Shaking and Straining – Of Circumstances and Art

My favorite band of all time is Five Iron Frenzy, a little known third wave ska band of the mid ’90s and early ’00s. I was introduced to the band when I was eleven or twelve and just starting to form my own tastes in music and it was also the first band I won a convert for, introducing a fellow Boy Scout named James to their music a few years later. When the band went into retirement in 2003 it was the end of an era of my life. I still have all their albums save their first, and listen to them on a semi regular basis. Thanks to poor messaging I missed the opportunity to back the Kickstarter for FIF’s first reunion album, Engine of a Million Plots. But I did catch the campaign for their latest album, Until This Shakes Apart.

The contrasts are quiet interesting. Where Million Plots is one of the strongest albums in FIF’s discography, Until This Shakes Apart is… not.

The music of Five Iron Frenzy evolved a lot during their roughly decade long absence from the scene. It became a bit more melancholy, a bit less recklessly optimistic. That’s understandable, given the changes in outlook age can bring, but even with the change in tone Million Plots featured the same irrepressible energy I’ve always associated with the band and added a kind of seasoned wisdom to them that was pleasing and wholesome. Lyrically outside of the disappointing “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia” the band’s songs kept focused on the kind of big picture storytelling I’ve always associated the band with. The songs are about the human condition, how it leads us astray, and, to a lesser extent, how we escape our worse natures and strive for our better.

Engine of a Million Plots plays much like a story. Many of the tracks roll into one another and tell us about the dangers of hubris and blind escapism, while reminding us that holding out for the good things does eventually pay the biggest dividends, even if it isn’t always fun.

Shakes Apart is much more focused in the here and now. The music is almost lethargic, it feels like a slog to listen to sometimes. The lyrics are also very based in the present moment. Where Million Plots talks about the timeless parts of the human condition, Until This Shakes Apart is focused on the unique circumstances surrounding its creation. There’s a place for that in art, no doubt. But that place was rarely the music of Five Iron Frenzy.

It’s true, tracks like “Giants”, “Goodbye, Goodnight” and “The Untimely Death of Brad” had points that ring true even now, some twenty years after originally written, but even those, while based on immediate events, drew out timeless truths about the human experience. On the other hand, tracks from Shakes Apart like “In Through the Out Door”, “Lonesome for Her Heroes”, “Renegades”, “Tyrannis” and “While Supplies Last” share the dull, unpleasant, scolding tone of “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia”, displaying a disdain and lack of empathy for their targets that is ugly and frankly laughable. Granted, third wave ska was heavily influence by punk, a truly dreary, scolding, self important genre of music, but for the most part FIF had avoided punk’s worst tendencies until now.

Shakes Apart does manage to hit some highs, with “So We Sing” bringing a little of FIFs old optimism back and “Auld Lanxiety” is a very potent reminder of the power of music to bring comfort. “Homelessly Devoted to You” is a wonderful, sweet love song and “One Heart Hypnosis” lampoons our addictions to social media brilliantly. “Like Something I Missed” and “Huerfano” are wonderful, fun tracks to listen to. But all told, that leaves about half the album below par and much of that steeped in a very offputting shroud of self-righteous lecturing.

Most notably, the silly, irreverent, purely humorous songs that were Five Iron’s strongest brand for decades are entirely absent from this disk. Even Million Plots had “Battle Dancing Unicorns with Glitter.” Perhaps over the years something has been lost.

And perhaps it was merely circumstance. Million Plots was written and released during the Obama administration, when many of the social and political goals FIF advocated for were coming to fruition. Shakes Apart was primarily written during the Trump administration, a dark time for the self styled progressives that fill the bands ranks. It was disappointing and trying for those progressives I know in my personal life, even though I found little changed for me personally from the administrations of 44 and 45. It wasn’t uncommon for them to become bitter, preachy and caustic. Most art became that way as well. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Five Iron was caught in the flow.

Perhaps they can turn things around with their next album, if one arrives. We’ll have to wait and see. Still, it was an interesting outcome, and I felt strongly enough about it to add this review to my scheduled essays. I hope you got something out of this. See you next week.

Cool Things: The Protomen

Time for something a little different! The Protomen are an indie band that produces rock operas (and occasional covers of Queen). Now even if you don’t like opera and Queen isn’t your thing, the Protomen have a lot to offer you.

You see, the primary focus of The Protomen is Mega Man. Yeah, the video game character. Okay, that’s not entirely true. The primary inspiration for The Protomen is Mega Man.

For those not familiar with the general gist of the Mega Man storylines (yes there are more than one) they’re about a plucky blue robot and his epic battles with the mad scientist Dr. Wiley. A number of characters, including Dr. Light, Mega Man’s creator, and Proto Man, an earlier model of Mega Man and the source of the band’s name, are featured.

Most Mega Man stories revolve around Dr. Wiley, a former associate of Dr. Light, building a number of powerful and intelligent robots, providing them with armies of much less intelligent but still dangerous robots, and tasking them with taking over the earth. Mega Man foils these plots by defeating Dr. Wiley’s robot masters and exploiting the similarities in their construction to turn their own weapon systems on their creator.

This kind of stuff is now fairly standard video game fare, but fortunately the Protomen don’t dwell on that part of the Mega Man franchise.

The Protomen are two albums into a three album story cycle. The first album, titled “The Protomen” but perhaps more accurately thought of as Hope Rides Alone, introduces us to a dark, dystopian world ruled by Dr. Wiley and his armies of evil robots. Here, The Protomen introduce us to many of their major themes.

And it’s in their choice of themes that they really set themselves apart. They mull over what heroism really means, to what extent we must take responsibility for the evils we see and act. And it reminds, in Mega Man’s own words, “hope rides alone” and often, doing the right thing means standing alone.

In “Act Two: The Father of Death”, The Protomen take us back in time to meet the young Drs. Light and Wiley, and introduce themes like discerning use of technology and the value of work in a mechanized society. They also give one the feeling that one of the two doctors at the center of their story isn’t entirely sane. Here’s a hint: It’s not Wiley.

It’s true that on occasion The Protomen can border on the melodramatic. But that’s not often, and hey, it’s opera, right? They’re entitled to be a little melodramatic.

If you want to hear what they sound like, here’s a link to their preview track from The Father of Death.