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.