It is a rare occurrence that I see a band perform live without having first previewed most of their song catalog. When I rock out at a concert, I want to be able to rock out with confidence, which for me, comes from knowing their songs. However, Acceptance is a notable exception. I went to see these guys open up (along with a band called The Pink Spiders) for Yellowcard at the University of Northern Iowa. I went because tickets were only $10 and my friend Melissa, who attends UNI, begged me to go. To put it bluntly, I had very low expectations. However, after the show ended, I felt like I got every dollar's worth of my money...and more. Acceptance made me a fan that night. They had a vast amount of energy, confidence, and ability. Based on what I witnessed, I purchased their major-label debut, Phantoms, a couple of weeks later. Ultimately, I was satisfied, but slightly disappointed.
To say that the energy that they boasted at the concert shows through on this album would be a big stretch. However, it's nearly impossible for any band to retain a live show's energy level on a studio recorded disc, so I don't hold that against them. But I wish that at least a handful of the excitement I experienced at the concert could have been captured and put into that shiny object they call a CD case. Unfortunately, the songs seem to glide through without ever establishing much in the way of momentum. My listening experiences with Phantoms show a similar progression to my experiences with sneaking out of my house in high school. At first listen, it started out with an initial burst of excitement and uncertainty about what was to come. Even though I didn't enjoy every song, I enjoyed the overall experience that came about. But after just a few listens, I slipped into an all-too-quick level of comfort with the CD. It lost the excitement; it lost the fun. By now, I feel like cranking up the volume to 10 and waking my parents up just to add some more exhilaration. Of course, that could just be because I've listened to it too often; just like I probably snuck out too often. Anyways, with that long-winded comparison out of the way, I should probably get to the actual content of this disc.
The opening track, "Take Cover," starts out with a fairly bold assertion from singer Jason Vena: "She's a liar." Can you take a shot at what the rest of this song is going to be about? Well, it's the typical story of a man who is being cheated on by his girlfriend and is mostly oblivious. Jason expresses his desire to be kept in the dark by belting out the line "I don't wanna be the one who caught you/So take cover." This is your typical powerpop fare. It's delivered nicely, but without much emotion. The same can be said for the "So Contagious." Hearing Acceptance move into a ballad so early on in the album was quite a surprise. The opening guitar line would sound more appropriate for Kelly Clarkson and her new "I'm not in a rock band, but I want to try to sound like I am" persona. Nothing much to detail here; it's what you would expect from your garden-variety ballad.
I think even Acceptance realized that they delved into the ballad arena too quickly and attempts to make up for it with a harder-tinged "In Too Far." Even the brooding guitars can't overwhelm Jason's syrupy sweet vocals, though. His voice seems a little out of place here, but is ushered back into its realm with the procession of "The Letter." Even the name suggests that this can and will be a ballad. This offers a little bit more in the way of background instrumentation. Still not a lot to sink your teeth into, so don't get your hopes up.
Wait a minute...do my ears deceive me? Or is that yet another ballad that I hear in the distance? That's a real shame, because I was hoping for something "Different." Unfortunately, they decide to shove more soft stuff down our throats. So, perhaps someone can answer this question for me (because I surely can't): why do I like this song? It could be because of its honest approach. It could be because I'm a sucker for sudden changes in pitch. Or it could be because I'm a pansy. Whatever the case may be, it certainly tingles my eardrums in all the right ways.
When I first heard the opening to "Ad Astra Per Aspera," I got very excited. It was that same type of excitement that I got from seeing them in concert. A charging guitar riff was fueled by a heated set of drums. Unfortunately, the excitement faded when I realized that this was only a short instrumental and not an entire song. Drats! But thankfully, the next song, "This Conversation is Over" provides just as much energy. As polished as this album is, there are still glimmers of some raw emotion that are just barely able to shine through. One of these moments is when Jason repeatedly sings "You don't have to follow!" as a notice that he has moved on. A bit of that carries over into "Over You," which proclaims the same statement, but with a little less oomph. The biting guitars are still there, but their teeth have been replaced with dentures. Swift and a bit redundant, the song fades out before it has the time to really ingrain itself.
"Breathless" is truly a standout track and leaves you nothing short of the title. A simple palm muted guitar riff and solid cymbal beat establishes a ghostly sort of mood, which is aided by the echoed chant of "Watch her go/Watch her go/Watch her go." After a few seconds of this, a solid drumbeat/bass line increases the tension of the buildup. By the time they hit the chorus, it feels like a grand release of emotion. Then, for a brief moment, the song becomes upbeat, almost chipper, before retreating back to its ethereal state.
"In the Cold" offers some memorable lyrics, such as "If you ever believe this is what you need/It will spin around and shatter/Throw you to the floor/As it leaves us in the cold." It has a nice, unobtrusive rhythm that automatically makes you bob your head like an idiot. The band sharpens its edge with its deliverance of "Permanent," one of my favorite songs of this year. I love the contradictory, almost split-personality intensive nature of the chorus: "It's permanent/Nothing is permanent." Throw in some thrashing guitars with intensity out-the-anus and you've got one incredible song.
What better way to end an album like this than with a ballad? But don't let the clever title fool you, "Glory/Us" isn't anything too original. It is, however, in alignment with all of the other ballads on this album. It's solid. Nothing more; nothing less.
That's the general statement that I would put with Phantoms as a whole. It really is a solid album, but it lacks the raw passion and energy that these guys obviously possess. More than that, there are too many easy comparisons that could be made to other bands to be able to call Acceptance original or innovative. I recommend checking these guys out if you are a fan of Matchbook Romance, All-American Rejects, Rufio, The Academy Is..., Emery, Augustana, or Yellowcard. You'll more than likely become a fan of these guys too.