Friday, October 3, 2008

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.



William said...

so every now and then I do a google search for this album to see if I can find any good reviews. It's been a while since I did it last, though, since I'm not in the band anymore. I was sitting here at work (I hate working Sundays), and was showing one of my coworkers what we sounded like, and afterward thought I'd do another quick search for reviews. I caught your link from a google search, and I have to say it's definitely an encouraging thing to see this morning.

I was the vocalist/lyricist when we recorded that album (well, from the band's inception in 2002 until about 6 months ago). Most of what you said were things I was trying to accomplish with the release, and some of the things you said even surpassed what I was trying to do! We never set out to revolutionize the genre. We just wanted to play the music we loved, without losing our unique identity. It's great to hear from someone that we accomplished that.

I just thought I'd note and agree with the unfortunate CD art. It's kind of a funny story, though, 'cause Aaron meant for it to be brighter, but never actually printed a test before we sent the art off, so he was going solely on how it appeared on his monitor. I think you're definitely right that more light/dark contrast would have improved store sales. That's the way it goes though, I guess. Live and learn.

Their current vocalist is a great vocalist. I haven't really been able to judge his songwriting ability, as they've been touring the Open Eyes stuff a lot, but the little bit of new stuff I've heard (some is posted on myspace) is different from before, but still good. I look forward to hearing what they come up with in the future.

MetalFRO said...

Thank you for your kind words about my review, and for the insights. The cover thing is as I suspected - no test print. Loads of people don't realize it's always darker in print than on the screen.

I played "Coup de Main" during my 1st episode of my radio show, and plan to spin more from this album in future episodes.

MetalFRO said...

Excuse me - it was my 2nd episode!

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