The Engine of A Million Plots is the 2013 album by Five Iron Frenzy, their sixth album, released ten years after the previous album, The End Is Near, which was an album about, amongst other things, the band ending. Part of what precipitated the end of the band at that point was a serious contention from amongst the members about their relationship to their faith, which, given that Five Iron Frenzy are explicitly a Christian band signed to Christian labels, was something of a concern.
Undeniably I was excited for what The Engine of A Million Plots could be, and it’s a jewel of time in particular how the album focuses on its particular, personal pains. When seen as a 2013 kickstarter album, some of the things about the album’s cheapness (like the music videos explicitly meant to evoke high school plays and hyper-simplified stripped-down performances) make sense, but also so does some of the ways they handle them. Five Iron Frenzy as a band have always been openly, aggressively, against stances within the American Christian church they see as morally incompatible with the church’s teachings.
Some of the earlier albums feature occasional, almost rote jabs at non-Christian culture, but mostly, Five Iron Frenzy offered to the nonchristian, a message of hope and peace; they often focused on simply expressing praise for their God, talked about how God helped them grapple with difficult fears, or tried to draw connections between their own mainstream pop culture interests to those of the conventional, secular audience. Five Iron Frenzy, viewed from a nonchristian perspective seem to me to be pretty welcoming people, with only a little ‘you’re going to hell’ sinner style stuff in the majority of their albums.
Where Five Iron Frenzy really opened up their rhetorical broadsides was in dealing with other Christians. Most powerfully you can see this in their most recent Album, Until This Shakes Apart, an album which starts at a song about how anti-immigration rhetoric in the Trump Era is explicitly anti-Christian. I love that album, I think it’s great. I love their earlier albums too, but they’re a bit more hit-and-miss for me. Their goofier songs don’t usually work for me, and some positions about ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ haven’t aged well for me since leaving the church.
You could assume that Engine of a Million Plots sits in the middle of that arc; more serious, more resentful of the Christian media landscape, maybe one or two goofy songs and I kind of don’t think it’s fair to characterise it that way. I feel that Engine of a Million Plots has a very specific, and distinct character to it that I think I love in a way it’s hard to articulate. It is a painful love; a love like one might love the snow falling outside a window; a love like a crushed flower.
I know at times I joke about ‘Reese’ as if he’s the voice of Five Iron Frenzy. He’s not, and thinking he is is a disservice both to the other songwriters but also to the band as a whole. They set the tone and input on what they will or won’t play. Every songwriter for this project is presenting them with things they find acceptable, which is why there’s a Five Iron Frenzy cover of Sweet Talkin’ Woman. I seek to speak of the author of Engine of a Million Plots knowing that that is a ghost, an identity of a nobody.
Engine of a Million Plots is an album voiced by someone who stands very close to me in their relationship to christ, but just on the other side of a crucial barrier. I am an atheist, but I am obviously, a Christian atheist; my atheism is rooted in an awareness of and rejection first and foremost of Christianity. Engine of a Million Plots is an album that feels worn out, beaten down, and extremely close to the limit of one’s endurance, but crucially, not done yet.
There’s this distinct vision of Christian Triumphalism that flows from a very American source. It’s not the chanting Catholic soppiness you see in choral hymns from Notre Dame, nor in Fanny Crosby’s era of hand-wringing despair. At some point, the Christian ideology took on an American slant, particularly because it’s the dominant religion of the richest country in the world, where a faith formed in the wake of a man who said ‘the world will hate and despise you’ and to ‘sell all you have and follow me,’ cloaks itself in gold and asserts it is undefeatable and always triumphant no matter what, because God is that powerful.
I think about this a lot as I see more of Alex Jones veering around from wild manic highs to despairing lows; the basic language of American Christianity is a grift, that wants you to be simultaneously overwhelmed with how safe and perfect you are, because God has a plan for you, and also, constantly terrified at all the assaults on your faith presented by Other People Existing. These two completely conflicting opinions can be harmonised (by ignoring that they conflict), and the resulting character is this ugly, overjoyed, awful glurge of a cultural presence that lionises struggle while somehow presenting the most modest of inconvenience as struggle. Mitt Romney had to sell stock, you see.
Instead, Engine of a Million Plots presents the Christian experience that knows what it’s like to doubt. To not be assured, because assurance is inherent and absolute, but to believe that the vindication of the faith comes in its realisation; that is, if Jesus saves you from the darkness, it has to get dark first. And not in the testimonial form, where something terrible happens to a person, and then that is used as a currency to represent how tragic Christians’ backstories are. It’s about the feeling of it; it’s about the silence that follows prayer. It’s about grappling with the atheism and treating it like a serious contention, not a thing to be dismissed.
Engine of a Million Plots describes a thing I know very seriously as a former Christian, and how faith is a thing you have to kindle and maintain, that it is an active practice. Outside it, I can say all sorts of cynical, dismissive things about it, but for the time, within that space, it is a painfully honest and sincere album about being willing to admit a difficulty and a challenge that culturally, you are told to keep to yourself, because you just have to have faith.
I really like this album. Particularly, I love the sincerity of the hopeful tragedy contained in I’ve Seen The Sun, and the struggle and joy of expressing this feeling in We Own The Skies.
Real good album, liked it a lot.