The first thing that popped into my head when I threw Live Free or Don't Tour on my turntable was, "Holy shit, this band is a trio?" I'm not sure I've ever heard such a massive, earth-shattering sound from a band with three members. Of course, excellent production is partly the reason this record sounds so huge, but the men who make up City of Ships do the brunt of the work, creating a mesmerizing, dynamic sound from an impressively wide array of influences.
This 12" collects the band's previous two EPs, Side A being their 2008 Tour EP and Side B their 2007 EP, Live Free or Don't. Bothersome for some collectors, perhaps, but extra convenient for anyone hearing the band for the first time. And while some collections of the same ilk do a nice job of playing like a proper full-length, this record really feels exactly like what it is: a collection. Judging by the difference in both sound and production quality on each side, it serves a neat snapshot into two separate-but-equally-awesome steps in the band's evolution.
"Night Vision" starts off slowly, with a bass line and some throaty vocals setting the table for an absolutely gargantuan chorus filled with soaring vocals and incredibly heavy guitar work. Vocalist/guitarist Eric Jernigan even throws in some Between the Buried and Me-like harmonics that thankfully advance the song instead of sending it to a screeching halt. A similar part shows up in the proggy track "Critical Vulture," and, once again, gives the song depth rather than distraction. And while we're at it, the jagged guitar work and skull-crushing drums in "Night Vision" fit that description, too.
Screeching atmospheric guitar work adorns the verses of "Bleach Funnel" and the chorus is a crunchy, groovy, riff-laden beast that wouldn't sound out of place on a Mastodon record. That name-drop would is appropriate for "King Temp," as well; the slow, deliberate drums and crushing riffs accompanied with Jernigan's throaty yell make for an extremely impressive showing.
Remember, this band is a trio. Three fucking players. I've heard orchestras that don't make this much noise.
Side B, the Live Free or Don't EP, really hits the ground running with the jagged guitars and distorted drums that open "20/20," and once the full band kicks in, it's a furious post-hardcore freakout. Heavy, reflective, and atmospheric, it's nothing that hasn't been done before, but I'll be damned if it's been done this well in years. Vocalist Eric Jernigan displays an impressive vocal range -- raw and throaty in one line, smooth and melodic the next. The guitars create a deep, visceral groove that's helped along mightily by pounding, swirling drums.
Things get extra heavy on "Hold Tight," the guitars crunching and the drums pounding to forge a sound straight out of the Small Brown Bike playbook. An atmospheric bridge is thrown in for good measure, but it's really about how huge City of Ships can make everything sound. (Answer: extremely). There's a breakdown -- I use that term loosely -- in this song with about a minute to go that's far more intense than anything you'd hear at a floorpunching, change-picking-up hardcore show.
Andrew Jernigan's low-end bass line carries "Evidence-Based Medicine" and once the guitar kicks in, the results are devastatingly heavy. There's a dual vocal effect that's really neat, too; I can't tell if it's backup vocals or just double tracking, but it sounds killer. These guys aren't afraid to get mathy, either; the breakdown that surrounds the driving post-hardcore found in "Too Late to Pray" is proof of that. And it's not hurt-your-head mathy -- probably because it doesn't overstay its welcome. And goddamn, the sweeping dramatic nature of "Time Flies" makes for such an epic last hurrah. It's hard to pinpoint what makes the song so great, but the undeniably tasty riffs are the likely culprit. Provided the structure isn't too difficult to follow, you ought to be playing air guitar to this one in no time.
Shit. I realize this review ran a bit long, but I had to mention every song on this release. Even though this material is old, it's inconceivable to think that Live Free or Don't Tour won't make my year-end list. City of Ships are a force to be reckoned with and a band to look out for in 2009.