Sunday, January 15, 2017

album review: 'silver' by gotthard

I shouldn't be as defensive as I am when I talk about Gotthard.

I mean, this is a hard rock and heavy metal band that has existed for around twenty-five years at this point, this is their twelfth record of original material, they've never released a bad album! So why do I always feel like I'm steeling myself whenever I talk about this Swiss group who is named for a mountain range in their country and a ridiculous pun?

Well, part of it is that Gotthard is a group that has always felt distinctly out of their own time - they're a melodically driven hard rock act that released their debut in 1992, at the very moment that style of music went out of style in the mainstream and became very easy to mock. And they were not a band that decided to leap aboard mainstream trends in rock either - there has definitely been stylistic experimentation and shifts in the tones and sounds, but at the end of the day they're going to throw up the horns and rock the hell out with the sort of larger-than-life swagger that most mainstream music seems to snub as being too much fun. I like Gotthard in the same way I like Andrew W.K. - there may be a simplicity to their formula on the surface, especially in the lyrics, but when you execute it so well, I can appreciate the power and purity that shines through. Now of course if you've dug in deep to Gotthard's discography you'll know there's a lot more beneath the surface than meets the eye - an old-fashioned style of performance and composition, to be sure, but Gotthard has continued to update their production while still maintaining the core of their sound

As such, it should be no surprise I was primed to enjoy their newest record - it's been three years since their album BANG! completely blew through any expectations I might have had, and it's their third album with frontman Nic Maeder stepping in for the late and legendary Steve Lee. They know their lane, they're a band that can literally take any possible direction at this point in their career - where does Silver take us?

Honestly, it's not doing a lot for me. Yeah, this one caught me by surprise, and not exactly in a way I like: I wanted to adore this album, but the more times I listened through it the more I came to the conclusion that Gotthard just didn't bring their A-game in the same way they have in the past on this record. And the bizarre thing is that it's tough to decode where things went wrong here, because this album is not bad by any stretch - it's just that it's pretty good where I was hoping for greatness.

So how does something like this happen? Well, let's start with the instrumentation and production, because there's definitely a shift in tonal balance and sound on this record compared to the more muscular, ragged, and hard-edged bite of BANG!, even though in terms of a hard rock formula there's still a lot to like in the aggressive riffs, the seedy organ, and the sharper grooves - it's hard rock that I have a hard time disliking. But going back through the past twenty-five years of Gotthard records to draw a comparison... well, it's kind of all over the place. On the one hand you have more elaborate and softer cuts that put me in the mind of records like Open and Homerun, but this doesn't seem to play in that territory so much as the stabs at harsher, slightly more orchestral bombast that you got on Domino Effect, albeit not nearly being as catchy as that album's best cuts were. And I think the reason this is comes in multiple parts, the first being that most of the actual hooks just aren't as strong as they were on BANG!. There are a few songs that will stick with you - 'Stay With Me' is catchy enough, along with 'Miss Me' and 'My Oh My' and especially 'Reason For This' - although in that case it might be more because the melody that opens the track sounds suspiciously like an interpolation of 'Kiss From A Rose' by Seal. But really, a lot of these hooks stick with more minor chord progressions and don't quite resolve in satisfying ways... providing you could make out the melodies, which takes us to issues in production. I would say that this album was trying to take a shift towards more rhythms over melodies, given that nearly all the solos feel buried midway in the mix and rarely hit with the impact they should, but the truth is that the mixing across the board feels sloppy. If you get a bassline coming through in the mix it doesn't have definition or prominence unless it was quintessential to the progression, and that means that many of these mixes don't have a firm foundation, which leads to cymbals, multi-tracked vocals, thicker drums, and really more organ that I'd advise piling in to obscure the main guitar line - which doesn't help the songs feel as catchy. And that's before you get to the arranged instrumentation, often coming in strings and piano to support or drive a melody like on 'Not Fooling Anyone' or the violin on the bridge of 'Only Love Is Real' - not only does it feel lacking in organic body it feels stiff - when Gotthard had used these elements in the past, they were twisting that bombast to suit a rougher image and feel, but here it feels like they're trying to play into it and it's not flattering the group at all! 

And I think part of the issue are the vocals - and look, this is not an issue of Nic Maeder not being Steve Lee - nobody will ever truly replace him but Maeder came into his own BANG! and it paid off in spades. But across the majority of this project I did not get the impression he was throwing himself into these songs with the same force or power. I get maybe trying for subtlety, but with the mixes feeling overstuffed and the near-constant multi-tracking meant we rarely get that. And on the subject of multi-tracking, I don't think it does Maeder a lot of credit when his more aggressive or energetic singing is overdubbed with vocals that are lower and more subdued - you bring down the energy of the entire track, and given the slower tempos and lack of harsher tones overall, that's the last thing you want to do! I'm not asking for another record as aggressive as BANG! or Dial Hard or Lipservice or Need To Believe, but Maeder underplaying these tracks does not help some already weak hooks stand out.

And then we get to lyrics, which have perennially been Gotthard's weak point and... well, it's not that they're bad here so much as they're not particularly interesting. Of course they paint in broad strokes, but maybe it's a factor of Maeder's delivery but the emotive throughline feels more muted than it should. There are plenty of references about fighting to let go of something in the past, from old memories to old relationships, even to the point where after a few songs where our protagonist makes a commitment to change he later admits that's probably not going to happen if he's being honest. And that sort of writing works, it's fine by me, it's at the core of potent hard rock... but we start running into problems when you look a little deeper. Some are technical - I really disliked the stuttered or elongated syllables on 'Why' and 'Tequila Symphony #5' - some are just poor framing - the sourness of 'Miss Me' which reminded me a bad way of Sam Hunt's 'Make You Miss Me' - or just a tad too goofy and corny for my taste, like 'Beautiful' and especially the borderline hippy 'Only Love Is Real'. And let's make this clear: Gotthard has made broad cheesy inspirational songs in the past, but again, it was a matter of shifting the style to suit them, whereas this seems to be playing into it for not particularly amusing results.

But as a whole, I wish I had more to say about this album, and I just don't. I normally like Gotthard records for their straightforward, hard-hitting hooks and explosive production and killer vocals... and yet I'd be hardpressed to find any of that here. Sure, it's decent hard rock, but again, I've been a fan of this group for nearly a decade, they are capable of so much more than 'decent'! But Silver... I won't call it their worst album, but it's one of the first I'd call inessential, and that's not a good sign, netting a strong 6/10 and only a recommendation for Gotthard completionists. If you're interested in this sort of hard rock from this group, get BANG! or Open or Lipservice instead, they're all excellent records. This... not so much.

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