I remember the ominous droning interlude fading into a blaring siren that signaled impending chaos as the house lights shifted and the floor around us all circled in fury. As I jumped in the pit, I was realizing the excitement of getting to see Fit For a King open for August Burns Red a few years back. While I slipped on spilled beer over the hardwood floors of the venue and accidentally crashed into a kid in front of me, the band’s live performance of Slave to Nothing was otherwise ferocious.
Since then (2014), I’ve gotten to see FFAK live a few times, each show representing significant mile markers in sobriety, celebrations of friendship, and opportunities where I’ve seen the love of Jesus show up and be expressed through prayers lifted in the pit between sets. With the band’s new album released on Solid State Records, my excitement is spilling over in type form, hoping this review serves as a sampler for what the band represents, has become, and how they occupy an all -time favorite in my arsenal of metal.
As previously inferred, I hopped on board the FFAK train on Slave to Nothing. The record’s thematic ode to sobriety resonated with me at a time in life where I needed that encouragement, but it also helped that the songwriting was sharp and that it boasted so many banging riffs. Even though the production felt tame and the clean vocals were a bit underdeveloped, these were easily compensated by the band’s burgeoning strengths. When I was living in Winona, those same roommates brought me backwards in the timeline to the band’s genesis, Creation/Destruction – showcasing bone crushing guitar tones and every bit of promise. But, as they progressed to Slave to Nothing, it was by no means a step backwards, but that forward motion lacked a full measure of confidence when heel hit the pavement.
Their response was Deathgrip. The singles, Dead Memory and Cold Room, were high watermarks as they brought a musical palate that harkened back to their origins, showcased Will Putney’s signature tones, and even stepped into new territories of style, but if I’m honest, I had some reservations. Despite the impel of moments like Cold Room’s lead riff and the last breakdown in Pissed Off, I felt like Deathgrip was a compositional regression that traded the power of the whole for the curation of well executed parts put together in a 36-minute runaway freight train. Despite the critique, this album does have its well executed moments that are worth highlighting. These songs were enveloped well with gross sounding guitar and bass tones, the integration of electronic soundscapes and glitch editing in the breakdowns accented the sonic drubbing that these songs deliver, and the clean vocals sounded the best they ever have. All the aforementioned were glimmers and flashes in the pan that proved FFAK still had gusto. Deathgrip was like a favorite student unexpectedly underperforming to their natural abilities, so if it sounds like I am hard on this record, it’s because FFAK were and are capable of A list material.
Seeing this band live a few times during the touring cycle of Deathgrip still left me sore and winded every time as they crawled across the continent in between studio sessions. I had a lot of hope, because as they continued getting on stage they were only getting tighter, heavier, better balanced, and more confident, so I was excited to see how the effort in their off season would translate to their next record. Their first sampling was Tower of Pain. The rumbling tone and pacing of this song, the technical death metal influenced songwriting, infectious chorus, and even greater vocal improvement made this feel like a rabid beast foaming at the mouth waiting for its break off the chain. I had this thought that perhaps this record would be the tour de force I have been waiting for, because not only did their musicianship demonstrate maturity, but the proof in the pudding showed behind the scenes in the shrewd tactics in promotion of this album. Rather than letting a couple singles on a ten-track album do the manpower in the deep breath in before the record release, Solid State progressively released half this album in singles, letting streams on platforms like Spotify, bandcamp, and Apple Music generate the excitement amongst the fan base, and give a stylistic sampler of what would be FFAK’s fifth album, Dark Skies. In a world where traditional release cycles have been trojan horsed by the evolving landscape of music streaming and unfiltered accessibility of the internet, FFAK’s strategy worked to their advantage. Tower of Pain was one cog in a wheel that proved to be well oiled and juiced up in a lineup with other singles, The Price of Agony, Backbreaker, When Everything Means Nothing, and Oblivion.
If this reads like a long-winded exposition of background before the actual review, it’s because there’s a lot of landscape to survey before exploring this new territory. So, with that said, I’m stoked to write that Dark Skies is the calling card for this band’s collective ability across the board. They’ve truly captured the distinct personalities of their previous records and pulled them inwards, anchoring their identity as a band. Dark Skies boasts the best sound/production to date; their sharpest, most avant-garde songwriting; the most improved and compelling vocal performances; and their most thematically compelling record since, Slave to Nothing. In addition, the unreleased tracks that made their reveal upon release make the experience of Dark Skies, a rout of all killer, no filler.
I want to begin examining the details, by emphasizing the aforementioned point of songwriting on Dark Skies. As I said earlier, Tower of Pain harnesses an energy that feels like an echo of Deathgrip’s finer moments with Slave to Nothing’s composition and the flourishes of more technical minded influences (The Black Dahlia Murder meets Fit For an Autopsy). The Price of Agony has probably one of the catchiest riffs that is described by the band as the most mainstream they’ve stylistically ventured; Youth|Division takes a creative bend with interesting vocal editing in the introduction and then drifting left in a key change at the bridge; Shattered Glass is a crowbar, touting some of the heaviest stop/start rhythms, blast beats, and Ryan Kirby’s nastiest sounding vocals to date; The Debts of Life is a callback to Skin and Bones on Creation/Destruction that pedestals some of the best executed melody the band has offered and coalesces it into Oblivion. Oblivion is wholesale one of the most important moments for the band. The curtain closes with a song that lyrically chronicles the most honest reflections of their Christianity, ballasting the melodic and aggressive into an emotional portrait.
According to the band’s studio updates, the construction of Deathgrip’s structure was penultimate to aesthetic. During this recording cycle, choruses and song structures were autopsied, studied, and reanimated as a group, laying concrete foundations that give Dark Skies solid ground to build these songs on. Producer, Drew Fulk, has an impressive catalog of recently done records for bands that are catching second winds in their sails that include new records released from Emmure, Chelsea Grin, The Plot in You, and As I Lay Dying. The same energy harnessed through those bands latest albums translates to Dark Skies in the best way possible, as Fulk has played a heavy hand in realizing and bringing out Fit For a King’s aptitude.
Towards the beginning of this review, I touched on Slave to Nothing’s lyrical prowess. The thematic underpinnings of that record deeply resonated as a soundtrack to sobriety and they continue to be. Every time they play Slave to Nothing live, it feels like every bit of a war cry that it was three years ago when I scream along. The rest of FFAK’s discography has their moments of cogent lyricism, particularly on songs like Skin and Bones, Deathgrip’s title track, and Dead Memory, but even the band says Dark Skies pulls from the deepest inwards parts that personify the intimacy of their struggles, like on Tower of Pain… I hear the whisper of death in my ear, hell awaits for those who still fear, twenty six years, being told I’m a slave, trading desire away. But, I think the most compelling moments belong to lines on Backbreaker that narrate Ryan Kirby’s struggle with anxiety… I can’t find the strength within myself, The weight of life has pushed me to a living hell,Endless misery, lack of sympathy, I don’t trust the voice inside of me (inside of me),I always put myself out there, But it always ends the same. Oblivion takes on some of the most spiritually vulnerable lyrics that narrate the forgiveness of God, centered around a fan story, and is the best way to close this record – with an abundance of heavy and heart…
I look into the sky, I’m crying out your name, I’ve made my mistakes and I’m the only one to blame, Help me, I need to feel your grace, And I’ve been, waiting, waiting in the darkest place!
I look into the sky, I’m crying out your name, I made my mistakes but you forgave me! You forgave me!
Bringing this to conclusion, FFAK is already a prominent band that are sizeable, influential, and Dark Skies has all the sparks that can make them torchbearers and a flagship collective for this scene going forward. Regardless of the band’s trajectory, the college kid in me will always feel that simultaneous spike in my pulse and heartstrings pulled when I play their records. Furthermore, I will always remember that Fit For A King are a band that propels me to be a participant in the scene as an ambassador of the Gospel.