Combining two EPs into an LP is a risky proposition. Depending on how far apart in time they were recorded, and the attending differences in lyrical, musical, or thematic content, you could end up with a 12-inch which has two uncomfortably different sides. Even when packaged as one collection of two separate records, you can end up with something like Courtney Barnett’s The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, where the year and a half between the first disc, I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris, and the second, How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose, show a distinct turn.
This is a roundabout, lengthy way of explaining that Border Wars, from Kansas City rock ‘n’ rollers The Architects, manages to avoid that hang-up. The first two installments of this planned five-episode series were released about 18 months apart, with the vinyl coming nearly two years after the compact disc release of that second episode. That means the first side of Border Wars — also known as Episode I — was released FOUR years ago. Four years is a long time to wait for 12 songs, considering the fact that The Architects released their first three full-lengths in a similar time span.
However — and this may prove to be an unpopular opinion — I’d rather wait a couple years for six good songs than getting a dozen every year and a half, of which maybe two or three are long term keepers. Those first three LPs (Keys to the Building, Revenge, and Vice), along with 2009’s The Hard Way, are good records, but they came at such a pace, it seemed like the band was just eager to get this music recorded while it was fresh, rather than waiting to see what stuck around in the setlist. And to be honest, during the 2004-09 timespan of those four albums, it seems like the band were bringing new songs into the setlist with regularity, and dropping out old ones with a rapidity that made every show fresh, if a bit disorienting for those hoping to hear cuts from the album they’d purchased just the year prior. By the time an album was released, half the tracks on it were already being phased out in favor of the latest songs.
That’s not been the case as of late. The tracks which have made it onto Borders Wars make up the majority of Architects’ set these days, along with a few old songs which have stood the test of time. “We’re Goin’ Live” is just as electric now as when Episode I was first released in 2013, and “Kickswaggerboom” is a hip-shaking delight. All 12 tracks on Border Wars have been stage-tested and have weathered the intervening years with aplomb.
The basic concept behind Border Wars is that it’s a concept album in five episodes, per singer/guitarist Brandon Phillips’ notes with the first episode. Those notes come at the back of a graphic novel which accompanied the initial compact disc release of Episode I, and that’s where Border Wars goes beyond the likes of more standard concept fare: each EP is packaged with a graphic novel, in order to create an overall storyline, wherein the songs and comic reflect one another.
On the Architects’ 2008 LP, Vice, there’s a cut titled “Daddy Wore Black,” and the opening verses and chorus go like this:
“Heard the shots and ran outside
Father lay right where he died
Sheriff came over and took off his hat
Kept asking me, ‘boy where’s your mother at?’
Saw his body into the hearse
Interrogation room— I cried and cussed and spat and kicked and cursed
What’s it matter if the story’s true
Could not protect him, they already knew”
It’s a fine song that’s one of those “should-a been a hit” tunes, while probably the finest cut in the Architects’ discography. It’s relevance here is it’s readily applicable to the whole of the project, and I’ve a theory that the sheriff of “Daddy Worse Black” is basically the Sheriff Kilminster of the Border Wars story, because he’s a bad, bad man, and you can bet there’s drugs and such going on.
The songs reflect the whole of this: opener “Peter Fonda” is all about a cool motherfucker who does bad shit; “Heartbreaker” is the drug mule, Josie, thrown out a window and left for dead; and “Kickswaggerboom” is all about preacher’s son Tom Johnstone Jr. and his feelings for Josie. “Criminal” is Charlie Slattery, attorney at law, as well as deputy TJ — both men who are in over their heads with bad, bad guys.
Lyrically, it ties together in a great big package, and the songs are also fantastic rockers. “We’re Goin’ Live” kicks off with a faux crowd roar that makes the already potent riffs soar even higher. Think the middle section of Refused’s “New Noise,” or the ending of “Spirit of Radio” by Rush, and you’re in the right ballpark. That goes into “Lucky,” which has “way-ohs”, and those tie in sonically with the “whoah-ohs“ of “The Shivers,” and the entirety of Episode I ends up being a catchy-as-hell ride.
The Episode II side takes those ideas and gets a little bit darker, but also more complex. Opener “Killer Crush” has some faint chimes in the background, adding to the song’s lush chorus, which is mirrored in the big harmonies of power-pop number “In the Snow.” It also features the Architects at their most AC/DC with “Cadillac,” but longtime fans of the band won’t be surprised by that one bit. The end result is 12 tracks of pure, unfettered Midwestern rock ‘n’ roll, sure to appeal to all fans of swaggering riffs and anthemic choruses.
The album sounded clean and processed on the digital versions I’d heard previously, but the vinyl version is remarkably warmer and more even, especially on the Episode II tracks, which on compact disc and digital are almost harsh around the edges. Jim Kissling’s mastering work seems much more suited to the vinyl realm, and the way the bass and guitar meld on album-closer, “Raise Up,” is fairly magical and indicative of why — even if you already have both installments in other formats — it’s worth dropping the coin to snag this once again.
The packaging is simultaneously minimal and deluxe. The LP itself is pressed on clear vinyl with red and blue splatter, and looks absolutely gorgeous, but the record comes in a plain paper sleeve inside a plastic LP bag. There’s no jacket, but there are two perfect-bound graphic novels containing the Border Wars story in comic form, along with compact disc versions of both EPs. There are sure to be people for whom this causes shelving and cataloging issues: like, do you keep the LP with the graphic novels, or do you put those on your bookcase? Your call, although I do recommend maybe tracking down a plain cardboard jacket to put the LP in. Maybe scribble on it with some paint markers and make it your own, if you’re so inclined.
Border Wars is available on vinyl from The Architects.