Hey kids, wanna talk about some CHRISTIAN ROCK AND ROLL?
What hey wait where you going.
Look, the religious subjective experience of an artist may inform or illuminate their work but that doesn’t taint it. As an atheist there are plenty of musicians whose music I love who I am pretty sure think I’m going to hell, or at least shouldn’t be trusted around kids (and I shouldn’t, but that’s its own rant).
Reading Jonny Scaramanga‘s article on Bunch Of Believers (who are every bit as awful as you’d think), he namedrops Five Iron Frenzy. FiF are one of the few lasting spurs of Christian culture I grew up with that has endured, because I found songs of theirs legitimately stuck with me, songs I liked even when they weren’t being artificially favoured by social regulation.
I thought about what separates these two groups beyond, um, the most obvious and basic line of being good versus bad. Because as much as I hate BoB’s stuff, they’re actually… quite… musically competent? BoB are predictable, structured simply. I’m no musical expert but it feels like any given BoB song is about 10 seconds of music, repeated over and over. Five Iron Frenzy songs, on the other hand, have more of an arc, more variance throughout. But I’m not a muso so I can’t really say too much about that, beyond this:
That’s a cover of Electric Light Orchestra’s Sweet Talkin’ Woman. I feel it’s a good performance of a good song and shows that FiF, as a band, is musically competent, at least, as much as I can say that from my non-expert position.
What I do care about however is lyrics, and I feel that Five Iron Frenzy were remarkable in the lyrics they used in their songs. You can divide their songs into five major categories, based on the things the band cared about:
- Songs about being in a band
- Songs about the music industry
- Songs that were purely devotional
- Songs about struggling with poverty and idealism
- Songs that were against an established power structure
I suppose you could throw in number six and seven:
- Songs they thought were funny
- Songs that were covers of things they loved
The first group of songs are basically universal. They had songs making fun of fans’ attitudes about their record label (Handbook for the Sellout), songs about the struggle and poverty of performing on the road (Superpowers), even multiple songs about the band’s inevitable end (See the Flames Begin to Crawl). In all cases, these songs were songs that had some sinew to them, some good ideas, that were coloured by a Christian outlook; they weren’t strawmen or constructions of pure nonsense, and in some cases you could miss their religious influence.
The same follows for songs about the music industry. Five Iron Frenzy were not fans of the music industry as a whole, mass media in general, or corporatism as it expressed itself in America – songs like Vultures, Giants, and Beautiful America are fine examples.
Their weakest songs – for me – have been the purely devotional songs. One song, A Flowery Song, sticks in my head with a really catchy bassline but the actual song itself is… well, it’s 80% the Protestant Doxology, which is a bit like making a 3-minute song out of a pizza jingle. But they have a long discography, a discography where those pure, singing-about-Jesus songs are actually a minority, a weak minority.
Here, I think, are four songs that represent their best work:
Four Fifty One
Four Fifty One is a paired song with Farenheit. Farenheit’s a sorrowful song from Roper’s perspective about how he feels guilty about dismissing Freddy Mercury because he was gay (“I said he was a queer/I said he had it coming”). Four Fifty One is the other piece, in which they rail against … Christian Rock, for being empty, devotional stuff:
No one rocks the boat, terrified of trouble,
Won’t tamper with the walls of their sterile Christian bubble.
I had no idea what I was in for when I heard this. This is probably the first FiF song I ever heard – it’s the first track on this album and as a teenager it kicked me in the gut. The chorus in particular:
West or bust,
In God we trust,
Let’s rape and kill and steal,
We can always justify anything we feel.
The song starts by criticising Western expansion, then the treatment of Native Americans, and then, ties that behaviour to modern Christian street-preachers. This is how they choose to open an album.
Fistful of Sand
I like Fistful of Sand a lot. First, there’s just the way it sounds. Reminds me a lot of pulp adventure novels, but with this swaying back-and-forth to it. There’s also the inevitable shudder of lurching terror at its final lines, the existential admission that renders the whole exercise futile:
Our hero stands
With wealth in hand
The prize for his endeavours
The masses cheer
To hide their fears
That no man lives forever.
Get Your Riot Gear
Riot Gear was written in 1998. It’s about police brutality. Ha ha ha. Well, sixteen years later, I’m sure a song about militarised police and how police preparing for violence inherently escalates a crowd under stress wouldn’t have any current, immediate and depressingly repetitive relevance.
Essentially, Five Iron Frenzy were a good band that made good songs, mostly songs punching up at established power structures. They attacked fundamentalist Christians, jingoistic preachers, the Christian music industry, and fans who caused internal conflicts within the church.
Were they amazing? Nah, not necesssarily. But they endured, and part of why they endured is that there’s more to them than just being Christians who can play instruments and do some basic rhymes. They were actually making songs about things, and they wanted to pit their music against people with power who were using it wrong.