Wednesday, January 4, 2012

For Today - Breaker (2010)

Every now and again a band comes along that is just captivating.  They're not the best in their genre, the most skilled, or the group that is lauded the most highly by their peers or fans, but when you go see them live, you just know it - they are the real deal.  There's nothing fake about them, no pretenses or anything getting in between the band and their fans, other than the usual obstacles (money for touring and recording, etc).  For Today is one of those bands.  They make good music, sure, but they're not the top metalcore band around, or even the best or most talented band on their label (or former label, Facedown Records).  They are acclaimed in some ways, but their music is seen by some industry pundits and metalcore bashers as generic and uninspired.  How one could listen to their music and think it's "uninspired" is a mystery to me, but then I'm biased because I've been following the band since shortly before their Facedown debut was released, and have seen them live on 4 occasions.  "Uninspired" isn't a word I'd use to describe For Today in any stretch of the imagination.

For Today's inspiration is much more intense than many of their contemporaries, in that their undying devotion to God and Jesus Christ is what fuels their music, and with this record in particular, the spiritual warfare that is at work in the world today, with the battle for the souls of man being waged in the hearts and minds of people, especially the youth.  Now before you stop reading this review and accuse me of being a "bible thumper" or some such, just know that while I have faith in God and believe in Jesus Christ, I don't consider myself a "model Christian" by any means.  I have my own faults and shortcomings (don't we all?), and would in no way be qualified to pass judgment on anyone without examining myself first.  Having Christian faith isn't essential for the enjoyment of For Today, but it helps when you can connect with the lyrics because of the powerful connection the lyrics have with the material and with the players.

"Breaker" is the band's 3rd full-length album overall, and as of this review, their final release for Facedown Records.  This, like their 2nd album, is a concept record, of sorts.  The album's lyrics reflect the spiritual warfare going on, mostly from the perspective of the victorious Christian who is aware of and actively engaging in said conflict.  The spoken word bits are all excerpts of the poem "Breaker" by Jose Palos, and are voiced on the album by Jose himself, a nice touch.  These portions (with the exception of the final section, "The Breaker's Commision") all communicate the hopelessness, pain, fear, anxiety, and abuse that young people feel and experience in life.  These present as interesting contrasts to the bold declarations of spiritual fulfillment in most of the tracks, and make for a unique juxtaposition.  There are times when the poem and lyrics intersect, such as in "Arm the Masses" ("The frontlines are littered with the bodies of the unarmed!"), or "The Breaker's Encounter" where the writer recalls an earlier time of suffering and is now expressing hope and deliverance through Jesus.  Powerful stuff if you believe, and even if you don't, it makes for an interesting ride.

Musically, this is pretty monstrous and heavy metalcore going on.  Guitars are the heaviest they've been on a For Today release, in terms of sheer weight and crunchiness.  The band also uses a bit more texture here, by including more acoustic and clean guitars, and by having more chording here and there that takes them out of the "chugga chugga" metalcore realm and into more varied territory.  The inclusion of some more old-school hardcore punk bits (like in the fast, group-shout in the album's centerpiece, "Seraphim), the melodic "Breaker" interludes, and the continued use of varied time signatures and semi-technical dual-guitar leads helps continue to push the band's sound forward.  Bass guitar is a welcome sound here as well - rather than being totally buried in the mix, you can actually hear what's going on and while not virtuosic, certainly provides the necessary element to the mix.  Drumming remains a strong point in For Today's musical arsenal.  David Morrison isn't the best drummer in metal, but he knows when to go full-bore with double-bass and fast rhythms, and when to slow things down for effect, as well as adding nice cymbal flourishes and interesting fills often enough to let you know he's contributing to the overall package.  Mattie sounds great here, providing an impassioned vocal performance that he hasn't matched on record thus far.  He provides even greater range than before, with a combination of deep growls, mid-level throaty yells, higher pitched raspy vocals (in that Dan Weyandt, Jeff Walker vein), as well as adding some more hardcore-styled shouts and bits that seem to move from spoken word (or shouted) to hardcore to more gruff vocal in the same breath.  Jose's spoken-word performance is also passionate and well done, as are the clean vocals, gang shouts, and the big chorus of voices on closer "The Breaker's Commission".

One thing I'll say that I don't like here is the overuse of 808 bass drops.  I love a good breakdown here and there, but I thought "Portraits" was a bit too judicious with the use of 808s.  "Breaker" steps that up a notch and includes a few too many of them for my tastes, even as a long-time seasoned fan of the metalcore style.  I just think that when the bass drops are so intense that it sounds too distorted, even on CD, it's time to peel it back a bit.  When my nice Infinity sound system in my van is screaming for mercy if I crank this album up too far, it tells me that this is perhaps over the top.  Some of the riffs are more repetitive than in the past as well, which is less an issue for me, since I understand that metalcore is as much about the rhythmic aspect as it is the riffs.  However, I would encourage the band in the writing process for their next album to bring in some of the melodic sensibility from their debut, and combine that with the crushing heaviness that "Breaker" brings to the table and they'll have a winning combination.  Also, with only 8 actual structured songs, the album is a bit short on content.  This is less detrimental in this case, because I feel the overall set of songs is stronger than that of its predecessor, "Portraits".  But however visceral, it still makes for a short listen.

At the end of the day, this is quite possibly For Today's most accomplished release.  I still really love their debut, and "Portraits" stands as a great album in its own right, but with "Breaker" I feel the band is moving in the right direction by making their music even heavier, and by continuing to expand their palette with new elements and textures.  I wouldn't recommend this as an introduction to the band if you're unfamiliar with them, as the concept of the record may come across a little weird, so I still tell people to start with either "Ekklesia" or "Portraits" first.  For established fans of the band, this album will be a must-have, and has received a LOT of play from me over the last year.  I look forward to their Razor and Tie debut, as are most of their fans, and recommend this wholeheartedly to the For Today faithful.


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