Review Summary: An absolutely phenomenal major label debut from an up-and-coming band, the few kinks to be ironed out are inconsequential in comparison to the amazing music that Fair to Midland offers us on this outing.
The songs sound similar, the best songs are mostly at the beginning and middle, there are a few weak choruses, there are no solos, and the songs mostly fit radio-rock structure and length requirements. There you go. Those are the sum of my complaints about this amazing album. From the get-go these guys prove that they have what it takes to… um… do basically whatever the hell they want. The songs are tinged with a vaguely Caribbean influence, particularly the explosive lead single “Dance of the Manatee” and “A Wolf Descends On The Spanish Sahara,” making the band sound sort of like Yes if the latter was more conventional and powerful. The album is absolutely gorgeous to listen to- sonically dense, it’s packed with layer upon layer of ethereal, beautiful pianos, bouncing bass lines, guitars that range from soothing to storming and a vocalist that does the same. It is nearly impossible to imagine this band on an indie label that could only provide limited production capabilities- unlike bands like Breaking Benjamin or Trapt whose high production values are most of what they have going for them, this band requires the lush sound quality that major labels can afford. If you ever wanted a band that was the opposite of the Dillinger Escape Plan (except perhaps in stage presence), this is it.
The band somehow manages to follow an ideal radio template on almost every song- verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus song structures, note-perfect dynamics between hard and soft, hooks strewn bountifully and almost offhandedly across the record, no diverse time signatures, over in four minutes- without ever seeming unoriginal. Within the confines of that sound, they are actually more powerful than they would be by following a more progressive approach, leading up to every breakdown and drifting gently through each verse. It may be predictable to the avid progressive fans, but in the context of the actual music, it works- the realization never occurs too quickly, and the payoffs are phenomenal. There is no situation where you see the drum break coming from minutes away, or foretell the dynamics of the bridge before it even happens. I cannot urge you strongly enough to give this album a chance if you usually shun formulaic music. Fair to Midland, in a way that recalls the Beatles or Nirvana, has taken a pattern and utterly dominated it through epic emotional shifts and climactic buildups. There is no reason for anybody not to at least give this release a try.
However, progressive fans will rejoice as the band, true to its subtle Yes influence, filters its post-grunge attack through a sunny, vaguely Mediterranean lens. Hooky yet complex melodies simmer to the surface, and the drums and the bass get a vigorous workout on many of the songs (“Walls of Jericho,” “Kyla Cries Cologne”). The instrumentation is stunning; every element seems to flex intuitively into place, all the notes somehow triggering the right response. This record is like being hooked up to an IV of catchiness. Every moment feels sublime, and a few especially stirring instances struck me as even transcendental. There are absolutely no technical complaints about this album because nothing more they could do would really fit into the format they use. It’s hard to imagine a track that couldn’t be a single, all as good as each other. They are that good.
The vocals occasionally seem a bit rough, or they somehow manage to stand out a bit too much from the immaculate music, but that’s not the goal; the singer is a separate element, providing just as much as the instruments do. His voice is quite good; it provides most of the hooks and many moments of superb beauty. However, tranquility is only part of his repertoire- in the space of a second, he can go from a soft croon to a soaring high note (that would be called a shriek if it were done with any less majesty or control, something that Cedric Bixler-Zavala might want to remember when it’s his turn to sound like Yes) and then to a low, rumbling growl (an instant transition he performs gracefully on every song, but most notably during the chorus of “Dance of the Manatee”). The man’s range is astonishing; he is one of the most technically proficient members.
One of the most amazing things about this band is how everything seems to weave together almost perfectly. The thick layers of sound form melodic arrangements, which are not only beautiful, but breathtaking. Fair to Midland deserve all the success they get, and probably more. This is a band anybody should at least give a try. I urge you not to let this opportunity pass you by. Once you’ve listened to FTM, nothing really sounds the same afterward.