Joel Heng Hartse (joelhenghartse.com) is author of Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll and the forthcoming book of music criticism, Dancing about Architecture is a Reasonable Thing to Do.
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Five Iron Frenzy Has Never Sounded Better
UPBEATS AND BEATDOWNS, the first album by the Denver-based band Five Iron Frenzy, opens with a song about the evil of manifest destiny and the genocide of Native people. In the second song, the protagonist gives all his money to a homeless man. The fourth track is about refusing to pledge allegiance to the American flag. This was in 1996. On an album sold primarily in Christian bookstores, by a band that played evangelical church basements.
Five Iron Frenzy is still making music and, earlier this year, put out the most caustically political album of their career, Until This Shakes Apart. Released days after the Capitol insurrection, the album pulls no punches in its criticism of evangelicals’ embrace of Trumpian politics. And the band has never sounded better.
After their sloppy, fun ska-punk days in the ’90s and their hit-and-miss, genre-hopping experiments in the early 2000s, the band broke up, reformed in 2011, and released the mature and muscular Engine of a Million Plots in 2013. Rejoined with songwriter Scott Kerr (who had left the band in 1998), the band found new purpose and energy as its songs became more introspective. The result was a record more in the vein of Jimmy Eat World than third-wave ska, ending with a song about uncertainty and hope rather than their previous, hymn-like closers. The band remains loud and dark, but Until This Shakes Apart is more explicitly influenced by older forms of ska, like reggae and two-tone. And where Engine of a Million Plots was introspective, this album points the finger outward. No one is safe from singer Reese Roper’s critique on this record, each song unleashing righteous anger at a different target: heartless immigration policy, gentrification of the band’s hometown, the Confederate flag, oil profiteering, and so much more.