Review Summary: (we are) the future of what
The Fall of Troy have been a band out of time for over a decade now. Back in 2009, the Sputnik staff review for their dumpster-fire fourth outing In the Unlikely Event
described the band as “lost”, perhaps a little melodramatic a description for those keeping their fingers crossed, but ultimately an accurate forecast of their subsequent fate. While 2016’s comeback of sorts OK
avoided plumbing the same depths as its predecessor, it indicated that piecemeal songwriting, frontman Thomas Erak’s atrocious lyricism and grating vocals and - four independently released mixes be damned - ropey production value were to remain mainstays of the band’s style. Their latest album Mukiltearth
certainly suffers from most of these drawbacks, but more than any other Fall of Troy releases so far, it poses wider questions about just what exactly the band are doing halfway through the second decade of their career.
This in large part due to the band’s largely unchanging M.O. in times that very much aren’t what they used to be. Back in their early days, technicality went a long way: Kidcrash and Off Minor were the most exciting bands in the world for anyone who knew they existed, people were throwing compliments of virtuosity at groups as frantic and unrefined as Circle Takes the Square, Minus the Bear were able to masquerade sex appeal out of groovy tap guitar, and, in 2003, The Fall of Troy and Hot Cross’ integration of acrobatic fretwork into a framework of riff-happy screamo must have seemed like the start of something huge. Neither band put too much attention into the finer details, but that was irrelevant in wake of their brash arsenal of thrills. Things shifted around the late ‘00s: Dance Gavin Dance and Ling Tosite Sigure rewired these sloppy guitar heroics into something leaner and more sophisticated (read: their guitarists relied on legitimate funk technique rather than aping the Mars Volta for dramatic effect), and over the following decade their many waves of bastard musical offspring ft. Tillian Pearson set about rehashing their style into overpolished masturbatory swill. Flashforward to the present day and it’s very hard to be impressed with this sound in general when so many groups have joylessly run its potential for cheap thrills into the ground.
In most cases it would be unfair to question whether a band’s whole style is best left in the past before putting the specifics of their work under the microscope, but since six of Mukiltearth
’s ten tracks are rerecordings of the group’s 2002 EP Martyrs Among The Casualties
(as The Thirty Years War), it’s somewhat pertinent here. On the one hand, that EP’s production and performances were scrappy to the point of farcicality, so a rerecording was hardly a misconceived prospect, but on the other, it’s a little saddening to see the band struggling to recreate their heyday magic while sacrificing much of the haphazard execution that made them such a blast to begin with. This isn’t just nostalgiaspeak: the ultra-clean production and improved musicianship of the Mukiltearth
versions has the unfortunate side effect of exposing dynamic and pacing flaws that were skirted over by their raw volatility of the tracks’ original recordings. For instance, if this version of “The Tears of Green-Eyed Angels” had been presented as a contemporary original, it would be written off as a directionless mess marred by meandering fretplay in the verses and insufferably thin screams in the chorus (a trait common to the album as a whole). It’s questionable whether this track was ever particularly worthwhile, but the band’s attempt to clean it up gives me the impression that what it really needed was a mercy killing.
Fortunately, the other rerecordings fare better. “Mirrors Are More Fun Than Television” is a fun attempt at a miniepic that channels the amateurish deliberateness of the band’s high school songwriting into a serviceable complex structure. It’s an enjoyable listen here, but it misses much of the energy that smoothed over cracks in its pacing, while its newfound polish subdues the stakes and excitement that once made the original such a portentous showcase of the band’s potential. Following on, “The Day the Strength of Men Failed” comes out the best of the rerecordings simply because its pacing and riff placement were on the money from the get-go. As a rule of thumb for any post-Manipulator
Fall of Troy song, the longer the band take their foot off the gas, the higher the odds of Erak’s vocal performance dragging things down like a lead balloon. Neither “The Day the Strength of Men Failed” nor the sizzling once-closer “Knife Fight at the Mormon Church” give the momentum a chance to sag this way, and they come off the better for it.
All in all, these rerecordings are an enjoyable trip down memory lane, but the band’s fixation on their roots is less a positive indication that they remember the qualities that once made them a great, and more an unambiguous sign that they are unlikely to recapture their glory days in studio any time soon. It is, I suppose, a good thing that versions of these songs exist in the world in a form that doesn’t border on demo quality, but it feels like a case of too little too late. On the other hand, the four tracks that close the album present the band’s contemporary songwriting in a more encouraging light. These tracks are essentially a considerably tighter refinement of the OK
sound, proficiently paced and much more in tune with the album’s production and the contemporary list of things Thomas Erak can and can’t do with his voice. The likes of “Round House” and “Counting Sheep” are beefier and more fleet-footed than the rerecorded songs, showcasing a leanness and precision that makes for an occasionally impressive showcase of chops. “Round House” in particular slips in and out of successive breakdowns with a slickness that smacks of the band’s years of experience far more than the immature stop-starts that peppered OK
; this track is perhaps the most positive indication of what their future might look like. For all Mukiltearth
manages to steer clear of outright flops, such glimpses are in worryingly short supply; the album shows the band stubbornly refusing to grow out of a sound that the rest of the world has by and large moved on from.