Review Summary: The first chapter in a great band's career.
Benton Falls deserve every bit of credit they get, because it is rare to find a band that takes on a commonly maligned genre, in this case 'emo', and turns it into something brilliant. 'Emo' does not deserve the slings and arrows it is commonly subjected to, and the very existence of Benton Falls is tantamount to this. Indeed, this album, 'Fighting Starlight', is evidence of that notion, delivered with consummate skill and raw emotion.
Things are kicked off brusquely with 'All These Things', a song about a strained but loving mother-son relationship. Michael Richardson's voice is one of the key factors that make this band so unique - instead of falling victim to a stereotypical whine, his vocals are strong, clear as a bell, and soaked with a profound melancholy which is hard not to let affect you. The fact that he plays guitar so brilliantly with equally excellent axeman Gerb only furthers his obvious talents. This is shown on 'All These Things', as he guides the track through its tempo changes and shifts from tender, clean moments to all out, distorted-guitar pounding with equal ease. A marvelous opener.
'Swimming With You' is a song which has a superb duality to it; the sonic palette goes from chilled-out rock song to raucous emo crunch in the blink of an eye, but it is the cooler parts that make the track unique. The heavy parts rock harder than most could imagine, but the fact that Benton Falls do not abandon all melody and end with a lacerating rock-out is so refreshing - instead, they return to the calm, meditative vibe, and end softly, leaving you sure something awesome is on its way...
And you would be right to think so. The title track, 'Fighting Starlight' is one of the relatively harder moments on the album, with the softer parts being outnumbered by growling but melodious guitar riffs that leave you breathless. Richardson's yell is also excellent - raw and untempered, but it hangs on to the tune, and so does not fall into the trappings of 'screamo'.
'Sad Like Winter Leaves' is a heart-rending, mid-tempo piece about a man who has lost his one love, and has a fallen into alcoholism and self-harm to relieve his agony, as is evidenced by Richardson's powerful lyrics; "Tired, he stood in line at the grocery store / A bottle of wine, and nothing more", and "A line on his face for every year she'd missed / A scar on his arm for every time he'd tried to follow her". Poignant words backed by superb instrumentation.
'Always Behind A Smile' sharply details the awkwardness of high-school reunions, and the bad memories stirred. The guitars are more fearsome than usual, with scathing, gain-filled riffage dominating the song, clicking perfectly with Richardson's vulnerable yet angered vocals ("Forget how they laughed / Forget how I cried").
'June Port Bridge' is one of the bleaker tracks, with its gloomy tone and feeling of despair for the majority of it. However this does not mean it is a poor song. Far from it. The track meanders, with the barely-suppressed fury behind it all adding to the sour atmosphere generated, and once again, Richardson's vocals are hard to fault. But, gratifyingly, at the end, after a scream of "GO!" the anger that is so long held back is let loose, with thumping riffs and drums abound. It is here that I would like to credit Eli Deering's drums and Vance Gore's bass. The two men are an impeccable rhythm section, holding the sorrowful grooves with ease and adding a tightness that is quite remarkable. They are strong throughout the whole album, but Deering's drum fill here really adds fuel to the fire of the hard-charging section.
'No Hero' is a song which is almost poetic - the lyrics here really hit home about the terrible ravages of heroin addiction ("All these eyes were on you / But your eyes weren't you", or "Trains will never travel / Upon these tracks" are cases in point). The song does not unleash a ferocious riff, unlike the others, instead choosing to hang back and let the harrowing song topic bite to the bone, and this decision reaps dividends - the song is brutally honest and powerful for it. Of all the drug-related songs in the music domain, this is one of those which are particularly noteworthy.
'Coastal' chimes its way through well over four minutes of a sweet, melodic song that is reminiscent of 'No Hero' in the way it hangs back with bottled-up emotion, but the track is somehow uplifting, with Richardson's vocals soaring above it all.
'Back To Nothing' is a brilliant piece about a failed crush, which again is somehow uplifting because of the point revealed near its climax. The ascending guitar chords lilt and swirl in a spiral of harmony, with great lyrics framing the package. This continues until at the end, after Richardson reveals the reason why he created the aforementioned crush, he let loose a wild howl, and a pounding riff slams in with such ferocity that it will blow your hair back. As far as penultimate songs go, this is an absolute arse-kicker.
'Eudora' is the last song, and takes the form of a sweet, swaying instrumental which showcases the brilliant interplay between each member of Benton Falls; Michael Richardson and Gerb's interwining, softly-plucked guitar lines, Vance Gore's gently pulsing bass, and Eli Deering's metronomic, decisive drumming. Not just a nice finale, but a great piece of music on its own terms.
'Fighting Starlight' is worth every penny, simply put. The outstanding musicality, heartfelt lyrics, superbly-paced guitars, throbbing bass and crisp drumming is an addictive mix, and if you buy this album, you will find yourself returning to it time after time. Simply put - get hold of it, and you won't look back.