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High-Fivin' anthems from Fang Island 

Wednesday, May 5 2010
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There's a celebratory streak to Fang Island, even if it isn't always clear what exactly is being celebrated. The Brooklyn band's self-titled debut album opens and closes with fireworks in the background, and its three nimble guitarists light up the sky in similar fashion. The music is indie rock at heart, but the band cherry-picks the most triumphant highs of classic rock, prog rock, metal, and other genres defined by a chugging rhythm section and whooping electric guitar. It's the sound of "everyone high-fiving everyone," according to the quintet, but also a spirited romp through influences familiar and far-flung."We draw from as many things as we can, without staying in one spot for too long," guitarist Jason Bartell says. "We try to keep it a big pot."

Bartell sometimes sings lead in Fang Island, but mostly he shares choirlike vocals with guitarists Chris Georges and Nicholas Sadler and new bassist Michael Jacober. Drummer Marc St. Sauveur is the only nonsinger, but is kept busy forging a percussive path amid so many riffs, licks, and leads. The album is split between songs with and without vocals, and there are prominent instrumental stretches. Coalescing as pep-rally chants and expansive harmonies, the voices are less a narrative force than just another uplift for the band's airborne sound. Imagine, if you can, the Polyphonic Spree grappling with Bang Camaro.

Fang Island also doesn't sweat verse-chorus structure if it isn't what a song needs. And often it isn't. "It's an experimental thing, but we don't want to be a solely experimental band," Bartell explains. "We try to meet somewhere in between full-on classic pop and experimental."

That open-arms inclusiveness and art-school approach sprang from the band's beginnings at, well, art school. Several of the members came together at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. The band's name is derived from an Onion article that imagined a villainous island hideout for Dick Cheney. After EPs in 2007 and 2008 and a move to Brooklyn, Fang Island released its album on Sargent House early this year. The disc snagged a Best New Music tag on Pitchfork and made the band a hot ticket at SXSW. Bartell says the album is an advancement of the original idea of the group — triumphant anthems delivered without irony — that benefited from having considerably more time and money spent on it than the EPs. Sharing a label with well-loved acts like Daughters (with whom Sadler played until recently) and current touring partners Red Sparowes certainly didn't hurt either.

Fang Island finds inspiration in unusual places on the album, including folk hero Davy Crockett and the idea of a life coach. Although it's not an '80s-sounding disc in the way lots of current releases are (cue sparkling synths and drum pads), there's a bit of, say, The A-Team and the era's Saturday morning cartoons in the action-packed sound. And in the group's high-arcing melodies, there's a nod to the music that scored the classic eight-bit Nintendo games. "It's another thing to reference," Bartell says. "It's ingrained in a lot of twentysomethings' psyches."

The same goes for so much of what Fang Island does. The ingredients may have been borrowed in part from the likes of Thin Lizzy and Journey, but the recipe is new. Gleeful and thrilling, Fang Island's album makes you feel like a fist-pumping kid again. And that in itself is worth celebrating.

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Doug Wallen

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