Ambition is a hell of a thing. It’s a trait that we — as listeners, consumers, connoisseurs, critics, or what have you — intrinsically expect and demand from our artists. We want to hear ideas that are new and unexpected. We crave for things that are large and can capture our imaginations and attentions in ways we never even knew existed. The obvious upshot to setting the bar so high though is that it makes it oh so much easier to fall short of it. If ire were a physical substance, you could build a pile higher than Mount Everest constructed solely of derision towards albums that missed the mark of what they set out to accomplish, and concept albums would form its foundation. There’s something special about concept albums that lends themselves particularly to many of the greatest sins of musicianship and writing, and there are so many things that can go wrong. Perhaps the concept or story is opaque, too complicated for the medium, or just straight-up uninteresting and dull. They are particularly susceptible to things like bloat and contrived attempts to pack as many ideas into small spaces as possible. Problems will always arise when music becomes too much in service to a concept rather than the other way around.
For those reasons and more, it makes what progressive act The Dear Hunter and songwriter Casey Crescenzo have accomplished in the past decade all the more impressive. Crescenzo does not think small. His music is constructed of grand stories and concepts matched by grander musical gestures and influences. The success of the band’s earlier work, three albums intended to be Acts in a 6-part series, rests upon Crescenzo’s natural gift for storytelling and impressionable melodies and themes with a compositional density and depth that makes fans of even the most challenging and inscrutable progressive music out there swoon. After the release of the widely-lauded Act III in 2009, the band’s reach and clout were expanding rapidly, touring with fellow alt-prog-lords Coheed and Cambria and being name-checked by the likes of Tommy Rogers of Between the Buried and Me (it’s not difficult to see shades of TDH’s work seep through much of BTBAM’s output post-Colors). The possibilities seemed limitless for Crescenzo, and there was every expectation that Act IV would be soon forthcoming to blow minds once again.
And yet here we are in the year 2015 upon that album’s release. Crescenzo has been nothing if not productive during that time however. He first jumped out of the Acts universe into another daunting conceptual construct, releasing the 9 EPs that comprised the mammoth The Color Spectrum series. The music from there vastly expanded the sonic palette that fans could expect Crescenzo and The Dear Hunter to draw from. 2013’s Migrant further honed and refined Casey’s songwriting, focusing more on shorter and more conventional songforms. And last year, Crescenzo released his first symphony piece, the lush Amour & Attrition, which sounded like it could have been lifted from another story parallel to or within the Acts universe. All three of these works however were not mere distractions or detours from the Acts. Rather, Crescenzo likely understood as well as anyone the dangers, pitfalls, and restrictions of concept albums and series and waited for a time he felt he could return to the universe he created with the same freshness and wild ambition that defined Acts I – III. That is exactly what he and the rest of the band manage to accomplish with Act IV — an album which not only continues and builds upon the foundation they already laid, but utterly redefines it.
One could go on for pages and pages about the nitty-gritty details, plot-lines, and conceptual developments present in this chapter of the series (and believe me, that will all come in due time in a separate *prognotes post), but in essence, Rebirth In Reprise finds the nameless protagonist of the series in an existential struggle for his identity and soul after fighting World War I and stealing the identity of his half-brother (killed alongside him in battle) in a desperate attempt to escape his checkered past. Yet, as the protagonist is constantly reminded of his previous life, we the listeners are treated to a bevy of musical, lyrical, and thematic callbacks and easter eggs that not only provide immense joy and satisfaction for longtime listeners, but beautifully connect and weave together the past with the present. It can take the form of a stray melody or style re-contextualized — a lonely piano at the end of “A Night On The Town” that sprinkles in the theme from “Mustard Gas,” the theme from “The Lake And The River” popping up at the end of “The Old Haunt,” or the vaudevillian clip-clopping of “The Bitter Suite V: The Sermon In The Silt” — or lyrics we’ve become all too familiar with — the mention of “And the flame might be gone but the fire remains” in “Remembered,” turning a lyric from “Smiling Swine” into the track title “The Squeaky Wheel,” or the bevy of other callbacks throughout “A Night On The Town” and “The Bitter Suite IV and V.” The music is still dense and highly theatrical, expounding angst and melodrama through the lens of a progressive rock opera. Crescenzo’s seemingly effortless knack for writing earworm melodies and cathartic choruses is just as strong as ever. It’s everything fans have come to expect from The Dear Hunter, and it is unlikely that anyone who has followed the band up to this point would be anything less than pleased with the outcome.
What sets Act IV apart and propels it to unforeseen heights though are the glimmers of hard work and development that Crescenzo spent those previous six years on. There’s certainly plenty of the theatrical Violet coursing throughout the album, especially in “The Sermon In The Silt,” which makes the primary antagonist of the series, The Priest/Pimp, seem like he could be a cousin to “Mr. Malum.” Red and Orange-like blues and fuzzed-out rock are sprinkled throughout, particularly on the groovy “If All Goes Well.” The delicate folksy plucking of “The Line” could have easily fit in on Green. The poppiest and most radio-friendly track of the bunch, “Waves,” is nothing if not a continuation of the better symphonic pop work off of Migrant.
The clearest and most important influence on this album though is Crescenzo’s increasing confidence as a composer and arranger. The music of the Acts has always had a symphonic bent to it, and Crescenzo has been incorporating strings and horns since the beginning. Act IV gets the full symphonic treatment though, as the bustling world we’ve come to know and love takes on new life in the overture that forms “Rebirth.” Strings and horns make an appearance in just about every track on the album, but at no point does it feel saccharine or over-saturated. Rather, it only further embellishes and adds depth to the theatrical nature of the series already established in earlier chapters. The music here plays out like the grandest and coolest Broadway musical out there. And though the music doesn’t quite hit the same climatic and raw emotional heights of the previous Acts (though the climatic moments of “A Night On The Town” — possibly the most The Dear Hunter-y song ever — certainly come close), Crescenzo imbues far more sophistication and beauty here than ever before.
Nowhere is this more evident than in some of the slower and more soulful tracks. Whereas the earlier chapters often drew more from the kind of melodic post-hardcore angst that Crescenzo cut his teeth on in The Receiving End Of Sirens (think “Embrace” and “Red Hands”), tracks like “The End Of The Earth,” “Remembered,” “Is There Anybody Here?”, “The Bitter Suite VI: Abandon,” and “Wait” all possess an amazing freshness to them and musical identity that could only belong to Crescenzo and this band. The subtle shifts between darkness and light in these songs are a real testament to his growth as a songwriter and arranger in the past few years. These moments have a way of latching themselves not only to your brain but your gut and heart, and every gorgeous string passage or soulful moan from Crescenzo provides an irresistible tug.
This isn’t to say that the album is a totally serious affair though. Rather, the album benefits greatly from its moments of levity and a few musical curveballs, which Crescenzo seems intent on throwing into every one of these albums. The jangly piano banging and brightly bombastic Electric Light Orchestra-esque classic rock of “The Squeaky Wheel” is the musical sequel to “Smiling Swine” that fans surely didn’t think was even possible. The vaudevillian antics of “The Oracles On The Delphi Express,” “The Bitter Suite II,” and “The Poison Woman” are transformed into a twisted carnival show as we witness the money-grabbing spectacle that The Priest puts on in “The Bitter Suite V.” And it’s doubtful that anyone saw “The King Of Swords (Reversed)” coming, which throws our protagonist into a neon-filled dance party influenced more by Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart, and other titans of classic 70s/80s dance pop than anything rock or classical. These tracks and the gleefully vindictive party rock of “If All Goes Well” are sure to be instant live favorites for years to come, and they make Act IV not only a beautiful and rich album, but one that is plain fun to listen to front-to-back.
The only drawback to a few of these tracks, particularly “The King Of Swords” and “If All Goes Well,” which open up the last third of the album, is that they begin to feel a bit fractured and less musically cohesive than the rest of the album, which is overall exceedingly well-constructed and sequenced. The transitions and stylistic shifts between “If All Goes Well” through closing track “Ouroboros” feel a bit more strained and less natural than what came before, and it’s likely to pull the listener’s focus away just ever so much. It doesn’t help that “Ouroboros” appears to be intentionally non-climatic, offering the closest thing you can get to a musical cliffhanger, a very dirty trick when listeners certainly needed no additional reasons to crave what comes next. When an album like this is already pushing the limits of people’s attention spans at a sprawling 74 minutes however, it’s critical that momentum and focus are not broken by the conclusion, and to that end, the album’s last “act” does not quite stick the landing.
In the grand scheme of things however, this is a pretty minor quibble, and it’s certainly one that does not detract in a significant way from the sparkling feat of musical prowess that is Rebirth In Reprise. This album is absolutely everything fans of the band could want, and it is sure to attract many new devotees because of it. Coming full circle to the original point made here, Act IV is the embodiment of musical ambition at its most fully realized and executed. It’s a breath of fresh air in a sea of ire, cynicism, and disappointment that often forms a thick shroud over progressive music communities. If their reputation as one of the leading and most important voices of modern prog rock wasn’t already cemented by now, this should provide a 2-ton weight in their support. The only lingering question is what could possibly come next. If the past decade has proven anything though, it’s that whatever it is, it will be ambitious, it will be surprising, and it will be brilliant.
The Dear Hunter’s Act IV: Rebirth In Reprise gets…