The Fire Tonight – How Could Anyone Do This?!

coverSo this will be a slightly different album to review since I simultaneously know nothing about the band, yet I know one of the guys in the band. The Fire Tonight hail from around that North East section of America somewhere; Washington, Virgina, Maryland, North Carolina? I don’t know, somewhere there, either way, it’s not Idaho; and How Could Anyone Do This?! is their second full length album. I got to know drummer Stephen Russ through the online community for the band Live, (who I plan on talking a little more about soon). I’d heard him talk here and there for a few years about Live in a more technical way. Speaking of their recording and production efforts, and especially giving some insight on the drumming; I knew this all stemmed from Stephen being in the industry and was basically talking shop; but I’d never actually heard any of his own stuff until now. Sometimes you get a little worried when someone you know says they’re in a band or making music because we’ve all been there where you finally get to hear what they’ve been talking about and are so proud of and often you have to say through gritted teeth “It’s …. good” before jumping out the window to your gruesome messy death, which is often preferable to listening to one more song. I can honestly say about How Could Anyone Do This?!, with teeth firmly apart – it’s great!

The album is a genre hopper, which can make or break an album. Too often when a band attempts an album which tries to cover multiple genres , it can feel disjointed and like certain songs don’t belong together; almost like the album is a mix tape as opposed to a complete set. The Fire Tonight completely avoid this and have managed to produce an extremely varied and interesting collection of songs which all feel like they belong exactly where they should be. There is a central theme though which the album cover gives away – classic video games. The album cover is fantastic, it makes you remember all those wonderful point-and-click games from the late 80s/early 90s such as Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle. The artwork which transforms the band’s principle 3 members (Collin Derrick, Stephen Russ and Jesse James) on the front cover into Cyborg video game versions of themselves is charming and unique. The album itself features many more than just these 3 gentlemen, however. The album is the product of a huge team effort with people being called in from all over the shop to add their expertise; including Brandon GilliArd, who plays bass for Janelle Monae. So you know if they’re getting world class musicians of that calibre in who want to work with them, then the band is worth it and an undiscovered gem.

How Could Anyone Do This?! begins with the slow builder, Grip. This song kind of suckers you in; at first there is a looping soundbite of someone talking about the band and some almost shoe gazing, chill guitar, and a little vocals, but 2 minutes go by and nothing really happens, it drags on for a little bit and you begin to wonder where it’s going. But then the drums begin and the build starts and you’re thinking “ok, this is going somewhere”, when at about 3 minutes in it’s almost as if the song has a seizure; it’s stop-start, a sprinkle of trumpet, disjointed guitar .. it sounds almost like a bunch of kids with instruments who have no idea what they’re doing, yet somehow what they’re doing sounds interesting. The final 2 minutes of the song rock out a little like early Mr Bungle , which to me hits all the right buttons, so we’re away! Freedom is probably my favourite track on the album; its beginning is pure 80s video game with synth keys and vocals. I’m instantly thinking of a 2d platformer as the song rolls through the first verse. The chorus is impressive with Derrick’s vocals dueling with female guest vocalist Darby Wilcox, who at times sounds somewhere like a cross between Florence + The Machine and Norah Jones. After the chorus there is another video game nod where it feels like the song gets a ‘power up’ coin and the drumming kick starts us into the second verse which brings gorgeous a piano-keyboard in and the song flows into a more organic/less synth sounding pop-rocker. The keyboard is just magnificent and GilliArd makes his bass speak, it has personality. The final 3rd of the song is where it really opens up, the drums are explosive and the backing vocals suddenly make it sound like something from The Black Keys. Brilliant pop song.

Crash Metal brings us down south, muffled vocals begin with the southern twang of a guitar and banjo; it’s moody and dark and what I love most of all is that like the previous 2 songs it evokes mental imagery. Sometimes music can just take you elsewhere and this album really achieves that. This one  is rocking chairs on front porches, dark skies as a summer storm rolls in; yet just when you think you’re in the deep south, at about the half way point of the song the music stops for some whistling to begin. The second half of the song is like you’ve packed up and moved from the deep south to way out west, as there is just a touch of Morricone’s spaghetti western to the track. The outro with impressive backing vocals is a little demonic, almost cult-like … it’s just pure atmosphere. The next track, Sugar, couldn’t sound more different from the previous track if it tried. Tova Rinah provides some lady-vocals and this is a glitchy hip hop sound which features some really impressive rapping by YabOy!G. This track really reminds me of something from Bran Van 3000, maybe off their album Glee – hip hop from Montreal. The fact these 2 songs can go back to back and not seem out of place next to each other really makes me think these guys have got something; it’s almost Ween-esque that a band could follow something like bluegrass with reggae and make it sound right.

Elsewhere on the album, Modal Jam is a pretty straight up rock track and feels a little more reminiscent of some of the bands early work from what I have gone back to listen to. Lover, is an all accapella track which sounds like it could be sung at a funeral in a church somewhere down in Alabama. Hide It is a great rock track featuring some beat boxing and some fancy guitar work, this is the best rocker on the album which really powers along and you just can’t help but get into as you listen.
Facepunch is a brilliant instrumental crazy jazz-rock song. The sax on this track is masterful, the drumming is tight as hell. Musically, this is probably the most impressive track on the album. The keyboards once again are just sublime and it really goes back to evoking those mental images. This is pure film noire. It’s black and white; LA Confidential, Dick Tracy, Sin City, or to keep with the video game or comic book theme, it’s Max Payne. I can easily picture myself waiting under the street light on the corner. I look at my watch, it’s 1:20am; Marv is 20 minutes late, but that’s nothing new, Marv has never been known for his punctuality; but as the seconds tick by, I’m sweating bullets. It’s dark, and cold, real cold; cold like the way your lover only speaks to you through a lawyer. I wish I didn’t have that second glass of gin before I left, but them’s the breaks, so I light up. As I scan the street, all I see are thugs, hoodlums, thieves, they took my life and drove it into this bottle. A siren passes down Broadway, I lean back and think about my school sweetheart, Thelma, I thought about her a lot these days … wait sorry, I got caught up there! But that is where this song takes me. It’s sleazy late night jazz with seriously impressive musicianship.

There are a couple of tracks I do struggle with a little on the album, In The Plan and Sunderland, I find both a little dull. Derrick doesn’t have the strongest or most dynamic voice in the world; I feel like he needs the strength of the band to really rally behind and it elevates him, and on these two tracks I guess I found them musically a little bit of a let down after having going through so much awesomeness beforehand. I find they sort of meander along a little even if the subject matter of the tracks is quite interesting; the minimalist music on In The Plan coupled with the vocals does make me want to press skip to find a track with more going on. It almost brings me back to the opening track, where just as you begin to wonder if the song is going somewhere it kicks into gear. However, unlike the opening tracks I find these songs don’t really have that pay-off at the end. But this is a small complaint in the overall. There is always a fly in the ointment and very little can be perfect.
Comfort/Chaos is the closing track and it instantly makes me forget about the previous two tracks which I didn’t dig so much. Derrick almost sounds a little bit like Muse’s Matt Bellamy here but without having to take a deep breath before every line like Bellamy does; which leaves Bellamy sounding like an asthmatic with poor vocal control. The whole track is almost as if The Beatles met Mr Bungle, its wonderfully kooky and there is a hint of doo-wop in the  backing vocals. It sounds like the song could have been recorded on the merry-go-round at a carnival. It’s repeated message of “comfort in the chaos” is actually a great motto for the album in a whole. The album is chaotic in it’s genre hopping, yet there is something comforting and homely about it, it doesn’t alienate the listener.

Overall, I’m extremely impressed with this release. There is so much going on in this album that repeated listens constantly bring something new. It is definitely a grower, I think it would be difficult to listen to the album as a whole at first and absolutely love it; it draws you in with sounding varied and interesting and you appreciate the musicianship, but it doesn’t instantly grab you or leave you feeling like you can’t get it out of your head after the first listen. However, like so many great albums – that is often a good thing if you don’t fall in love with it straight away. So many of my favourite albums took awhile to grow on me and I’d get into them song by song until I knew every single sound on the album off by heart. How Could Anyone Do This?! is a really mature and confident sounding record for a band that hasn’t been together all that long in the grand scheme of things. Their obvious creativity has me excited to see where they’ll take future releases because if this is anything to go by, then no genre is really out of the question and their musicianship is of such a high standard that I’d have confidence that they really could tackle any genre and make it sound like it’s what they have done their whole lives. They are a country bluegrass band, no, they are a hip hop-jazz-funk group, no, they are a rock-metal band. I’d love to hear them try and go a little offshore in the future – bring in some singers who sing in different languages and tackle their own take on more ethnic based tracks – get the sitar in, use the Irish tin whistle, break out the french accordion or zydeco washboard etc…

The album can be streamed and bought here – http://thefiretonight.bandcamp.com/

Here is a clip of their track, Freedom.

 

Edit post script: I have been informed that Sunderland is actually one of, if not the most popular song on this album from the die hard fans. With that endorsement, I think it’s only fair that I give the track another shot! I must point out though that I don’t really think any track on this album is a ‘bad’ track, just a couple weaker than others. I actually think one of this album’s weaknesses is also it’s strength – it sets it’s own bar quite high really early on and challenges later songs to live up to that.

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One Response to “The Fire Tonight – How Could Anyone Do This?!”

  1. Great review! I’ve also found this album to be a gem, one that holds up to repeated listening & gets richer as it becomes more familiar.

    Freedom is my favorite track at the moment, but that changes by the week, I think. lol

    I’m a diehard fan of “Sunderland” – I first heard it in the early stages of writing when the song sounded a lot different than it does now. Enjoy the progressive nature of the piece, a weird journey through the mind of a man who’s going insane. If you want a fun contrast, listen to the original version from the band’s album No One Is Fine … back then, the band was a 4-piece, so I’m truly impressed that the band was able to transform the instrumentation into bass + piano + drums without feeling like we’ve really lost something by not having the lead guitar.

    But I’m pretty sure I’m biased. 😉

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