Review Summary: Trophy Scars' ambition soars the band to new heights in a release that practically redefines the term "transitional album."
When a band has been playing together for several years, it's inevitable that they will eventually start to re-evaluate the direction they're heading in (albeit with varying levels of self-consciousness). Of course, many bands are happy to keep doing their thing, never venturing outside of their comfort zone. Some bands' sound gradually changes over a long period of time - evolving naturally as different influences and personal taste slowly seeps into their work. And then, there are some bands who completely re-invent themselves in one fell swoop. In 2009, post-hardcore outfit Trophy Scars joined that list with the release of Bad Luck, a daring concept album that expanded their sound significantly, venturing places no one could have seen coming.
It's always a gutsy move for a band to embark on such a drastic change, especially when you've already carved a notable name for yourself in the hardcore scene. You're taking the risk of alienating your current audience. Not to mention, those familiar with (and disapproving of) your older material may not even be willing to give you the time of day. Thankfully, Trophy Scars are talented enough to pull it off, with many fans considering this release to be their magnum opus. Bad Luck is the epitome of transitional albums; Trophy Scars don't abandon their hardcore roots entirely, instead choosing to re-work aspects of it in, all the while dabbling in more genres along the way to create an unpredictable journey for the ears.
While it begins with a soft piano piece and ambient strings, Bad Luck's opening number quickly turns into one of the heavier tracks on the album, and certainly makes the shift in style easier to swallow; Trophy Scars never cease to remind you how much they've evolved with this album, but Bad Dreams is closer to their old sound than most of the other songs on offer. It builds into pure, unabashed intensity, with orchestral flourishes accompanying passionate screams while the percussion's double-kick hammers into the listener before winding back down to soft ambience again. The second track, Botanicas, starts off with Trophy Scars' at their most upbeat (you'd be hard-pressed to resist dancing around during the first minute or so) before they pull the rug out from under the listener and venture into prog rock territory. El Cowboy Rojo then sees the band exploring some serious latin influence, before Ana Lucia places them in indie rock territory. I'm not going to go through a track-by-track description here because it’s not a style of review I’m particularly fond of, I just want to make it clear: Every song on this album has its own unique sound.
Trophy Scars have never been afraid to dabble in genre-mixing, but up until Bad Luck, it was generally limited to the occasional moment here and there. This album sees them go all-out, delving head-first into whatever style the moment calls for. It's a task that many lesser bands would fumble royally, but Trophy Scars pick up the ball and run with it with surprising expertise. Not only are a variety of musical styles present here, plucked from various eras and cultures, but they're put together into one, sprawling work that somehow flows perfectly. Transitions from one song to the next are absolutely seamless, without ever coming off as forced or silly. It works because, no matter where the album goes, Trophy Scars commit to it completely. Toronto is a particular highlight, extending beyond the six minute mark to detail a particularly absurd story point in the album, slowly throwing trumpets, piano and saxaphone into the mix until it eventually evolves into an all-out blues jam. The smooth guitar/saxaphone solos aren't just devices to showcase some impeccable musicianship - they absolutely melt from the speakers. All the while, the drama of the plot simmers to an extravagant crescendo (which also serves as the perfect lead-in for another stand-out track; the harsh, unwavering Nola).
Jerry Jones' gruff, uncompromising vocals are rougher than ever here, and it’s understandably one of the largest factors that can turn people off this band. Personally speaking though, I’m absolutely enamoured with them. They add a seedy element to the music that builds upon this album's already-dense sound, and particularly compliment the more blues-oriented moments of this album (which Trophy Scars would explore much more thoroughly in subsequent releases). The screaming and gang shouts are still present, albeit in a far more subdued form, but this actually gives them more impact; his bursts of pure aggression are mostly used for effect to emphasise dramatic turns in the narrative. Jones also dabbles in several other singing styles (Ana Lucia is a particular highlight here, showcasing his more vulnerable side), proving himself up to the task of adjusting his vocals to match the rest of the music. It's a necessity in an album as versatile in sound as this, and Bad Luck may be Trophy Scars' best showcase of Jones' range to date.
Bad Luck is a soaring journey of highs and lows - for every moment of pure, emotional devastation, there's a lighter counterpart elsewhere to be found, tinged with dark humour and a strange sense of self-awareness, both musically and lyrically. And within the bigger picture, each individual track proves to be a journey itself. For the most part, the band askew conventional song structure for a more stream-of-consciousness flow, abandoning a verse-chorus construction to instead allow themselves (and the listener) to get lost in wherever the music may take them. There are many segments which sound like they could be largely improvised, but of course, being a concept album, the storyline is always there to serve as the anchor.
Unlike a lot of concept albums, Bad Luck is relatively linear and quite easy to follow, despite having multiple plot threads and going on some truly bizarre tangents. I can't help but find it amusing that the first minute-or-so of Nola essentially dismisses everything that happened in the previous track (which spent several minutes explicitly stating the plot in gratuitous detail) and then resumes with its narrative at break-neck speed again. As far as the lyrics go, Trophy Scars were still a band in a transitional period at the time of Bad Luck's release, and anybody familiar with their earlier material (Alphabet. Alphabets, anyone") knows all-too-well that Trophy Scars can be prone to some utterly juvenile lyrics. For the most part, this has been ironed out with this release, but there's still the occasional line one can't help but shake their head at in response. Luckily, the story is good enough to make up for this, and for every relentlessly immature lyric, there’s an equally brilliant one ("She'd confess herself to heaven just to kill the god above" still sends chills down my spine).
All in all, Bad Luck isn't just a successful experiment; it's a near-perfect album. There isn't a single bad track on here (though some certainly stand out over others), and it's all too easy to play the whole way through and become completely immersed in it on all levels. As a concept album, the storylines explored here are interesting and unusual - granted, the lyrics doesn't always seem to take the lyrics here seriously, but the dramatic moments are handled with the severity and heavy-handedness that they deserve. And if that's not your thing, the instrumentation is more than good enough to warrant a listen. Bad Luck also spearheaded a new direction for the band, with later releases building even more upon the blues and progressive elements introduced here. Trophy Scars are a very rare find indeed: Not only are they incredibly talented, but each member gels with the other one perfectly, no matter where they chose to venture musically. And Bad Luck may very well be the pinnacle release in an undeniably impressive discography.