IN 2007, AS Cities Burn were the best band in Christian music that you had never heard of. Most of that year’s accolades went to candidates whose work I’ve forgotten completely, but Come Now Sleep—the sophomore effort that almost didn’t happen in the first place—has remained a personal favorite: a strained, stripped-down indie rock outift that walked the line between prog and punk. At times derivative of Starflyer 59, Radiohead and even Underoath, the album was no less moving, and you’ve got to admire the balls of a Christian songwriter willing to write “if there’s a god, then he must be asleep” in the first track, then tackle everything from suicide to sexuality and drug abuse without giving it a candy-coating first. Hell or High Water continues that trend of forward thinking, and while its poetry may not inspire the same potential controversy as its predecessor, it’s no less ambitious on other fronts.
After opening with a standard percussion count-off, “’84 Sheepdog” meanders in a drunken stupor, offset by coughing shrieks and a dynamic bassline. Just over a minute into the steadily rising chaos, the momentum stops for a melodic reprieve—a brief, tinny vocal line and distant atmospherics—before launching back into the call-and-response war of volume between distortion and Cody Bonnette’s plea for attention: “They fixed your brain when you were young, they fixed your brain, they fixed it before you knew the difference.” Guitars stagger up and down a musical staircase without ever reaching stability. Minor-chord melodies that seem uncomfortably bold in their dissonance begin to pull together, but the composition dies before getting familiar or appealing.
“Errand Rum” finds the band borrowing a page, surprisingly, from Sigur Rós’Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, climaxing with a firm pulse, a simple flurry of trumpets, and nonsense humming. With Sigur Rós, the idea is given a certain degree of playfulness as, perhaps, a makeshift parade full of amateur musicians (see “Gobbledigook” and “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur”), but here it plays like a gaggle of drunks at last call, so that what could’ve been a bright spot in the band’s surprisingly bleak tone seems all the more cynical in contrast with its inspiration.
“Into the Sea” maintains the sporadic, glib, sardonic tone, but it’s the first track with an accessible structure. Note the tight running time of these opening punches, a steady stream of ideas, some instantly swallowed, others dodging efficient categorization. Come Now Sleep dawdled a bit too often, starting and stopping at unnecessary junctions, and making that album work best when you considered the parts, rather than their sum. The frequent appearance of Radiohead-esque background noise—best utilized in “Wrong Body” but nothing short of damn irritating on “Our World is Grey” and “Timothy”—has been toned down on Hell or High Water.
“Lady Blue” is given all the rhythm and energy of a spiritual, perhaps a bit too lengthy, but sporting the strongest melody of the album’s first half. The prize for lyricism goes to “Made Too Pretty,” which confronts humanism from a spiritual worldview without coming off overbearing, self-righteous, or petty. Speaking of “Petty,” that track boasts some of the best musicianship of the album, accenting an earthy melody with blues guitar and light piano. It’s the furthest stylistic departure from As Cities Burn’s founding genre—metalcore—and it doesn’t compromise its deviation with a heavy climax (a la Underoath’s “Too Bright to See, Too Loud to Hear”), electing instead of drift off softly.
“Daughter” thrives with all the fiery conviction of a gospel convention staple, and sporting lines like “Before you, your mom and dad used to smoke in the Texas sun, they were young once, too.” Building to a country fervor, it’s As Cities Burn by way of Joshua Tree-era U2, slightly heavier, but cut from the same spiritual cloth. “Pirate Blues,” an 80s dance floor throwback, is by turns sparse and flamboyant. The lyrics aren’t on par with previous tracks, but it’s hard to notice with the refrain hits. Listening, it’s easy for this reviewer to remember why the post-punk revival was so appealing in the first place.
Equal parts bold, broken, angry, and insightful, As Cities Burn’s third outing is an easy album to admire if not a candidate for love at first sight. It could be argued that its ideas—here a grunge breakdown, there a blues riff—are too sporadic to be brought together with much unity, but for all their meandering, the band succeeds in giving the discerning listener an album to wrestle with, and makes brash promises for a future that we almost believe they can deliver.
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