Sunday 26 July 2020

Fontaines D.C. - A Hero's Death

Just over fifteen months after the Mercury Prize nominated debut Dogrel, which bagged a number of Album Of The Year awards, Fontaines D.C. return with a triumphant follow up overcoming the adversity of a turbulent, tumultuous and intense period for the band.

From exploding onto the scene and taking all the plaudits they have gone one step further with their sophomore album. Where others have failed to live up to the hype and expectations, resulting in the customary difficult second album syndrome, the Irish post-punk outfit have used their experiences both on and off the road across Europe and the United States of America, before reuniting with trusty producer Dan Carey in London, to paint the pictures and tell us their stories offering vulnerability, fear, courage and strength.

It’s no secret by the time they hit America this juggernaut was hurtling down the freeway, out of control, and it needed a foot on the brake to slow things down, reflect, ponder and question everything while documenting these experiences for their own sanities. Living the days and weeks as they morphed into one, the stark reality was that despite being the focal point every night for an hour or so there was the fear, the insecurity and the loneliness when the overthinking kicked in.

We’ve seen it time and time again with bands that they burn out before their time but the enforced COVID break may well have enabled the five piece to recharge their batteries, regroup and come back fighting fit. This is a band who have so much to offer and their recent Kilmainham Gaol gig highlighted this increasing the huge expectations for this long player.

The result is, I’ve no doubt, an album that will again be nominated for the Mercury Prize (given the glaring omission of any Irish artists in 2020) and it will surely elevate them to the next level of stardom not just in their homeland (a tough crowd who like to keep their beloved sons’ feet firmly on the ground) but on a worldwide scale too.

Album opener I Don’t Belong tackles an issue on the lips of many – mental health. The dark brooding intro of Conor Deegan III’s bass giving us a stark reminder that life isn’t all a bed of roses. It feels like there’s a lot of tension building in the song as Grian Chatten’s monotonous tone tries to control and alleviate the ever increasing crescendo of noise coming from axe-men Conor Curley and Carlos O’Connell as they threaten to spiral out of control very much like those thoughts inside Chatten’s head.

Tom Coll’s drumming throughout the whole album is simply majestic and beastly. None more so than on the opener as he bludgeons away repeatedly in time to Chatten’s “I don’t belong to anyone” mantra offering no respite or escape as wild thoughts continue to escape creating an overwhelming sense of panic, anxiety and dread. Just as you feel everything is going to implode the wave of sound reaches its peak and begins to decelerate in pace bringing the levels of uneasiness back down. Close to the abyss, but somehow he survives to fight another day.

What’s noticeable on this record is how the band have gone from sub three minute short, sharp, shock songs to elongated versions of killer tunes showing extra layers, textures and depths to their songs. Firstly we have the swaying toms opening up proceedings on Love Is The Main Thing. Then, those shimmering, sparkling guitars from the deadly duo of Curley and O’Connell giving out a cold, desolate, desperate feel. Delivered over the song's glistening guitars Grian’s deadpan vocal declares that, yes, Love Is The Main Thing but it’s “always the same thing”, it’s “never devoting” and it’s “tired of embracing, using and wasting”. The guitars wail as they talk to you increasing in intensity creating a darker atmosphere. Like love itself when it starts as a slow burner, the guitars are the energy pulling you and your thoughts and fears from pillar to post. It creates the feeling of a fragile state of mind yet it is a double edged sword – do you let go or do you let yourself go? The confusion is within the song as there’s the urge to embrace and trust but it also feels like an elegy in parts as Grian laments before the outpouring of raw emotion from a roaring Chatten suggests all is love and it’s all worth fighting for as the song terminates with the guitars grinding slowly to a halt.

While fragments of the album remain similar to that of their debut Dogrel there are also parts which delve deeper. Not resting on their laurels Televised Mind is an inventive, hypnotic, soul searching trip. The dirty psych-fueled beats wouldn’t be out of place from the discotheques of Dublin to the nightclubs of New York.

While it juxtaposes a throbbing pulsating bass line with swirling helter-skelter guitars it’s a brave and bold venture into the psych drone side of things. Tom Coll’s monstrous booming beats ensure they don’t deviate too far from the repetition and noise combination that you associate with Fontaines D.C. Chatten reminding us that “we’re all televised minds” easily distracted, victims of a soulless society and conforming to a culture that doesn’t allow you to think for yourself.

A Lucid Dream reaches into your minds consciousness with the guitar pedal intro churning and winding into kaleidoscopic turbulence. It’s not long before the unmistakable Irish brogue of Chatten’s shrieks and booms as he releases all thoughts and emotions ranting away deliriously like a man possessed. It’s a furious pace dictated by drums and guitar alike before dropping a notch or two into a country vibe as the landscape mellows with a more pensive, reflective and serene environment although you can sense the storm clouds are gathering and the ensuing chaos that begets the storm as Grian hollers almost demented and excitably “I was there when the rain changed direction”. There’s no holding back Conor, Carlos, Deegan and Tom as their cacophonous noise pours down on you relentlessly. The transcendental nature of the song leaves not only the singer, but the listener too, exhausted.

You Said is a thing of real beauty considering Grian wrote it during the most hectic, difficult and stressful times with little or no rest at all. The Interpol-esque opening guitars are accompanied by Chatten’s softly spoken lilt. The meandering bass lines twisting, turning and undulating in perfect harmony with the rhythmic drum patterns and chugging guitars all working in tandem keeping the song and band on an even keel. The sublime guitar riff exudes a lazy, tired vibe and Grian appears somewhat exhausted himself.

He wearily sings “You said you been on the brink, so slow down” with no time to think of the consequences with all the hullabaloo attached to a band relentlessly on the go. In the face of such a crisis Grian and company have no choice but to try “operating faster” although the tenderness and fatigue is there for all to hear. Almost therapeutic it feels like a cry for help and it’s refreshing to hear a band confronting their issues and admitting that it’s okay to not be okay by reaching out for someone, for something.

Oh Such A Spring may be the shortest song on the album but it’s one of the most memorable. It’s not the chaotic discordant post punk effort that you’d expect from two and a half minutes. Instead it waltzes along as Grian romances and reminisces as the sincerity and kindness in his voice is matched by the tenderness of the guitars which amble along throughout. It sounds like a lovely, peaceful reverie.

“Down by the docks the weather was fine, the sailors were drinking American wine” he recollects before yearning and wishing to “go back to Spring again”. He tempers that romanticism with a large pinch of realism too declaring that as time goes on it all ends in tears as he “watched all the folks go to work just to die”.

When we’re all finally allowed to get in a room and gig again you can be sure this will be the song that sees the crowd sway from side to side, arm in arm (social distancing permitting) with lighters in the air acting as beacons of love, hope and strength.

The repetitive mantra and glass half full / half empty (take your pick) viewpoint that “Life Ain’t Always Empty”, on radio favourite A Hero’s Death, sees Fontaines D.C. return to the tried and trusted formula that made Dogrel such a resounding success. Tom Coll beats down heavily on the drum kit attacking it for all it’s worth with that trademark fast rhythmic pace of his. The heavy melodic guitars cry out at high volume in combat with an oscillating bass line that rattles your cage and your bones. Amidst all the angst and the energy though we have the Beach Boys soulful harmonies that shine through and with this there’s positivity with the “looking forward to a brighter future” sentiment though it doesn’t prevent Grian sneering “Don’t get stuck in the past”, bellowing, pondering and pontificating while offering sage advice “Tell your mother that you love her” to everyone and anyone that will listen although the most hard hitting of lines has to be “don’t sacrifice your life for your health”

The song evokes many positive and negative connotations, very much like the reaction this album will no doubt get throughout the industry, ensuring the band will keep their feet firmly on the ground.

Whereas the most famous song called Living In America (written by Dan Hartman and performed by none other than James Brown) is a joyous one painting a picture of the freedom enjoyed by people living in the USA this one written by the Dublin based quintet is far from it.

An incessant drum march and the howl and the hum of fuzzy screeching guitars scything down anything in its way set the tone for the dark, grim reality of America. Grian’s vocal reverberates over an unsteady sonic landscape, made for the widescreen, telling us tales of broken hearts and isolation as all the cities and towns appear to morph into one when you’re forever on the move, shackled to your commitments, with no time to take it all in and just enjoy it. They could be anywhere but it’s just one big country where you only feel isolation, desolation and desperation as the going gets tougher.

Chatten wails “Living in Americaaaa!” as if he’s in a horror movie. It all feels claustrophobic, bleak and harrowing as he exorcises the demons against the sonic assault surrounding him exclaiming “if you don’t know we will not go turning your tricks like a new born gangster” on the brutal streets of a very dark America.

Darkness turns to the light as the band get their rocks off to a foot stomping, pounding, I Was Not Born. It’s a pivotal stage of the album. They sound refreshed, recharged and reinvigorated with a defiant Chatten shouting from the rooftops and telling us “I was not born into this world to do another man’s bidding”. The upbeat Americana vibe is courtesy of the exciting rhythmic duo as well as the influential and exuberant attacking guitars that put them very much on the front foot for the whole song. You’re left feeling euphoric and spiritually uplifted by the positivity of it all. The doubts, the fears, the weight of expectation and everything that could potentially tie you down blown away in just under four mesmerising minutes.

Sunny is far from cheery and bright despite its dreamy vibes. The song’s beauty lies in the lush harmonies and melody. Arrangement wise it’s pretty much spot on again showing the multiple talent widespread in the band. The opening is dominated by an amplified electric lead guitar giving it a lazy bluesy feel although it’s Grian singing about someone’s blues. A song full of vignettes that’s a reflection of the past and not being able to take responsibility for your actions. At the first sign of trouble “suddenly my life was clouded” the self-doubts creep in “afraid I couldn’t make the cut boy” and running away instead of facing up to your duties as a human being. Those storm clouds replacing the sunshine as he ruefully sings “where I was I can’t tell”.

Closing track No fills us with hope in the face of adversity. Its a soaring rock ballad with a positive melody against the backdrop of some negative themes. The song is a grower starting from the lowest of lows building up sonically with dream like melodies that make you want to drift away. While it’s evident Grian sings with heartache and heartbreak (“you’re in love and then you’re not”) in a consoling voice it’s also uplifting in that it’s about standing up to depression and mental state of mind.

“Please don’t lock yourself away, just appreciate the grey.” he pleads. There’s the mentality of not letting the bastards grind you down and it feels like a juggling act walking that tightrope of life. “Even though you don’t know, you feel” he reminds himself with more and more conviction repeating the words and sending out a positive message to end this truly outstanding album.

While there are other bands out there who clearly believe their own hype Fontaines D.C. have just got on with it and gone about their business and produced a follow-up album that they should be immensely proud of. Whereas many people appear to be sceptical about the release of a new album so soon after the first there really is no need to be. It has the power and allure to seduce and capture a mass audience on its own terms. 

Some of the subject matter may be uncomfortable and uneasy but this is what makes the album so listenable. They have added new strings to their bow and they will no doubt surprise people with some of the new sounds on this record. We’re over halfway through the year and the only surprise for me will be if this isn’t the album of 2020 for me unless something else better is on the horizon. Somehow, I very much doubt it.

Fontaines D.C.'s official site can be found here. They are on Facebook and Twitter.

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