The silver lining still remains,
Of sights I’ve left to see,
So trust that with this end,
A new beginning’s waiting patiently.
For the majority of the first four albums in the series, The Dear Hunter‘s Acts – Casey Crescenzo’s sprawling prog rock opera in six parts – have been largely a story concerned with beginnings. Characters are in a seemingly perpetual state of movement, always attempting to escape or sidestep their problems in favor of the hopes of a new, better life. From the images of Ms. Terri fleeing for her life (and the life of her unborn son) away from the abuse she faced as a prostitute in Act I, to the titular protagonist – The Dear Hunter – running from home upon his mother’s murder in Act II, to his then running away from his broken relationship with Ms. Leading off to Europe to fight in World War I in Act III (where he spent a period of time AWOL after fleeing the battlefield), and finally to his return to The City and assumption of a stolen identity in Act IV, the major action of these albums has centered around running away from conflict in favor of new beginnings rather than resolving old ones. The end of Act IV marked a critical turning point in the story, however, as The Dear Hunter, in a position of power as an elected official, was blackmailed by his nemesis and the story’s main villain, The Pimp/Priest. That album ended on that reveal and cliffhanger, leaving listeners wondering where the story could possibly go from here.
Crescenzo has made sure fans wouldn’t need to wait long, though, as he announced earlier this year that Act V, entitled Hymns With The Devil In Confessional, would be released nearly exactly one year after Act IV. Furthermore, he proclaimed that this album would be the final “rock act” of the series, giving Act V an unexpected air of finality from the outset. It was for these reasons and more that this writer approached Act V with a whiff of suspicion and trepidation. Rock and metal acts, progressive rock in particular, do not have a stellar track record when releasing so much material in such brief periods of time. Forgetting that Acts IV and V appear to have been written and partially recorded in tandem, there was a lingering sense of overreach and saturation surrounding this release. From the album’s less-than-elegant mouthful of a title to the second single released, “The Revival,” feeling like a bit of a retread of music and thematic ground covered in Act IV, I was preparing myself to be let down upon first listen. It seemed nearly impossible for it to match the heights, sophistication, and consistency that defined Act IV. But somehow, shockingly, not only is Act V a worthy successor to what came before it – it may in fact be the deepest, most fully-realized, and successful piece of work that Crecesenzo and co. have put out to date. It is a character study in what an individual is capable of when backed into a corner with nowhere left to run, and as it winds down the major narrative action and conflict of the story, so too does it put a fitting cap on The Dear Hunter as a rock band while providing glimpses of what the future might hold.
In many ways Act V plays out as a dark reflection of Act IV, a horrid nightmare reality to counter the hopes and delusions that the main character put forth as he attempted to build a new life around an identity that was not his. The album sequencing and tracklist is in itself built as a mirror of sorts, as they’re both 15 tracks long and split into three pretty definitive “acts” within the Acts. As “Rebirth” leads off IV, “Regress” leads off V, and the difference in tone is immediate. “Rebirth” wasn’t exactly happy, but compared to the hushed harp plucking and somber mood of “Regress” it sounds positively bouncy. Same goes with the following two tracks, “The Moon/Awake” and “Cascade,” which plunge us into the depths of murky beauty. “Moon” dips into Black EP-style bass/electronics and off-kilter drum patterns before transitioning into a galloping chorus and positively jaw-dropping symphonic climax. And “Cascade” has all the feel of a darker and more vicious counterpart to “Waves,” a shimmering gem of a song in which the protagonist shouts of running through the night, needing a quicker fix, and “hat[ing] the sinner, not the sin.” The darker turn in tone suits Crescenzo and the music well, as it focuses the narrative and creates a sense of urgency and momentum that wasn’t always there in Act IV. His songwriting and orchestral arrangements are as sharp as ever – the callbacks and easter eggs continue to be packed into every nook and cranny of these songs – but in increasing the stakes and upping the dramatic ante this time around he more than rose to the occasion to have the music match the story and lyrics’ weight.
The music isn’t just darker, however. There are many times in this album where you can hear Crescenzo pushing well beyond both the pre-conceptions of what The Dear Hunter as a project should be and the limits of what it can achieve as a relatively conventional (i.e. guitars/bass/drums/keyboards) rock ensemble. Forget the symphonic touches and embellishments on top of otherwise performable rock songs. More so than Act IV, which featured a couple of tracks that would be impossible for the band to perform – most obviously “Remembered” – at least a third of the tracks on Act V would not be possible to play in a live setting without some drastic ensemble (and likely venue) changes. The middle section of the album in particular features a lot of this. The tender “Melpomene” has a fully orchestral feel similar to “Remembered,” as if it was plucked straight from a musical. “Mr. Usher (On His Way To Town)” switches gears entirely as it dives into peak swing jazz-era pastiche and bombast (Crescenzo puts on his best Michael Bublé impression as he goes full-on lounge singer).
Following that, “The Haves Have Naught” is simply unlike anything else we’ve heard Crescenzo attempt as a songwriter and composer. For one thing it’s the first true duet that’s been featured in the Acts (“1878” from Act I does feature some trading lines in the chorus with Dan Nigro from As Tall As Lions, but you would be hard-pressed to call that song a duet). Crescenzo and another vocalist (whose identity was not made known in press materials sent out with the album) trade verses in character as The Dear Hunter and The Pimp/Priest, gradually interlocking with each other in a beautiful display of counterpoint and conflict that neatly illustrates the difference between these two vital characters better than at any other point in the series. For all of the theatrical flourishes the music of The Dear Hunter has employed and embraced over the years, at no point has the music screamed for a full-blown theatrical production as here. It’s a brilliantly clever and effective composition, and if it’s any indication of where Crescenzo might be headed for Act VI, it should give listeners every reason to be excited.
That being said, Act V is still indeed a “rock” album overall, and the final third of the record is proof that Crescenzo and the band still have the fire in their bellies to go hard and get heavy when the situation calls for it. The sequence of songs from “The Flame (Is Gone)” through “Blood” features some of the heaviest and most epic material the band have put to tape, easily matching the heights of fan favorites like “Mustard Gas,” “The Church and the Dime,” and more. “The Flame” and “The Fire” features viciously grim drives that wouldn’t feel at all out of place on the latest O’Brother (who coincidentally toured with The Dear Hunter earlier this year) album. These two are simply table-setters for the climax of the album in “The March” and “Blood,” however. With a thumping key of a bass piano note meant to invoke a twisted memory of “Smiling Swine,” Crescenzo positively yelps his way through “The March,” barely containing the boiling cauldron of energy contained within. And as everything comes to a final head in “Blood,” Crescenzo screams “I’m a killer!”, eventually finding himself consumed by a hellfire of strings and brass to the tune of the classic leitmotifs we’ve come to cherish.
The momentum and narrative drive of this final stretch rectifies the one big issue with Act IV, which appeared to lose a bit of focus and steam towards the end before ending abruptly with the cliffhanger of “Ouroboros.” In Act V, Crescenzo manages to tie everything together so neatly that many a listener will surely wonder how there can be one more installment after this. And yet, the album’s final track, “A Beginning,” once again shows that The Dear Hunter and this series of albums are more concerned about the eternal promise of new beginnings than their conclusion. After raising expectations and the bar for themselves so high one year prior, they’ve managed to shatter through them again here on Act V, creating a whole new definition of who they are musically and what they’re capable of. By now it would be beyond foolish to predict what could possibly come next, but whatever it is, fans know to expect the unexpected. A new beginning is always waiting patiently, and so with that, so will the rest of us.
The Dear Hunter’s Act V: Hymns With The Devil In Confessional gets…