Beneath the Brine was a breakthrough LP for San Francisco indie/orchestral rock band The Family Crest, pushing the seven-piece assemblage into bigger venues and more prominent national music media. Their massive, orchestrally backed arrangements were a powerful, quixotic hook that is almost impossible to find elsewhere, vast sonic vistas that at times almost threaten to overwhelm the the listener. Spinning your way through Beneath the Brine with headphones, one can’t help but wonder at the enormity of a recording process that included hundreds of musicians and vocalists. It’s easy to picture frontman Liam McCormick as some kind of Brian Wilson-esque eccentric, slowly descending into madness while trying to fit in one more string section or choir. It’s a sound so big, it feels like it could collapse in on itself at any moment to form a black hole.
The Family Crest’s new EP, Prelude to War, only accelerates toward that musical event horizon. It delivers a dose of both the familiar and the experimental: Huge, rollicking numbers with a few sparse moments of tenderness interspersed throughout. There’s material here that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Beneath the Brine, but also several songs that hint at an evolution and embrace of even more seemingly disparate genres. One thing is certain: These guys are just as explosive as ever, and these songs are going to bring the house down in a live setting.
“Sparks” is a thunderous opener with a galloping, racing pace. It’s a cocktail of strings, horns, keys and drums, along with the emotive vocals of McCormick, that might evoke comparison to a song like “The World” on Beneath the Brine, but its pace is even more breakneck. It builds to a huge, goosebump-raising conclusion of choral accompaniment that begs for an audience sing-along.
Second track “Mirror Love,” on the other hand, seems weighted as a counterbalance to the first and perhaps is the clearest test on this EP of new sonic expansion. Swaggering and driven by bass, piano and strings, it captures an unexpectedly funky ‘70s aesthetic, with horn and percussion solos that evoke the Bee Gees and early disco before building to another big conclusion. With lyrics that seem to encourage the listener to look past themselves (“We’re all just passengers waiting here to go down / screaming ‘give me what I need!’”), it’s a mildly political message of positivity and hope.
Following tracks include “Don’t Wake Me,” which finally slows the pace with a breathy piano ballad, before picking up again on the guitar-driven “Can You Stay” and “Battle Cry,” which sounds as triumphant and grandiose as the name would suggest.
One wonders at the writing process for the band, and why an EP was chosen to follow their most successful album to date. But perhaps we’ll see additional tracks from The Family Crest before too long if this is indeed a “prelude”—presumably the full-on war would be following hot on its heels.
For more of The Family Crest, check out their below performance for Paste at SXSW in 2015.