For those who have supported Kickstarter campaigns or bands that have used them to raise money to record a new album, just imagine hitting a $30,000 target in under an hour, because that is what Five Iron Frenzy pulled off. The campaign eventually brought in over $200,000 by the time it was over, all of this for a band that at the time hadn’t released an album for around 8 years. Engine of a Million Plots is that album and has the not only the responsibility to live up to fans expectations based on the band’s history but also to live up the insane amount of money raised to record it.
For those not in the know, FIF formed way back in 1995 in an around Denver, Colorado and became one of the top Chrisitan ska bands along with the OC Supertones. Somewhat in contrast to the Supertones, who are known for their strong Christian message in lyrics, FIF lyrics delved often into the outright silly at times (“Oh, Canada”, “Phantom Mullet”) while at other times were incredibly deep, spiritual, and poignant (“Blue Comb”, “Dandelions”, “New Hope”). Over the course of the band, before disbanding in 2003, they released five full length studio albums and two live albums between 1996 – 2004 and were a consistent, large draw at Christian festivals like Cornerstone, while also touring with secular acts like Reel Big Fish and being on the Warped Tour. Between the breakup in 2003 and eventual reunion in 2011, the band was continually part of the rumor mill where fans were speculating about the band reforming. During the fall of 2011, band’s website went live with a countdown to November 22, when the band announced they were writing new material and working on a new album and even gave away a free song, “It was a Dark and Stormy Night”. Following this was a live show, the previously mentioned Kickstarter campaign, and recording, which culminated in the release of Engine of a Million Plots in November of 2013.
As a frequent contributor to Kickstarter projects, I was amazed not only at the fast response to the FIF campaign but even in the initial request amount as I’ve contributed to campaigns for much less than $10,000 that have led to incredible albums. While I thought the initial amount was a bit on the high side, the fact that FIF received over $200,000 really blew my mind and does say a lot about the fan base for FIF, they are rabid and loyal.
AS one might expect with that sort of budget, Engine of a Million Plots is expertly produced. Unfortunately, for my ears it is way overproduced. Keyboards and effects take a larger role in the overall sound than on previous albums, the horns are primarily in the background and in supporting roles and the edge that Reese Roper’s vocals have on the older albums is largely nonexistent. Notice here in these comments that I am comparing the sound to the material of over 10 years ago and people change, bands change. Likely the major thing to notice here is that the ska-punk sound is essentially gone, the new sound is essentially alternative rock with some horns layered in.
For those looking for the ska, “Someone Else’s Problem” is the only track on the album that will fit that mold. Lyrically, FIF is one of those bands that often makes the listener uncomfortable in their criticisms of society and organized religion, and this song is no exception, focusing on how we often “want to close your eyes / you want to make believe / this tangled web you weave is nowhere near the place you sleep / while other people’s lives are cheap / and all of this is someone else’s problem.” FIF also voices criticism of the stereotypical American view in “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia”, complete with lines like “when you play this song Al Qaeda wins and Jesus was American”. Similar themes have played out through many of their albums to the point where songs of this subject matter have become an expected aspect of their recordings.
Subject matter aside, the songs on this album are well-crafted and many are quite catchy. “Into Your Veins” is one song that resonated with me even on first listen as the horn parts completely reminded me of the chorus part “Hit That” by the Offspring as weird as that sounds. This is one of the catchier songs on the album to my ears, which is somewhat ironic as the subject matter deals with this exact scenario (catchy songs). Silly songs have become a FIF staple in addition to the criticisms of American consumer thought and “Battle Dancing Unicorns (With Glitter)” is the lone silly song on the album. In addition to being quite silly, lyrically, it is also quite catchy and it’s a bit of challenge to avoid hearing the chorus over and over in your head. Sometimes the actual cleverness in the lyrics is difficult to explain, so to better explain, the first verse is below. The play on words and twist of phrase is a hallmark of FIF lyrics, both silly and serious.
Shut your face / high school jerks / We’re about to show you how this works / Are we
cool? / Laser beams / We’re about to awesome all your dreams / And you’ll say, “What
are you, some kind of computer?” / and we’ll say, “A cyborg pimp from the future.”
So in the end, is this album worth the $200,000 of funding it received? That’s a real lot of money for a recording so it is a lot to live up to. For longtime fans who didn’t fund the Kickstarter campaign and were hoping for the old FIF sound, the album could be a disappointment. To be honest, that was me on first listen and it made me glad that I didn’t fund this. After listening more times to the album, I found myself liking it more and more as I was judging it on its own merits and not on history. There are enough glimpses of the old FIF to make it clear that this is still the same band, but the sound has shifted quite a bit from the old ska-punk. If you can move past that shift, you will find an album that will get a lot of play among those in your collection.
Written by John Jackson
1. “Against a Sea of Troubles”
2. “So Far”
3. “Zen & the Art of Xenophobia”
4. “We Own the Skies”
5. “Someone Else’s Problem”
6. “I Am Jack’s Smirking Revenge”
7. “To Start a Fire”
8. “Battle Dancing Unicorns with Glitter”
9. “Into Your Veins”
10. “It Was a Dark & Stormy Night”
11. “I’ve Seen the Sun”
12. “Blizzards & Bygones”
Reese Roper – lead vocals
Micah Ortega – lead guitar, vocals
Andrew Verdecchio – drums, vocals
Nathanael “Brad” Dunham – trumpet
Dennis Culp – trombone, vocals
Leanor Ortega “Jeff the Girl” – saxophone, vocals
Sonnie Johnston – guitar
Scott Kerr – guitar, bass, vocals
Record Label: Independent, Nov. 2013
Video below ‘Into Your Veins’
Video below ‘Zen and the Art of Xenophobia’