Artist: House of Heroes
In Brief: Though the hooks aren’t as immediate as we’re used to and the story woven throughout these 13 tracks doesn’t quite take hold at first, there’s a lot to like about Colors once you take the time to really appreciate the dual perspectives it’s coming from and where each song fits into the narrative. The End Is Not the End remains their best work… but this is darn close.
House of Heroes is one of those bands that hints at progressive rock without ever going full-blown prog on their audience. You can pick up bits and pieces of it in their song structures, the way a rhythm will bend and change, or a theme from an earlier song will crop up again at an unexpected moment. But their records aren’t loaded down with extended soloing or epic-length opuses (“Angels in Top Hats” from their self-titled album notwithstanding) – for the most part their songs say what they need to say in the space of three to five minutes, masquerading as a more radio-friendly format even if the overall pace and tone of many of their songs seems to rail against it. It’s because of this and the band’s very basic guitar-drums-bass lineup that I’ve never known whether to label them as straight-up rock-and-roll, or something more outside the box. I would surmise that they enjoy not being easily pigeonholed, and having signed to the BadChristian label for their fifth full-length, Colors, they’re also subtly challenging our notions of what “Christian rock” means in the year 2016.
On the surface, the sound of Colors isn’t that far removed from the group’s 2012 release Cold Hard Want or the Smoke EP that came out in the interim. I’ve definitely seen a lot of growth since their 2005 self-titled release, but they’ve pretty much always defied expectations just as easily as they’ve cooperated with them, delivering enormously catchy power-pop songs right alongside more exploratory fare that doesn’t necessarily adhere to the verse/chorus structure. Colors might be the band’s most aggressive album to date, at least in terms of the more sinister vocal approach on several songs, but they’ve flirted with hard rock swagger on occasion before, just as easily slipping into acoustic reflection or an uneasy whisper, sometimes on the very same track. So while nothing’s radically different about how this album sounds, the underlying ambition of it starts to come clear after listening to it more deeply. Each song is pretty well self-contained as a musical statement, and yet there’s a story intertwining throughout that connects them all more than it has on any of their other records, including perhaps their best loved album, 2008’s The End Is Not the End.
Yeah, that’s right, Colors is a concept album. Those who bristled at the words “progressive rock” earlier will probably want to run screaming when I admit that, but relax, this isn’t the expected overblown, melodramatic musical theater amped up with wacky time signatures speedy guitar solos. (That is to say, it’s not Dream Theater. Considering how bad that band has gotten over the years, I’m grateful.) In fact, the band’s attempt to keep Colors from veering too far from their expected sound might be what disguises the overarching story at first. Writing about the hard-scrabble, working-class life in a small town that they’ve touched upon on some of their earlier albums, Colors follows the story of two cousins, Eric and Axel, one a bit of an idealist and the other a pragmatist, who clash over the notion of fate versus freewill when they both get tangled in a web of – well, let’s just say “extra-legal activities”. These are the two male characters staring each other down on the album cover while Joni, an apparent love interest to both men, stares out at the listener. (I had originally thought this was a band photo and one of the members had sort of a Bon Jovi haircut. My bad.) Lead singer Tim Skipper has to pull double duty as both male narrators, making it not immediately apparent which songs are from which one’s point of view, though the photos in the liner notes certainly help to set the scene. Joni isn’t as major of a character as she probably ought to be, only represented by a guest female vocal in one song and briefly mentioned in a few others, but despite the minimal cast, the way the story unfolds between the three of them is compellingly tragic. While it is a story about morality and the consequences of our choices, the group steers clear of preaching and simply tries to inhabit what these characters are feeling and thinking, meaning some questions and plot threads are left unresolved at the end of the album, but the implications of that ending do manage to strike an emotional chord when I really stop to think about them.
With all of that said, Colors is not the band’s most immediately accessible album. If you’re looking for pure, catchy, power pop/alt-rock goodness, there are probably a ton more songs on House of Heroes’ past records that will hook you in right away, whereas even some of the big rockers on this one took me a little longer to fully appreciate. Ultimately I think it’s a strong artistic accomplishment for the group, and I’d put it second behind The End Is Not the End if forced to rank their discography, so while you can’t necessarily go in expecting Colors to be great for the exact same reasons, it’s got enough common DNA with that and their other records to be easily recognizable as another great entry in the catalog of a remarkably consistent band.
1. This City Is a Cage
While I didn’t think the intro track on Cold Hard Want made for a very transition into its first full song, I at least appreciated the acapella chops on display there. This short, acoustic piece pales in comparison. While the lyrics at least do a decent job of establishing the setting of a hardscrabble inner city where a man born and raised there is questioning whether he can or should aspire to escape it, the melody and vocals don’t really do anything to stand out, and the sound effect of an open car door dinging before the musi comes in seems annoying and superfluous. Let’s consider this a false start and move on.
2. Colors Run
The band would have done well to simply open with this song, which charges into gear with guitars squealing, feeling a lot like a sonic cousin to the excellent anthem “Out My Way” from their last record, with a melodic hook that doesn’t hit home quite as immediately, but that proves to be an important motif we’ll hear in different contexts throughout the album. This one’s basically a theme song for the character of Eric, who as I understand it is returning to the city where he grew up, lamenting that it hasn’t changed much from when his parents were his age, and wondering if the cycle can be broken: “Why can’t I be more? I don’t want to fight my father’s wars.” The notion of a man’s blood running blue or red – the two “colors” that define the theme of the entire album – is one I’ll admit to not fully understanding, as blue blood could be seen as either cold-blooded or a symbol of law enforcement, while red could be seen as normal, human, vulnerable, or it could be seen as a symbol of war and violence. So I’m not sure which side the “good guys” are meant to be on or whether it’s that cut and dry. Axel and Joni are introduced via short little vignettes into each character’s worldview in the bridge (and if you listen without knowing that these are meant to be characters in the story, as I initially did, it’s easy to think they’re quoting their favorite Guns & Roses and Joni Mitchell songs or something). The former insists “You’re just born here and you die”, resigning himself to the notion that change isn’t possible, while Joni’s view is more optimistic: “There’s something brave about staying with it/And making beauty out of all of this sh…” Yeah, they implied a swear word there before the next line cuts it short, which is going to rankle more conservative listeners, but I kind of found it amusing, maybe even a little poetic. The way that the bridge melody reaches a fever pitch before diving back into the chorus is one of the most triumphant moments on the album. After a few listens, this one easily stands among my favorite House of Heroes anthems.
Axel’s anthem is a rocker of a different color (double meaning wholly intended). The tempo’s a tad slower, the guitars are a little crunchier, and the whole thing plays as some sort of a primal scream, kicking against the neutered nature of modern society, wondering whatever happened to the renegades and pioneers who said “screw you” to authority and made their own way out in the wild. “You can be safe or you can be free”, he asserts, making the choice of safety look like the coward’s way out by comparison. By describing freedom from the flawed worldview of a man who’s willing to go to some rather shady lengths to maintain that freedom, the song seems to ask us if we’ve perhaps over-romanticized to notion of living in a “free country” or what that is even really supposed to mean. Also, the guitar work throughout this song is just plain badass. The character of it is so different from “Colors Run” that I didn’t even realize it at first when that song’s chorus melody showed up again as a snarling guitar riff in the pre-chorus.
The first thing most people will likely notice about this song is its repetitive and kind of silly chorus: “A rat is a rat is a rat! A rat-tat-tat-tat-tat!” My wife said it sounded like something from a children’s song. Except of course that it’s being menacingly screamed to a stomping rock riff. The band seems caught in conflict between their progressive, screw-with-the-song-structure side and their more straightforward, swaggery side, as this song twists and turns through a few time signature and mood changes, and that might be deliberate as it gives us the origin of the conflict that arises between Eric and Axel, as Eric inadvertently ends up witnessing a homicide committed by his cousin. Now he faces the pressure to either keep quiet about it and end up an accomplice, or rat out his own family and face Axel’s wrath: “Turn your back on your blood, you deserve what you get!” Personally I think they might have tinkered a bit too much here, as the time signature shift in the chorus kind of works against its effectiveness as a central hook for the song, but at other points in the song, I actually admire the band’s ability to keep it together throughout the various twists and turns, adding some complexity to a song that could have just been about sheer muscle.
5. We Make Our Stars
If Christian radio still cared about this band – and who knows, maybe a few edgier stations still do, but I haven’t cared about Christian radio for so long that I honestly don’t know any more – this is probably the song they’d play to ease listeners into HoH’s sound. I don’t mean that in any way as a negative. Just to say it’s more of a pop anthem – though still a very guitar-powered one – on a more rock-oriented record. I think this song is meant to represent Joni’s point of view, though since Tim Skipper’s still the primary vocalist, it might be better understood as a representation of Eric’s optimism. Either way, while the notion that you can make our own stars is a bit of a corny metaphor for controlling your own destiny, I do like that the song feels grounded in terms of acknowledging that we can’t change everything, but should still fight the good fight for the things that can be changed. The tension between what can be chosen and what’s inevitable seems to come to a boil in the bridge: “I want to choose, but if I choose, I know I’ll just choose you.” That turns the whole fate/freewill question into a bit of a snake eating its own tail, as if to say that Eric wants to believe in his own freedom, yet he seems honor-bound to defend the cousin he’s come to love like a brother over the years. I like how, even though the song started out very poppy and easygoing, it doesn’t come to a smooth, clean finish – the vocals approach a scream as the bridge repeats itself, and the song collapses into noisy feedback that leads seamlessly into the following track.
As much as I love the whole-hearted “good guy” songs on this record, Axel’s big bad-boy manifesto actually ended up being my favorite. Over another stone-cold, stomping guitar riff, he proclaims his loyalty to everything that makes him feel good, noting that some men are enslaved to the things they consider to be gods, be the money or sex or family, but he’s a freedom fighter. Listeners who don’t know how to separate a musician playing a character from their actual thoughts will no doubt take offense at the second verse, which declares, “This ghetto’s my cathedral/This gun my eucharist/I take the offering/And I decide what sin is!”, but I think the entire point of it is that it’s blasphemous and he doesn’t care one bit, because he’s got such a big ego at this point that he gets to pragmatically define his own religion, and if you don’t like it, you’ll find yourself at the business end of the pioneer’s pistol. Just after the song culminates in a triumphant shout, there’s this very sad, quiet coda that creeps in afterwards, with mournful backing vocals and Axel lamenting in a near-whisper, “I’m free/Why don’t I feel free?”
In a bizarre coincidence, track 7 on both this album and Relient K‘s new one are both titled “God”. The two bands actually have quite a lot in common, from their home state of Ohio, to their pop/punk roots, to their willingness to goof around with the structure of a song. But their treatises on God could not be more starkly different. In House of Heroes’ case, that’s because we’re still hearing from the Axel character, whose innermost thoughts and fears are coming to life in the form of paranoid whispers (seriously, you have to turn the volume up or you can barely even hear it at first). “Maybe God is a hard man/Who can show you mercy but it won’t come free/And he offers protection/If you stay on the take and you take what he needs/And nobody sees him/But they pray wholehearted when they need forgiving/But if God is a hard man, why am I still alive?” He’s got a little of it right, but there are some pretty awful misconceptions he’s still trying to work out, and the brash confidence of “Feel” is swiftly undone by the menacing mood of this song, which lashes out from the murky shadows as it morphs into a punishing heavy rock anthem with some appropriately ragged vocals in the climax. To this man, God and religion pretty much come down to the question of “Tell me, what’s in it for me?”
8. In the End
Though this is one of the more tender songs on the album, and I like its laid-back, bordering-on-coffeehouse vibe, I’m a bit confused as to its place in the narrative. Joni is clearly the subject of the song, and whoever’s singing to her is trying to persuade her away from the walking train wreck that is Axel, sweetly promising to run to her side if she’s ever in trouble and to “crawl right out of my grave just to be with you”. This and a passing reference to her as “my daughter” initially make me think it’s the voice of a previously unmentioned dead father, but that sort of comes out of left field so I might be taking these lyrics too literally. It makes more sense at this point in the story for these to be Eric’s feelings for her, but still not everything lines up. Not knowing whose words these are is admittedly distracting to me, and as a result I tend to forget that the song is there, even though if I judged it entirely on its own merits, I do enjoy Skipper’s falsetto here, and the sensitivity of it that reminds me of past House of Heroes ballads like “By Your Side” and “Salt in the Sea”.
Here the tone gets darker again, as an uneasy dialogue between Axel and Joni ensues. It’s the only track where Joni appears to get to speak for herself, represented by a female vocalist referred to as Fleurie in the liner notes – no idea who she is, but she does an effective job of sounding wary of the drunken thug lurking at her window, begging her to let him sleep it off on her couch to evade the long arm of the law for the night. Wisely, perhaps aided by the advice given to her in the previous song, she rejects his advances: “The love you’re for is a settled score/And that’s why I can’t love you anymore.” The contrast between the dark, ominous guitars of the verse and the mellower chorus is interesting, really giving shape to the two sides of the story, and there’s a nice guitar break in the middle that adds a shot of action into an otherwise moodier song.
If Colors were a movie, this climactic song would be the big fight sequence. The guitars come out swinging, with a metal-edged riff set to a defiantly bouncy 6/8 beat, and just when you’re getting used to what might be the catchiest riff and the biggest dose of badass bravado on the entire album as Eric finally faces down the loser cousin he’s tired of covering for, the song switches gears and drops into a still loud and thrashing, but more straight-ahead 4/4 rhythm, which really threw me off at first, but the song has definitely become one of my favorites despite the seeming incongruity. Eric’s done being the sensitive guy here. He calls Axel out, saying he can’t handle the pressure of being questioned by the cops and having to weave a web of lies any more, and the whole thing culminates in a showdown where only one man can be left standing: “I’m not hiding from anything no more/If you’re coming for me we’ll see who is the matador.” The song might switch perspectives back and forth between him and Axel – it’s honestly hard to tell since both are so loaded up with teststoerone and at each other’s throats at this point. Either way, the seething threat, “You turn on me I’ll turn on you!” as the song comes to a close is quite chilling.
11. Shots Fired
While the next few tracks feel more like transitional pieces that call back to earlier songs than individual songs in their own right, they are where the story takes a gut-wrenching turn. The choice of solo acoustic guitar and more of a hushed vocal approach for the aftermath of “Matador” is a surprising choice, but it shows some shades of sensitivity finally creeping into the paranoid whispers of Axel’s inner psyche. He’s lost control again, and another man has died at his hand, and though the song doesn’t outright state it, I’m pretty sure he’s got his own cousin’s blood on his hands this time. “Teardrops fall for the righteous/Raindrops fall for the thief” might be one of my favorite lyrics on the album, as for the first time he seems to acknowledge that he’s taken his look-out-for-number-one-at-all-costs worldview too far. Then the haunting background vocals from the end of “Feel” are reprised, and with the sound of rain dripping in the background, the final verse refers to colors running, this time in the context of blood on the concrete. It’s here that I begin to realize how well they set certain themes or references up in the early songs in order to pay off quite tragically here.
12. Get Away
While the stacked vocal harmonies that have made so many past HoH songs great haven’t been as prominent on the album, the gentle contribution of the other guys in the band really helps to elevate this mournful song to the point where it became a real tear-jerker for me once I realized what a sad epiphany it was meant to represent. Axel finally feels some true remorse here, and Skipper’s vocal approach changes appropriately, mirroring some of the more sensitive “Eric songs” from earlier in the record. I just about lose it when he sings: “You deserve more than fallen stars/More than a thug trying to sober up inside a stolen car/But that’s how the colors run.” He’s finally learned the lesson, but it’s too late for him to change his ways – he’s finally grown weary of running and he just seems to want to let the cops catch him so the chase can just be over with already. The ending of this short song is an especially poignant reprise of the chorus of “We Make Our Stars” – words from his deceased cousin that were finally taken to heart one day too late, and that now serve as a eulogy for an innocent life cut short.
13. Colors Die Out
I’m a bit surprised after all this that the album ends on an up-tempo track, but the frenetic pace of this song’s opening riff and verse is a welcome change after two very effective, but still very mellow cuts that normally wouldn’t show up back-to-back on an HoH record. The story ends with Axel being carted off to jail for his crimes, which isn’t a very comforting final chapter, but there’s a final sting to it, as it asks whether the moral conclusions a lot of us listeners might draw at this point are entirely fair: “Forgive a monster’s force/But forgiveness can’t make him feel remorse/But I hope it’s real/You say God loves me still/But love is like a story that you tell/In a language I can’t hear.” They don’t end the story with this man’s life being magically turned around, but they have managed to humanize someone a lot of us would demonize, making him neither wholly evil nor able to turn around and just magically be good at the drop of a hat once he realizes how low he’s sunk. I do find the tempo switch in this song’s chorus to be a bit awkward, but slowing things down a bit does help the bridge of the song to really make an impact as he sits in his cell, wondering how things could have been different if only he’d listened to his cousin: “Sometimes I dream about the stars/And think it’s really not so dark.” Here, the album sputters to a close on a rather grim reprise of that same riff from “Colors Run”. Now that I think about it, pretty much all of House of Heroes’ albums have ended on somewhat of a tragic note (from the self-titled’s “Angels in Top Hats” and The End Is Not the End‘s “Field of Daggers” up through Cold Hard Want‘s “I Am a Symbol”, though perhaps Suburba‘s “Burn Me Down” is an exception), even if it involved someone dying for a noble cause, so maybe that’s just a theme that really gets their creative juices flowing.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
This City Is a Cage $0
Colors Run $1.75
We Make Our Stars $1.75
In the End $1
Shots Fired $1.25
Get Away $1.50
Colors Die Out $1.25
Tim Skipper: Lead vocals, guitar
Colin Rigsby: Drums, backing vocals
A.J. Babcock: Bass, backing vocals
Eric Newcomer: Guitar, bass, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: