Review Summary: Darkly different, Defeater create what could have been the ultimate album but fall just short.
Hardcore bands in recent years have followed a rather reticent formula for success. This formula includes catchy clean vocals, inaudible bass and power chords galore. The formula has led many critics to assert that the genre is dying, but some bands are working hard to bring a Renaissance to hardcore. Defeater is one of them. Since the release of 2008’s Travels, they have proven to be the exception to the rule. Empty Days and Sleepless Nights piggybacks off of Travels and even raises the already high level of ambition. Featuring two discs, the second being just acoustic tracks, Defeater bring a full arsenal and know how to use every weapon at their disposal.
From the start of Empty Days, it’s clear that Defeater don’t play by the rules. The vocals hit hard and fast with Mike Poulin’s bass at the forefront of the mix. Once the guitars kick in, it’s impossible not to be consumed by the mood which, in true Defeater fashion, is dark. The track sees four time changes, which defies convention of the traditional ¾ signature utilized in hardcore. Clever rests in the middle of verses allow for the changes in signature, which are used instead of a clean vocalist to indicate changes in theme within tracks. These changes allow for experimentation for guitarists Jay Maas and Jake Woodruff and are accented by Andy Reitz’s tight drum work. All three of these musicians are top of the line and have a great deal of polish in a genre complacent with power chord laden verses. The only member of the group that sounds lumped in with their contemporaries is vocalist Derek Archambault.
Archambault’s vocals are pretty standard for the genre, and quite similar to I Set My Friends on Fire’s Matt Mihana, but never wear on the listener. The thing that differentiates him from the rest of the pack is the lyrics. Their lyrics, unlike those of many other groups, tell stories and forgo simply imparting a standard God is great message found on many other albums. In fact, they take the opposite stance, proclaiming, There is no God/No one can save her, on “Quiet the Longing”. These dark lyrics fit the atmosphere perfectly and rarely drift from the theme of helplessness and pain. Cemetery Walls, the darkest track of the album that also features the best work of the rhythm section, Poulin in particular, is a story about someone losing a family member and wishing that he or she was dead instead. The incessant darkness of the album never wears on the listener though because it is so artfully told, a feat few other bands would be able to accomplish. Overall, the first disc is without a weak track, and, were it a stand-alone album, would be a classic album.
However, Defeater got a little too ambitious with the second disc. While it only has four songs on it, it still leaves one to wonder why they undertook an acoustic venture. The clean vocals are very weak and lack the spirit that gives the harsh vocals its effectiveness. The lyrics don’t suffer at all on the acoustic disc but lack of room for experimentation by the guitars and absence of the rhythm section make the second disc forgettable, especially when compared to the first disc. This isn’t to say that the songs are bad, Headstone is one of the best songs on the album, but they aren’t as rounded as the ones on the first disc. Despite the shortcomings of the songs, it was still a breath of fresh to hear an acoustic song done by a hardcore band that didn’t involve overtly cheesy lyrics and didn’t disrupt the flow of the album.
Overall, Defeater has crafted an extremely good album that should be put alongside La Dispute’s Somewhere at the Bottom of a River as one of the best albums in the blanket hardcore genre. Full of ambition, almost to a fault, Empty Days and Sleepless Nights features some of the best musicianship and lyrics of the last few years in any genre. This album is nearly flawless.
Recommended Tracks- Warm Blood Rush, White Knuckles, Quiet the Longing, Headstone