Review Summary: In all the moments when Come Now Sleep was lulling and calming, Hell or High Water drives like a summer-lovin' locomotive filled with frivolous good memories and tea times.
Change, as a whole, and especially in music, is a daunting subject. Historically, bands evolve casually and slowly, in an effort to keep their original fanbases while simultaneously striving not to make the same record twice. Fortunately, not every musician feels tied to a type cast, and make the decision to change artistically. In some cases, a stylistic change ends up being adored in an amorous case of rabid fanboyism (Radiohead's Kid A, Thrice's Vheissu), and succeed in roping in a new fan base while staying relatively true to their core sound. In less fortunate cases (He Is Legend's Suck Out the Poison, Underoath's They're Only Chasing Safety), the change has been been greeted with abhorrence and distaste. For some fans, it often feels like they've been betrayed by their own bands -- as if somebody traded their whole milk buffet in for a skim milk snack, or snuck a pepperoni on to their strictly vegetarian pizza.
The progression of As Cities Burn has been a pleasure to witness. Their Solid State debut, 2005's "Son, I Loved You at Your Darkness" was a solid but painfully mediocre metalcore record that displayed a decent amount of technicality and a unhealthy helping of repetition. A fair two years and one lost vocalist later, As Cities Burn released "Come Now Sleep," a nearly post-rock meandering musical experience that presented a pleasant 55 minutes of clean vocals and snaking guitar lines. Without warning, As Cities Burn had made a complete reversal of their heavy sound and benefitted copiously from it -- Come Now Sleep was a completely, undeniably solid record brimming with hooks and spilling over with tasteful restraint. This brings us to today, the release day of As Cities Burn's third concoction, "Hell or High Water," the next, less abrupt, step of progression for the Louisiana quartet.
You may be pleased to hear that no disconcerting leaps and bounds are made on Hell or High Water -- in order for As Cities Burn to make a change as huge as Come Now Sleep did, they'd have to become a trip-hop group. Luckily, the territorial step this time around is an a more indie
direction, for the lack of a better word. While restraint is still a powerful tool that the band beautifully utilizes, many new strange steps are taken. In the moodily shape-shifting opener, '84 Sheepdog, vocalist Cody Bonnete croons powerfully ("Good lord, have you ever seen so many teeth marks?") while soaring falsettos and Muse-like distorted basslines pave the way for fuzzed over guitar licks and jaunty drum fills. A similar dynamic is used throughout the album, notably on the nearly danceable closer "Capo," which trickles playfully through with hooting background vocals, appropriate foot stomps and hand claps, complete with a tasteful call and response moment between bassist Colin Kimble and guitarist Chris Lott.
In all the moments when Come Now Sleep was lulling and calming, Hell or High Water drives like a summer-lovin' locomotive filled with frivolous good memories and tea times. "Errand Rum" recalls labelmates Jonezetta (whose lead singer Robert Chilsom makes an appearance on "Capo") with anthemic drumming, kittenish chord patterns and cutesy sing-a-long melodies. Drummer Aaron Lunsford, in particular, is a highlight of songs like this -- his snare fetish, refined fills and his, at times, utterly bombastic drumming is as remarkable as it is beautiful. Guitarists Bonnete and Lott's infectious licks and tones are further complimented by a spot-on production, which accentuates every vibration of Hell or High Water by cleanly showcasing the band's talent and keeping a crystal clear sense of lucidity. That's not to say that no production tricks are thrown in -- the stomping and clacking of "Lady Blue" (which is arguably the album's masterful centerpiece) exhibits the record's quirkiness perfectly. In fact, it should be noted that Lady Blue skips smoothly through charming vocal lines a few minutes before exploding into a schizophrenic roller coaster of a song -- clocking in just over six minutes, and circling every possible genre (including a few electronic moments) with a fine red line. Kimble's nimble bass playing is a particular delight in the length of the song (and I may add, his beautiful tones are audible through the entire
album) and hums infectiously through deliciously catchy hooks before halting the song to a dwindling end.
Words fail to describe the success of the quartet's more alternative sound on Hell or High Water, particularly because the variation within the album's length is so diverse and cohesive, that it's difficult to summarize appropriately. Whether they're channeling a more technically pleasing Sam Roberts ("Petty"), or mimicking a lounge-infatuated Aaron Marsh ("Daughter"), it is obvious that Colin and the boys are alarmingly capable of nearly everything.
The bright Telecaster tones of "Pirate Blues" displays the more 'indie' aspect of the album, almost akin to the Decemberist's latest offering, while the previously mentioned "Capo" (and many other moments on the album) almost shamefully emulate Muse's more recent work.
Luckily, none of the obviously diverse influences hamper the record or even come close to making Hell or High Water seem unoriginal. While it's a branching out of sorts stylistically, it still rings true as a As Cities Burn record (whatever that
means) and comes dangerously close to becoming a alt-rock classic. With this very record, As Cities Burn make it deafeningly clear that there's little they're not capable of -- which leads me to suggest this album to nearly anyone I know, for it is completely musically neutral without being boring, and incredibly fun without becoming tiring. Hell or High Water is truly a magical piece of work.
But I'm still holding out for their trip-hop album.