Review Summary: A capable band stuck in a generic cage
It’s safe to stay Memphis May Fire had quite a bit going for them in their career. The once Southern metal-tinged post-hardcore outfit set the bar early in their lives with "Sleepwalking", then settled into a heavier, (though more basic) metalcore niche with "The Hollow". Both albums featured enough competent riffs and driving drums along with impressive vocal work to subside their use of the staple of too many Rise Records bands: breakdowns. What was to come next for the band? Fans like me hoped for a return to the Southern-metal sound that made "Sleepwalking" so fascinating, though keeping the heavier aspects of "The Hollow". For the most part that is what "Challenger" brings to the table. So what went wrong?
Simple enough: everything.
Memphis May Fire have painfully toned down the aspects of their music that gave them a creative edge over the countless bands in their scene. The production inflicts a crippling blow to "Challenger". Almost unbearably clean production makes what should be crisp and heavy guitar tones plain and nearly monotonous. This is most noticeable when the band transition into breakdowns, which were overused on "The Hollow" but were at least done well. Take the song “Legacy” for example. There is absolutely no change in guitar tone or pitch when breakdowns kick in thanks to the production, leaving them sounding weak and hollow (ha). What should be driving riffs and innovative drums end up sounding restricted, as if they have nowhere to go. This is a very disappointing contrast from older songs like “Ghost in the Mirror” with its atmospherically powerful instrumental sections. You’ll find none of that here. In its place you’ll be tortured with electronics that give nothing back to the song, and even end up killing it (see the laughably bad outro on “Prove Me Right”). It’s a shame guitarists as capable as Kellen and Anthony are left with no wiggle room to keep things interesting.
Not all is lost in the realm of riffs though, some are still there, and are quite good when they show up. Memphis May Fire throw us a solo in the first proper song “Alive in the Lights”, which fits the built up mood perfectly. What’s more, the solo and the song as a whole bring back the Southern-metal sound. But the production strikes again. The solo and the rest of the riffs in the same song are buried by rhythm and chugging, and overpowered by useless effects. A real shame, as the songs could really benefit from less constraint.
Perhaps the largest key to the success of Memphis May Fire lies in their vocalist, Matty Mullins. He has always kept things interesting in the past, switching between a midrange scream, low guttural growls, and a wonderful singing voice. All three are back, however "Challenger" sees his clean singing take the front stage in most songs, almost entirely in “Generation: Hate”. While he has quite the voice, it gets dull. This is even worse when considering the overproduction of his vocals, which end up suffering the same fate as the riffs. His growls, once a harbinger of an imminent, crushing breakdown, are hollow. This would be acceptable, if not for the words coming from his mouth. The lyrics on this album are atrocious. Contemporaries such as Miss May I are no poets either, but Memphis May Fire are certainly capable of better lines than these cringe-worthy lines:
“Your normal life, 9 to 5, is not for me, I need to feel alive!” – Alive in the Lights
“All dressed up in purple & pink, she'll do whatever it takes to get to VIP. She thinks everyone wants to see her down on her knees, but what she doesn't know is everyone just wants her to leave!” – Jezebel
You wonder what Memphis May Fire were thinking, such lyrics could be scrapped outtakes from Avenged Sevenfold and are embarrassing.
What keeps this album afloat is consistency. Production, lyrics, and all-too prevalent clean vocals aside, the songs generally are good. “Miles Away” features clean vocals from Kellin Quinn of Sleeping With Sirens infamy and is a very strong ballad by the band. Closer “Vessels” is a great instrumental track, though it would be more suited in the middle of the album as an interlude. “Vices” is a great, heavy track and doesn’t suffer too much from the effects and production, and is one of the few where Mullins’ growls are perfectly used. Let us hope this album is nothing but a misstep for Memphis May Fire, as most, if not all, of their signature sound is still alive. The band as a whole needs to break out of this generic, constrained trance and amplify their strengths.