Review Summary: After six years of writing, Stillwell have finally unveiled their debut. Disappointing, then, that it falls into a predictable pattern that lacks true innovation
Stillwell has been a rather enigmatic band over the past few years. They started their journey in 2005, when Bakersfield-based nu-metal band Korn was in between tours. Korn's bassist, Reginald "Fieldy" Arvizu, was contacted by a friend, who recommended Fieldy produce a song with Anthony "Q-Unique" Quiles (known then as Capital Q). Fieldy took this friend's advice and, over the next few years, wrote a song with Q over e-mail. This interesting union churned out the song "Killing Myself to Live", which was mostly just a viral promotional device. From there, Stillwell has steadily built up a following for their own brand of music - what they called "street metal" - and picked up new members along the way; Pablo "Spider" Silva on bass and P.O.D.'s Noah "Wuv" Bernardo on drums. They sold t-shirts, stickers (and a plethora of other things), and released a bunch of teaser videos via YouTube along the way.
Quite a few people got hyped for street metal, but Stillwell mostly dropped off the map for a few years, delaying their debut album (titled Surrounded by Liars) over and over. Then, in 2011, Stillwell resurfaced with a complete turn-around. Suddenly and frequently, they were releasing new videos that were promoting a more classic rock sound. The guitars were more prominent, everything was in standard tuning, and Q was singing, as opposed to his typical rapping vocals. This caused many theoretical fans of Stillwell's street metal to become disgruntled after having waited several years for the songs they heard in old previews. Regardless, Dirtbag (what is now Stillwell's debut) is the product of this drastic change of brand.
The album kicks off with the rather silly "On & Poppin'". This song mostly consists of a classic rock sound mixed with Q's shouts of "Get up! It's on and popping!" and "Woop woop!" all throughout. Don't get me wrong; there is more to this song. The issue is that the entire thing just sounds so silly that it's hard to pay attention to anything after the initial "Woop woop!"; the lyrics "Man with a tattooed faith / Said son just have your faith" don't exactly endear anyone to Q's writing style. To its credit, though, "On & Poppin's" mix really compliments Stillwell. Fieldy's guitar takes a rather prominent role, capably underpinned by Wuv's drumming and Spider's bass. Q floats delicately on top of this mix, with just barely enough energy to sustain his role as lead part. Overall, "On & Poppin'" is not a good way to establish an album's energy, as it's a subpar song.
Dirtbag does pick up the pieces, however. After the first track comes the album's lead single, "You Can't Stop Me". This track starts out with a pulsing drum that is soon joined by Fieldy's lead guitar to create an almost droning beat that's impossible to resist. Q's vocals soon join and are minimalist in this track's verses, to great effect. He slowly works his way up to an exploding chorus of "You can't break me! / No, you can't stop me! / Let it go, dawg / Cause there ain't nothing to stop me!". Fieldy, Wuv, and Spider explode right behind Q, creating this huge crescendo effect throughout the song that shines in the chorus but peaks during the bridge. After the bridge, the minimalist side of the band is back, as Wuv comes back with just that initial pulse on the drums and Fieldy's guitar part again, bringing the track full circle. Overall, the song is great, and executed wonderfully.
Even after these two tracks, however, what are arguably Dirtbag's two biggest flaws are already apparent. Everything is in standard tuning, and this is the band's first run, meaning energy is high, but experience is low. In other words, the songs manage to sound almost identical. If you heard a snippet of "On & Poppin'" and then a snippet of "You Can't Stop Me", you could probably confuse them for being a part of the same song. This problem runs rampant through most of Dirtbag's first ten tracks. This perhaps wouldn't be much of a problem, if not for Dirtbag's second problem; the tracks often fall into a predictable, boring pattern, and there is little genuine creativity in these songs. Most of the tracks consist of a "verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus" song structure, rather unimaginatively. It's really disappointing that these songs fail to go anywhere interesting, just throwing around the same ideas the whole time they're playing.
The album's old title track (before it was re-titled), "Surrounded by Liars", is a great example of this pattern. The song starts with a guitar sound that repeats for fifteen seconds, immediately followed by the first verse. Q's lyrics here consist of this: "Hand behind my back / Got my fingers crossed / Read between the lines / The fine print got me lost / Lie detector failed / The check is in the mail". This section lasts for all of fifteen seconds, then leads directly into the song's chorus, which chants "In a room full of ________* / Surrounded by liars" for about twenty seconds (*This line alternates between "strangers," "loved ones," "enemies," and "mirrors"). It then gives back in to a verse, whose rhythm scheme is the same as the first. The song structure is as follows: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, breakdown, chorus, chorus. In other words, a bunch of uninteresting ideas repeat in short spurts over and over to create a track that is ultimately a bunch of drudgery.
Dirtbag does, however, manage to be saved from this pattern. This is all due to the fact that the last three tracks are manifestations of the band's previous sound, street metal. On these tracks, the instrumental prominence takes a backseat to Q's rapping, to a beautiful effect. Not only is Q's rapping, diction, and delivery exceptional, but the other guys in the band are no slouches for these songs either. By giving prominence to Q, they manage to keep him afloat without minimizing themselves. The result is some exceptional rapping supported by modern-sounding metal music and the result is simply huge.
Dirtbag successfully embodies Stillwell's potential, but not that potential being reached. Headed by ten classic rock styled tracks that ultimately run together into an uninteresting muddle, Dirtbag is only worth listening to for its standouts, of which there are a few. These include "You Can't Stop Me", "Mr. Yellow #5", "Cyclone", "Magnetic Daze", "They All Had Their Hands Up", "Trepidation", and "Street Metal". These tracks, specifically the last three, represent where Stillwell should be going. The better of the rock songs on the album are great, but the street metal sound is simply a must-have commodity. I would strongly recommend supporting this band and album, if only to see where they'll go next. Despite repetition, Dirtbag will ultimately be worth your time.