Album Review: Dustin Kensrue, ‘Carry the Fire’
Although his primary band, Thrice, have been on hiatus for three years, frontman Dustin Kensrue has been anything but quiet in the interim – he’s just been using his gravelly voice to say something bigger.
A lifelong devout Christian, Kensrue always made vague allusions to his religious beliefs in the melodic post-hardcore of Thrice. But when he walked away from the band in 2012, he did so with purpose: He moved his family from their Orange County home to Bellevue, Wash., to accept a position as worship pastor for the hugely influential mega-church, Mars Hill. While there, Kensrue flourished as the musical leader for the church – one that had 15 branches in five states – and he released several collections of worship songs with his band, the Modern Post, and one (2013’s The Water & the Blood) under his own name.
But right around the same time, a well-publicized controversy began swirling around church founder Mark Driscoll, prompting several high-ranking members of Mars Hill – including Kensrue – to resign, leaving the musician without a spiritual or creative home. But instead of letting the darkness consume him, he turned inward to light his own path and self-recorded a collection of songs entirely on his own. Although some of the ideas had been gestating for years and Kensrue told us the events surrounding Mars Hill didn't directly inspire the album, it's hard to imagine at least some of his confusion and disenfranchisement didn't make their way onto Carry the Fire.
A true follow-up to Kensrue's first solo album, 2007's Please Come Home, the album is far less overtly religious than anything he's done since Thrice's 2011 full-length, Major/Minor, and more ambitious in sonic scope than his previous singer-songwriter fare. Still, it retains more similarity to his songs with the Modern Post than the driving and experimental rock Thrice developed over seven records. And while the Christian themes are once again buried beneath layers of broader introspection in songs more open to interpretation, the central theme of light versus darkness often seems to evoke Kensrue's most recent muse.
The title, Carry the Fire, is a reference to the writing of Cormac McCarthy (both The Road and No Country For Old Men) and Kensrue often juxtaposes heavy lyricism and somber narratives against lighter melodies to explore similar existential themes. While the album opener, "Ruby," is a bright, piano-driven doo-wop-style ditty, the sound belies the sentiment of a "broken man" begging for a second chance. And "Gallows" – one of the harder rockers on the album – has an addictive vocal hook that feels upbeat while Kensrue paints imagery of hangmen and nooses.
Although the album is by no means strictly acoustic, it almost could be as Kensrue often assumes a Springsteenian cadence on tracks like "Death or Glory" and "In the Darkness" (which also uses a jangly, New Wave guitar sound reminiscent of the Modern Post). Aside from a few uses of mandolin ("Of Crows and Crowns" and the booming "There's Something Dark"), Kensrue sticks largely to piano and acoustic guitar except most noticeably on the closing title track which could almost be a Thrice song with its pulsating dynamics, increasingly ominous build and direct reference to Vheissu's "Hold Fast Hope." It's also one of the only songs where Kensrue really opens up his voice and ventures into that soaring shout capable of inducing chills with the best of them.
In the end, Carry the Fire is a welcome return to the mainstream for Kensrue and an impressive feat of production considering he created it in such a short timeframe and without any live drumming. It doesn't have quite the same grit as Please Come Home, but its ambitious diversity should be more agreeable to Thrice fans looking for anything resembling the music he's best known for. Still, with Thrice making the announcement they'll play a few shows this year, it really makes you look forward to hearing what Kensrue will be capable of once everyone gets back in the same room and back on the same page.