Sunday, October 31, 2010

House of Heroes-Suburba

House of Heroes was a band that didn’t immediately strike me as something. When I first heard them I dismissed them as just another nasally, pretentious rock group. It was only after multiple listening to Say No More over a long period of time that I grew to appreciate the group’s lyrical style and musical chops. Seeing them live was another turning point in my House of Heroes’ experience, as was purchasing their World War II-themed CD The End is Not The End. It was this record that convinced me of their merit as good songwriters, and showed off their melodic talents, putting them in my roster of my favorite modern bands. Their House of Heroes Meets the Beatles EP was another solid step in the right direction, proving that they could cover Beatles songs without totally desecrating them. Then came Suburba, the group’s Springsteen-esque tribute to growing up in the American suburbs. I was afraid when I saw the early buzz about Suburba that it would be a pop album. Well, it is. And it’s one of the greatest pop albums ever made.

Many reviewers have compared this record to Queen, on the merit of its five-part, auto-tune free background vocals. While there are echoes of Queen on the record, this is only part of the story. Suburba sounds like every classic rock band, and a few modern ones, thrown into a blender. There are echoes of Styx, Roy Orbison, Springsteen, Mellencamp, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Rush, and others. Only a truly great band could write a song that has touches of both mewithoutYou and Motley Crüe.

From the beginning of the record, it is clear that House of Heroes has updated their style, without doing a complete 180-degree turn. The slightly proggy, heavier rock of Say No More and the pop of The End… have been perfectly fused and further perfected to a sound that can be described as pop/rock with brains. The guitar tone and drum tone is perfect throughout the record, and the band has managed to get rid of the annoying parts of songs which hampered their first two efforts. The “Whoa-ohs” and shouts of “Hey!” are still here, but instead of sounding like amateur songwriting, they are expertly incorporated into their songs. The biggest change from the previous records, and what makes this record gold, are the five-part background vocals, recorded without any Auto-tune or Pro-tools.

The record kicks off with “Relentlessly”, a song that defies explanation. Listen to it, and see how House of Heroes took a song that could have been a clumsy intro, and made it into a great tune. The second track, “Elevator”, sounds like nothing ever heard before in the world of rock. “Love is For the Middle Class” has the wittiest House of Heroes lyrics to date, alternately biting and loving. Of course, only a Christian band could write a song about a girl wearing a one-piece swimsuit. “So Far Away” has a fifties vibe, and sounds like it could have been sung by Roy Orbison, had he lived long enough. The band comes up with an updated classic rock sound on “God Save The Foolish Kings”, which harkens back to the House of Heroes tradition of taking a pop song and throwing in as many curveballs possible. Football rivalries, girlfriends, talking to God, and this isn’t even country music. Side 1 ends with “Salt in the Sea”, which solidifies House of Heroes as one of the best new melodic bands. The only complaint I have with this song is that the lyrics are a little vague: I can’t tell whether the song is about God, or a girl, or both.

A major problem with The End Is Not The End was the way that the second half of the record felt like it was packed with relatively uninspired filler-songs. This is not an issue on this record. The second half starts out with a gospel-music snippet at the end of “Salt in The Sea”, and segues into “Independence Day For A Petty Thief”, the album’s guitar anthem. This song rivals “Lose Control” from The End… Halfway through the song fades out to the sound of fireworks and the gospel-music snippet plays again, this time given a new significance due to the lyrics of the song. The solo in “Independence Day” sounds like Tim Skipper is trying to re-write The Edge’s solo from “Bullet The Blue Sky”, but instead of being a cheap derivation, it fits into the updated classic rock milieu that the band is working in. “Somebody Knows” sounds like John Cougar Mellencamp stole Queen’s background vocals, and Tim even works in a little gospel call-and-response. “Disappear”, the only song on the record that sounds anywhere close to lackluster, brings back some of the old House of Heroes, with their untraditional song structure and long instrumental sections. “She Mighty Mighty” is the ultimate song to crank up loud and sing along wildly. Then comes “Constant”, the song House of Heroes recorded because their label wanted them to have a radio single. This brings to mind the bands that have great album material, but lame singles (OneRepublic). House of Heroes exceeds expectations again, and “Constant” is one of the best songs on the album, along with all the other ones. The final track, “Burn Me Down”, is surprisingly upbeat for an ending track, unlike most of those songs about girls dying that become ending tracks on records. It achieves everything that “Field of Daggers” (From their last record), was reaching for, without the annoying repetition of “Field.” After the song proper fades out, the band pulls out a reference to one of the earlier songs, (I won’t spoil it for you). This is another House of Heroes tradition, as the coda to Say No More incorporated a lyric line from the first song, and the first track on The End… was the string quartet part from “Baby’s a Red”.

Lyrically, many of the songs on the album tell stories, especially straight-out story songs like “Independence Day for a Petty Thief.” The album feels like it was originally planned as a concept or story album (it was), and so, like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it has a continuity without actually telling an actual story. Unlike many bands who play up the Christian content of their earlier releases, and then move to more “subtle” lyrics, House of Heroes actually explicitly references the Triune God on this record, on “God Save The Foolish Kings”, “She Mighty Mighty” and “Constant”, and makes other Christian references on the record, such as quoting the apostle Paul on “Burn Me Down”, or the gospel interlude on “Independence Day for a Petty Thief.” Anyone who is worried that House of Heroes has started performing sappy worship songs can rest assured that their songwriting is still challenging. “Constant”, far from being a syrupy “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” song, is about Christians going through problems in life, and having faith in the face of struggle. Some listeners may complain about the change from the dark poetry of Say No More, but this is a different album with a different focus.

House of Heroes is the rare band that takes classic rock music and progresses, as opposed to simply imitating it. House of Heroes is also the rare band who can record three albums that sound fresh and different, without being eclectic for the sake of being eclectic. And House of Heroes is a band that can perform songs in different styles without coming off as dilettantes. Suburba is the best non-Johnny Cash record of this year, and is the perfect record for driving in your car with the windows down and the sound system cranked up. Suburba proves that pop isn’t for Lady Gaga-esque hucksters, and in a sane world these songs would be all over the radio. House of Heroes has many influences, but sounds like no one else. Go buy this record. Now. You will not regret it.

House of Heroes has gone a long way from being a band that mainly appealed to emo kids, (I think that I was the only non-emo fan in my town when I saw them live), to a sophisticated pop outfit. From here, the possibilities are endless. The band is so talented, that they could play any genre that they pleased, from hard rock to punk to pop to country (I’m still waiting for the bluegrass album). If they continue to progress and get better, they will go from one of the greatest modern rock bands to one of the greatest bands of all time.

Currently Listening: "Gloria", Laura Branigan, "Beautifully Broken", This Beautiful Republic, "What If I Stumble", DC Talk, "Loser", Beck.


  1. Ok, I'm a relatively open-minded old guy. Figured I'd give your group a try. Listened to "God Save the Foolish Kings" and honestly thought it was a pretty fair song. Though I confess the opening notes really reminded me of Wes King's "Second String." Lyrically - I've heard better worded efforts. One example - "We're lions missing half our teeth?" - or something that sounded like that didnt grab me as words begging to be engraved on gold tablets, but still, not too bad a musical effort taken as a whole. Didnt hear a whit of Queen in that song, but perhaps it is some of the others on the album that are a little more Freddiesh. At any rate, you provoked me to small accomplishment, that.

  2. The lyrics are not the strongest on that song. "So Far Away" is one I think you would like, it has a sort of 50's "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" vibe to it.
    And If I were you, I would steer clear of their "House of Heroes Meets the Beatles" EP. I like it just fine, but you would probably be appalled at their covers of the Beatles songs.

  3. I just saw HOH in Wichita this past weekend and they were awesome. It was a small venue with no more than 200 people there so we got to meet the guys of HOH and they are great people. The End Is Not The End is one of my personal favorite albums, it is solid all the way through and everyone that I've turned on to it says the more times you hear it the more you like it. (Track 6 is epic) Suburba is a solid album as well, a different style than The End but still very good. I can't say enough good things about them, if you haven't heard them you owe it to yourself to do so and if you can catch them live I highly recommend it. You'll add a new favorite to your collection.

  4. Just curious, how do you know the vocal tracks were recorded without Auto-tune or Pro-tools? Did they record to tape??

    (coming from a producer/engineer POV)

  5. I think the way we know the background vocals were recorded without Auto-tune is because all four members of the band stood around the microphone during gang vocal and multi-harmony parts of the song, with each member taking a different part and they sang it all together at once. Unless I'm wrong, it's quite difficult to Auto-tune when vocals are done that way.

  6. I think that Salt in the Sea is clearly about God.

    "Until I become one with everything I dream, I will give You praise. Praise eternally."

    Pretty blatant. Great album. Just as solid as The End, but not more so. The End Is Not The End is one of my all time favorite albums. Flawless. This one is flawless as well, but I preferred the lyrical theme of The End as well as the overall musical sound. Such a solid band.

  7. To validate the reviewers comments, I can verify that all the bgvs were in fact Tim, Colin, Jared, AJ and myself standing around a single mic, balanced by our distant relative to the mic and generally tracked a couple of times. There was no tuning involved...

    Mark Lee Townsend

  8. @John Mason: Yes, I saw them live, with about 30-50 other people on the last night of their tour with Abandon Kansas and The Wedding. I think I was one of three guys there without long hair, piercings or tattoos. Great show, and they played Paradise City by Guns 'n' Roses as an encore. I also have some footage I took of the Wedding's bassist playing "You Are Beautiful" by Christina Aguilera on the piano.
    @ Ethan. Yes. I think there were some lyric lines earlier on in the song that sounded kind of vague, but it's a great song nonetheless.
    @ Mark Lee Townsend. You don't realize how happy this makes me that you commented on this blog. House Of Heroes is on my list of my top ten favorite rock bands. I'm about to die of joy.
    Thanks for all the comments.-Nick.

  9. Excellent review...Suburba is without a doubt the best release of the year. I'd like to hear the reviewers thoughts on the Amazon bonus track "Galveston" (there's a wicked-fierce guitar solo on it) or if he's heard the iTunes bonus song, "Patient"--hauntingly beautiful. Love the whole disc--incredible band. Hope they continue to make their intelligent brand of music for years to come.

  10. I love HoH, and will always follow them closely. Suburba is a great album, but it didn't fulfill all of my expectations. Personally, Say No More is my favorite album of all time. It's clever, dynamic, never straight forward, and very complicated which I love. The End Is Not The End was amazing, but disappointing in the fact that they were moving closer to a poppy sound that wasn't House of Heroes to me. Still, this album had me listening for a long time before I understood everything well, like Say No More. Suburba has entertained me, but to me the songs were well written pop sing alongs. Yes, the harmony is amazing but instrumentally... it's boring. As far as the song structure goes, there is no comparison to the intricate work on SNM. Songs on the album like Elevator, Burn Me Down, and God Save the Foolish Kings saved it for me. I don't really understand She Mighty Mighty and Somebody Knows, they're just not HoH-ish. Hopefully the band will bring back their older style without losing fans for it. That's the stuff that truly connected with me emotionally, EVERY single song. Whatever they decide to do, I will always love them so much for the great moments and music that they have given me.