(March 11, 2011)
Overall Rating: ++++
In Brief: A strong comeback for an underground favorite of mine who had been gone for far too many years. The Special Edition’s worth the extra expense.
I listen to a lot of bands nowadays that lean toward the more electronic side of rock. The combination of pre-recorded loops, synthesized sounds, and the energy of live instrumentation is something that I’ve mentioned enjoying in many of my reviews, and it’s been that way for me since around the late 90s. I have to credit The Echoing Green for being one of the bands that got me started. In the group’s early days (when the word “group” might have been dubious since it was mostly just Joey Belville and an array of computerized sounds), their output was perhaps a bit geeky, what with the obvious love for synthesizers, classic poetry, and 80s cover songs demonstrated on their albums. But I was geeky too, so it struck a chord with me. A turning point came in the year 2000, when The Echoing Green added a full-time female vocalist and filled out their lineup so as to look more like a rock band that just so happened to use a lot of synths. The result, Supernova, was an inconsistent album, but it definitely pushed the band’s sound out of the extremely small niche of “Christian dance music” and a little bit further toward the mainstream. Some darker edges were beginning to show, too, and by the time 2003’s The Winter of Our Discontent came around, it was clear that Belville and company didn’t mind tackling subjects such as depression, doubt, and that “dark night of the soul” head-on. Discontent turned out to be my favorite album by the group and one of my favorites of the entire decade… but then The Echoing Green fell silent. Aside from the occasional single or EP cropping up, it seemed as though they were in a dormant state. By the time they finally got another album out in 2011, they had long since fallen off my radar, replaced by newer acts such as MuteMath, Paper Route, Owl City, M83, and The Hawk in Paris who filled that “robotic music with a beating human heart” niche in my personal playlists. When I finally stumbled across the existence of In Scarlet & Vile a good year after its release, I found out that the band’s sound had continued to progress almost as if that eight-year gap had never happened.
The title alone should tell you something. First, there’s Scarlet. This is basically a fancier way of saying “red”. Red, on the color wheel, is diametrically opposed to green. Green gives me a mental images of life bubbling forth from the Earth, of cleanliness and peace. Red, on the other hand, represents tension, blood, anger, and big glaring warning signs telling you me stay away. And then there’s Vile. Filthy, perverse, contemptible. This is never a word I’d use to describe any of the Echoing Green’s music, up to and including this album. But it hints at something insidious lurking underneath the melodic, danceable exterior. Somewhere along the way, Joey Belville – a man who once had me convinced he knew how to express unbridled happiness in a purely digital form (check out “The Power Cosmic”, for starters) – discovered a strange fascination with the thoughts that give us the creeps. Questions about what evil lurks in the hearts of mankind dominate this album, yet it’s not an unrelentingly dark or depressing affair. Even this far down the rabbit hole, the light of God’s grace still shines through in strange ways, sometimes leading to violent conflicts between good and evil as the human heart struggles to surrender. But it’s a moody affair, to be sure. Discontent had its prettier moments to balance the sad ones, and when it was down in the dumps, there was a beautiful sort of stillness to its lonely vibe. In Scarlet & Vile, on the other hand, seems to spend about a third of its time sulking, another third lashing out, and the final third appreciating the light at the end of the tunnel. It may be the group’s most focused work thus far, at least if one discounts the generous amount of bonus tracks tacked on to the Special Edition (some of which are strong enough that I can’t imagine the album without them – plus, that’s where all the requisite cover songs are this time around, instead of cluttering up the album proper). But it’s certainly a far cry from the synthpop-loving one-man band whose self-titled cassette I took a chance on all those years ago.
As for musicianship, I’d say that the “darkwave” approach does the EG a
lot of favors. The band lineup has been fluid over the years, with
Chrissy Jeter being the only other permanent member of the group besides
Belville. Her role has grown over the years, allowing her to co-write and
even take center spotlight when a song simply works better with a female
voice. Listening to the two play off of each other is interesting at times –
she’s certainly there for a lot more than the “sexy vocal spice” you’d
expect from the usual dance-oriented group. Amidst the sometimes bubbly and
sometimes harsh electronic sounds, there’s a good amount of electric guitar
and even live drums here and there, provided on an ad hoc basis by a number
of contributors. The group has certainly learned over the years that it’s OK
to break their own rules of doing everything artificially, when a song calls
for it. The one constant that remains is that the EG seems to always pose a
challenge to our notion that music made by computers is cold and heartless.
They’re far from being alone in that regard, since many of Belville’s heroes
from the 80s have already proven this, but they were one of the first bands
to make it apparent to me, and this still seems to be a top priority for
them, no matter how much they experiment with their sound. Lapsed fans of
the group who enjoyed The Winter of Our Discontent will probably
appreciate the progression here once they get over some of the intentional
dissonance. For anyone new to the group, I might actually suggest starting
there first and then diving into this one.
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