The unthinkable has happened: The World/Inferno Friendship Society is maturing. Although the punk/cabaret act has a long history of rampaging through life and living for the day, it seems that on The Anarchy and the Ecstasy, they are realizing that actions have consequences.
With the album's very first line, lead singer Jack Terricloth announces, "I am sick of people being sick of my shit!" Between its pounding piano, snarled vocals and booming chorus, the song is not only classic Inferno, but it might very well be the best song they've ever cut. It's a fitting retrospective on the band's varied career in that it acknowledges the band's rapscallion ways and frustration with those who couldn't hang. This dedication to music and not financial gain comes in the form of a forceful rebuke: "Your cut is nothing because I gave it away!"* The song's resonance becomes doubly potent once it comes to light that it was written by Terricloth and Scott Hollingsworth, who passed away young, but was only recorded after a tumultuous time in which the band saw several long-running members jump ship.
However, the departure of several key members didn't shatter the band. Instead, the group seems to have reformed as a slightly more compact unit, which has influenced their songwriting as much as their performance. Most notably, The Anarchy and the Ecstasy has a new precision in the way the band delivers. While previous LPs like Red-Eyed Soul and Addicted to Bad Ideas were packed full of booming instruments that exploded in a deluge of mixed sound, this record features the group focusing more on each individual instrument, relying more on focus than volume.
This increased attention to each element has also lead Inferno to create something of a quieter album. Although their raucous odes to revelry bookend the album, the centerpieces are as much ballads as they are soliloquies. As the group gently makes use of the Raritan River as a metaphor for drifting from home and muses on what causes people to drink themselves into a stupor, one can't help but assume they are directly referring to their own experiences. This newfound self-consideration is something of a new approach for the group. While World/Inferno frequently described their wacky adventures in their albums, these tales of running from the police and narrowly avoiding getting run over by boats almost made it harder to truly understand the individual members, as these wild tales caused the listener to focus on the flashy handkerchief thrown in front of his eyes instead of the magician himself. But here, the band doesn't seem to want to distract us with their wild ways, and instead allows for an unforgivingly intimate self-portrait, which at times can hit a little too close to home.
Although the group may be a little more solemn on this record than in the past, their writing has grown in incisiveness and whimsy. "Canonize Philip K. Dick, OK" might be the most clever description-of-one-thing-to-describe-something-else in modern music. In painting a portrait of the incessant paranoia of Philip K. Dick in the foreground, Terricloth allows the background to form itself into the dreaded concept of allowing one's surroundings to strip away their ideals and identity. What isn't quite as apparent is whether the group is referring to the effect of osmosis on the members from years spent in the band, or if they are referring to how the outside world seems to bleed the group of its members. Heavy!
While the group has suffered a decrease in roster, both old and new players have stepped up to the plate. Sandra Malak steals the show on a few tracks where her operatic singing is given center spotlight. Both soulful and polished, Malak is able to provide a taste of restrained refinement which sits in perfect companion to the surrounding decadence. Likewise, new ivory tickler Raja Azar hits the keys with a heavier hand than we've heard in the past, giving the songs an underlying, forceful current.
With multiple tunes that are clearly autobiographical on the new disc, the group seems to be acknowledging that the life of a bandit has its price. As is seen from the LP's mixture of anger, melancholy and wild abandon, the band has learned that actions have repercussions. But that doesn't mean they'll worry about the consequences. It just means that they won't be as surprised at the casualties next time around.
* - Fun fact: The second interview I ever did was with World/Inferno in Philadelphia in 2007 when they opened for Leftover Crack. After the show, before the interview began, a heavily intoxicated World/Inferno fan came up to Terricloth. The fan was literally blubbering that he didn't have enough bus fare to get back to Washington, D.C. Despite the fact the group clearly hadn't made that much from the show, Terricloth slipped a twenty in the fan's pocket and good-naturedly sent him on his way.