Our last review of a Cool Hand Luke disc was a long-winded discourse on how the band paralleled, in some ways, the musical style and ethos of their label (Floodgate Records), and particularly, the head of the label, Tim Taber. Citing how the band’s sound contained elements of Taber’s 90’s act The Prayer Chain. However, a short year later with the release of The Fires of Life, the Cool Hand Luke has given us another opportunity to write a more concise focuses, and informative review for our readers.
And, in ways that are leaps and bounds ahead of their debut Wake Up O Sleeper, Cool Hand Luke pleasantly surprises discriminating listeners with their solid songwriting, inspired playing, and usage of interesting sounds on “The Fires of Life”. For this CD, the band generally slows things down and mellows considerably, playing a mid-tempo brand of “chill-rock” that would be equally comparable to Ester Drang or even Coldplay. Produced by the dynamic duo of Steve Hindalong (The Choir, Luxury, The Prayer Chain, Common Children, Morella’s Forest, Honey, etc) and Marc Byrd (Common Children, GlassByrd, etc), The Fires of Life shows a band that patiently allows their songs to play out to their conclusion. The production team no doubt had a hand in this, as well as helping the band to create subtle, yet compelling, soundscapes that cradle their songs and lead singer’s Mark Nicks passionate voice.
“Skydive” opens the CD promisingly with the strains of guitar drones giving way to a haunting Radiohead-esque piano melody. Once the guitar, drums and vocals kick in, “Skydive” emerges as a mid-tempo song with a conventional approach in structure while retaining a subtle hint of ambiance that the opening hinted to. “The Foster”, one of the heavier songs on The Fires of Life, follows, presenting itself as a jangly, math-rock influenced song with distorted guitars and crashing drums. “Rats in the Cellar” continues the math-rock influence, as the band successfully plays ambitious technical guitar and drum rhythms. However, despite the sugary lyrics and melody of “Cinematic”, with its gorgeous string arrangement, Cool Hand Luke really hits their stride by track 5, “I’m Not Ready”, a 5 minute long mood-jam with simple lyrics, drones, and a building catharsis of emotion and guitar layers. The sonics on this song thick, deep, and the listener is lost in Cool Hand Luke’s variation of progressive rock. “I’m Not Ready” seamlessly fades into “Sequence #3”, undoubtedly the highlight of the disc. “Sequence #3” is a fascinating song, featuring a melody and structure that Chris Martin would be proud to call his own, while <b Nicks delivers his best vocal performance with frequent forays into an effortless (and underused!) falsetto. Odd percussion sounds, piano, guitar, and even a harp support the naturally building song-structure of “Sequence #3”, giving way in the climax of loud rock guitars. If the whole of The Fires of Life sounded like “Sequence #3”, we’d have an instant classic on our hands. Still, the rest of The Fires of Life pleases the listener, as it contains a noteworthy collection of smart melodies, patient songwriting, and subtle atmospherics.
Of course, no review of Cool Hand Luke would be complete without a cursory mention of their lyrics, which are a straight-forward delivery of Evangelical Christian doctrine. Some non-religious listeners may have a difficult time relating to the lyrics of this very up-front Christian band, as the lyrics do not show a real effort at utilizing poetic devices. Still, one can choose to be positive and realize that the band is no doubt sincerely evoking for the listener an unshielded account of their worldview, and an artist is always to be commended for such self-revelation.
All in all, The Fires of Life is a very solid disc of religiously themed moody mid-tempo jams that flirt with losing themselves in the bliss of atmospheric drones and textures. Housed in absolutely dazzling artwork designed by one of the band members, The Fires of Life is an all-around improvement for Cool Hand Luke, and shows the band sincerely willing to take creative risks with its music. Considering that this CD is widely available in the Christian music industry, an industry known for stifling the independent spirit of artists, this risk in Cool Hand Luke’s music is all the more noteworthy.