I’ve been excitedly looking forward to Flyleaf’s “Memento Mori” release for months, and the alt-metal/hard rock band from Texas has not disappointed with their sophomore release (which comes a full four years after the quintet’s platinum self-titled debut album). The title of the album is a Latin phrase meaning, “Be mindful of death,” and the songs match the album’s introspective title, replete with pensive lyrics about struggles (both inner and outer), spiritual warfare, redemption, and deliverance. Much like Skillet’s “Alive” (reviewed here), this album features strong light/dark imagery,highlighting the struggle between good and evil, aiming to encourage the listener to stand firm, to fight against darkness and be the light to one’s surroundings. A number of the songs range from gritty and dark to airy, worshipful and triumphant, all within the same song—a very difficult feat Flyleaf masterfully executes (thanks in large part to Sturm’s vocal versatility and songwriting).
The album has an ever-present “worship” feel; Sturm pours everything she has into each song, singing every song as though it’s her last, and the result is an album that really feels like a complete release, a “letting go,” if you will. I also applaud Flyleaf for remaining themselves and allowing their sound to mature on this album rather than trying to reproduce the (very successful) sound of their last album. They have managed to stay distinctive—Flyleaf definitely owns their sound—while not falling into the rut of reproducing their own sound. The result is a very good cohesive album with a feel all its own, though I’m not sure any one song will have quite as much permanent replay value as a few of the tracks from the first album.
The album is also more overtly and unapologetically “Christian” than anything Flyleaf has done in the past; though Flyleaf takes a similar road to other bands-featuring-Christians like P.O.D. or Sixpence None the Richer in that they don’t self-identify as a “Christian band” (just a band that happens to feature Christians), the lyrics leave no doubt as to the driving force behind their music. Some fans may be turned off by this, but there is no question that this is an honest, open album, with the quintet putting everything on the table and addressing the deep issues of faith and life throughout the album. (The liner notes for the CD feature various journal entries dedicated to the “Passerby Army”—a reminder of Flyleaf’s first band name, “Passerby”—entries “from the past decade of war with the Dread Army,” with each entry fitting the theme of the song it’s identified with.) One brief complaint about the production quality: as with the first CD, certain elements sound overcompressed. Lacey’s screams in particular sound a bit over-produced, like there is too much compression being put on her voice, limiting the space it can take up on the track and removing some of the dynamics from the song/vocals.
Song by Song:
“Beautiful Bride“: The album gets off to a bang with this fast-paced, almost frenetic song about the church—Christ’s “beautiful bride,” described in idyllic terms. One thing that jumps out right away is that this album will feature more layered background vocals than Flyleaf’s original album did. (The album features substantially more studio polish than their first in general, with more instrument tracks and more layering overall. They did manage to protect against an overly clean or sterile “over-produced” sound in the process, as well.) “Beautiful Bride” features least three vocal tracks of Sturm through most of the song, with notable BGVs of Sturm screaming in the chorus and an appearance of some of the male voices from the group in a couple spots. “Beautiful Bride” is a decent but not great opening song; starting with this song makes it clear that this album will have a character of its own, though it’s not one of the stronger efforts on the album.
“Again“: One of my favorite tracks from the album, this song is a bit more mid-paced (closer to something like “Perfect” from the first album”). The lyrics are penned as a message from God, who is pleased that the listener is heartbroken “with every injustice and deadly fate, praying it all be new, and living like it all depends on you.” The climax of the song is at the end of the bridge, where God comforts the listener:
They don’t have to understand you Be still Wait and know I understand you Be still Be still
Sturm’s lofty vocals really shine here, breaking the rest of the song into a palpable sense of relief and release.
“Chasm“: A driving, hard rock song, “Chasm” is a gritty, dark song with an interesting guitar riff, offering an almost Gothic feel. The song would be at home in a horror movie atmosphere. The lyrics offer a haunting interpretation of Jesus parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19–31), with the verses rebuking the hearer for “spitting in his face with the rest of them,” while the chorus screams for water, “I’m so thirsty!” The real beauty of the song is in the reminder:
“The chasm isn’t fixed yet
Take this water
The chasm isn’t fixed yet”
The vocals in the chorus have a wailing and desperate quality that makes the song really pop. The driving beat and hard riffs make it the kind of song that would hold up well in a workout or boxing session. After a few plays, this song has grown to the point that it’s probably right with “In the Dark” as a favorite on the album.
“Missing“: This song will likely be a top radio hit, thanks to its slightly less driving tempo and the radio-friendly chorus. This song reminds me somewhat of a few of BarlowGirl’s ballad efforts. The lyrics cry out, “something is missing in me,” lamenting that “love wasn’t meant to be … under the sun.” Despite what is sure to be some radio success, this isn’t one of the stronger songs on the album as there’s not much to distinguish it from everything else playing.
“This Close“: A power ballad, this is another one that will get a lot of radio play; it’s not one of the more innovative songs on the album (being held back from that by the restrictions of the style), but it’s an awfully good power ballad. The song laments, “I don’t know who I am anymore,” with the Socratic realization that the very admission of helplessness is finally what gets close to “being real.” This is a good song for a frustrating day, but again, the replay value isn’t quite as high as something like “All Around Me” because it’s not especially distinctive.
“The Kind“: Another of my favorites on the album, this minor-key lament about sin and repentance (not just forgiveness, but repentance!) addresses sin that “rob[s] your own mind and defile[s] your own bed,” sin that one simultaneously loathes and rejoices in. In the last verse, the hearer finally “cut[s] the cord today,” allowing God to finally speak “truth after truth after truth,” bringing freedom and life. My guess is that this song, if not actually written about pornography and associated behaviors, will quite readily apply to that area of life. The song ends in a frantic pace, as repentance has finally come while Lacey screams vicarious apologies for the repentant sinner. The vocals in this song me a lot of Leigh Nash from Sixpence in spots.
“In the Dark“: Probably my favorite song on the album, this melodic song starts with a sound very reminiscent of Sixpence’s Leigh Nash and then gets increasingly intense, repeatedly building to a tension-releasing chorus and eventually to a climactic bridge followed by more of the “worship”-esque chorus. I love the tension/release pattern throughout the song; this is the kind of song that sticks with you. The guitar work on this song is especially good, and Lacey’s voice really shines in a song with a stylistic range that would be way beyond just about anyone else. The lyrics cry out in terror at the thought of being left alone in silence to face oneself (being “held accountable for every idle word, curse the idle words“), leading to the chorus:
I’m scared to death of life and silence
Jesus kill me inside this
Raise me up to live again
Like you did, like you did.
The bridge is also significant:
Glory shows up
I’m naked here
By the dark, by the dark, damn the dark!
“Set Apart This Dream“: This is another really good song, made even better by the juxtaposition with “In the Dark.” Lacey really bares her soul here in a song that’s going to be outstanding in concert. The song pleads with the “little girl” listening:
Set your thoughts on a world far off, Where we only cry from joy. Oh, set apart this dream! Set apart this dream for me!
“Swept Away“: This song about hypocrisy features a lot of dissonance and a “talk-sing” style in the vocals. It’s the grittiest song on the album; again, Flyleaf has managed to merge the theme of the lyrics with an appropriate (this time dissonant and angry) melody. It’s a good song, but it is unlikely to have a ton of replay value on its own, as it drags a bit and doesn’t have the melodic quality of Flyleaf’s best work. The following lyrics sum the song up well:
Your clothes are smooth and spotless
The air is putrid sewage downwind of your pressed church clothes
Your eyes are black and empty
Your deeds are just for showing
How big and bright your fake smile glows
… I rage against everything that you do
Get this hell out out of my way
There’s nothing more that you can say so
Get this hell out get this hell out out out of my way
“Tiny Heart“: More vocal reminiscences of Sixpence/Leigh Nash in this song (that’s a good thing in my book). This is another power ballad, again with Lacey packing this song with emotion. It’s got a bit of bubble-gum pop to it, so it should be very popular with the teen girls among Flyleaf’s audience.
“Melting“: This is a dissonant instrumental interlude that reminds me a little of the end Sixpence’s “Solomon the Mystic” from the “Tickets For a Prayer Wheel” project, serving to connect “Tiny Heart” with “Treasure.”
“Treasure“: This is really a praise song, but (mercifully) isn’t the usual rock-band-attempts-a-worship-song stuff that ends up sounding neither like good rock music nor good church music. Instead, this is a praise song like “All Around Me” was—it’s just Lacey pouring her heart out and expressing herself. The atmosphere of this song is cut-to-the-bone powerful from the moment Lacey introduces the song by saying, “That night I felt like I’d become something treasured—different.” Songs like this remind me of the dialogue from the movie “Walk the Line,” when Sam Phillips tells Johnny Cash after his failed attempt at auditioning a gospel song:
If you was hit by a truck and you were lying out in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song, huh, one song people would remember before you’re dirt, one song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth, one song that would sum you up, you telling me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmie Davis tune we hear on the radio all day—about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it? Or would you sing something different—something real, something you felt? Because I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear, that’s the kind of song that truly saves people.
Well, “Treasure” is the kind of song that saves people. What Lacey is singing is real, it’s what she truly feels. She’s singing about something she truly knows and has experienced, and that is what gives Flyleaf’s music more of a “worship” quality than nearly any piece of church music I’ve ever heard.
“Circle“: This song—yet another melodic “worship” song, though not as powerful as “Treasure”—is summed up by its lyrics:
I left his arms empty and tied
Out stretched for me until he died
I left his arms empty and tied
Outstretched for me until he died
No man shows greater love
Than when a man lays down his life
For his beloved
“Arise“: An incredible song, and a fitting end to an excellent album, with its call:
Hold on to the world we all remember fighting for,
There’s still strength left in us yet
Hold on to the world we all remember dying for,
There’s still hope left in it yet
The guitar riffs toward the end of the song are outstanding, and the fade to silence with only Lacey’s voice puts a fitting end to the album. This is another favorite on the album for me.
One thing that struck me about this album is how many times it reminded me of Sixpence None the Richer, both with Sturm’s vocals and the introspective, minor-key “lament” feel present in a number of the songs. It’s as though someone took “Divine Discontent” era Sixpence (especially the song “Paralyzed”), added alt-meta/hard rock influences, introduced a few other distinctive elements, and produced an album. I love Sixpence, so that is certainly not a negative in my book, and despite the similarities at times, Flyleaf definitely has their own distinctive sound. This is one of those rare albums without a truly weak song, and a good number of the songs (“Again,” “Chasm,” “The Kind,” “In the Dark,” “Treasure,” and “Arise”) are outstanding. One minor complaint is that the songs on this album don’t have quite as much stylistic or dynamic range as the first album—musically, the album isn’t especially innovative, meaning that it’s not the sort of album one tends to listen to from beginning to end, as the songs tend to blur together a bit. Instead, the songs are better for those who incorporate their favorite songs into a shuffle rotation. That said, “Memento Mori” is definitely one of the better albums released in a while, and gives Skillet’s “Awake” a run for the best rock album of 2009 so far (though I’ll be listening to Switchfoot’s newly-released “Hello Hurricane,” later today), a must-buy for anyone who likes harder music. There is a distinctive “presence” about this album (especially its second half) that I don’t often hear, but when it’s there, it’s unmistakable (see my notes above under “Treasure” for some sense of what I mean). This is the kind of album that will leave you breathless, waiting for the next song. Hopefully it doesn’t take another four years for the next one. I give “Memento Mori” a 4.5 out of 5.
After a longer time of listening to the album, “Arise” has become my favorite, followed by “Chasm” and “In the Dark.” Interesting how some songs just grow on a person over time.
***Extended Edition Disc 2:****
The “Extended Edition” version has four additional bonus tracks on a second CD. This second CD has a feel of its own, with each of the songs a notably slower-paced power ballad in the vein of “There for You” or “So I Thought” from the first album. This second disc seems as though it was composed of songs that weren’t quite good enough to make the main show, and it really is only suited to Flyleaf fans who want every song the band does. These four songs are reviewed below:
“Break Your Knees“: A good song, but nothing to write home about, “Break Your Knees” is reminiscent of “So I Thought” on the first album—an introspective, somewhat melodramatic power ballad.
“Enemy“: Another slow song, this one drags a bit and isn’t especially catchy. It’s not the kind of song that will be in my rotation all that often.
“Have We Lost“: Another melodramatic slow song, this one is simply a stereotypical power ballad, with nothing that would distinguish it from any other power ballad.
“Who Am I“: Probably the best song of the “Extended Edition” but still nothing spectacular. This song has the morose feel of the other three and doesn’t have a whole lot of creativity in its execution. I give “Extended Edition” extra disk a 2 out of 5.
Other Bonus Tracks
There are apparently a couple other bonus tracks available through different avenues; I will update this post with reviews of those tracks once I hear them.