Wednesday, June 14, 2017

album review: 'wolves' by rise against

I'll admit I came to Rise Against late.

I mean, I knew their singles, I knew they had a few really strong early records before one of a few 'sell-out' moments, depending who you talk to. I remember there was discussion surrounding how much you could take their very earnest political material, especially when they tended to paint broad strokes, or how as years wore on and the band seemed to fade from relevance with the rest of rock radio. Most of this I only discovered years after the fact... and yeah, while I have no qualms bucking against popular consensus, this tended to be true, with their first two records holding up to this day and while I've always admired their pop sensibility, you can't deny that it did starting coming through on records like Siren Song Of The Counter Culture and especially by Appeal To Reason.

That said, when I covered The Black Market with Jon over at ARTV back in 2014, I actually really liked it, more than I expected. It was an older, slower, more weary-feeling record, but it used that time to refine the compositions and writing to cut more deeply, and I stand by it being underrated to this day. Hell, I put 'People Live Here' on my year-end list of the best songs of 2014, and if that song showcases what can happen when Rise Against focus their material, I had some hopes going into their record this year called Wolves. And obviously it was going to be touching on the election last year - they're a political band, that was happening regardless - but what caught more of my interest is that they had parted ways with long-time producers Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore, thanks to a move to a new label. On this album they were working with Nick Raskulinecz, who has been behind records from Mastodon, Deftones, Korn, and that Ghost record before Meliora that nobody cares about - so okay, what did this mean for Rise Against?

 Honestly, I kept wishing I liked this more. I've gone over this record a number of times and on a certain level I expect to like this more... but if I'm drawing a comparison to The Black Market, Wolves just leaves me feeling a little cold. I'm not saying it's a bad record - for what I expected, Rise Against deliver the sort of hotly populist set of anthems that resonate for this political climate, and there's the broadly sketched nuance I expected... but beyond that, I'm just not really feeling this, and I'm struggling to quite pin down why.

So let's start with what works, and that is a lot of the writing and content. No, I don't think there's anything here that quite captures the heft of 'People Live Here' - that's a high water mark I'm not sure Rise Against will hit again any time soon, especially given how oddly rushed parts of this record feel - but Wolves isn't aiming to be as dramatically poetic as that song was, instead aiming for the sort of lean viciousness intended to both intimidate and inspire. And as I go through my checkboxes for political art, more often than not Rise Against capture the populism and power they need, even if I don't quite feel they're as precise as they could be, not exactly helped by the inclusion of a few relationship-related songs that don't really fit with the rest of the album. Don't get me wrong, neither 'House On Fire' or 'Politics of Love' are bad songs and Rise Against has always included a few of these sorts of songs to balance things out, but when the rest of this record is as focused and tight as this is, they can feel a little unnecessary. And one thing I do like is that Rise Against aren't afraid to speak from the ground up and highlight how much they share the fears of everyone else, or when they are getting accusatory, there's balance. Take the rather directly named 'Bullshit' - sure, there's plenty targeting those who just want things to go back to normal and are willing to accept oppression for stability, unwilling to admit any actual culpability in the last election, but in the same song they pivot to target the left who is more concerned with infighting rather than celebrating the common cause and striking back. Or take 'Parts Per Million', a song about climate change from both the perspective of the person on the ground who wouldn't otherwise care and yet can't help but notice something is going wrong, and the activist realizing they're running out of time. 'The Violence' questions whether we were made to be aggressive in the image of God or whether we can pull away from war in time, 'Mourning In Amerika' speaks to the disruptive and distracting power of propaganda, and while you can tell they're amused by how much the current president is being held to account on 'How Many Walls', they also seem very much aware of how susceptible the image of the US is to change, and how they could very easily become the villains they once fought against. Where I think Rise Against gets the most mileage, though, is talking about hope: the closer 'Miracle' is one obvious point, a call to action instead of remaining paralyzed for help, but the song that jumped out at me is 'Far From Perfect', where the hard front has collapsed into fragments, but from the shards a stronger mosaic can be forged in shared emotion, there's some really great, well-thought out imagery on that song.

Of course, all of this can feel broadly sketched - Rise Against are speaking to general topics and as many as they can cram in, which means that differentiating these anthems beyond the language and delivery becomes essential... and it's also where I think they slip up a bit. For those who were looking forward to their more aggressive tempos and delivery that might have been missing from the more melodic Black Market, I think Wolves will satisfy you there... but there's a part of me that can't help but feel the hooks just don't pop the same way. And yes, part of this is the production from Nick Raskulinecz, which seems to emphasize the edge and fuzz more than the melodic body of some of the guitar tones, along with rather inconsistent bass production, but part of me can't help but feel this is a compositional issue as well. I appreciate a back-to-basics approach when it comes to your main instrumental framework, especially if you're on a new label with a new producer, but I wasn't crazy about nearly as many of these hooks as I wanted, and considering the guitar layering doesn't really modulate across eleven anthemic tracks, it can make individual melodies start to run together. There are exceptions, of course: 'The Violence' interjects a sharper groove roiling bass and guitar lick overall, there's an upstroked staccato guitar line on the verses of 'Bullshit' that certainly stands out, but on the flipside the main groove on 'Parts Per Million' never seems to hit a stable point and that's not counting the fact that in terms of tone and progression, much of this feels pretty by the numbers for Rise Against. Part of this is the lack of any sort of ballad to change things up, but you don't even get something as divergent as 'Zero Visibility' that showed up on the last album. I'll freely admit that 'Far From Perfect' is one of the most pop songs on the record, but it also stands out beyond the content and the occasionally sloppy backing vocals or the odd obsession with millennial whoops to fill up space more often than you'd expect for Rise Against.

But overall, the impression I get when listening to this Rise Against album is a desire to be topical and political right now, be at the forefront with the right message, and if the overall music behind it feels a little less experimental while letting the fury pick up the pace... look, I get it. But I also can't deny for me that if you're going for such broad direct strokes in your writing without greater modulation, things can start to blur together a bit. Again, that's not saying this a bad record - the writing clicks, there are good hooks and a few standout tracks, enough for me to give this a very light 7/10, but at the same time if you're not a fan - or if you are since the beginning - this record probably won't surprise you. Kind of ironic in chasing lyrical relevance now they may have forfeited some of it in the composition in the long term, but still, it's a worthwhile project all the same, check it out.

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