Review Summary: Shinedown take a candid, heart-on-sleeve, if not exactly innovative, approach to their nearly unique form of grungy hard rock. The band showed plenty of potential here, and a few standout songs could even be called classics of the genre.
Shinedown is one of those bands that doesn’t have a lot going for them in terms of creativity or technicality, but makes up for it intermittently with sincerity and passion. Their second record, Us and Them, shows a lot more of both than this one, showcasing many solos as well as a lush seven-minute suite and a new sound that resembled a classic-rock incarnation of Soundgarden. This album feels like an experiment, an opening declaration from a band just getting started. The best time to be generic as a band is earlier in your career, so you can decide where to go from there rather than pigeonhole yourself earlier.
On this record, Shinedown hits the numerous hard-rock formula buttons with consistency and determination. The main forces on their side is the 90s revival sound that almost erases Korn and all other forms of post-grunge (point being, they sound like Alice in Chains with Chris Cornell using Nirvana’s structures and dynamics), singer Brent Smith’s massively powerful voice (not a lot of range but very excellent), and an ability to hit emotionally despite their predictability. Sometimes it’s the knowledge of a certain note forthcoming that makes it all the more powerful. Bands like Mastodon and System of a Down don’t hit you as hard as they do because of their dissonant riffs or rapid-fire changes of pace and direction; rather, it’s because of the logical buildup to a rewarding conclusion. On this front, Shinedown succeeds quite capably, using their pre-Phobia Breaking Benjamin-esque musical sensibilities and a lyric sheet full of mingled optimism and misanthropy to make a very good album.
The very beginning of the album represents the two things Shinedown does best; pensive, stirring soft/acoustic moments and rousing anthem-like choruses. Their in-between efforts usually fall flat (“All I Ever Wanted,” “Stranger Inside”). Shinedown invariably does its best when it goes for tasteful balladry (“Lost In The Crowd,” the Black-esque “Burning Bright”) or sheer power (“No More Love,” “Crying Out”). These moments allow the band to show its true power, unlike plodding semi-rockers like “Better Version.” Much of the record seems to blend together in terms of variety, a problem that was massively rectified on their sophomore effort but is problematic here. At least 1/4 of the record could very easily qualify as filler. The album’s long middle section has no standouts except for “Burning Bright” and possibly “Lacerated.” The songs do not build on one another, except for the similarities in production and sound; each one seems to be written mainly as a single, given a hook or two and then put between two better tracks.
“I found a way to steal the sun from the sky, long live that day when I decided to fly from the inside,” sings Smith on the fantastic opener “Fly From The Inside.” This powerful, unique line is the exception to the lyrical approach on the record can be somewhat generic at time, speaking about conflict in a relationship, depression and hopelessness, or self-doubt and uncertainty. Rarely are the efforts as embarrassing as a Papa Roach record, but songs like “Stranger Inside” and “All I Ever Wanted” are a bit too simple and straightforward. The singles “Fly From The Inside,” “Burning Bright” and “45” all work the best in terms of lyrics, particularly the latter’s melancholy verses and nearly epic closing.
So far the album sounds as if it has little going for it. Technically this trend continues, with a lot of same-sounding riffs and only one solo. There are only two songs not completely in 4/4, and one of them is just in 3/4 instead. The music serves mainly as a template for Brent Smith’s voice to soar and muse. He is undeniably the most talented member of Shinedown, although Us And Them’s frequent solos would challenge this claim. Some front-men serve primarily as another instrument, but Smith dominates every song with his great pipes. There are a few memorable riffs, usually on either the harder or lighter songs, but in general the real presence from the band is being carried on the shoulders of the vocalist.
Getting to the good part, this band is less about creating good catchy music (although it certainly does that, but not to the extent of Seether and Breaking Benjamin) than it is about creating powerful and compelling moments within the framework of a typical hard rock song. There isn’t so much one instrument that stands out a lot, but the separate parts come together and form stirring and meaningful music. If you’ve heard any of the singles your opinion is unlikely to change from that. The band's music, although perhaps not impressive from a more “metal-head” point of view, somehow creates dramatic, even breath-taking moments without resorting to overdone balladry, melodramatic hooks or all-out brutality. The sincerity of their approach is hard to convey the real worth of, but it means more than a dozen sweep-picked leads or Dillinger Escape Plan-esque freakouts ever could, or will.
In the end, Shinedown’s differences from the herd are less easy to determine than one would like. But the honesty and impact of their music is hard to deny. Improvements could be made, but overall this record has quite a few worthwhile tracks. Cynics and critics may not be won over, but people willing to look over the formulaic patches will find something pretty good.