letlive. – If I’m the Devil… [2016]

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letlive. have made no secret about the arduous process behind creating their newest record, “If I’m the Devil…”. Early in 2015, key member and guitarist Jean Nascimento left the band, and it seemed like the remaining members were suddenly at a crossroads. They tried out several touring guitarists, but no one seemed to stick, and eventually they settled on staying a four piece. Asides from that, it seemed that they were at a creative crossroads as well – the band had always pulled together incredibly diverse styles, drawing from punk, hardcore, soul, pop, and more to create their signature sound. But with a key member out of the mix, and the band’s maturing age, they had some soul searching to do. For better and for worse, “If I’m the Devil…” is the result.

It’s immediately clear that this album is different right from the opening track, “I’ve Learned to Love Myself”. Where their previous albums typically opened up with a bang, this track offers up twinkling guitar arpeggios, sweeping violins, and an emotional (yet restrained) vocal from Jason Butler. It sets much of the tone for this record, showing that the band is now opting for space and subtlety instead of packing every decibel with wall-to-wall riffs and throat-shredding vocals. And while that’s not necessarily new for them, it was something they only ever flirted with in passing to spice up a song, never used as the basis of them. Songs like “Reluctantly Dead” and “If I’m the Devil…” benefit greatly from this approach, building up tension and releasing them in ways that their former “all cylinders at all times” approach couldn’t. There’s also a lot more space for the band to play around with different sounds: “Foreign Cab Rides” is a song soaked in spacey, reverb-laden guitars with an explosive middle eight courtesy of guitarist Jeff Sahyouhn, “Good Mourning America” works in a sort of modern spiritual that seamlessly fades into the actual song, and the aforementioned “I’ve Learned to Love Myself” wouldn’t be the track it was if not for the inclusion of its emotional strings. All of this space also leads to another interesting, if not obvious, turn for the band: Jason is finally given room to rest his hellion screech and instead loose his soulful, emotive singing voice on these tracks. It’s been clear since “Muther” that Jason had a hell of a set of pipes on him, but the band’s frantic and aggressive music rarely lent him the opportunity to use it with any frequency. But here, he often channels his inner Michael Jackson, firing off catchy chorus after catchy chorus with ease. It might be a hard change to stomach for fans of the band’s hardcore edge, but the band was running the risk of falling into self-parody if it just churned out another recordful of pissed off scream-alongs.

But there’s another side to that, as well. In the name of evolution, the band has also written off a few of the things that made them truly interesting and exciting. While exploring melody and space is new for letlive., it’s also had the side-effect of scrubbing them down into something much more radio-friendly and generic. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but much of what was interesting about letlive. was their ability to fuse creative and inventive guitar work into even the slower and catchier portions of their music. Instead, when the band tries to let loose and fire off a missive reminiscent of their “old” days on “Another Offensive Song”, we’re treated with a simplistic power chord chug that sounds like it could’ve been written by just about any garage band. “A Weak Ago” suffers a similar fate, being built around a cliché blues-inspired guitar strum that leads only into an arpeggiated version of the same chords later on. In fact, almost every prominent guitar part on this album is incredibly simplified, often being content to settle for power chord chugs and arpeggios in every song. In that light, it suddenly becomes hard to tell if this record’s space and texture was inspired by genuine creative necessity, or simply necessity born of Jean’s departure.

At the end of the day, though, “If I’m the Devil…” works. While they’ve always had an element of pop and rock laced through their music, deciding to lean almost entirely on that sound was a risky move, and one a band their size wouldn’t take unless they felt it was creatively necessary. This record is vital to the band’s continued existence, because it opens up sonic doors to them that would’ve stayed locked had they decided to keep writing angry song after angry song. To finally know for sure that this band has the range to write songs as emotional as “I’ve Learned to Love Myself” alongside politically charged groove rock tunes like “Good Mourning America” and “Reluctantly Dead”, and on the same record as a screamer like “Another Offensive Song” is exciting, because it was only ever hinted at before, and means their next record could sound like anything. Sure, there might still be a few kinks to work out, but this album could be the launching point for something even more different later on. All of which simply means that letlive. have traded energies: where once it seemed like the band could destroy anything, anyone, or itself at any given moment, instead it feels like they could make anything, anywhere at any given moment. And that’s a great feeling.

Key Tracks: I’ve Learned to Love Myself, Good Mourning America, Foreign Cab Rides, If I’m the Devil

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Cyclamen – Creatuneau [2016]

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The music industry is in a weird, weird place right now. In the face of streaming, piracy, and the sheer amount of music one has to compete with for attention, it’s getting harder and harder to make a living for all but the most successful and strongly backed of artists. Or is it?

That’s where Japanese metal band Cyclamen comes in. Instead of bowing to industry trends or selling themselves out, they’ve remained intensely DIY and focused on giving their fans the best experience possible. And in order to do that, they’ve recently offered a subscription package with a wealth of goodies: everything from an exclusive album’s worth of music (plus a sneak peek into its writing and recording process and a physical copy of it), a custom t-shirt, a behind-the-scenes blog, and even personalized artwork from the band’s leader, Hayato Imanishi.

But you can give your fans all the goodies in the world and it won’t mean a thing unless you have the music to back it up. No worries there – Cyclamen is and has been one of the most exciting metal bands of recent years. With a sound that blends the textures of post-rock and ambient right alongside some of the heaviest elements of djent and progressive metal, they’re a band with no shortage of great ideas. And they’ve proven that once again on this newest, exclusive album, “Creatuneau”.

Things start off heavy with the opening seconds of “Apalition”. Immediately hitting the listener with a gut punch of a riff, it then switches things up with a verse that’s much more dreamy and atmospheric, buoyed by textured guitars and airy vocals. It makes evident from the start one of this band’s key strengths: their ability to make seemingly disparate elements comfortably exist within the same song, and sound all the better for being played against each other. The next track, “Naryinn”, demonstrates that same strength but a little bit differently. Trading texture for aggression, this song jumps back and forth between percussive rapped vocals, harsh screams, abrasive riffs, and finally a cathartic ending with ease. For many bands, this would end up just sounding like a mess of random ideas, but for Cyclamen, it allows for contrast and dynamics while still remaining a cohesive and interesting song. The next track, “Watarie Lawker” is an instrumental that showcases the technical ability that anchors detours such as those in “Naryinn”. Reminiscent of Periphery and Animals as Leaders, the band blends breakneck tapping leads, angular drop-tuned riffs, and rhythmic clean sections in order to create a song that stands just as strongly as any of their vocally-driven tracks.

Cyclamen isn’t just a heavy band, either – they know when to get pretty, too. “Feurlise” proves this in spades, being centered around a gentle, hopeful, yet technically complex clean tapping lead and backed up by an ever-ascending E-bow track. It builds mood and atmosphere for the first couple of minutes, giving the listener a bit of a breather after the explosiveness of the past few tracks. But it’s not without its bite, either. In its final moments, “Feurlise” explodes into one of the heaviest moments on the album, sporting a pounding blast beat and some powerful screams to match. It’s catharsis at its finest, expertly building and releasing tension in a way only the best progressive metal can do.

“Morgan” uses some of that tension building spirit too, but in a different way. Starting off with sampled voices and tense chords that purposefully jut up against each other, the song ebbs and flows between a mysterious sounding verse riff, whispered vocal samples to add atmosphere, and finally a triumphant guitar lead that closes out all of the song’s drama. And like the rapped section on “Naryinn”, “Pharse” also displays a bit of nu-metal influence with its pairing of DJ scratches and a simple, yet pummeling main riff. It’s a strong, energetic closer to an album full of strong, energetic songs.

And perhaps the most surprising thing is how all these is packed into just 25 minutes. Cyclamen both builds up rich textures and tears them down with crushing, complex riffs, shreds vocal chords with the harshest of screams and lulls you with the most pleasant of cleans, and wears a myriad of influences on their sleeves all in just 8 songs. It’s an exciting, powerful, and concise record, and the sheer quality here also excellently justifies the exclusive subscription model. Perhaps the most incredible part of all is that this record was written and recorded in the span of about five weeks, despite the fact that the number of people that would ever hear it was inherently limited, and yet it still stands as some of the best material the band has ever released. It proves a certain loyalty to the craft and a certain devotion to the fans, and when those things are made that obvious, it’s easy to see why the band has earned so much support in kind.

And as always, you can check out Cyclamen’s music over at https://cyclamen.bandcamp.com/ , or you can directly stream “Naryinn” until 3/21 here!

Kanye West – The Life of Pablo [2016]

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There’s not much to say about Kanye West – the person – that isn’t already very, very public knowledge. The lead up to his most recent album started nearly two years ago at this point, and included several album name changes, early and then later abandoned singles, and quite a few public meltdowns. And at every step along the way, it’s all been reblogged, reposted, and had gallons of digital ink spilled on think pieces analyzing single 140 character tweets. Whether it’s of his own creation, or if the media has a hand in egging him on and blowing things out of proportion, it’s been a tumultuous time to be both a fan of the man and the man himself. And nowhere does all of that become more clear than it does on the finally finished (?) project, now christened The Life of Pablo.

Kanye has made his name in hip hop for always having a clear vision and thematic core to each of his albums, from the humble-yet-ambitious soul sound of College Dropout, the alienation and loss at the center of 808s and Heartbreak, or the maximalist yet self-deprecating grandiosity of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Yet, for the first time, The Life of Pablo presents a man that somehow sounds confused, troubled, and triumphant all at the same time. It’s clear why, when you consider that the man is now married into the most famous family on the planet (for better or worse), has two young children, and a new fashion line all piled up on top of his usual responsibilities as a producer and a musician. Even for the best of us, never mind a notoriously ego-driven and opinionated person such as Kanye, it would be extraordinarily straining.

And when the man is being pulled into a hundred different directions at once, of course his music is as well. The Life of Pablo is a tumultuous listen, in the sense that one moment you can be listening to something as uplifting and life-affirming as the gospel-infused “Ultralight Beam”, and on the very next track you can hear Kanye rap about getting someone’s asshole bleach on his t-shirt. It’s why a song as gorgeous and transcendent as “Waves” can be followed up by bleak, faded, and emotionally draining tracks like “FML” and “Real Friends”. And it’s why, even within tracks that barely crack two minutes, beats can suddenly change and guests can cycle in and out like sounds carried on the breeze. Just like the album’s very public production, Kanye is using the music itself almost as if it were a real-time document of the turmoil within his own head, and it lends the album a strange sort of kinetic energy even in its weaker moments. And from the sound of things, he’s certainly not lacking in turmoil. “Real Friends” talks about the struggle that comes from trying to have real, honest relationships with friends and family after becoming massively successful, and with it, massively busy. “Wolves” lashes out at the media’s treatment of his and Kim’s marriage and their kids, and the unfair shadow Kim’s past casts on her present. “No More Parties In L.A.” laments the shallow and tiring atmosphere of the party life, and how inescapable his own public persona has become.

But The Life of Pablo isn’t all doom and gloom, either. Tracks like “Feedback” and “Famous” are Kanye at his most confrontational and outlandish, taking shots at celebrities and assuaging his own ego in classic fashion. “30 Hours” is a nostalgic, comedic look at an old open relationship he had that still left him jealous and mad at himself for. “Facts” is an unrepentant banger that throws shade at unlikely targets such as Nike, Steve Harvey, and Bill Cosby with such piss and vinegar you’d think he was taking on the world, not shoe companies and game show hosts. And “I Love Kanye”, while barely being more than a skit, shows Kanye at his most self-aware and self-deprecating ever: he knows people miss the old Kanye, the humble, less self-absorbed, “chop up the soul” Kanye, but he doesn’t really care. And “Fade” is a surprisingly groovy and upbeat ending to an album full of darkness and shade, even though it’s let down a little by it’s sparse bars and repetitive samples.

While the scatter shot and unrestrained nature of the album is one of its core strengths, it can also be its biggest weakness. “Freestyle 4” is a half-baked trap-styled hype track about fucking on the tables at a Vogue party, that feels painfully out of place both on the album and in the context of Kanye’s discography. “30 Hours” boasts an incredibly dreamy beat complete with an assist from the notoriously reclusive Andre 3000, but squanders it in the final two minutes by becoming an impromptu thank you-slash-outro track that comes three songs too early. And while only clocking in at four minutes total, “Father Stretch My Hands” is inexplicably split into two halves, despite the fact that even the individual halves barely comprise a cohesive song, never mind across both of them. But despite all that, the music still manages to succeed because of its inherent messiness and conflict far more often than it’s failed by it.

After sitting down and reflecting on this album, I may have been wrong about it not having a central theme like the rest of Kanye’s work. If you look at The Life of Pablo as a living document on Kanye’s last three years, instead of a grand conceptual work about fame or ambition or success, then it delivers in spades. Much like the man himself, this is an album full of conflict and contradictions, light and dark, humor and pain. And by allowing these emotions to spread themselves equally over the entire album, instead of relegating each one to their own songs, he’s created what feels like his most flawed and human work yet. He’s created something that lives and breathes in the moment, instead of trying to force itself into being a grand statement. He’s created the truest reflection of the multitudes Kanye West: the rapper, the designer, the father, the shit-stirrer. And in an age where public personas are carefully crafted and curated, and coming from a man who is so famously a perfectionist and a narcissist, it’s a breath of fresh air to see everything laid so bare.

Coheed and Cambria – The Color Before the Sun [2015]

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Coheed and Cambria have been the crowning nerds of rock since their first album was released way back in 2002. Spanning 6 full-length albums, their music is woven with a grand sci-fi concept that runs the gamut between love and loss, epic space battles, and even the destruction of the universe itself. But all that was partially a front – lead singer and songwriter Claudio Sanchez had been afraid to sing about himself, and used this concept as a way to veil his feelings without putting himself fully out there. But now, after a series of personal shake ups, he’s finally ready to take the band away from the fiction and into the real. Fans were worried what this band would be without the concept, and not surprisingly – it’s what’s kept a lot of them around or caught their interest in the first place.

So it’s funny that this album isn’t quite so different after all. Opening track “Island” starts with something akin to their normal intro tracks, with a sample of a subway announcement and the grinding rails of a train coming to a halt, before launching into Coheed’s signature muscular pop-rock sound. The song is a deceptive one – with its airy chorus and bouncing rhythm, it still sounds exactly like one of Coheed’s poppier tunes. But a closer listen reveals that instead of grand space battleships, Claudio is instead singing about being trapped in a big city and the stagnation that can come from it. There’s no trick or disguise to it, simply his feelings as they are. “Island” winds up setting the tone for much of the album, both lyrically and stylistically. Coheed has traded most of their progressive tendencies for sheer pop songwriting on this album, simplifying the riffs and leads for the catchiest results. For most bands, that would seem like a dishonest attempt at gunning for a hit and cashing in.

But there’s a good reason for this album to sound so upbeat, and that’s because in the past few years, Claudio has become a father for the first time. So instead of angst at former girlfriends or the damage done by his family and friends’ drug addictions, the focus is on the future. Sure, there’s still some themes of identity crisis (“Eraser”) and depression (“Colors” and “Ghost”), but the overall feel here is much happier. Tracks like “Here to Mars” and “Atlas” are nothing but pure love and joy, “You’ve Got Spirit, Kid” is a tongue in cheek self-pep talk, and “Peace to the Mountain” is a beautiful acoustic track about acceptance and change. Given all that, it makes sense that these songs aren’t crammed to the brim with technical riffs or crushing drum parts, and the band’s always had a strong pop sensibility, anyway. And despite the overriding upbeat mood of most of the album, there’s still plenty of variety to be found. “Colors” is a moving slow tune that lingers and evokes a strong sense of melancholy, but without being totally defeated. “The Audience” is a slab of classic Coheed prog, boasting a Tool-esque riff and plenty of fuzz, as well as breaking out of the verse-chorus-verse structure most of the album sticks to. And the aforementioned “Atlas” almost sounds like it could fit on the band’s first album, Second Stage Turbine Blade, because of it’s driving rhythm, length, and emotional vocals.

With all that said, it’s not a perfect album. “Young Love” is one of the blandest tracks the band has ever written, and as much as I like the track by itself, “You’ve Got Spirit, Kid” doesn’t add much to an album already stuffed with big pop hooks. And part of me is a little disappointed that they didn’t push any of their musical boundaries on this album, because Coheed’s reinvention from album to album has always been one of their best qualities. The tone of the album is different, sure, but it’s still comprised of the same parts the band’s always used (in fact, maybe less of them – a lot of the band’s weirder tendencies are completely missing, and the album feels very pared down as a result). But then again, given the band’s discography, there’s not much they haven’t done already, anyway, so it’s hard to blame them.

So maybe it’s not the band’s most essential album. But the result is an album that’s absolutely refreshing to hear in its simplicity and emotional honesty, and easy to revel in its large hooks and catchy melodies. It’s a hard album to hate unless you’re some absolute early-Coheed diehard, and it might even serve as a more palatable gateway album for a lot of new fans, too. So whether you’re a long time fan or someone just checking this band out, The Color Before the Sun is definitely worth the time.

Cloudkicker – Let Yourself Be Huge [2011]

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Let Yourself Be Huge was a big step for Cloudkicker when it was first released in 2011. Up to that point, Ben Sharp had built his audience with his own brand of djent-tinged progressive metal, relying on heavy guitars, technical leads, and shifting time signatures to create his sound. However, after Beacons, he was ready to step outside of his comfort zone, and this EP is the result of that.

Entirely devoid of anything that might be deemed “heavy”, Let Yourself Be Huge is largely built around acoustic and clean guitars, light drum work, and moodiness. While the playing still sounds distinctly like Cloudkicker, the timbre is different, and the overall tone of the project feels like it’s the soundtrack to the aftermath of some huge disaster (which is fitting – his previous release, Beacons, took its song titles from the last sentence of various aircrash black box recordings). It’s peaceful yet droning, melancholy but not downtrodden, and it doesn’t feel the need to suddenly and dramatically shift gears like his prior work. In fact, much of the material here is pared down relentlessly, which few tracks bothering to even crack the two minute mark. Instead of creating full songs, the music here instead sounds like little vignettes, painting small little evocative pictures instead of grandiose statements. And despite the EP’s short length, the mood created by it is so powerful and so consistent that it almost feels like a complete album anyway. Let Yourself Be Huge may be short, but it’s a beautiful piece of music, and one of the best collections of music Ben Sharp has put together to date.

As always, you can download Cloudkicker’s music for free over at cloudkickermusic.com.

Between the Buried and Me – Coma Ecliptic [2015]

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I’ve had a rocky relationship with Between the Buried and Me for quite a while now.

I used to be a huge fan of the band during the Colors era, loving that album and the ones before it. But as time went on and their new releases piled up – The Great Misdirect, Hypersleep Dialogues, The Parallax II –I started to grow bored of their approach. It felt as if they had locked themselves into a sound and had no clue how to get out of it, turning every song into an endless marathon of stuck-together riffs and unending one-note growls. For a band that made a name by experimenting with their sound from release to release, Between the Buried and Me sure seemed like they were stuck in a rut.

I couldn’t bring myself to ever fully give up on them, though. This was the band that first got me into metal and progressive metal, so they will always have that place in my heart (this is the same rationale I use to justify listening to each new Weezer album, god help me). So when I heard about the upcoming release of Coma Ecliptic, backed up by the band’s assertions that they were pushing themselves in a new direction this time, I couldn’t help but give them another chance.

Coma Ecliptic is a concept album that’s styled after the classic rock operas of yore, from The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It follows a man who falls into a coma and is given the chance to explore other lives and worlds, and given the choice to decide whether to stay in one or continue searching for a better one. While Between the Buried and Me is no longer a stranger to concept albums, this being their second, Coma Ecliptic is an album that truly feels like a concept album. The music has a flow and a dramatic portent to it that The Parallax II lacked, drifting from tension building organ lines, horn sections, and their trademark metal approach with ease. This wasn’t something that was always easy for them in the past, because we ARE talking about the same band that has thrown hoe-down honky tonk music and horse neigh breakdowns into their music before. But on Coma Ecliptic, Between the Buried and Me takes a much more refined, measured approach to their writing, writing for the songs and the melodies rather than for the sake of experimentation.

With that said, it’s surprising that this is still the most experimental music they’ve recorded since Colors. The band has been showing off classic rock and prog influence in their music for quite a while at this point, but it often manifested more as a curiosity than a core element of their sound. But Coma Ecliptic shows the band stripping their sound down from their intensely technical prog metal into something more akin to a Yes or early Genesis record, bringing in organs, horns, piano, brash classic rock guitar leads, and a heavy focus on clean vocals. While those elements were always a part of the band’s sound, here they’re actually the focus and basis for much of these songs – “Node” is led almost entirely by a Rhodes piano, “Dim Ignition” is built around spacey arpeggiated synth work, and “Turn on the Darkness” boasts an unsettling atmosphere boosted by it’s huge bassy piano chords and minor acoustic guitar work. Every song here ends up having its own distinctive melodic core and musical ideas, and as a result these songs are immediately memorable. Coma Ecliptic isn’t a record that takes dozens of listens to unpack and parse, but rather lends itself to replayability by the simple fact that many of these songs are just plain catchy.

And one of the main reasons for that, besides the band’s new found penchant for smooth dynamics and instrumental experimentation, are the vocals. Much of Between the Buried and Me’s discography is led vocally by Tommy Rogers’ powerful growls, with small singing sections interspersed throughout. That script is flipped on this album, though. Where his clean vocals once sounded shy and robotic, he’s truly come into his own here. From his soaring, belted vocals in “Option Oblivion”, the muted and hushed opening of “Node”, or the crazed Mike Patton-esque delivery on “The Ectopic Stroll”, Rogers has a range and prowess on Coma Ecliptic that he hasn’t had on any other Between the Buried and Me album. Now that the band has stripped back much of their technical metal sound, there’s a space for his vocal melodies to carry the songs in different directions, and his growl is still there as a backup when the band decides to get heavy. It’s quite refreshing to hear these distinct vocal melodies where Rogers would have once opted simply to growl.

For most bands, it’s almost impossible to shift gears seven albums into their career. Many bands experiment early on and settle into a sound for the rest of their career, and Between the Buried and Me very nearly fell into that category. Instead, they wrote Coma Ecliptic, a record that challenged their own boundaries and opened up their sound to brand new territory. The result is their most focused, immediate, and rewarding album in nearly a decade. By blowing up their old school prog influences on a large scale, focusing more closely on melody and songwriting, and making clean vocals a major part of the music, they’ve written an album that will be refreshing to long-time fans, challenging to others, and exciting for newcomers. Welcome back, guys.

Dustin Kensrue – Carry the Fire [2015]

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It’s been quite a long time since Dustin Kensrue, primarily known for being the lead singer and rhythm guitarist of Thrice, has put out a proper solo album. In 2007, he released Please Come Home, a folky, country-inflected acoustic offering that was remarkably different from Thrice’s material. In the interim between then and now, his output has consisted of a Christmas album in 2010, and a Christian Worship album, The Water & The Blood, in 2013, but nothing that resembled a proper follow up to his debut release. Dustin himself even put some distance between The Water & The Blood and his regular solo work, stating his intention to record something more secular and in line with Please Come Home after its release. And that album has finally arrived in the form of Carry the Fire, coming a full eight years after its predecessor.

That said, with such a big gap in between releases, Carry the Fire feels incredibly familiar and cozy. While it’s not quite as acoustically based as its predecessor, its feel is still very similar. Most of the music here is based around simple strummed chord progressions, acoustic backings and lightly distorted leads, the occasional flourish of piano, and a much more restrained vocal performance from Dustin (a performance that sounds much less gruff and strained than he has in recent years). This coziness is also supplied by the fact that, unlike in Thrice, Dustin is not quite as musically adventurous by his lonesome – most of the songs on Carry the Fire stick to similar tempos, instrumentation, and lyrical ideas. This is what causes that familiarity to come off as something negative, because as it stands, Carry the Fire ends up being a bit too much like a more produced and polished version of Please Come Home. This willingness to stick to the middle ground makes a short album feel longer than it really is, and the songs eventually start to bleed together. And where Dustin’s lyrical ability was one of the main draws of Thrice, at least personally, here he relegates himself almost entirely to writing love songs. It’s not as if he lacked for source material, after all of the drama that came from him first becoming a pastor at Mars Hill Church, then stepping down after coming into contact with the organization’s shady characters and ungodly practices. In light of this, it makes the fact that song after song retreads over the same theme of devoted love and family stand out like a sore thumb. And while that’s certainly one of the most rewarding and fulfilling feelings one can have in life, and it’s hard to begrudge the man for being so enamored with it, it doesn’t make for exciting music when it functions as the main pillar of an album. This feeling of contentment is one of the reasons that the album sticks so close to its established blueprint, because for an album entitled Carry the Fire, there’s not a whole hell of a lot of it.

Though I’ve just spent the better half of this review assailing this new album, that’s not to say that it is entirely without highlights. “Gallows” has an energy akin to one of Thrice’s more heavy tracks thanks to the foundation its distorted bass riff lays. And “Of Crows and Crowns” has finally found itself laid to tape after years of being performed as part of Dustin’s solo sets, and it sounds as good as it ever did (if not better for the addition of little flourishes of piano sprinkled throughout). And the title track, “Carry the Fire” is one of the most emotionally charged tracks on the album. Exhibiting dynamics that much of the album doesn’t, it builds up from its initial slow burn into a rousing chorus, finally letting Dustin unleash his voice on an album mostly free of such opportunities. But the reason why Carry the Fire is such a letdown is because, simply put, Dustin can do better than this. With being part of one of the best rock discographies of the 2000s under his belt, and an excellent solo debut in Please Come Home, he’s proved himself as an amazing songwriter time and again. But his writing hasn’t been quite the same since Thrice’s hiatus, and his Worship music debut. Dustin admitted that he focused more on writing simpler hooks and songs so that his congregation would be able to follow along with them more easily, a point he made sure to underline with that album’s release, but it doesn’t seem like he’s quite left that mode yet. While the songs are no longer about God, their structures and melodies could easily fit on The Water & The Blood. And ultimately, this simplicity in both lyric and form is what makes Carry the Fire a listen that, while good enough on its own merits, is not a compelling or even particularly unique release in full view of the man’s past work. And ultimately, from the frontman whose band made a career out of trouncing expectations and following their muse into whatever new sound or idea caught their attention next, that’s a problem.

KEY TRACKS: Back to Back, Gallows, Of Crows and Crowns, Carry the Fire