It’s a dangerous thing to start equating up and coming local bands with national acts that share similar musical influences and song writing quirks. I don’t want to start labeling bands “The Pittsburgh Arcade Fire” or “The Pittsburgh Rapture” which I came dangerously close to doing in my last review/preview of the super talented and sexy Big Hurry. Big Hurry are sole placeholders of their stomping, sensuous sound, and I would never want to accuse a band, a local band for that matter, for mindlessly aping the ideas of a more accomplished artist (unless of course they totally deserved such an accusation). Also, I would never want our burgeoning, home-grown, stunner of a music scene to slowly turn toward a shallow reflection of the the national independent music community, complete with doppelgangers and demented posers of acts that have entirely too much hype in the first place.
Ball of Flame Shoot Fire, luckily, avoid any casual labeling with a dynamic, complicated and sprawling sound that is exceedingly difficult, meant fully as a compliment, to nail down as a this or a that. On their debut EP Grumpy Little Bird, BOFSF exhibited a knack for writing songs that easily oscillated between wittily thoughtful, competent, piano-pop and apocalyptic anthems complete with absurdist imagery, bouncing carnival rhythms and desperate vocals. But while that EP was more a collection of demos and aborted styles than a confident artistic statement, their first full-length album, Jokeland (pronounced like Oakland), coalesces the most interesting parts of Grumpy Little Bird into an intricately beautiful and demanding symbiosis of sound.
A greater sense of songwriting cohesion on Jokeland allows BOFSF to prominently display such well directed influences as Animal Collective, Man Man and Harry Nilsson. These influences, however, are merely a context for the world which Ball of Flame have created, a primer to help navigate the many twists and turns of an album that is practically busting at the seams with ideas and experimentation. But of course the most rewarding experience of Jokeland happens without a map, allowing the urgently compelling, novel-dense lyrics to push the listener through a vast terrain of sonic shifts in harmony, tone, instrumentation, and electronic manipulation.
“DaVinci Toad” boldly opens with album, slapping the listener in the face with a fairly garish freak out in its opening seconds, complete with twisting guitars and splashing drums. That chaos, like so many other controlled out bursts on this album, quickly snaps into a sudden, melodic throb with pianist Winston Cook-Wilson announcing “…the day is upon us.” The opening track offers a fairly accurate key to understand the rest of Jokeland, as most songs contain six or more distinct sections, rarely allowing a dependable chorus or bridge to rear its steady head.
“Mugs” subtly reveals its breakneck pace with interlocking guitar, drum and piano parts keeping the tempo deceptively agile as it races through one of BOFSF’s most fully realized creations to date. The song, again, like so many others, goes through a number of transformations before overlapping a stomping piano build-up, circling carnival harmonies and cascading guitars into a brain melting coda. “Doops” sounds as if its entirety was recorded with the band being doused repeatedly by buckets of water. The guitar line wavers like refracted light on a pool’s surface as the entire mood is drenched in a sandy synth, capable of slamming through the watery slog for a startling command of presence. I’d say this track provides the most overt reference to Animal Collective, but where Panda Bear and company may linger too long on a rhythm or idea, BOFSF demand attention, challenging the listener to keep up with the sheer compositional velocity.
“Patience,” which appeared on the Key Party compilation last summer, is arguably Ball of Flame’s prettiest song to date, with lyrics detailing an Alice in Wonderland-type fantasy, sung with knowing caution by Wilson to the “pretty little gypsy” with a brown frock on. Between its enchanting imagery, gorgeous vocal harmonies, and towering instrumentation, this could be the closest BOFSF get to an anthem. “Patience” appears as the twelfth track and manages to drape the previous eleven songs in a rosy haze of pleasant melancholy, allowing the elaborate patterns of the album to emerge slowly and without force.
Ball of Flame Shoot Fire have confidently marked their place in the Pittsburgh music scene, raising the bar for musicianship and creativity. It’s unfortunate that half the band members attend different colleges and can’t play as many shows locally as one would like, but hopefully that leaves Pittsburgh for an even greater desire to see these guys in concert. I can’t start to imagine what their new material might sound like, considering I am still chewing over all of the wonderful things that happened on Jokeland. However, I will attest that Ball of Flame are one of the most challenging, rewarding, and important bands to arrive in the Pittsburgh scene, a group that should command attention by more than a few people craving music that is this heavy with ideas.