As a child we’re all told stories that stick with us. Folk legends for most, figures like Casey famously struck out, tales of Tommy Knockers helping miners find ore, and of course the legend of the headless horseman is a familiar haunt every Halloween. One legend that stuck with Vance Kotrla of the L.A. based band Sci-Fi Romance, was that of John Henry. Henry of course, in familiar folk tales, challenged the steam powered hammer to see who could lay down track the quickest. And like the outcome of the story, this album is a stunning achievement.

Vance Kotrla has a knack for story. From the bands last album …And Surrender My Body to the Flames, the song-smith painted stunning visuals with evocative music. Here, Kotrla & Co. take it one notch further and make a folk hero human to the very core of what it means to walk around in this pile of skin. This sympathetic take, drives the record to a very emotional level, and explores themes of love, loss, and man’s place in a world that is driven by technology. Kotrla’s voice still tinges with that combination of Nick Cave and Brad Roberts of Crash Test Dummies. Here, his vocals provide a haunting backdrop for the character of Henry to thrive. That familiar acoustic sound is very much present, but added elements are here too including some bass and electric guitar. Jody Stark adds to the ambiance with a really haunting cello, and Kurt Bloom’s simple drumming is just right.

“John Henry, Part 1” opens the album, setting the listener up for what will be a pretty sad affair. “This will be the death of me, and what will I leave behind. Will they sing my name, after they lay me in this earth” is one of the most depressing, and purposeful lyrics to come from music in some time. Henry’s past is referenced in a way, with the use of chains as a melody maker; chains representing his past as a slave, but also the forging of a new chain by the up and coming technology that Henry must do battle with.

The track “Tomorrow May Take You” is a sweet love ballad about being so grateful for someone in your life, how much you miss them when they’re gone, and appreciating how they make you feel when your with them. Expect to shed a few tears. “Steam Drill Blues” has an acoustic/electric guitar sound dueling together. If you could apply characters to these sounds, John Henry would be the acoustic, and the steam drill the electric. Henry is bound and determined to beat this piece of machinery; “it’s a job that breaks your back and soul, but it’s what we do, cuz it’s what we know.”

As Kotrla belts on the track “Broken World,” “In the cracks there’s beauty.” That really is an unofficial theme of the record, out of all this tragic story telling, the most beautiful art arises from it. Sci-Fi Romance have outdone themselves tenfold with this record, an album that achieves great heights that most couldn’t with this character. This is the best album of the year, that you haven’t heard yet.

Album Rating: Buy It on CD or Vinyl!

Listening Co-efficient: Active Listen

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