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CD of the Month

CD of the Month, August 2015: Titus Andronicus - The Most Lamentable Tragedy

Dan Burney

James Calvet
Radio 1190 KVCU - Boulder

For myself and many other music enthusiasts the term "Rock opera" can be frightening when mentioned by a band you love. Though there's plenty of rock operas that are well thought out and executed, such as Frank Zappa's Joe's Garage and David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, many others can be overblown, over-the-top and a tad embarrassing e.g. My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade or Neil Young's Greendale. With that being said, for New Jersey-based punk band Titus Andronicus, creating a long, lofty, concept-heavy record is not new territory in the slightest. Soon after the group established themselves in the indie and punk scenes in the mid-00's front man Patrick Stickles led the band to create their Civil War-themed 2010 breakout album The Monitor. Much like punk rock concept albums before them, like Husker Du's Zen Arcade, the execution of the The Monitor was angsty and raw but contained enough emotion and story to make the album compelling and impactful. But come 2015 when Titus Andronicus announced the follow up to their less successful third LP Local Business, the group stated that it would be a 29 track, 93 minute rock opera, massive amounts of skepticism and excitement came from the music world. Taking it's name from the first act of the Shakespeare play the group named themselves after, the band's fourth LP was dubbed The Most Lamentable Tragedy. As a teaser, Titus Andronicus released a thirteen-minute long video containing the four tracks that make up the second act. In true Titus Andronicus fashion, the video is a homespun play filmed at New York DIY venue Shea Stadium filled with endearingly kitschy sets and amateur choreography. Patrick Stickles stars in the video as the role of "Our Hero" in which the protagonist wakes up in the morning to meet his doppelganger who reveals to him certain secrets that have been withheld from him. From this point forward, it gets a tad hard to follow such a classical and dense storyline, but the captivating performances from Stickles and the rest of Titus Andronicus makes this cute little video one of the most effective album teasers in a long time. But as a whole, The Most Lamentable Tragedy has proven to be an enthralling, devastating and complex journey.

Much like an orchestra warming up to play alongside a theater production. the album starts off with guitar-based reverb that are incredibly dissonant and winding until they all meet on a single note and kick things off with the second track "No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant". The track perfectly sets the stage for what will come next on the remaining 92 minutes of this epic performance. The group is sounding tighter and fierier than ever. Titus Andronicus sport a mix of by-the-books punk rock, folk punk a la Andrew Jackson Jihad, and heartland rock that is incredibly close to the Hold Steady. As a result, the group harnesses the raw energy of The Pouges but the audacity and emotional impact of Bruce Springsteen. But having over an hour and a half of intense punk music can be draining, but thankfully Stickles and company manage to keep all 29 tracks incredibly diverse and exciting throughout. Not only is the record equipped with piano-based bar shanty sing-alongs and bluesy punk jams, but also choir passages, a silent intermission and a lush string section that makes The Most Lamentable Tragedy possibly the most theatrical punk album ever recorded. 

Much like any Titus Andronicus record, Patrick Stickles is frantic and loud, taking center stage as he's foaming at the mouth ready to spit out lines that he's rehearsed over and over at a mile a minute. The lyricism that Stickles showcases on this record is dense and self-referential with a sharp sense of humor even poking fun at the band's past work. Though Stickles claims that the protagonist in this story is not himself, it's clear with just a glance or two of the lyrics that the plot is semi-autobiographical and deals heavily with his own manic depression. Even with multiple listens, the storyline is convoluted and difficult which indeed can be incredibly frustrating. But like any difficult piece of literature, the words and phrases need time to grow. Though the impact of the lyrics may not be immediate, as you dive deeper into Stickles' prose the full effect is apparent and heavy. But for those who aren't really into lyricism can still receive the impact of Stickles' dilemma. The manic "Dimed Out" or the floating and sublime "Please" shows that the group is musically dynamic enough to match the density found in the lyric book. Undoubtedly, The Most Lamentable Tragedy is a album full of ambition and pretense and on paper, like any other rock opera, can seem overblown, overambitious and gaudy. But take away all preconceived notions of a long hour and a half punk album full of nerdy self-references and you find a band that has been playing a style of punk all their own that has taken years to perfect. Now that the band has gone through three albums prior, they have returned to a style that they utilized on their critically lauded album The Monitor, which is long, dense and ultimately rewarding punk songs. By returning to this style we find a band that as had a lot of time to think about themselves not only as musicians but also as storytellers and cultural icons. Since the group, at almost the height of their popularity, have managed to strike when the iron is hot by releasing their most challenging and inaccessible record to date with such listenable and likeable results is a feat in itself. The Most Lamentable Tragedy is Titus Andronicus in it's truest form giving us their most fleshed-out, creative and well-thought-out work to date resulting in what might be, with due time, not only their most rewarding and satisfying record but possibly their magnum opus.