by Brian J. Audette
In an age where singles, a-la-carte downloads, and the ability to play any track at any time due to digital media have all but killed the traditional need for “albums,” every so often comes a collection of curated, collated and expertly sequenced music that reminds us of the power an album can really have. With Kingdom of Fear, East Cameron Folkcore have created a work fit to stand alongside the magnum opuses of other Texas conceptualists such as Austin’s own Quiet Company and their album We Are All Where We Belong or even the now-defunct Mars Volta’s seminal De-loused in the Comatorium. Poignant, powerful, and haunting, Kingdom of Fear is a conceptual journey in four parts that takes us on a downward spiral of the modern condition that even Dante Alighieri would be impressed by.
Musically this is easily East Cameron Folkcore’s most solid release to date. On Kingdom of Fear the band is firing on all cylinders and then some, blending their unique arrangement of horns, strings, keys, percussion, banjos, and guitars with Appalachian choruses and hardcore howls to create a sound that is all at once progressive, folk, and punk without a single note ever sounding out of place. Thematically the only thing I’m certain of is that no one review can do this album justice, a dissertation maybe. It’s almost impossible to approach each song separately, though I’ll do my best to summarize, but feel free to grab the album and listen along.
CANTO I: THE GRAND ILLUSION
The Grand Illusion is the first of four cantos on Kingdom of Fear and is couched in the notion of the boiling frog, where one places a frog into a pot of comfortably warm water and slowly turns up the heat such that by the time the frog notices it’s boiling, it’s already too late. “What the Thunder Said” opens the album with spoken word over a bed of horn and organ, punctuated by the almost menacingly gentle picking of guitar strings. The narrator sets the stage and illuminates the doomed acquiescence of the modern working class “Working more, making less, taking pills to try and smile.” “Kingdom of Fear” expands on this theme, adding blissful ignorance to the mix with “Generations doomed by disillusion/White picket fences holding ‘em in” sung in a soaring yet mournful voice to a folk rock dirge and accompanied by a chorus of church hall voices that ultimately become a funeral choir for a trumped up American dream. “The Joke” breaks down the illusory barriers of self delusion as the tempo picks up and Jesse Moore’s vocals hit the ceiling, cracking as he hits hardcore punk levels of lyrical anguish. “969” is the short, but powerful denouement to this first canto, the narrator succumbing to the terrible truth of the present over a frenetic cacophony of guitars, drums, banjos, and horns singing “I don’t know who I am or where I belong“, his voice ultimately lost in a fading echo that leads into the second canto of Kingdom of Fear.
CANTO II: THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
Through the Looking Glass deals primarily in the bleak and present reality, “The Greater Fool” opening this section with a chorus of ominous horns that by song’s end evolve into a progressive sounding arrangement of anxious mandolin strums and an angry swirl of guitars set against East Cameron Folkcore’s folk family chanting. “Fracking Boomtown” is about exactly what it sounds like: the oil and natural gas practice known as fracking, purported to be perfectly safe by profiteers, but that leaves the narrator’s wife and kids “dying in a hospital” as it “seems the water’s filled with some unknown disease.” Here again, Moore’s vocals reach those hardcore heights, perfectly emoting every word. Like much of the album, this is a song you feel as much as you hear. “Modern Man” provides a brief interlude, slowing the tempo and mellowing the mood a bit before “When We Get Home” brings us a soldier’s lament of continued redeployment and senseless violence singing/hoping “When we get home we will be justified.” It’s a song of sadness and fatigue in an age of endless war that’s joined by a blazing guitar solo, but that ultimately settles into a quiet and solemn chorus culminating in the narrator singing alone against a wash of strings and cymbals and somber solo keys.
CANTO III: THE PEOPLE SPEAK
In The People Speak, East Cameron Folkcore begin making the case for fighting back against this Kingdom of Fear, but that too brings its own set of inglorious defeats. “Protest Hero” invokes the names of government document leaker Chelsea Manning and activist Howard Zinn, indicting petty pretenses of patriotism, religious zeal, Wall Street greed, and even the listener singing “Raise a fist for the protest hero who gives a shit while you’re watching TV/Getting kicked in the teeth for freedom doesn’t help a human feel free.” “Our City” quite literally hits home, decrying not so much the facts of Austin’s growth, but development companies and hipster cool-seekers behind it: “They’re keeping it weird but in all the wrong ways” and culminates in a chorus of “What have we done to our city?” set against the blare of sirens. “Blackheart for a Beating Drum” gets downright heavy as it decries the condo-dwelling hipster noise police who move into the heart of Austin’s live music scene and then complain when it gets loud. East Cameron Folkcore’s response? “They can’t shut us up.” “Newspeak” wearily reprises a line from the album’s intro “No one remembers the fine line we crossed to sign off on our own rights back when Orwell was still sci-fi,” Moore’s voice quavers, a man who’s fought and lost as he trails off “Is it sinking in? I hope you can swim” and setting up Kingdom of Fear‘s final act.
CANTO IV: SHIP OF FOOLS
“Into Hell’s Sea” has just about had it and as the Ship of Fools goes down, angular, progressive guitars recap all we’ve had and all we’ve lost in the Kingdom of Fear: “For you there’s no redemption, no you took all you could and you’ve shown no contrition, bartering burden in hopes of forgiveness.” The album’s epilogue “Goodbye to Fear” is short and enigmatic, opening with what seems to be an explosion, we then hear what sounds like a reprise from earlier in the album except laid over with a repeated chant of “goodbye to fear” that slowly fades out, followed by the sound of lapping waves.
When it’s all finally over Kingdom of Fear leaves me spent in the best possible way. This is a concept album for the ages, full of emotion and resonance and expertly crafted. Thematically and musically each track on Kingdom of Fear is a part of a larger whole and stronger for it, but even more impressive is how many of these songs can and do stand on their own. “What the Thunder Said”, “Our City”, and “Fracking Boomtown” are all easily single worthy and lose none of their power for being separated from the rest. As an album aficionado however I urge you to listen to Kingdom of Fear in one go as a singular experience. There’s something powerful and moving on offer here. East Cameron Folkcore have projected their souls onto this album and it shows.
Brian Audette lives somewhere in Austin within a pillow fort made of broken dreams. He only comes out to see shows and buy beer. He has a surprisingly well maintained lawn and is using it to breed an army of attack mosquitoes with which to take over the world. Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @bjaudette.