With the litany of Christian metalcore bands currently making music, it’s hard to stand out of the pack. Even the bands that are considered at the forefront of the genre, namely Demon Hunter, have recently began to succumb to the perils of sounding too generic. Since their inception with 2007’s When I Am God, Oh, Sleeper have coasted comfortably along, never making anything either earth shattering or completely forgettable. The band’s consistent intensity is maintained by sticking to the fundamentals of the genre: fast guitar lines, heavy riffs descending into equally heavy breakdowns, and harsh screaming. All of these elements are present on Children of Fire; and while this record doesn’t sound entirely interchangeable with their past outings, it doesn’t quite stand out from them either.
The band’s intensity hasn’t let up any, as evident right from the album’s opening track, “Endseekers”. For a moment, the song sounds like something out of Katatonia’s recent work, doomy overtones and all. Not a moment later, though, the guitar shredding begins, bringing the song into familiar metalcore territory. And though the band does partake in the requisite juxtaposition of harsh and clean vocals, what remains the focus of the record is vocalist Micah Kinard’s windpipe-testing screams. He’s quite good at harnessing the energy of the songs, though his vocals wear a bit thin by the end of the record. Kinard’s best moments are found in balance of his two styles, particularly on “Hush Yael”.
“Hush Yael” is the beginning of the album’s three-song midsection. Instead of interspersing the quiet moments throughout the records like many do, the band instead placed the album’s most mellow tracks sequentially. “Hush Yael” does have its heavy moments (though the best parts of the song are the calm ones), but the following two tracks give the record (and Kinard) a breather. The brief interlude “The Conscience Speaks” features a finger-picked acoustic guitar reminiscent of Opeth; though the song barely runs past a minute, it’s one of the album’s best moments. The final song of the three songs is the album’s highlight, “Means to Believe”, which features one of the most meaningful explorations of the difficulties of the Christian faith ever expressed by a Christian band of any genre (“If the blind can see you/And the lame can meet you/Will the dead embrace you/If you never gave them the means to believe?”).
While placing the album’s most tranquil pieces all in a row has its benefits, namely that those songs are the album’s finest, its drawbacks are plenty evident. After “Means to Believe” the album picks its pace back up and doesn’t let up, which leaves the second half of the record to pale in comparison to the stronger first half. The most the album chills out after the quiet midsection is on “The Family Ruin”, which is led by a Danny Elfman-like keyboard melody. Even though the album attempts to close with a bold, anthemic battle cry (“We are the children of fire/We are the lions/We stand when all else is deserted”), it sounds too akin to what has already been done on the rest of the record to stand above the fray.
Children of Fire isn’t entirely a safe or generic record; there are moments that show the band is capable of doing more than just screaming atop quickly picked arpeggios and dissonant guitars. It isn’t unheard of for a metal band’s ballads to outshine their heavy counterparts, as they do on this record. But given how good the album’s somber, acoustic-driven songs are in comparison to the often-interchangeable moments of brutality, one begins to think that Oh, Sleeper might do well to focus their energy on expanding those moments than falling prey to the typical expectations of the genre. For now, the band shows that even though there are moments of greatness in the ever-flowing stream of Christian metal artists, business is going as it usually does.