Friday, May 22, 2009

Encore: "Too Young to Die" by National Fire Theory

It is time to bring the 52 Songs in 52 Weeks Essay Project to an end. Ever since June 1, 2008 I’ve blogged about some of my favorite songs at a pace averaging one song per week. This entry will wrap things up. You may want to call this an encore, or a benediction, or a curtain call, but there is only song I could possibly choose as a conclusion.

It is 1:00 in the morning at The Hurricane in Westport in Kansas City, Missouri. Or maybe it is 1:30 or 2:00. Standing in the audience I realize I won’t be getting home until 3:30 in the morning. This is acceptable if my evening began on a Friday night. It is not as acceptable if my evening began on a Saturday night and the first service on Sunday morning is six hours away. Even though The Hurricane has since closed and re-opened as The Riot Room, even though I’ve realized I can’t stay out this late on Saturday nights anymore, and even though the band National Fire Theory has broken up, these are the memories that remain.

As the band finishes setting up its equipment, lead guitarist Doug Nelson crouches down and fiddles with his pedal board. He has muted what he is doing. The band leaves the stage. The lights go down. When the sound technician un-mutes his equipment the room explodes in a cacophony of noise, feedback, distortion, and high pitched squeaks. The band climbs up on stage. Bass player Jeremy Wilson is social, making conversation and cracking jokes with the crowd. On the opposite side of the stage, Doug Nelson is all business as he prepares to unleash some amazing guitar playing. Chill and mellow by nature, unassuming front man Tim Gutschenritter flips on a switch and becomes a charismatic showman, exuding pure energy. Tim’s brother, Dallas, takes a set behind the drumset where he appears meditative and spiritual. Doug presses a pedal and the noise halts. The band launches into their first song.

For the next 45 minutes or hour National Fire Theory will rock out, combining emo, screamo, metal, and just plain old rock & roll into an eardrum-pounding mixture of bravado and sonic bliss. Tim will sing his lungs out. Dallas will pound away on the drums relentlessly, adding a constant barrage of Jimmy Chamberlin-esque fills. It won’t matter if you blink. The sticks are moving too fast to follow. Doug will do things with his guitar that you didn’t know were humanly possible, all the while with a look on his face that says, “No sweat.” As the band’s party animal, Jeremy will offer comic relief along with his thumping bass.

And, yes it is true: I did see NFT at least 31 times over a 3 year stretch. And, yes it is true: A half-dozen times I did climb on stage and sing-shout the back-up vocals during the bridge on their song, “10,000 Black Eyes.” And, yes it is true: I did drive to places like Des Moines and Columbia for no other reason than to hear them play.

If there was one song that they played that I looked forward to more than any other, it was, without a question, “Too Young to Die.” Ironically, “Too Young to Die” is the first song on the band’s Ending With White Lights EP, an record with a title that conjures up images of an untimely and traumatic death due to youthful irresponsibility.

Listening to NFT play “Too Young to Die” you’re immediately swept up in the no-holds-barred beginning of the song, an all out assault of drums and guitar. As Tim begins singing, the guitars screech behind him. The song is deeply layered and almost claustrophobic. The spaces between Tim’s phrases are filled up with heavy chords and smashing cymbals. The second verse begins with the lyrics, “My time is getting closer, but I’m too you to die.” It is a song about resisting fate. It is a song that is as defiant as any song I know. And it is a song that, for all its darkness and angst, actually points towards a different path. Unfortunately, you can only listen to a lo-fi version of “Too Young to Die” here. This version of the song ends with an extended guitar solo that climbs in pitch and speeds up to a frantic pace before fading out.

However, when NFT performed this song live, they would extend the song. Following the solo, Tim would sing/chant the words “I’m too young to die,” allowing his words to set the rhythm of the song and then allowing these repetitive lyrics to grow louder until they reached a visceral scream. At that precise moment cathartic merged with transcendent in a way that I, a lover of music, have only rarely known.

Thank you for reading.