Tuesday, April 14, 2015

album review: 'into the wild life' by halestorm

You know, at some point I'm going to have the time to sit down and make an extended Special Comment on Glee and the effect it has had on popular culture. On the one hand, it cultivated one of the most rabid and insufferable fanbases you could ever find - and this is speaking as one who was once part of it - and the show's treatment of social issues could be questionable at best, even inside the LGBT sphere. Hell, it's one of those shows where the more subtext you extract, the more unsettling it becomes. But on the other hand, it was a show that did play a role in shaping popular music, especially during its prime days on the charts, and it's undeniable it played a role in the indie resurgence that managed to take root in 2012, which I do see as a net positive. Hell, the show even began to build a reputation for breaking indie rock acts, and there was a period for a few seasons where up-and-coming indie acts could have a chance for mainstream success if a Glee cover got traction.

But when I heard that Glee was covering Halestorm, I was a little amazed. See, Halestorm played closer to hard rock and even alternative metal at points, and Glee's refusal to touch most of those genres beyond the safest of possible covers - and the fact that certain rock bands outright refused to be featured - meant that Halestorm was an anomaly... albeit not by much. Their first, self-titled album dropped in 2009 mostly playing as a solid four-piece hard rock act that incorporated some decent sizzling grooves and the impressively versatile and raw vocals of Lzzy Hale. The frustrating thing about that first album is that it was playing very much in the groove that Evanescence and similar acts carved, and the by-the-numbers production and co-writing courtesy of Howard Benson didn't help them stand out. Their second album The Strange Case Of... did show an improvement, if only because the compositions had more variety in the writing and did a lot more to show off Lzzy Hale's range, but again, it was a record that only managed to connect with me in moments, and I'd probably blame Howard Benson's by-the-numbers production more than anything.

In any case, Halestorm is now back with a third album Into The Wild Life, and a new producer: Jay Joyce. To say I have mixed feelings about this is an understatement - for one, he's a producer who has the majority of his credits in country music, and while he has pushed towards experimentation with Eric Church and Little Big Town, I'd argue his production has been hit-and-miss at best, often heavy handed when it doesn't need to be. That said, he might be a solid fit with Halestorm, and in more of a rock environment, his trend towards heavier, thicker sounds could be a natural fit, and give Halestorm some much needed unique instrumental identity. So did we get that with Into The Wild Life?

Well, we got instrumental identity - but perhaps in the worst possible way. To say I'm disappointed with this... no, it's not even that, I should have seen this coming. So yeah, if you can't tell, Halestorm's Into The Wild Life is most certainly a step back from their last release, and for the most part, it's the fault of Jay Joyce behind the production board. But what's disconcerting about this album the more I listened through it is that Halestorm may be falling into a holding pattern when it comes to other elements, and even as a complete sucker for good hard rock, I'm starting to see the cracks widening even further.

So let's get the egregious production issues out of the way first because it really does overshadow the entire goddamn record. Let me start by saying that I don't mind country rock or metal albums on a Halestorm record - I'm the only country critic on YouTube, I like the genre, I'm not bothered by this. What I am bothered by is Jay Joyce's uneven work and how he seems to completely misunderstand Halestorm's greatest strengths - and let's make this clear, people noticed this time around. And mainstream audiences only tend to notice production when its goddamn phenomenal or when it's off - they tend to notice when it's bad a lot more than when it's good. For me, I've got one running rule for great production: you produce to accentuate the band's best assets while maintaining fair balance - in other words, the production serves the band, not the other way around. As much as I find Howard Benson's work lacking in personality, he at least got this!

So, if you look at a band like Halestorm, your biggest asset is Lzzy Hale. She's the frontwoman, she's got one of the most fiery presences in rock music right now... and so for most of the harder songs, you shove most of her vocal leads midway into the mix and behind fuzz to attempt to make her sound edgy in the clumsiest way possible? Sure, she's still got the raw pipes to claw through it, but she already has the edge to howl with the best of them - shoving her behind plastered-on studio effects has the exact opposite effect and gives her vocals less presence. It doesn't help matters she's now stuck competing with the guitar grooves, which leads to the second major problem. Yes, Halestorm has a rhythm guitar, but they tend to work more in arena rock, which means they have melody to anchor it - so when you center your mix balance in the guitar low end and kick drums to crank up that pounding beat over anything else - shockingly without a lot of real bass texture - you leave the actual melody lines to curdle in the back and the lack of emphasis make the tones feel even thinner. And that's not even touching on the drums, where sure, the kick-drum gets presence but the cymbals frequently feel muddy and drowned out and any actual snap to these songs feels muted unless its coming from the drum machines or electronic elements - which is a damn shame, because if we're looking for an area where the band has opted for more progressive moments, it's in the drums. And this drags us to our next big problem - yeah, Halestorm has incorporated electronic elements before, but if you're dragging the band into swampy, groove-driven material like this - and you choose to drop the tempo, which does nothing for this album's energy or momentum - the electronic elements feel completely peripheral and do not fit whatsoever with this sound - plus, with Arejay Hale on drums, you can make the good argument there shouldn't be drum machines at all! An easy example of this problem is the acoustic interlude on the opening track 'Scream' - why include that stuttered filters on top or filmy synths on top, especially when the drums are plenty capable of taking things back to the groove. Why drench the pianos and guitars in reverb on all the ballads, which completely leeches away any sense of intimacy that might make up for the by-the-numbers composition, or add those late 80s-inspired backing vocals and thin backing beat to 'Dear Daughter' that makes it feel so much less soulful? Or chop the snarled, country rock guitar progression on 'New Modern Love' into an arrangment with the drum machines that's so much less organic and natural? Or the odd multi-tracking on 'What Sober Couldn't Say' that makes Lzzy Hale sound like Pink - which okay, I actually really dug that, but why make the organ tone so plinking and underweight or push the solo further back in the mix?

And here's the really frustrating part: it's not that these elements outright cripple the songs like they occasionally did on Eric Church's The Outsiders, because this album does show more ambition from Halestorm to diversify their rock sound. The problem is that it's all wedged through production that's so uneven that what should be amazing moments just underwhelm. Take the progressive drums that open up 'Sick Individual' - does it build to a 'Hot For Teacher' explosion? Nope, it builds to one of the most underweight, stodgy, sour songs on the album with a guitar solo so buried in noise and feedback that none of the actual talent can be heard. Happens again on 'New Modern Love' and 'I Like It Heavy', and in a different way on 'Bad Girls World', where for some reason the drum progression is intensified over the solo for no adequately explained reason. The only solos that actually really clicked for me was 'Mayhem' and 'Apocalyptic', but that's because both tracks actually give the melody more presence, and even then that opening progression on 'Mayhem' just grated on my nerves. Because here's the other thing - it's not like Halestorm have ever been the most innovative of melodic composers, and when you start losing impactful moments, songs start to run together - unless of course they resemble pre-existing songs. For instance, the album closer 'I Like It Heavy' isn't a bad track, production problems not withstanding - and then I realized how much of it is a blatant retread of 'Keep Your Hands To Yourselves', the 1986 hit from Georgia Satellites - Lzzy Hale might sound better than they did, but it's hard to deny the influence.

And you know, this is normally the point in the review where I say that all of this can be redeemed by good lyrics, even on the low, low bar I hold for hard rock. But here's the thing: it's become clear by now that Halestorm is painfully limited from a songwriting standpoint. Yeah, they write their empowerment anthems and the songs about how Lzzy Hale is a total hellraiser, but there's little that makes these tracks stand out lyrically from their other albums. And you can only excuse this for so long before it starts becoming a problem, especially as there seems to be even less unique detail in the writing than usual. I'll be honest, I actually kind of like 'Apocalyptic' - sure, one last night of debauched sex in a bad relationship is bound to end badly, but I get the feeling the song knows that. And I also appreciated the sloppy mess that was 'What Sober Couldn't Say', that captures what comes out of a messy breakup. The most interesting lyrical element on the entire album for me came in the outro of 'I Like It Heavy', where Lzzy Hale sings a capella and there's the line, 'if there's a god in Heaven she won't mind'? Perhaps a line cribbed from Dogma or made up for easy provocation, but it's a sign there could have been more to this album beyond slogans and the same lines that she's hit over and over again.

Now look, I get that Into The Wild Life was recorded differently than Halestorm's previous two albums, more stripped back and played live, maybe with more improvisation with the argument that they had to be at their best in the room together. And I'm not going to deny there is strong musicianship on this album, and Lzzy Hale is a hell of a singer. But the more I've listened through this album, it feels like an attempt to capture a raw experience with production rather than careful composition or lyricism - and it ends up being nowhere near loose, energetic or punk as it would need to be to pull that off. As it is, we get a lumbering, frequently sour, lyrically underweight hard rock record that even for all of its production missteps isn't all that memorable. I feel I'm being generous giving this a 5/10 and only a recommendation for hardcore fans. I get the feeling that Halestorm were trying to change it up, but in the long term, this record will probably go down as a misfire.

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