Review Summary: Chevelle's superb return to their roots abandons goofy lyrics and experimental compositions in favor of what made them so great to begin with.
Chevelle are a band that no matter how much they try to say that they’re evolving, they never seem to. While that may be a horrible thing in some cases, Chevelle embrace their craft. They remain some of the heaviest, but most radio-friendly bands in alternative rock today. However, they do try to evolve. Their previous three albums were decent attempts at changing their own status quo, but even the great Sci-fi Crimes seemed to ignore what made the band so iconic among the radio rock circuit: their force. Chevelle are a band that feels organic and honed where other bands feel stagnant and dragged down. It’s the heaviness that fuels Chevelle.
It becomes very apparent very early that Chevelle want to revitalize their sound back to the heaviness of Wonder What’s Next instead of reaching for the bizarre middle-ground found in Vena Sera and Sci-Fi Crimes, where pop influences and alternative rock chart supremacy seemed to infect what they do best. In irony, Chevelle was able to return to the success seen in Wonder What’s Next not by changing their sound drastically, but by digging in and returning to their roots.
The band’s crunchy, grinding guitar work has been noticeably absent for the last few albums, but very much like the band’s Wonder What Next album, Hats Off to the Bull has plenty of heavy guitar sounds especially in the band’s chart-topping single “Face to the Floor.” But despite the song’s weighted tempo, the band doesn’t seem to be dragging its feet. The songs on Hats Off to the Bull feel like they have gravity, a thickness that feels less artificial and much more organic for a band that have rushed rock radio without holding back. Chevelle has broken the chains that have hindered some of their past albums, finally reaching a fist-to-face intensity that disappeared sometime after Wonder What’s Next was released.
Pete Loeffler still has a surreal infatuation with the vocal work of Tool and A Perfect Circle’s Maynard James Keenan, constantly jumping from a guttural belt-out yell to a suffocating whisper multiple times throughout the album. Pete Loeffler’s voice also balances the yelling and singing in ways seen by Deftones’ Chino Moreno, albeit in a much more in-your-face way. As a vocalist, Pete Loeffler has a very distinctive aura about his singing. His inability to focus on singing or yelling exclusively tends to benefit him more than it would any other vocalist in alternative rock these days. The title track of the album is a fantastic mix of Pete Loeffler’s manipulative nature of the typical vocalist. He just makes it sound so damn easy as he makes yells feel spot-on amongst a hypnotic singing style. “The Meddler” is one of the best on the album. Its siren-like guitar climbs are backed by a powerful stomp of a beat, with Sam Loeffler keep the pace with a colossal motion and some of the most pounding drumlines ever heard in the band’s extensive catalog.
But Hats Off to the Bull doesn’t skip on some lighter notes in between the gnashing and tearing musical compositions. “Pinata” lets up on the heaviness as Pete’s voice takes center stage with more fluid guitars, but erupts into a nimbler pace seen in past songs like Vena Sera’s “Brainiac.” “Arise” is ascendant, a song that climbs higher and higher, something that the rest of the album doesn’t do in favor of weight and force, but ultimately descends in a saddening fall. It’s a fantastic track that paints a picture just as much as it rocks hard.
The Loeffler brothers and their brother-in-law Dean Bernardini don’t show the playfulness of Sci-fi Crimes in Hats Off to the Bull. Sci-fi Crimes’ masterful mix of tongue-in-cheek lyrics with alternative rock radio accessibility was a unique turn for the band, but you won’t find alien references or environmental in-jokes on Hats Off to the Bull. It’s a contained, but angry aesthetic that works incredibly well, especially for a band who aims to recapture the built-up fury heard in songs like “The Red.” “Envy” has sadness and sorrow usurping the grinding anger’s throne, an odd choice for the band, but still feels apropos to the overall sense of emotive energy that Hats Off to the Bull brings. What makes the lyrical content in Hats Off to the Bull so poignant is that they’ve made anger beautiful. They’ve made the crunch of guitars and fissure strikes of drum beats into something portrait-esque and well worth listening to.
If there was one issue with Hats Off to the Bull, it’d be the few times that the guys deviate from their new (or old) focus. It’s almost surreal to think that this album was originally teased as an all-acoustic album, but the song “Prima Donna”, while a staple to Chevelle’s template of including an acoustic song on each album, doesn’t fit in at all amongst the fury of the rest of the album. The composition itself isn’t anything to write home about either, since it mostly sits on a pace that harkens to mainstream rock more than Chevelle’s trademark vision.
Chevelle are a band that has gone through some odd phases. They’ve phoned it in a bit too much more than preferred in their overall discography, but they hit a clever equilibrium with Sci-fi Crimes. Hats Off to the Bull isn’t an album without faults, but for a band who has always been the poster child of anti-experimentation and sticking to their guns, it really does feel like the trio is after that perfect storm that Wonder What’s Next brought out. After five albums and a ton of touring of the alternative rock concert circuit, Chevelle had appeared to have lost their focus. Hats Off to the Bull is a wakeup call, one that doesn’t do much new, but brings back why the band has been so memorable over the years. Those who really enjoyed Sci-fi Crimes’ goofy subject matter and slightly experimental compositions may be put off a bit at the straight-ahead approach that Chevelle are pitching again with Hats Off to the Bull, but to those who grew up with Pete’s crooning and heavy, heavy tones will find their sixth studio album to be a fine throwback to one of modern radio rock’s most iconic groups.