Review Summary: Almost as good as a debut album gets, Heartsounds serves as a beacon of hope in a drowning scene which is almost devoid of creativity. Of Virtue tip their hat to major influences such as Misery Signals, while forging their own heavier twist on the sound.
Let's not beat around the bush here - Michigan's Of Virtue are an incredibly talented band with a mountain of potential before them. That much was at least clear after the release of their first EP To Breathe Again in 2009.
I had high hopes for Heartsounds, but I honestly wasn't expecting such a matured and complete release from the band, especially since it's their debut. Of Virtue employ a progressive sound close to a mixture of Misery Signals with a touch of Volumes, but it feels uniquely heavier and it's done so well where many other bands will fall flat on their face. Heartsounds is explosive. It's passionate, beautiful, crushingly heavy and most things in between.
An Absence of Clarity opens the album with a tranquil yet haunting guitar instrumental, really setting the atmosphere for the 50-minute-long feast. Some simple snare work bridges you into the second track Damaged. This is where you will be grabbed by your neck and slammed into the floor. All instruments immediately roar along with Mickolas Maltby's furious vocals, which sounds and feels reminiscent of the opening seconds in Misery Signals' 2006 album Mirrors. From the first few minutes, it's pretty easy to see what the rest of Heartsounds will be like - pissed off with a generous slice of pain and melody.
It's also pretty apparent straight away at how far the band's musicianship has evolved since their EP. There is much more diversity to each song such as the track Isolation where the band aren't hesitant to shy away from a heavier use of clean vocals. While cleans are sometimes considered a no-no for the genre or to be used sparingly, they work very well here and give you a break from the low-mid pitch yells.
Tracks like No Light and The Gypsy showcase how the band can continually strike that fine contrast between ball-breaking anger and atmospheric melody, while avoiding repetition or monotony within their songs. Breakdowns are present in quite a few of the tracks - but they aren't use as a gimmicky tool, they flow effectively and are so angry that they're hard not to headbang to. Polyrhythmic passages and riffs with irregular time signatures really drive home the unique sound Of Virtue have created for themselves, without pulling too much from their main influences.
The vocal work found throughout Heartsounds is solid to say the least, if only slightly repetitive at times. Maltby has kept the same style used on their EP To Breathe Again but has refined it into a more focused and powerful roar, which suits both the heavier segments and the prettier parts to songs he uses them in. To contrast this ferocity, the guitars still have their beautiful reverb-filled melodies (also heard in the EP) that are picked over the top of harmonising chords to create a rich and deep atmosphere, yet are equally brutal in heavier parts where they need to be.
I will often say that a creative drummer can give a band certain unique flavours that make the music more interesting and really elevate it above the competition. While the drumming here is nothing overly-special (think Branden Morgan of Misery Signals or Andrew Tkaczyk of For the Fallen Dreams), it's still both proficient and interesting, sometimes breaking away from the guitar chug patterns and riffs - a cookie-cutter trap most other drummers in the genre fall into.
A real climax for me while listening to the album was a beautiful guitar buildup into a passionate and almost emotional finale to the ninth song Soul Searcher, where the combination of melodic picking, chords and gut-wrenching vocals nearly proved overwhelming. It was moments like this that made me realise just how beautiful yet desperate some of these songs were, and proper passion could be felt rather than heard.
With all this praise though, Heartsounds is by no means perfect. Maltby's yells don't change their pitch all too often, and as mentioned before, can become a little grating and monotonous in certain tracks. Another tiny nitpick is that each song clocks in at around 4-5 minutes which is typical of the genre, but this makes any technical passages that are dragged on a little noisy on the ears (all irony aside). It doesn't feel like I'm being critical enough, but then there isn't that much to criticise given it's their first album.
This in mind, I think I can safely say that Heartsounds is a triumph for Of Virtue, not just as a standalone release, but as a landmark of maturity and something more to come. It's one of the most refreshing metalcore albums in a couple of years, standing out from the pack in a scene that is almost totally devoid of creativity. My final score is 4.3 but I feel that the calibre of material and sheer effort made for a debut warrants the rating I have left up for it.
I am excited to see where the years will take Of Virtue, as it seems the only direction to go from here is up.