There is much that is good and convenient about MP3 players, but I was hesitant to get one for several years. This is mainly because the onset of music downloads and iPods that hold 16,000 songs seems to have led to a depreciation of music. I have noticed that when I download something off of a subscription site like emusic, I am less likely to really listen to it, absorb it, and give it the time to sink in. It becomes something to be consumed and forgotten. That’s a little less true about when I buy something off of iTunes, but it still happens.
It’s when I purchase an actual physical CD, shelling out the $10 or so that it costs, that I tend to actually take the time to listen. But that’s rare these days. What all this is leading to, I fear, is the death of the album–the death of full and complete records, discs that are excellent from beginning to end and make a thematic or cohesive whole. Instead, most bands put out an album that has a few great singles, a couple of other strong songs, maybe a little experimenting, and a handful of throwaway tracks that could have been more fully developed.
The album is dying. But it is not dead. About five weeks ago, I received my copy of House of Heroes’ new album, “The End is Not the End.” This is their 2nd album of all new material (they had a demo EP, an eponymous record on Gotee, and a rerelease-with-new-tracks-and-a-new-name on Mono Vs. Stereo). It’s been a three year wait. And they knock it out of the park. This is my vote for the best album of 2008, and the first cohesive album to really get under my skin since Mute Math’s self-titled record and Sufjan Stevens’ “Come on Feel the Illinoise”.
I’m bad at describing what music sounds like, but I’ll give it a shot: this is a rock record. I guess it’s technically an indie rock record. (In fact, you can only download it on iTunes or order a physical copy on zambooie.com. An actual release to stores is coming in early 2009. But get it now. And order a real copy.)
If I were to try the “who do they sound like” game, I’d say…I don’t know…the Foo Fighters? But there’s a great deal of musical versatility here. One or two songs are straight up rock tunes, with a traditional verse-chorus-bridge format and only four chords. Others shift all over the place, changing time signatures, keys, dynamics, and vocal styles (from falsetto to 50s harmonies to rock bravado) in the course of three or four minutes. There is, musically, aggression, beauty, emotion, worship, and even bits of humor. And it often just, you know, rocks. (Ooh…italics.)
But what makes this record stand out is that all of these fifteen songs are linked thematically, and the way the lyrics play off of the emotion of the music and unite the album is just brilliant. The theme is war. Most of the songs are ostensibly told from the point of view of a soldier in World War II, but it is a short step to find parallels to both our current war and even the spiritual war we face every day.
When you look at the collection of songs as a whole, many facets of living in war are covered. Devotion to family (“By Your Side”). The morality of a man of faith being willing to kill, and what it does to his relationship with God. (“The Valley of the Dying Sun”–which has an absolutely amazing video–and “Code Name: Raven.”) Acceptance of the probability of death. (“Journey Into Space Part One”). Post-war guilt over the killing of the enemy. (“Voices.”) Honor. Mercy. Love. Romance during wartime. There’s even a song about falling in love with a Communist. And each of these tracks, I think, brilliantly explore these themes, which are then wrapped up in the final song. (Well, final song not counting the bonus song, which is remarkable in that it’s an actual song, and not a short, undeveloped idea or a recording of the band joking around, like most bonus tracks.) And what a final song…
You need to buy this record. It has gotten under my skin, inspired me, moved me, and even nearly brought me to tears. Let me highlight some of my favorites, in the order they appear on the album.
Track 2: “If”–Not the deepest or most powerful song, but a catchy beginning after the string opening.
Track 3: “Lose Control”–love the bridge on this song.
5: “Dangerous”–a great chorus about the risk of love.
6. “In the Valley of the Dying Sun”–this song starts the run of brilliance. Using the war theme, it reads as a a song about a man wrestling with what he has to do during war. “I’m thinking of you when I kill a good man to keep myself from being killed by him.” He wrestles with what to do, and the conclusion climaxes with the mantra “I’m living to shine on!” repeated several times. A solid read of the lyrics, though, shows that most of the song could also be from the point of view of Jacob in the Bible, preparing to face Esau. Another great thing about this song is its defiance of traditional song structure…it appears to go verse, chorus-that-sounds-like-a-pre-chorus, verse, slightly-new-wording-of-chorus, fast bridge, weird staccato haunting bridge, big slow down, yet another bridge leading back into what sounds like it might be the chorus but instead morphing into the finale, and finale.
7. Code Name: Raven–the brilliance continues with one of my three favorite songs on here. So much goes on in this song, musically and lyrically. I’m just going to give you samples: “And I don’t hate my enemy. I hate the cloud he’s brought over my land. There’s no virtue in killing a man, neither is there virtue in being afraid to stand.” And in the chorus: “You’re the only reason I stay in this coward’s melee–I’d rather die than live without mercy and love.” Some of the brilliance of this song is how the lyrics read one way, but the vocal interpretation twists the meaning. There are a couple of places, but the most noticeable is the final line: “I’m on your side until my body drains of blood…” which reads as a bold pledge of fidelity but sings as a statement of deep regret. Man, I love this song.
8. By Your Side–beautiful acoustic song, the only moment of respite musically, though emotionally I always want to cry when I hear this.
9. Journey Into Space (Part One)–this chorus makes me want to pump my fist in the air, and only today that I realized that it was about how the soldier’s relationship with God gives him confidence to face death at the hands of the enemy. And he’s telling this to his loved one. “Should they murder, we will live again in the clouds that cover the sun…”
11. Baby’s a Red–this song is just fun. That’s all I have to say.
13. Faces–I don’t fully get this song. It has something to do with the narrator’s tendency to fall in love a lot, perhaps with the idea of love, but how that never seems to pan out. Love the “Shot down, shot down” chorus though.
14. Voices–the aforementioned song about hearing at night the voices of those killed by the soldier in battle. The soldier looks to God, wondering how, if God can hear those voices as well, He could possibly show any mercy. A haunting song then morphs into a sample of some preacher talking about the sin of unbelief, essentially rebuking the soldier for doubting the mercy of God. Haunting, haunting, haunting.
15. Field of Daggers–Man, oh man, this closing song just pushes this thing over the edge, from mere greatness to masterpiece. Seriously, I had to stop mowing our lawn yesterday to jump around our backyard when this came on. The soldier looks at those he has lost in war, wondering if it will ever be made right. And then: “I see a new day coming–maybe tomorrow. Woe to the king of nothing. I see a clean blood flowing, brothers of sorrow. Here is your kingdom coming.” Woe to the king of nothing is right. Because a new day is coming. The song concludes with these lines: “He was and is, He is and is to come. He holds the keys…” and then goes into one of the best false endings I’ve ever heard in a song–it slows down, you think the songs over, and then it kicks in fast and heavy, only to end straight into the strings you heard at the beginning. This song inspires me, turns my heart to heaven, and is just perfect in every way.
And that’s followed by a minute of silence and a pretty amazing bonus track.
Two things: 1. I am not saying that this groundbreaking Radiohead-style experimental music, something you’ve never heard before. You have heard this kind of music before. But it hasn’t been done this well, or with this much variation and creativity, in a long time.
2. You have to give it awhile. It’s one of those records where the first listen might be enjoyable but not particularly impressive. Give it five or six listens. Then you won’t be able to stop playing it.
House of Heroes. The End is Not the End. Thank you, boys, for making not just a collection of songs, but a true work of art. I hope to see you play this live, and I hope this disc makes it into a lot of hands. Thank you for being vessels.