By Corey Friedman
It isn’t your typical Christian rock album, but then, Five Iron Frenzy has never adhered to the Bible-bookstore formula. Roaring back from a 10-year hiatus, the iconoclastic octet isn’t about to start now.
Financed by a much-publicized Kickstarter campaign — the Denver-based band sought just $30,000, but fans pledged nearly a quarter-million — Five Iron is back with “Engine of A Million Plots,” an independent Nov. 25 release. Faith provides some buoyancy in the 12-track, 41-minute offering, but the group explores dark territory and unapologetically plants its flag there.
In “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia,” frontman and chief lyricist Reese Roper lashes out at fundamentalist anti-Muslim sentiment and the hypocrisy of warmongering conservatives. “Shut the door and save the kids,” Roper sings. “Lock and load — just like Jesus did.”
The music video for “Zen” takes place on the stage of an American history play and depicts a bearded Jesus blasting costumed Founding Fathers with a machine gun. It’s stark sarcastic imagery meant to make Christians compare contemporary church saber-rattling with the biblical Jesus’ message of peace.
In a radio-ready chorus reminiscent of “Dookie”-era Green Day, the self-described ska act flirts with pop-punk: “The United States of Amnesia/Make us numb, make it numb, anesthesia/Cut the cord, close the door, we don’t know ya/It’s the zen and the art of xenophobia.”
As a contrast to Roper’s sardonic war-whooping on “Zen,” Five Iron trombone player Dennis Culp turns the other cheek on hope anthem “I’ve Seen the Sun.” Culp’s clever lyrics are among the album’s best: “I fight tsunamis with an umbrella/I deal the left hook like a Mother Teresa/I’m facing down death like a fly on the windscreen/You bring the warheads; I’m bringing ice cream.”
In the album’s second single, “Into Your Veins,” Roper plays a shrewd pusher offering lyrics and music in place of smack, crack or pills. “I am trafficking bliss/I sell wholesale with a kiss/I am a dealer of words…”
Five Iron has grown and matured in its decade of dormancy, but give bassist and guitarist Scott Kerr some of the credit for the band’s supercharged sound. A founding FIF member, Kerr left the band when he lost his Christian faith. After rejoining the lineup, the avowed agnostic wrote or co-wrote music for 11 of the album’s 12 tracks.
Kerr’s lyrics on the closing song, “Blizzards and Bygones,” portray a seeker with lingering curiosity about the spiritual realm. His journey of faith and faithlessness lends an earnest authenticity to the album. On the first track, Roper grapples with doubt and yearns for certainty: “My only hope is that You cannot not be real.”
That song, “Against a Sea of Troubles” borrows a few phrases (and its title) from Hamlet’s famed third-act soliloquy. The lyrics paint a picture of impending death but make no reference to suicide, so perhaps imputing Prince Hamlet’s motives to Roper is stretching the literary allusion.
One thing’s for sure about the Frenzy vocalist, however: He would rather be bellowing into a mike than punching a timecard. On EOMP’s fourth cut, “We Own the Skies,” Roper waxes rueful about the band’s careerism-driven breakup: “A Trojan horse inside my chest/is screaming for the life I left/My kingdom for a steady paycheck.”
“I am a breadwinner,” he declares in the first verse. “I chose to brick these walls somehow/Beneath the city spires, I gave my shoulders to the plow/Cold and cruel the concrete/The wicked pavement chokes the sky/I chose this path/The one so often traveled by.”
Five Iron Frenzy split in 2003 so its members could pursue grownup jobs and families. Following a short-lived stint in the band Roper, which released a single album and disbanded after the tour, its namesake singer became a nurse.
EOMP showcases a more mature Five Iron, but traces of the band’s zany humor and self-deprecating wit remain. “Battle-Dancing Unicorns With Glitter” is vintage Frenzy: A call-to-arms for teenage outcasts and late bloomers with goofy lyrics set to a catchy tune. It’s the kind of song that screams to be covered on “Glee.”
Comic-book nerds will also delight in EOMP’s second cut, “So Far,” which references Superman, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America and Spider-Man. (“If gamma rays blast through my fragile outside/A hulking mass grows as my cells divide.”)
The album breaks some new sonic ground, continuing Five Iron’s progression from third-wave ska to rock with horns. Songs are shorter, averaging a little over 3 minutes and consisting mostly of two verses, a quick chorus and sometimes a bridge. Plodding power ballads are notably absent.
Perhaps EOMP’s brevity is by design. Like Roper’s metaphorical drug dealer, it’s in songwriters’ best interest to keep their customers clamoring for more.
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