Review Summary: Some of Son of the Morning’s weaknesses prove hereditary, but Children of Fire shows Oh, Sleeper successfully regaining lost momentum.April 22nd, 1979
: just around midnight, Samir Kuntar had led himself and three other men into Israel’s coastal town of Nahariya. It was this night that mother Smadar Haran suffocated her two-year-old daughter while in hiding to save the lives of her and her neighbors. When Kuntar and his men entered her apartment, drowned her husband and bludgeoned her eldest daughter’s head against a rock with the butt of a rifle, Haran covered her youngest daughter Yael’s mouth to keep things quiet until the calamity died down. The child was unintentionally smothered.
When recollecting a tragic and sickening story like this, my first reaction is a shudder. I shudder at the mere thought. And while I don’t know what reactions it drew from Oh, Sleeper when they wrote ‘Hush Yael’ about the event, the song itself is certainly something impressive in its own right. Something to shudder at, even. Coming from a band that barely scraped through their last album’s dreary Satan vs. God concept story with any semblance of storytelling merit, writing a song as musically and emotionally engaging as ‘Hush Yael’ is a pretty important (and well timed) achievement. Guitarist Shane Blay sings “hush Yael, I hear them coming
” and as it sinks in that Yael’s ‘hush’ wasn’t pretty far from consensual, the band starts pulling the ol’ heartstrings a bit. You begin to realise that Oh, Sleeper are pulling off the storytelling a little better than they did last time around. Micah Kinard screams “make him beg for his life, end him slow, make him feel the rocks that her temple rode!
” and it’s legitimately kind of scary. He sounds manic, driven and absolutely livid. And I guess that anger is just the kind of emotion Oh, Sleeper needed to successfully recover from Son of the Morning
. Children of Fire
is an emotional, dedicatedly chaotic and musically impressive return to form for the Texas metalcore quintet.
It’s not, however, When I Am God
. While the band’s 2007 debut rode shamelessly down a road laid politely by Underoath’s Define the Great Line
, When I Am God
still remains their best work by a long shot: it’s emotionally erratic and urgent, it’s dynamic and unpredictable and it’s sloppy enough to feel genuine. Their follow-up concept record Son of the Morning
was perhaps a polar opposite: it had painfully traditional songwriting, cheesy pop melodies and clean-cut, friendly (if technical) instrumentation. And while Children of Fire
may have recaptured the band’s early emotional urgency, it still hasn’t recovered the musical ground lost since the band’s 2009 conceptual cock-up. Tracks like ‘In The Wage of Pigs’ and ‘Children of Fire’ would fit in well on Son of the Morning
with their uplifting but painfully cheesy choruses (“you are not alone!
”) and their meaningless major-key shredding. In fact, the entire second half of the record (where the two aforementioned tracks reside) suffers plenty: ‘The Family Ruin’ is marred by a set of verses that shamelessly picks from Thrice’s ‘Atlantic’ (complete with Shane Blay’s half-hearted Dustin Kensrue impression), ‘Chewing the Stitch’ loses its energy in a campy build-up bridge of “we are monsters all, banded together we’ll overcome!
” and acoustic track ‘Means to Believe’ is both made awkward by Blay’s shaky vocal performance and by the song’s musical irrelevance in the tracklist. It’s a song that in a different context could be passable but it has no place on Children of Fire
. Recall When I Am God
’s ‘The Color Theft’: a climactic and powerful ballad that both experimented and exploded. No, ‘Means to Believe’ doesn’t get away with jack when we know what the band is capable of.
Despite the lackluster second half, from the first snare hit of ‘Endseekers’ to vocalist’s Kinard’s last bellow on ‘Dealers of Fame’, Children of Fire
’s first half is admittedly a lot of fun. The album’s lyrical content, dealing with enormous tragedies, violence and the theoretical absence of a once-living God, provides plenty of emotional situations and angry outbursts for Kinard to toy with. “Sweet daughter, what has brought this bed of blood? What man? What man has entered my home?
”, belts out Kinard on ‘The Marriage of Steel and Skin’, declaring that he’ll “marry a blade to his throat!
” It’s funny: Kinard is generally a pretty acceptable vocalist, but when you have him write about decapitating rapists, suddenly he’s one of metalcore’s most powerful, talented and gut-wrenchingly, mind-crampingly scary
screamers. Though it also helps that when the rest of the band is at their best, they more than hold their own: with the chipper drop-D tuning of Son of the Morning
behind them, they’re now back to sludging around in lower-than-low tunings and hefty riffs. Blay is at his most technical on the guitar and litters the album with polyrhythmic, dissonant riffs and unpredictable, lightning-quick tapping patterns. Newcomer drummer Zac Mayfield also pulls his weight: balancing the band’s ADD time signatures and tempo switches with tasteful fills and double-kick sequences is no easy feat, but Mayfield more than keeps the rhythmic section of Oh, Sleeper prominent. It’s songs like opener ‘Endseekers’ and ‘Shed Your Soul’ that really show Oh, Sleeper at their best: half-time, foreboding, eerie leads bleed over slow-burning drum patterns before bursting into unpredictable spurts of technical, noodling guitar licks and frantic drum fills. And while it’s no question that ‘Hush Yael’ is the best song that band has put on Children of Fire
, the band proves with the entire first half of the record that they’re entirely capable of being technical, emotional and clever all at once.
Ultimately, while it’s not a complete recovery from Son of the Morning
and it takes the band even further away from When I Am God
’s slow-burning compositional style, Children of Fire
is a more-than-welcome return to form. Its biggest disappointments come from the band’s insistence on using predictable song structures, cringe-worthy clean vocals and choruses that try so hard to be inspiring that it only inspires migraines. The band proved five years ago with songs like ‘The Color Theft’ and ‘The Siren’s Song’ that they could manage doing spacey, dynamic pieces without breaking a sweat and with ‘The End of a Dark Campaign’ that they could, better yet, combine that spacey dynamic with their break-neck metalcore stylings - but they have refused to touch such subtle, restrained methods ever since. And while that means we get songs as fantastic as ‘Hush Yael’ here in 2011, it almost means we get a couple of songs like ‘In the Wake of Pigs’. Children of Fire
may have recaptured When I Am God
’s emotional urgency and energy, but it hasn’t quite inherited its replay value and spotless track record. But maybe that doesn’t matter right now: I’ll celebrate the little victories for the time being. Oh, Sleeper have released some pretty engaging, technical and emotionally outraged songs and the least we can do is let our heartstrings be tugged by the band’s manipulative storytelling. After all, when Kinard busts his gut barking “we are all weavers at the loom of slaughter but we will rise and make this victims our martyrs
” it’s just plain powerful. Welcome back to reality, Oh, Sleeper - keep plugging ahead.