Review Summary: Marrying invasive catchiness and irritatingly conventional songwriting, Alexisonfire's latest album manages to be both a great album and their worst work to date.
Lead vocalist George Pettit of Alexisonfire said the following to London Free Press
about their (at the time, nameless) upcoming fourth studio release 'Old Crows / Young Cardinals':
"Fans have a chance to hear Alexisonfire on the boundary of a "new, weird" stuff. [...] I kind of want to try and make these slower songs I've written seem really heavy atmospherically. [...] On our last album, I never would have thought to try that because the record was so aggressive, but I'm going to try and take us into some new, weird territories."
Unfortunately, this quote is not bereft of misplaced album-hyping, a clever guise formulated by naughty musicians to confuse fans into thinking that records are going to be better than they really are. The two elements that Pettit seemed to stress in this particular description were both the 'atmospheric heaviness
and the weirdness
' -- both elements that are strangely absent from Old Crows / Young Cardinals. First of all, even the mention of atmosphere in regards to the record as a whole is laughable; with the exception of 'The Northern' and 'Burial', any moments of "atmosphere" is concealed to a two-bar interlude or acappella chorus. Secondly, Old Crows / Young Cardinals does not
see Alexisonfire venturing into "new, weird territories" at all; in fact, Alexisonfire has never sounded more normal
. Gone are the extended ambient interludes and in are the conventional riffs and infectious melodies. For those who wish to meddle around in sub-genre affairs, allow me to put it this way: if Crisis
was a post-hardcore record, Old Crows / Young Cardinals
is a rock record.
Fortunately, Pettit's lack of descriptive credibility (he also said that the band was "wanting to put the knife in screamo
") fails to harm the positive elements of the album. When the band hits their stride, they hit it hard. Take, for example, lead single (and semi-title track) 'Young Cardinals', a song that finds itself exemplary of the entire album. The song introduces Pettit's new vocal style (a grating, raspy and monotonous rambling that falls far short of his previous screams but manages not to be too
irritating), Dallas Green's newly honed sense for catchy melodies, pounding punk beats and surprisingly superb drumming. As a unit, Alexisonfire sounds determined, direct and cohesive. By never straying off and dabbling in foreign genres, Alexisonfire employs a focused and overtly punk-rock sound that is littered with memorable moments and soaring melodies (see 'Born and Raised'). Guitarists Wade MacNeil and Dallas Green, who have always had an ear for nimble but digestible riffs have rededicated their guitarwork to distinctive song-opening leads and licks that may not always be overly technical (Old Crows, No Rest), but engrain themselves as ridiculously catchy moments throughout the length of the record. Bassist Chris Steele (who is audible and
magnificent) and drummer Jordan Hastings provide a rhythmic backbone to Old Crows / Young Cardinals that was previously unheard of in Alexisonfire's earlier efforts, with Jordan Hastings' creative drumming (enveloping wonderfully gratuitous fills and the occasional tambourine) almost outshining Dallas Green's always ethereal vocal work in each and every song.
However, one of the most disconcerting things about Old Crows / Young Cardinals is the vocal work. Even Dallas Green's blessedly distinctive vocals are hampered by completely unnecessary overdubs (recalling his most recent solo album production-wise) and his attempts to 'rough up his voice' in songs such as opener 'Old Crows' fail to sound angry and just sound like bothersome attempts to match the gravelly voices of Wade MacNeil and George Pettit. While Wade MacNeil's obnoxious smoker-voice'd growling is no better or worse this time around, screamer-turned-rambler George Pettit has taken his voice in a complete reversal; a reversal that changes his distinctive scream (which gives a welcome cameo in select places of the record) into a ridiculous monotone rasp that makes nearly every verse a cringe-worthy and unbearable affair. The entirety of 'No Rest' is marred by his lifeless delivery and his attempts at melody (such as the pre-chorus of Sons of Privilege) are immature and laughable. Ignoring the melodic shortcomings presented by nearly all three vocalists (although it's best to give praise where praise is due: Green still has some brilliant moments) is much harder than it sounds, even taking in account the leaps and strides the band has taken as musicians.
While the atmosphere that was promised by Pettit is maddeningly absent, the two moments that envelop said thickness are shared by 'The Northern' and 'Burial' (and perhaps to a lesser extent, 'Midnight Regulations'), songs that exercise near post-rock meandering (complete with organs) that is wholly engaging and enticing, roping in the listener with haunting harmonies and Pettit's actual
screams. It's moments like these that highlight how wrong Alexisonfire is to take the direction they take on songs like 'Accept Crime' and 'Heading for the Sun', songs that are all completely brawn over brain (or beauty, really). While the aggressive songs are by no means bad (for the most part), the songs that are the obvious highlights are the precious moments when the band does
go into new, weird territory and meddle with things that are "really heavy atmospherically." Taking this into account, it's almost depressing that the potential that Alexisonfire has always
shown is being neglected it's rightful expansion.
Alexisonfire's Old Crows / Young Cardinals can be chalked up as a myriad of different things; a failure to realize their own potential, an aggressive and occasionally immature rock album bent on good times rather intellectual elitist atmosphere, or a rollicking punk explosion that knows full well how to relax -- but however you describe it, it's impossible to deny the following fact: Old Crows / Young Cardinals is Alexisonfire at their worst. Luckily, Alexisonfire at their worst is still many notches above most bands at their best and Old Crows / Young Cardinals is, while a disappointment, still a solid album with plenty of memorable moments to absorb.