”, but that didn’t stop their fans from responding to the news of their reunion in 2011 with such fervor that the Kickstarter campaign to fund their new album was well over the top within a mere hour. That sort of devotion isn’t easy to come by, and I think it speaks volumes about how fans connected with the band in their heyday – they had an uncanny ability to cross genre boundaries as well as religious ones, counting many folks among their fanbase who wouldn’t be caught dead in a church on Sunday morning.
It was a solid two years between that earbud-shattering announcement and the release of their comeback album, Engine of a Million Plots, but I’m happy to say that as far as reunion albums go, this may be one of the few that is every bit worth the wait, and one that I think would have been equally well received if the band had never gone away in the first place. With a much meatier, “rock with horns” sort of sound akin to their last few albums before breaking up than the goofier “comic ska” sound that might be preferred by some purists from their old school days, Engine sounds like a natural progression from some of the hardest-hitting songs on The End Is Here and Electric Boogaloo. In a day and age where fan funding can resurrect nearly any band from the dead so long as its members are up for it, there have been a lot of disappointments as we’ve slowly realized that the creative spark in their songwriting ain’t quite what it used to be, or that their attempts to stay modern and relevant merely fall flat – sometimes you just can’t go home again. Since Reese Roper and his bandmates have always tried to be thoughtful and often convicting in their writing, that’s helped them to connect with listeners regardless of the genre, I think. While they’ve certainly made excellent choices in the production department this time around, hardly ever slowing down as they barrel through a collection of 12 top-notch rockers certain to keep audiences in motion, it’s the way they segue so effortlessly from melancholy to triumphant to downright seething with anger that makes this album truly pack a punch. There simply isn’t anything here that I want to skip, and with a band that can be as out-of-left-field as FIF, that’s saying quite a lot.
One potential wrinkle for fans who are still firmly in the “only Christian rock” camp after all these years is that the personal beliefs of a few band members have changed during their long hiatus. Actually, in the case of bassist Scott Kerr, it happened in the late 90s, resulting in his voluntary departure from the band, so as not to avoid misunderstandings in a rather fickle industry. Being independent, it no longer needs to matter that Kerr and drummer Andrew Verdecchio (easily one of this album’s MVPs, by the way) no longer consider themselves Christians – it does lead to less overt religious references than we might have heard on “A Flowery Song” or “Every New Day” back in the 90s, but the highs of this album are no less hopeful, and Roper’s scathing criticisms of the hypocrisy seen among his brethren is no less insightful. Five Iron has always been the sort of band willing to identify more with the outcasts and the misunderstood than with the squeaky-clean-looking religious rule-keepers, so it only makes sense that they can function as a band even with the difference of opinion among their members – the album seems to bubble over with the sort of camaraderie that always brightens my day whenever I see Christians and agnostics and atheists managing to work together for a good greater than themselves. To be clear, there’s nothing present on this album that outright denounces the Christian faith, but there are moments – like the ones you would hear on albums by many honest Christian musicians, I might point out – where fear and doubt are openly expressed, often in the form of hard-hitting power anthems, as if to say these guys don’t have to go soft in order to go deep. Those who feel the need to stubbornly categorize their music into tidy little bins according to religion and genre may well find this album to be a mutant that doesn’t fit comfortably into their collection, but since I’m more a fan of music that breaks down walls rather than building them up, I appreciate what’s on these guys’ (and girl’s) minds and how they’ve chosen to express it. Even if it didn’t mark the comeback of a band I’d missed for the last decade, I’d still consider Engine of a Million Plots to be one of the absolute best albums of 2013.
1. Against a Sea of Troubles
For a song about death, this one comes out of the gate sounding awfully triumphant. Sure, it may open with a piano somberly ruminating on its melody, but once it takes off running, you’re neck-deep in the thick stew of hyper-driven guitars, powerhouse drumming, and peppy horns that make tell you in no uncertain terms, FIVE IRON IS BACK. Reese waxes poetic as he imagines the thoughts of a man on his deathbed, wrestling with his doubts and all of the adversity that his brought him to his tragic end, and trying to find the courage to let a little faith shine through: “My only hope is that You cannot not be real.” Throw in an XXL-sized group “Whoa!”, and you’ve got a gripping song, one that knows how to merge the melancholy with the insanely catchy in ways that shouldn’t be allowed.
2. So Far
This one’s just sheer fun, picking up the pace with more of a pop/punk rhythm and a bright horn meolody that contrasts nicely with the chug-a-chug guitar and bass riffing. It may as well be a superhero anthem, with its lofty claims of invincibility: “I’ll light on f ire with a single spark/My body battling the wicked dark/I’ll catch bullets just between my bones/And Vita Rays tear through my chromosomes.” Though this is silly, there are hints of spirituality to it, as if this is how coming back to a place of more firm belief feels to the person who has doubted for so long: “Web-swinging is only wishful thinking/You lift my soul, you keep my heart from sinking.”
3. Zen & the Art of Xenohpobia
The hardest-hitting song on the album, and for my money the most amusing, is this sarcastic diatribe about the uncomfortable mix of blind faith, patriotism, and conservatism that probably forms a lot of the world’s image of the stereotypical American. The cocky attitude that the USA is the best, and that we should zealously take up arms against anyone who dares to insinuate otherwise, is practically shouted from the rooftops, thanks to Reese’s edgy, impossible-to-ignore vocal performance: “Are the Arabs closing ranks/About to roll some Russian tanks?/Shut the doors and save the kids/Lock and load, just like Jesus did!” Just in case you didn’t pick up on the satire, the chorus makes it pretty clear that the band is poking fun at this viewpoint without actually supporting it: “The United States of Amnesia!/Make us numb, make it dumb, anesthesia!” It’s hardly the first time they’ve railed against bigotry, racism, hypocrisy, and so forth – see “Old West” and “Banner Year” on their earliest albums – but it may be the best example of the band doing this successfully, which is only helped by some of their most killer, stick-in-your-head riffs and melodies. This track basically does for FIF what American Idiot did for Green Day, and if the sheer audacity of it isn’t over-the-top enough for you, feel free to check out the horrifyingly hilarious music video, which features, among other things, Abraham Lincoln with Wolverine claws.
4. We Own the Skies
We return once again to the triumphant attitude that made “So Far” work so well, and in this case, the song’s got more of a pop/rock feel to it, pierced by the high-pitched sound of the horns stabbing their way toward the heavens. The weariness of hard work is expressed in the verses here, with the chorus expressing the relief felt by a moment of victory, the kind that can only feel as good as it does because of all the blood, sweat and tears it took to get there: “Tonight, we burn the wintry frost of night/Tonight, we wish upon the fading light/Tonight, our burning hearts will rise/Tonight, we own the skies.” One slight criticism here is that while I enjoy the background vocals pitching in to give Reese’s cries of “Tonight!” space to ring out in between, it’s harder to hear what the other guys are singing without looking up the lyrics. But a clever turn of phrase shows up in the bridge that caps off the song perfectly: “A Trojan horse inside my chest/Is screaming for the life I left/My kingdom for a steady paycheck.”
5. Someone Else’s Problem
The second-most angry and sarcastic song on the album is also paradoxically its most relaxed, musically speaking – it’s the one time where they revert to the obvious ska rhythms and guitars hitting every downbeat that you might have heard in their somewhat more conventional early days, though it’s slowed down enough that it comes across more as goofy reggae than ska. Nothing wrong with that – if reggae speaks the language of revolution, then this cartoonish exaggeration of it is perfect for this anthem about not giving a crap what happens to other people. With an air of mock superiority in his voice, Reese lays out the supposed social order of the world, as if to offer fake reassurance that it’s not out fault and therefore not ours to worry about: “You’re cutting some corners, leave nothing for mourners/Leave nothing for the people/In all those other places, just don’t look at their faces/And you can believe that they don’t bleed like you.” There’s probably a lot more depth to the issue than they really have time to explore here, but the song still works as a bit of a rude wake-up call to folks who haven’t yet realized that, despite most of us harboring no ill will toward those less fortunate than us, the system is still stacked against them and we benefit from their suffering even when we don’t intend to.
6. I Am Jack’s Smirking Revenge
I’ll admit to not understanding what’s going on in this slightly angsty song, beginning with its title (which is referenced nowhere in the lyrics). The best I can do is to surmise that it’s about some form of regret, stemming from putting one’s self-worth in the wrong things: “You are not the contents of your wallet/You are not the space you rent/When you’re eighty-five with no scars to show/The winner of our discontent.” The chorus implores, “If you change your mind, cast your nets on the other side”, but the song’s a bit too vague for me to really understand what the other side is. The heavy, down-tuned guitars help to make up musically for what isn’t making sense lyrically, once again meshing the rockier elements of the song together with the horns in an appealing way. But it isn’t one of the album’s stronger tracks.
7. To Start a Fire
A bit more poppy and sentimental, though still without backing off on the tempo or the sweet riff-age, is this song, which plays as a sort of conversation between two old friends. Fittingly, the lyrics were written by both Reese Roper and Scott Kerr (while Kerr has music writing credits on the lion’s share of the album, Roper wrote most of the words, making this collaboration an interesting exception). Both of them are looking back on easier times, when they agreed on more things and life made more sense, but now a chilly winter has set in, and their words to each other are more challenging, harder to hear, but still valued as a source of warmth to keep either of them from becoming cynical and succumbing to the cold. It’s a song where knowing the backstory helps a lot – how would you react if a friend of yours who was a Christian suddenly became an atheist, or vice versa? Or even just admitted to struggling with doubt so strongly that they didn’t easily fit into any religious group any longer? This song suggests an attempt to wrestle through it together and stay by that friend’s side, rather than judging or rejecting them. And it may well be the reason FIF in its current incarnation is even able to exist.
8. Battle Dancing Unicorns with Glitter
The one straight-up “silly song” on the album, admittedly, doesn’t quite succeed on the same level as some of FIF’s best joke songs from the old days. It’s certainly catchy, with a melody that gleefully stomps all over everything, and one heck of a slick bass riff that’s sure to get their audiences bouncing up and down. Thematically, there’s a cute idea behind it – basically, that these old dinosaurs from decades past are struggling pathetically to regain relevance in a modern era they don’t understand – but it seems like a bit of a retread of ideas better expressed in The End Is Here‘s “At Least I’m Not Like All Those Other Old Guys”. The song basically throws around a lot of slang and Internet memes on the topic of general awesomeness, with the band’s apparent conclusion being that their target audience should be bronies or something – it’s the only way I can think to explain how they might perceive the image of “battle dancing unicorns” to be good PR. It’s intentionally pathetic in a sort of amusing way, but it’s not really the hilarious home run that I know these guys are capable of. Thankfully, there’s enough straight-up fun happening on a musical level that I’m not as tempted to skip the song as I was at first.
9. Into Your Veins
Another hard-hitting and downright irresistible song shows up here, and thanks to some masterful drumming on Verdecchio’s part, it’s surprisingly danceable for Five Iron Frenzy. The marriage of its lightning-precise beat, its scratchy riffs, and Reese’s frighteningly authoritarian lyrics won’t be the kind of thing one can easily forget – he’s basically setting himself up as the music industry’s equivalent of a drug dealer, declaring that he’s here to enslave the audience with a powerful narcotic, not caring what happens to them so long as they get hooked and keep on making those purchases: “To steal the wind from your lungs/To take the breath from your lips/I am trafficking bliss/I sell wholesale with a kiss/I am a dealer of words/I’ll suck the buzz from your scene/And sell it right back to you/Before I get away clean.” The whole “dealer of words” things is backed up pretty well; some of his most clever rhymes are strewn throughout this song. And might there be some lingering issues with the wolf-in-sheep’s clothing nature of the music industry here? (As far as I can recall, they had a pretty good relationship with the small-time label 5 Minute Walk in the old days, being the label’s flagship band and all, but they could be speaking out on behalf of other artists or fans they’ve seen get jerked around by bigger companies.) I can see this one being mildly troublesome for some listeners from the CCM camp, especially if they don’t catch the sarcasm, or if they mishear the line “trafficking bliss” as “so f*cking bliss” (which admittedly I did at first due to its harsh enunciation), but it’s quickly turned out to be one of my favorites now that I get where they’re coming from. Plus, it just flat out ROCKS.
10. It Was a Dark & Stormy Night
You may have noticed at this point that winter, rain, and cold weather in general are alluded to several times throughout the album – they probably could have titled it The Winter of Our Discontent if former labelmates The Echoing Green hadn’t already taken that one (not that it was an original phrase on their part, either). As one of the early previews released from the album, this tune was many fans’ reintroduction to Five Iron, and it’s a song that falls in line with several of the more serious and hopeful songs from their past, such as “A New Hope” or “All that Is Good”. Where those songs were somewhat awkwardly phrased, though, this one flows much better, contrasting its dreary verses with its uplifting chorus melody, which despite the human failing of failing to keep a promise that was half-heartedly made in the first place, still acknowledges that “Hope has not forgotten me”. You can read the word “God” into it wherever “hope” is mentioned if you like, but either way, it’s an apt soundtrack for a soul slowly emerging from a long depression.
11. I’ve Seen the Sun
As we hurtle towards the end of the album, this track continues to offer up defiance in the face of hopelessness, playing as a sort of anthem for the underdog (and I don’t mean in a silly “Suckerpunch” sort of way). The lyrics might occasionally draw a chuckle even though this isn’t meant to be a humorous song – it’s there in the absurd descriptions of a man being totally unprepared for a fight: “I fight tsunamis with an umbrella/I deal the left hook like a Mother Theresa/I’m facing down death like a fly on the windscreen/You bring the warheads I’m bringing ice cream.” Though his efforts are feeble, he know he’s got the sun (hope, God, whatever you want to read into that analogy) on his side, and the song is clear about acknowledging that this power to make things right again comes from something far beyond his own feeble attempts. The chorus of this one’s a bit stilted, but it’s a nice little ray of optimism before we’re plunged into an unexpectedly chilling finale.
12. Blizzards & Bygones
Scott Kerr wrote the music and lyrics for this one, and it turns our usual expectations upside down in terms of how a Five Iron Frenzy album should end. By now we’re quite familiar with “Every New Day” from Our Newest Album Ever!, which may well be the band’s signature song, and its nostalgic echoes in The End Is Here‘s “On Distant Shores”, once thought to be the band’s final song. All the Hype that Money Can Buy had the rough-hewn but beautiful “World Without End”, still one of my favorites. The only time I can remember the band ending on such a chilling note would be the haunting “Eulogy” on Electric Boogaloo. This one isn’t so much a haunting game-changer as it is a gentle reminder of what it’s like to be outside that space where the distant warmth of the sun can be felt, where that assurance of hope can be found. It comes from the perspective of the skeptic, the soul that has lost its assurance, looking around and asking the uncomfortable question “Can you stand the weather if winter lasts forever?” I’ve been through depressions and times when I seriously questioned my faith before, so I know what those moments of wondering, “Will it always feel this way?” are like, and I think it was brave of the band to give voice to those sentiments, deliberately placing them at the end of the album, perhaps as a gentle reminder that not everyone sees that light at the end of the tunnel. The way they do it, with some killer melodic twists and turns, passages of grinding guitar and haunting piano, and Reese’s powerful yet sympathetic voice pondering his friend’s difficult questions, is downright gripping. It definitely ends the album on a sort of cliffhanger, must like “Eulogy” did, and it makes me hope we continue to hear more from the band, because ending it here would just be tragic.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Against a Sea of Troubles $1.75
So Far $1.50
Zen & the Art of Zenohpobia $2
We Own the Skies $1.25
Someone Else’s Problem $1.75
I Am Jack’s Smirking Revenge $.75
To Start a Fire $1.25
Battle Dancing Unicorns with Glitter $.75
Into Your Veins $2
It Was a Dark & Stormy Night $1.25
I’ve Seen the Sun $1
Blizzards & Bygones $1.75
Reese Roper: Lead vocals
Dennis Culp: Trombone, backing vocals
Nathanael “Brad” Dunham: Trumpet
Sonnie Johnston: Guitar
Scott Kerr: Guitar, bass, backing vocals
Leanor “Jeff the Girl” Ortega: Saxophone, backing vocals
Micah Ortega: Lead guitar, backing vocals
Andrew Verdecchio: Drums, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: