Sunday, November 3, 2013

Victory begins on our knees (or "Five Iron Frenzy and the Walls of Jericho")

I've written before of Christian music, both worship and popular. I've grown up with it: I've listened to music that shaped my theology, and I've listened to music that made me want to bash my head against the pew. And one day, several years ago, I listened to Five Iron Frenzy and everything changed. 

In a few short weeks, it will be my enormous pleasure to review their first new CD in ten years, Engine of  a Million Plots. And as I've never written a music review before, I figured I should probably take some time here to hash out my feelings for FiF as a whole, before attempting to talk about one album in particular.

Because it's actually kinda hard to explain why I love FiF so much. The first album I ever listened to was the last one they ever produced (until EoaMP), and from the first song on the CD, I could tell that here, here was something strange and wonderful indeed.

There was a quality that struck me immediately, though it was hard to define. It was brash and bold, daring and defiant. Just the other day I realized that there is one word that perfectly defines it. Five Iron Frenzy is brazen, in every sense of the word, with the shameless and unmuted defiance of brass.

And this brazenness struck a chord that has never ceased reverberating. My head was already full of Chesterton at that point, and the songs of FiF have always embodied a certain passage from Chesterton's Orthodoxy:
"To the orthodox there must always be a case for revolution; for in the hearts of men God has been put under the feet of Satan. In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration. At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam."
From the theology of Cannonball and A New Hope, to the social justice of Fahrenheit, The Day We Killed, and American Kryptonite, almost every song rings with the glory and bravado of the horns that marked the end of Jericho: When horns were blown and voices raised as the ancient stronghold inexplicably crumbled. Every song is a rebellion and a revolution: Every song is fighting for a perfection that, though lost, can be found again. But undercutting the brazen tone is the acknowledgement that while victory is assured, it must begin with the victory of the cross, which often looks (and feels) an awfully lot like defeat.

And the key to the album lies in the simple fact that this victory does not come to the strong, to the wise, to those who have it all together. As On Distant Shores proclaims, "Mercy falls on the broken and the poor." Is is this mercy, this undeserved and unmerited mercy, that is the foundation and substance of Christian victory. The bridge, in particular, is haunting. You can find the song itself (complete with lyrics) here: But here's the bridge:

And off of the blocks,
I was headstrong and proud,
at the front of the line for the card-carrying highbrowed,
With both eyes fastened tight,
yet unscarred from the fight,
Running at full tilt, my sword pulled from its hilt...
It's funny how these things can slip away,
our frail deeds, the last will wave good-bye.
It's funny how the hope will bleed away,
the citadels we build and fortify. Good-Bye.
Night came and I broke my stride,
I swallowed hard, but never cried.
When grace was easy to forget,
I'd denounce the hypocrites,
casting first stones, killing my own.
You would unscale my blind eyes,
and I stood battered, but more wise,
fighting to accelerate,
shaking free from crippling weight.
With resilience unsurpassed,
I clawed my way to You at last.
And on my knees, I wept at Your feet,
I finally believed, that You still loved me.
 The victory of the Christian is not found in our own deeds (thank God!). It is not found in blind battle, in who cast the most stones: It is not found even in standing under our own power! 

That is what makes Five Iron Frenzy truly amazing. Their music illustrates the simple, foundational truth that the victory of the Christian is found on our knees, in the desperate acceptance of the mercy of God. The bold defiance of FiF and the victory of the Christian, the brazen horns and the fall of Jericho, begins and ends with an acknowledgment of insufficiency. It begins and ends with falling to the ground and asking, "What does my Lord say to his servant?"

In closing, Five Iron Frenzy is awesome. Seriously, they're the best. Go buy The End is Here, and when Engine of a Million Plots comes out, buy that too. And to sweeten the deal, I'll give you my own personal guarantee: If you don't like it...well, I'm not gonna pay for it or anything, but I will ridicule you for having such poor taste in music.


It’s finally here: Five Iron Frenzy’s first album in ten long years. And it’s…different than what I was expecting. But still awesome.
I am a long-time (life-time?) fan of Christian music, and I well remember that glorious moment, the summer in between my sophomore and junior year of college, when I realized that Five Iron Frenzy was a thing–indeed, not only a thing, but the thing, that glorious fusion of horns, guitar, and lyrics that seemed to waver, moment by moment, between exuberant victory and white-knuckled defiance. I (unknowingly) bought their last CD first, and to me every song sounded like a last stand, a Chestertonian revolution, brazen and unmuted.
Imagine my sadness when I realized that the album was, in fact, a last stand–a stand made years ago and long since over.
But like a trumpeting phoenix, they have risen from the ashes. And two weeks ago, having been forced into a  strange and unnatural sleep cycle, I awoke at 5:30 and began downloading my Kickstarter Early Access album.
My first impression (after the initial bout of excited giggling) was of an unexpectedly cold, dark world. In the weeks and days leading up to the release, FiF hinted that they “explored darker themes,” and that is certainly the case.  Winter comes, the fire dies, and frost envelopes everything. That is the world of EOMP. It opens with “Against a Sea of Troubles,” in which the singer is “adrift and lost” in a frozen world, and the fire is growing cold. Although I noted a few bright points (“So Far” is the only song that contains an unadulterated sense of Christian victory), the rest of the album seemed to confirm this condition. We work in a cold and cruel city that chokes the sky, we huddle around a dying fire, we suffer through a frost with no thaw…what if this winter lasts forever?
[Aside: There are, of course, a couple FiF constants that stand apart from this theme: Silly songs, and social commentary. “Battle Dancing Unicorns with Glitter” is, unfortunately, nothing more and nothing less than an obligatory silly song: It’s catchy enough, but it lacks the charm of “You Can’t Handle This” or “That’s How the Story Ends.” . But in the area of social commentary, FiF comes out swinging.   In “Zen and the Art of XenophobiaFiF lampoons the type of American Evangelical who gets ready to “lock and load, just like Jesus did,” while proudly proclaiming that “Jesus was American”. And in “Someone Else’s Problem”, Five Iron delivers a biting critique of our willingness to tolerate abuses and ruined lives just because we’ll never have to look at the faces of the abused. I am always tempted to skip over these songs, because they aren’t fun, they aren’t uplifting, the make me uncomfortable… and that’s the point.
For Five Iron Frenzy, there can be no disconnect between the joyful doctrine of Christian victory and the difficult doctrine of Christian duty and service. Any attempt to separate one from the other results in an incomplete faith. It is not for nothing that their hardest-hitting social commentaries come on the heels of their most joyful and upbeat reflections on the victory of Christ-in-us, making it difficult indeed to partake of one and avoid the other.
Now, back to the rest of the review.]
That first impression of cold and cruelty was correct,  so far as it went. But the more I listened to it, the more I heard the hope and defiance inherent in every single song, from the very beginning of the album. There is a hope that the singer clings to even as he longs “to only end the heartache, to shed this mortal coil”: The hope that “You cannot not be real.” 
Yes, despite the mixed faith of the band (two of the core members are now atheists), this album expresses a faith that, though beaten and battered, is undeniably Christian (in fact, one might argue that the Christian faith was meant to be beaten and battered). This faith is explored throughout the rest of the album, from “So Far”, a superhero themed meditation on Christian victory, all the way to “Blizzards and Bygones,” where winter threatens to last forever.
In “We Own the Skies,” the singer walks the cold and cruel concrete by day, having traded “my kingdom for a steady paycheck.” But by night, they huddle around the fire, “wish upon the fading light” and proclaim “Tonight, we own the skies,” with the characteristic brazenness of trumpets and voice lending the whole song an incredible sense of defiance and courage. And in his dedication of the album, Reese puts a biblical spin on it, referencing Ephesians 2 & 6:12.
“I’ve Seen the Sun” takes that sense of defiance and courage to another level, and again it is firmly rooted in a Christian worldview. The night is dark and cold, the water is rising, the singer is fighting what feels like a doomed battle…but he has seen the Sun come down, and he holds to its return. And we should expect nothing less from the world: after all, “the Savior says don’t be surprised / Everything’s gonna be alright.”
It feels like the last song, a fitting way to end an album that has revolved around the difficulties of staying afloat in the world.
And then comes “Blizzards and Bygones,” which does its level best to eradicate every last memory of the Sun. The cold is in your bones, the fire is faint, and and all that’s left is “a flicker of desire and a memory of youth.” There is no thaw, only a winter that will not end. It ends with a simple unanswered question: “Can you stand the weather if winter lasts forever?”
That is the question the entire album ends with. What do you do when even the memory of light fades, when the fire has died and the ice is thick? What do you do when the winter seems to go on forever?
If your only hope is that God cannot not be real, is that enough to soldier on, to light the fire again and again, to keep it burning and to keep the darkness at bay? Is “Blizzards” only an episode, only a stage of life? Does it fit into the reality described in “Against a Sea of Troubles”, “We Own the Skies”, or “I’ve Seen the Sun”? Or is this unending winter the true reality, the final death of all hope?
This album reminds me of Psalm 22, and of the book of Job, minus the vindication at the end. Ultimately, I think Five Iron Frenzy is emphasizing that there are no easy answers. As Christians, we anticipate the vindication of our faith, the fulfillment of our hopes… but in the meantime, we must endure a winter that doesn’t seem to end. We must fight to keep the fire lit, and we must light it again and again.
Although “Blizzards and Bygones” comes last, I think it would be absolutely wrong to name it as the final reality. FiF has already answered the questions “Blizzards” raises, as much as they can be answered. When the cold closes in, when the fire flickers, “We burn the wintry frost of night / Tonight, we wish upon the fading light / Tonight, our burning hearts will rise / Tonight we own the skies.” In short, we continue the fight and wait for better things. It is not always easy: For every celebration of “so far, there’s nothing that you and I can’t do,” there’s another instance of unending winter, of cold that enters into your bones and refuses to leave. But the fight is still worth fighting, and the sun will return.
If you like ska, you should buy this album. If you don’t like ska, then you have no musical taste and you should still buy this album: It will probably help.