The last two years have been nothing but a triumph for the Irish quintet Fontaines DC. Their debut album ‘Dogrel’ received universal acclaim, climbed the charts and brought crowds to live shows not seen in decades. Awards and nominations followed, sold out tours took them across Europe and the US twice. And in the middle of that controlled chaos, the band managed to find the time to record another album. This in itself, is an accomplishment worth mentioning.
There is a reason why the second album is commonly regarded as ‘the difficult one’. It usually signals a change in sound as the artists naturally grow and develop. However, the new direction can be a double-edged sword. It cuts the umbilical cord of the debut album, broadens the musical horizons but it can also disappoint and divide the fanbase. And hell hath no fury like an angry mob on social media. Bands and labels quickly learnt that fans like what they know so the new is often not so far from the old. Status quo upheld, top 40 scored and everybody is happy.
Earlier this year lead singer Grian Chatten admitted in interviews he was not interested in keeping to the well travelled trails. On the contrary, the band wanted to reinvent themselves so badly, they even scrapped a fully finished album and started anew to avoid any repetitions. A risky and costly move in normal circumstances, it became an act of true bravery during a global pandemic. I’m sure the band must have spent quite a few sleepless nights worrying about the outcome, but they have nothing to fear. ‘A Hero’s Death’ is an absolute masterpiece and a strong candidate for an album of the year for me so far.
The colossal difference between ‘Dogrel’ and ‘A Hero’s Death’ becomes apparent the second the music starts. ‘I Don’t Belong’, the opening track, is a soft song, soaked in blues and Americana, a right-in-your-face declaration of independence with hypnotic, repeated riffs. ‘Love Is The Main Thing’, probably my favourite song from the album, is a perfect combination of dark country, psychedelia/swamp rock and I’m being dead serious about it. The rhythm section (especially the drums part) is one of the best I have heard in a long time – monotonous, heavy and piercing, like a hard-pouring rain, crashing against roofs and window panes. ‘Lucid Dream’, an angrier twin sister of ‘Love’, brings gothic revival sensibilities to the front. It’s not an exaggeration to say it sounds like something Bambara and Chris Isaak could create if they ever had a chance to work together. Waltzing ‘Sunny’ cleverly incorporates post punk with western swing a la Lyle Lovett. Very impressive, even if the song is a really odd addition to the album. It is not a bad composition mind you, it just doesn’t really fit in with the rest.
Not everything on ‘A Hero’s Death’ is inspired by an American musical heritage. ‘She Said’ pays homage to the more ambitious and less known, Art-Brit pop from the late 1990’s in the form of Rialto, Marion or The Dandys. ‘Oh Such A Spring’, the shortest song on the record standing at just two minutes and 30 seconds, is similar to ‘Dublin City Sky’ from ‘Dogrel’. A modern take on a traditional Irish folk song and an inner city shanty. ‘I Was Not Born’ is a nice little nod to the folk/punk scene and the title track ‘A Hero’s Death’ with it’s mantric-like chants has a lot of the Fall and The Buzzcocks in it.
‘A Hero’s Death’ is rich, structured and innovative, both musically and lyrically. It touches on sincerity, friendship, life, being lost and looking for a new meaning. You have to keep on listening to it to fully appreciate its complexity. And even if you do, you will probably never be able to untangle all of its secrets. The ambiguity, the mystery, the allure of not really knowing everything about it – is what makes it a special record.
A Hero’s Death is released July 31st via L Y F.