Review Summary: I must say that I'm surprised -- I never thought I'd find an album that deserves a 5.
"Four Albums and Still No Ballad!" says an Exodus shirt. Punk invigorates us all -- it awakens the roaring demon of fury in all of us. At times it may bring out angry feelings, and it may make us more emotional. It can induce tears and pure passion in almost anyone. Fast drumming, powerful vocals, anthemic vocal delivery and lo-fi guitar melodies energize me beyond feeling. In most cases, no type of music is as heartfelt as punk.
This idea was clear to me only after I listened to 'Life On the James', the sixth album by Virginia-based metallic-hardcore group Down to Nothing.
Mixing elements of groove metal, crossover thrash and hardcore punk, this record loudly chants the passion of punk. 'Life On the James' rocks the hell out of a speaker with its moshable grooves and animated lyrics yelled by Miret-esque vocalist. No album truly displays such invigoration in a 12-track, 25-minute time period, song length averaging out to 2:15. It takes all the extremities of hardcore music and turns them up to maximal magnitudes.
It all begins on "When I Rest I Rust", a song that immediately commands authority with opening line "Make way!" The song describes the rest of the album so perfectly -- like all other songs, it is so catchy in its speed and chorus that it seems to send aftershocks through the auditor. This track is followed by "Dirty South", a nostalgic song about how someone who misses his homeland, Dixie. The lyrics in this song are filled with nostalgic, sentimental values: "... Where I belong, to the place of open arms -- love, warmth, and no harm. The weather's predicting sunshine..."
A problem I will typically have with hardcore punk groups is that their songs have such great riffs, but they do not last long enough -- that said, although all of the songs on this album are rather short, they do not seem like it. For example, "Brothers Turned Strangers", the best song on the album, is so fast that it can fit such a seemingly extensive track into 2 minutes. This song brings me to another value on 'Life On the James': such punk-y songs are performed to perfection, and the production is absolutely perfect -- in other words, this LP is an extremely polished form of punk, whilst not ascribing pretention to itself. Another great thing about 'Life on the James' is that it knows how to rock a groove so well it induces moshing -- "Sheffield" and "Soak it Up" convey this idea to its extent, composed of mostly slow beats, in strong contrast to the rest of the bass-snare-bass-snare drumming of most of the rest of the album, and a breakdown.
One feature that made it difficult to not love this album for is its composition skills. Such short song structures may be akin to repetitivity throughout, but Down to Nothing makes catchy riffs which progress somewhat beyond their pre-written punk template. "When I Rest I Rust" exhibits this in its prime as it may repeat riffs, but not to the point to which one would get sick of them; no, rather it repeats them just enough times that I grow to love them and remember them well.
This album may draw directly from crossover thrash and hardcore punk from the 80's; that said, it is NOT for fans of bands such as Minor Threat. Rather than having short songs that all sound alike, Down to Nothing makes the best of every minute-and-a-half track. Also, they do not seem like the stereotypical, skinhead, tough punk group -- they seem to sound much more sophisticated, as if they have absolutely nothing to prove at all; this is the main feature that makes this album so attractive.
There is not very much to say about 'Life On the James' -- it captures punk in its most sophisticated yet aggressive image. It creates grooves that can't really get any more danceable; it squeezes so much fury into less than half of an hour; it is so catchy and memorable (unlike most hardcore, no song sounds alike); its lyrical quality is top-notch; the riffs are so heavy and perfect; the production is perfect. I must say I really tried to find something that I didn't enjoy about this record -- it ended up really blowing me away. But, that's up to my "5" (once, "10") list:
✓ Perfect production
✓ Catchy music
✓ Emotional lyrics
✓ Not (too) repetitive
✓ Captivating (not boring)
✓ Amazed me on the first listen (yes, this is required for it to get a perfect score)
✓ Not homogenous (every song sounds different; hard to achieve in hardcore, mind you)
✓ Consistent (every song is as good as the last)
✓ Perfect performance
I once saw a gutter-punk with a patch that said "Punk is Dead!" -- that person obviously hasn't heard of Down to Nothing. 5/5