Review Summary: Relax and enjoy the ride. Rival Schools still have it.
Music genres are a pain in the ass. Fans of one given style can argue until they're blue in the face whether one artist or another falls within the boundaries of the favorite genre. 'Post-hardcore' seems to mean so many different things that it's almost a useless term at this point. Guys like Fugazi get called “post-hardcore,” but so do At The Drive-In, Number Girl, and Underoath. None of these bands sound remotely similar to each other. So after I heard Rival Schools' debut album last year – about a decade after the fact – I found it fascinating that apparently this constituted a “post-hardcore” record from a supergroup made of “post-hardcore” legends. Or something like that.
Frankly, I don't care. United By Fate, regardless of its genre, sounded like a punchy, aggressive indie rock album to me, but an almost-accessible and (dare I say) radio-ready one. I somehow managed to enjoy it even without any context for the previous work of the band members. So when I heard that the group had released a new album, I was interested but came to it with none of the expectations of one immersed in their slice of the post-hardcore pie and whether or not it sounded heavier or more melodic or whatever. To put it succinctly, Pedals is about as good as United By Fate. But United By Fate probably isn't quite as great as everyone else says it is, while Pedals is better than it gets credit for. Confusing, yes.
“Wring It Out” is a great opening track, though maybe not as strong as “Travel By Telephone.” It almost sounds like something you might here on an alt-rock radio station in the late 90s, with great hooks and a strong chorus, and wouldn't really be out of place on their first record. “69 Guns” is a much better song, though, and has some great guitar and melodies that lend the song an expansive, uplifting sound totally unlike anything they're written before. It's a standout track on this album and the band's career as a whole. “Eyes Wide Open” isn't as good as the first two tracks, but it's better than the bland meat-rock of “Choose Your Adventure.”
Things pick up again with “Racing To Red Lights,” a slower and more melodic tune that relieves the last two songs quite nicely. Contrary to what you'd expect, Rival Schools are best on this album when they're not retreading old ground, and focus on expanding their musical range. “Shot After Shot” is a better take on hard rock, while “A Parts for B Actors” and “Big Waves” both round out the album with some more memorable sounds. “Small Doses” tends to get lost in the middle of better songs, with closing track “The Ghost Is Out There” being another album standout. The verse sounds raggedy and rough, while the chorus is singable and catchy. Maybe better than on their debut album, Rival Schools do a good job of making things sound accessible without emitting undesirable vibes of pandering or selling out.
A few dull tracks drag down the album, but its best moments are quite worth the price of admission. But it's a record best enjoyed after you've put aside genre-squabbling and take it on its own terms instead of relentlessly comparing it to other releases. I understand that frontman Walter S. is a prolific and respected figure in the (get ready for this) post-hardcore scene, but I've never heard any of his bands (apparently I was listening to the wrong stripe of post-hardcore this whole time) and honestly I don't care that much. What matters most is what he's doing, right here, and Pedals is a strong record, indeed.