The Felix Culpa - Sever Your Roots
Record Label: Self-released
Release Date: January 23, 2010
Sometimes I sit back and try to imagine how cool it must be to be in a band. I'm quickly snapped back from reverie by the realization that I actually get paid pretty well to sit in my cubicle, fool around with some spreadsheets, listen to music (like this rad new Felix Culpa album), get high off Magic Markers and attempt to write reviews. It's a good life not being a starving musician. It's nice not to have to worry about whose couch I'm going to crash on tonight (although this quandary does arise on the occasional random Saturday night) or where the money's going to come from to fill up the van to make it to the next gig. Admittedly, it would be quite a feeling to say that I was involved in the creation of a record like Sever Your Roots, but the satisfaction of just kicking back and enjoying the fruits of The Felix Culpa's labor will more than suffice.
Sever Your Roots is The Felix Culpa's first full-length since their sprawling 2004 album Commitment, so it's been quite a wait for longtime fans. Still, the release seems perfectly timed. Commitment was a stellar record, but Sever Your Roots has that "no one is making music like this anymore" impact. I don't think I'm alone when I say that, in recent years, my own listening habits have trended away from the "heavier" bands, and I think this has less to do with softening with age and more to do with gravitating toward where the more interesting music is being made. For every Underoath or Thrice, there are a hundred Emmures, and that doesn't seem likely to change. However, The Felix Culpa's very welcome return offers a good reason to crank the volume on those headphones to the max and revel in all the intricacies of their latest release.
Sever Your Roots is a bona fide post-hardcore epic, and not just because it's over an hour long and contains numerous six-minute tracks. There's enough build-and-release to satisfy fans of Brand New's The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me or Mineral's The Power of Failing, and the album runs the gamut in terms of textures. Above all, there's this overarching aura of importance emanating from just about all of it, commanding your attention and demanding that you take heed. Though it's ostensibly a very personal record (it's almost entirely spoken from first person perspective and directed at the second person "you"), there's a pervading sense of universality, a feeling that Marky Hladish's lyrics have a sweepingly broad applicability.
The journey begins with "New Home Life", which opens with Hladish delivering his first lines with a Jesse Lacey-like vulnerability over minimal accompaniment before the guitars and drums pick up and continue to build. There's an almost post-rock attention to dynamics, and the band aren't afraid to stray from the beaten path, adding some horn accents, which add a majestic quality to the proclamation, "I am still believing that the homes we build have meaning." Thunderous guitars crash to announce the beginning of "Our Holy Ghosts", the album's best cut. Hladish steps up with his most powerful vocal performance, going from barely above a whisper to open the track to the tortured cries of, "You did what you had to do." The haunting backing harmonies ("to be in love with love is not enough this time") almost offer something of a subtle hook. He's even more pained on "The Constant", screaming with the anguish of a man whose one mainstay in life has been ripped away.
We're offered a short break in the form of the moody interlude "Roots", before the album picks back up with "Escape to the Mountain Lest Thou Be Consumed", an introspective examination of heart-mind conflicts that is alternatingly shimmering and crushing. It makes way for "The First One to the Scene of an Accident Always Gets Blood on Their Hands", one of the more straight-forward songs on the album, carrying a little bit of a Red Tree vibe. The languid grace and ambience of the soft "Unwriting Our Songs" makes for a suitable lead-in to "Mutiny", another shapeshifting number that starts out with gentle acoustic guitar plucks before busting wide open. More than any other track on the album, it allows everyone in the band the opportunity to shine, with the attention shifting from the vocals to the quick-paced drums to the crisp guitars throughout its duration.
The album's last calming segue "Rum and Cigarettes" finds Hladish gaining perspective though solitude and, apparently, given the title, chemical-fueled heightened perception: "There's a clarity that comes with being alone, and it's good to remember what it is I miss." On "Because This Is How We Speak", the band show a little restraint, as there's an intensity bubbling just beneath the surface as Hladish screams, "This is the last time," but it never fully boils over. It leads into the fairly direct "It's Raining at Indian Wells", whose aggressive guitars should please fans of early '00s post-hardcore bands like Engine Down and Sparta.
While there isn't the same degree of experimentation with orchestral arrangements, there is a Dear Hunter-like aesthetic that manifests itself at times throughout the album, and it's most evident on "What You Call Thought Control, I Call Thought Control". At the upper reaches of his register, Hladish's vocals have an emotive quality similar to Casey Crescenzo; the backing harmonies have a feel very similar to those in Act II; and there are even some strings slicing their way through the fiery guitars. The album's last extended piece, "An Instrument" is yet another exercise in mood and atmosphere that makes use of multiple distinct movements. At this point, it seems rather natural for a song to begin with twinkling piano and climax with piercing distorted feedback. The strings return to accent the theatrical album closer "Apologies". Hladish ends the album the only way he knows how: honestly and openly. "Jump in. Jump in with me," he sings. "We'll swim or maybe we'll go down. But at least we'll be together in the end."
And so ends an album that's an early highlight in a year that's already started out strong with a number of solid releases-- an album that undeniably deserves your attention. I could sit here and continue spouting superlatives until I turn as blue in the face as those ubiquitous Na'vi, so let me end with this: there are myriad epithets one could apply to Sever Your Roots ("Good things come to those who wait" et al.), but perhaps more important is one that doesn't apply-- "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." As difficult as it must have been, The Felix Culpa decided to go it alone, and the result is an album that displays not an ounce of resignation, concession or compromise. That staunch DIY spirit is always a hit with the AP faithful, but it's definitely a for-better-or-worse type thing. Those paying close attention know all too well that the results are often not pretty, but Roots is an example of near perfect execution. The road's been long, and we can only imagine how hard, but The Felix Culpa have seen their vision though to the very end, crafting the record they wanted, or perhaps needed, to make. Why join 'em when you can just fuckin' beat 'em?
Great review, Jeremy! I'll be hard pressed if I find another effort as strong as this for 2010. You can tell how much passion, emotion, and hard-work they put into making this album.
I've been looking for a way to describe the lyrics on this album, and I think you hit the nail on the head. Although they seem very personal in nature, it's definitely something everyone can connect with in some way or form.
The CD release show was fantastic this weekend. They are by far one of the best live acts out there.