[27 July 2009]
On their debut album, Fires of Rome throw everything but the kitchen sink at the wall. Remarkably, most of it manages to stick. On the face of it, this is the sort of reckless genre recombination that seems like it should lead to disaster, but Fires of Rome cull inspirations as disparate as punk, glam rock, heavy metal, and swing and slap them all together in a way that works surprisingly well.
True to its title, You Kingdom You is nothing if not epic, and at times the band sounds as though it is competing in some kind of decibel contest with a distant but cacophonous enemy, with a drum kit, a couple guitars, a bass, and an organ for weapons. The bombast is neatly complemented by the keening of lead singer Andrew Wyatt, whose vocals soar, siren-like, over the din. It’s not the most subtle approach, but it does rock, and on their more breathless tracks (“Songs As Yet Unsung”, “I’ll Take You Down”) Fires of Rome inspire the kind of fist-pumping attitude most bands can only dream of.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t moments of beauty on You Kingdom You. Quite the contrary, some of the album’s most rewarding moments come when the band slows down and gives their songs room to breathe. The best example of this—and hands-down the best track on the disc—is the album opener “Dawn Lament”. That it is better than anything on the album proves the strengths of Fires of Rome’s approach. There are at least seven things I love about this song, including, in no particular order: the synth strings that provide counterpoint, the way Wyatt moves from breathy whimpers to an all-out wail at the end of the bridge, and the thunderously inventive drum line. On the rest of the album, the band rocks, but only on “Dawn Lament” do they approach the transcendental.
There are, to be sure, some rather serious missteps. “Bronx Bombadier”, for all the bassline’s funkiness, is more grating than anything, and the refrain (“Don’t fuck with me when I’m not sober / don’t fuck with me when I’m not sober”) comes off more as anxious posturing than a serious threat. The disc is too long by half, and the last track, “Monkey in a Cage”, has, as far as I can tell, no argument for its own existence and quite a few against.
The lyrics are also awful throughout, almost self-consciously so. While I recognize that it’s part of the band’s shtick—it’s not like their influences were Dylan or Van Zandt or anything—there’s still something about couplets like “David lives in the cit-ay / seen him dancing in the all-ey” that sets my teeth on edge.
These are relatively minor quibbles, bits of grit that somehow made their way into a dish of impressive complexity and flavor. To harp on them too much seems almost against the point. After all, it’s not Fires of Rome’s aim to be perfect; it’s their aim to rock the fuck out. At that they excel.