Review Summary: Hopesfall evolves again, led by strong songwriting and a godly vocal performance, but unfortunately there are faultlines too massive to hide under Hopesfall's immaculate mix of pop-punk, post-hardcore, and hard rock.
In an interview with Hopesfall's producer for their new album Magnetic North
, Mike Watts, the producer in question, mentioned that "they seem a lot more focused" and that "the difference between this record and the last record is the band themselves, in my opinion, have arrived again on what sound they want to have. Where A Types
was a transitional record, now, they're pretty set in what they want to be." Looking at Hopesfall's discography, that story may hold true. Their earliest work in The Frailty of Words
featured little of the spaciness and reverb that defined The Satellite Years
, and that same spaciness took a back seat in favor of singing and taut songwriting on A Types
, an album that while considered transitional by the producer, was thematically conceived to be as forward thinking and polished as possible, as indicated by the lyrical content, titling of the album, and comments make by the band prior to its release. With that said, Magnetic North
could be called B Types
. Each Hopesfall release prior to this featured massive leaps from album to album but Magnetic North
feels like a logical answer to the pop punk, post-hardcore, and hard rock found on A Types
The centerpiece of A Types
was the songwriting and that emphasis and strength returns on Magnetic North
to great success. Hopesfall treads very carefully between verse-chorus-verse structure and a more ambitious through-composed style. Also, even when engaging in verse-chorus-verse structure, they'll use special effects, differences in production, and varying orchestrations to make sure that each verse sounds different, sometimes down to the level as microscopic as an individual measure or guitar squeal. A perfect example of this comes on the opener, "Rx Contender the Pretender," one of the better written songs on the album. At around 1:08, after moving through a bunch of phrase-length non-repeating sections, instead of just moving back to section A and repeating that, Hopesfall includes a section with just a solo distorted guitar in the left speaker and super distorted vocals in the right speaker. Hopesfall isn't content with just repeating content for its own sake, but treat each repeat as an opportunity to respark the energy of the song and propel it to even more compelling territory. Another cool example is on the intro of the next song "Swamp Kittens" (don't worry I'll criticize stuff like song titling and lyrics later). The intro of the song is a solo guitar chord riff that is quickly hocketed against a guitar that enters in a counter rhythm to the original guitar. Then, when the rest of the band comes in, the listener realizes that the original rhythm was in fact the off-time rhythm and the echo effect put on the guitar was what made it feel like it was not in syncopation to the other guitar. Hopesfall includes tons of nuggets like this at a level of really careful detail that makes this album feel like a gold mine of fun musical quirks and tricks. When combined with the tastefully unexpected song structures, the result is an album that can continue to surprise and satisfy, listen after listen.
The most unstable part of A Types
was definitely Jay's singing, but I mean that comment as a compliment. On previous albums, Jay had primarily screamed and only broke from that trend to include dull, reverb-laden singing between the dissonance. On A Types
though, he sang nearly the whole album, and it really made the album and their new sound. His singing would have huge leaps and jumps like that of Daryl Palumbo, but instead of Palumbo's melodrama and insanity, Forrest's tone and articulation was more like the steady and powerful singing of Dustin Kensrue. His melodies were shockingly original and poignant too. While A Types
may have been the discovery of this talent and style, Magnetic North
is definitely the perfection. Forrest further develops his voice to be more dynamic on this album. His melodic and tonal choices are complemented by his new ability to embrace a more Palumbo-like approach to articulation. Take the example of the wonderful "I Can Do This on an Island." The song features only Forrest singing and a solo, repeated guitar progression that doesn't really act up or change throughout the song. As a result Forrest's voice is the sole focus. His voice quavers, rasps, sighs, cracks, whispers, and does any other special effect needed to elevate the emotion and intensity of the song. His vocal performance alone makes that short 1:17 the best song on the album, hands down. And while no other song can trump that performance, his vocals are still strong throughout the rest of the album elevating songs like "Swamp Kittens" and "Secondhand Surgery," which otherwise may have been forgettable among the awesome songs like "I Can Do This on an Island" and "Bird Flu."
Unfortunately, some of these songs are forgettable. Hopesfall tends to write albums that are more memorable for individual songs than the album as a whole. "Cubic Zirconias Are Forever" is an unfortunate slow jam played by a group of talented musicians, who render its molasses tendencies fairly interesting. The last three tracks are surprisingly unengaging, "Devil's Concubine" feeling like a rehashing of the worst moments from A Types
, "Head General Hospital" sounding like it could have been on the new Matchbook Romance album if it weren't for the nasty nasty bass line undulating throughout the verses, and "Paisley" having a cheesy chorus to make the last song on the album "hella emotional." Long gone is the amazing emotional weight of a song like "The Bending" as an album closer. Moving past these duller moments though produces some of the better songs I've heard in the past year. "Rx Contender the Pretender" is amazingly taut and well-conceived. "I Can Do This on an Island" is fraught with beautiful singing and emotional weight. "East of 1989; Battle of the Bay" is perfectly midtempo, with wonderful echo and sliding guitar sounds. Lastly, "Bird Flu" is the perfect extension of the successes of A Types
, mixing older style palm-muted arpeggiations with cool bass harmonizations and Jay's alluring singing. These songs alone make sure the album floats, holding up the weight of the aforementioned mediocre songs. The remaining songs, while not perfect, are definitely cool and merit repeated listens.
The album also fails on a few other nitpicking levels. First of all, there are 3-4 really awkward forays into nu-metal riffing and breakdowns. It's as if Hopesfall decided to waste 30 seconds on a few of the songs on this album with chugging drop D power chords. These sections never last long enough to ruin the song, but invariably will piss me off for being poorly chosen and out of place. Secondly, the song titling and lyrics fail to impress once again. Hopesfall has never really written good lyrics and this album is no exception. And, while Jay may make the vocals memorable and some of the lyrics catchy as a result, their quality still can't be called "good" (for a great example of bad lyrics turned cool see "Swamp Kittens" at 1:28, "At night I'm a madman / By day I'm a sad man"). As a final complaint, the music as a whole is sort of cheesy. We're in the realm of pop punk and post-hardcore, which translates to catchiness and screaming to the naive. By now, in 2007, this style is incredibly played out. Hopesfall succumbs to some of the trite tendencies of other bands, like when they use a chorus on "Paisley" or get angular on "Head General Hospital" but honestly, other than that, I think they've created their own original niche within the genre. Among bands still pursuing this style (notice Thrice, Thursday and a lot of other heavy hitters have changed their styles over time to exclude pop punk and screaming versus including it like Hopesfall have), Hopesfall are doing it the best, writing intelligent, poignant, and fun songs. If you can get over that initial pitfall, you're listening the best in the business.
Ultimately, this album is off balanced. There are savagely good songs, unfortunately boring songs, and pretty good midrange songs. It is pop punk and post-hardcore, but it's probably the best possible iteration of that combination. The songwriting is amazing, but for some reason there are weird nu-metal spatterings throughout the album. The vocal performance is godly but the lyrics are sinful. At the end of the day, I feel like the good moments on the album skew it to be a pretty good album. If for the amazing songs alone this album succeeds, but when expanding to include every success and blemish of the album, the result averages out to somewhere above the 50th percentile but certainly below the level set by previous releases, The Satellite Years
and A Types
. Of course, this doesn't change the fact that I've been spinning this album nonstop for three weeks now, and that I'll always love what Hopesfall brings to the table, but I'm sorry to say that from a more objective view of Magnetic North
: Hopesfall didn't bring their A game. Thankfully though, their B game is better than 95% of their peers' A game.
Recommended Tracks: I Can Do This on an Island, East of 1989; Battle of the Bay, Bird Flu, Rx Contender the Pretender