As Cities Burn-Come Now Sleep

Cover of "Come Now Sleep"

Cover of Come Now Sleep

As Cities Burn have evolved quite a bit over the years. That is not to say that there has been a drastic change in sound or members, but when their first full length (titled Son, I Loved You At Your Darkest) came out in 2005 it appealed to the angry and directionless kid that I was at the time. They sounded like a more authentic Underoath, thrashing about with chaotic guitar lines and messy screaming but never really losing their sense of melody. As time went on, my love for the genre had rusted and become much less. However, with the loss of main vocalist/screamer TJ Bonette, the band had continued on towards a very different sound, while keeping what made them interesting in first place. The sound had become deeper and more solidified, with lyrics that wrestle with faith primarily. Come Now Sleep is about imperfection; guitarist/vocalist Cody Bonette bares his soul in a way that speaks to the listener with an urgency. This is not worship music; this is instead music that forces you to look at the ugly side of faith that comes with growing up.

“Contact” opens this album up and quickly deviates from the previous album’s style. The listener is immediately hit with atmospheric chimes and a slow, deliberate guitar line. The lyrics that begin this beautifully heartbreaking song are as follows:

Hearts aren’t really our guides.
We are truly alone.
‘Cause God ain’t up in the sky,
Holding together our bones.

Remember we used to speak.
Now I’m starting to think,
Your voice was really my own,
Bouncing off the ceiling back to me.

These doubtful lyrics are powerful and speak to the inner human that cries out against the perfection of God, and ultimately make this one of the best songs on the album. The minimalist backing instruments that begin this song slowly start to swell into a distorted wall of guitars and drums, then taper off to a lone acoustic guitar in which Bonette intones, “If there’s a God, then he must be asleep”. The weariness in his voice as he repeats it over and over add a level of intimacy that you would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. This time around, As Cities Burn have decided to adopt a more natural song structure, moving effortlessly from a heavily-distorted sound to slower, more ethereal passages. This is best exemplified in “The Hoard”, as halfway through the song the guitars wind down and reveal a moment of drums and bass shining through. The vocals start to shine towards the end as the guitars pick back up and Cody’s passionate scream fades out, effectively ending another stand-out track.

With as many positives that surround this album for me, there are a few things that do detract from the overall effect of the album. As the album goes on, the tracks become a bit less varied and memorable.  This certainly sounds like the transition album for As Cities Burn, as one can tell that they are trying to find their sound. There is a vast amount of experimentation that deviates from anything that they had released prior to this, which allows for some things to stick and others to not work as much. “New Sun” and “Our World Is Grey” overstay their welcome, without adding any essential pieces to the album as a whole. “Tides” adds a much-needed catchy chorus and the album closer, “Timothy” rips open the band’s heartstrings in a way that is a perfect ending. This particular song is about the suicide of a friend, and the bare honesty in the lyrics are too difficult to ignore. This album is all about passion and authenticity, and it truly shows here. When Cody screams, “Tell me I’m only dreaming, tell me I’m just sleeping”, you hear the anguish and pain in his voice.

As Cities Burn have crafted an album that is incredibly dark thematically, while keeping it atmospheric enough for listeners to breathe. With the heavy and personal subject matter taken on in the album, it has allowed me personally to relate. In a world full of doubt, sometimes it’s easier to find solace in solitude; that is what this album does, in a perfectly imperfect way.

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Chevelle-Sci-Fi Crimes

Sci-Fi Crimes

Sci-Fi Crimes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chevelle fill an interesting niche in popular alternative rock music; while they enjoy a moderate level of success, they have not allowed that level of success to force them to gravitate towards putting out the same recycled drivel that most of their peers do. Though that may be the case, that in itself does not mean that they are by any means experimental with their sound. They simply deviate a small amount from the constants of their formula to create slightly different-sounding albums. It’s simply what’s expected of them at this point in time, and there honestly is no reason for them to do anything differently. They have progressed steadily from album to album, with each being better than its predecessor.  Vena Sera was an immense step forward from This Type of Thinking, adopting a slightly more aggressive tone in the songwriting and benefitting quite a bit from the presence of more apt bassist Dean Bernadini. Sci-Fi Crimes sees Chevelle making a similar leap, albeit in a different direction. Pete Loeffler, vocalist/guitarist of the trio mutes his screams and focuses on creating a much more vocally diverse, melodic record. This is Chevelle at their undeniably most mature with them even churning out a strong acoustic track (“Highland’s Apparition”), something that has eluded them for years. Loeffler masterfully uses his enigmatic vocals to match the equally confounding lyrical subject matter on Sci-Fi Crimes, this time focusing on subject matters such as UFOs and the paranormal.

“Sleep Apnea” starts the album off with thunderous double bass, something that hasn’t been very prevalent in past albums; other than that, this song unfortunately just doesn’t do anything new. It doesn’t go anywhere exciting or explore any new avenues of sound, and that honestly is the downfall of Sci-Fi Crimes in general. There aren’t too many fans of Chevelle expecting them to re-invent the wheel at this point, but the most frustrating aspect of that is the fact that they show so much promise on the stronger songs of this album. “Shameful Metaphors” starts off as an unassuming mid-paced track that morphs into one of the best in their discography when it hits the incredibly strong chorus. Loeffler does not trip over his generally cryptic use of words and ends up creating a very transparent, emotionally relatable song. “Fell Into Your Shoes” plays with an ethereal guitar line that explodes at the perfect moments into a muscular riff while Loeffler employs a falsetto that keeps it vocally interesting as well. One could certainly give credit where it is due in terms of what Chevelle have accomplished here; instead of gravitating towards writing the same song ten to twelve times and calling it a day, they went outside their comfort zone and created a few gems that will give listeners a more rewarding and varied album.

Alternative rock is a tricky thing; it is a genre tag that reeks of staleness and repetition. Trapt becomes Three Days Grace becomes Breaking Benjamin, and at the end of the day they all start to bleed into one another seamlessly. Chevelle have thus far successfully avoided being lumped in with bands of that caliber, but that is truly only half the battle. Their safe songwriting is slowly leading them down the path of anonymity, and fans that were expecting a huge leap forward will surely be disappointed with the final product. With the exception of a few stellar songs, it falls short of expectations and unfortunately feels like a missed opportunity for the band to realize their full potential.

Rating:

3.5/5

Straylight Run- About Time

straylight run

It’s safe to say that most Taking Back Sunday fans were shocked when guitarist/vocalist John Nolan and bassist Shaun Cooper abruptly left a band that had just began its ascent into popularity. Tell All Your Friends had certainly made its mark, drawing in a strong but diverse group of fans and alluding to great things for the future. While TBS took a route that was filled with commercial success and riddled with albums that were watered down with bland instrumentation and even blander lyrics, Straylight Run have created a slew of catchy and intelligent releases. About Time is the culmination of Straylight Run’s career, as it is their last release before they called an indefinite hiatus. It’s certainly not a bad EP to go out on at all as pulsating bass and pounding drums propel these excellent four songs forward, lead by Nolan’s passionate vocals and  lyricism. It would seem like Nolan’s heart-on-sleeve and somewhat melodramatic lyrics would tire after the first couple albums, but the sincerity he possesses here allows for the piano-rock present to sound anything but bland.

While Nolan’s everyman style of singing isn’t for everyone, it intertwines perfectly with quietly-intoned verses and shouted choruses. Nolan has a knack for storytelling through his lyrics that are always non-specific enough to be relatable to most listeners. It’s hard not to sing along and feel something in your gut as Nolan rattles off his personal struggle with his past in “I’m Through With the Past (But the Past Isn’t Through With Me)”:

“In those days, I was a train wreck.
I was lost in a sea of alcohol, irony, and unbridled self pity.
There were so many words I had to write,
Confessions on my mind.
I designed them and delivered them with reckless abandon.

My tightly coiled, regressed, frustrated past fading fast.
I was constantly exploding,
I was constantly screaming.
The days moved slow and the nights dissolved into a thickening haze.
Where I spoke with a tongue that wasn’t mine to faces I couldn’t recognize.”

His ability to craft strong lyrics into catchy song structures has always been what has made Straylight Run viable as a band, but the rhythm section has stepped up quite a bit. Shaun Cooper’s bass is not only audible, but drives the music and gives it quite a bit of urgency; consequently, drummer Will Noon ups the ante as well, providing a very energetic performance for About TimeThis is showcased in “Don’t Count Me Out”, as the bass and drums guide Nolan’s spidery piano and infectious but simple chorus. “Mile After Mile” ends the EP with a lush acoustic flourish, but Straylight Run have not transitioned more naturally from loud and angry to quiet and introspective. While there isn’t a weak song on About Time, there are some obviously unintentional lulls in “The Great Compromise” which show the chinks in the band’s collective armor. All in all, it truly is a strong showing for a band that has created some passionate and incredibly organic songs in the past. It just unfortunately feels like this swan song should have been a full-length endeavor, as this EP leaves the listener wanting just a bit more of Nolan’s dark lyricism to round out the experience. Here’s to hoping that musical differences force Taking Back Sunday to faction off once more, so that Straylight Run may continue on the fine path they have created for themselves here.

Rating:

3.9/5

Tracklist:

1. I’m Through With the Past (But the Past Isn’t Through With Me)

2. The Great Compromise

3. Don’t Count Me Out

4. Mile After Mile

Thrice-The Alchemy Index Vols. III & IV

The evolution of Thrice has been one of the most natural progressions for a band that I have had the pleasure of witnessing. The hard edge of Thrice has been whittled down to a fine point, and this is the band at their most mature. It introduced the listener to a band that was unafraid to not only deviate from the sometimes crushing heaviness of Vheissu, but to also blindly run in the opposite direction of it, as evidenced by Vol IV: Earth. This installment offers a look at a band that has risked the most with this release, as Earth allows for a more Americana/Folk-based sound, relying upon acoustic instruments and taking more cues from vocalist/guitarist Dustin Kensrue’s solo effort than anything Thrice has accomplished to date. Air provides a more ethereal, expansive interpretation of the band. The interesting thing about both of Air and Earth is that both of them favor more sparse, loose instrumentation.

Cover of "Alchemy Index, Vol. 3 & 4: Air ...

Cover via Amazon

There is none of the vitriolic, aggressive riffing of Fire or the more intense songs of Vhessiu; this is truly Thrice at their most melancholic and subdued. There is a big question regarding this new approach at songwriting; does it work for Thrice? The answer is a resounding yes. The sparse instrumentation in these songs accent Kensrue’s passionate and soulful vocals. There is a weathered, worn quality of his voice that consistently gives this album a geniune feel that I have not heard from many bands. For all of the boundaries broken by the band, this is indeed the strangest turn that they have taken, and the most rewarding to date.

The mid-paced “Broken Lungs” starts the Air album off, and the confessional tones of the slowed-down verses save this song from mediocrity. When Kensrue exclaims, “Are we fools and cowards all/To let them cover up their lies”, there is a imperative tone in his voice that is truthful and unrelenting. Sincerity shines through in this release from start to finish, although the first two tracks are arguably the weakest. They are followed by a haunted, somber ballad. “A Song for Milly Michaelson” is the epitome of what Thrice was trying to accomplish; passion before technicality, authenticity before catchiness. This song is one of the best on the album, although the trance-like music does not reek of the idea of “air”. That seems to be the underlying problem of the theme behind The Alchemy Index project; how does one adequately create songs that makes one think of elements? It is the only negative thing that consistently show up through this listening experience, and that honestly is nitpicking, considering the songs are incredibly well-done. The gentle guitar-picked patterns of “As the Crow Flies” and electronic-soaked closer “Silver Wings”, are succinct and shine with gorgeous melodies.

Though packaged together, Vol. III and IV could not be more stylistically different. Raw, acoustic energy replaces the textured, reverb-laden sound of Air. Earth embraces a more folk-driven sound, which allows for more focus to be put onto the lyrics. The lyrics of “Come All You Weary” paint a desperate picture:
“Come all you weary with your heavy loads
Lay down your burdens find rest for your souls
Cause my yoke is easy and my burden is kind
I’ll take yours upon me and you can take mine

Come all you weary, move through the earth,
You’ve been spurned at fine restaurants and kicked out of church;
I’ve got a couple of loaves, so sit down at my feet,
Lend me your ears and we’ll break bread and eat”

This plaintive reference to anyone that has been shunned, let down, or lost shows the strength in individuals, and allows for there to be hope for the future. It is not so much the lyrical dexterity that is strong here, but rather the strength-in-unity style words that allow for Earth to have an ear to the ground appeal. This is one of Thrice’s strongest songs on the album, and in general as well. “The Earth Isn’t Humming” starts out off with a very foreboding acoustic guitar, allowing for a darker feel that generally do not accompany an all-acoustic song. The music is accompanied by a darker tone in lyrics, as Kensrue takes on the role of the end-of-times truth teller. Repetition in lyrical concepts is key for this particular album, and while it can grate on the listener in most releases, it succeeds here in sustaining the concepts. “Digging My Own Grave” is a track worthy of note, as the lounge-esqe piano meanders through the track and combines beautifully with Kensrue’s soulful vocal performance.

Thrice have created a near-masterpiece with the Alchemy Index as a whole, and while it shows incredible variation and the ability to excel in different genres, it also feels somewhat forced. They intentionally painted themselves into a corner with these releases, and they succeeded brilliantly in creating moving songs that far extend the repetoire that I considered them capable of. One can tell that it is not a path that they will follow with later releases, and it unfortunately feels cheaper for that reason. That idea does not take away from the passion in these songs, nor does it take away from a band that took a blind leap at a next step that was not “Vheissu, Pt. II”. The sparse instrumentation allows for the passion to have a voice, and speaks to the listener with an urgency that is impossible to ignore.