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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

The Fires of Life

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2004 1 May
The Fires of Life
Sounds like … the dreamy art rock style of Radiohead, Coldplay, Sleeping at Last, Starflyer 59, Elbow, and Pink FloydAt a glance … The Fires of Life builds upon Cool Hand Luke's wonderful art-rock style and is a strong follow-up to their debut, though they badly need to vary their sound moreTrack ListingSkydiveThe FosterRats in the CellarCinematicI'm Not ReadySequence #3Friendly JasI'm Not RunningThe Zombie SongRest for the WearyThe Fires of Life

Tennessee trio Cool Hand Luke arrived on the national Christian music scene in early 2003, a breath of fresh air amid bland and formulaic Christian rock bands vying to be the next Creed or U2. Although this band has been likened to the atmospheric melodic art rock of the oft-compared Coldplay and Radiohead, in this rare instance, the comparison holds. Wake Up, O Sleeper maintained a dreamy art-rock sound with indie sensibilities, fused with unabashedly Christian lyrics that drew heavily from Scripture without relying on cliché. The album fell just short of our staff's Best Albums of 2003 list, though it was a clear favorite that earned the band a place on the Best New Artists of 2003 list.

Now comes The Fires of Life, the band's sophomore effort and your chance to get in early with a great fledgling band still finding their footing by making slight artistic changes. Bassist Brandon Morgan and vocalist/drummer Mark Nicks are now joined by new guitarist Chris Susi, who gives the band's sound more texture. Nicks wrote more of the songs on piano and focused on developing his lead vocals. And with the help of producers Steve Hindalong and Marc Byrd, the masterminds behind the City on a Hill worship series, Cool Hand Luke has succeeded in releasing a unified album that is not simply a collection of songs. The title was inspired by the encouragement of Isaiah 43:2, though the overall theme comes from Psalm 30:5—"His anger lasts for a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime. Weeping may go on all night, but joy comes in the morning." In other words, we will overcome life's troubles by the grace and love of the Lord.

The opening three tracks quickly establish Cool Hand Luke as an art rock band to be reckoned with. "Skydive" perfectly captures the dark melancholy of Radiohead and Pink Floyd, conveying the angst of one desperate enough to fall into the arms of Jesus. It's a powerful beginning and an appropriate lead-in to "The Foster," which finds peace in the still small voice of the Lord: "The wisest words I ever heard came with a gentle wind/Though it didn't hit me then/It made no sound 'til no one was around/Then it blew me to my knees/And handed me the keys." If there are any doubts about this band's ability to mimic Radiohead, check out the dark and moody "Rats in the Cellar," about our pervasive sinful nature and the basics of grace, inspired by C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity.

Which brings us to two of the album's best tracks. The beautiful ballad "Cinematic" marvelously expresses Christian faith and our relationship to Christ as a film: "I want to live in such a way/That when I'm gone my friends would say/That if my life was turned to film/I'd be standing on a mountain shouting victory in the end/But in my heart I know it's only true/If I'm a supporting actor and the Oscar goes to You." Nicks further expresses questions about his faith by adding, "What if it ended here?/What if the credits rolled now?/What would the critics say?/Would it be the biggest letdown?" Nearly as powerful is "I'm Not Ready," addressing the magnitude of Christ's sacrifice and the need to put our selfish ways aside: "Every time I read that story again/I wanna run and take the nails out/You remind me that those nails are mine/Once and for all to the end."

All starts well with The Fires of Life, but then things plateau in the middle, beginning with another strong ballad, "Sequence #3." None of the remaining songs are bad, but Cool Hand Luke is unable to sustain interest for the full duration, causing the attention to wander around track 6 or 7. Too bad, since "Friendly Jas" develops itself well with dynamics and passion. The lyricism continues to shine in "I'm Not Running," an effective reworking of 1 Corinthians chapter 1 as a declaration of faith. And don't sleep through "The Zombie Song," an indictment against those trying to walk in the light with dead faith: "We all follow, but we're standing still/Reciting dead words with hopeless zeal/We're all preachers with our mouths closed/Clothing messages in sugar coats."

This album begins so powerfully yet ends so sluggishly. Cool Hand Luke badly needs to find variation in their sound, you'd think everyone involved would recognize the stylistic monotony, especially considering this band's metal and hard rock beginnings. Then again, when the art rock and lyrics are done this well, it understandably overshadows the album's weaknesses.