Artist: Falling Up
Album: Falling Up
In Brief: As immediate as it is ornate and downright inscrutable. Falling Up took their time to get their farewell album right, and while Hours remains my personal favorite entry in their discography, one could easily make the case for this being their magnum opus.
In a year where I felt like I was being especially stingy with my “A” grades, it’s nice to say that I can end the year on a review of an album that really earned one. It just happened to work out that Falling Up, an eclectic, sort of electronic and sort of obliquely Christian rock band from Albany, Oregon that has been a longtime favorite of mine, put their final (and appropriately self-titled) album out late this year. While it’s nice to end the year on such a high note, it also means that I’ve had to scurry to find meaningful things to say about a band whose music is typically easy to get hooked on, but hard to explain in terms of what sets it apart stylsitically from its peers or what the heck is going on in most of the lyrics. I can’t end 2015 without having reviewed my favorite album of the year, of course. But I suspect that Falling Up is the kind of record where I’ll still be discovering new insights about its twelve songs many years from now.
I’ll say right from the get-go that if you’re a longtime or lapsed fan of Falling Up and you were hoping all these years that they would return to their early sound, which was much more influenced by the nu-metal and rap/rock popular in the early 2000s and also much more accessible to a youth group/college-aged audience, then you’re out of luck. The band’s middle albums, starting from 2007’s Captiva onwards, often weren’t as immediately catchy, but they were more artistic and expansive in their scope, with less of a need to rely on direct scriptural references in order to tell some sort of an allegorical story. It wasn’t until 2013’s Hours that they really came back around and delivered a record that was very up-tempo and aggressive all the way through, and even then it sounded nothing like their earlier work. Falling Up could be considered a sonic cousin to Hours or 2011’s Your Sparkling Death Cometh in terms of how some of its songs sprawl out and take their time to reach a climax, but they’ve included a few mellower numbers in the mix, which means that there’s a lot more sonic variation in between some of the heavier numbers that have the guitars and drums thrashing almost constantly. Jessy Ribordy‘s vocals are in top form, going from sensitive to frantic depending on the musical context, and I’m impressed with his knack for composing songs that include several layers of guitars, keyboards, and occasionally a bit of a “music box” sort of motif working its way into a few of the more delicate arrangements. Longtime drummer Josh Shroy may well be the album’s MVP, considering how many awesome drum fills he pours into these songs, though occasionally his relentless energy might cause the overall mix to get brickwalled a bit, but that’s probably only an issue for hardcore audiophiles (and it was notably less of an issue for me once I got a lossless copy to replace the 160kbps mp3 files the band had originally sent out to subscribers). Throughout all the musical highs and lows, there’s rarely a dull moment, and even the longer and more repetitive songs seem to serve more of a purpose than just filling time, which improves on the one weakness of Hours, while the way the entire track listing flows so well from one song to the next is an improvement on the more noticeable dichotomy between the band’s aggressive and mellow sides heard on Your Sparkling Death Cometh. Really, it seems like they’ve considered what might have been the strongest and weakest aspects of each of their albums, and made a concerted effort to play on pretty much all of the strengths while minimizing all of the weaknesses.
Lyrically, there’s certainly a unified story in play here, something to do with a house being built by an architect who may have a dark past to cover up or a sinister agenda polluting his otherwise good intentions, but since like most Falling Up albums this doesn’t come with an accompanying audiobook, the true meaning is anyone’s guess. Whether the story relates at all to some sort of a faith-based message or whether it’s told simply for the joy of spinning a good yarn is also open to interpretation. I prefer to assume the latter just because there’s no additional baggage for wherever the listener might be at personally coming into this thing, especially if by some bizarre stroke of luck you’re actually new to Falling Up and you’ve chosen this record as your starting point. (The rest of their discography is readily available on Spotify, so chances are you’d probably start anywhere else if you were to start now.)
The band really took their time with this album, after announcing their intent to create one more record and then split up for good midway through 2014, and I always respect a band who knows how to go beyond the call of duty to deliver a truly memorable final record, rather than pushing themselves onward when their hearts aren’t in it and sputtering out after a series of subpar releases. Whether this will truly be the end of Falling Up forever and ever amen remains to be seen – this is the same band that broke up back in 2010 and then reunited less than a year later. But there’s definitely an air of finality to this record that wasn’t present on their 2009 album Fangs! (also a high point in their discography, just FYI), so it’s one of those things where a part of me hopes they don’t screw with my perception of it by changing their minds a few years down the road.
1. Boone Flyer
I love pretty much everything that happens in this song. The piano and electronic keyboards that come trickling in at the beginning remind me of something from their Christmas record Silver City, while the use of guitar delay and some downright crazy drum fills on the chorus evoke a feeling of running through an obstacle course with something new to dodge every split second. Frenetic openers from past albums such as “A Colour Eoptian” and “The Contract” were certainly an inspiration here, but the strong chorus melody and the bizarre imagery of streams of red and blue light flooding a ransacked house give this song an identity all its own. (Interpretation-wise, I’ve got nothing on most of these tracks, so I won’t put up the pretense of understanding the details of the story being told here – there’s a sense that some unique mythology lies underneath it all and that’s honestly good enough for me.) A final, climactic wash of vocals and electronic distortion plows into the listener as the song comes to a close, followed by a peaceful but kind of creepy music-box interlude. With an album as strong as this one, picking favorites is almost futile, but this track would certainly be a candidate.
I can remember back to the first time I heard “Bittersweet”, the opening track on Crashings, all those years ago. What struck me about it was how it seemed to switch genres every few bars and yet it all felt like a cohesive, triumphant statement at the end – I’m exaggerating, of course, but I really was that impressed. This track sounds nothing like that one, but in some ways I feel like it covers the gamut of sounds that Falling Up likes to make, ranging from the crisp, mid-tempo guitar pop of its verse to the tension-filled drum buildup of its pre-chorus to the huge power chords of its actual chorus, and even a brief acoustic bridge. I think there might actually be two distinct choruses here – there are certainly two strong and memorable melodies that could pass for the main hook of the song, one slower and more brooding, the other more fast-paced and urgent (which fits its lyric about running down “the moonlight stairs” with some sort of mysterious beings in pursuit), but they both weave together quite beautifully. The song never feels like it’s jumping from one mood to the next erratically – the tempo remains constant throughout its seven minutes, and the buildup and breakdown feels so naturally that it actually took me several listens to notice how well they were doing this. Due to the sheer length of the song and the fact that it comes to a near complete stop only to bring back an instrumental version of the chorus for another thirty seconds or so, I was tempted to drop this one to a B grade, because it felt a little excessive, but since they’ve executed the rest of the song so well, I can forgive the “victory lap”.
3. The Green Rider
I remember hearing a brief snippet of this one in one of the band’s YouTube updates, to whet fans’appetites for the album we’d helped them fund over a year ago, and I knew just from that unbelievably catchy chorus it would be worth the wait. It’s tough to explain the more loose, syncopated feel of this one – it’s another fast-paced rocker in 4/4, but something about it feels a bit nervous, a little “rickety” if you will. The lyrics are certainly more gripping here, as a man seems to be bracing himself and his family for some sort of plague or spectre of death that approaches, and he promises his daughter (I’m assuming) that some sort of clever plan he came up with will keep her safe. The chorus might as well be shaking its fist at the Grim Reaper himself: “I defy you/Keeper of the dying, I defy you/Spinning in the night into our bedrooms/And telling us it’s over, I defy you.” I love the shimmering guitars and the overall balance betwen intricacy and immediacy in this one. I only have two complaints here – one, the drumming puts way too much emphasis on the cymbals, hitting them literally every quarter note until the bridge finally gives us a break (which gets a bit tedious compared to the more inventive rhythmic work Shroy has done elsewhere), and the song’s coda, which is just a series of quiet-to-loud synth tones repeatedly sneaking up on the listener like something out of a suspenseful film soundtrack, goes on for a bit too long.
The band backs off a bit on the electric guitars for the next few tracks, though I wouldn’t say the songs are necessarily “mellower”, because the percussion is still reasonably busy and the instrumentation still has a lot of things going on at once. What might have been a simpler, more mid-tempo acoustic-based track on an earlier album of theirs is transformed into something downright magical by the inclusion of electronic keyboards and what sounds like it might be a harp. It immediately puts me in a sci-fi/fantasy sort of mindset like a lot of their best songs do. The chorus of this song, which is another of Ribordy’s patented speedy tongue-twisters, is a thing of beauty to behold due to all of the layering and reverb that’s been put on the drums and vocals. Near the end of the song, when the percussion and most of the instrumentation cuts out and it’s just a mirror maze of reflecting voices singing that chorus in a round, it’s one of the most breathtaking things I can remember ever hearing on a Falling Up record. I also love that the chorus is clever enough to use the words “corner” and “coroner” in the same sentence without it being an obvious pun. (Last time I recall hearing those two words in the same song was The Fiery Furnaces‘s “My Dog Was Lost But Now He Found”. I can’t imagine any other scenario in which I’d be tempted to mention Falling Up and the Furnaces in the same paragraph.)
5. The Woodworker
When a song is in 3/4 or 6/8 time, it’s something I notice immediately that tends to make it stand out from the others. Something about that rhythmic just feels more romantic and otherworldly to my ears, even though obviously it’s nearly as common as 4/4. Hours was interesting for a rock record in that Falling Up had so many songs in triple meter that it was actually the songs in 4/4 that stood out. Here they’ve restrained themselves a bit and I can only count three. The first of the bunch establishes itself right away with the visual imagery of a bird that can not only defy gravity, but that can fly through time and space itself. I can’t even wrap my head around what that means in the grander scheme of things, but it’s a fascinating idea. The piano and acoustic guitar are quite nicely interwoven with the drums and the vocal melody here, and there’s another “music-box” bit that shows up partway through the song, possibly becoming its most memorable elements as it follows a quieter, sadder moment in the song where Jessy’s train of thought just sort of trails off: “And I will lose contact, then I will lose balance/And they will just watch me…” I don’t have to unravel the mystical metaphors to detect a palpable sense of loss in his voice right there. (I also wonder if the use of the word “contact” is meant to reference the song “Contact”, which is one of my favorites from Dawn Escapes – a rare mellower song from the band’s early days. In true Falling Up style, the word “contact” does not appear in that particular song.)
6. Wild Bird
I’m not sure that putting two tracks with roughly the same rhythm back to back, and titling this one after a bird that is only actually mentioned in the previous song, was the best idea, but I’ve been listening to Falling Up long enough to know that they usually title songs after something that only makes sense in the context of another song. It’s confusing, but these days I just roll with it. You could view this song and “Wild Bird” as conjoined twins, I suppose – this one brings back the more rock-oriented sound of the first few tracks to give it that sense of urgency once again, but the rhythm definitely gives it a different feel. Jessy seems to be calling a group of people – or birds or other beings, for all I know – to retreat to some sort of a safe hiding place, nestled between the walls and beneath the floorboards where they’ll never be found. That notion of being between the rooms of a house seems to crop up on several of these songs, but I haven’t yet unraveled any deeper significance that might be behind it. I could almost see this one fitting into Hours. It’s pretty good, but it doesn’t reach the heights of the rest of the album up to this point.
Maybe it’s just because the title evokes a watery image, but I can’t help but compare this one to “Oceans”, a similar mid-tempo, electronic keyboard-based track from Your Sparkling Death Cometh. Where that song had more of a calming, devotional mood to it, this one seems a bit sinister underneath the wash of pretty sounds, at least if you take a closer look at the lyrics, which seem to be channeling Edgar Allan Poe as Jessy sings of bodies laying beneath the floorboards and hushed whispers of secrets that the perpetrators don’t know he’s overhearing. (Is he still a bird in this scenario? A raven, perhaps?) Live piano and drums punch this one up a bit – even at their most synth-happy, Falling Up seems to always work in a strong element of live instrumentation, and I love the interesting sounds that can come from that blend of humans and computers. The attention to detail is a bit odd in the final verse of this song, even by Falling Up standards, giving the address of the house and some odd little details that could almost be a police report if they weren’t so oddly phrased: “In the hall there’s a glow from a light that’s below the copier/And the prints can be found on the ground with the ultravioleter.” Um, I think they just call that a “black light”, but then I’m no forensic expert.
8. In the Woodshop
OK, that’s two sets of two tracks back-to-back that have the same basic rhythm and tempo. I’m really unsure at this point if that’s the best way to make individual songs stand out, but I suppose it makes the segues extra smooth. (It’s also the second track with a title that alludes to woodworking, though if that’s referenced at all in the lyrics, it’s oblique at best. “One day this place will be empty and the cold will come.” Sure, I guess he could be talking about a house he’s built or something.) This one might be the most straightforward of the bunch – it jumps right in with a lyrical cold open, and builds to another shimmering chorus melody on the very basic ingredients of piano, acoustic guitar, and those big, glorious drums. No sudden mood changes, no extended intro or outro, just a pretty no-nonsense pop/rock track. This was the first song released in full from the project, and while I like it, I think it’s probably the least distinctive track on the entire record. It’s pleasant to listen to and all that, but it’s probably one of the last tracks I’d pick if I wanted someone to hear an example of Falling Up following their own weird creative muse.
This six-minute behemoth is one of the most imposing tracks on the album. I mean that in the best way possible. It’s one of the most beautifully constructed tracks as well, integrating the “music box” sound into the rest of the instrumentation in perhaps the most satisfying way out of the handful of tracks that attempt this. At first, when it’s just those delicate chimes, you think the rhythm is something different than what it actually is, then when the drums start pounding, putting the accents in all sorts of weird places (which is a highlight of a few of my favorite Falling Up songs), you’re even more confused, and it’s only when the consistent chugging of the electric guitar comes along that it all start to make sense and you realize it’s straight-ahead 4/4. The story gets a bit secret-agenty here, with the aforementioned woodshop being raided by the titular rangers (wow, a title that actually shows up in the song for a change!), and the protagonist tasking his intern with keeping them at bay by installing a security system of some sort that only she knows the code to. He hints at possibly blowing the place to smithereens in a blaze of glory after she makes her escape, to keep whatever secret he’s hiding from being known to the world. It’s all very foreboding and it keeps me on the edge of my seat. Much like “Flora”, this track seems to give us two choruses for the price of one, though I suppose you could interpret one of them as more of a bridge; it’s just that it repeats. It’s got one of Jessy’s best vocal melodies on an album that’s jam-packed full of ’em, so the hair on the back of my neck stands up a little bit at that point.
10. Up in Houses
I made the joke a long time ago that you can tell a country song from an R&B or hip-hop song just by the lyrics. If people are “up and” doing something, it’s a country song, but if they’re “up in” places, it’s an R&B/hip-hop song. I may have to reconsider the stereotype, given this strangely titled track. It’s certainly about as far from either of those genres as you can get, but someone is definitely about to lose his mind up in here. Set to a pristine piano melody that once again throws us off the scent of an otherwise straightforward time signature, Jessy sings about a man who seems to blame everyone else for his problems – he was living somebody else’s life, the gun that went off in his hands belonged to somebody else and thus he bears no responsibility for the blood that’s on their hands, and so forth. The worst part, is, people seem to believe that charade. If this song is from the same point of view as the others, then it’s a tragic turn for our protagonist, particularly when the song ends in blame of booming, rapid-fire drums and the desperate cry, “He’s lost in walls, stuck in between”, which dovetails (heh) with “Wild Bird” in the most chilling way possible. Musically, I’m amazed at how this one manages to steal my attention every time when I think of favorite tracks from the album. I almost always gravitate toward the big rockers on Falling Up albums. This one gets big and loud and amazing in its second half, but in a completely different way than what anyone would have expected giving Falling Up’s origins. There’s another “victory lap” here, much like the end of “Flora”, after the devastating coda seems to have fallen away, as if to suggest that this sympathetic villain’s unheard cries for companionship will ring out again and again in perpetuity now that he’s somehow evaded the consequences of his actions and possibly death itself.
11. The Insect
A semi-romantic piano ballad would probably be the last thing you’d expect from a song called “The Insect”. You should probably know better by now, right? Musically I’d compare this one to a few of the ballads like “The Sidewinder Flux” and “The Chilling Alpine Adventure” in the latter half of Fangs!, which is to say it’s not one of the first Falling Up songs that really stands out to me, but it’s beautiful in its own, comparatively more conventional way. (Of course, this being Falling Up, there’s a still a big chorus that brings the full band instrumentation in, and some weird synthesizer stuff happening during the bridge.) The lyrics here are quite a contrast to the previous song in they’re entirely selfless and devoted, with a man promising “I’ll take the fall for you, my angel”, and he’s possibly dealing with banishment to some other realm or physical form of existence for doing so. It’s a nice “calm before the storm” moment leading into the finale.
This song has a ton of weight riding on it, being not only the grand finale of an excellent album, but also being the last new song we’re likely to ever hear from the band. It sidesteps my conventional expectations of somehow bookending their career by calling back in any obvious way to the either the beginning of this album or to their earlier works, but it is nice that they decided to go out with one final, frenetic rocker that also makes room for the dreamier, carefully layered, keyboard and synth-driven aspect of their sound. I love how the piano melody sort of “rumbles” and builds up to the big, energetic chorus that once again emphasizes being on the run from a mysterious opposing force: “And they lit a fire/They are coming down here/And they lit a fire/They will come to find you/If it leads to lies/They will come to find you when you’re old.” It’s not the most comforting thing to suggest, at the end of the story, that all of this inventive subterfuge could be all for naught and the mysterious daughter/intern/whoever she is that our protagonist has fought to protect might one day have her cover blown. Yet when the final chorus dies away, there’s this very peaceful vocal coda that repeats several times, like a mantra that the band wanted to be remembered by: “Let them know that you can float/Turn around and rise up.” As those final words hang in the air rather than doing the traditional fade-out, it almost feels like there should be more, like the band is purposefully ending the story with a big, glaring ellipsis. Maybe the end of that story has already been told in one of their earlier songs or albums, and I simply haven’t pieced it all together yet. All I can say for sure is that the band has left me with a body of work that will be great fun to go back over and scour for details that I didn’t know previously I should have been looking for. I may never answer all my questions and there may not even be something intentionally left there for me to find, but Falling Up was just that kind of band – I’ve always enjoyed the experience of being left even more insatiably curious than when I started.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Boone Flyer $1.75
The Green Rider $1.50
The Woodworker $1.75
Wild Bird $1
In the Woodshop $1
Up in Houses $2
The Insect $1.25
Jessy Ribordy: Lead vocals, guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, programming, electronics
Jeremy Miller: Bass, keyboards
Josh Shroy: Drums
Nick Lambert: Guitars