Friday, October 3, 2008

For Today - Ekklesia (2008)

In the world of rock and metal, the vocalist is almost always the focal point. The vocalist is usually the most visible member of a band on stage, on the CD, and in the media. Drummers, bassists, and musicians of various employ come and go, but the core vocalist is always a consistent element. In the world of hardcore, metalcore, and more extreme metal, this isn't always the case. Some bands falter when the lead vocalist steps down (Bolt Thrower, for example), whereas some go on to greater critical and/or commercial success when a vocalist is replaced (Arch Enemy is a good example of this). For the most part, unless the vocalist is the front man, or unless the style the vocalist brings is so unique & different that the band can't overcome that association, most bands in the more extreme forms of metal tend to soldier on and survive. What do you do when a favorite vocalist jumps ship and moves to another band? Do you stick with the band you love, hoping the replacement will work just as well? Do you follow the vocalist to the new band, in hopes that the music will match their charisma or style? Or do you just follow your "musical heart" and listen to whatever rings your bell? For me, it's the latter. However, I must say that following a vocalist to their next project can be a rewarding experience.

Enter For Today. I had only briefly heard about this band when I heard that Mattie Montgomery had jumped ship from Besieged (after laying down killer work on their "Atlantis" album) and joined For Today. I think I had probably heard a couple of their EP tracks on their Myspace page, and sent them a friend request not 2-3 weeks earlier, liking what I had heard. When I heard about Mattie leaving Besieged, I was understandably concerned. They had recorded what was one of my favorite albums of 2007, and now the vocalist who had worked magic on that record was gone. What was I to think? Then, when I heard about him joining For Today, it hadn't occurred to me that I had friended just weeks earlier until I visited their Myspace page again. Thoughts raced through my head like, "He joined THESE guys?" or "Why the sudden change?" I didn't know what to make of it. Thankfully, my fears were quelled when I saw the band perform at a CD release show (in my home state of Nebraska no less!), and I realized that this band was as special as the one I had been fauning over a year before.

The CD starts off with the obligatory "Intro" track, a nice display of bottom-heavy breakdown-style riffing, standard metalcore drum rhythms, and a nice lead guitar pattern. "Infantry" comes in right away, with a nice dual-guitar riff, and some Weyandt-esque vocals from Mattie. There's a good lick during the intro as well. The riff, drum work, bassline, and vocal work is fairly elastic, showing great flexibility & a fair amount of skill. It's not overly melodic, but it does the job. The song moves quickly from one structure to another, not content to follow a verse-chorus type of mentality, but transitioning from one idea to another. Thankfully, these ideas work well, and the song doesn't sound disjointed. Mattie goes from nice raspy highs to guttural lows (though not quite into brutal death growl territory), and some nice harsh vocals in between for effect. The group yells here are not completely typical, having a bit more high-pitched sound than many group yells opt for. The double-bass work here is nice, as is the light cymbal touches that slightly accent the rest of the music here & there. Lyrically, it's very much a call to spiritual warfare, and shining a light by being bold in a stance for Christ. "Redemption" starts off with a really catchy lead sort of rhythm, with the other guitar providing the lower end harmonizing part. Immediately it transitions into a cool dual-guitar lead/rhythm piece that channels some of the early Iron Maiden dual guitar work. After the "ride 'em cowboy" yell that cuts the song down the middle, it transitions into another nice melodic guitar line with a subdued yell vocal , then into a low-end chunky riff section with more of Mattie's lows. The dual-guitar lead/riff comes blazing in again & shows the skill these guitar players obviously have, and shows how nice a harmonized lead can sound when played properly. "Agape" (the first single) pulls no punches at the start, firing on all cylinders with sweeps in tow, and a bottom-heavy breakdown almost immediately after some highs & lows by Mattie. The riff in the main verse sections moves along with the drum rhythm well, and has an August Burns Red feel to it. Lyrically, the song is essentially about agape love, and how God loves us more than anything, and how we are to respond in kind by loving Him with our whole heart, soul, body, and mind. The breakdown about 3:00 has some good double-bass work. The breakdown-heavy end has a group yell that echoes the "all your soul, all your mind, all your strength!" while Mattie fills in the lows. "Never Lose Sight of the Goals" immediately fires up with a good riff with melody and heaviness. The drum work in this song is excellent, with fast & hyper-accurate double-bass work, solid riffing, and interesting cymbal fills. The clean vocals here almost sound like Stephen Christian of Anberlin. They're quite well done. The riffing after the clean vocal section is fast & tasty, despite it's relative simplicity compared to much of the rest of the material. The band moves in many different directions here, and keep things interesting throughout by not dwelling in one place too long, or allowing a riff to become stale. "Instrumental" is just that - a quiet, plaintive instrumental track with underlying clean & acoustic guitar, a guitar feedback hum underneath that swells slowly, and spare but effective cymbal & bass work. It provides a transition between the 1st and 2nd halves of the album.

"Words of Hope" comes in guns blazing after the break with low vocals, heavy guitar and bombastic drums & bass. Again, August Burns Red is channeled here a bit. The interesting rhythms and interplay between the guitar & drums make for fun listening. Lyrically, the song sounds like a plea to a friend or acquaintance not to give up on life, but to embrace all that God has to offer. The clean vocals here recall Stephen Christian again, with a nice harmonized layering effect halfway through. More dual-guitar interplay accompanies a rumbling bassline & solid drum work through the end of the song. "Ready For the Fight" starts off with Mattie bringing the low vocals, growling out the song title. In comes a low-end riff that is content to dwell on the bottom string while the bass & drums rumble along. That doesn't last for long, however, and a melodic & interesting riff w/ dual-guitar harmony comes in, carrying the verse along. This song, like some of the others, doesn't follow a verse-chorus format, but moves in varying directions throughout it's cycle, picking up cool riffs, lead/riff combinations, and remaining interesting throughout. Mattie switches it up a bit by throwing in some higher, raspy vocals along with his low-end roar. "A Higher Standard" opens up with a cool dual-guitar rhythm, and some excellent double-bass, drum, and cymbal work. There is a slight ode to southern hardcore about a minute in, with just a hint of the vocal stylings & guitar sounds many of the current crop of southern hardcore bands are bringing. Quickly transitioning back to a melodic metalcore sound, however, the song isn't content to keep a southern flavor, but rather keep changing the course that's on the table. Lyrically, this song is a call to arms for Christians, letting us all know that we are not to be lukewarm, but rather bold in our stance for Christ and that we are called to a higher standard than the rest of the world. Some nice higher-pitched yells interspersed throughout with more of Mattie's raspy vocals. Again, the guitar work here is great, with loads of dual-guitar harmonies & lines that don't just riff here or there, but move around and make things more complex than just 3 and 4 chord riffs. It's also the longest song on the album, allowing the complexity that much more time to play out with the different riff & rhythm structures the band has to offer. "With a Passion Burning" starts with a riff that almost sounds old-school metal, except when against the backdrop of the rest of the instrumentation & production. This song recalls thrash metal quite a bit with the speedy double-bass, fast riffing, and complexity in later sections. Lyrically, this is the only point in the album which isn't a bold evangelical of "call to arms" kind of statement of Christianity. It's a more general statement of encouragement to the listener to follow their dreams by finding something they're passionate about & going for it. While that might not jive with some traditional conservative Christian thinking, following one's dreams is one of the ways we can seek & find God's will in our lives. Sometimes it works out, sometimes not, but hopefully we will learn from it & grow along the way. Again, this song flows from one portion to the next, only occasionally repeating a riff or rhythmic element. The song fades out as the last words are growled.

This album is very good, but I do have a couple minor qualms. I don't like the fade-out at the end. Loads of bands have done this, where they fade out a song while singing the last lines of the song. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. It all depends on the effect you get when you do it. Unfortunately, at least for me, it doesn't work in this instance. My other issue is that as much as I like to listen to the dual-guitar rhythms and harmonizing, I'd like to hear some actual guitar leads. I know, metalcore isn't known for lead guitar playing, but these 2 guitarists have so much talent, and it's obvious. I think that's an element that is lacking from this release, and should be at least considered as an element they could add in future songwriting. If they don't feel it, and it doesn't become a part of the song that melds well, so be it. There are spots in the songs, however, that leads would work well to extend the songs slightly and give it a little something extra. All in all, however, this is a fine debut that these Iowa boys should be proud of. I look forward to seeing them live again in a few weeks, and to their next record.


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