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The Flame is Gone, the Fire Remains

The Dear Hunter's Act V is a Showstopper

9/20/16

Let me tell you a story.

It’s a story about a boy who lived a life full of regrettable mistakes. His mother, a former prostitute in the big city, fled her terrifying employer, setting fire to his establishment as she did. She retreated to a calm place by a lake and a river to raise her son, but her past caught up with her – the monster she used to work for sent men to kill her, and they did. The boy was left alone to make his way in the world, and eventually found himself in the same big city, at the same place his mother worked.

There he found a woman he thought he loved, but when he discovered that she too was a prostitute working for the same monstrous man, he reacted badly, eventually leaving the city and enlisting to fight in World War I. While trying to survive the war, the boy quite randomly met his half-brother, who could have been his twin, and his father, who he learned had raped and abused his mother. His half-brother died in a firefight, and the boy, looking for an escape from the war, poisoned his father and fled, returning to his home country to take the place of his half-brother.

For a while, the boy lived his brother’s life, lying to his brother’s mother and his brother’s fiancée. But when the mother died, he drifted back to the city, discovering that the man who had his mother killed is in charge of more than he thought. This evil man was both a pimp and a priest, profiting from sin during the week and absolving it on Sunday, and using the knowledge of others he gained in both roles to blackmail people and stay in control. The boy resolved to defeat him, and planned to run for mayor of the city.

It was a tough election, and during the many months of campaigning, the boy lost sight of who he was, and what he was fighting for. He became so enamored of power and fame that his brother’s fiancée, still thinking him to be his brother, left him behind. He won the election, but it was a hollow victory, as it left him alone and friendless. And finally, the pimp and the priest tightened the noose, revealing that he knew the boy’s big secret – that he was pretending to be his half-brother – and would reveal it unless the boy did everything he said from now on.

Now the boy is hopeless and lost, looking for purpose. Though some small part of him still hopes one day to complete his revenge.

* * * * *

Be honest, you’d see that movie, right? How about if it were a movie for your ears?

The story above is the plot (up to Act IV) of the Acts series, a concept album in six parts by a band called The Dear Hunter. I wouldn’t be surprised if you hadn’t heard of them – their last album, the astonishing Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise, sold 7,000 copies, and that was a career high. But those who know about them know that over the last 10 years, the Dear Hunter has been crafting a masterpiece, a story so rich in theme and symbol, so intricate and captivating that you could get lost in its waters. It’s possible to live in this story for weeks at a time, finding new callbacks and references, teasing out new character motivations, and above all, just reveling in the sweeping, glorious music.

And now that story is almost over. This summer, Dear Hunter mastermind Casey Crescenzo announced the release of Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional, suggesting it would be the final “rock” act in the story. So far, we have no idea what he means – Act VI could be an album of orchestral music, or a film, or a play, or virtually anything. What we do know is this: Act V wraps up this whole story in a way that feels like the end, like the capper on a five-and-a-half-hour concept album for the ages.

I’ve been thinking for days about how to review Act V without coming off like some drooling fanboy. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to. I’ve been living in Crescenzo’s world for a week now, obsessively listening and re-listening and dissecting both lyric and melody. There aren’t a lot of albums that command this much attention from me, that immerse me so completely. This one does. In fact, the Acts series as a whole is one of the most immersive musical experiences of my life. I listen to these records the way others play video games, spending hours at a time in isolation with them.

Why do I think what Crescenzo has done here is so amazing? Start with the fact that he’s told a strong, rich story over five albums (with a sixth to come). It would have been easy to lose sight of this story, or rush through it, or go over the top with it. (I’m looking at you, Coheed and Cambria.) Crescenzo did none of those. The five Acts show a consistency and commitment to a singular vision, a story that obviously means something to its author, told with all the skill he could muster.

Then, let’s talk about that skill. When he began the Acts, Crescenzo was a fairly typical emo-alt-rocker, coming out of a fairly typical emo-alt-rock band, The Receiving End of Sirens. You can hear these roots in the latter half of Act II, the first material he wrote for the Dear Hunter. But his ambition was far broader than that, and over these five albums, Crescenzo has grown into one of the most impressive songwriters and composers I know of, stepping up right next to the likes of Sufjan Stevens. It’s been a remarkable journey to watch, and Act V is his most adventurous and most accomplished effort.

Like Act IV, it’s impossible to reduce Act V to a genre or category. Again, Crescenzo has composed full orchestral arrangements for the whole of this album, and whether they are subtly augmenting or stirring things to new heights, they’re almost always present. Crescenzo recorded Acts IV and V together, so the feel of these records is consistent, but the tone is surprisingly different – where Act IV was kaleidoscopic, particularly during its final third, Act V is darker and sparser. But like Act IV, it takes your hand right at the beginning and carries you through its 73-minute running time as if it were a single song.

And here is where I need to say “spoiler alert,” if you are planning to listen to Act V with fresh ears. I can’t review it thoroughly, can't explore my reaction to it without discussing the twists and turns of the story. (I think this may be the first spoiler alert I have ever written in a music review.) Suffice it to say that the album is amazing, everything I had hoped it would be and more, and that you should buy it. If you don’t want to know more, stop reading here.

* * * * *

When we pick up the story at the start of Act V, it’s clear some time has passed. It’s not clear how much, but the boy is still the city’s mayor, still under the thrall of the pimp and the priest. “Regress” is the polar opposite of Act IV’s “Rebirth,” opening the album on a somber and difficult note. The first tracks on the Acts work like Greek choruses, telling us what is to come, and this time the news isn’t good. The chorus describes our hero as “slave to the seeds you’ve sown” and promises he will “find relief, the end comes swiftly for you.”

And then we’re off, as “The Moon/Awake” explodes in a flurry of electronic drums. This is the first time the Dear Hunter has gone industrial, and of course Crescenzo makes it work. The song finds our hero lost, living someone else’s life under someone else’s control. He’s crying out for an apparition, a ghost, and I think he’s calling for his long-lost mother. (“Could we return to the hymn of the lake?”) This will be important later, as will the epic section at the end, in which he addresses this apparition directly. “Cascade” follows, and it’s another perfect Dear Hunter pop song, further showing how far the boy has slipped into self-loathing: “But I’m keeping it in, hate the sinner never hate the sin.” (This song gets stuck in my head at all hours.)

Crescenzo pulled off many things on Act V that he had never tried before, and the next track, the six-minute “The Most Cursed of Hands/Who Am I,” is one of them. There’s a dusty cowboy feel to it that isn’t a million miles removed from Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” and amidst the banjos and strings, it erupts now and again into a killer rock riff. The song is a parable about the devil challenging a gambler on a hot streak to a game of cards, and it’s full of references to poker (“The devil went down to the river”) and to previous songs. (There’s a great little reference to “Where the Road Parts” from Act II.) The “Who Am I” section at the end finds the boy examining his place in the story – “And I should idly bide my time until a wager releases me?” – while the strings recall “Ouroboros,” the fateful final song of Act IV.

“The Revival” just explodes from there, its brassy horn section augmenting what is one of Crescenzo’s best uptempo songs. The lyrics take us on a guided tour of the Dime, the brothel where the boy’s mother worked, still the pimp and the priest’s seat of power: “The secret’s safe as long as you pay… you can leave it when you walk away and pretend you’ve washed your hands of it.” And just like last time our boy was here, he meets Ms. Leading, the prostitute with whom he fell in love in Act II.

“Melpomene” (named after the Greek muse of tragedy) is one of the most touching songs in Act V, a straightforward harp-driven ballad about reconciliation and regret. “Though my youth did mislead, I would retreat to you, right back to your arms with my spirit aglow,” the boy sings. Crescenzo has often spoken of his immaturity when dealing with Ms. Leading in Act II, and this song is his chance to put it right, portraying two people who have grown and changed reuniting as friends, and more.

This reunion becomes one of the catalysts for the final act, and in the next song, the second catalyst arrives. His name is Mr. Usher, here to “usher” in the end of the story, and his signature song is the biggest departure for the Dear Hunter yet. Crescenzo goes full Michael Buble here, crooning over a swing beat and a full orchestral arrangement. It’s kind of great. Crescenzo swears that Mr. Usher is a new character, but there’s plenty of evidence in the song that he’s actually the pimp and the priest, including references to Act I songs “His Hands Matched His Tongue” and (yes) “The Pimp and the Priest.”

Whoever he is, he and our main character sing a duet next – “The Haves Have Naught” sounds like it could come straight from Broadway, so perfectly has Crescenzo aped this style. Gavin Castleton plays Mr. Usher, rationalizing oppression of the weak as necessary and good, while the boy, newly emboldened, refuses this point of view. The turning point of the album comes in the final verse, in which the boy sees the pimp and priest for who he is: “Just look at that charlatan steeped in deceit, a threat to the young, the old and the meek, don’t you wonder what made him so vicious, so sick, so far out of balance, so cruel and so callous, so married to malice?” This song is absolutely remarkable, the most theatrical number in all five Acts, and it begins the finale.

But first, the most emotionally resonant song in Act V. “Light” is where we learn that the boy has a son, most likely with Ms. Leading, which means some time passed after “Melpomene.” And here is where he says goodbye to him, knowing he is going off to fight the man who first brought him to the city, and has plagued his life from the first. “Light” is a beautiful song, mostly just acoustic guitar, and serves as a letter from father to son: “And boy, someday I hope I do see the man that you will grow into, and when your heart’s in disarray, know that your father too has made mistakes…” The bridge section finds our hero admitting his own cruelty and foolishness, that he has “strayed too far away from the trees and the lake” of Act I. This song brings the whole of the Acts together, and the narrative force at this point is so great that I don’t think I’ve made it through this song without tearing up.

And then, bang, we’re into the final section, and it’s non-stop. Seriously, from here to the end, I was on the edge of my seat, and even now, after hearing it 20 or so times, I’m still carried away in its current. Everything Crescenzo has been building comes to a head here, and it’s amazing. “Gloria” is a powerhouse, a song of determination: “I’ve been falling fast into the rhythms without rhymes, I won’t be giving up again, I’ll be getting up again.” Our hero’s apparition speaks to him in the chorus, singing “e dolore magna gloria,” meaning “from pain comes glory.” He’s on his road to redemption. (This song contains a lead guitar solo from Crescenzo that is out of this world, too.)

Throughout the Acts, there has been a repeated phrase: “The flame is gone, the fire remains.” At various points this has been a symbol of the boy’s continued life after others’ deaths, particularly his two mothers. And so when you know this, and see two songs in a row near the end of Act V called “The Flame (Is Gone)” and “The Fire (Remains),” it’s one of those moments that makes your heart leap into your throat. These songs are fantastic, the first referencing “Ouroboros” as our hero decides what he has to do, the second referencing Act I as the boy does what his mother did: burn down the Dime. (This is foreshadowed in “The Inquiry of Ms. Terri” with the line “reprise, two times, the Dime, burn it to the ground.” Ten years ago!) Both of these songs are crawling epics, huge and forceful.

Naturally, our boy hopes that by burning down the source of evil in the city, he’ll be reborn, renewed, washed clean of his part in it. (“Far from the ash, I will be born again, where every debt is repaid, nothing left to keep me out of paradise as portraits of the past fade away…”) Of course, things are never that easy, and in the breathtaking “The March,” the pimp and priest plays the victim and turns the city against the boy. He tells his secret – that the mayor of the city has been pretending to be his half-brother, “a man he left to die.” When the song transforms into “The Old Haunt” from Act IV, it’s probably the most musically exciting moment of my year. (“You tried to take control, but you couldn’t with a stolen soul, so we’re coming after you tonight…”)

“The March” ends with a snippet from “The Most Cursed of Hands,” the gamble gone awry, and then slips into “Blood,” where it all comes to a head. The boy tries to explain to the angry crowd, but ends up damning himself: “I’m a killer, but I’ve been killing myself all along, had I done my best to protect innocence or did I lead the wolf to the fawn?” He is beaten and left for dead, and in the final song, “A Beginning,” he seems to actually die. “Just one moment more before I close the curtain, fate uncertain, spirit to the dark, endlessly apart…” He sees visions of his loved ones one last time, and calls out to the apparition that has followed him, using the same melody from the end of “The Moon/Awake.” “Is absolution far too much to ask? Can you forgive a truly troubled past?”

The ending takes my breath away. As the strings collapse, our boy offers one final thought: “So trust that with this end a new beginning’s waiting patiently.” Then, as he slips away, the familiar piano refrain of “The Lake South” and “The River North,” from Act I, plays us out. It’s remarkably emotional, especially if you’ve followed this story from the start. Hearing Act V for the first time was an experience like few others I’ve had as a music fan. It was like coming to the climax of a great novel or a great film. It was captivating the first time, and has remained captivating each time after. It’s an extraordinary triumph, the culmination of Crescenzo’s growth as a musician and storyteller, and the best record he has made. Which means it’s one of the best records anyone has made.

* * * * *

So why haven’t you heard about it?

I’m not sure. The Dear Hunter remains a cult act with a few thousand followers, despite making albums like this one. (I’m not even sure where Crescenzo gets the money to make albums like this one, frankly.) I hope his genius is recognized someday. For now, we have a sixth Act to come, in which we’ll find out what Crescenzo thinks about redemption, and whether he thinks the character he’s spent the last 10 years with deserves it. And after that? I think Casey Crescenzo could do anything, so I’m excited to see what he chooses to do. This is a guy who has, at age 32, written a symphony and is on the verge of completing the longest and most complex concept album ever. Creatively speaking, he could go anywhere.

And that’s what’s most exciting to me about finding someone like Crescenzo and watching him grow. I have no idea what he will do, and that’s thrilling. Whatever form Act VI takes, I have no doubt it will be a fantastic finish to this one-of-a-kind project, and I’m on board for literally anything Crescenzo does next. Act IV came very close to being my album of last year, and Act V is, right now, my album of this year. If I hear a record I like better than this one in the next few months, I’ll be astounded.

The flame is gone. The fire remains. Bring on the finale.

Next week, Marillion or Gungor or Dawes or any number of other things. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.