Monday, October 6, 2008

Miseration - Your Demons, Their Angels (2007)

Death metal is an interesting animal. From the very first bands that began to cross over from thrash into heavier territories to something heavier, to the melodic death metal bands littered about the metal landscape today that some deride as "weak" or "wimpy", one thing is certain: metal fans have strong feelings about death metal. I myself have strong feelings about death metal, having been introduced to the style in the early 90's via latter-day Vengeance Rising, Mortification's seminal "Scrolls of the Megilloth" album, and through the secular realm by bands like Bolt Thrower and Carcass. Feeling as though I'm well educated enough about the style to present an informed opinion of the various subsets, I can safely say that my favorite death metal is the kind where all elements are present: speed, power, crushing heaviness, melody, and vocals which sound like the vocalist's throat is about to fall out on the floor.

Being that everything I enjoy about death metal is present on Miseration's debut, "Your Demons, Their Angels", it's natural that I would enjoy it. More than that - this is arguably my favorite album of 2007. It has the crushing heaviness I have come to expect, nay demand from death metal. It has melodic elements that enhance the music without overpowering it, and it has varied vocals that aren't so throat-ripping that you can't make out what they are saying, but harsh enough to let you know you are indeed listening to death metal. The drumming is ultra-powerful, the riffing is heavy, driving, and accomplished, and the solos (where present) add to the songs just enough without becoming the focal point. The tempos also vary here, providing some slower & mid-tempo material, without forgetting to ramp up the speed for sections that sound like a freight train is heading down your street.

"Thrones" starts of the album in fine form, with pounding drums and biting rhythm. An interesting rhythmic pattern starts off the intro and has some timely double-bass drumming. Vocally, the verse opens with Christian Älvestam sounding quite menacing, bringing a vocal that is somewhere in between the Jeff Walker-esque rasp of
Carcass and the guttural low-end growl of one Karl Willets (Bolt Thrower). He also incorporates a higher-pitched vocal that is harder to pin down, as well as low-end growls and a more spoken word growl that sounds really cool. There is a bit of vocal layering going on as well with a more hardcorish vocal toward the end that gives the song even more variety. The bass guitar isn't so much audible as an underlying roar, which gives the music an even more bottom-heavy sound to it. There's some atmospheric effects work going on in the background between the 2nd chorus and the bridge. Things slow down a bit for the bridge, with some nice cymbal work and the aforementioned spoken word vocals and a bit of extra guitar work. The solo here is great, utilitizing a nice guitar tone, and an awesome layered/harmonized part at the middle. The song transitions at the end with an atmospheric effect right into "Perfection Destroyed". The song has a killer intro with great guitar sound & speed, as well as a nice lick over the top. The chorus has melodic vocals with layering, showing off Christian's abilities as a vocalist, and Jani's affectation for melodic choruses. The death vocals here range from the mid-range growl to a lower-end growl, and the occasional embellishment here and there. The rhythm in the pre-chorus is excellent, and the chorus riff with it's circular guitar riff and speedy undercurrent just rips through with power. The song throws listeners for a loup at around 2:48 with a (very) short acoustic ditty, then back into the heavy guitars and double-bass pounding. The intro riff comes back in about 3:37 to signal the transition into the final chorus, which then fades out with a cool pitch-shift effect. "Seven Are the Sins" pulls no punches, immediately pummeling the listener from the start. The keyboard backing in the chorus is a nice effect, adding a bit of atmosphere to the relentless onslaught of death metal. Vocally, Christian makes more use of high, mid-range, and higher death growls, mixing things up nicely. There's a cool section half-way through that has an echoed cleaner guitar and a whispery death vocal with some effects on it, and more spare drumming. That doesn't last long, however, before a rhythm section that recalls "Perfection Destroyed" somewhat comes in before transitioning back to the chorus section. "World Lethality" starts off much different than the rest of the album - a clean guitar intro & some spare, layered lead playing that is quite reminiscent of early Testament. After about a minute of this, things pick up a bit with a hushed vocal and distorted riffing, along with a slow, persistent drum rhythm. The cool spoken word vocal reappears here, sounding very much like Lord Byron of Bal Sagoth. All at once, the fast tempo picks up and Christian's layered, clean vocals come in & are offset by his death vocals, creating a nice interplay. There's varied guitar work in this song that makes it melodic, yet it retains speed & heaviness where necessary. Drum work here is great too, providing the power when appropriate, and having more dynamics when the song calls for it.

"The End Designed" starts off heavy right away, with some traditional death metal riffing and a nice layer of keyboards underneath, but remains melodic. When the verse kicks in, so does the speed, and the occasional keyboard flourishes add to the atmosphere. Jani proves his salt as a drummer here, with nice rolls, tight rhythms, and good dynamic cymbal work. "Chain-Work Soul" is very possibly the most melodic song on the album, starting with a nice mid-paced melodic riff & layered guitar. The riff is less heavy than some of the others, but that's mostly due to the notes being higher on the scale & less overall crunch. Once again, Christian shows what a good singer he is in the chorus, with a nice harmonized vocal that shows a bit of range. He also utilizes an array of death growls as well, mixing things up a bit during the verses. There's an ultra-low growl during the bridge that sounds like a lot of early brutal death vocals, which is a nice touch. There's a bit of buried solo work that serves the song well, but sounds great underneath the mix. The clean guitar & atmospherics at the end of the song hardly prepare you for the assault of "Noctivigant", one of the heavier tracks on the CD (though with a CD as heavy as this, that's not saying too much!). There's a sort of distorted vocal that sounds like it came straight from an industrial CD thrown in there, which is a neat effect against the wall of sound, along with some other vocal variation that keeps things interesting throughout. Drum rhythms here are nice, and a couple little keyboard flourishes thrown in for good measure add a bit of atmosphere to the song. This track moves along at a pretty good clip, with very little breathing room or nary a respite moment. "Foul Invective" starts off with a complex, melodic riff and transitions into a faster, thrashier riff for the verse. After the first chorus, there's a moment where the music stops on a dime for a split second, then back into the fray, a cool device metal bands often use for effect. Ther'es also a moment during the bridge where an effect is used that would be at home on a blues record, or an early roots-rock record, but fits in here well, despite not being heavily used by metal bands. The solo here is great; a good combination of skill & talent, but also melody & serving the song. At just over 30 seconds left, you think the song has ended, but it comes roaring back to finish out with one last chorus. The final track, "Scattering the Few" blazes into action with a fast double-bass rhythm and fast riffing, and a nice groove-laden riff during the verse. Christian really shows his vocal range here, with a layered clean vocal that shows him well into tenor territory. There's a cool vocal effect in the chorus that's hard to explain, but it sounds like a fade-in, but more dramatic. The short solo is a nice addition to the song, helping to transition into the heavier bridge section with it's pummeling riff & drum rhythm. Then the song slows down a bit for a slightly melodic passage with some riffing and some picked rhythm. A bit of guitar harmonic transitions into another solo, which helps draw the song toward it's closing moments.

The production here is pristine, making this one of the most well-produced death metal albums I've heard this side of Carcass' "Heartwork". All the instruments are heard (except, in part, the bass guitar, though that's typical of extreme metal productions), and everything is balanced nicely, with dynamics throughout where applicable. There are a couple spots where the spoken word or quiter vocals are buried a tad in the mix, but I suspect that was on purpose, for effect. This CD has nearly everything I want from a death metal release, just not quite enough of it. The 2 minor knocks against this album? It's a tad too short (only 9 tracks?!), and the artwork of Par Johansson, while fitting, is just a hair on the cheesy side. His work in designing the band's logo, however, is exceptional. These are only minor complaints, however. This is a landmark release.

Lyrically, one might wonder what to think, given that
Christian Älvestam is not a professed born-again Christian. However, Jani wrote the lyrics, and despite any ambiguities in the songs to accomodate Christian's beliefs, they definitely lean in the direction of a Christian world-view. This may not be a "Christian" album in the traditional sense, but "of interest to Christian metal fans" would be how I would classify it. The lyrical themes deal with personal struggles from the perspective of one's faith in God, so they are completely relevant to Christians, and in some ways are actually more bold than a lot of so-called "Christian" bands in today's music landscape. Whatever your belief system, this is a fine death metal album that no one should overlook. Now with the band signing to Life Force Records, this album will FINALLY get it's due & have North American distribution so guys like me don't have to scrape around & pay heavy import prices to find a copy. I have Jason with Nokternal Hemizphear to thank for hooking me up with my copy at a reasonable price - I don't know how he does it! In any case, this is the death metal album of 2007 in my book.


Mehida - Blood & Water (2007)

"Supergroup" can be a dirty word, or it can be a thing of beauty. Either way, faboys generally salivate over the possibility of their favorite musicians joining to collaborate on a musical project. Sometimes it works out (Tobias Sammet's Avantasia) sometimes it does not (VH1's "Supergroup" that included Sebastian Bach, Scott Ian, Ted Nugent, Jason Bonham, and Evan Seinfeld). However, when a group of prolific musicians get together in a concerted effort, they have the potential to create something beautiful.

Such is the case with Mehida. Before purchasing this album, I had no idea that it was supposed to have been the followup to Wingdom's debut. Nor was I aware that it was a "supergroup" of sorts. After doing some research on the band, I realized that I had struck gold. Just taking a brief look at the list of bands these 5 gents have been in, you know they're already quite experienced. Scanning the list of band names, you also see a handful of reknowned bands in there: Candlemass, Sonata Arctica, Kotipelto, Therion, and DivineFire all come to mind. There are also quite a few high quality bands that are newer or not quite as lauded as the others, such as 7 Days, Essence of Sorrow, Random Eyes, Templar, and the classic Kenziner. With a musical pedigree that good, it has to be good, right? Not necessarily so: thankfully, it is with this band. Let me first get off my chest that this is simply one more project involving Jani Stefanovich that is pure gold. Everything that man touches or is involved with ends up being top draw, and this is no exception.

Right away, the album starts off on a high note. "Unchanging" comes in with an interesting sort of vaudville type intro, then blows right into a keyboard line & simple riff. When Thomas Vikström starts singing, the riff changes up a bit with some double bass & underlying bass work. Thomas' vocals shine right away, with strength and confidence, and a nice falsetto in one spot. The chorus is anthemic, and provides an interesting melodic divergence. The 2nd verse changes things up a tad with a slight change in the guitar sound & riff. The vocals here have an interestic rhytmic effect over the rest of the music as well, adding an interesting element. The guitar & keyboard solo work here isn't over the top, but fits the song well. Markus Niemispelto provides a really interesting drum/cymbal rhythm at the end of the song that caps it well, and shows the progressive element of this band. "Wings Of Dove" is highly melodic from the word go, and is well constructed with it's subdued guitar and keyboard lines throughout, as well as the plodding bassline. Thomas' layered vocals show off nice harmonies. The extra vocal layering in the chorus is excellent, producing a choir-like effect that is quite anthemic. It's no wonder Thomas marked this as one of his favorite songs off the album on the band's official website. The riffing in this song is fairly simplistic, allowing the vocals to carry the melody nearly all the way through, but it's very effective. The keyboard solo here again is not over done, but just right. "Burning Earth" brings the heaviness level up a bit, providing an interesting guitar intro with a fast, near blast beat rhythm that intros the song. The riff here is heavy yet atmospheric. The verses are even more atmospheric, with a more subdued riff, bringing guitar back to the fore by the chorus. Keyboards are here, but are quite understated, bringing an atmospheric element to the band without dominating. The vocal effect used toward the end of the verses is interesting, but slightly hampers one's ability to make out the words, though it's only for a few seconds. The song fades out with a repeat of an earlier passage. "Multitude" has a bunch of voices at the beginning speaking the opening words of "I have never done anything wrong..." until the riff comes in and a gruff vocal (I'm assuming Thomas didn't provide this, perhaps Jani?) repeats the line sevearl times. This song has a nice underlying keyboard sound, a plodding bass & guitar rhythm, and a solid drum beat. This song also employs some really nice group vocals and layring, showing off Thomas' range a bit. Thomas' phrasing in this song is also a bit unique, adding to the semi-progressive nature of this CD. Again, the guitar solo here isn't insane, but fits the material well. "Stronghold" begins with an understated guitar riff that could have made it's home on a mid-90's industrial rock album. Instead, it's here, followed by a much heavier riff and rhythmic section. The keyboard work here is very understated, with little piano plinking underyling the understated portion of the riff during the verses and a faster rhythm atop that. The chorus is simple and anthemic, but very catchy, with the keyboard provies a nice backdrop. The solo is really good, with keyboard & guitar interchanging a bit, and providing slightly more flash than in previous tracks. The lyrics speak of God being the "stronghold", the fortress and shield as told in Psalm 31.

"Guilty" opens with an ominous keyboard intro, then blows into a heavy riff coupled with lots of double-bass in the rhythm. Thomas is in fine form here, providing nice vocals, and a good harmonized vocal in the pre-chorus, as well as layering in the chorus. Once again, the chorus is quite anthemic. Lyrically, the song talks of the weight of sin on a person's conscience and soul, noting that we're all guilty of sin. Great layered keyboard here with an excellent keyboard solo to boot. "A Letter From Home" opens with some nice electric piano work, as well as an electronic rhythm that would feel at home on an Enya CD. This doesn't last, however, and the heaviness comes in shortly, with the rest of the instruments coming in. The verse sections employ the electric piano nicely, and the segue between verse & chorus has some nice choral vocals in the background. The song talks of God's love for us, and how He hurts when we hurt, and how He cares for us no matter what. The bridge toward the end has a nice female vocal effect and dissonant piano which plays on the understated guitar nicely. "Dry Bones" has a cool keyboard effect intro, followed immediately by one of the heaviest rhythms on the CD, a fast drum rhythm and driving guitar riff with bass in tow. Keyboard effects here are spare, but work well within the context of the material. The chorus employs a lot of double bass & one of the more complex guitar parts found on the CD in a couple spots. The song talks about how we as humans have "dry bones" without knowing God's word, and how hearing His word brings us to life through knowledge & acceptance of Him. There are a couple operatic vocal effects in the bridge which remind me of the opera scene in the PlayStation game Parasite Eve, though that's mostly because of the way they're processed. Great keyboard solo work here as well. "Lost Ones" starts off with a tempto, picked rhythm and keyboard line that makes it sound like it might be the power ballad here, but when the heavier riff & ominous keyboard sound comes in, it belies that though. Instead, we get a nice dark feel to it, with an interesting lower-end vocal from Thomas that makes its only appearance in this song. The effect on the vocals is interesting, and adds to the atmosphere. The chorus has a nice choral effect to it, helping to make it more anthemic than the darker atmosphere would normally lend itself. I like the solo work here - very understated, but quite fitting to the song, with nice keyboard & guitar layering at the beginning, then allowing the guitar a few seconds to shine. Lyricaly, the song confirms that "we all like sheep have gone astray" in that we're all sinners. It is sung in the verses from God's perspective - He has called us, but we haven't answered. It's quite chilling to think that He has called many of us, and many of us have ignored Him. "Grace" is a powerful song, written from the perspective of the thief on the cross next to Jesus who asks Him to remember him in Heaven, only to hear from Jesus that he would be joining Him in paradise. It's one example of God's unending grace; no matter what we've done, He will forgive us for our sins & we can be with Him in eternity. Musically, the song is understated, with nice electric piano & keyboard effects, a simple but effective riff, solid drumming & bass work, and some nice layered vocals. The lyrics really shine here, with the thief saying he isn't worth a penny, but God gave him the opportunity to turn away from his past life and accept Jesus. Nice vocal layering toward the end of the song that gives a slight choral effect. "End of the World (Outro)" is an interesting pastiche of clean guitar picking, keyboard effects, samples, organ music, and disharmonic instrumentation. If it weren't for the keyboard solo work in there, I'd say this would have fit perfectly on a Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus album, with it's "apocalyptic folk" feel. An interesting cap to the album, to be sure.

What else can be said? This is a stellar release. I'm intrigued at how the musicians on this album can put aside the usual over the top methodology they have employed on other releases they've been involved in to create an understated, yet incredibly anthemic and cathcy release such as this. I would never have thought this to be a melodic metal album by looking at the cover, the logo, or the album title - I had considered it was probably a goth-rock album. I'm glad I was wrong, and I'm glad I didn't let that initial thought sway me from buying this album. This is a top-notch release by a group of highly skilled musicians; more importantly, this is a triumph of songwriting, and proof that metal doesn't have to be overly heavy to be immediate, nor does a metal band with progressive tendencies and uniqueness have to sacrifice the songs for the sake of being as technical as possible. This album strikes a near-perfect balance of technical prowess and songwriting restraint. Sadly, this album will probably be overlooked by many due to the overt faith-based lyrics, and by the cover art & album title. If you are reading this review and still aren't convinced, head over to the band's Myspace & listen to a couple tracks. You won't be sorry!


Friday, October 3, 2008

For Today - Ekklesia (2008)

In the world of rock and metal, the vocalist is almost always the focal point. The vocalist is usually the most visible member of a band on stage, on the CD, and in the media. Drummers, bassists, and musicians of various employ come and go, but the core vocalist is always a consistent element. In the world of hardcore, metalcore, and more extreme metal, this isn't always the case. Some bands falter when the lead vocalist steps down (Bolt Thrower, for example), whereas some go on to greater critical and/or commercial success when a vocalist is replaced (Arch Enemy is a good example of this). For the most part, unless the vocalist is the front man, or unless the style the vocalist brings is so unique & different that the band can't overcome that association, most bands in the more extreme forms of metal tend to soldier on and survive. What do you do when a favorite vocalist jumps ship and moves to another band? Do you stick with the band you love, hoping the replacement will work just as well? Do you follow the vocalist to the new band, in hopes that the music will match their charisma or style? Or do you just follow your "musical heart" and listen to whatever rings your bell? For me, it's the latter. However, I must say that following a vocalist to their next project can be a rewarding experience.

Enter For Today. I had only briefly heard about this band when I heard that Mattie Montgomery had jumped ship from Besieged (after laying down killer work on their "Atlantis" album) and joined For Today. I think I had probably heard a couple of their EP tracks on their Myspace page, and sent them a friend request not 2-3 weeks earlier, liking what I had heard. When I heard about Mattie leaving Besieged, I was understandably concerned. They had recorded what was one of my favorite albums of 2007, and now the vocalist who had worked magic on that record was gone. What was I to think? Then, when I heard about him joining For Today, it hadn't occurred to me that I had friended just weeks earlier until I visited their Myspace page again. Thoughts raced through my head like, "He joined THESE guys?" or "Why the sudden change?" I didn't know what to make of it. Thankfully, my fears were quelled when I saw the band perform at a CD release show (in my home state of Nebraska no less!), and I realized that this band was as special as the one I had been fauning over a year before.

The CD starts off with the obligatory "Intro" track, a nice display of bottom-heavy breakdown-style riffing, standard metalcore drum rhythms, and a nice lead guitar pattern. "Infantry" comes in right away, with a nice dual-guitar riff, and some Weyandt-esque vocals from Mattie. There's a good lick during the intro as well. The riff, drum work, bassline, and vocal work is fairly elastic, showing great flexibility & a fair amount of skill. It's not overly melodic, but it does the job. The song moves quickly from one structure to another, not content to follow a verse-chorus type of mentality, but transitioning from one idea to another. Thankfully, these ideas work well, and the song doesn't sound disjointed. Mattie goes from nice raspy highs to guttural lows (though not quite into brutal death growl territory), and some nice harsh vocals in between for effect. The group yells here are not completely typical, having a bit more high-pitched sound than many group yells opt for. The double-bass work here is nice, as is the light cymbal touches that slightly accent the rest of the music here & there. Lyrically, it's very much a call to spiritual warfare, and shining a light by being bold in a stance for Christ. "Redemption" starts off with a really catchy lead sort of rhythm, with the other guitar providing the lower end harmonizing part. Immediately it transitions into a cool dual-guitar lead/rhythm piece that channels some of the early Iron Maiden dual guitar work. After the "ride 'em cowboy" yell that cuts the song down the middle, it transitions into another nice melodic guitar line with a subdued yell vocal , then into a low-end chunky riff section with more of Mattie's lows. The dual-guitar lead/riff comes blazing in again & shows the skill these guitar players obviously have, and shows how nice a harmonized lead can sound when played properly. "Agape" (the first single) pulls no punches at the start, firing on all cylinders with sweeps in tow, and a bottom-heavy breakdown almost immediately after some highs & lows by Mattie. The riff in the main verse sections moves along with the drum rhythm well, and has an August Burns Red feel to it. Lyrically, the song is essentially about agape love, and how God loves us more than anything, and how we are to respond in kind by loving Him with our whole heart, soul, body, and mind. The breakdown about 3:00 has some good double-bass work. The breakdown-heavy end has a group yell that echoes the "all your soul, all your mind, all your strength!" while Mattie fills in the lows. "Never Lose Sight of the Goals" immediately fires up with a good riff with melody and heaviness. The drum work in this song is excellent, with fast & hyper-accurate double-bass work, solid riffing, and interesting cymbal fills. The clean vocals here almost sound like Stephen Christian of Anberlin. They're quite well done. The riffing after the clean vocal section is fast & tasty, despite it's relative simplicity compared to much of the rest of the material. The band moves in many different directions here, and keep things interesting throughout by not dwelling in one place too long, or allowing a riff to become stale. "Instrumental" is just that - a quiet, plaintive instrumental track with underlying clean & acoustic guitar, a guitar feedback hum underneath that swells slowly, and spare but effective cymbal & bass work. It provides a transition between the 1st and 2nd halves of the album.

"Words of Hope" comes in guns blazing after the break with low vocals, heavy guitar and bombastic drums & bass. Again, August Burns Red is channeled here a bit. The interesting rhythms and interplay between the guitar & drums make for fun listening. Lyrically, the song sounds like a plea to a friend or acquaintance not to give up on life, but to embrace all that God has to offer. The clean vocals here recall Stephen Christian again, with a nice harmonized layering effect halfway through. More dual-guitar interplay accompanies a rumbling bassline & solid drum work through the end of the song. "Ready For the Fight" starts off with Mattie bringing the low vocals, growling out the song title. In comes a low-end riff that is content to dwell on the bottom string while the bass & drums rumble along. That doesn't last for long, however, and a melodic & interesting riff w/ dual-guitar harmony comes in, carrying the verse along. This song, like some of the others, doesn't follow a verse-chorus format, but moves in varying directions throughout it's cycle, picking up cool riffs, lead/riff combinations, and remaining interesting throughout. Mattie switches it up a bit by throwing in some higher, raspy vocals along with his low-end roar. "A Higher Standard" opens up with a cool dual-guitar rhythm, and some excellent double-bass, drum, and cymbal work. There is a slight ode to southern hardcore about a minute in, with just a hint of the vocal stylings & guitar sounds many of the current crop of southern hardcore bands are bringing. Quickly transitioning back to a melodic metalcore sound, however, the song isn't content to keep a southern flavor, but rather keep changing the course that's on the table. Lyrically, this song is a call to arms for Christians, letting us all know that we are not to be lukewarm, but rather bold in our stance for Christ and that we are called to a higher standard than the rest of the world. Some nice higher-pitched yells interspersed throughout with more of Mattie's raspy vocals. Again, the guitar work here is great, with loads of dual-guitar harmonies & lines that don't just riff here or there, but move around and make things more complex than just 3 and 4 chord riffs. It's also the longest song on the album, allowing the complexity that much more time to play out with the different riff & rhythm structures the band has to offer. "With a Passion Burning" starts with a riff that almost sounds old-school metal, except when against the backdrop of the rest of the instrumentation & production. This song recalls thrash metal quite a bit with the speedy double-bass, fast riffing, and complexity in later sections. Lyrically, this is the only point in the album which isn't a bold evangelical of "call to arms" kind of statement of Christianity. It's a more general statement of encouragement to the listener to follow their dreams by finding something they're passionate about & going for it. While that might not jive with some traditional conservative Christian thinking, following one's dreams is one of the ways we can seek & find God's will in our lives. Sometimes it works out, sometimes not, but hopefully we will learn from it & grow along the way. Again, this song flows from one portion to the next, only occasionally repeating a riff or rhythmic element. The song fades out as the last words are growled.

This album is very good, but I do have a couple minor qualms. I don't like the fade-out at the end. Loads of bands have done this, where they fade out a song while singing the last lines of the song. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. It all depends on the effect you get when you do it. Unfortunately, at least for me, it doesn't work in this instance. My other issue is that as much as I like to listen to the dual-guitar rhythms and harmonizing, I'd like to hear some actual guitar leads. I know, metalcore isn't known for lead guitar playing, but these 2 guitarists have so much talent, and it's obvious. I think that's an element that is lacking from this release, and should be at least considered as an element they could add in future songwriting. If they don't feel it, and it doesn't become a part of the song that melds well, so be it. There are spots in the songs, however, that leads would work well to extend the songs slightly and give it a little something extra. All in all, however, this is a fine debut that these Iowa boys should be proud of. I look forward to seeing them live again in a few weeks, and to their next record.


Stand Your Ground - Open Eyes and Beating Hearts (2008)

Sometimes a band comes along that doesn't necessarily innovate, so much as reinvent. That may even be a stretch in this case, but bear with me. Tennessee's Stand Your Ground hasn't innovated melodic hardcore, nor have they reinvented it. What they have done, however, is incorporated enough elements of various strains of metallic & melodic hardcore to create a sound that is reminiscent of other bands in the genre, but retains a "semblance of self" if you will - a stamp that is indelibly their own.

Before I get accused of treading the murky waters of hyperbole, let me say that this record was not one I was highly anticipating. As a music collector, I had ordered the entire Harvest Earth Records back catalog in an attempt to fill in my collection with a number of releases I didn't have, including a couple key releases like the first Of the Son EP, as well as the Winter Solstice EP and a couple other minor releases. Through my desire to continue to obtain all forthcoming Harvest Earth releases, I ordered the Saving Grace debut & simultaneously ordered the full-length HE debut by Gray Lines of Perfection, as well as the Stand Your Ground album from Interpunk, due to a pre-order deal where you could get a free Stand Your Ground t-shirt if you were one of the first handful that pre-ordered. I pre-ordered both the Stand Your Ground album, as well as the Gray Lines of Perfection disc. I was actually looking more forward to the GLoP album because having heard their EP, I figured the debut would be just as solid. I didn't get the GLoP shirt as I was hoping, only a lame button. However, I got the SYG shirt, which I ended up loving. I'm not quite as divided about the records themselves, however. GLoP's debut full-length is indeed solid, and worth the pre-order for sure. However, SYG's debut I just keep coming back to.

"Coup De Main" begins with some "vinyl noise" ala pops & a light hiss, followed by a clean guitar rhythm that has an interesting time signature to it. When the distortion kicks in, it creates a nice contrasting rumble to the clean guitar. The gang vocals that open the main part of the song's intro let you know this band is passionate and means business. I like the vocal layering in the yells as well, mixing a couple different styles of hardcore & extreme vocals. After about 2 minutes, the tempo picks up and changes to a real melodic hardcore kind of thing, ala latter-day Stretch Arm Strong, some Jesus Wept, or the lighter side of Inked In Blood. The song transitions from a layered clean vocal up-tempo section to a slower-paced hardcore breakdown section that retains heavy riffing, hard vocals, and some spoken word. This song can be broken up pretty cleanly into 3 sections, almost "movements" if you will. "Our Time" changes things up a bit, opting for a more traditional song structure. Beginning with some heavy riffing and solid drumming, the song incorporates some nice traditional hardcore vocals and melodic riffing in the background, with heavier riffing up front. There's also some vocals that sound like death growls, which is a nice touch as well. One thing I notice w/in the first 2 songs is that the drumming is more dynamic than most hardcore bands can boast. Not only does the drummer have a greater sense of dynamics than most hardcore drummers, but he keeps things interesting w/o hogging the spotlight. The layered clean vocals work well here - they're not spectacular, but most melodic hardcore bands who incorporate clean vocals don't always have the most adept singers, so it works well in this context. The song moves nicely between heavy sections & melodic sections. The breakdown sections work well. They're not groundbreaking (what is in hardcore/metalcore these days?), but they function well w/in the structure of the material & serve the song. "A Final Plea to Fallen Hearts"Begins with some nice layered guitar work; a light distorted strummed rhythm below a clean picked rhythm. Again, the drumming here is great, without showboating. Vocally, this song is all over the place. Clean vocals, screams, spoken word, melodic sung vocals w/ layering, you name it. Guitar work here is solid as well, with nice transitions between melodic, less heavy parts, and heavier, more chugga-chugga stuff. The breakdown section at about 3:20 sounds good in headphones, with a nice "back and forth" effect. More low death growls here as well. "Having Done All, to Stand" starts with a heavy riff and some great hardcore vocals & gang yells - very anthemic. More layered sung vocals accompany the more melodic parts of the song. These guys do pretty well at writing simple, effective harmonies. There's also some nice acoustic guitar mixed in, as well as a gang sung vocal that accompanies the music. The gang sung vocal section goes on probably a tad too long, but it's a minor complaint at best.
If you thought hardcore was one dimensional, the drama in this song should lay that though to rest. With about a minute left, the song ends abruptly, then comes back in a military-like snare rhythm and what I can only assume is the bagpipes selection on a keyboard. "In the Midst of Trepidation, Hope" begins with a clean picked guitar rhythm that is transitioned to from the previous track, followed by some nice heavy riffing. The layered vocal approach works well here as well - imagine hardcore sreams underneath a layered sung vocal that sounds almost like some indie-rock band. The verse sections are quite catchy, with some nice harmonized riffs and the vocal layering. The guitar work during the bridge has a nice harmonized effect to it. A couple more death growls thrown in for good measure, and back to the melodic part to end the song. Transitioning into "VI", we find one of the albums few truly plaintive moments, with a keyboard background, cleanly picked guitar rhythm, despite the guitar feedback that accompanies occasionally.

After that short respite period, we arrive at "A False Sense of Self-Reliance" with a heavy intro, followed by melodic vocal layering again. Moments of this song recall Beloved (US), with the mixture of nearly emo singing & riffing, with heavier, more hardcore moments that contrast well. I like the breakdown here as well - nice double bass that works well without taking over. I really like the guitar harmonies near the end of the song as well; they're not Iron Maiden by any means, but for a hardcore band, they sound fairly accomplished. "Renaissance" begins with another picked clean guitar rhythm, some slightly atmospheric keyboards, and a strummed rhythm that echoes out. When the 2nd guitar begins picking a clean rhythm as well, the layering just gets better with even more layers of guitar. It almost recalls the quieter moments of Radiohead's debut where the 3 guitarists all have their rhythms they play & it blends well. The song slowly builds to a point, then goes back to a more minimal sound at around 2:30. The drum & cymbal work here is spare, but fitting. The guitar picking & rhythmic work is quite well done, and quite adept. The rumbling underneath the building rhythm works well, as the bass and drums slowly build & grow louder & more urgent until the song dies down again to a near hush with a single guitar rhythm, and the atmospheric keyboards again. Around 4:30 is when the song picks up with distorted guitar, full-on drums, and keyboards flowing along. No vocals or lyrics on this one, but simply a beautiful instrumental that shimmers in contrast to the hardcore that this CD has to offer. "The Prodigal Cycle" has a cool guitar line intro that probably recalls more screamo bands than you can shake a stick at, but they do it well. Again, lots of switch-up between hardcore screams and layered vocal harmonies. The way the 2 guitars layer with a melodic rhythmic pattern coupled with a more traditional hardcore rhythm works nicely. Nice drum & cymbal work here in this song as well, with some unique sounds not normally associated with hardcore music. The bridge has a nice riff with harmonized guitar that sounds great with headphones. Immediately the song transitions at the end into "Monument" with a bombastic riff, bass, and drum combo, followed by a slightly more melodic guitar line. The layered singing here sounds great, and is complemented well by the hardcore vocals later on. At around 1:15, there's an interesting dissonant riff; almost "Voivodian" in sound and texture. I cannot stress enough how well the layering works here, with layered vocals, layering of heavy & melodic guitar lines, and just the overall construction of it all. Here is the first appearance of gang yells in several songs, letting you know these guys still bring the hardcore, not just succumbing to the melody completely, despite how overtly melodic the material is, and how well it works. The breakdown at the end of the song is quite passionate, and brings a really heavy section with a really bassy section, indulging in a little bit of extreme vocal layering with some death vocals, and the "Dan Weyandt" style in tow. In addition, they toss in just a hint of technical metalcore in one spot, letting you know they don't take themselves 100% seriously. "The Final Step" has a bit more groove than some of the other material, and incorporates a bit of an almost Maylene feel to it with a yelled, distorted vocal and a bit of southern hardcore melodic flair. The solo also lightly recalls some of the recent southern hardcore bands, along with having a nice melodic hardcore feel to it. The end of this song transitions into "A Call to Perserverance" which is an interesting experiment in melodic guitar, a near-techno beat, and what sounds like a recorded speaker reciting scripture. It's a nice cap on the album, and ends with the speaker alone, along with a bit more vinyl "snap, crackle, pop" for effect.

So, what to make of all this? I am slightly conflicted, yet I must say I love this album. I feel as though "Coup De Main" sets me up for disappointment, because nothing else on the album quite lives up to the promise of that song, with it's movement-like grandeur. However, I can't fault the rest of the album because it's so melodic yet heavy, driving yet pensive, and experimental yet grounded. These guys craft excellent songs that stick with you, not just content to pass by as you listen to them like many a hardcore band. Granted, the songs begin to sound similar toward the end, but even their melodic hardcore & screamo brethren can't touch what they've done here. If there's one thing I can't fault the band for here, it's the overly dark cover art and the hard to read layout in the sleeve, but those are minor complaints. It is unfortunate, however, that due to the somewhat dingy-looking album cover, some will pass them by ("Smell the Glove" anyone?). They're not the next Underoath because they've charted their own path. I feel like this album shows the potential of an album like Kingston Falls' "Crescendo of Sirens" did. Let's hope with the recent member changes they don't veer off course & write a bland, samey followup to this album as Kingston Falls did with "Armada on Mercury". This album is, as far as I'm concerned, the new benchmark for melodic hardcore, and I look forward to hearing other bands rise to the challenge. I hope they're prepared to bring their "A" game.