Album Review: Ice or Fire by The Bannermen

Ice or Fire, the new album by The Bannermen, is a play on words from author George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” which ultimately inspired the HBO show Game of Thrones). The Bannermen weave through created realities in their new release. While firmly in the rock category, this spirited troupe of performers tackle songs with unclouded imagination and the fierceness of heart. You can find yourself pumping your fist or being wise and wistful—it just depends on what track you listen to. The songs are rich in characters, stories and archetypes, so it’s fitting that there’s also a comic book.

“Stan Lee (Marvel Comics) has influenced my writing more than any legendary band or musician, at least thematically. As far as our sound goes, I go for the “all of the above” genre. I like the fact that our songs are distinct from one another,” shares songwriter and bandleader Paul Ramirez.

Ramirez’s voice croons with folk-soul power or takes on a fun, adamant stadium-rock ferocity. The song “Iron Fist” recalls 90s power ala Alice in Chains, “Ice or Fire” nods to The Who, and “Friendly Faces” channels Sexto Rodriguez. Co-vocalist Annie Kelchner brings the energy of anthem rock groups like Heart on “Before I Find Peace.” The band creates their own reality, not taking on any stereotypes that would inhibit them from trying on many hats and giving listeners plenty of variety. The songs balance with one another despite all odds, as if held together by magnets or a powerful yin and yang.

“One of the rules of songwriting is to write what you know,” shares Paul Ramirez. Yet while some songwriters may take that literally and write about their day to day experiences, Ramirez goes deeper into what the mind knows, drawing from books and media he has read or seen, whether comic books, science fiction/fantasy, video games, cartoons, and the ilk. In this way, he creates songs that people who also have familiarity with these themes can immediately latch onto.

When Drummer Scott Paeth showed the lyrics to the song “Tea With a Stranger,” to one of his young daughters, she instantly recognized that it was about Uncle Iroh. The song is narrated from the point of view of Iroh, “one of the most beloved characters ever written in an animated series,” shares Paul. “Each verse is about someone he met along the way through different points in the series, all of which he then meets again in the end.” Even if you are not familiar with Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series where the character is from, the song evokes a wonderful mood of Eastern philosophy and calmness; layered acoustic guitar creates a lilting, hypnotic state and the vocals provide a satisfying hook with its own meditative charm.

The title track “Ice or Fire” is a heavier song with British mod-rock influences, pushing edges and giving the band space to create in-the-moment. “I especially enjoy playing “Ice or Fire,” says bassist Matt Winstead. “I approached this one more as a solo that just goes for the whole song. I tend to explore more with this song and I never play it the same way twice.”

Fiction & Imagination Merge for Chicago Indie Rockers: The Bannermen Release "Ice or Fire" 1

Vocals are front and center on “It’s Over” where Annie Kelchner takes the lead, offering a richness in delivery where every note feels important and deliberate. Backed by just acoustic guitar, her voice is unwavering and the stripped-down feel recalls the style of “Behind Blue Eyes” by The Who. This is acoustic music that is not folky– it’s raw rock music where everything counts. Ramirez and Kelchner trade vocals on this song, which builds as it goes and adds more instrumentation and feeling as it progresses.

“I always love the chance to go to town on the really aggressive songs like “Juggernaut” and “Iron Fist”, says drummer Scott Paeth, but I also like the more mellow material like “It’s Over,” which let me bring more texture and subtlety to Paul’s music. Steeped in music ranging from Rush, King Crimson, Yes, and Frank Zappa to bands like Missing Persons and The Beatles, took a “total percussion” approach to the set to cover ground from straight up rockers, to others with symphonic attitude.

“Classic rock is the common denominator that we all share, particularly bands like The Who. Beyond that, we all bring different influences. For one of us, 80s hair metal might be a huge influence, for someone else, progressive rock or jazz. Creating a common sound out of those divergent influences– that’s one of the most fun aspects of working together. Beyond that, I think we’ve all come to discover or rediscover bands like Coheed and Cambria, and try to incorporate elements of their approach into our own work.” says Scott.

“Once I watched the movie Saturday Night Fever my eyes and ears were open to something that was somewhat of a spiritual awakening, that being the greatness of the disco,” shares Ramirez.

Ramirez shares a defining moment: “Once I watched the movie Saturday Night Fever my eyes and ears were open to something that was somewhat of a spiritual awakening, that being the greatness of the Bee Gees and disco.” Prior to that, as Ramirez started taking guitar playing more seriously, classic and alternative rock, as well as 90’s “pop” like Boyz2Men, Babyface, Wilson Phillips, and Lisa Loeb, surrounded him. Showing a true span of styles, in “Whiskey Over Wine” Ramirez effortlessly adds a funky, easy-listening 70s vibe that is delightfully a little Al Green infused as the vocals shine through.

The Bannermen clearly believe in the power of many music genres: these are on the docket at any live show. “When a band is having fun on stage, and you can tell they’re in a groove, it makes it easy for an audience to get into the music and have a good time. It’s really lovely to be a part of something that brings a bit of positivity into the world—that’s some of the magic that live music has.” says Annie.

Ramirez shares, “You don’t have to go very far to catch a good show, whether it be an open mic or jam, some mellow singer-songwriter night, a “metal Monday”, a hip-hop show, etc. There is something special about the scene here, and I’m happy to contribute and be a part of it.”

As a way to create community, the band continues to perform live and offer more than just music with creative offerings like a comic book that accompanies the album.

Fiction & Imagination Merge for Chicago Indie Rockers: The Bannermen Release "Ice or Fire" 2

“I loved the process of recording—being in the studio, working on tracks, brainstorming the best way to mix the cuts. For me, that’s enormously fun. But it’s also great to see the final project out there in the world, and see how people engage with it,” says Paeth.

Perhaps, like the adventures of Iroh, all the influences the band has met along the way all appear in the culmination of their journey– their most recent album Ice or Fire.

“I originally was trying to write about Bruce Lee, but somewhere along the way I got distracted, started thinking about his teachings from his book The Tao of Jeet Kun Do; the philosophy behind it, and realized Iroh embodied the spirit of that philosophy. It was then that the song eventually became about Iroh,” says Ramirez of the song “Tea with a Stranger.”

“Sharing tea with a fascinating stranger is one of life’s true delights.” – Iroh, Avatar: The Last Airbender

The spirit of a live show, by a band influenced by many genres as well as imagination and some popular fiction, is captured on the new album Ice or Fire. You can purchase it here. Stop up at a live show to catch the band and see the comic book in person.

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