Review Summary: A 'Cities'-esque beautiful darkside between heaven and hell.
While it may be an exaggeration to suggest that prequels are all the rage in Hollywood these days, franchises such as Batman, Star Wars, X-Men and Aliens have proven that audiences are far from averse to viewing motion pictures out of sequence. In comparison, albums are even less inhibited by disorder, since there is usually no need to tell a story from release to release, only exhibit an artist’s growth. Seattle alternative rockers The Classic Crime appear to concur with such a rationale; their discography being the proverbial roller-coaster ride in terms of style and influence. Whereas sophomore full-length release ‘The Silver Cord’ displayed a maturity beyond their years, slick third LP ‘Vagabonds’ appeared to be the more natural successor to debut LP ‘Albatross’. Well, in movie parlance, the now quartet’s fourth LP ‘Phoenix’ is the true sequel to ‘The Silver Cord’; an album which joins the likes of 'Aliens', 'The Godfather 2', 'Silence of the Lambs' and 'The Empire Strikes Back' in bettering their originals.
"I think I need a new story; one where I take on the world"
Nowhere can the difference between 'Phoenix' and predecessor 'Vagabonds' be better exemplified than by their respective openers. While both tracks contain the backing "woah oh's" that the band have become known for, 'A Perfect Voice' went straight for the jugular with its airwave and arena baiting hooks. On the other hand, 'One Man Army (Intro)' is patient in its build here, using strings and cavernous drums to foretell the dramatic grandeur which is to follow. The departure of guitarist Justin DuQue has seemingly forced The Classic Crime to examine their sound to the nth degree; opening up the band's sonic palette more than anyone could have ever imagined. Phoenix's mid-section in particular is, quite simply, absolutely gorgeous. If the sweeping, cinematic sound of 'Beautiful Darkside' does not remind of Anberlin's much-revered LP 'Cities', then the subsequent epic nature of song-of-the-year contender 'Heaven and Hell' - complete with tempo switches, strings, guitar solo and choir assisted climax - undoubtedly will.
"Tossed by the tempest of life, a victim to storms I contrive. It feels like the best is behind and I can't go back"
As with the band's discography, ordering may once more be a contentious issue on 'Phoenix', since not even half way through, one can't help but feel that the emotional drain of its first five tracks will result in a major let-down for the LP's latter half. How fitting then, that up next comes a song called 'The Precipice'; A tremendous, acoustically-driven piece filled with a multitude of lyrical nuggets. And if that wasn't enough, a fantastic bluesy riff kick-starts successor 'Let Me Die'; a tune with such a humongous chorus that it just begs to be shouted back at the band in a live setting. The most polarizing track of this bakers dozen, however, will likely be pseudo closer 'City of Orphans'; with its initially disconcertingly twangy stylings backing an endearing narrative, before eventually giving way to another expertly constructed climax. It may not be '(*Fin)', but 'Heaven and Hell' did a fine job of delivering that earlier!
"I wish I could play the violin... I wish I could play piano well... Sometimes I indulge my every whim"
To long-time fans of The Classic Crime, there is a danger that 'Phoenix' may initially feel a little incomplete; less immediate than the band's back-catalog, and somewhat confused in its want to progress without totally abandoning the past. In reality, the sheer growth in the depth and variety of both the musicianship and songwriting evident is exemplary... So much so that those tracks which come closest to harking back to the outfit's pop-punk roots (the ironically titled 'Young Again' and 'Glass Houses') arguably deliver mixed results. That is not to suggest that there is any filler apparent here, with the quartet more often than not getting it spot on when moving into relatively conventional melodic alt-rocker mode. The near-seamless juxtaposition of old and new works an absolute treat on accomplished toe-tappers 'You and me Both' and 'What I'd Give Up', as well as driving rockers 'Dead Rose' and 'Painted Dreams'.
"I dreamt I stood on a hill that I wished was a mountain, to look back on all my accomplishments. Well they must have been small because I couldn't seem to find them. So I took a leap off of a precipice"
As is often the case, humans are more likely to show their true colors when they are under pressure and have something to prove; exactly the situation The Classic Crime found themselves in when recording their fourth LP. Having lost both a guitarist and record label, Phoenix's release was subsidized through the Kickstarter funding platform, a fact which undoubtedly results in a labor of love for the Seattle outfit. With Michael Baskette relegated to mixing duties, commanding front-man Matt MacDonald takes over on production (as if his near-flawless vocals were not enough) and you can tell that he and his band-mates have not left one iota of themselves anywhere but on this record. You can hear the blood, sweat and tears literally dripping out in every meticulously layered piece of instrumentation; every emotional heart-on-sleeve climax; and in every dark and brooding - yet uplifting and relatable - lyric. 'Phoenix' may remind of Anberlin's 'Cities', but it ultimately is the magnum opus of one band, and one band alone: The Classic Crime.
Recommended Tracks: Heaven and Hell, Beautiful Darkside, Let Me Die, The Precipice & You and Me Both.