Thursday, August 2, 2018

album review: 'vicious' by halestorm

The last time I reviewed Halestorm, it didn't go very well.

Actually, that's probably putting it mildly, given that this a band I've repeatedly tried to get into and have felt consistently let down time and time again, be it by underwhelming writing, unexceptional melodies, or inconsistent production, the last of which utterly crippled any enjoyment I got out of their third album Into The Wild Life, produced by Jay Joyce seemingly before he hit his stride later that year. And from there, I'll freely admit Halestorm has not been on my radar whatsoever. And with their new album... well, it showed up on my schedule and they'd gotten rid of Jay Joyce, but they'd replaced him with Nick Raskulinecz, who you might know better for producing the comeback records for Alice In Chains and chunks of the more mainstream-accessible Mastodon records, and the last underwhelming Rise Against album... and the worst Ghost album.

So okay, not precisely a good sign, and I'll freely admit I was skeptical when I saw the band professing that this was going to be the one where we truly see all sides of the band and this was the one that was going to win us over... and I hate to be that guy, but I've heard this press run before at least twice, and while it seems like a fair number of critics were won over here, I'll admit I had low expectations. So what did we get with Vicious?

So this is the sort of review that if I didn't have some history with Halestorm and wanted to clear the air would be otherwise perfect for the Trailing Edge, because there's very little for me to say about Vicious. Is it good? Sure, it's good - perfectly serviceable, meat-and-potatoes hard rock that would be utterly forgettable across the board if it wasn't for Lzzy Hale fronting the group. In other words, it's a Halestorm record and I daresay maybe even one of their best, but it's not really all that distinct or innovative or interesting, the sort of project tailor-made for agreeable rock radio and likely only getting as much praise as it is because sheer competence in mainstream hard rock is becoming increasingly scarce, especially on the production side.

So let's start there, shall we - and folks, if you were alienated by Jay Joyce's miscalculations behind the board three years ago, Nick Raskulinecz should lay your fears to rest, because production is not an issue with this album whatsoever. It doesn't elevate or refine the sound of the album or push their tones towards a heaviness or crunch that's distinctive, but it also doesn't misunderstand Halestorm's appeal - Lzzy Hale, and all of her huge, raw presence - and it doesn't embrace any of the gaudy keyboard work or electronic effects that have overran so much modern rock like the plague. Hell, the most we see anything close to it comes on 'Buzz' with the talkbox, and that fit against the spiky grind of the groove... and yeah, you occasionally get a filter that's tacked onto a bridge for added effect like on 'Conflicted', 'Painkiller', and 'White Dress', but in the last case it only gets irksome because of the oscillating vocal melody. So yeah, if the production isn't an issue this time, we need to look at compositions... and where I'm once again kind of underwhelmed by the grooves and melodies that Halestorm brought to the table. Not the vocal melody - with or without overdubs Lzzy Hale is a raw cyclone of explosive force and while I do think 'Heart Of Novocaine' was a bit oversold for an acoustic track, she proves with the closer 'The Silence' that she can show real subtlety. My issue comes in the lead guitar melodies that you'd expect to counterbalance her on the hook, but usually we're stuck with similar chugging rhythms that we'd find throughout the rest of the song, and that doesn't really make them feel as dynamic as they could; even if the rhythms change up, they're just not as catchy. Take the prechorus build-up of the scuzzier tones on 'Buzz' as a good example, or the heavier melodic lead on 'Killing Ourselves to Live', probably my favourite cut here especially when the bells and acoustic touches on the bridge are flipped into a pretty killer thrash breakdown. Hell, the closer this album steps towards filthier alternative metal or thrash, the better it becomes, although I'll freely admit the nu-metal and industrial touches that slipped into the title track, 'White Dress', and 'Skulls' didn't always connect quite as well - tough to say why, maybe the low-end groove and percussion doesn't have the roiling punch it needs.

Of course, the other side to this is the songwriting, and at this point four albums in, it's getting disconcerting we're not seeing more details or nuance in the writing to give it more weight or flavour. You get Halestorm's brand of survivor's empowerment anthem, the cuts trying to unsettle the audience but are way too reliant on Hale's performance instead of writing to add more teeth - 'Uncomfortable' is the biggest example here, and then the sex songs that are lustful and appealing, but feel a little less racy than they clearly think they are. I'm not complaining about it, per se, but if this is all it takes to truly agitate a rock radio audience, I can't help but feel underwhelmed especially in comparison to the writing in nearly any other genre. But conventional subject matter could be redeemed by interesting poetry, and yet like on previous records, Halestorm just don't have much here that really sticks with me - how often is this band going to the 'love as drug addiction' metaphor, because they do it at least three times on this record! And wait, when you have 'Skulls' actively calling out the numbing effect of the modern world and you don't want to feel empty-headed, but then you have songs like 'Conflicted' that openly play into her intoxicated confusion with lines like 'come over here and make up my mind'... kind of mixed signals here! And while I didn't mind the tilt into the survivor's sadism of the title track, I will say it's a bit jarring going from that to 'The Silence', a grounded acoustic ballad celebrating memories and a lingering, everlasting connection - just a bit of tonal whiplash, even despite being an album highlight.

But cuts like that are the exception - as it is the writing is heavy on cliches and territory Halestorm has trod before across the board. And to be fair it's rarely ever bad - if you're looking for this sort of hard rock you could do a lot worse than Halestorm - but outside of Lzzy Hale's performance, there's very little that's distinctive or memorable about this album, across the board. For me, this is a 6/10, recommended for the fans as it's definitely better than Into The Wild Life, but beyond that... eh, maybe a listen, but I can't promise you'll remember it.

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