Friday, October 9, 2020

FIREFLIGHT "Who We Are: The Head and the Heart"


(c) 2020 RockFest Records

  1. Ready For More
  2. Bang Bang
  3. Who We Are
  4. How To Fly
  5. Keep Your Head Up
  6. Welcome To The Show
  7. Bury The Dead
  8. Arrow
  9. I Believe You
  10. Don't Let Me Go
Dawn Michele--Lead Vocals
Wendy Drennen--Bass, Backing Vocals
Glenn Drennen--Guitars
Justin Cox--Guitars
Adam McMillion--Drums, Percussion

It has been since 2015 that Fireflight released new music, and that last effort, Innova, was a big disappointment to a lot of long-time fans, myself included.  A mish-mash of mostly electronic music with only withering amounts of the modern melodic hard rock that the band had come to be known for, Innova seeemed to be a whimper of an end to a solid career for the band that released their first album, Glam-Rok nearly two decades ago.  But, with a shot at a rebirth of sorts on the booming Rockfest Records label, and co-writing and production credits from hot commodity Josiah Prince of Disciple, Fireflight has come roaring back with Who We Are: The Head and the Heart, due out later this month.

Reuniting the original line-up (minus drummer Phee Shorb), Fireflight comes out firing on all cylinders immediately, setting the tone for their most complete, hardest-hitting record in their seven album (and a couple of EPs) career.  Granted, most of their previous releases featured numerous Christian rock radio hits such as "For Those Who Wait", "You Decide", "Desperate", and many others, but never has one of the band's albums been able to sustain my attention from start to finish.  In fact, as great as many of the singles were, I honestly never really connected with an album in its entirety prior to Who We Are.  Even as someone who owns the band's catalog, and who really likes Glam-Rok and 2012's Now, I always felt Fireflight's records would make GREAT EPs, but carried too much filler and, quite frankly, lost me on the majority of their ballads which come off as simply too sugary.  I am happy to state that these issues are simply not the case with Who We Are!

The album kicks off with a build up of electronics and programmed sounds, and I was honestly concerned we were in for Innova II.  But after about 40 seconds of looped effects, Dawn Michele's vocals kick in, the guitars join the mix, and the drums of McMillion kick in and it is obvious that, at least for the moment, the Fireflight of rock-oriented albums For Those Who Wait and Now has returned.  Dawn's vocals, instantly recognizable as they are, carry a punch and a power they lacked on the last record, dropping the breathy tone she employed on much of Innova and returning to her big, sweeping ROCK voice that drove tracks like "Stay Close" and "Stronger Than You Think".  The bass is thick and present here, and the guitars of Cox and Drennen are lively and driving, using the electronic background as a canvas upon which to paint their rhythms and solos.  A mid-tempo rocker, "Ready For More" definitely had me in the mindset the song's title implies, as I was psyched for what was to come next.

"Bang Bang" ups the energy and tempo as Dawn bursts from the speakers after just a single drum strike, and the buzzsaw guitars are off and running.  Once again, yes, there are some programmed electronic elements employed here, but they are role players here rather than the dominating instrument of the track.  The vocals take on an urgent tone throughout the track, and once again the lively bass line from Wendy Drennen throbs incessantly throughout this track.  Again, the guitar tandem of Glenn Drennen and Justin Cox carves its way through the track with a driving heaviness the likes of which Fireflight has only occasionally hinted at in the past.  This is an excellent rocker that I would imagine will be released as a single in the near future.  

Speaking of singles, the title track and lead single, "Who We Are" is up next and is exactly the type of song long-time Fireflight fans have been dreaming their band would grace them with again at some point.  A soft electronic build is present, with an acoustic guitar drifting across the soundscape, only to be interrupted by some sharp drums and a churning rhythm guitar that revs the track into full gear.  Dawn's vocals are in peak form here (and throughout the record, honestly), and the hard-hitting rock track instantly recalls the best singles of the band's past.  Shouted backing vocals, a sing-along chorus, punchy rhythms, and gritty guitar tones...all the ingredients of what made Fireflight one of, if not THE, dominant female-fronted Christian rock bands in the entire scene...are all present in a big way here and are demanding the band be heard!  Don't let their Christian label deter you from giving "Who We Are" a shot, radio programmers, as this is some excellent modern melodic hard rock that should be in your playlist now!  Check out the video below:

"How To Fly" picks right up where the crushing blow of "Who We Are" ends, punching you in the earhole with a thick guitar riff and cellar-dwelling bass (along with some fat...FAT...bottom end synth lines) to drive home a crunchy, mid-tempo riff-rocker.  There's an airy interlude after the second chorus that throws a bit of a curveball into the otherwise straight fastball mix here, but it serves to remind that Fireflight is not a one-trick pony and allows their more melodic side to show through a bit more.  The full-on rock returns after a few moments, however, and "How To Fly" rocks hard through to the finish.

Things take a bit of a downturn, tempo-wise, with "Keep Your Head Up", a track which starts off with a piano and strings intro that builds throughout the first verse, giving way to the full punch of the band on the pre-chorus and chorus sections, only to return again for the second verse.  There is a nice, crunchy section following the second chorus with a vocal bridge that really lets Dawn explore her full vocal range, then the piano returns for a few bars and the final run through the chorus rips through, complete with an outro guitar solo that is packed with soul and emotion.  Not a true ballad, but definitely a more down-tempo track...albeit one packed with a lot of musical power..."Keep Your Head Up" is head-and-shoulders above most of the slower-tempoed tracks of Fireflight's past, at least for me.

My personal favorite tracks hit back-to-back next with "Welcome To The Show" and "Bury The Dead", two great rockers that again showcase the power that Fireflight is capable of delivering while remaining true to who they are.  "Welcome To The Show" incorporates some quirky vocal tricks from Dawn in the way she intones certain words and phrases in the verse sections, utilizing a wicked-yet-playful lilt that entices the listener and pulls their ear forward in ring-master fashion!  There's a frantic, somewhat spoken-word vocal bridge after the second chorus run followed by a chugging stop-start-stop-start guitar section packed with chainsaw snarl and punch, and then a last run through the chorus that also drops some unique electronic elements into the mix.  I hope that this song gets airplay at some point, as  it is both totally unique and totally Fireflight at the same time.  "Bury The Dead", on the other hand, is a straight ahead rock anthem that will likely become an instant must-perform track at any future Fireflight shows.  A big, sing-along chorus really showcases the power that Dawn is able to pour into a song in which she asks herself if she "can move on if I bury the dead", leaving her broken past behind and surrendering to the Truth.  A big, big rocker with driving guitar lines, excellent drum work, and some killer layered backing vocals, "Bury The Dead" is definitely my favorite track for me on Who We Are, and unquestionably top five in Fireflight's catalog; I love this track that much.

"Arrow" is the album's only real ballad moment, and even then I'm not 100% sure I'd use that tag on the track as this isn't "slow dance" material, or anything like that.  Melding the poppier side of Fireflight with Dawn Michele's sweeping vocals, "Arrow" is definitely a sparse song, largely devoid of any crunch or grind from the guitars and with minimal percussion, but one that delivers in a big way for fans that just want to hear Dawn cut loose and carry a song on her back.

Acoustic guitars intro "I Believe You" and carry the track throughout the first verse and chorus break, joined by a string section and the drums about halfway through verse two.  There's a big build coming out of the second verse, with the whole band jumping in and a huge, melodic guitar solo sweeping in over the orchestral arrangement that supports the song at this point.  I really like how this song brings things together at the end, finishing in a place that you might not have guessed it would build to when you hear the first half of the track.  A really good musical piece.

The album closes with a slow-building-to-mid-tempo rock number that has some really nice punch but also maintains a smooth flow, again echoing some of the things Fireflight has done in the past, but doing it better than I remember in most places.  Dawn's vocals are a definite focal point here, especially as she becomes starkly raw, standing free of the band for a brief moment coming out of the final chorus run, allowing emotion to become the driving force behind her words.  While not the rocker one might have been expecting the band to close with, it is still a song of significant power and strength and is one of the defining moments of an album that, to me, is filled with RE-defining moments for the band.  

While not a member of the band, a shout out has to be given to Josiah Prince of Disciple, who is really making a name for himself in the writing and production world.  He brings a cohesiveness to the project that is not always present on previous Fireflight albums, as the songs all work to move from one to the next without sounding like the same song over and over.  The mix is exquisite and the instruments are all exposed to the listener in a way that makes them easy to hear while not dominating the song.  I really like the extra bit of edge that is added to the guitar tones of several tracks here, and having both guitars back in the band again really adds a power that was definitely lacking from Innova.  Lastly, I feel like Prince really drew the best vocal performance from Dawn Michele that I have ever heard on record.  She always had power and presence, but on Who We Are, she adds emotion without relying on breathiness, she adds coyness without becoming cutesie.  To be frank, at times her vocals took on a saccharine sheen on previous records, especially on ballads, that turned me off to a degree.  Not so on this record, not by a stretch. On Who We Are she crushes the album from start to finish in peak form!     

If I have any complaints about Who We Are: The Head and the Heart, they really aren't about the music or the band.  But, I do have two complaints, so I am going to air them here.  First...why wasn't the 2018 single, "Die Free", which featured Kevin Young from Disciple on guest vocals, included here, perhaps as a bonus track for pre-orders?  It would have been yet another incentive to help boost pre-sales and would have given us "physical over digital" fans a chance to own the track in a non-CD-R burned format.  My second complaint ties indirectly into my first.  Who We Are is actually being marketed as two stand-alone EPs, with pre-orders being the only way to get them both on one CD.  Now, I totally get the gimmick here, especially since Rockfest boss Joseph Rojas did the exact same thing on the most recent release from his band, Seventh Day Slumber; it is a gimmick to drive pre-sales.  And, again, I get it.  But, and this is just my opinion...which is really why you read this blog if you think about it...the pre-sale packages with the t-shirt, signed poster, sticker, and all that stuff, is likely incentive enough for most people that are going to pre-order anyway.  There's no need to make people pay for two separate EPs that, to be honest, would both be relatively short (both would clock in at roughly 22 minutes each).  Like I said, if you want to make a full-length version that had "Die Free" on it as a pre-order bonus, that's awesome; I'm all for that.  Doing it the two EP route just comes off as a money grab to me.  And maybe it is; I am not privy to Rockfest's financial statements, so maybe this is the cost of doing physical release business now in a digital world.  Regardless, I'm set because I DID pre-order the package because I wanted to help support the band and label and, in all honesty, because I wanted the single CD instead of having to buy two EPs.  (See...I frequently buy the albums I review here, even if I get advance promo copies.  I'm a stand-up guy!)

Regardless of my two little gripes, this is a big-time comeback from Fireflight that shows this band has a lot left in the tank.  The writing is the strongest from start to finish the band has ever put together, the performances are tight and punchy and full of energy, and Prince's production makes what would still likely have been a really good project a great one.  It is not a coincidence that I say this is, hands down, the best Fireflight has ever sounded on record and Who We Are: The Head and the Heart is, likewise, the best record that band has ever put out...also hands down.  If you hurry, you may still be able to preorder a copy HERE.

Rating:  A very crankable return for Fireflight, Who We Are is a definite 8.5!  This is excellent stuff!

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