Review Summary: Song For The Underdog marks a stylistic shift back to the hook-laden punk-influenced hard rock of their debut.
While radio rock continues to suffer its post-grunge hangover (those poor, sensitive Seattle boys never could hold their drink), heavy, mindless, party rock has slowly crept back onto the radio. Though the ‘80s will (thankfully") never be repeated, the sound of spit-shined, radio-primed, bad-boy rock has returned, and with the likes of Daughtry, Nickelback and Hinder leading the way- well, let’s be honest- who’d listen to the radio"
Waiting patiently on the fringes are St. Louis, Missouri’s Bullets And Octane. Not as polished or as self-aware as their major label peers, the group nonetheless earned themselves a successful three-month tour with the reigning kings of pop-metal, Avenged Sevenfold, in 2006. Their latest LP, Song For The Underdog
, comes fresh from the dissolution of their contract with RCA Records. Notoriously ill-at-ease with the heavier metals, RCA botched the promotional campaign for 2006’s In The Mouth Of The Young
, an angry, ambitious effort produced by innovative former Helmet guitarist Page Hamilton. Returning to LA-based independent Ares Records, Song For The Underdog
is the group’s third full-length release. Produced by bassist Brent Clawson, it marks a stylistic shift back to the hook-laden, punk-influenced hard rock brilliantly captured on their Gilby Clarke-produced debut The Revelry
While there’s plenty of continuity between In The Mouth Of The Young
and Song For The Underdog
, it’s the differences which make the latter a far more enjoyable record. Every aspect of Song For The Underdog
has been made more simple and less contrived. The subtext decrying the corruption of youth which ran right through In The Mouth Of The Young
has been entirely erased; Song For The Underdog
’s lyrics are lighter and more relatable, dealing with familiar themes of sex, drugs, love and werewolves. So too is the music noticeably less aggressive, and as a result more fun, while the sonic experimentation and textural complexity explored with Page Hamilton has been put on the back-burner temporarily in favour of simplistic but well-constructed rock n’ roll. The result is a more-rounded, more engaging and ultimately a more playable record than In The Mouth Of The Young
The album opens with the stuttered guitar riffs and gang vocals of ‘Breakout,’ one of the record’s more aggressive offerings and obviously reminiscent of In The Mouth Of The Young
’s ‘Going Blind.’ That’s where the similarities end, however; the upbeat, rockabilly verse calls to mind The Revelry
’s ‘Pirates,’ describing a wild night out through a thinly-veiled werewolf metaphor: “by every rising moon, in the darkness we shall move alone / and from the shadows creepy crawly sin, the corruption of the young begins.”
Lead single (and title track) ‘Song For The Underdog’ and ‘Building A Legend’ see singer Gene Louis at his gruff best, cycling effortlessly between sweet melodies and guttural yells; the former features an infectious Oi!-inspired gang chorus, the latter calling to mind Swedish sleaze acts like Hardcore Superstar and Backyard Babies.
Louis has always been the band’s most distinctive feature and unique selling point- his throaty rasp has invited comparisons to Avenged Sevenfold’s M. Shadows, however his clever melodic choices and ability to switch dynamically between hard and soft vocals are more reminiscent of the better Bay Area hardcore singers- Social Distortion’s Mike Ness and Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin come immediately to mind. Unfortunately, the impression is only deepened by Song For The Underdog
, as the three remaining members appear to have taken a step back and reigned in their instincts. Former Guttermouth and Vandals drummer Ty Smith was a shining light on In The Mouth Of The Young
, yet he appears oddly reserved here; and guitarist James Daniel’s leads are either less imaginative than previous efforts or cut out completely. Opener ‘Breakout’ serves as a perfect example: when the time comes for a lead break, Daniel falls into a repetitive chord phrasing rather than adding anything quantitative to the track.
The singer isn’t beyond criticism either; occasionally, his heavy-handed vocal style is overpowering where a softer approach may have worked better, such as the chorus of the ultra-melodic ‘I Caught Fire.’ The inclusion of two ballad-type tracks, the Avenged Sevenfold-like ‘Gravestone Love’ and ‘City Of Angels,’ which calls to mind the Goo Goo Dolls, sound out of place on an otherwise extremely catchy and upbeat album. More unexpected influences crop up too. ‘My Heart Is An Empire’ is pure pop punk, commencing with muted chords and hushed vocals before taking in an unashamedly sugary chorus, and ‘All Down Hill From Here’ recalls Fall Out Boy, both musically and vocally. ‘I Caught Fire’ and ‘Harder To Breathe’ contrast indie rock guitar lines with heavy riffs, while highlight ‘Welcome To The Holiday’ recalls post-grunge rockers Local H’s ‘California Songs.’
While Song For The Underdog
doesn’t quite live up to the understated magic of The Revelry
, it does display the group’s most confident and most accomplished songwriting to date. And if that’s the result of their major label split, then perhaps a few of their contemporaries should consider a similar move.