Review Summary: Memphis May Fire's sophomore release for Rise Records showcases some of the best material they have offered up in years.
When a Rise Records band releases their second record, something always tends to happen. In some cases, they go heavier (Attack Attack!/Abandon All Ships). Other times, they mellow out (Sleeping With Sirens, Emarosa). But mostly, the change is not for the better (Miss May I/Of Mice and Men). The sound that Memphis May Fire has contrived over time is in full blossom on this album; for me, this may be one of the few sophomore releases from Rise Records that has lived up to, and stays on par with the first. Fans of The Hollow will feel completely at home, while older fans will appreciate the slight sound modifications.
"Without Walls" serves as a great opener, sampling the newer sound. Matt Mullins' vocals are not only great, but the bar is set high lyrically, as well. Challenger contains some of Mullins' best, and most mature lyrics yet. Kellen McGreggor's guitar riffs sound akin to The Hollow, but the southern swag returns in spurts. Follow-up song, "Alive In the Lights," is an album highlight, featuring a southern-sounding solo, and one of the catchiest hooks of the album. Where The Hollow seemed week, Challenger seems stronger, and more refined. Solos, and ambient passages (see Legacy) are added to give more depth to the songs, something that The Hollow struggled with. "Prove Me Right," is catchy, and the perfect choice for a lead single. Mullins sounds completely in his comfort zone, quickly switching from shouts and growls to soaring clean vocals.
Second single, "Vices," showcases good riffing, and a great chorus. After "Vices," the album tends to drag in a few areas. The guest vocalists, Danny Warsnop (Asking Alexandria), and Kellin Quinn (Sleeping With Sirens), don't provide much to the songs they are in. Warsnop delivers a halfway-decent vocal line before a generic growl leads into a breakdown. Quinn's contribution fits well in the song he is featured in, "Miles Away." This slower song is dedicated to Mullins and Quinn's wives, whom they spend much time apart from. Quinn's high vocals seem deliberately forced, and appear in an awkward spot in the song. "Generation: Hate", and "Losing Sight," sound dull, and lack the drive that the first half of the album carried. Regardless, the album picks up well with another highlight, "Jezebel."
However, the highlight of this album is "Red in Tooth and Claw," which may be MMF's best song, recently. At this point in the album, it is easy to tell that Jake Garland (who also carries drumming responsibilities with Broadway), is at the top of his game behind the drum kit; he kills it on this song. The guitar harmonizations and riffs feel right at home here, and Mullins' harsh vocals direct the song. The guitar chugging is evident, but not abused. The song slows down and provides an eerie, heavy moment, probably the darkest of the album. This song and "Alive In the Light" both show a more mature songwriting style of MMF, and don't seem artificial, like some songs off The Hollow.
It can be argued that this is The Hollow Part Two, and that this album is merely a rehashing. Challenger has more diversity (including the two guest spots), and feels more complete than The Hollow, beginning with a powerful intro, and ending with an instrumental piece. Challenger stands as some of Memphis May Fire's finest work to date. The music sounds less repetitive, and more organic. At the same time, the production (by guitarist, Kellen McGreggor) is a step up from The Hollow. Memphis May Fire's style has not changed dramatically, but these songs have them sounding at their best. Mullins' performance is fantastic, and the entire rhythm section of the band sets a great pace. This is Memphis May Fire at their best.