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Brilliant Horizons
Posted January 11, 2014
By MaryNikkel_NRT, Staff Reviewer


For most bands whose discography spans over a decade and a half, the challenge to stay fresh usually either ends in either a complete direction change leaving fans with whiplash, or with a tedious battle to top their our previous efforts by recreating the same record just a little better each time. These are pitfalls cornerstone rock act Switchfoot has managed to sidestep entirely.

Switchfoot's 8th studio effort Vice Verses showed us that the veteran rockers remained unafraid to explore new territory, constantly growing and diversifying musically while refining rather than losing their core identity as a band. The September 2011 release was pumped full of thick guitar tones, heavy bass beats, and hip-hop meets alt rock chemistry.

That change in stance to lean more on beat and percussion perfectly set the stage musically for yet another leap into the unknown with the band's early 2014 effort Fading West. This is an album born along with the film by the same title, not as a soundtrack, but certainly as an accompaniment. Just as the movie traced the band's journey through the world's coastlines, music venues, beauties and challenges, the album traces a similar journey.

This album both begins and ends with statements about the core identity of the band in songs "Love Alone is Worth the Fight" and "Back to the Beginning." The first song on the album is also its lead single, an infectious reminder of the core motive behind the songs Switchfoot sings. This song soars through its upbeat hooks with a mood significantly more polished and pop than has previously been familiar for the band's work, but it's a sound they pull off believably.

The pop factor is one of the album's surprises, an element that holds steady and resurfaces throughout like a current pulling the songs out into uncharted waters. "All or Nothing At All" is another example of this, a song built up around the steady pulse of a rich beat provided by drummer Chad Butler and the exquisitely layered keyboard tones offered by Jerome Fontamillas. This is a love song that subverts the pre-packaged consumer-driven concepts of love more frequently heard in pop-styled music, declaring that love is not love unless it accepts another soul completely, with all its deepest flaws: "you and I both know our fatal flaws / we both know that love is what you make it / I want you all or nothing at all."

"Let it Out" carries some of that same slick pop sensibility, but the structure of its instrumentation is simpler, allowing the core message of the song to stand front and center. Clapped beats provide basic percussion and a simple piano bed anchors the track as frontman Jonathan Foreman empties his lungs into a cry calling us to refuse to be silenced by a noisy, numbing world.

Fans of classic Switchfoot will be grateful though that this is still undeniably the same band that produced such rock cornerstones as "Meant to Live" and "Stars." "Say it Like You Mean It" proves this. This track has teeth, biting deep with aggressive verses about maintaining integrity in what you say and do, beautifully exemplifying the thundering fuzzy guitar tones that are guitarist Drew Shirley's trademark. The slightly crowded and unusual instrumentation might also remind some listeners of "Oh! Gravity," an album that has previously been largely stylistically isolated in the band's catalog.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of this album that makes itself known repeatedly is its infectiously upbeat posture. High-energy anthem "Who We Are" is a good example of this, a song starting with a funky vibe and a muted count to five-- a number denoting the five members of the band, representing from the first that this is an autobiographical account of Switchfoot's journey. This song is not entirely inward-turned though, as it very intentionally reminds listeners "there's still time enough to choose who we are."

"When We Come Alive" is another song that is uplifting in the truest sense of the word as it reminds listeners of the particular radiance our souls have when we choose to let them shine in the dark. This vividly arranged and worded track exemplifies what it looks like when we choose not to allow true life to be overcome.

This upbeat and energetic pacing is balanced by three more mellow-hearted tracks in the album's center. "The World You Want" is a song of recognizing the broken places in the world while emphasizing that we have a measure of responsibility in healing it. The more subdued tone fits beautifully the indictment standing against our own self-preoccupation, leaving us with the reminder that where we invest our actions proves what we believe: "what you say is your religion / how you say it's your religion / who you love is your religion / how you love is your religion..."

"Slipping Away" is also more in line with Switchfoot's darker, more introspective work lyrically, although the musical tone is more upbeat and dynamic than might be expected from the poetic and almost desperate lyrics: "Fear is just a shadow of the things that matter the most / and I fear that I'm losing hope tonight." The arranging here is also slightly reminiscent of Oh! Gravity, particularly in the flow of the verses.

Another intense track immediately follows with "Ba55," a song that suitably begins with a thumping bass line proferred by Tim Foreman. The song layers haunting tones as it progresses, lyrically exploring the purifying nature frequently found in challenges as it musically soars through dark, distorted guitar interludes and Jon Foreman's moody vocals.

The song that most tangibly ties this album to the ocean shores that inspired it is "Saltwater Heart," a song that draws on some of the mild hip-hop influences first employed on Vice Verses as it explores water as something spiritual, the tie between our water-filled bodies and their longing for the ocean a metaphor for a much deeper longing for our souls to be united with the Image they were drawn from. The track's structure and songwriting style are both intriguing and instantly memorable, and it showcases deep honesty as one of the greatest strengths of Jon Foreman's songwriting.

Chill, symphonic synth tones usher in the album's final curtain, previously mentioned "Back to the Beginning." This song beautifully echoes back to "Love Alone Is Worth the Fight," ending the journey with a reminder again of the necessity of digging deep and holding steadfast to your source of life, no matter how far beyond familiar shores life's current may draw you. Yearning marks this track, but it is also marked by hope stayed upon the One who authors and perfects redemption in chaotic, distracted lives: "but you're what I'm running for / and I want to feel the wind at my back again / back to the beginning again."

Closing Thoughts:
"Where do songs come from?" Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman muses when reflecting on the process of creating Fading West. "For me, they come from uncomfortable places. Awkward, painful places where I feel tested-- face to face with questions that don't have easy answers."

Much of this album is born of both the joy and sorrow that comes from facing those questions head-on, embracing them with a sense of humility and wonder in recognizing that, despite our flaws, we are gifted with rich life. The album bears the same sense of brave exploration and elated adventure that the movie holds, and it also carries the reminder that intense joy is not born without a fight. Musically, the album boasts melodies smooth as the colors of a sunkissed shore, with texture in the instrumentation as deep as the restless ocean water that poured itself into these songs.

Although the pop-driven nature characterizing much of this album might require some getting used to for longtime Switchfoot fans, it seems like a suitable sound for this chapter of the band's story-- a chapter more full of vivacious energy, wide-eyed joy, and earnest hope than ever before. If there is any doubt about where this vibrance stems from, Jon Foreman clarifies it best: "...my fears and doubts began the day I was born. And yet, my hope is anchored on the other side of life and death with the colors that live outside the lines."

Song to Download Now:
"Love Alone is Worth the Fight" (Get it on iTunes here.)

View All Music And Book Reviews By MaryNikkel_NRT | View MaryNikkel_NRT's Profile

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