A concept album about Mount Vesuvius?!? Bring it on! Seattle lit types deliver one of the year's best rock albums.
Who says hard rock and intellectualism can't live side by side? Certainly not Seattle's Fitzgerald-inspired Gatsbys American Dream. Its third album (and first to get national distribution) is a loose concept piece based on, yes, a volcano. Not just any volcano, but the infamous Mount Vesuvius, which exploded in 79 AD and destroyed the unheeding city of Pompeii, Italy. Not up for world history? Well, you're off the hook, because Gatsbys has set its tale to plenty of twisting, turning, thrilling, car-stereo-friendly Rock & Roll.
But first, back to the backstory. In light of post-9/11, Bush-era America, the metaphor of the technologically advanced society that's too busy and prideful to take notice of Mother Nature's warnings is obvious-- too obvious, perhaps. Lyrically, Volcano is full of hubris, fear, destruction, and self loathing. "Theatre" opens the album by proclaiming, "I see the world in a swirl of hues / But my favorite color is shame". In "Mind of Metal & Wheels", "...beasts roam the world in arrogant fashion / Trampling the harvest and spoiling the soil".
With the generalized doom and gloom comes some laser-guided social commentary -- and a sense of humor. "Shhhhhh! I'm Listening to Reason" derides a "swollen-headed son of a bitch / Who licks his lips caked with glory"; this could be most of today's self-obsessed pretty-boy lead singers as well as any dignity-sapped middle manager. Furthermore, "Your Only Escape", written from the point of view of the Devil himself, is a wry, "Paradise Lost"-style narrative that brilliantly pinpoints why it can be so easy to do the wrong thing: "Wickedness is fresh and new each time... / Can you sense the glory in it?". Not since The The's Infected has the exposure of a morally-bankrupt society been so biting, so full of mirth.
The music, an utterly unique sort of psychedelic-prog-hardcore-metal, is just as complex as the subject matter. Simply put, Gatsbys rocks. Most songs clock in at under three minutes; delivering their payloads in short, concentrated bursts. With all the stop-start rhythms and tempo changes, Volcano takes a while to get a grip on. However, songs like "Theatre", the chugging "The Guilt Engine", and surprises like the calliope melody that pops up out of nowhere on "Shhhhhh..." are well worth the time. And Gatsbys isn't opposed to straight-ahead melody, either. "The Giant's Drink", the album's high point, has a catchy, rousing chorus that's made for radio. The minor key "Fable" is basically alterna-pop, overcoming dodgy Lord of the Flies lyrics with a good tune.
Volcano simply sounds good. The production by Casey Bates and Tom Pfaeffle is rich without being crowded; each instrument has just the space it needs. Rudy Gajadhar pounds out some of the most memorable, innovative drumming in recent memory, while Nic Newsham's voice -- a soulful, effortless snarl that recalls a less psychotic Mike Patton -- complements the music almost perfectly.
The mood does get a bit oppressive by the last third of the album, with lines like "If there's a heaven in the sky I don't know why they'd ever let me in" spoiling the sonic fun. Since the earlier songs do such a good job driving their point home, it'd be nice if Gatsbys had lifted the ash and let a little light in. But that just wouldn't be very literary. And besides, by that time Volcano has already established itself as one of the best rock albums of the year.