Review Summary: Shooting for the stars and falling slightly short.
What is there to say about Jonny Craig that hasn’t already been said" The man’s natural gift for singing is exceeded only by his gift for self-sabotage. Bands, fans and even girlfriends have been taken in by Craig's powerhouse voice, only to be stabbed in the back by his deeply flawed character. His drug abuse and flippant disregard for common decency to his own fans became the stuff of legend. Yet his immense talent has sustained his career through many pitfalls of his own making, and he has apparently overcome addiction to form yet another band, this time enlisting former Hearts & Hands guitarists Alex Lyman and Christopher Kim to create the absurdly titled Through Art We Are All Equals
In Craig’s previous efforts, the listener could ignore his checkered past and focus on his stunning, emotive voice and the intricacy of the musicianship backing him up. This is not the case on Slaves’ debut, as Jonny takes center stage for the entire album, only letting up for the occasional guest spot. Accordingly, this is Craig’s most personal album, as he faces his failed relationships and self-destructive personality head on. There are several moments on the album where Craig gets surprisingly reflective about others’ perception of him:
“Torture myself, that's what I feel I'm worth
Torture myself, well aware that the pain is somewhere else
You can root for the villain, I'll take that title, I'll take the heat now and be your rival”
- “There Is Only One God and His Name Is Death”
Elsewhere, Jonny (alongside Vic Fuentes) opens up about the hurt he has caused to friends and lovers alike:
“Don’t make me wait for a falling star
I’ve been afraid that the blood in my heart
Won’t sing for me a melody that’s ours
Drown me in the rain, I’d swim and sink for you
You were the only, you were the only saving grace I ever had”
- “Starving for Friends”
It’s not high poetry, but every line sounds sincere, and delivered with Jonny’s passion and intensity the lyrics are quite effective, especially compared with the nonsense he spouts in Dance Gavin Dance or the lazy lines of his myriad solo tracks.
One of the most instantly noticeable aspects of the record is how vocal-centric it is. This can be a positive thing, considering how strong of a vocalist Craig is, and how well frequent Jonny collaborator Kris Crummett produces his vocals. However, Craig’s vocals tend to drown out the music throughout, relegating everything else to the background. Additionally, the band is hardly on par with the musicians that have previously supported Craig in his various earlier bands. The intricate guitar lines and complex melodies of Relativity
and Downtown Battle Mountain
are typically replaced with generic metalcore-influenced chugging, to the point where many of the songs start to blend together. This is disappointing considering that guitarists Lyman and Kim frequently excelled in Hearts & Hands. Jason Mays’ bass is often drowned out in the mix, so there is nothing spectacular to speak of there. Thankfully, Tai Wright of Four Letter Lie and D.R.U.G.S. provides excellent drumming throughout, and does a lot to add energy to the proceedings.
The guest spots on the album are generally well-placed, adding just the right touches to their various tracks. The highlight is Vic Fuentes on album closer (and standout) “Starving for Friends”. Something about the production makes his voice much less grating than usual, and his well-written melodies come close to outshining even Jonny Craig on his own band’s song. Tyler Carter adds a nice touch to the closing of “The Young and Beyond Reckless”, and Jonny’s sister Natalie displays that vocally, she is essentially the female version of Jonny as they trade lines on “The Hearts of Our Young”. Even the usually terrible Kyle Lucas manages to put in a tolerable performance on “The King and the Army That Stands Behind Him”, adding some rap rock swagger that helps to distinguish the track from similar songs on the record.
Slaves had their work cut out for them on this record, as several of Jonny Craig’s previous records have become go-to staples among post hardcore fans, due in no small part to his signature vocal stylings. While Slaves’ debut may not be quite on par with the best of Craig’s previous work, he manages to show improvement on several fronts while putting in perhaps his best and most consistent vocal performance to date. While the band is sometimes lacking in creativity, and seems to coast along hoping Craig will pick up the slack, he actually manages to do just that, and the introduction of new vocal melodies goes quite a way in showing that Craig has the potential of being more than a one-trick pony. If the band manages to add more variety and sound less formulaic on their next release (assuming there is one… you never know with Craig), they have a real shot at rising to the top tier of today’s post hardcore scene.