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Dance or Die

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2008 1 Aug
Dance or Die
Sounds like … the modern rock of The Killers, Under the Influence of Giants, and Superchick, with a nostalgic, synth-heavy '80s influence that owes much to Prince, Duran Duran, and Soft CellAt a glance … there's no question that Family Force 5's latest was made in the spirit of fun and nostalgia, but in addition to spiritual substance, Dance or Die sorely lacks the freshness and production quality of the band's debutTrack Listing Dance or Die Get Your Back Off the Wall Rip It Up How in the World Fever Party Foul D-I-E 4 Y-O-U Share It with Me The First Time Wake the Dead Radiator

Family Force 5 has amassed such a passionate and devoted following, you'd think they were seasoned pros with loads of experience. Their live shows have left such a strong impression that it's easy to lose sight that the band's debut Business Up Front, Party in the Back released only in 2006. The band was certainly making some waves as an independent before signing with Gotee Records (and the core trio of the Olds brothers had a brief stint as a boy band before that). Nevertheless, Family Force 5 is a young band still figuring out their sound. Unfortunately, their sophomore release painfully reiterates that.

Remember what made the first album so successful? It wasn't deep theology or spiritual references, though Family Force 5 is certainly not ashamed of their faith or Christian heritage. The album was first and foremost fun with a capital F, offering a fresh, irresistible sound self-described as "crunk rock," which owed as much to the blistering guitar-driven metal of Rage Against the Machine or Linkin Park as it did to the hard-rocking rap of Kid Rock or the Beastie Boys. Loud and over the top, it led to an unforgettable live experience for Christian and non-Christian audiences alike.

Though there was always an element of '80s nostalgia to Family Force 5's sound, it was never as pronounced as it is here on Dance or Die. Inspired heavily by the spectacle of acts like Prince and Duran Duran, it's a dramatic stylistic shift that isn't completely out of step for the band—not conceptually, anyway. The emphasis is still on an over-the-top sound that's fun and intended to get your groove on. And the live show remains a genuine rock party, from the gigantic six-foot drum machine on stage to fans dressed in costume as if auditioning for a new version of Let's Make a Deal. (How's that for nostalgia?)

Christian music could use more acts like Family Force 5, Jonezetta, and tobyMac, offering clean fun, loud music, and a good time overall. But such music first and foremost needs to sound cutting edge, and therein lies the problem. Business, as produced by Joe Baldridge (Beck, John Reuben) and frontman Solomon Olds, could compete with any major release in the secular market. Though produced by the same team, I'm sorry to say that Dance or Die sounds comparatively lo-fi, independent, and shockingly amateur.

Granted, synth pop/rock and '80s club music is making a strong comeback among alternative bands, albeit less polished and pristine than 25 years ago. Family Force 5 even seems to acknowledge that with the album cover, which resembles an old vinyl recording from Journey worn with time. But the band has lost the polish and intensity that made their first album such a sonic blast. Stripped of that, they seem out of sorts with the electronic parts that sound like something any kid could create through cheap software on their home computers.

The musical ineffectiveness is a pity since Family Force 5 is not exactly known for profound songwriting. Here again, there's spiritual purpose to the madness, even though it's all certainly open to interpretation. Beginning with the title track, the dance metaphor is meant to represent actively loving others and thus living out faith, rather than remaining passive and undecided: "Transmission radio, radio/Respond if you're alive/Give me a sign of life/I need to say to you, say to you/I've found a way to fight/One hope for all mankind." In the same way, the grungy "D-I-E 4 Y-O-U" could serve as a declaration of faith or a dissertation on Christ's love for us.

But then how should listeners interpret lines like "Time for standing tall/Move to kill 'em all … Annihilation of the enemy/Wrath pours down when I move my feet" from "Get Your Back Off the Wall"? Is it spiritual warfare, or slaying the competition with killer dance moves, or something else? Now combine stuff like that with the abundance of clichés, like "If it's too loud, well then you must be too old" from "Wake the Dead." Though "Fever" is one of the album's best examples of dance rock, it has nothing to say beyond how much Olds is burning up. (From dancing? Illness? Hormones?)

All things considered, Dance or Die has its moments, including "Wake the Dead" and "Fever" (despite their lyrical shortcomings), as well as "The First Time," which feels like the missing link between '80s new wave and modern power pop. But they're compromised by the lesser tracks, particularly the band's two cheesy-pop entries. "How in the World" actually works as a guilty pleasure love song that can be interpreted as an earthly romance or a spiritual relationship with Jesus. However, I'm amazed so many fans and critics are willing to give the band a pass for "Share It with Me," an embarrassingly bad breakup song that makes the Jonas Brothers sound like experienced veterans.

Steve Taylor, Five Iron Frenzy, and Relient K all made it look easy, but it's hard to juggle creativity, artistry, and faith with fun. In Family Force 5's case, it feels like they've overemphasized the fun in that mix, and while that may be enough for most devoted fans, many will feel like they've missed the party—I guarantee reactions will vary. Perhaps a case of Red Bull would help, but as much as I wanted to enjoy this album as much as the last, after multiple listens, I still ain't dancing. Does that make me dead?

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