Border Wars: Episode II
In 1993, William Morrow and Co. made an odd but sincere attempt to revolutionize both fiction and music by releasing Fast Sofa, a first novel by Bruce Craven featuring a 45 rpm flexidisc “soundtrack.” (It was actually just the song “Woman Hell” by the Flesheaters). Twenty-two years later, that effort seems as antique as "Sesame Street" read-along books (which also came with flexidiscs), but at the time it was cool.
A few years later, in 1996, Stephen King and his publishers looked back to the era of Charles Dickens’ novel serializations and released The Green Mile in six separate pieces, one segment a month. King was gambling that waiting, far from being the hardest part, might help his novel sink in just a little bit more deeply.
Kansas City’s The Architects, with their ongoing Border Wars project, have merged those strategies. Border Wars is a fully-realized graphic novel with a planned five-part “soundtrack.” It’s an experiment that might bring down lesser bands, but so far they’ve captured what Craven and King couldn’t.
Episode I came out in January 2013. Due to circumstances beyond the band’s control, the Episode II release date wound up being a bit fluid (Stephen King never had to use Indiegogo to raise money for studio time, after all.) Rumors are that Episode III is nearly complete. Border Wars is nothing if not ambitious. At six songs per EP, it's on a pace to outpace, for sheer volume, a work like The Who’s Tommy, which comes in with a mere 24 songs. It makes sense that it’s taken awhile.
In the opening notes to Episode I, Phillips wrote “(The story and music) are married to one another the way that Norman Bates’ knife-wielding forearm is forever married to the sound of slashing violins.” That’s a high standard, but so far, The Architects have managed to live up to it.
As a graphic novel, lushly illustrated by Lee's Summit artist Mallory Dorn, Border Wars is a lurid, troubling splash — bloody enough that a murder scene throws stains onto the “Thank You” page. Its characters, such as the villainous Sheriff Kilminster, self-proclaimed “King of the Permian Basin,” or the innocent Tom Johnstone, Jr., son of West Texas’s most popular televangelist, crash into each other’s lives in violent, miserable ways. It’s not a happy tale, but it’s perfect for fans of TV’s "The Bridge" or the graphic novel realm of The Preacher.
The illustrations are the key link to The Architects’ second set of majestic, border-driven rock and roll songs. The opening “Killer Crush” conveys Johnstone, Jr.’s nerves as he falls for the mysterious (and nearly killed) Josie, and the song is almost audible as he struggles to help her untie the knot in her hospital gown. The gospel-tinged “Raise Up,” with frontman Brandon Phillips’ sermonizing vocals, is the perfect accompaniment to the TV ad for Tom Johnstone, Sr.’s church.
The songs themselves are vivid enough to propel the mood of the story. The novel’s detailed -yet-impressionistic images of the West Texas desert don’t specifically match “Cadillac,” a driving rocker with echoes of Eddie Cochran, but it’s an apropos background for the Sheriff’s blunt threats and the slippery motives of the banal, threatened tax attorney.
The best song on the EP, “KickSwaggerBoom,” a hip-shaking anthem that oozes confidence, harkens back to Episode I and the poise of transgender Angel Gabriel Guiterrez as she faces execution by lethal injection, as well as the misplaced sass of Carissa, a briefly seen (and doomed) hooker. This is a drugs-and-desert highway tale, so “Playing in the Snow,” the kind of Spanish-inflected love story Alejandro Escovedo might love, has nothing to do with wintertime.
It’s not essential to know the book to love the music. The Episode II songs are all wonderful (and even bigger) live, and they’re not always connected lyrically to the plot. The Border Wars project sets its own rules — not rock opera, and not a movie, or an effort to imitate one. Boiled down to its essentials, it’s a fairly simple but rare pairing, and that pairing is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.