Music

The Dear Hunter: Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise

Act IV exemplifies everything that makes the Dear Hunter so ambitious, creative, and special. It's a work of art.


The Dear Hunter

Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise

Label: Equal Vision
US Release Date: 2015-09-04
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There’s always been a theatrical quality to the work of the Dear Hunter (which makes sense since mastermind Casey Crescenzo grew up in a musical family). The group’s first three LPs (which made up the initial half of a planned six-Act epic) demonstrated not only dense, heartfelt storytelling and wonderfully histrionic melodies, but also a plethora of genre-defying deviations and complexities, fusing styles like indie rock, pop, progressive rock, folk, chamber, and Vaudeville in a way no other modern band has done. While the quintet’s two recent deviations from the project—The Color Spectrum (2011) and Migrant (2013)—were both stunning works that retained much of the same specialties, The Dear Hunter is surely at its dramatic best on the Act records (so many fans were still chomping at the bit for a proper follow-up to 2009’s Act III: Life and Death).

Fortunately, Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise is now upon us, and it proves that the six-year wait has not been in vain. Far more grandiose, orchestrated, and seamless than any of its predecessors, Act IV flows more like a musical or play than a series of songs, taking the aforementioned larger-than-life scale and remarkable production to a whole new level. Its expanded sonic depth (including more horns, strings, and choral pronouncements) provides a cinematic journey, and its ingenious references to prior Act classics will surely delight longtime listeners. If you were at all worried about how Crescenzo and company would continue the tale, fear not: Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise is another magnum opus that earns its place in the Dear Hunter saga.

Fittingly, “Rebirth” starts things off by inducing the vocal counterpoint approach that began Act I and Act III. Although it’s not quite as multilayered as “Battesimo Del Fuoco” or “Writing on a Wall,” its verses are still endearingly engaging, and the explosion of orchestrated quirkiness near the end offers the first indication that Act IV contains many classical layers (as well as many traces of Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds and SMiLE). Considering that Crescenzo released his first symphony, Amour & Attrition, last year, this newfound emphasis on orchestration isn’t too surprising, and thankfully, it’s largely what makes Act IV so astounding.

Next, “The Old Haunt” is your typical Dear Hunter rocker, which isn’t a bad thing, as its chorus—“And there’s far too many ways to die”—is quite catchy. As usual, the arrangement moves from sensitive and mosaic to bombastic and striving, with Crescenzo’s final battle cry—“But now we wake up!”—instilling plenty excitement and emotion. Even better, the final moments of the track contain a reworked treatment of the opening of “The Lake and the River” from Act II, which transitions into “Waves” brilliantly. With its central backing harmonies, poignant lyricism, touching melodies (especially the tragically beautiful bridge), incredible lead singing, and intense instrumentation, “Waves” is easily one of the most mesmerizing and moving pieces The Dear Hunter as ever crafted. It will leave you in awe.

More effective recalls to the saga appear in “Remembered” and "A Night on the Town." The former is a luscious ballad full of strings, harmonies, and piano with brilliant pacing and colorfulness. Throughout the track, Crescenzo reminds us that “The flame may be gone, but the fire remains.” Afterward, "A Night on the Town" storms in with a fury of horns, percussion, intertwining sentiments, rising vocals, and various other tones, culminating in a centerpiece truly reveals how Act IV is likely the Dear Hunter’s most ambitious and confident record yet. The first half is a frenzy of shifting temperaments and dynamics, while the latter half incorporates aspects of both “The Bitter Suite I and II” (from Act II) and “Mustard Gas” (from Act III) to close on a mournful and delicate ether.

“Is There Anybody Here” contains more earnest melodies and rich arrangements, while “The Bitter Suite IV and V” also contains creative signals to its earlier chapters, including an exceptional nod to “Evicted” (from Act II). Of course, it’s excellent in its own right as well, with an ominous chorus and a playful score making it both sinister and fun. Likewise, “The Bitter Suite VI” subtly alludes to the verses of “Son” (from Act III) as it moves along its impassioned, sorrowful path. Like “Rebirth", its closing orchestral panic (with sporadic percussion) makes it even more surprising.

Honestly, “King of Swords (Reversed)” moves along a funk/disco path that feels a bit out of place (actually, it’s a bit reminiscent of “Number City” from Coheed and Cambria’s The Afterman: Descension); however, it’s still charming, and you can’t fault the group for trying a new slightly direction. After some footsteps, bird chirps, and entrancing guitar feedback, “If All Goes Well” glides along quickly (it’s almost danceable), with fantastic energy and dynamic changes, moving from a forceful and hip rocker to a lavish amalgam of majestic instrumentation and multifaceted singing.

The most affective moment on Act IV, “The Line” is a ballad in the same guise as “Things that Hide Away", and it’s arguably just as heartbreaking and gorgeous. Crescenzo sings, “It’s the end of the line for you and I / Don’t make believe we even tried” as acoustic guitar arpeggios, percussive shakers, bells, strings, and harmonies surround his tender laments, showcasing how the softness music can also be the most stunning. Halfway through, Crescenzo issues an empowered, weighty new direction, which adds a hopeful tangent.

“Wait” begins like a lost track from the Black EP of The Color Spectrum, with aggressive vocals, delayed percussion, and slightly industrial production fusing much like they did on that collection. It’s easily the most straightforward track here too. Following this, more orchestration leads into the antagonistic yet fragile start of album closer “Ouroboros", which would’ve fit well on Migrant. It doesn’t feel as much like a substantial cliffhanger as prior Act finales, but it’s still quite riveting, with a dense and vigorous chorus (“I fell down and then I fell apart / I never wanted to hurt no one”) gliding in amidst atmospheric rock anarchy. Once the initial song ends, a wholly different section begins, with silky singing soaring over strings and more Brian Wilson-esque percussion. His final line—“Foolish plans kiss foolish hearts goodbye / Traveled too far from the riverside”—connects this entry into the saga even more, as well as paves the way for the next chapter.

Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise is yet another masterpiece in its creator’s canon. The Dear Hunter has always been one of the most striving, multifaceted, imaginative, skillful, and just plain extraordinary bands of its generation, offering a blend of musicianship, creativity, songwriting, and storytelling unmatched by its peers, and this record serves as even more confirmation of that. Sadly, this album also reminds us how the Dear Hunter is still criminally underappreciated by the industry and media as a whole. With any justice, Act IV will appear on many ‘Best of 2015’ lists, which may finally allow The Dear Hunter to achieve the acclaim and widespread audience it’s deserved for the past decade. Bring on Act V!

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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