Review Summary: Modern Life Is War produces another great album, but one that falls short of the success of their previous LP, Witness.
Modern Life Is War - Midnight in America
I feel like Modern Life Is War is one of those hardcore bands that gets tagged and filed as a success. In a similar fashion to With Honor, Comeback Kid and less so, Set It Straight, and 108, Modern Life Is War are releasing an LP on a large independent label after very positive responses to their previous LPs, My Love. My Way.
. I'm not the biggest fan of My Love. My Way.
It's a little too monosyllabic for me in its stripped down hardcore gesticulations. I appreciate how powerful they can be when they're using slow, heavy riffing against equally molasses drumming, but when I think of most of the hardcore music I truly love, I favor the double-time punk beats and swinging guitar over the crushing chords and slobbering tom-tom hits. And it was on Witness
that Modern Life Is War struck gold by mixing their earlier power (The part "so what the fuc
k..." on "The Outsiders (aka Hell is for Heroes Part I)" or the entirety of "Marshalltown") with the faster, catchier guitar work and melodies (1:54 on "Martin Atchet") and exciting drumming ("John and Jimmy"). Now, they're releasing their third LP on Equal Vision, a label that has released albums from Coheed and Cambria, Bear vs. Shark, and The Fall of Troy, bands that all seem to be singular and bellwethers in their own rights. Modern Life Is War fits into the mix well being a hardcore band with tons of good cred coming from their crushing heaviness, yet enough mass appeal to be marketed to kids who are also excited for the new Fall of Troy album. That balance is almost too good to be true and bands that were similarly appealing like Set It Straight or With Honor have tended to break up shortly after delivering their purportedly flagship releases.
Which brings us all to Midnight in America
, an album that is neither any heavier than My Love. My Way
or catchier than Witness
, which seems to be the crux of the album. Fans are not going to be turned off by Midnight in America
being too heavy and dissonant or too catchy and melodic, but rather by the fact that this album is overall less rewarding in both categories. Listeners aren't blessed with the crippling heaviness of "Breaking the Cycle" but also don't get the catchy singalong ending to "D.E.A.D.R.A.M.O.N.E.S." However, even these claims don't really explain the full story of Midnight in America
. Great moments do exist throughout the album, and are present in pretty much every one of the eleven tracks, and I'll give them their moment in the sun later, but on a whole this album seems like an imperfect combination of their previous two releases with a few extra twists and turns thrown in.
One nice unexpected addition is the speed and excitement of this record. Where their previous records definitely perfected the sludgy hardcore verse and the epic chorus, Midnight in America
features much faster content. From the opening track "Useless Generation" and through "Big City Dream," "Fuc
k the Sex Pistols," "Pendulum," and "Humble Streets," this album sets a pretty fast and fun pace. The result of these more chaotic and energetic tracks is a more varied and hurried take on Modern Life Is War's typical slow burning style. The slow burners that put Modern Life Is War on the map are still present though, and are some of the better songs on the album. "Stagger Lee" is a chugging song with an equally chugging narrative about the development of a barfight gone to hell that certainly justifies itself with epic, assertive one-liners like "My name is Stagger Lee," "Do you know who the fuc
k I am"," and "Don't look at me the wrong way / cause I've got nothing to lose tonight." The slowly undulating bass in the bridge perfectly cements the murderous ending of the song. As expected, the last track "Midnight in America" is also a great epic song in 6/8 the wins via power instead of speed or catchiness.
I'm also impressed by how this sound was put together on Midnight in America
. All of the instrumentals parts are as concise as possible. There is no extra wanking or self-indulgence, which suits Modern Life Is War's blue-collar lyrics and no-bullshi
t delivery. The only instrument that seems to get "busy" is the drums on tracks like "Pendulum," but that is more a product of the intensity of the song, rather than an exhibitionist playing-style. Beyond the instrumental performances, which are not impressive technically, but impressive in their appropriateness and tastefulness, the production is also great. After watching the trailer for this album on youtube, I definitely had a newfound appreciation for their sound. In one section, they mention that they like record single-parts that are emphatic in their own right instead of doubling tracks to get a beefier sound. The result is very appealing, because like the actual instrumental performances, there aren't many bells and whistles, but there is a distinct power to it all. The instrumentals and production are nothing new, these techniques allowed Witness
to be what it was, but I think they enable particular tracks on this album like "Stagger Lee" that will have moments where one instrument is only playing one-chord or one rhythmic pattern over and over without changing, yet everything remains surprisingly engaging. Another gush about the performances on this album is that I think the vocals here are even better than on the previous two releases. The vocalist, Jeff Eaton, has an undeniably likable and powerful voice, and here he will win yet more fans with his slurring and rasping on songs like "Stagger Lee" and "Screaming at the Moon."
Despite being a band that thrives off of having a "sound," in the past Modern Life Is War have produced some individual songs that are stand outs. Witness
is a veritable hit parade. Midnight in America
, though better than My Love. My Way.
falls short in the songwriting category to Witness
. The songs are less memorable on a whole and are somewhat less powerful. For example, "Night Shift at the Potato Factory" is neither epic nor speedy, but is some kind of midtempo that fails to grab the listener, especially when sandwiched between two good tracks. However, to some this may seem like a minor gripe, considering this is still a great album. The difference in quality between the songwriting on Witness
versus Midnight in America
is marginal, but when the band also seems to be dropping a little bit or heaviness and catchiness, those subtle subtractions can add up to a lot. I still highly recommend this album to fans of both hardcore, and I guess...The Fall of Troy. Modern Life Is War have not produced a true stunner, but they have put out a great album nonetheless. Hopefully being pegged for success will only help the impact of this album. Modern Life Is War deserves it.
Recommended Tracks: Stagger Lee, Big City Dream, Pendulum, These Mad Dogs of Glory, Useless Generation