#1 – THE BIGGER LIGHTS – BATTLE HYMN [spotify]

(feat track – “Terrible World, Give Me More” [spotify])

It’s kind of awesome when a band does something you had no idea they were capable of, no idea they were even interested in attempting, and does it spectacularly well.  It’s not like The Bigger Light’s earlier work had screamed “untapped potential”. Neither of their previous releases had hinted at them being much more than a mid-level pop band; there were no indications the band had bigger aspirations, nor was there anything that made them seem particularly capable of more. Certainly there was no reason to expect such a sharp left turn.  I almost wonder if The Bigger Lights should have changed their band name, because while Battle Hymn is (mostly) the same people, it’s not even comparable to what came before.  It exists in a whole different universe.

I won’t dwell too much on the sound of the album itself; I think I got that pretty well covered over here. (It’s really not my best review, looking back on it. Parts of it read pretty smoothly; other parts are seriously clunky. I think I got tripped up by my own exuberance at times; that’s definitely a flaw in my game. But at least it does alright from a descriptive standpoint.) I will say that there’s nobody out there that I can think of doing anything quite like what The Bigger Lights are doing here, and that’s a big part of the appeal for me.  Black Veil Brides and Falling In Reverse go for some of the same territory but both come off a little heavier, a little sludgier, a lot more cartoony.  Too much KISS, not enough Crue. Meanwhile, the pop-punks are mostly content to play it safe. And the revivalists (Steel Panther I’m looking at you) seem to do everything with a wink and a nod. The Bigger Lights are playing in the pop-metal playground, but they’re over in the corner with early Crue and Van Halen and Guns N Roses, bands who saw metal and punk as part of the same tradition, who didn’t feel the need to concede one to the other.  Battle Hymn takes the best of both worlds and builds something better than either alone.

With last year’s #1, half my blog was a rave about Foxy Shazam’s live set.  Well, I’ve seen The Bigger Lights live before, but only in their earlier incarnation, and while they were solid enough at what they were doing, the material certainly didn’t lend itself to any sort of transcendant live performance. I don’t think they played more than a handful of shows featuring material that wound up on Battle Hymn; the few clips I’ve seen, while great sounding, were also being played to an audience entirely unfamiliar with the band’s new material and direction, so there isn’t a lot to go on in terms of response.  And between the departure of drummer Ryan Seaman (whose contributions to Battle Hymn are absolutely crucial) and the recent announcement by vocalist Topher Talley that the band would be hanging it up for the conceivable future, and I suspect it’s likely I’ll never get to see this stuff performed live. (Even if the inevitable reunion happens, which seems to be the case for virtually any band of even minor reknown these days, I don’t know if there’s any fanbase out there craving this material; why cash in if you’re not going to cash in on it? I wish they’d at least had the opportunity to win people over with Battle Hymn.)

Which, while I totally understand the situation – it’s rough to keep slogging on when it seems like noone cares, especially when the realities of life intrude, and even more especially when you can avail yourself of different-but-equally-rewarding creative outlets that people do care about (and pay you for!) – still breaks my heart a little.  These are songs that deserve to be thrashed along to, they beg to be heard with bodies flying overhead and elbows crashing into kidneys, so thick with tumult they are.  Battle Hymn is the sound of bringing order to chaos, of asserting purpose into the random world swirling around us, of seizing control out of nothing at all, and that sort of thing is almost always at its best when experienced in the crushing sweaty entropy of the pit, a multisensory experience, physical as well as mental and aural. I can’t hang like I used to, but there are still a few bands worth getting in the pit for, if only because I don’t want to experience them any other way, and it sucks that I’ll almost certainly never have the chance here. (And besides, “Dear In The Headlights” is custom-crafted for group lighter-pumping. There definitely hasn’t been enough of that in my life!)

Still, in life sometimes most of the time all you can do is take what you can get; if this is all I’m going to get from The Bigger Lights, I’ll take it gladly and greedily. I’m disappointed to see them go, but it doesn’t feel like they’ve left any unfinished business behind. Battle Hymn is a clear, definitive artistic statement, the strongest I heard in 2011.  That, plus eight totally kick-ass songs, made Battle Hymn an easy pick for my favorite album of the year.

review of Battle Hymn (published 7/12/11)