Review Summary: Rise Against make another great album, but how long can they keep it up with the constraints of their sound? Regardless, this is an enjoyable listen marred only by a few forced songs and a generally toned-down attack.
You can pretty much recognize a Rise Against song as soon as it comes on the radio, even if you come in halfway through. The band’s brash, bouncy guitars rampage through each song like two tigers playfully wrestling. Tim McIlrath’s heart-on-sleeve lyrics and vocals can be identified from a mile away as he screams every note with gusto and sincerity. The rhythm section snaps like a taut wire under the furious melodies, propelling each song through quick tempo changes and dynamic shifts to an atypical long 3 or 4 minutes (at least for a punk band). The band signed onto Geffen Records and proved that they were not going to let success completely overwhelm their art with 2004’s Siren Song of the Counter Culture. As their second major label record, how does this compare?
From the very beginning we realize that Rise Against has simultaneously changed things up and kept them the same. Usually not given to instrumentals or building tension, Rise Against chooses to start this album off with a short intro, with the only vocals arriving in the cryptic statement “This… is noise.” The marching drums build up to the blazing-fast “Chamber the Cartridge.” One would hope that after the extended introduction, that we’d get a truly outstanding opener like we got with “State of the Union.” But here Rise Against seems almost half-hearted. Could it be that churning out insane, metallic, gut-force hardcore anthems has become a chore for the band? Regardless, they sure don’t do it very well on the opener. The verses seem to go as fast as they can just for the sake of doing so, and the short pre-chorus is nowhere near as brutal as “State of the Union” or even “Tip the Scales” from their previous album. The melodic chorus and bridge are truly disappointing. It’s not as if Rise Against can’t do those things well, but they come across as phony and forced on this song. It’s not bad, per se, but Rise Against has done much better.
The forcedness comes through occasionally on the remainder of the album. “Bricks” is much the same as “Chamber the Cartridge” in that it whirls through the speakers in an almost tuneless gallop. Coming in at a mere 1:31, it sounds like Rise Against was trying to pay tribute to their inspirations (Bad Religion comes through most clearly here) to distance themselves from pop-punk bands. (Rise Against is basically what pop-punk always should have sounded like, as far as I can tell.) It wasn’t a good experiment. This song is boring and clearly filler. As a matter of fact, the forced element and filler are a bit too prevalent on this album as well. Coupled with the diluted attack of the band, these three problems are the biggest issues crippling the record.
“Ready to Fall,” “Worth Dying For” and especially “The Approaching Curve” are the most obvious filler tracks, the latter even copping out with a spoken word verse that does nothing but exaggerate the fact that Rise Against is not getting anywhere musically. They have a great formula, but it can only inspire so many songs before eventually things have to change. At least half the songs feature at least one fairly unimaginative riff. This happens most obviously in the otherwise good “The Good Left Undone,” but it’s more widespread. To counter this, Rise Against branches out just far enough to keep the record from getting monotonous. “Behind Closed Doors” is a clear standout, as it incorporates a triumphant, almost gleeful guitar riff and a swift tempo that sounds exactly like its lyrical matter. Other experiments, like “Drones” and “Roadside,” work well, but the band has managed to milk a few more excellent songs from its preexisting formula. “Injection” is downright excellent, with great riffs and one of the best choruses the band has come up with yet. Other classic Rise Against numbers include “Prayer of the Refugee,” “The Good Left Undone,” and “Behind Closed Doors.”
As for the slightly less fierce assault, well, it has its pros and cons. Songs like “Injection,” “Survive” and “Prayer of the Refugee” work fine the way they are, but some of the songs just needed an extra kick in the gut to get things moving. “Ready to Fall” and “Under the Knife” have some pretty weak verses that would have benefited from some more energy, although the band manages to hit almost every time with an anthemic chorus in the right spot. All the energy seems to have gone into the infectious rhythm section’s work, which gives “Drones” just the right kick. The “Give It All”-esque riff that drives the song’s chorus is just one of many, but not quite enough, outstanding moments on this CD.
The band’s attempts at becoming a real epic punk band don’t work very well in general. “Survive” carries on the typical Rise Against album closer tradition of having a sad yet defiant sing-along melody for the chorus, but “The Approaching Curve” takes things too far with its overwrought chorus and weak spoken word sections. “Roadside” manages to pull off the requisite subdued balladry, but it’s too immaculate, too lacquered to fit in with the band’s punk ethos. The straightforward acoustic guitar work on “Swing Life Away” makes all the difference. For the Stone Sour fans out there, it’s like the difference between “Bother” and “Through Glass.” All “Roadside” needs is a drum break partway through, and it could be a Billboard Top 40 chart topper. Rise Against never made a ballad for the money before, and this comes a little too close to that line for comfort.
In general, although this release is far less consistent than it should have been, it’s still great just because Rise Against still hasn’t given up. The discontent is less clear than before, but there’s a rebellious streak a mile wide running through the music that only takes a break every now and again for a breath before starting up. Although the band is clearly nearing the day when they’ll run out of ideas that fit in with their distinctive sound, this is still an awesome CD and a reminder that pop-punk doesn’t need to sound like Cute Is What We Aim For covering the Sex Pistols. It’s got to be popular, and it’s got to be punk. Rise Against is both, but after all these years their primary concern is neither. It’s about singing and playing their hearts out. If they falter a little bit, it’s no big deal. A great piece of music.