Review Summary: Constellations doesn't necessarily reinvent and revive the decaying genre of metalcore, but it certainly gives it hope.
August Burns Red is, at heart, just another band in the latest frantic fleet of metalcore bands; turn-of-the-century spawns that play off each other's success rather than concoct anything marginally original. While many eager fans were quick to slap a glorifying sticker on their sophomore release 'Messengers', August Burns Red were far from the genre-saving shred-heroes they were heralded as. Essentially, this popular opinion - fueled by drooling hardcore fanatics and drumming enthusiasts alike - was perhaps under a guise of infatuation: what initially seemed as a heavy, technical album that tore faces apart was really just a repetitive metalcore release with monotonous harmonic-minor riffing and above-average drumming. While each and every member of the band (except the unsurprisingly inaudible bassist Dustin Davidson) were fully capable musicians and spent most of the record exemplifying said fact, 'Messengers' employed such a ridiculous amount of repetition that listening to more than one song off of the album at a time grew to be exhausting and unrewarding. Two years later, August Burns Red is given two choices with their latest release, 'Constellations': progress equally as musicians and songwriters to create something marvelous or
construct yet another album that fails to fulfill their potential.
While it may not be made immediately apparent by the familiar opening track 'Thirty and Seven', the amount of progression taken with 'Constellations' is immense (perhaps a result of their recent tour with Between the Buried and Me). The guitars are more technical and varied, the breakdowns only make appearances when absolutely necessary and the song structures have been completely thrown upside down, veering the band out from under the proverbial umbrella of homogenous metalcore and into many musician's wet dreams. As a unit, each member has amped up their technicality and writing abilities tenfold, collectively embracing a wider selection of genres and progressive-tendencies. Matt Greiner (the only consistently great element of Messengers) hasn't missed a beat this time around, widening his technique to include haphazard timings and decidedly un-metal offbeat moments whilst continually serving up a healthy mixture of blastbeats (yes, blastbeats) and impressive, nimble fills. Guitarists JB Brubaker and Brent Rambler have too stepped up their game on Constellations, but their improvements are easily the most remarkable -- instead of constantly abusing the harmonic minor scale and chugging their hearts out on tedious open-string breakdowns, the duo have adopted major-scale arpeggios, jazzy clean interludes and even a few bluesy guitar solos, rounding up the band's sound and keeping listeners attentive. Vocalist Jake Luhrs, who was preliminarily acceptable, has also
made staggering progress, bellowing out thick, commanding lows and belting out sky-piercing highs with remarkable control and decipherability. Yes, even bassist
Dustin Davidson has evolved; stepping out of the murky metalcore mire of poorly executed production to make his benign but respectable basslines heard amongst the controlled chaos.
That's quite an impressive resume of talent, isn't it -- but how does it translate on 'Constellations'? Well, for the most part, it translates quite brilliantly. While the aforementioned 'Thirty and Seven' is a regular affair for August Burns Red, the fact that it isn't the first of many identical songs is what makes 'Constellations' work so well: it has enough variability between the individual tracks that it doesn't get tedious nearly as quickly as Messengers did. For example, take 'Oceans of Apathy' and 'Marianas Trench', genre-bending metalcore anthems that shape-shift comfortably and fluidly from jazzy interludes and epic intros into impressive guitar solos and confusing breakdowns. August Burns Red's other attempts to "shake things up" ultimately succeed: from Tommy Roger's guest harsh and
clean vocals on 'Indonesia', to the piano outro of 'Paradox' to the sprawling six-minute post-metal (yeah, I said it) epic of Meridian, August Burns Red manages to ultimately hit their projected target and sound great while doing it. It's true, the majority of Constellations is a varied and relatively complex trip.
So, when does Constellations falter? When August Burns Red remembers that they're a metalcore band. Yes, I'm talking about breakdowns. While the band has matured beyond adding two or three obnoxious breakdowns into every song, they're still prominent and on the less-than-rare occasion, they get in the way. Secondly, the band may have made impressive leaps and bounds in musicianship but, on multiple occasions, their songwriting appears forced and unnatural, exemplified by awkward time changes, ridiculous over-fading-out of three
tracks (seriously, it's not 1994 anymore) and constant reiterating of musical ideas to the point of exhaustion (the fault that plagued Messengers so heavily). Yes, even in all it's efforts to vary things up and break the metalcore-mold, Constellations still drags in certain areas. It's as if the band found themselves caught in between their new found desires to be eclectic and their attempts to stay true to themselves and their Messengers/Thrill Seeker fanbase.
Lastly, a few things to keep in mind when broaching Constellations: try as they may, August Burns Red are still not technical guitar heroes nor are they the saviors of metalcore. Sure, if the necessary steps in progression are taken by the band, some of their future releases might make even the most iron-fisted of metalheads stoop down. Regardless, metalcore will remain a genre synonymous with imitators and emulators, each of them churning out record after record of tired, sloppy breakdowns and double bass abuse; things are not likely to change, 'Constellations' is not the birth of a new brighter future. However, it is important to respect the steps taken by August Burns Red and (for once) just enjoy
metalcore done right -- if just for the "fun factor."