Review Summary: 6 albums later, and Strung Out still know how to tweak their sound enough to keep things interesting. Should solidly make the top 5 of this year. Sans two duds of songs, this album kicks it.
Strung Out should really be envied by every one of their contemporaries. They are one of the few bands who have kept a genre constantly evolving with each release. Their debut, Another Day in Paradise
, stuck almost directly to the Fat Wreck Chords trademark fast and catchy punk sound. Hell, tracks from that album like “In Harms Way” sounded like a Lagwagon cover at the time. However, with each album the band grew even more. Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues
showcased a huge step up in the musicianship of the band, with some critics even claiming that the drumming was super human, so fast that it had to have been recorded at a slower tempo and fast forwarded. Twisted By Design
, their third full length, marked an even sharper turn towards the realm of technique-oriented heavy metal, as displayed by tracks such as the venomous “Ice Burn”.
Now after releasing three albums of quality punk rock, with a metal backbone, most bands would be content to begin the rehashing fest and churn out similar sounding albums every two years or so. However, Strung Out began to fully embrace the heavy and the technical on the next three releases (the Elements of Sonic Defiance EP
, An American Paradox
, and Exile in Oblivion
), while mixing their most experimental and novel tracks with some of the most brilliant pop-masterpieces created in the punk genre for quite some time. And while most bands would have become far too stagnant for their own good at this point, Strung Out continues to churn out music that challenges listeners as much as their hybrid sound began to back in 1998. Blackhawks Over Los Angeles
is Strung Out’s sixth full length album, and shows that the band has continued to grow more complex than ever, without being overbearing or “2 m3t4l 4 j00”.
The first thing immediately noticeable about Blackhawks
is that the band has moved ever further away from the relentless machine-gun rhythms that they are well known for. The tempo of the album as a whole is more deliberate and intricate than previously, which is especially noteworthy on the poppy, borderline-saccharine “Dirty Little Secret” with its driving, almost-tribal drumming courtesy of Jordan Burns, one of the most talented drummers in modern punk rock, and the midrange, groovy chug of “Downtown”. However, unlike Exile in Oblivion
, whose more midrange tracks tended to drag and whose faster tracks were obviously the standouts, Blackhawks Over Los Angeles
feels refreshingly well balanced. Offering a bit of the fast and relentless (“Orchid”), some of the previously mentioned mid-tempo tracks, and some tracks that transition back and forth between the two dynamics effortlessly (“Blackhawks Over Los Angeles”), this is easily Strung Out’s most balanced and consistent work to date.
However, I would be remiss in my job as both a reviewer and a fan to neglect to mention the instrumental prowess of the band as a whole. Simply put, this band shreds. Burns lays down some of the most technically innovative fills in punk rock, with some nearly face melting patterns when given the moment to shine, especially on tracks such as “Letter Home” and “Orchid”. Bassist Chris Aiken tends to be a bit weak in comparison to the rest of the band, however does help anchor everything together very well, and lays a thick and heavy foundation with Burns’ powerful drumming. Jake Kiley and Rob Ramos, the bands guitarists, are the main attraction here though. Taking influences from nearly every genre of metal and mixing it with the punk rhythms that are standard fare for the genre, they prove to be one of the best guitar tandems out at the moment. From the interlaying guitar harmonies of “Dirty Little Secret”, to the epic, arpeggiated intro to the albums real closer “Diver” (discounting the superbly poppy bonus song, “More Than Words”), and the heavy riffs intermingling with the jangly and poppy guitar overtones of “Party in the Hills”, Ramos and Kiley show both immense talent and variety all over Blackhawks
Of course though, it doesn’t hurt when just about every song on the album is at least hella good, and most of the time, awesome. There are basically no songs on the entire album that merit replacing with another or redoing, making this Strung Out’s most outwardly consistent release (neglecting the near perfection of 2002’s An American Paradox of course) thus far. However, unlike most of Strung Out’s other releases, which had very definite standouts accented by some filler material, Blackhawks
really misses the mark when it comes to crafting songs as outwardly awe-inspiring as “Never Speak Again” or “Velvet Alley”, instead focusing on making a large collection of songs that leaves me very happy over all, but at a conundrum when making a car mix.
Keeping it fresh it punk rock is a milestone that very few bands have been able to achieve. The boys of Strung Out, however, are members of the elite group of punk musicians who’ve kept their music constantly changing and interesting throughout their 15 year existence. Gone are the oddball, minute production fusses of previous albums (the mix is surprisingly fair to just about everyone) and the terribly layered-to-the-point-of-obnoxious vocal tracking, making this one of the most outwardly enjoyable releases of this year for me. And while this probably will not be a contender for album of the year when all is said and done, Blackhawks Over Los Angeles
is a superb effort from these punk legends who only seem to get better with age.
Recommended tracks: Blackhawks Over Los Angeles, Orchid, Mission Statement, Calling