Record label: Facdown Records
Release date: February 12, 2020
- Cloud Chamber
- SSRI Feel Better Already
- When Justice Cracks the Sky
- King Lazer
- The Meaning in The Monster
- Get Me Out (Ice Agents)
- The Prism Glass
Serving as a reintroduction of sorts, Sunbreather, the first album since 2015 for Portland, OR band, Fallstar, is an album that shows the group hasn't missed a beat in the last 6 years. The group leans hard into the soaring choruses, riff-heavy verses and some incredibly honest and heartfelt lyrics. With a precision that is rather impressive after 6 years, Sunbreather is an album that will stick with listeners for a long time to come. Let's look at this track by track. Consisting of Chris, Bryan, and Jeff Ratzlaff and Morgan Weisz, Fallstar is a band that blends metalcore with elements of rap-core.
"Chroma": Right off the bat, this song kicks you in the face with a swagger that would fit in with Rage Against the Machine or The Beastie Boys. That, however, is where the comparison ends. The synth beat gives way to screaming and a punctuated guitar riff that just pummels you with a cleanly produced wall of sound. It is a fantastic way for this album to introduce you to what you can expect to experience from Sunbreather. There are a couple of themes that become apparent in this opening track. The first, and probably the most obvious throughout the album, is that of mental health (clearly, given a song is titled, "SSRI Feel Better Already"). The second, and possibly more ambiguous, is that of the superiority of Jesus. "Our gods bowing at the feet of Jesus" is one of the lines that really catches your attention. The point is made: regardless of where you stand on any spectrum, Jesus is where all will one day bow. If you want to kick off an album that's been anticipated for years, this is how to do it.
"Cloud Chamber": If there's any song on this album that I personally relate to, it would be this one. Musically, this is probably Fallstar at their most accessible. The rhythms and melodies are endlessly catchy and will get stuck in your head. Vocally, Chris sounds painfully vulnerable and incredibly similar to Ryland Raus from Inhale/Exhale (circa their Bury Me Alive album). Understanding this as a lament regarding personal struggles of living consistently faithful, this song contains layers of meaning. "New Life, new life takes struggle," is the mantra that pulls the different threads in this track together. From the social justice aspects to the inner demons we all fight, this song covers all of those things. The bridge details what this desire looks like: "I wanna love, I wanna leave; I want the spaces in between. I want the trees without the leaves and the sea without the waves. I wanna hold you while you scream; I wanna hold my breath and sing. I want the blood without the stain; want the God without the name!" At the heart of this lament is the desire for peace - something most people long for. That desire, when unchecked with our walk with God, can have us seeking contradictions - or worse, can have us trying to become God in our own lives. This track serves as an excellent mirror into what drives us - is it the new life that takes struggle, or the desire to run things ourselves?
"SSRI Feel Better Already": As the first single from this album, fans were quickly drawn in by this track. Probably the clearest presentation of mental health struggles, this song provides you with an insiders look at the torment that can be created in our own minds. "I didn't raise the hell that I'm feeling," is a line I never anticipated sticking with me, but it immediately connected with me. Ultimately, the reason for that belongs to the SSRI's, for which Chris thanks God for. While this might seem like a shallow thanks, the entirety of this song would argue otherwise. From the chorus, we could see this almost as a begging of God to heal the broken mind: "Pull dying from my head, help me 'cause I wanna live!" The repeated line, "I don't care, I just wanna live anyway," points to the desperation to actually do more than just be alive. With a simple structure, this track works well to introduce new people to this group. It carries a great blend of their aggression and transparency. The guitar solo in the mid-section also shows that they're more than just strumming and chugging - there are some serious musical chops to back their sound.
"When Justice Cracks the Sky": What an unrelenting and all-out metalcore assault on the senses! Easily one of the crunchiest and heaviest track on this album - the guitars hold nothing back and the drums complement them beautifully with a performance that would make even the snobbiest of drummer proud. If I were to level any criticism against this song, it would be the vocals could stand to be a bit clearer. The mid-range screaming done here isn't terrible by any account, but enunciation takes a bit of a hit. A lyric sheet will definitely help with this track. The most distinguishable lyric, aside from "When justice cracks the sky" that I could determine, was also incredibly poignant: "If we want to change tomorrow, we have to lead, not follow". Talk about making the point! So often we talk about how important change is and that we all want to see the world get better. Well, if we want to see that, we might have to become the change that we want to see. To lead, and not to follow.
"King Lazer": As heavy as "When Justice Cracks the Sky" is, "King Lazer" packs one powerful punch, musically. Driven with an almost hip-hop beat in the verses, this track is an angst-filled, anti-authoritarian affair. Good grief, the way this song hits is something worth hearing. The riff in the opening and the chorus is huge and intricate - and that bassline, courtesy of Jeff Ratzlaff, throughout the verses is awesome! It's great to hear bass actually being played as opposed to almost an afterthought. There is a clear call for reform - something that is needed on a societal level (apply that however you see fit). The real point in this song is: "The power lives inside the blood, not in the nails!" The way that they take that into the breakdown is so brutal - I'm not sure my face hasn't melted from how hard-hitting that was. But again, there's the point: the hardest truth that they present is not in the call for reformation - it is in the call to recognize that the power needed for any kind of reform or reconciliation comes from the blood of Jesus. Good stuff if you're willing to look beyond the surface of what they're saying.
"Waiting": And here we come across what could best be described as the power-ballad of the album. That may be a stretch, but comparatively, it fits. The chorus of this song is huge and the melodies in here are some of the greatest Fallstar has ever produced. Drummer Morgan Weisz absolutely owns this song - good grief, everything he's done on this album has been dynamite, but his performance in this song is flawless. Then, you have the ambience and all the different leads of guitarist Bryan Ratzlaff - goodness. Even Chris Ratzlaff's voice takes on a new dimension in this track - it feels more open and comfortable. He never sounds out of his element in the album, but here, he sounds almost like he's relaxed. For all intents and purposes, this is Fallstar performing in lock-step with one another. Everything is absolutely on-point in this song and it is one that I, personally, will continue coming back to again and again.
"The Meaning in the Monster": When a song opens with the line, "Forever I question the gods", there's definitely going to be something worth investigating. Serving as a natural progression from "Waiting", this track is an incredibly honest look at faith and the meaning of life. The lyrics of this song, perhaps veiled in metaphor for those who aren't willing to listen to understand, are the most vulnerable on the album. In effect, what's being asked here is: "Is God real and is my faith in him justified when I look at a world that appears devoid of him." If we're trying to find the "meaning in the monster" by climbing, running, and exploring the heights, clearly we're trying to discover purpose. Our purpose is found in a relationship with God, but there lies the heart of this song: how do we respond, "In the wake of the plagues and the flood, does justice exist for the low?... and if amends were never to come, were we so misguided to hope? Were we so wrong to seek peace and not war? Forever I question the gods." Goodness, this song speaks volumes. And Chris closes the thought beautifully: "Stay close to me. It's in those moments I feel free - I just need a little sun to breathe." This song is excellent.
"Get Me Out (Ice Agents)": For a moment, I wasn't sure I was still listening to Fallstar when this started. But sure enough, by about a minute in, their aggressive, near rap-core delivery came through. Clearly a song about immigration standards and the hotly contested ICE Agents, this song fits in with King Lazer in terms of the social justice theme. Perhaps the most vitriolic lyric of the song, and even the album, is "I hear you talk but all it does is make me sick!" Regardless of what side of the political argument you might fall on, try to approach this from a different perspective. The band issues a pretty stark challenge when they say, "Everybody wants to feel justified, but do you got what it takes to abide in the light?" There are lots of different justifications both in favor and against immigration - but for the Christian, it's not to look at things from a worldly perspective, but from a biblical one. This is a challenge that I, admittedly, don't have an answer for.
"The Prism Glass": Between this and "When Justice Cracks the Sky", I don't think I have a face. It's been melted by how insanely heavy these two tracks are. There's a fine line being walked in the lyrics of this song, and it's one I want to be delicate with. While I agree with certain sentiments: "All witness, few ponder... Factions seek to blame. Villainy crushing through my veins", there are also some major areas that I would gently push back on. Mainly, it would be the bridge: "If you hope to find a devil, then go ahead and spit me out. If you hope to find an angel, then go ahead and spit me out." This and the insistence that life is gray are both things I would push back. I understand the assertion of existence somewhere between heart and brain - that makes sense to me, but to say that everything is gray? Some things are clearly wrong and have to be called for wrong (there's a difference between doing this like a jerk and with love - most people get this part wrong). I think I understand what's being said here, but just wanted to offer that, too. If they’re pushing for a sort of Calvinistic "depravity of man" kind of thing where, because of my sin nature, I am a monster, but because of Christ, I'm redeemed - I could get behind that. Anyway, theological quandaries aside, this song rips absurdly hard and is thoroughly enjoyable.
"Sunbreather": I often hold that title tracks are either great or terrible. Fortunately, in this case, it is great. I would hold that this could pass as another power-ballad when stacked against the rest of the album. It's another mellower outing for the band, but still incredibly impactful. If this and "Waiting" are two of the softest songs on the album, I'd have to say that "Waiting" is definitely the lighter of the two. The mid-track breakdown here is amazing and the riff that is played is tantalizing. I'll freely admit that I don't know what the meaning behind this song is. I'll give my interpretation, which is largely metaphorical. I understand the "Light" to be the Son (Jesus). And so, when he says, "I close my eyes, I need the Light", I take that to be, he needs Jesus. Him saying he's the "sunbreather", I see as his way of seeing that, just as we need to breathe oxygen to live, he needs to breathe the Light (Jesus) to live. I could be wrong, but that's my take.
"Darko": In the first two seconds of this song, you almost believe that it's going to be a true ballad, and then the drums and guitars start, and they are phenomenal. The intricacy of the guitar lead is accentuated by the continuously building drums - and then it all cuts out for an ambient guitar and electronic drum beat. It is here that we find Fallstar at their most honest - all the cards are on the table, and frankly, the hand they hold is an incredibly common one. The pace of this song reminds me of Before Their Eye's song "Adam Was a Cool Dude". It's fast, the lyrics are delivered with a frenetic succession, and it requires some focus to catch it all. I'll be really honest, I appreciate the honesty with which these guys approach this song. "I don't care about all the things they say could pull me under. I don't care about all the chemicals and the shape that love comes in... I just wanna live forever!" Incredibly devout Christians might take some issue with these words, and miss the rest of the message in this song, but that would be disservice to this band. They also say, "If you're living your life like you don't got a reason, maybe I can understand... Death is no longer separated by native blood and foreign tongue." The message here is that all of humanity has more commonality than we do what divides us if we're willing to look for it. That is something I think most can get behind. It's a challenge to do that well: there's a large difference between approving of a person without approving of a chosen lifestyle, but it is possible through the redemptive and reconciliatory blood of Jesus, the one at whom "Our gods," find themselves, "bowing at the feet of Jesus."
Overall, I would say that this album hits the mark, and it does so in spades. Even with the lyrical disagreements I had, this entire work is fantastic. Start to finish, there isn't a single song I would skip or dislike. There's definitely some room for refinement, particularly on "When Justice Cracks the Sky". I don't know what is different between that song and "The Prism Glass", but discerning the lyrics in the former is far more of a challenge than the latter. Both are excellent songs, but one loses a little edge due to the muddied vocals. Other than that, though, this album is one that I thoroughly enjoy and can see being on playlists indefinitely.
High Point: "Waiting"
Low Point: "When Justice Cracks the Sky"
Favorite: "The Meaning in the Monster"