The RX Bandits - ...And the Battle Begun
Record Label: Mash Down Babylon
Release Date: June 27, 2006
I’m not a dramatic guy, but I find it absolutely imperative that I write a review for this album. No, scratch that…this is absolutely, without a doubt, and obligation of mine. I have been kicking myself for the better part of half a year to sit down and write a review for this album. I don’t want to scream like a little fanboy about how this album “rocks” and you “have to go buy (or download with your ‘money’) this now! ” All I want to tell you is the truth, the full truth, and nothing but the truth. When an archeologist hundreds of years ago discovered dinosaurs, he needed to let the world know of such an incredible discovery. When certain scientists in certain strict religious settings supported dinosaur claims, they were thrown in jail. In this same way, I must tell you of my incredible discovery, and if I must be thrown in jail, so be it: just please let me keep and listen to this album while I’m behind bars.
About 2 years ago I enrolled as a freshman in a certain University’s music school. I was so anxious to learn about music: I took every opportunity I could to get my hands on any material that could lead to future discovery. The summer before entering this school, I had “bought” this album with my “money,” off of the recommendation of an online review (since then, I have actually purchased the album, as it well deserves). At the time I was into a bit of ska music, and this band was labeled as a band I might like (let me also take this moment to say that this album is in no way, shape, or form a ska album in the least). I had listened to the album once or twice without paying it much attention. I thought the first track was pretty cool, but I kind of spaced out after that. I would often pull up the first track and listen to it, and then disregard the rest of the album. Let me just say now that it was one of the biggest mistakes of my life to not start listening to this album earlier.
So as the year wore on, I happened to start listening a bit more. I was a fan of attending the gym with an iPod in hand, so I figured why not give this a few spins. After three or four times through, I made a startling realization: “Hey…this isn’t too bad”. I suddenly started noticing things that were foreign to me before starting school…complex time signatures/time changes, dueling guitar melody/harmony lines, interesting chord progressions that didn’t follow the very basic ones laid out by most groups in the RX Bandits’ genre. The more I listened and began really enjoying the music, the more I started noticing something that the Bandits are absolute masters of: SUBTLETIES. Although capitalizing “subtleties” is somewhat contradictory towards the meaning of the word, I simply wish to put emphasis on it. The harder you listen, the more you have to appreciate from this music. Sure, you could just listen to the main melody line that Mat Embree is singing, but it’s only when you start picking apart the rest of the instruments that you realize the incredible ability this band has. The mixing team (who has done quite a job on this) had the good grace to pan each guitar to a separate headphone: but at almost all times the guitars will be playing contrasting lines.
First things first: get ready to abandon your usual flow of a song. “Oh yeah, have a riff in the intro, then, you know, some chords for the verse, then some chords for the chorus, and maybe another cool little riff for a bridge or something”. The RX Bandits told that tradition to go f--k itself. Steve Choi, the lead guitarist of the band, is, without a doubt in my mind, classically trained. There’s no way this guy did not go to music school. From a Musicianship perspective the Bandits are mind-blowing. The theory behind these songs is the best I’ve seen from any current band in Progressive Rock (yes, a lot of this album without a doubt is progressive rock). I’m not saying this as some kid who’s just completed my first high school music class and thinks he’s the shit. I’ve gone through classical theory and set theory (atonal, 12-tone type stuff) through two years of college. All the theory required to be a “professional” (not to say I am, trust me) is well-engraved in my brain, and let me tell you: Steve Choi KNOWS THIS THEORY. Key changes/Modulation? Hell yes he uses them. Complex time signatures that change often? Yes sir. Intertwined guitar lines/keyboard lines that connect, sound awesome, and make sense? You decide. This isn’t just a typical metal approach: “Hey, let’s play the same thing but a 4th apart.” No. I cannot stress how much respect this band deserves. Some have called them the best kept secret of current rock. Honestly, I think that’s an understatement. Some of the songs on this album defy what is commonly accepted as the musicality a band can achieve. Look in the “Lyrics and Singing” section to see my breakdown of this album.
One of the things that makes the sound of this album incredible is the progression through the album. It begins in a rock fashion, with soft and loud elements, but gets progressively more rock-oriented until it climaxes at “A Million Miles an Hour, Fast Asleep”. Halfway through this track, when you’re convinced they couldn’t get any more in-your-face, a guitar line leads to a silence, and when the music comes back in it consists of a clean guitar with a keyboard, a smooth bass, and a jazzy drum beat. This is the turning point for a whole new side to the album. The next track, “Apparition”, is a very, very smooth, jazzy tune that honestly sounds like it should be played in a dark, smoky night club at 2 AM. The following track, “A Mouthful of Hollow Threats” keeps this mood, but adds just the right amount of edginess to keep the album interesting. It’s followed by “Epoxi-Lips”, which starts in a similar fashion but eventually turns back into the rock-oriented style seem at the start of the album. From there on out, the band goes from full-out rock (Tainted Wheat) to a slow-crescendo-oriented piece (To Our Unborn Daughters), and then to a mix of the two to close it off (Crushing Destroyer). The track ordering makes it very, very easy to get into this album.
Also, although I realize this doesn’t relate to the album at hand, I have to say it. After you have heard the songs on this album and love every last one, look up their live videos. To me, the most incredible thing about the RX Bandits is their ability to perform these songs flawlessly live. Flawlessly isn’t even the right word: it seems like every show they manage to improvise new things and expand on songs. Possibly my favorite track on this album, “Only for the Night”, is one of these songs. On YouTube you can find an acoustic gig they did in Orlando, Florida, and this song is on there. You’d have to see it and know the original song to see just how far they can expand. At their usual gigs they have a reputation for including a 4-5 minute drum solo with three drummers and 2-3 kits. There’s an Altitude video online for an acoustic performance of the title track of this album as well, which is equally impressive.
Before going in-depth to each song, let me just say that Matt Embree is a great vocalist. He probably doesn’t have the biggest range in the industry…I’d say he likely hits a high tenor A# at his best. The low range isn’t often terribly present so I don’t know how low he can sing, but the fact of the matter is that this cracker can sing. And I mean sing with soul. Again, turn to their live gigs to really see it. Any vocalist can sound good on an album. This guy sounds great on stage, not to mention he improvises new vocal parts whenever he damn well pleases for whatever song he may choose. Incredible musicianship from this guy, not to mention he has a voice that is quite enjoyable to listen to, not matter the setting. Here’s my track breakdown:
01. Untitled: I couldn’t imagine this album opening any other way. This 45-second track is sung a cappella by vocalist Matt Embree. He sings a short melody line: “I must have seen her face before; I fell in love when I was born. Now they hide her with a whisper…it’s over.” However, he overdubs his original melody line twice, each time with a contrasting melody line. The result is a three-part harmonization of the above lines. It works in such a way that his first voice sings “I must have seen her face before”, and when he begins “I fell in love when I was born”, his first harmonization comes in on “I must have seen her face before”, and then the third harmonization will come in on that same line in the next measure. Every voice is one measure behind each other. They create a sort-of beautiful cacophony that eventually blends into once voice, and then they sing through the lines simultaneously at the end. These lines are repeated in other songs on the album. 9/10
02. …And the Battle Begun: I love how the Bandit’s seem like they’re trying to fool you. They begin this song simply enough: the drummer is drumming away a simple beat; the guitarists are both palm muting power chords. Everything seems regular. When Matt starts singing, you hear slight harmonization in the back. Interesting, but not unheard of. You hear a keyboard kick in a simple melody line. Cool…kind of catchy. They start changing between 4/4 and ¾…that’s kind of cool as well. When the song begins building up and they get to “Its one kiss, for all the world, one more for all that’s precious”, you’re feeling a bit weird. To me, the first time, this sounded a bit bizarre. It sounded a bit dumb: kid of catchy in a bad way, pretty simple. After the first chorus, there’s a brief dueling between guitars. “Hey…that’s not too bad.” They essentially repeat the verse and chorus, and you’re back to wondering if this band it going to do anything. Then immediately after the second chorus, a chromatically-driven short and fast guitar riff plays, followed by a solo bass riff. Hey…this is sounding cool. And then it happens. The Bandits unleash their fury on you. Both guitars just start playing their dueling, contrasting solos, as the bassist does too, and the drummer just starts mixing everything he does up. You’re left in this moment of seemingly randomness that somehow works perfectly together. Once they give you that, it doesn’t stop. A guitar riff played by both guitars sweeps along as Matt sings “Give me something to hold on to”. Suddenly, holy crap…did they just modulate? Everything they have is just hitting you straight on. Did they just modulate again? And it still sounds awesome? Was that another time change? From the climactic solo of this song till the end, you can’t help but wonder what’s in store for you on the rest of this album. 9.5/10
03. In Her Drawer: The Bandits don’t let you realize what you’re getting into too early. This song is simple enough. It starts off with a brief drum line, and then brings in the guitars playing some unison chords, along with a trombone playing a melody line. The chords continue, and Matt sings about unfortunate addictions to prescription drugs: “A blue square to numb the pain, white hexagons to accelerate. Swallow yellow to relax, Whiskey and a green one to forget the past.” From there, this little a cappella bit starts that personally turns me off. It’s a bit too cheesy for me, but luckily the song soon abandons it. As you get to the chorus, the lyrics content of the piece really drives it. “You got me feeling like an outsider. They’re in her drawer, but she says she doesn’t take them.” This builds into a robust statement: “Oh no, now we’ve all been diagnosed. Oh no, I cannot feel at all”. Directly after this, the song goes surprisingly atonal. One of the guitar lines plays what sounds like a 12-tone row (I haven’t analyzed it, but it’s very dissonant without a doubt), which then fades back into an overdubbed vocal melody: “Society creates symptoms, the system medicates them”. For the most part, the song repeats these parts with a brief keyboard break in the middle. Probably one of my least favorite songs on the album…but that means I still enjoy it quite a bit. 8.5/10
04. Only For the Night: if there’s one song on this album to remember, it is this one. I don’t even know if I can talk about it. This is one of the songs that you have to listen to closely to figure out just how complex it is. The intro uses two guitars playing different riffs, supporting both harmony and melody, and a horn line. One guitar plays chords in the verse while the other takes a primary line, and Matt Embree sings his soul away. The lyrics and music are both incredible. One of my favorite things about this is a trait this band has in spades: any time they repeat something, there’s always at least a small thing that’s different. Remember the subtleties I mentioned before? They have a verse and chorus, but the guitar bits leading up to both are different, and both guitars vary on what they play for each one. Honestly, you just have to listen to this one. This is one of my favorite tracks of all time. Don’t even get me started on the incredible drum solo that lasts about 20 seconds on the album, but often lasts 3-4 minutes in live concerts. Just listen to this, please. 10/10
05. On a Lonely Screen: great track to follow Only for the Night. Not completely tonal, and not really meant to be catchy. It seems that the performers were more worried about the message, although after hearing it so much, I love the music as well. “Well I got a reason, my goals defined, words in a line, and my politics. Oh and I’ve got my lover with her legs up high, my fingertips…on her light switch.” Towards the middle they start a chord progression that lasts until the end, with Matt singing about whatever he pleases: “He needs a pill just to feel her insides, she needs a crutch just to wake her up. Hey ghost-eyed man and the walking dead: ‘What does feeling really feel like?’” Definitely an enjoyable song, if for nothing more than the dissonance that helps set it apart and gives the album breathing room. 8.8/10
06. 1980: the song starts quite violently: very quick, with both guitars wailing away on separate melody lines. It calms down, and eventually fades into a finger-picking, somewhat dreamy sequence with Matt singing the “Untitled” lyrics “I must have seen her face before, I fell in love when I was born. Now they hide her with a whisper…it’s over.” If I had to take a guess, this song is about Matt’s mom. The song picks back up only to fade into a soft keyboard part, with Matt singing: “The dead hand of the past…only wishes to control your future.” Pretty haunting, if this is indeed a song about his mother. 8.7/10
07. A Million Miles an Hour, Fast Asleep: this is the track where it all changes. The verse consists of two guitars playing very fast, contrasting lines, with Matt Embree singing (if he’s honestly singing and playing this guitar line at the same time, he deserves a medal), followed by a chorus of just one chord being strummed dozens of times. The track continues to be dynamically aggressive until suddenly the music reaches a final climax, and turns into a clean guitar, bass, keyboard, and drum song. The smoothness is very reminiscent of jazz. This is likely one of my favorite part of the album for lyrical content: “They say the old woman’s got the wisdom, cause she couldn’t read the clock anymore. She said ‘the numbers don’t represent the moments’, says she don’t see what all the ticking’s for”. The song seems like mindless rock at first, but really becomes something a whole lot more. 9.5/10
08. Apparition: I already talked about this earlier. I’ll reiterate what I previously said. The mental picture from this is a jazz night club: Dark, dimly lit stage. The performers have sunglasses and hats on, the air around them is smoky, the bassist is grooving in the back, the drummer is coolly establishing a beat, and the singing is pouring his soul into the mic. Great track, perfect for following up the end of the last song. 9.3/10
09. A Mouthful of Hollow Threats: my second favorite track on the album. The keyboard, horns, and guitar are all very creative. Especially during the verse and chorus, the guitar only has one main stroke per measure, and then in between the stroke it has brief little riffs that seem very impromptu, and add a great deal to the song. To put it in jazz terms, I really like the job that the guitar is doing on comping. The lyrics are also a lot of fun to sing along to (assuming you can sing as high as Matt does…I believe he hits either a G or A on this track): “Makes no difference, makes no difference, who’s to blame. Cause the only thing left that’s constant, is the change.” The creativity of the guitar and keyboard, along with the very catchy lines of the brass section, make this song particularly enjoyable. It’s my favorite from the “jazzy” side of the album, and is second on the entire album, trailing behind Only for the Night. 9.7/10
10. Epoxi-Lips: probably my least favorite track on the album. It still has some very memorable guitar parts and vocal lines, but the overall package is not my cup of tea. The majority of the song appears to be addressing the fear of aging and death. “Numbers keep climbing gotta keep up the pace, uproot the lines as they grow on your face…it’s only skin oh it’s only skin, and you can’t stop the reaper from the scythe that she’s swinging.” The band makes great use of the harmonic minor scale at several points of this song. Contrasting guitar lines abound, as well as a big decrescendo into a very slow, soft, whispered part, which builds right back up and comes to quite a climax. After it finishes, you hear the “I must have seen her face before” melody again, but in reverse. It has great dynamics and musicianship, just not my favorite by them. I always feel like if there’s one thing I could change on the album, it would be this song. 8.2/10
11. Tainted Wheat: right back to the rock elements. This track is delving into political matters again, with Matt talking as though he were the government officials scheming away: “We weave a tale of our stark heroics, swaying the public from our bully-pulpit. Create illusions for imperial schemes, poor against the poor for democracy”. The chorus has a dueling guitar line, and the bridge is very chaotic: it seems like every instrument it following its own time, but everything comes together in the end. It’s an interesting song, although it isn’t quite as complex as others. Even so, new things are to be found every time you listen. 9/10
12. To Our Unborn Daughters: written as a letter from Matt Embree to his future daughter. Essentially it’s a song criticizing the objectification of women, and the lyrics pull it off very well (without seeming annoyingly feministic): “Yeah they thrust you their products, by making you feel insecure. And the matriarch was murdered; now woman is a 4-letter word. Put a price on your body, to convince you that it’s all you’re worth. Afraid of the power they lose, and the gift of creation…so don’t you ever listen.” The 2-minute intro to this song has some very interesting guitar elements and uses effects processing liberally. The rest of the song is interesting (especially the keyboard line to the second verse, which admittedly I only really discovered the 40th time listening to it…as I said, this is the type of album where you’ll find new things EVERY time you listen to it). The ending is a big fat crescendo: both guitars play frantic lines that advance to a final riff, that I often dub the “RATM riff.” Just listen: you’ll swear you’ve heard it in a RATM song. A roommate of mine and myself found 3 or 4 songs that use this same riff with slight variations…it actually seems like an industry standard that bands attempt to try and use it and just vary it ever-so-slightly…often times by only one chord. Either way, it’s a great climax/ending point to the song. 9.3/10
13. Crushing Destroyer: if you like your albums to end with a slow, soft acoustic number, you’re out of luck. This song takes the intensity at the end of the previous track and ramps it up throughout nearly the entire tune. The only point it slows down is for the first half of the first verse, but slows down only for the purposes of jump-starting the song and bearing on even more ferociously. The chorus of the song isn’t really my cup of tea, but the second verse contains some of my favorite lyrics on the album, made so not only by lyrical content but by the heart you can hear Matt Embree putting into them: “The picket line and the placard sign, don’t mean nothing in the modern time. The past burn out before the future’s born, if living’s what you’re looking for. Cause they’re the liars, cheats, the victors in defeat…a hollowed-eyed lover in a dirty magazine. We got a loose stomach staple in the money machine, add a little power and you know they’ll say anything.” The track after the second chorus goes into a catchy riff with the guitars, and fades into a trombone/bass solo, then back to the guitars. Instruments, including Matt Embree’s voice, take turns strutting their creative juices. The song ends with a crescendo in the vocals, leading upward and upward, and then suddenly cutting off with the rest of the instruments. What a way to end an album. 9/10
The RX Bandits are the pure definition of evolution in a band. You have to understand: these guys started as a very, very simple ska band. They kind of sounded like Sublime, or maybe some early Suicide Machines. Their first two albums followed this basic mold, and then “Progress” varied it a bit, but not too far. With “The Resignation”, you really started seeing things ramp up. With “…And the Battle Begun”, they have absolutely shown just how much a band can progress. We all have our favorite bands, and we can all say how they’ve evolved over the years. But I guarantee you that if you compare your favorite band’s first album with their latest album, and then do the same with the Bandits, you would start thinking maybe your favorite band hasn’t progressed that much. Not only is their sound completely different, but their musicality is literally like night and day.
The majority of this evolution, in my opinion, is thanks to Steve Choi. Not only is the guy an incredible guitarist, but it’s when he joined the band (his first album was the Resignation) that they really started their drastic change. Every single member of the album is better since he joined. That’s the other incredible thing – everyone in this band is has a great deal of talent. If they lose a guitarist and you want to audition, you’ll need a lot more than power chords. Their drummer handles complex time signatures with ease, along with the insanely difficult drum solo in “Only for the Night”, and the best part is that it seems like no part of the song is the same for him. Sure, he keeps the snare on the same beat, but anything in between snare hits seems to be varied often. Steve Choi…well, I’ve already addressed him. Incredible guitarist/keyboardist and improviser, as well as being a great composer (I’m almost convinced that most of the songs on this album were composed primarily by him). Matt Embree is a great singer, and honestly his guitar lines are often just as difficult as Choi’s. Oh, and let’s not forget that he can pull off these very difficult lines, which are often both melodically and rhythmically complex, while singing melodic lines equally as complex. This guy has talent. Their bassist is really the only member of the group that I wouldn’t mind hearing some more creativity from. Although his lines are difficult, a lot of times he’ll mirror one of the guitarists’ lines. Sure, it still sounds awesome, but he could do just a bit more. There are occasional bass riffs that are great (he has a few during the pre-chorus of Only for the Night), but besides that I feel like he’s the only musician lacking in the band. He has the ability; he needs a bit more creativity. In their newest album, Mandala, he definitely plays some bass lines that show me he’s progressing (Hope Is a Butterfly is one example).
I don’t know what else I can tell you. If this review has not convinced you to at least try this album, you are missing out on quite an experience. I should warm you though: you may need a few listen-throughs to get into it. Everything hits you with such intensity in the beginning that it’s likely to overwhelm you. As I had said earlier, at first I really wasn’t struck by the album. Upon further listening, I realized what I was missing, and really started delving in. A year and half later, I’m here writing this review, and I can only hope that you discover what I did, and make sure your friends discover it too. A lot of people have this sort of elitist mentality that they don’t want the unknown-groups they like to get big. Well forget that, because these guys deserve it. I’m so happy they broke off of Drive-Thru and essentially made their own label for this album: the difference shows. Give it a chance, and really analyze the music. For your own good.
From December of 2008 to July of 2009, I told people this album was in my Top 5, without a doubt. From August of 2009 to November of 2009, I started saying it was in my Top 3. I was being vague, because as musicians, we hate commitments. But you know what? I never had another album in mind for the top 3; I just didn’t want to bind myself. I can say this is my favorite album of all time. Never have I heard such pristine musicianship wed to such talented musicians and truly enjoyable, replayable, and highly analytical music. The last user to review this album said putting it into words for a review was near impossible. This has been my attempt. Please do yourself a favor and obtain it in any way possible.
Epic Review. I agree 100% with the review and agree the band needs more credit. Although I do enjoy the crowds at their live shows. Small and intimate and everyone knows the lyrics and rocks out with them.