Monday, April 17, 2017

album review: 'coming home' by falling in reverse

Well folks, we finally got there. We've finally landed in the territory that I was dreading but knew with Patreon knew it was only a matter of time before I hit - the sort of Warp Tour band dregs that came in the aftermath of the pop rock boom of the mid-2000s and hasn't gone away. You know the place: where post-hardcore blurred with all the trends of modern pop and rock that nobody wants to hear to mutate into genres like crabcore, electronicore, deathcore, and a brand of pop punk blurred with screamo that traded insight or heartfelt power or even raw cleverness for pure obnoxiousness.

Hey, can you tell I'm talking about Falling In Reverse yet? Yeah, just because I've avoided them like the plague before this review doesn't mean I didn't know about Ronnie Radke's project after Escape The Fate fell apart. I actually had my first exposure to the group from seeing them - along with a lot of other horrible bands I hope to never cover on this show - on Mues' show First Impressions, and characteristically my first impression was a significant amount of revulsion. Yeah, their lead guitarist could pick up a tune on the solo and they could build to a decent if utterly derivative groove, but Radke's mugging delivery and the sense he bought into all of the lyrics he brayed made him utterly impossible to like. At least when Fall Out Boy gave the middle finger to their audience on Save Rock And Roll you can tell there was craftsmanship in the writing or experimentation - whereas that same year, Falling In Reverse released Fashionably Late which tried to pile in the synth against painfully gated drums, a ridiculous mishmash of genres, and utterly insufferable writing. And while there was a part of me that thought they might have been doing this ironically, sort of like the alternative metal genre blend Icon For Hire did, revisiting the record for this review convinced me otherwise - painfully. Thankfully, the band pivoted back to their blend of post-hardcore and pop punk with their 2015 record Just Like You - granted, that presumes you like a lot of post-hardcore, which for the most part I just don't. It at least felt like a ballpark where their sound and writing fit better... which they looked to be abandoning on their very next project which was going straight into pop punk space rock. I'm assuming that's the only reason why someone requested this - maybe as revenge for being ambivalent on that Starset record I've already forgotten - but whatever, there was a certain morbid curiosity in seeing how Ronnie Radke's brand of mugging would translate to the stars, so what did we get with Coming Home?

Honestly, we got what I was probably dreading the most: the sort of half-hearted stylistic shift that not only avoids significant challenges to their sound, but also sands back any element that could potentially make this record remotely interesting. What's almost worse from my perspective is that it's not even so offensively bad as Fashionably Late was - just stale mediocrity somehow trying to direct more attention to a frontman who has only ever been interesting when you want to set him on fire. It might not be the worst album I've heard thus far this year, but it is easily one of the most pointless, which might be even harsher to say.

So might as well get this out of the way right now: as a vocalist and songwriter, I'm not impressed by Ronnie Radke. I mean, I never really was, even from his work with Escape The Fate, but with his increased reliance on clean singing on this project shows exactly how much he's torn between three different worlds: anthemic, theatrical belting that somewhat fits with the heavy backing chorus of millennial whoops behind him; your standard brand of husky post-hardcore clean singing to showcase his overwrought angst, and your standard brand of braying roars that remind you that you're still listening to Ronnie Radke. And sure, that shows some versatility, but it also highlights an inability to commit to any consistent emotional tone from song to song - you have him screaming his lungs out to convey his pain at being separated from his daughter on 'Coming Home', and yet after another song of fuzzy angst on 'Broken', he follows it with the self-flagellation turned outright aggression on 'Loser'... and what gets jarring is that he's trying to marry it to cascades of synths and strings and a crowd-pleasing chorus, none of which fits the content or atmosphere. And that dissonance completely throws off the mood and intensity for a fair bit of the record: maybe it's just me, but songs called 'Fuck You And All Your Friends' or 'I Hate Everyone' or 'I'm Bad At Life' don't really fit by-the-numbers bratty pop punk that feels derivative of Sum 41 or especially with the added synths Angels And Airwaves. Of course, by the final third of the album Radke does take a pivot into darker and arguably more consistent territory, but there's a part of me that feels that more than ever Falling In Reverse has no coherent grasps on any strengths as a group.

And sadly a big part of this ties into the writing itself. And I think by this point it's fair to say that Ronnie Radke just isn't a good songwriter beyond the basics. Sure, he can write a hook, but if you dig any deeper into any coherent themes or ideas on this record, you see a lot of angst that isn't descriptive or rooted in anything that feels palpable or real, to say nothing of subtext. Part of this is because Radke has no grasp of subtlety: he's no real storyteller on any of these songs, so when we do get lines that aren't utterly cliche they rapidly reveal some pretty noxious and ideas - or to quote the hook of 'I'm Bad At Life', 'so don't hold your breath for me, but watching you turn blue would be comforting'. Maybe it's just me, but on a song where you're relentlessly trying to gaslight your partner into buying into your faux-tortured angst, you shouldn't mention in metaphor how much you want to see her suffocate, or on a song like 'Fuck You And All Your Friends', maybe not a good idea to express how much you want to slit his throat, it doesn't exactly make you sympathetic! And speaking of lying profusely, then you have 'Hanging On', where instead of her trying to save Radke he says he's trying to save her... up until the point she shows up and wants a commitment, where he blows her off, and still then tries to play the martyr here! That's another thing I find intolerable: I know that Falling In Reverse's primary audience is teenagers and that it's trying to gratify melodramatic urges rather than say anything, but when you contrast it with ultra-sincere songs about missing his family, it sets up the framing where there's a complete refusal to take responsibility unless it's played for over-the-top martyrdom and self-flagellation, which doesn't make a lot of sense opposite antisocial - or in the case of some songs outright murderous - arrogance. Frankly, one if not both of them feel like a pose, and I'm more inclined to say it's the angst - maybe it's the slightly buzzy vocal production, or maybe it's because songs like 'Fuck You And All Your Friends' or 'Loser' bring out a visceral - if nauseating - side that feels a bit more authentic. At least the roots of his angst on 'I Don't Mind' in feeling he's becoming like his neglectful mother has some weight and detail, but it's pretty paltry to come one song before the record ends!

Now what you might notice throughout this entire conversation is that I didn't really mention anything related to space rock or associated themes you'd expect for that style of music - mostly because that would require imagination or a diverse vocabulary in the songwriting, and that's certainly not happening. But it's more because Falling In Reverse can't even commit to a new aesthetic - maybe they got spooked after Fashionably Late, but why then only commit in some of the production and do it half-ass with a few vocal filters and synths, most of which would have sounded overexposed four years ago? Hell, about three songs in it seems like Falling In Reverse completely ditches the aesthetic for some overly polished pop punk - including the addition of utterly flat acoustic guitars on 'I Hate Everyone' which don't remotely match the blaring synths they toss in - only to revert back somewhat for most of the rest of the record, none of which highlights an interesting bassline or hook that feels distinctive or drumwork that has any real punch or complexity or even a solo that lasts more than eight bars. I can't even say it's all that heavy to satiate the post-hardcore folks - the compression added to the guitar pickups in order to satisfy the anthemic space rock strips away a lot of their bite and depth for vocal overdubs, whooshing effects, jittery synth leads that never pick up any real groove or potency - especially on the title track or 'Broken' - and entirely too much reverb to muddy it all together. The one notable exception is the closing track 'The Departure', which actually anchors its atmosphere in a tight bass groove, some smoky atmosphere that matches the sparse keyboard, and while it sounds nothing like the rest of the record outside of the hook, it's easily the most likable track here - mostly because it opts for restraint and can build a solid crescendo that earns its melodrama. Sure, with this production it's nothing Linkin Park didn't do five years ago, but after the rest of this, I'll take what I can get. 

But as a whole, this is the second space rock album I've covered this year where I find myself disappointed... well, okay, not that much, this is Falling In Reverse we're talking about here, I didn't really expect quality. But even stepping aside from my own personal gripes, I don't know who the audience is for this album, especially when you can so much more detailed and unique material with a consistent emotional core elsewhere. The post-hardcore fans will find it lightweight and lacking interesting riffs, those into emo will find this obnoxious or at the very least blandly written, and even diehard Falling In Reverse fans will hear a sound that's both unfamiliar, haphazardly executed, and done better elsewhere. Maybe if you're crazy into Ronnie Radke's martyrdom complex and can stomach his douchebaggery you'll find a few hooks that aren't bad, but beyond that... nope, 4/10 from me, and surprising nobody, I'm not really going to recommend this. Fans, enjoy all you want, but if I'm going to find space rock, I've got an Ayreon record coming out in less than two weeks - I'm expecting it to be a lot better.

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