Here’s an absolutely awful pitch for a band you’re trying to get someone into: “Hey, these guys were childhood friends of another band that you hate with every fiber of your being!” It’s no small miracle that I became a fan of Falling Up in the first place, given how much that little fun fact was bandied about in their promotional details and by Christian radio deejays when the band first debuted. Even for a Christian rock band that was trying to do something more creative and conceptual than their own marketing gave them credit for at the time, I definitely couldn’t have predicted that these guys would have gone on to become one of my favorite bands. Or that they would break up not once, but twice, both times right after delivering one of their weirdest and most wonderful records. Strange as it may seem, the more niche this band’s audience became, the better off they were.
I can still recall the first time I ever heard Falling Up’s debut single “Broken Heart” on the radio. It was February of 2004. My wife (then girlfriend) and I were on a trip to Hawaii to visit her family, listening to the local Christian station as we drove around Oahu together. She was aware of how much I hated Kutless, a derivative, watered-down, sanitized Christian rock alternative to nu-metal and post-grunge bands like Creed and… *checks notes* P.O.D. They were basically my critical punching bag back then, because they were such an easy target whenever I wanted to discuss everything that was wrong with Christian music. My girlfriend didn’t have much experience with the band herself and thus harbored no ill will toward them, but out of courtesy to me, when she heard the radio deejay announce their name as the opening riffs of a song began to play, she instinctively reached up to change the radio station. Either I stopped her, having heard enough to know it was actually this other band Falling Up that was simply Kutless-adjacent (the core members of both bands all grew up in the same town in Oregon, apparently) and being marketed to fans of their same style of music, or I simply didn’t point it out the next time the song came up on that station’s playlist (which couldn’t have been more than a few hours later, honestly). There was something different about these guys. Superficially, I guess you could consider their guitar riffs and the overall aggressiveness of some of their heavier songs to be “nu-metal”. But there was some electronic stuff going on here, some slick vocal harmonies, kind of a mish-mash of styles that I wasn’t sure what to make of. The song eventually got around to name-checking Jesus as the source of healing for all their woes, but the lyrics took a rather circuitous route to get there, and I enjoyed not immediately understanding or being able to predict everything they were singing. The band’s first LP Crashings came out not too long after, and upon listening to it, I discovered a band at a bit of a crossroads, on the one hand seeming like they wanted to pursue a more expansive, synth-laden brand of youthful alt-rock, but on the other hand getting bogged down by ill-fitting rap features and occasional screamo breakdowns that were very much of their time. What I found most fascinating about that record, aside from not being able to predict whether the riffs that rung in my head for days afterwards would come from a guitar or a keyboard, was the apparent intertextuality of the songs. The lyrics to one song would frequently echo elements of another, and lead singer/songwriter Jessy Ribordy had a habit of including the titles of certain songs in the lyrics to other songs despite the fact that a song’s lyrics would often not contain its own title, meaning that it often took a bit of work to remember which ones were which. Where matters of faith were discussed, they were sometimes direct and sometimes very obscure and allegorical. This was weirder, and probably less marketable, stuff than the band’s label wanted to admit at the time. And I was super into it. I got to see the band live once in those early days – and truth be told, they were still a bit scrappy and not quite as polished and melodic as they were on the album – but I could tell even back then that they had a modest but attentive following of fans that actually paid attention to the deep album cuts and were looking for more than the typical “rah rah Jesus” experience they were likely getting from a lot of other Christian bands.
The changes to Falling Up’s lineup and sound came fast and furious over the next few years. By 2005’s somewhat rushed sophomore effort Dawn Escapes, the DJ effects and rap features were already a thing of the past. By 2007’s Captiva, the band’s lead guitarist had left and the songs were a lot more moody and synth-heavy, far less reliant on catchy riffs to immediately grab an audience’s attention. By 2009’s Fangs!, the band had dropped all pretense of needing to cite a Biblical inspiration behind each song, and they dropped a full-on concept album with a story taking place on an entirely different planet of their own. This was an electronic album to some degree, but also a very percussion-heavy one, to the point where drums and bass seemed like the primary instruments on a few songs, which I absolutely adored. (The band’s longtime drummer Josh Shroy is easily their unsung hero.) And then there were softer ballads to cover the more heartstring-tugging and tragic parts of a story that was admittedly a bit difficult to decipher. I don’t recall these later albums selling all that well, and they most certainly got some notes from the label about it due to how hard it was to find a single that the fans could actually remember the title of, let alone find universally relateable. Faced with the choice to either abandon their planned multi-album arc and conform to the industry’s expectations of more straightforward faith-based rock music, or end the band altogether, they abruptly chose the latter at the beginning of 2010. That was it – a promising young band cut down before they had really been given the chance to blossom. Or so I thought.
Nine months later, with Jessy having gotten a few side projects out of his system in the meantime, Falling Up announced its rebirth. They would be an independent band from here on out, for the most part pared down to just the three core members (Jessy, Josh, and bassist/keyboardist Jeremy Miller), and funding their albums through Kickstarter. Figuring this gave them the full artistic freedom they’d been longing for, I was on board from pretty much day one, and I was incredibly stoked when their comeback album Your Sparkling Death Cometh showed up in my mailbox in the summer of 2011. Interestingly, the sci-fi and fantasy themes seemed more comfortable alongside the (comparatively) more straightforward declarations of faith here – you could have a melodic power ballad about the love of God right up next to a few byzantine rockers about astronauts and spiderwebs and arrows and suits of armor. The band still seemed to have two distinct fanbases to please, it seemed, and on their next project, they compartmentalized these aspects of their songwriting. The Machine De Ella Project, announced in 2012, was a double album of sorts, with Hours being an incredibly dense concept album in the same vein as Fangs!, complete with an audiobook in which each song corresponded to a chapter of a novel Jessy had written, and Midnight on Earthship being a surprisingly mellow and straightforward collection of faith-based songs, some of which were so sparsely arranged that it may as well have been a solo project. One song per album was released to subscribers each month, until both were completed in 2013. It’s rare for something as ambitious as Hours, with such an out-there concept and a story that’s pretty hard to hazard a guess at without the supplemental materials, put out by a band independently without a label’s review process to tell them they’ve gone completely off the deep end, and released in such a piecemeal fashion, to be so thoroughly enjoyable as a complete album. Hours wound up being my favorite Falling Up album, long after I thought they’d probably never top Fangs! (They also somehow had time to put out a Christmas album called Silver City in the same year, for crying out loud.) But wait… they still weren’t done.
Finally, in late 2015, Falling Up decided to call it quits again, this time on their own terms rather than as a result of label pressure. Their planned final album, a self-titled of all things, found its way into the hands of fans who funded it that November, making one hell of a bittersweet early Christmas present as it once again upended expectations of what these guys could do with 12 songs, an intriguing concept, and a whole storehouse of delightful instrumental ideas ranging from gritty riffs and splashy cymbals to ethereal, lullabye-like passages on the piano, harp, and synthesizer. They had long since stopped touring in any appreciable sense of the word, so sadly I never got another chance to see the band live after they had built up such an impressive discography. But even if I couldn’t physically travel anywhere to see them, each album felt it took me on a journey to a new place, maybe far off in the woods or out on the ocean, or even out in deep space, en route to planets not yet discovered. This is not a band whose music is deeply tied to my own life story because they had all these songs that related to stuff I was going through. This was the band that fed my introverted side with the overactive imagination – listening to their music felt like my equivalent of curling up with a good thick novel on the front porch of a cabin on the shore of a distant lake, and just taking my sweet time to soak it all in.
Maybe the way I’ve described this band is going to be a tough sell for a potential new fan. But with so many amazing songs in their repertoire, and so many of them easy to get into even if the larger context of the story they came from may strike you as utter gibberish, I figure it can’t hurt to suggest some of my favorites to you as a potential entry point. And that’s why I’ve chosen Falling Up as the final band to feature in my year-long exploration of favorite songs by now-defunct favorite bands of mine. They’re the band that has expanded the farthest beyond the confines of what I originally thought they could do, and that has shown me some of the most stunning imaginary vistas I’ll probably ever see.
1. The Rest Will Soon Follow
(from Hours, 2013)
My very favorite track from Falling Up was also my favorite song of the year 2013. My fascination with this one was seemingly endless, despite the fact that it does two things I would normally dislike in a song. First off, the percussion in the verses is all over the place, sometimes behind the beat and sometimes in front of it, to the point where I need the steady, musicbox-like keyboard melody just to keep track of the actual rhythm. Second, the chorus is insanely repetitive (as a lot of the choruses are on Hours – the band wasn’t shy about hitting those hooks hard and often, driving many tracks beyond the five minute mark in the process). As earlier Falling Up fan may well listen to this one and think, “Really? That’s his favorite? I don’t get it.” For me, what ties it all together (apart from that mesmerizing keyboard opening that I wound up using as a ringtone for quite a while) is the notion that a character is being subjected to an impossible test, something that would take “an infinite time and an infinite sequence” to solve. The meaning of it didn’t click with me until I listened to the audiobook and realized that it was about a group of incredibly gifted high schoolers given access to a secret gym, who had managed to figure out a way to slow down time and accomplish superhuman feats, stretching the hours they were allotted to be in that room into days. As with most chapters of the story, the song doesn’t necessarily flesh out all the details, so listening to it on your own, you might come up with a completely different meaning, especially as the huge chorus melody washes over you again and again: “It carries us, it guides us to Earth.” Even though this song moves at a brisk pace, unwavering for its entire five minute length, it never seems to get too repetitive because the drums seem to be always looking for a different way to subdivide or otherwise subvert the steady rhythm of the song. It’s a fascinating way to thwart my expectations and keep me looking for hidden patterns that, since I possess no high-IQ superpowers, could well take me an entire lifetime to discover.
2. Intro to the Radio Room
(from Hours, 2013)
The most stunningly beautiful song in the Falling Up catalogue certainly has a misleading title. It’s a full-fledged centerpiece of a song, not an intro to anything else, and the actual lyrics never mention the titular radio room that the characters have discovered at this point in the story. Instead, as the synthetic beat kicks off and we’re momentarily tricked into thinking they’re building up to a big rock refrain, the lyrics tell of war hitting “the blue” and “the green”, archers lining up to take their shots, basically using language that we might have heard on Fangs! to indicate that something foreboding is coming. That’s why I never saw the beautiful mood swing coming, as the chorus turns it into a bittersweet lullaby, with a character pledging his unwavering devotion to someone he loves as he utters what might just be his final breath: “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.” The boundary between life and death, and even the act of breathing itself, are somewhat malleable concepts in this bizarre story, but if you didn’t know any of that, you’d probably picture a heroic character charging into his last battle as this song hit fakeout ending #1, pulled off a big key change, and then fell silent again for fakeout ending #2. Then a soft female voice comes in for the real ending, mournfully humming that chorus melody, which took on a mythical quality in my mind almost immediately. This sounds like the kind of moment where everything goes quiet and the action starts happening in slow motion, and we realize as our battered hero lays in his lover’s arms that he’s not gonna pull through. The circle of life would be complete, as the last thing our hero hears is the faint echo of a lullaby he knew in his infancy. And many tears would be shed by the audience. Of course, that’s not exactly what happens, but with lyrics this esoteric, it’s kind of up to you to make up your own narrative if you don’t have the audiobook handy.
3. Lotus and the Languorous
(from Fangs!, 2009)
This might just be Falling Up’s best drum song. There’s a lot of competition in that department, of course, since Josh Shroy has such a gift for rhythms that are both complex and immediately attention-grabbing. But I can’t think of any drum cadence from a Falling Up song that I wish I knew how to play more than the weird, pulsating pattern that characterizes this song. As synths bubble up underneath, Jessy’s voice can be heard, digitized to hell and back, singing of either a sailor or an astronaut embarking on a journey to somewhere that seems to be well off the map. Either the pressure of the descent or the G-force of the ascent has him hallucinating some pretty weird things: “Fell quick to the snow, still life/Sprawled out in the cold, he said/There was dancing on the ceiling/I was strapped down to the anchors.” I love how those last two lines echo off into the distance in the song’s slow, grinding coda, as he plummets off into the dark unknown. Leading up to that coda is a pretty gnarly guitar solo and another of the group’s trademark false endings. There’s just so much to love about this one – it’s melodic, it’s hypnotic, and when it really gets going, it rocks your face off.
(from Your Sparkling Death Cometh, 2011)
Falling Up gave us a bit of symphonic rock on the behemoth opening track to their 2011 comeback album. As the big, heavy shards of electric guitar collided with the dramatic strings and the song’s rhythm seemed to spiral out in several different directions without its chorus having a stable (or at least clearly identifiable) time signature, it’s a wonder that it turned out to be as memorable and transfixing as it did. The verses settle into a smoother, almost ballad-like mood with gentle piano guiding the way, and I love how Jessy’s voice matches the changes in intensity by going back and forth from his smoother crooning in the softer parts to the more sinister, serrated edge of his chorus vocal, where he lets some sort of shadowy conspirators know that the jig is up: “My glamorous words will catch them burying all of the evidence!” Looking back over the lyrics to this song after not having studied them closely for a while, I’m impressed at how they managed to work some foreshadowing for Hours in there. The lyrics reference a “waving world” at one point – a term we wouldn’t come to understand until a few chapters into the Hours audiobook. Either Jessy meticulously planned ahead for that, or else he was really been trying to tell different volumes of the same story all along, while keeping his plans on the down-low back in the early days so that the label wouldn’t freak out.
5. Up in Houses
(from Falling Up, 2015)
Even though Hours is my favorite Falling Up record, the one thing it lacked that the band made sure to bring back on their final album was a genuine ballad or two. The self-titled has its share of intense records and formidably long, anthemic tracks as well, and it says a lot about the quality of this pristine piano ballad that it managed to rise above the more immediate, attention-grabbing highlights on that record and ultimately become my favorite. How the music builds – from a slow, thoughtful piano cadence with a curious rhythm to it up to a huge ending full of majestic drum fills and passionate vocals lamenting a man’s fate of being trapped inside the walls of his own house – is truly a wonderful thing to behold, right down to the (you guessed it) false ending that both startles and exhilarates when Jessy’s voice comes back in to take it for another spin around the block. The idea behind this song is incredibly tragic, even when removed from the larger story being told on the album. A man has committed a crime – most likely a murder – and is now frantically trying to cover it up, realizing he’s gonna get caught, and retreating into a series of excuses about how it was someone else’s blood, someone else’s gun, someone else’s money that led to the dirty deed getting done. He simply can’t take responsibility and face the consequences of his own actions. And this leads him to a mental state of being trapped in the web of lies he’s built for himself, which may well be worse than a physical prison.
(from Falling Up, 2015)
After the triple firestorm of rockers that opens the self-titled album, the instrumental balance shifts towards keyboard, harp, and acoustic guitar for its swift-flowing fourth track, which I used to think was called “Hydro” as a reference to water, but then I found out it’s how they refer to hydroelectric power up in Canada. (Are the members of Falling Up secretly Canadian? Mystery for another day.) That would fit with the story of a mad scientist, hidden away in a secret room, performing experiments with electricity and sparking fires and such. We’re not quite sure what he’s up to, but it’s dangerous and could very well kill people in the process of trying to save his own life. When he coughs up blood and tells a family member to go get father, it’s a pretty clear sign his days are numbered. There are times when i think the wordplay was more of a source of a fascination to Jessy than telling a story in a straightforward fashion, since the chorus is a fun tongue-twister that is still incredibly fun to sing along to, and it may just be the only song I can think of other than The Fiery Furnaces‘ “My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found” to use “corner” and “coroner” in neighboring lines as a play on words. Also, after the first chorus, they manage to sneak in the chorus of a completely different song – “In the Woodshop”, which we won’t know has that chorus until four more tracks into the album. It adds another glowing refrain to this already beautiful song, and just everything about it from top to bottom is gorgeous, especially when the chorus is chanted in rounds near the end, and it eventually falls away into a blissful outro with just the harp and piano.
7. Magician Reversed
(from Fangs!, 2009)
This is my prime example when I talk about some of the songs on Fangs! being almost all rhythm section. The drums and bass set up an inviting yet vaguely menacing groove here, and the synths and guitar come slinking it later, but it’s really up to the vocal to do the heavy melodic lifting, and they’re more than adequately layered to get the job done. Falling Up has a habit of sounding arrestingly beautiful while describing sinister characters enacting nefarious plots. Here, a king seems to be hatching a plot to start a war, while stroking the hair of his beloved queen. Such an odd juxtaposition of violent and tender actions, and I love it.
8. Blue Ghost
(from Your Sparkling Death Cometh, 2011)
I remember hearing some complaints, when we finally got to hear Falling Up’s first single after their reunion, that there was too much Autotune. As if that was somehow a new element for the band to experiment. Did you guys not hear “Lotus and the Langurous”? I actually love this song for similar reasons, and think it might be thematically related somehow – it’s got a similarly tricky syncopated rhythm, though it’s not quite as frantic, having ambient overtones in places that make it a better fit for Your Sparkling Death Cometh than it might have been on Fangs! Rather than picturing an astronaut or diver venturing off into the great unknown, in this song I picture a man who can’t even leave the room, or get up or speak – he’s completely dependent on wires and machines to survive and to interact with the world around him. In that sense, he’s kind of trapped between realms, because the reality he’s being fed may well be an illusion that doesn’t resemble what’s actually going on around him. Once again I love the call-forwards to songs we haven’t heard yet on the album – there’s a guitar riff in the chorus that I’m pretty sure shows up again in an instrumental segue, and the soothing, wordless voice that appears after the long, Autotune-soaked outro reminds me of the sustained eerie ambiance in the album closer “Slow Waves”.
(from Crashings, 2004)
My favorite track from the early days of Falling Up was the one that first got me hooked on the band. Sure, “Broken Heart” made the introduction, but hearing how the band crash-coursed their way through what felt like a different genre every thirty seconds on this song absolutely blew me away. There’s electronica in the intro, the riffs and lyrical delivery are borderline nu-metal, the backing vocals have a slight “ex-boy band trying to make it as a legit rock band” ring to them, the bridge veers off into screamo territory, and at one point an acoustic guitar jumps out at us for no apparent reason. This could have been a disastrous hodgepodge, yet somehow the band pulled it all together into a cohesive, immensely entertaining package. I’m not gonna lie – for as much of a feat as this is, it’s rather obvious looking back that they weren’t yet sure what kind of band they wanted to be and whether that was the kind of band the label thought they had signed. Still, the reason this one has endured for me over the years is that I feel like I’ve understood more of it as subsequent albums come out. Just in the first verse, the lines “These tears, they build me up a house/Then they pour on down and wash the house away” appear, a reference which didn’t make much sense to me until I saw the cover image of Dawn Escapes a year and a half later. Then fast forward a decade, and the band’s final album turned out to be full of allegories about building a house and finding places to stash away your secrets and sorrows. Again I have to ask – was the band planning this all along? Probably not, but even as this early stage, I can tell Jessy was dreaming up otherworldly novels when his label was probably expecting Gospel tracts.
(from Dawn Escapes, 2005)
Falling Up’s second album Dawn Escapes (not to be confused with the liquid dish soap) isn’t one that I go back to nearly as often. Not because I dislike the sound of it, which was an attempt to jettison some of the aspects of Crashings that were quickly becoming dated and hone in more on the whole “electronic rock with zippy guitar riffs” thing. More because it feels repetitive and rushed, with several of the songs failing to stand out from one another. This ballad comes early enough in the album that it really stands out, though. It’s pretty much all piano, synth, and programmed drums – a feat of studio wizardry and a welcome change of pace from all the power chord-heavy choruses that would soon flood the album in its back half. Much of the album seemed to be concerned with escaping some sort of a flood or other natural disaster, but having to pay a price in order to make it out alive. This song got to the core of that existential crisis, as Jessy sang in one of his most compelling choruses: “Erased, everything within you will feel erased now.” Due to the unfortunate coincidence of this album coming out a mere month or two after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, this was probably going to stir up traumatic feelings for some listeners. It made me think about the physical things we hold valuable and the buildings we come to call home, and what would happen if we suddenly had to pick up and leave with only what we could gather in a few minutes or seconds, leaving everything else behind to be ravaged by the forces of nature. Is it weird that I found this soothing? The more I actually think about the lyrics, the more it seems that I should have felt the opposite.
(from Crashings, 2004)
Yes, that is the correct title. No, it’s not a typo. I realize we’re talking about a band that was superficially tagged as being in the same genre as Kutless, who had the wrong “you’re” typed in their lyric sheets with depressing regularity. But if Falling Up misspelled a song title, it was mostly some sort of a play on words. The actual word “ambiance” (which appears in the lyrics of “Broken Heart” despite not showing up anywhere in the lyrics of this song, just to make things even more confusing) has always brought to mind candlelit dinners in some expensive restaurant – basically the deliberate act of setting a romantic mood. But the term “ambient” makes me think more of simply taking note of the existing conditions – how much light there is in a room, what the local temperature is, that sort of thing. This song – which opens with one hell of a cool synth loop before diving headlong into some rapid-fire lyrics and heavy guitars later on – seems to take stock of a relationship in which several boundaries have been crossed, and now two people don’t really trust each other and can’t even really coexist in the same room. “You play hearts like instruments” is probably the most damning accusation that gets made here – a guy is basically accusing his lover of being a manipulative and all-around unhealthy presence in his life, and he can’t wait to wash his hands of the whole situation.
12. A Colour Eoptian
(from Fangs!, 2009)
I had thought for all this time that “Eoptian” was just a made-up word that was part of the larger lexicon of bizarre terms appearing throughout the titles and lyrics of Falling Up’s fourth album – much as I love this record, it’s no wonder that it sailed right over pretty much everyone’s heads. But a quick Google gives me a solitary result that seems unrelated to the song, telling me that the word appears in the 19th-century sacred text Oahspe: The New Bible (and there’s a bizarre little deep dive you can go do for yourself on Wikipedia if you’re so inclined). The word is defined thusly: “From the time man comes into being, on the earth until his race becomes extinct, is the eoptian age of the earth.” That actually makes some degree of sense, given that the primary quest Fangs! is concerned with (at least if I understand the album’s story correctly) is finding an antidote for some sort of poison that has infected the general populace by seeping into their clothes. So basically the entire population of a planet has limited time to live unless this cure can be found. This one’s a hell of an album opener – an exhilarating mix of drums taking off at breakneck speed, snarling guitars, and multi-tracked vocals in its chorus stacked so thick you could probably derail a train with ’em. The character narrating this song is dressed in armor, on the run either because he’s been exiled or because he’s been sent on a time-sensitive quest. Either way, the royal court that has sent him away seems to be about as trustworthy as a brood of hissing vipers. Plenty of intrigue to go around here, even if making any real headway with the lyrics is a bit of a daunting challenge.
(from Your Sparkling Death Cometh, 2011)
Once again… not a typo. (I can’t pretend to know the significance of leaving the “o” out of the title here, but there’s another song on this album called “Mscron”, so I have to assume this was once again deliberate.) Relatively straightforward songs of praise and devotion were hard to come by as Falling Up went deeper and deeper down their weird little rabbit hole in the 2010s, and for that reason, this refreshingly calm track on Your Sparkling Death Cometh really stood out to me. It feels cobbled together from phrases that are somewhat non-sequitur, but could be interpreted as a soul weathering extreme turbulence: “Storm turns inside me like seas in the storm drains/This is not who I am/Patterns of futures that wander away/In mysterious planes.” But then that effervescent chorus pops out: “Through the window, I can see your sunlit golden eyes/You’ve got me so tied up, oh my God!” Ultimately this one comes off as a song of gratitude from a man who has found himself in a very strange and disorienting place, far from the life he once knew, but he’s certain he’s been delivered from a much worse fate. The synths are appropriately sparkly for a song whose title references precious gemstones, and the whole song seems to come alive like a forest emerging from its winter slumber in the first mercifully warm rays of springtime.
14. Arafax Deep
(from Crashings, 2004)
While the closing track on Crashings was never a single as far as I could recall, it seemed to resonate with a lot of fans, at least according to the positive response it got the one and only time I saw them live. It’s been a very long time since the fall of 2004, but I seem to recall Jessy describing a tragic car crash that took the life of a friend as the inspiration for the song. rather than describing it in horrific terms, he seemed to come at it from the approach of wanting the victim to have a sense of peace and acceptance about their life ending. The piano and synth melodies that wrap around this one are beautiful, while the acoustic and electric guitars keep it upbeat and energetic as he passionately sings: “Show me the meaning of life/Show me the secrets to love/And I’ll crash in the rain/Your love is all I need.” Knowing in those last moments that you are cradled in love and have nothing to fear would be so empowering, so I love this imagery even if it’s describing an event that would be frightening and faith-testing for those left behind.
15. A Guide to Marine Life
(from Captiva, 2007)
Don’t construe the amount of time it took me to finally get to a selection from Captiva as a sign that I dislike the album. It was certainly hard to swallow when it first came out, since it was the strongest paradigm shift in the Falling Up sound, moving them away from the big, heavy, scratchy guitar riffs and into more electronic/experimental rock territory where the songs needed a little time to sneak up on you rather than always having immediate hooks. The puzzling, subterranean hum of the synths as this one got off to a slow start may have led a few fans to swear off the band; I know it took a few listens before this song and really most of Captiva started to sink in for me. But man, I really got into this album once I got the hang of it. The lyrics are more spaced out and abstract here, starting with a brief glimpse into a diver’s exploration of a shipwreck, but mostly being about the colors and shapes he sees floating in the sky and feels flowing through his veins, as if this experience has somehow changes his whole perception of reality. The chorus to this one is a thing of beauty and power once you get used to it. And hearing the opening lyric “Float by open windows” in a different context after “The Climb” opened with that very same lyric on Hours several years later makes me wonder, once again, if the stories being told on each of these albums were somehow meant to be connected.
16. Boone Flyer
(from Falling Up, 2015)
If Fangs! began with a character rapidly sprinting away from his doom, then the self-titled album began with characters frantically searching their house. The stage is set with flashing lights outside the window as law enforcement lurks outside a family’s home, and what I’m assuming is a child and his siblings trying to piece together what their parents might have done to either incriminate or absolve themselves, and what might evidence they might need to bury in order to keep them from being arrested. I love how this one opens with the momentary fakeout of the programmed synth loop before the main rhythm of the song kicks in, and by the time they reach the chorus, the drum fills are pouring in so relentlessly that it’ll make your head spin. Admittedly some of the self-produced tracks on Falling Up’s later album could get a bit brickwalled when the multiple layers of sound got really loud and intense. That’s probably the only reason I didn’t rank this breathtaking action sequence of a song higher. It was, and still is, an incredible rush at the beginning of the band’s final album, though, the first of many reminders that they were determined to go out at the top of their game.
17. The Dark Side of Indoor Track Meets
(from Captiva, 2007)
I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud when I saw that this was an actual song title. Just how dark can track meets actually get? Or did Jessy mean this literally, in the sense that he lost his sight while running laps or something like that? I honestly still don’t know. The song seems to have been inspired by a bizarre dream he had, where he seems to become weightless as he runs. (Achieving weightlessness inside a gymnasium… why does that idea sound familiar? Oh yeah, the Hours audiobook.) I believe this song was Falling Up’s longest at the time of its release. It certainly was a bizarre and otherworldly way to end Captiva, with its first half having a somewhat conventional arrangement full of crystalline piano chords in the intro/verses and driving electric guitar in the chorus, but what always struck me as odd was how the chorus was just one word, drawn out to ridiculous lengths: “Far”. Things get really weird in the outro, where the music goes all 80s sci-fi on us, with ghostly voices and a synth effect that sort of reminds me of a theremin. The song gradually fades away into these wispy strands of melody, as if we’re floating through a nebula at the edge of the universe.
18. On Growing Things
(from Hours, 2013)
I suppose this song could be considered a bit of a ballad on Hours, thus contradicting my earlier statement that it had none. But it really only falls into that category at the beginning, when Jessy is singing softly over syncopated piano chords, because WOW, does this song build up into a huge maelstrom of sound over its 5+ minute length. You can hear it start to pick up steam as the drum patterns begin to shift, turning from lighter taps into more forceful pounding, and instead of a soft verse/loud chorus dynamic like you might expect on a lot of this band’s songs, it really takes them until the bridge for things to reach peak intensity. That’s where they unleash a glorious guitar solo (which is not a common feature for this particular band, meaning it really stands out here), behind which some rather intense screaming can be heard. That’s quite a different place from where the song began, as if it has morphed from a hushed secret being whispered into someone’s ear, to an angry threat being shouted across the room. At this point in the story, our improbably gifted high-schoolers had discovered that they could not only trick time and gravity into bending their entire will, they could even grow entire gardens and forests in the huge underground space they’d managed to excavate between the gym, and they could get seedlings to start to grow by using their own blood to water them. (Ooh, creepy!) This song seems to lament the possibility of the adults discovering their secret world, calling off the whole experiment, and force-feeding them pills to restrain their superhuman abilities. (I don’t want to spoil it outright, but one of the themes that comes into focus later in the Hours story is how certain people have special mental and physical abilities that others fear, or view as diseases to be eradicated or medicated into oblivion. This has obvious parallels for certain aspects of human existence that we’ve short-sightedly labeled as forms of mental illness, and the more I examine Jessy’s lyrics from this album, the more I’m convinced that he might have been a victim of this sort of treatment by uneducated adults at a young age.) “On growing Things” is a thing of fragile beauty that cries out to be protected, only to be savagely attacked and nearly destroyed in the end. But then that calm piano outro emerges from the rubble, as if to reassure us that not all hope is lost.
19. Song in the Air
(from Silver City, 2013)
Yes, there’s actually a Christmas carol on this list. Silver City was a bit of a mixed bag, sort of a “just for fun” release amidst all of the intensely conceptual stuff the band was putting out at around that time. Here you can find weird, over-driven, synthetic instrumental versions of “Carol of the Bells” and “Sugar Plum Fairy” that sound like they were excavated from the B-sides of some long lost experimental 80s band, and you can find spacious, drawn-out takes on beloved Christmas carols that, while interesting, definitely aren’t going to supplant more classic arrangements of them. And then there’s this obscure carol (or at least, one that I was largely unfamiliar with before hearing this album), a simple ode to the birth of Christ and the star that shone on that first Christmas night to tell the world the good news, on which the band absolutely goes for broke with a bedazzling arrangement of attention-deficit synths and heavy guitars. The instrumental refrain that opens the song just leaps out at you like a heavenly herald, announcing the dawn of a new age in human history. My favorite part of the song is perhaps its craziest, when the long, slow fadeout begins and the synths can be heard dancing rapidly back and forth between the left and right speakers. You’ll need surround sound to get the full, disorienting effect – it’s like when an overzealous homeowner gets the idea to put their Christmas lights on a timer so that different sections are rapidly blinking on and off at rates that could potentially trigger epileptic seizures. Then the harp and piano come in during the last minute, and suddenly all is calm, all is bright.
(from Hours, 2015)
The official last word from Falling Up (at least, before they put out a few remakes of old songs and other odds and ends for the “stretch goal” contributors who went above and beyond your average donors to ensure that last album got made) was this highlight that, not so coincidentally, I’ve chosen as a good thematic note to end my list on. Once again, the way that a rolling piano melody collides with an intricate drum beat brings immense pleasure to my ears, and the band ends their final story in a haunting manner, with the children apparently now grown up, having lived to tell the tale of their harrowing escape from whatever disease or poison or government conspiracy put their parents away for good, but having to constantly look over their shoulders and double-check the shadows for enemy agents that might still be keeping tabs on them. The chorus is fast-paced and appropriately paranoid: “And they lit a fire, they are coming down there/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.” Yet despite this, the band chose to end things on a peaceful note, and as the song stretches on past the five-minute mark, the heavy guitars and intense vocals fall away, and we’re left with the almost cathedral-like echo of one final refrain sung in harmony: “Let them know/You can float/Turn around and rise up.” I’ve always been a sucker for lyrics that sound like what they’re describing, and the way that those reverberating voices seem to rise above the fray and ascend into the heavens haunts me to this day. Where I was expecting one last, huge climax, they ended things in a surprisingly reserved and tasteful manner, giving us space to mourn the band’s passing but also inspiration to never succumb to the world’s pressures to conform and threats of what might happen if we don’t conceal the unique, creative worlds our minds are capable of conjuring up. Whether it was on a boat in raging floodwaters, on a spaceship in the cold depths of the cosmos, or in a secret inter-dimensional pocket where the laws of time and space didn’t seem to apply, Falling Up continually managed to rise above the assumptions, expectations and genre tags that were placed upon them. And their best moments will continue to float through my memory, just like the outro of this song that I wish never had to end.
Picking tracks to highlight from Falling Up albums is a lot like picking favorite scenes to show someone who probably needs to watch a movie in its entirety to understand those scenes in context. Most of these chapters don’t feel quite complete without the beginnings and/or endings that surround them, but these are a few more of the moments that I’m destined to remember effortlessly, note-for-note, even when my ability to explain the overall narrative of a Falling Up album has receded far into the recesses of my mind.
Searchlights (from Dawn Escapes, 2005)
Drago or the Dragons (from Captiva, 2007)
Goddess of the Dayspring, Am I (from Fangs!, 2009)
Oceans (from Your Sparkling Death Cometh, 2011)
The Climb (from Hours, 2013)
Aeva and the Waving World (from Hours, 2013)
The Station (bonus track from Hours, 2013)
Sky Circles (from Midnight on Earthship, 2013)
The Woodworker (from Falling Up, 2015)
Rangers (from Falling Up, 2015)