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For those who don’t know anything about Smoke or Fire, let me give you a quick history. The band was formed back in 1998 and were originally called Jericho. In 2000 a Christian band contacted them claiming they held the rights to the band name. So, in order to avoid any legal action this Jericho became known as Jericho RVA (a reference to the place the band called home, Richmond, Virginia) and held that name until 2003 when it was changed again and they became known as Smoke or Fire. Some Christian fanatics claimed it was blasphemy for a non-religious band to use the name Jericho (I wonder if they had a problem with CBS and it’s long ago cancelled television series of the same name). They signed to Fat Wreck Chords and released their first Cd as Smoke or Fire in 2005 titled “Above the City”.
It was about that time when I first came to know of this band’s existence. A friend of mine had picked up the “Above the City” Cd and suggested that I check it out. I never got around to it and it wasn’t until two years later, after hearing “The Patty Hearst Syndrome” on the radio that I actually heard the band at all. I hopped on iTunes and downloaded most of their songs and have enjoyed them ever since.
That leads us to the new release “The Speakeasy”.
I’ve had a little over a week to get into this album before turning in the review and to be honest; I’ve gone back and forth about how I would rate it (3 or 4 stars). After my fifth straight through listen (and hearing the disc as part of a mix) I chose to give it a 4. It’s a good album but just how good? At first I wasn’t sure.
I’m gonna start with the positives. From the start, this album grabs the listener; “Integrity”, the opener, is a great song, it’s upbeat, urgent and in your face. The next track, “Monster among us”, a song about greed, changes up the music a little bit adding acoustic guitars to the chorus and the third song “1968” (one of my favorites) is just as good. It’s one of several political songs on the album and asks if you think that America has improved since 1968 (the year that Martin Luther King Jr. died). The fast tempo continues (other than the acoustic chorus on “Neon Light”) and we finally get a chance to catch our breath on track seven, a folk punk song titled “Honey, I Was Right About The War”. Folk punk is really nothing new these days, Mark Lind, of the Ducky Boys, Frank Turner of Million Dead and Tim Barry, of Avail (among others) have made solo careers out of it but Smoke or Fire do a great job with the genre on this track. From there the Cd returns to the fast, mostly political music that was all over the first half of the disc. The exception being song number ten, “Expatriate” which, to me, almost sounds like a song that the Refused left off of their “Shape of Punk to Come” Cd.
It’s a very good disc, so why was I not sure about how many stars to give it? The simple answer is… the vocals. There is nothing wrong with Joe McMahon’s singing voice, but I feel he needs to change it up a bit more. His vocal is unique and once you hear him a few times you will always recognize him, which is both a blessing and a curse. The music on “The Speakeasy” is great, the additions of Gwomper (from Avail) on bass and Ryan Parrish (from Darkest Hour, a band that sounds NOTHING like this one) on drums were perfect, but to me the vocals drag the disc down a little bit. Every song on this Cd is damn near perfect, on its own. The problem comes when you listen to the whole disc in one sitting; many of the songs then start to sound the same. I’ve found I enjoy these tracks the most if I listen to 3 or 4 at a time or put it in a mix with a few other Cd’s.
So, to anyone that has liked Smoke or Fire in the past I definitely recommend that you pick up “The Speakeasy” it is by far my favorite release by them. And to the rest of you, if you are into straight up, no frills punk rock with a touch of southern influence I also suggest you also check out this album, but you might not want to listen to it straight through very often.