Further Seems Forever - Penny Black
Release Date: October 23, 2012
Record Label: Rise
They're back. 11 years after the release of the iconic and massively influential The Moon is Down, Further Seems Forever has reunited with original members including the since-graduated to Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba. To say Penny Black is one of the year's most anticipated albums would be an understatement, as Further Seems Forever is one of the more influential bands of the 2000s and this website in particular, especially The Moon is Down and 2003's How to Start a Fire. All of the band's best qualities are still there, creative drumming to go along with soaring vocals. But a lot has changed over the years.
One thing that hasn't changed is Chris Carrabba's voice, spectacular as ever. His voice was meant for the range Further Seems Forever allows. Dynamic, powerful, fragile. "So Cold" is a radio-friendly opener to the record, leaving the more scatter-brained The Moon is Down a distant memory. It's a welcome re-introduction into the band, even if it sounds a bit more like Hide Nothing stylistically. Chris's voice is immediately chill-inducing, and those chills quickly return in the incredible "Rescue Trained" chorus, where he screams out "I know where we go from here, but we cannot stay forever" with incredible vigor and emotion. "Way Down" follows as the album's most catchy track with a fantastically memorable chorus wrapped in another radio-friendly format. After three tracks, the band appears to have successfully achieved a return to form.
Penny Black starts to rise and fall soon after. "King's Canyon" is a solid mid-tempo number, "Staring Down the Sun" is a mismatched song with a great chorus and an unfitting verse, as seems to be a pattern. "System of Symmetry" is an electronic-backed ballad that is quite good on its own, but feels slightly miscast. Momentum is regained with driving numbers "Penny Black" and "Engines." "Rusted Machines" is yet another mismatched song, as the bouncing, chugging stop/start two minute intro with buried vocals lasts entirely too long, only to lead into to the best moment of the record - a brilliant outro with exceptional harmonies sung simply over and over. This pattern repeats itself all over Penny Black, fantastic memories that alone make the album stand tall. Further Seems Forever used to be a band that embedded incredible depth in the verses, intros, bridges - little quirks in song design that you noticed after dozens of listens. It gave their previous records incredible lasting value. Today's version of Further Seems Forever is notably different, as the verses are less remarkable and most of the best moments lie in the choruses. Emotional, sweeping choruses pepper this record, and you'll find yourself singing these high points over and over again. That's what keeps me coming back to this version of Further Seems Forever, the peaks. It's incredible to think of how good they could be if the production didn't bog them down so much.
The production is my biggest criticism of Penny Black, and there's no way to sugar coat it. The entire album sounds like a 96kbs stream, something from the MP3.com era, or maybe an unmastered version that came from Limewire. I had to compare versions of my album to a physical copy to make sure there wasn't something wrong with my digital download. The album sounds like there is a hiss and crackle at all times, the drums sound oddly hollow and vacant. Steve's quirky drumming style has long been a defining characteristic of Futher Seems Forever, and it's an injustice to see it buried. The whole album is over-compressed and lacks any sort of punch, it's hard to pick out individual parts. Crank this one up and it sounds like your speakers are about to blow. Certain songs sound like they are at lower volume than others ("Rescue Trained"), and Chris's voice is often muddled and buried. It's an incredible disappointment and distraction with Penny Black. Somebody call James Paul Wisner and have him fix this. Fortunately, the talent of the band and the exceptional vocals are enough to shine through and have great impact. You can't help but wonder how good it could have been.
Despite issues with the production/mix, Penny Black is still a very good album with many spectacular moments. Even though the band is still working out some kinks determining their new sound and direction 11 years later, they have managed to deliver an excellent return to the scene. Don't let the problems with production deter you from picking up one of the better records of the year. Here's hoping that there is even more to come from this iconic band.
I would've scored the production a little higher in this review but understand that the category also encompasses the mixdown. The only two complaints I have about this record are that one, "Stem The Loss" sounds way too much like Bush to me. Good thing Janie totally redeems and ends the album on a great note. The second is that I have NO IDEA what the lyrics "Only a stone from King's Canyon..." mean and Chris sings it over and over again on track 4. For me, it makes it really hard to relate to the song. If you get a chance to do an interview with these guys, please ask the inspiration behind that line and don't let them give you a Jason Vena answer of "the lyrics are what you make of them." Regardless, 10 / 12 solid songs is why I listen all the way through the record at least 3 times a week. Great review, Scott!
Not one to comment ever on this site...read your review and have to agree 100 percent...the production quality was a huge bummer for me, and truthfully made me have to stop listening to it as often. Hopefully they get it re-mixed re-mastered, i would 100 percent buy it again.
Album is kind of a let down for me. I love "So Cold," "Rescue Trained," and "Janie." However, aside from "Engines" and "Penny Black," I've found the rest of the record to be pretty forgettable, unfortunately.
I agree with pretty much everything in this review... the production's pretty rough, Carrabba sounds awesome, the end of "Rusted Machines" is the highlight of the record for me. But I was also pretty disappointed in the lyrics... so much repetition.
I love this record ... will definitely make my top 10.
I can understand the production issues, but production is never really that important with me considering I listen to a lot of under produced 80's punk rock. As for lyric repetition, I don't understand that ... to me that's people trying to hard to find an issue with a song, instead of enjoying the song for what it is.
I pretty much agree with everything. Song quality is good, but to me it's not as good as 'The Moon is Down'. And yes, the production sucks. It sounds really lo-fi to me, like they burned all the albums at 96kbps. I don't know. To me, if the quality was better, it would make the listening experience much, much better. Chris' vocals are top notch, though. I honestly think his voice has gotten much better over the years and he nailed it this time around.
PS. I wrote this before reading the review. Interesting that we both talked about crappy bit rate.