Review Summary: A genuinely surprising exercise in experimentation and nuance."When we went into writing Black Lines, we felt like we wanted to try something new and fresh… Overall, on this album we went for more mature songwriting and created an album for ourselves and not just writing for our fans.”
- Derek Sanders, lead singer of Mayday Parade
Throughout the brief promotional campaign leading up to the release of Black Lines
, the key theme that has been emphasized by Tallahassee pop punk staples Mayday Parade and those around them is evolution and change. You could forgive many for being skeptical, or even outright dismissive. Ever since the band found a winning formula - and a sizable, devoted fanbase - on their still excellent debut A Lesson In Romantics
, they have largely hewed to the same formula of cleanly produced singalong anthems and heartstring-tugging ballads, usually with sparse piano accompaniment. That isn’t to say the results haven’t frequently been enjoyable - to the contrary, 2011’s self-titled third outing frequently met the soaring heights of their debut, despite the absence of that album’s main songwriter, co-frontman Jason Lancaster. Lancaster’s departure cast a huge shadow in the immediate aftermath of the band’s rise, and largely sunk their more mainstream-leaning second album, Anywhere But Here
In hindsight, it seems the band reacted defensively the negative reception that album received - they retreated from a major label back to independent status, and shied away from working with outside producers, opting for the Romantics
production duo of Zack Odom and Kenneth Mount for every subsequent release. And for diehards, the band’s emotional formula continues to pay off time after time… yet casual fans such as myself had long since dismissed them as a one-trick pony. Their newer work was enjoyable when in the right mood, but there was little reason for excitement when one can simply hear the same formula done better and more engagingly on Romantics
. The band clearly had the potential and talent to push themselves further, but seemed content endlessly catering to their core fanbase. Mayday Parade had become yet another complacent, stagnant pop punk machine.
When Black Lines
’ lead single “Keep In Mind, Transmogrification Is A New Technology” was released, it seemed to largely confirm the band’s unwillingness to push itself, hewing closely to the band’s motifs and featuring a slow build to an anthemic hook. Yet there were signs of progress as well, in the somewhat more technical instrumentation and a slow-burning, rather beautiful outro. Even more interesting was the production, helmed by none other than emo legend Mike Sapone, the man behind the boards of scene classics by Brand New and Taking Back Sunday. One could only hope that Sapone’s more raw approach to rock production would influence the band’s songwriting process.
Yet all the hopes in the world can’t prepare listeners for the experience of actually listening to Black Lines
, a record that takes the narrow, safe approach evident throughout Mayday Parade’s discography and blows it apart in a blast of energetic fury. Opener “One Of Them Will Destroy The Other” comes out of the gate full of distorted guitars and raw passion, and Sapone’s production is a natural fit for the post-hardcore influenced assault. The track features a guest turn by Real Friends frontman Dan Lambton, but the real surprise comes from within Mayday Parade, as lead singer Derek Sanders gives a terrific performance that is captivating both in its intensity and differentiation from his past work, as he incorporates raw singing and screams reminiscent of Brand New’s Jesse Lacey.
It is a fitting introduction to an album that sees both Sanders and the rest of the band stepping out of their comfort zone in major ways, to create an album that is simultaneously their most aggressive and most subtle, free of much of the overwrought bombast and pop sheen that has held the band back in the past. The band’s previous producers mixed their albums like pop records, with all the polish that comes along with the territory… Sapone forgoes this approach entirely and mixes Black Lines
like a Brand New album, emphasizing the raw emotion that is at the core of Mayday Parade, while helping give it a newfound bite. And the contrast between these two seemingly disparate forces provides for a thrilling listen reminiscent of some of the best records Sapone has produced, while still retaining the knack for melodicism and accessibility that the band is known for. Even songs like “Keep In Mind…” that stick closest to the bands old sound benefit greatly from this exchange, imbued with a new life and energy. And the payoff is even greater when the band touches on darker influences, such as in the groovy bassline of “Hollow” and grungy riffage of “Let’s Be Honest”. On the opposite end of the spectrum, breakup anthem “Letting Go” channels 90s power ballads in the best way possible, and the truly haunting “Look Up And See Infinity, Look Down And See Nothing” features Sanders doing his best Lacey impression over an ethereal glockenspiel loop.
It’s as if Mayday Parade finally opened the windows of their sonic palate, embracing all the diverse influences and sonic textures that were begging to be let in throughout their decade-long career. The band didn’t need to completely reinvent their sound to be fresh again, they just needed to expand the best elements of it and push them into new territory - and they accomplish exactly what they set out to do, while also making their best album to date. While we may never be sure if this band’s newfound maturity is the result solely of their own devices or of the influence exerted by Sapone (in reality it is likely a mixture of both), one thing is for certain: Black Lines
is a genuinely surprising and engaging case study in what can happen when a band decides to stop being mired in complacency and sonic stagnation and just goes for it
, regardless of what their fanbase may think. While Sanders’ vocal performance may occasionally come across as someone treading in unfamiliar waters, it also sounds exactly like what it is - that of a man pushing himself out of his comfort zone for the first time… and this element of exploration is one of the most thrilling elements of the album. Take note, fellow pop punk denizens - this is what evolution looks like.