The End Is Not the End
- reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2008 1 Sep
- Lose Control
- Leave You Now
- In the Valley of the Dying Sun
- Code Name: Raven
- By Your Side
- Journey Into Space, Pt. 1
- Sooner or Later
- Baby's a Red
- Field of Daggers
- The Young and The Brutal
Leaps and bounds: that's the simplest way I can describe the evolution of House of Heroes in their relatively brief history. I barely recognize the trio from Columbus, Ohio that started out playing punk and power pop, or even the alt-rock band that graced our 2005 Best Albums list with their national debut—and that's not just because they've expanded to a four-piece band now either. Having played shows with a wide range of bands both mainstream (Silverchair, Phantom Planet) and Christian (Relient K, Family Force 5) has clearly sparked House of Heroes' imagination, while giving them the experience to build their skills considerably. Much like their Buckeye brethren in Relient K, this band seems destined to grow with every release, discontent with reaching the status quo.
The End Is Not The End resembles House of Heroes' self-titled debut (re-released as Say No More in 2006) about as much as The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album resembled Rubber Soul—they're both from the same band and they're both creative sounding, but the similarities pretty much end there. What's most noticeable is the use of layers upon layers of harmonies, very much like Queen and very fun. The band has also embraced a more pop-friendly sound compared to the last album, yet while it's generally more melodic, it's not by any means predictable, with lots of tempo changes and unexpected chord progressions thrown in. If Weezer or Relient K were to release an album as ambitious as Green Day's American Idiot, it might sound something like this.
There are songs, in fact, that work like their own miniature rock opera, such as the No. 1 Christian rock single "In the Valley of the Dying Sun." It starts off absolutely crazy with a speedy dance beat, electronic effects, and those dreamy vocal harmonies. For sure, this is not typical Christian rock, and it only changes further about two-thirds of the way through when even more bombastic vocals and electric guitars break the mood, signifying a holy epiphany: "All through the night I wrestled the angel to undo the curse that burdened me all my life/And for the first time, I could see that God was not my enemy … I'm living to shine on."
That song, like many on this album, is written in response to war, though as the band puts it, the intent isn't anti-war as much as "pro-humanity." It's not tied to politics or even a specific war, but rather challenges us to consider our enemies and how we regard them. "Code Name: Raven," for example, is primarily about loyalty and faithfulness against a war-like backdrop, set against stark sounding rock that becomes more joyful and celebratory toward the end as comrades go down in flames. It's followed by the acoustic flavored "By Your Side," written from the sorrowful perspective of a soldier whose brother is killed in battle, yet he looks ahead with hope, knowing that they'll be reunited in heaven—hence the album title.
That brings up the matter of spiritual themes. Though House of Heroes made the switch from Gotee Records to its more independent minded sister label Mono vs. Stereo, the band hasn't forsaken its Christian roots. If anything, they've embraced them more openly, offering increasingly more spiritual references as The End Is Not The End progresses. "Voices" handles the subject of sin and shame very smartly, noting that our greatest sin is the failure to repent and receive God's forgiveness. Glorious and epic in scope, "Field of Daggers" offers more hope in light of war, relying on God's sovereignty and looking ahead to kingdom come. And the prayerful epilogue, "The Young and the Brutal," asks for grace and direction in a world where we don't feel quite at home.
Taken as a whole, it's clear where this band is coming from, even if not all the songs are clear. House of Heroes can be cryptic when they want to be, and it only gets trickier with, as the band puts it, songs about love that aren't necessarily love songs. "Journey Into Space, Pt. 1" is rather poignant and bittersweet as an expression of love surpassing persecution and death: "Let them come for us/Let them have their way with our names that they drag through the mud/Should they murder us/We will live again in the clouds that cover the sun." But how to interpret "Leave You Now?" Is it a love song, or a commentary on war refugees?? And then there's "Baby's a Red," a truly strange love song directed to a communist woman, presumably set during World War II or the heights of the Cold War. Its point about loving our enemies and love surpassing politics is certainly relevant and timeless, but don't references to Stalingrad and "hammer and sickle" seem like a dated illustration for younger listeners now that the Cold War is 15 years past?
This album has plenty of odd moments, for sure, but I'm also the type that enjoys a smartly crafted release from a Christian band—one that's not overly vague and impossible to discern, yet just cryptic enough to be puzzled over repeat listens and becoming more meaningful with time. There are moments where House of Heroes come so close to letting their unbridled creativity veer out of control on this album. Oftentimes it can feel a little too much, which is why I'm partial to tracks like "Drown" and "Faces," providing a more focused balance of melody and inventiveness without going overboard. Regardless, House of Heroes has created an impressive modern rock album in every way, offering plenty to chew on aesthetically and lyrically. Aside from a little more clarity and focus, you can't ask for much more than this.