It seems limiting to think of Forgive Durden’s second full-length release as a mere album – after all, Forgive Durden mastermind Thomas Dutton conceived the recording as a full-blown musical production, and from its dramatic narration to its lush score to the grand-scale creation myth and love story at its center, that’s just the experience Razia’s Shadow: A Musical delivers. Yes, this is a CD into which you can truly escape, an epic that’s as fitting for a club stage as it is for Broadway -- and in an era of disposable singles, it’s also one of the few collections of songs (or, if you want to get technical, movements) that flow together as an essential whole.
As remarkable as the fact that Razia’s Shadow: A Musical simply exists in 2008, however, is Dutton’s personal journey leading up to the musical’s creation. Though he entered the writing process with a full band, a four-year history, and a trio of releases to his credit, Dutton ended up being a one-man operation with a completely renewed vision by the time he was finished. And, as with the storyline he’d ultimately craft, Dutton also had to tear down Forgive Durden’s existing world in order to create a bigger, bolder new one. But that, dear friends, is a story we’ll get to soon enough. For those who are just coming onboard, there’s some history we ought to cover first…
Back in 2003, singer/guitarist Dutton and three other Seattle-area friends pooled their collective influences and, calling themselves Forgive Durden in reference to the antihero at the center of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, began approaching rock music with the same attention to depth, metaphor and nuance that their literary heroes (Lewis Carroll and Steve Aylett are two others) applied to the printed page. Not to get too lofty about it, but as Forgive Durden’s two self-released EPs – 2003’s Bandages & Royalty and 2004’s Casey Bates (Gatsbys American Dream)-produced When You’re Alone, You’re Not Alone – proved, this wasn’t just another pop-rock outfit singing about their girl problems.
Wonderland, Forgive Durden’s 2006 Fueled by Ramen debut, showcased the creative heights Dutton and his bandmates were capable of reaching. Again working with producer Bates, Forgive Durden crafted a conceptual, allegory-rich journey through the album’s fictional title city and followed the hopes, dreams, fears and disappointments of its creator and inhabitants alike. Ambitious? You bet – but as Wonderland’s keen balance of hooks, dynamics and left-of-center melodies made evident, Forgive Durden had also put together one of the richest albums to lose yourself in that year.
Others agreed, and from 2006 to late 2007, Forgive Durden hit the road with fellow pop/rock boundary-benders such as Say Anything, The Hush Sound, Saosin and Gatsbys American Dream, as well as playing the Warped Tour and enjoying a sold-out U.K. tour with Panic at the Disco. During this time, however, the notoriously difficult transition from “group of friends” to “active business” found tensions building within the band, and in late 2007 Dutton found himself taken off guard when Forgive Durden’s other three-quarters announced its resignation.
Dutton publicly announced the split in a January 2008 blog post, but more importantly, he also used that outlet to open the next chapter in Forgive Durden’s story. Despite financial debts, half-written songs, and lingering ideas of what could’ve been, the group would continue, and with the help of his music-composition-major brother, Paul, and longtime producer Bates (in whose studio Dutton literally camped out for a month), Dutton would bring to life a long-rumored musical to mark Forgive Durden’s next chapter. “It was the craziest thing I’ve ever done, creatively speaking,” Dutton says of the decision to head into Razia’s Shadow, “because I realize a lot of people had this preconceived notion of what the band should be after hearing Wonderland. I understand that, but at the same time, I think this record shows just how exciting it can be to let a band surprise you.”
Like Wonderland, Razia’s Shadow: A Musical tells the story of a broken world and its creator, but that’s where the comparisons end. Narrated by mewithoutYou singer Aaron Weiss – one of 12 guests, including, of many, Say Anything’s Max Bemis; Saves the Day’s Chris Conley; The Hush Sound’s Greta Salpeter; Panic At The Disco’s Brendon Urie; Gatsbys American Dream’s Nic Newsham; and The Matches’ Shawn Harris, cast in singing roles – the two-part, 14-movement musical finds Dutton and crew supported by a full-on orchestral backdrop where previously there’d been only bass, drums and guitar. The end result is as much Moulin Rouge (whose modern take on the classic musical Dutton credits as hugely inspirational) as it is C.S. Lewis, with a cast of angels, oracles, princesses and chosen ones locked in conflict over a divided world as the force of love struggles to unite the main characters.
Remarkably, despite the hypnotic sitar in “Genesis” (which features vocals from The Dear Hunter’s Casey Crescenzo), the dazzling orchestral counterpoint in the lead single “Life is Looking Up,” and the gorgeous string, horn and keyboard arrangements throughout, only one guest player (Gatsbys American Dream drummer Rudy Gajadhar) actually came in for the Razia’s Shadow sessions. As Dutton reveals, “I realize it’s a lot more dramatic to say, ‘We hired a full orchestra for this,’ but the truth is that would’ve cost half a million dollars.”
Instead, Dutton used advanced and complex samples and software to painstakingly conduct his own virtual orchestra, and worked with many of the vocalists remotely as they sent in their parts from outside studios. “It was a crazy experience, but once I got into it, I was amazed at the way it turned out. It couldn’t have happened any other way,” Dutton notes. “Not to compare this record to the Beach Boys musically, but in a lot of ways it was like this hyper-focused, Beach Boys-style process, with my brother and I as this Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks whirlwind team,” he laughs.
For all its inherent complexity, Razia’s Shadow is more remarkable for the way its songs ebb and flow so effortlessly. Melody is central to everything, and in tracks such as the hauntingly beautiful “The Oracle” (featuring The Audition’s Danny Stevens) and the swinging, warmly romantic “The Missing Piece” (featuring Seattle’s own Lizzie Huffman, of Man in the Blue Van) – Dutton weaves the sort of ethereal, left-field melodic lines you’d expect to find in the most gripping Björk or Queen songs. “I’m really drawn to untraditional melodies in general,” Dutton explains, “but the idea of a strong, central melody that holds everything together was crucial in writing these songs – there’s no ‘weirdness for weirdness’ sake.’”
Indeed, if there’s one element of weirdness facing down Dutton as Razia’s Shadow: A Musical makes its public debut; it’s the idea of just how to present this thing on a larger scale. While he won’t give away too much about the added touches that will take Forgive Durden’s live act into the New Year (everything from costumes to custom light shows is on the table), Dutton isn’t worried about Razia’s Shadow making the transition from stereo to stage – in fact, that may be the easiest part of this whole journey. “I’ve always loved stories about people where everybody thinks they’re not meant to do something, but they believe in themselves and overcome adversity to do it anyway,” he concludes. “There’s a lot of that in this record, and there’s a lot of that in me.”
This band was an Absolutely Unsigned artist - until they were signed by Fueled by Ramen.