Man On Fire - Habitat

Year of Release: 2005
Label: ProgRock Records
Catalog Number: n/a
Format: CD
Total Time: 68:34:00

Let me say two things about Man on Fire's recent release Habitat. One, I like it quite a bit; my favorite tracks are "Majestic" and "What The Canvas Hides." Second, it is a concept album based on clichés. Oh, not musically, but topically. In this habitat - a block in a big city - the featured denizens are the corrupt CEO, the single mother, the drug addict, street gangs, etc. Then again, the milquetoast, straight and narrow, got it together and everything's rosy individuals do not make for compelling storytelling, do not lend themselves to social commentary. They blend into the pavement. So, of course, you have to write about the darker side of civilization. With utopia comes stagnation... But that isn't MoF's message here. Maybe that's why "Majestic" appeals to me the most... sure, you've got a single mother struggling to make it, to raise a child on her own... but she's not a criminal, not embittered, not working the welfare system ... rather the opposite, resolute and determined to make it... And why "Might Is Right" plays very much into the stereotype of a crooked cop ... Though how can we not think of instances of (alleged?) police brutality caught on tape over the last... well, fifteen years... from L.A. to LA -- that is Rodney King to the gentleman "restrained" in a post-Katrina New Orleans -- and not see that there's a reason for that stereotype?

Of course, I'm not only going to say two things about Habitat.

I've been listening to this CD quite a bit for the last two months, and find new things about it each time. The first piecem "The Block," sets the tone for the whole album. And if you listen carefully, you can hear its pulse in nearly every track. The pulse may change tempo, but it's there, the backbone to each of these tales. Creating that pulse is a combination of bass, drums and keys - Eric Sands, Rob Sindon and Jeff Hodges, respectively. Sands also plays 7-string guitars and Hodges handles all vocals (guests include Adrian Belew on guitar on all but two tracks, and David Ragsdale on violin for four tracks). You might think then perhaps each track sounds the same, but they don't. While they nearly all hold that common element, what's played over it makes the peppy "Mr. Lie" much different than the soaring "Love Never Lost," which is different again from the funky "Curtain Call," for example. These for that I've mentioned, however, along with "Street Game," are the ones that stand out, that stick long after the CD has ended. No mention of MoF should overlook the fifth, non-performing member, Steve Carroll, who pens all the lyrics.

So, what does Man on Fire sound like? Before I mention specific artists that came to mind, I'd say they take a very modern approach to progressive rock. In some ways, a very commercial approach, but not one that is as empty as that might imply. It's musically up beat and energetic, even the mellower pieces. It might be a little too "clean" for "Street Game," as the gang world is a bit darker. There's no ... actual menace implied in anything but the lyrics. Then again, I'm glad they didn't try to do hip-hop or rap... There is a dramatic essence to these pieces, as if we're listening to the sound track of a modern musical, and perhaps it's because the music is big, painted in lots of broad strokes (with many more subtle strokes lying beneath). I suppose the linking sound effects - cities sounds, footsteps, etc. There is also a "digital" feel to many of the songs, not as if they're samples. Not that kind of digital sound, but sort of a crisp distortion... a filter that sometimes creates distance between listener and subject. Belew's guitar screams and bends and grinds in the rockier pieces, as does Ragsdale's violin (his highlight moment is on, I think, "What The Canvas Hides," though his sweet tones begin "Love Never Lost"). As befits a song called "Majestic" the arrangement is open, the subtle, mid-westerny verses are played against big choruses... well, majestic choruses; Ragsdale's violin a very strong element here, taking the co-lead with Hodges' vocals. Drums take the lead in "Beast Inside" - the piece where we get the drug addict's story - with some crystalline-chilly keyboard passages contrasting with the darker tones of the drums and those guitars of Belew. His first "clean" solo - at least the one that really comes through as being the first - is on "Street Game" and given that his other performances have an acidic edge, it makes this one stand out even more.

The bridge between "Curtain Call" and "Shelter" is a showcase for some dark and funky bass playing from Sands, which leads into a danceable chug for "Shelter" proper. It has the requisite darkness that "Street Game" doesn't. And "Broken" has an even darker dark throb than either piece.

Most of the "sounds like" references center on Hodges' vocal performance - the first being A.C.T. Hodges has that young, sweet, innocent (and yet not so) sound that A.C.T. vocalist Herman Saming. The "musical" feel also reminds me of A.C.T. But, this is mixed with a hint of Rush circa Roll The Bones and later, mostly in "Majestic" and "What The Canvas Hides"... that's not why they're my favorites, and yet, it very much is why.

Having said that, MoF mix these elements in with their own very strong muse to create something that is familiar and refreshing at the same time. Progressive rock with commercial appeal, yes, but a key word in that is appeal and Man on Fire make modern progressive rock that is appealing.

The Block / Mr. Lie / Majestic / Beast Inside / Street Game / What The Canvas Hides / Might Is Right / Curtain Call / Shelter / Love Never Lost / Broken / Habitat

Jeff Hodges - vocals, keyboards, loops/samples
Eric Sands - fretted bass, fretless bass, 7-string guitars
Rob Sindon - drums, percussion
Steve Carroll - lyrics, imagery


Adrian Belew - lead and rhythm guitars, effects
David Ragsdale - violin

Man On Fire (1998)
The Undefined Design (2003)
Habitat (2005)

Genre: Progressive Rock

Origin US

Added: November 5th 2005
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Artist website:
Hits: 813
Language: english


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