Review Summary: Even though I don't know you, I feel like I owe you.
Listening to Always and Forever
is similar to seeing a peer at your 10-year high school reunion for the first time since you had class with him. You've been so busy this past decade that high school has justifiably faded from your mind, but upon seeing him at the reunion, your memory spontaneously recovers. You remember him being the prototypical 'nice guy': he seemed to be well-liked by students and staff (when you were studying Hamlet
in English, you recall how he hilariously reenacted the swordfight with Laertes by 'wounding' your teacher with a car antenna, much to the delight of your applauding classmates), but as you play back these recollections, you realize that you don't remember much else about him other than that vivid image from English class. Despite the positive sentiments you feel in the moment upon seeing him for the first time in 10 years, you silently berate yourself for not remembering anything else about him.
Alien Ant Farm are very much akin to this former colleague: they have a great sense-of-humor and are abundantly talented. Despite having other singles that range from stellar ("Attitude") to solid ("Movies", "Glow"), the band are most closely tied to covering Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" and are often derided for not being able to escape that specter's shadow (something that vocalist Dryden Mitchell fiercely rebukes in the acerbic "Let 'Em Know"). The Riverside, California-based quartet have also experienced a whirlwind of unfortunate drama; from a traumatic bus crash in Spain to issues with their former label (the band have since partnered with The End Records) to additional frightening health scares (guitarist Terry Corso underwent several emergency surgeries, including needing his colon and large intestine removed), Alien Ant Farm relied on crowdfunding and a blue-collar, boots-to-the-ground work ethic to get Always and Forever
recorded and released. Although there were still some consequences - bassist Tye Zamora has since left the band again to be the bass tech for Godsmack and Limp Bizkit (which makes me wonder how frustrated he became to want to go on the road for those bands instead of playing with Alien Ant Farm, because his efforts throughout this album are phenomenal, as expected) and the band will be refunding all the pledge monies to those who donated - the band's resiliency in releasing new music is certainly a triumph.
The strength of Always and Forever
is in its accessibility. For long-time listeners, there's a definite air of familiarity in each track, but this record can serve as an acceptable introduction to Alien Ant Farm. One prevailing notion across their discography is that each album sounds markedly unparalleled to the others, but each retains the signature Alien Ant Farm blueprint. For example, throughout their career, Alien Ant Farm have crafted some supremely catchy choruses, and this hallmark exists in spades on this record, too, with album opener "Yellow Pages", the groovy "Our Time" (featuring a guest appearance from Texas-based rapper Zeale), and the heavy-hitting trio of "Godlike", "Better Weather", and "Dirty Bomb" being obvious stand-outs (especially closer "Dirty Bomb", sporting an effective solo from Corso, although his best ones can be heard in "Burning" and "Godlike"). On the other hand, the band have never incorporated wobble bass electronic flourishes to the extent that they have in lead single "Let 'Em Know", nor have they infused guest appearances into their songs as they did with Zeale in "Our Time". While these sonic experiments succeed more than they falter, the wub-wub in "Let 'Em Know" seems to be haphazardly thrown in as a time capsule to mark what other genres were rising to prominence at the time of recording.
Meanwhile, Mitchell sounds seasoned, arguably (and understandably) worn, but his calling card has always been his lyrical creativity and inventiveness. Although he has some hiccups here-and-there throughout the record, Mitchell shines in album highlight "Homage", a who's-who of the band's musical influences delivered in a truly clever fashion ("Purple Rain
falls on The Dark Side of the Moon
"; "Phil Collins on the record player spinning 'round / It's 'In the Air Tonight', ['I Got You/]'I Feel Good' James Brown"; "KISS is here to party / Beasties "Fight for Your Right" / The Stones will keep us rolling / With The Eagles we can fly"). Instrumentally, "Homage"'s bright piano and stadium rock aura confidently propel the band to sounds that they've previously unexplored, and will undoubtedly be a live staple and fan-favorite. The same could be said of "Simpatico", which is driven by forever-steady drummer Mike Cosgrove, the quintessential model of consistency who's been criminally underrated as a percussionist.
Perhaps I'm overinflating my final score because I have such an affinity for ANThology
(why not Always Ant Forever
, eh"), and in hindsight, I know why 3rd Draft
/Up in the Attic
was such a misstep. In parallel, this album is indeed rife with a handful of clunkers: "Sidelines" is the indisputable throwaway song, regrettably starring a group vocal that's more obnoxious than it is fun (although I appreciate the intent behind it, as it was part of the crowdfunding campaign to those who donated enough money), "Little Things (Physical)" is similarly insipid, and the cloying "American Pie" is oversweet. Nonetheless, songs like "Homage", "Simpatico", and the album's final three cuts are songs I'll repeatedly revisit, and even though it's gutting that Zamora won't be playing with the band going forward, those songs will beautifully translate live.
Nearly ten years since their last album, it's nice to see - and hear from - an old friend again.