Review Summary: Tried and tested methods are expanded upon enough to add extra dimensions and depth while still retaining their signature sound, with an intense lyrical theme that adds a depth not often seen in the hardcore scene. A fitting follow up to 'Youngboods'.
"Youngbloods" was the 2010 sophomore release by Australian post-hardcore band The Amity Affliction and in all honesty, when it dropped it hit harder than a god damn asteroid. It shot straight to #6 on the ARIA Charts, earned the band a nomination for the inagural ARIA for Best Metal/Hard Rock release, which they lost (undeservingly, some would argue) to Parkway Drive's 'Deep Blue'. The album also accrued truckload of Band and Album Of The Year nominations (most of which they won) and paved the way for their largest national tour to date, selling out venues that often seated over a couple of thousand attendees and allowing them to reach their tendrils beyond their homeland and begin to explore international territory in the form of several US and European tours.
In short, it was and still remains one of the most massive and most important Australian hardcore releases in history, and the expectation in the air for the inevitable follow-up was so thick that it was forming condensation on the walls, especially given the various lineup changes of late.
So, how did they do?
Honestly, its exactly what they needed to do: build upon 'Youngbloods' in every way, shape and form. Tighten the song-writing, capitalise on their improved musical abilities and consolidate on their established style to connect with their fanbase and reach a new group of supporters.
Opening song, first single and title track "Chasing Ghosts" is for all intents and purposes the new album's mission statement. Where the last album was based around harsh vocalist Joel Birch's internal struggles with suicide, this album takes it a step further and openly encourages preventative measures such as discussion of inner torment (as seen in third track and second single 'R.I.P. Bon', a song written from the perspective of someone dwelling on the suicide of a friend and despairing that they never opened up about their problems). "Chasing Ghosts" also revisits' Birch's atheistic lyrical themes and effectively relates them to the album's theme, as well as being one of the few tracks that includes an extremely melodic and catchy clean vocal interlude (more on that later). Essentially, it serves as an extremely effective segue between 'Youngbloods' and 'Chasing Ghosts'.
The rest of the album is a slight departure of their previous sound. The mix is far better than their previous outing. 'Youngbloods's greatest strength was also its greatest weakness: its massive production. It was almost impossible to listen to the album's songs as an entire entity as the various instruments tended to get lost in the muddy waters caused by the huge wall of sound mix. Instead, the listener was forced to focus on one, maybe two instruments at a time, and I'm pleased to say that that is no longer that case.
A large part of that is due to guitarist Troy Brady, who is pulling double duty here due to the recent upheaval caused by several member changes and he performs admirably, creating melodic hooks while never distracting from the rest of the band, a real quiet achiever. Ahren Stringer's bass is pratically inaudible but provides an effective low end for the mix, and frankly, his clean vocals are where his real talents lie. Drummer Ryan Burt is fantastic, he's always been one of the most solid and reliable skinsman in Australia and his kit work is constantly interspersed by interesting little fills, cymbal hits or quick blasts of the kick drum to keep things interesting.
The vocals are very interesting in this album. Where 'Youngbloods' and 'Severed Ties' were built around a clearly-defined foundation of screamed verses and cleanly-sung choruses full of bone deep hooks, this is no longer the case. Ahren Stringer is without doubt this band's biggest asset. His voice is dripping with one of the most incredible vocal tones in music today, and not just in hardcore either. He's now front and center, driving the melody forward on most tracks, while Joel screeches lyrics full of candor and earnest motivation and encouragement with a voice that sounds of pure venom and hatred. In fact, in a lot of tracks, the vocals will actually involve a conversation between two singers, providing a point-counterpoint debate, not unlike the song 'Carpe Diem on August Burns Red's 2011 'Leveler' album.
The key change, however, is that Ahren is now used in a far different capacity. There are no "Dr. Thunder" sing-a-longs choruses of bone-deep hooks, or at least not as many. His vocals are used in ways that lead the album along a path towards the inevitable climax in much the same way that exposition is used in movies and novels (most clearly seen in "Life Underground" and "Blue Pabst Ribbon on Ice") and while he undoubtedly adds an amazing second dimension to this album, its in a largely different capacity to what fans are used to. I personally find it amazing and a really good progression of their sound. This is not to say there aren't any amazing choruses, the title track has a melodic chorus that most post-hardcore bands would kill for in any of their tracks. The third track "R.I.P Bon" also has an amazingly melodic chorus, and the introspective and poignant context adds another dimension to it that makes it one of the standout tracks on the album.
Finally, yes, this album features the obligatory chugging breakdowns in Drop C that you all loathe so much, but these are some of the heaviest breakdowns of Amity's career, as seen at the 2:20 minute mark of "Life Underground", and they really do add a heavier edge to the music as a whole and do contribute towards the album's extremely heavy subject matter.
On a related matter, the album artwork features a man hanging from a tree by the neck. This accrued a large a amount of criticism towards the band for using that as an album artwork, and I feel the need to stand and applaud the bad for having the balls to use this as the artwork, especially when the rest of the images in the lyric booklet show a man sitting on a chair with a noose around his neck and clearly in anguish about his decision. This is not a celebration of suicidal tendencies, its a candid insight into the despair and loneliness that only someone who has stood on the brink of taking their own life, stared into the abyss and turned away from that literally life-ending decision can ever comprehend.
As someone who has stood at the brink and overcome the darkness, I feel the full impetus of the message behind the lyrics and artwork and also greatly respect the message below the credits to depression and suicide helplines and support groups as well. Its rare to see musicians so eagerly put themselves out there on such incredibly sensitive issues and stand by their convictions, regardless of the public backlash.
All in all, this is a deep, thoughtful record that successfully builds upon the success that 'Youngbloods' built. It follows the tried and tested formula of previous releases and expands upon them enough to add some extra dimensions and depth to the release while still staying true to their defining sound. Its a fitting follow-up to their mega-hit sophomore and ensures Amity will still rival Parkway Drive for the crown of Australia's hardcore kings for at least another couple of years.