Kokusai is the fourth release from Harrisonburg, VA quartet Firebrand. The band recorded a full-length, professionally-produced album but elected to hold its release until Fall 2021. In the meantime, they wrote and recorded this four-track EP at home with guitarist/bassist Adam Livesay handling the engineering, mixing and mastering duties.
Livesay is joined by Stephen Arlen (vocals), Matthew McBee (guitar) and Branden Thomas (drums) for this EP. Arlen tells us, “Kokusai is a journey into what it means to critically analyze oneself, confront the hard truths and come out as a more polished and stronger version of oneself.”.His lyrics explore sex, in the context of the Japanese culture; he employs some great imagery and leaves enough to your imagination.
Firebrand characterize themselves as a “post-hardcore emo math rock band.” With that backdrop, I was a bit surprised by the opening track “Shujin.” If anything, it feels like a jazz track at the beginning with its clean-toned, dextrous guitar work. The band builds a nice growl underneath and lands on a funk feel. This isn’t stereotypical “emo math rock:” there’s no weird time signature and the song takes on a straightforward verse/chorus structure. On top, Arlen’s vocals are very melodic, making “Shujin” a very accessible, enjoyable start to the disc.
“Teien” follows a similar plan with a jazz feel at the start, although Arlen’s vocals are a bit screamier than typical jazz fare. The distorted guitar gives us a hint of what’s to come, and, sure enough, Firebrand kicks up the distortion and intensity as the song progresses. Arlen channels some relationship pain in his lyrics and singing.
“Jiko” also starts soft, and feels musically like walking through a verdant field (matching the lyrics well). I’m not falling for the soft opening this time, but--surprise!--Firebrand keeps it smooth and easy throughout. This is the track to play for your friends who aren’t ready for hardcore: the band keeps the basic verse/chorus structure again with nice variations on the underlying instrumental parts, without cranking up the gain. Livesay’s bass work is particularly well done here.
The distorted guitars are back for the final track “Omochoa.” Thomas’ drum work shines here on the chorus, filling the space well against the stark riff. The cool middle section features shifting meter (finally!--we knew it was in here somewhere), and Firebrand finishes with a sing-along outro.
Kokusai is a well-done EP, and it’s easy to connect with the songwriting and the music. If they sound this good on a home-produced record, can you imagine where they’ll go with the professionally-done disc? I hope they’ll send Divide and Conquer a copy… and maybe some of that sweet merch, too (XL t-shirt, please).
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