A deserving final act
For every victory there is a failure, for each rise a fall, and for each improvement, there is a regression. Indie-Prog outfit, The Dear Hunter, are all too well aware of these things. Having returned to their Acts series a little over a year ago after a long hiatus with Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise they have quickly followed up with Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional. Fortunately for fans of the ambitious narrative that The Dear Hunter has created, Act V surpasses Act IV in nearly every conceivable way as it plunges through the depths and downfall of their titular character as he suffers at the mercy of a cruel and cunning antagonist.
Act V reclaims the narrative at a turning point in both story and tone. When listeners left Act IV they were confronted with the reappearance of a familiar foe in the Pimp/Priest, a thorn in the side of the main character for quite some time now, who is living under an assumed identity. The Pimp/Priest, having returned to his city recognizes his former parish member/client, and sets to work blackmailing him into servitude and submission. This harrowing situation is reflected in the tone and instrumentation of the album. Gone are triumphant crescendos and bright upbeat pace of Act IV, each instrument and sound has been replaced with a more menacing version of itself, the guitars drive with machine like precision on songs like “The Most Cursed of Hands – Who am I” which fittingly hearken back to Act II, specifically “Oracles on the Delphi Express” where again the guitars act as driving gears, imitating the motion of a train carrying the protagonist to a wicked city. Now the machine and city the protagonist finds himself thrust into is far more political and complex as he is dragged deeper into twisted conspiracies throughout the course of the album.
As a sonic entity, this album retains many similarities to Act IV, this makes sense considering much of the material on Act V was recorded during the same sessions in which that record was created. This does lead to some unfortunate similarities, particularly on the “The Revival” which clings too tightly to the fast paced upbeat tone and boisterous orchestration of Act IV. Fortunately many of the similarities between these two albums turn out as positives, much of the lush, vibrant instrumentation that was peppered throughout Act IV reappears on Act V but with a much more tactful and restrained execution. Where parts of Act IV felt overbearing in their production, a thematic choice to reflect the elated state of the main character, the use of orchestra in Act V feels much more deliberate. This is particularly noticeable in songs like “The Haves Have Naught” and “Blood” where the orchestra is much more of an accent piece, lingering in the background and helping to punch through powerful moments in the songs instead of taking over its entire composition.
Act V also makes a point to show progress from past albums. While it does incorporate various reprises from previous records, it refuses to rely on them to the extent that Act IV did, only peppering them in when it drives the narrative or overall themes forward. Casey Crescenzo shows incredible growth with his ability to build on his own ideas. On Act V he takes parts of The Color Spectrum and Migrant and uses his experience working with multiple genres to add a more varied feel into the album. The song “Light” is a perfect call back to many of the songs off of Green, the somber folk influences are unmistakable and it is extremely satisfying for the listener to see an artist successfully build upon ideas from their older work instead of stagnate or abandon them completely.
One of the most iconic elements of The Dear Hunter has been the density of lyrics and references within their songs. As previously mentioned there are call backs to their previous works peppered throughout the album, whether they be sonic call backs or lyrical. Some are more obvious, such as the “Take you to the river” reprise from “Mr. Usher” and others are far more hidden, such as the sonic call back to “Smiling Swine” on the opening of “The March” where the driving piano is the same cadence from the former. These little details go a great way to show the care put into the projects created by The Dear Hunter, and illustrates an insane level of dedication to the project.
With Act V The Dear Hunter have again outdone themselves in terms of production and ambition. If there was any slight that could be levied against this album, it is through no fault of its own, but rather the unfortunate fact that it finds itself in direct comparison to the rest of the Act series. Even within that category, it holds its own rather admirably, sitting squarely in the middle of all the albums. The main reason for its failure to surpass albums like Act II and Act III is that it unfortunately lacks the raw emotional punch that they contained. Those two albums when compared to the later Acts are a stellar example of the idea that “less is more.” The early Acts forced Casey Crescenzo to work with a smaller width of materials and production elements, and caused him to push further into an emotional delivery instead of high production value. Still, even with these flaws, the Act series and Act V stand as a triumph in the world of prog-rock, with complex and uncompromising storytelling coupled with incredible production value and musicality. Somehow despite the incredible expectations of fans, now even further raised with the announcement that Act V is the final musical album in the Act series, Act V manages to serve as a memorable and fitting end to the musical saga that The Dear Hunter has created. One can only hope that this entry into their impeccable catalog will bring them the recognition that they have always deserved.