It would be unfair to review 2015’s Dear Hunter album Act IV: Rebirth In Reprise and 2016’s Act V: Hymns With The Devil In Confessional separately…so let’s not.
According to the band’s leader Casey Crescenzo, the two records were conceived in tandem even if it appears they weren’t recorded together. Up until the release of Act V all I had to go on about The Dear Hunter was the say-so of my friend and fellow reviewer Andre Salles. (If you’re not reading his posts, you ought to. Find them here.) He encouraged me severely to seek them out. I am only now digging into the first three entries of the Acts series which, when concluded, will complete the story of a man living up to and including the first world war. He was born in unfortunate circumstances and in the trenches comes to find out he has a half-brother. This newfound sibling dies and the man, who looks enough like the other to pass, assumes his life. That is the setup for Acts IV and V, where all the seeds of his deception will flourish and be undone.
While this is technically a progressive rock chronicle, as the multiple entries telling a single story would indicate, I’d like to take a different tack in approaching (at least) these two records, because they pull off a few neat tricks along the way. The first is in the construction. If we are to lump The Acts in as a rock opera, it is one of the most self-assured and least hamstrung rock operas I’ve ever heard. In most cases, a rock concept album with a narrative demands incredibly heavy-handed lyricism to push along the tale one’s telling. You get these weird, not-very-heartfelt journals about one’s dream (frequently pronounced in song as “durr-EAM”) and one’s destiny, and such. The songs stop being songs and instead become vehicles for the narrative, which is fine. Musical theater has done it for years, but it can produce clunky results. The Dear Hunter, in this case, has produced two albums’ worth of great songs that are enhanced by knowing and following the story, but those songs are not crippled if you are unaware of the drama that goes along with it. You get more with it, but do not have less without, if that makes sense. At the very least, you are spared overwrought chestnuts about time machines and dreaded attempts at musical conversations between characters in song form: “But Horatio, what about my durr-EAM?!”
Establishing that these recordings have not forsaken songcraft, we can now take a better look at them, and they reveal the series as a sort of microcosm of popular music. The band’s current home is the Equal Vision label, known for years as a refuge for punk, emo, and post-emo acts, and at times that same aggression is found in The Acts. “Wait,” “Ouroboros,” and “The Flame (Is Gone)” play to a heaviness shared by former labelmates Coheed And Cambria or Circa Survive. But then you have the Broadway showstopping “The Revival,” arena-ready tunes like “At The End Of The Earth” and “Gloria,” and an honest-to-God swing jazz track in “Mr. Usher (On His Way To Town)” that could give retro practitioners like Michael Buble a run for his money. “King Of Swords (Reversed)” is a straight-ahead pop tune that wouldn’t have sounded all that foreign coming from Lady Gaga during the Fame and Fame Monster years.
So we have ambition, purpose, and evident range. What else? How about, at any of these junctures, Crescenzo and band could have been doing all this as a snide put-down, too hip by half and mocking. This is not the case. There is utmost respect for and dedication to the forms the group inhabit.
By drawing in all these different sounds and styles with a united sense of purpose, and a storyline such as it is to make everything hang together properly, what could be a mish-mash of musical contradictions flows effortlessly from one track to the next. Recalling again “The Revival” and its pew-overturning reverie, the worst thing one could suggest on paper is to forge immediately into a tender ballad like “Melpomene.” With the benefit of thick, gorgeous vocal harmonies — a constant throughout these two records — you are coaxed into following along without duress. Again, a pretty neat trick. I’ve seen older bands that ought to know better crumble under similar attempts.
Having said all this, especially in the aspect that these songs work marvelously on their own, I must add that the listener ought to approach The Acts (and currently these two) as something to pay attention to. There’s a lot going on here beneath the surface, and both records have a quality to them not regularly found in newer recordings: you pull a little more out of them every time you listen. What I’m saying is that you should buy the records knowing that the music itself won’t alienate you. But once you have them, you can get so much from giving them the time and place to play out, and the attention to grasp what’s coming out of your speakers.
I’ve said in other recent reviews that 2016 may be the year that progressive rock redefines itself, not as strict odes to excess and tripped-out soloing, but as a modern protest manifesto (Marillion’s F*** Everyone And Run), a prog-minded collection with an electro-pop heart (Frost*’s Falling Satellites), a folk collection that uses the folk music not as a prop but as the cornerstone of greater-scaled composition (Big Big Train’s Folklore), and now the nearing-conclusion of a piece of musical theater deftly juggling the epic and the intimate. These releases might cause the old guard to retreat to the twenty-minute electric odes to journeymen questing for their durr-EAMS, but I hope it will instead fuel them to tell new stories in unique ways. In each of these cases, the gauntlet has been thrown down, and The Dear Hunter may end 2016 having left the deepest impression.