And now for something completely different.
This is something of a love-letter, to the band that defined my teenage years and still, even into adulthood, continues to be on regular rotation in my playlist. A band that almost none of you have likely heard of, let alone have heard their music. They never received much radio play. Nor did they garner much media attention. Until they reunited and launched a Kickstarter campaign to tour and ultimately self-produce a brand new album, which at the time and in their particular market was nearly unheard-of.
Growing up, my exposure to music was, let’s say, sheltered. Quite. My parents pretty much listened to Country and Churchy music with little exception. You’d think, having grown up in the 60s – 70s, they’d have at least a bit of disco or classic rock in their repertoire, but nope. Randy Travis, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Reba McIntire, Shania Twain, etc. Now, as most children of the 90s did, us kids had a boom box — a combination CD player, tape player, and AM/FM radio. And what did we do with this? Mix tapes, obviously! But it was never much of a “mix”. I’d try to ask for the “jazziest” songs from the various western albums. My dad even branched out to Steven Curtis Chapman and some no-name Christian soft-rap-rock-worship hybrid mess.
Then some of the other kids in the youth group introduced us to DC Talk, the Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline, Skillet, and other acts of the late 90s contemporary Christian alt-rock spinoff movement. This was where Switchfoot and P.O.D. got their start, you know; before they sold out to corporate or got caught with their pants around their ankles. These were okay, but ultimately forgettable, like so many waves on the sand.
My friend Michael, from across the street, had an older brother, Brian. One day when I was over, waiting for Michael to do something, Brian let me come check out his CD collection and his computer games. I asked if he had any music recommendations, and he pulled out a few albums by this band I’d obviously never heard of called Five Iron Frenzy. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I was in eighth grade; appropriate, since the first line of a verse in one of these songs was exactly that. Brian loaned me their first three CDs. I knew the parents would approve because they were a Christian band, but I’d never heard of this “ska” genre before. Five Iron Frenzy’s album art was wonderfully done: deceptively simple hand drawings that held such deeper weight behind them. I got them home to the boombox, and popped in the first disc. From the blast of that distorted guitar chord, the blare of those horns, and that absolutely biting sarcasm of the intro track, ‘Old West’, I was hooked. Between the boombox and a couple disc-mans (disc-men?), those CDs played dozens of times throughout my teens and early 20s.
In sophomore year, their next album came out, and boy was I excited. All the Hype That Money Can Buy was the first CD I bought with my very own dough, hard-earned at the Burger King down the street. Being a Colorado based band, they were heavily influenced by the Columbine school shooting, which shined through in the track ‘A New Hope’. Once, in college, thinking I was being profound, I would sneak into one of those larger lecture halls and write the lyrics to its refrain on the big chalk board for the next attendees to find and ponder. “Peace floods us, by hope we steer; our dark hearts salvaged, we live without fear.” That line can still give me goosebumps. Although, it’s not quite as impactful as the conclusion to The End is Near‘s ‘On Distant Shores’, which cleverly calls back to their second album’s final track, and builds to such breathtaking catharsis that I can still feel the lump in my throat every time I sing along with it. But more on that in a minute.
Later, in 2001 or early 2002, I was lucky enough to attend their concert at the Glass House in Riverside, CA. I even made an iron-on tee with their name on it to wear to the show. They were horribly late to start; I think we stood there almost an hour and half past the scheduled time. But it was worth it. Super high energy, loud, slightly mosh-y, and all my new favorite songs. I would later come to realize that they weren’t all that spectacular as a live act — they tended to rush tempo during shows to get more songs out in a limited time, and the quality suffered a bit — but still, that was a memorable evening.
Let me take you on a little journey through the ‘FIF’ (as their fans affectionately abbreviated) albums themselves, in a small tribute to the journey of musical discovery that they sparked for me.
The first album, Upbeats and Beatdowns, seethed with sardonic wit like nothing I’d ever heard before, in tracks such as ‘Old West’ and ‘Beautiful America’. It juxtaposed nicely with the humble sincerity of ‘Where Zero Meets Fifteen’ and ‘Milestone’. And heck if I don’t belt out those la-la-la’s from ‘Cool Enough for You’ every single time. Sure, there were some throwaways, like ‘Combat Chuck’, and they suffered a bit from the lack of lyrical enunciation, like most third wave ska did at some point in their career, but it was pretty solid.
That first album was good, but the second, Our Newest Album Ever, blew me away. More cutting sarcasm in ‘Handbook for the Sellout’ and ‘Fist Full of Sand’, more silly antics like ‘Where is Micah?’ and ‘Oh Canada’, and more heartfelt sincerity in ‘Suckerpunch’ and ‘Second Season’. This is where their own little inside-meme began with ‘Blue Comb 78’. You could also see a developing theme in ‘Banner Year’, where for the second time in as many albums, they denounced the historically covered-up atrocities committed against Native Americans. But the crown jewel has to be ‘Every New Day’, the final track, which takes upon itself the pressure of striving to be a good example of God’s love yet trying to just fit in with your peers, and builds it up only to release it again with the realization that it’s perfectly okay to not be perfect.
Most listeners, outside the die-hard fans, could be forgiven for forgetting about Quantity is Job 1. It wasn’t really an album, technically; it was an ‘EP’, old-timey record-store lingo for ‘Extended Play’, meaning somewhere between an ‘Single’ and an full ‘LP’ album. It mostly consisted of seven-ish tracks parodying all different musical styles with a ridiculous ‘Whose pants are these?’ mini-song. The two shining stars here have to be ‘One Girl Army’, a sharp anti-chauvinism tune that gave their lone female member a well-deserved spotlight, and ‘All That is Good’, an encouragement to be more open-minded and think critically in the face of blind dogma. Also, I used the innocently hopeful theme of ‘Dandelions’ as an inspiration for an English paper.
Now, as I said, when their next album released, my anticipation was high. When I brought home that maddeningly shrink-wrapped disc and its bright orange themed cover with a funny little picture of a white guy in a fro trying to dunk a basketball, I knew this was going to be good. But I had no idea what I was in for. It starts with some truly upbeat positivity in ‘The Greatest Story’ and ‘Solidarity’, and you can sense the Latin influence in some salsa-esque beats as their producer yips and yelps ‘Oi!’, culminating in the decidedly Hispanic-flavored ‘Hurricanes’. We get some expected silliness, and a bit of hair-metal, in ‘Phantom Mullet’, and a self-deprecating banjo-twanged song about their home state. Plus a batch of freshly crisp criticism of the church’s bigotry and inbuilt phobias in ‘Fahrenheit’ and ‘Four-Fifty-One’.
It wasn’t until ‘Giants’, the bleak outcry against mega-corporations’ takeover of society, that the subtly subversive hook truly sunk in for good. I knew that I needed more. And the title track ‘All The Hype’ surely delivered. Followed by a seemingly random cover of ‘It’s Not Unusual’, which ends hilariously with Reese saying ‘more reverb!’ as his ears get pummeled by bad guitar outros. Finally, we have the concluding tracks, ‘A New Hope’ and ‘World Without End’. There is a palpable pain there from the school shooting that, in manifesting our worst fears, seems to have become an American trend. Yet, it ultimately gives way to a heartfelt peace and love, expressed as a choral refrain with bells, for a reassuring sense that everything will eventually be alright.
By this time, the band was maturing, knowing that the ska wave of the 90s was ending, so they made a small shift towards pop-punk (with horns). If the previous album was a whimsical mish-mash of musical experimentation, this was a truly polished experience with a consistent theme and sound. Vol. 2: Electric Boogaloo, as the name would suggest, signaled a reinvention, a sequel that would be different enough yet still true to its roots; and unlike the movie, not widely regarded as terrible. This is the album that embossed their talents well, and established that they were not just some passing fad. The self-deprecating humor returned in ‘Pre-Ex Girlfriend’ and ‘You Can’t Handle This’, the struggle of attempting to live a Godly life in ‘Spartan’ and ‘Eulogy’, and the inveigh upon immoral practices in the name of religion through ‘Blue Mix’ and ‘The Day We Killed’. Much like ‘Giants’ in the previous album, ‘Vultures’, another blighting critique of excessive capitalism, tipped my fandom from a ten to an eleven.
Three years went by. College, other musical discoveries, my palette shifting to classic rock. Yet their special place in my heart never grew cold. Unfortunately, through some bad combination of ignorance, busyness with college, and obsession with Warcraft 3, I completely missed the fact that they quit touring in 2003. They released the double-disc set The End Is Here in 2004, a culmination of their last studio album and their final concert from their hometown of Denver. I learned about it a few years later from a coworker, and while I was a little heartbroken that they were gone, I was absolutely enamored with the work itself.
Right from the start, the blast of ‘Cannonball’ kicks up your eardrums with aplomb. ‘New Years Eve’ feels so incredibly true-to-life that I literally thought it was about me. Of course there’s the usual fun antics with ‘At Least I’m Not Like All Those Other Old Guys’ and ‘Wizard Needs Food Badly’. The searing criticisms, first of religious dogmatism/legalism with ‘Farewell to Arms’, then of fear-based news media in ‘Anchors Away’, still hit home more than a decade later. And ‘Something Like Laughter’ serves up another faithful reminder that Feminism is not anti-Christian, and visa-versa.
Finally, we come to ‘On Distant Shores’. At first, it sounds a little too upbeat to be goodbye. But as it builds, the permeating theme of divine forgiveness in the face of failure, which ultimately defines much of their catalog, rings truer than ever before. With such beautiful poetry, the pulsing acknowledgement that what we do with our lives is so often marred with selfish intent and shortcomings, cathartically transforms into that quintessential refrain from ‘Every New Day’, as both the listener and the band itself are invited to rest their weary heads in the solace of God’s infinite love and mercy. In this understanding that every day we live is another gift — another opportunity to build up our fellow man and woman instead of tear them down, and to be that light, however dim or scratched or scarred, to a world that so desperately needs it.
Since then, I will admit that I originally missed out on their Kickstarter-fueled 2013 reunion and album Engine of a Million Plots. Yet, thanks to that same coworker and fellow fan, I knew of it, and I gave it a solid listen. So far, ‘Battle Dancing Unicorns with Glitter’ is my favorite song title of recent history, and it’s the one that’s stuck in my head at the moment. ‘Zen and the Art of Xenophobia’ is perhaps their most biting critique of American cultural pitfalls to date, which feels hauntingly prophetic when you realize that it was written before the Trump White House. And ‘Into Your Veins’ turns the self-parody up to eleven, as they proclaim to feed your addiction to their very words, knowing full-well that it’s a completely ludicrous notion.
Truly, Five Iron has always been ahead of their time. And as they go about their mid-lives, hold down actual careers while balancing the occasional weekend concert or two, and reflect back on their glory days, I hope they will remember them as fondly as I do. Because their music had soul, in a market where, ironically, that was lacking; and silliness, in a market that often took itself way too seriously. It had an encouraging undercurrent of questioning the status-quo, which, however aged and comfortable we become with our tired traditions, is essential to an active mind and a productive person. Above all, may they never lose sight of what made them great in the first place: love. For each other, for God, for the youth, for people in general. And for the sometimes thankless, seemingly futile task of trying to bring some spark of peace and hope to those around them. Indeed, ‘It Was Beautiful.’