Review Summary: The Dear Hunter further refine their pop sensibilities while producing an album more fully-formed and well realized than Act II.
No matter what your position on The Dear Hunter may be, you’ve got to admit, they’re a pretty damn silly band. I mean, combining progressive-cum-indie in the vein of Circa Survive with the theatrics of Panic at the Disco, and wrapping it all in a Coheed and Cambria-style multi-album conceptual saga? You’ve got to be out of your damn mind. Thankfully, Casey Crescenzo, founder/vocalist/keyboardist of The Dear Hunter, most assuredly is. After all, this is the man who thought it’d be a good idea to, in the middle of working on a six-album series, announce the band’s intention to work on a nine-album series (based off of the primary colors, no less) concurrently with the current saga. Someone get this man an award and a straightjacket. The good thing for Crescenzo is this crazy blend of genres and styles continues to work for the band, as they continue to put out quality albums. Act III: Life and Death
is no exception, and further refines the band’s pop sensibilities while producing an album more fully-formed and well realized than Act II.
While Act III is generally pretty similar to the rest of The Dear Hunter’s discography to this point, there are some notable alterations this time ‘round. These alterations can be summed up as this: where Act II embraced pretense, Act III embraces bombast. So while you won’t get any nine-minute cuts here like “The Lake and the River” (take that how you will), you will get a auditory cornucopia of strings (“The Tank”), horns (“In Cauda Venenum”), and other such instruments that, rather than being overbearing, actually add to Act III’s overall massive feel. In addition, Casey continues to rely on the “gang-style theater chorus vocals” (if you’ve heard the band, you know what I’m talking about) that he’s used in each of the band’s albums so far. While they do add to the theatric vibe of the band’s music, they’re starting to feel like a crutch for Casey and his music.
In general, the standout tracks in Act III are the ones that fully embrace the bombast and go for broke. “Mustard Gas”, the album’s climactic centerpiece, is just about the most massive piece of music the band has ever composed, with an epic string section highlighting what is essentially the soundtrack to war (fitting, considering the album’s conceptual ties to WWI). If it seems like the gargantuan chorus is a desperate cry to an unforgiving God (pretentious, I know), it’s because it is, as Crescenzo roars “Scream at the sky in vain, beg for a reason He would allow this!” It’s a moment of pure desperate aggression, and is perhaps the most affecting moment in the entire album. “In Cauda Venenum” is similarly huge and aggressive, but also hugely, aggressively catchy in a way different from anything the band has put their name on before.
And that’s really this album’s selling point; it’s so goddamn catchy. On Act II, the flow of the album was hindered by a number of filler tracks like “Blood of the Rose” or “Where the Road Parts”. Here, just about every single track has some sort of memorable hook or catchy chorus that’s sure to get stuck in your head. While there may not be a candidate to succeed “Red Hands” here, there overall quality of the album is much more consistent. Only two songs fail to impress, each for completely different reasons. “What It Means To Be Alone” is musically sound, and pretty catchy to boot, but Crescenzo seems strained and worn vocally. Here’s very clearly struggling to hit a number of the notes, a problem that plagued the band’s earlier releases, but that Crescenzo almost manages to avoid with Act III, with the expection of this song. The more directly bad song, “Go Get Your Gun”, is an actual outright failure. Lyrically, it’s a trainwreck (“Go get your gun, get your gun, and let’s find out what it does/Shoot, shoot shoot, shoot, SHOOT!!!”), musically, it might as well be a B-side from MCR’s The Black Parade, and conceptually, it’s totally out of place, jammed between two slow songs in such a way that’s almost offensive. It could safely be cut from the album without much issue.
Thankfully, just about every other track manages to make a strong impression, and the variety of the album keeps it interesting. If there’s one other problem with the album, is that following “Mustard Gas”, the album loses much of the explosiveness that defined the first half. To be fair, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as we get some excellent slow cuts from the latter half, like the cheesy-but-beautiful “Saved”, or the three-part 11+ minute closing suite of “Son/Father/Life and Death”, which serves the dual purpose of closing the album on a spectacular note, and at the same time lyrically hinting at the focus of the next act of Crescenzo’s mad story.
Some listeners may not be able to get over the theatrical nature of Act III’s progressive leanings, calling it “overblown” or “excessive”. Sure, it may be about as subtle as a bag of hammers being thrown at another bag of hammers, but god bless it for that. It’s the energy and almost youthful bliss of the instrumentation that makes Act III such a compelling listen, and keeps it from being just another standard indie album from a band with a vague animal reference in their name. With Act III, The Dear Hunter drop the mushy romanticism and focus on, as promised, “Kicking ass and taking names.” The flame may be gone, but the fire remains.