Review Summary: A distillation of greatness, coupled with sonic expansion.
Charlie Simpson is one hell of an musical anomaly. How many musicians can say they’ve fronted one of the biggest pop bands in the UK, left it all behind to start an authentic post-hardcore act that found a diehard fanbase, and launched a successful folk solo career in their spare time" I’m willing to bet even fewer can say they’ve attempted all these things and were actually good
at all of them. At 30 years old, Simpson has racked up a list of career accomplishments that would make veteran musicians twice his age envious. At the center of it all, of course, is Fightstar. This is, after all, the band that led Simpson to throw away his golden nest egg in boy band Busted, and attempt what could easily have become career suicide. Yet the band managed to defy the odds and find considerable success in post-hardcore, not because but in spite of Simpson’s prior history. In a scene sometimes fixated on the notion of authenticity, Fightstar proved that a band fronted by a former teen heartthrob had the musical chops to hold their own against the best of their contemporaries, and continued to refine and expand their sound across three very consistent studio albums. Then, as soon as it seemed the band was finally reaching its creative zenith, they were gone. What was to be a short break turned into a hiatus that lasted nearly half a decade, with many fans reasonably concluding that the band was gone for good.
After Fightstar reunited for ten-year anniversary shows a year ago, they returned to the studio with a renewed vigor, yet facing a new set of challenges. While the band had a loyal fanbase within the post-hardcore community, they had never quite achieved the popularity of genre kings such as Alexisonfire, Thrice, and Silverstein. Additionally, their previous studio outings, while strong, often struggled to carve out a unique identity for the band, as they hewed a little too close to their influences and contemporaries. While their third album, 2009’s Be Human
, injected symphonic and alt rock elements in an attempt to broaden their fanbase, the album didn’t make the commercial impact the band clearly hoped it would. The band’s attempts at expanding their sound often felt at odds with their core sound, and they failed to balance the two in a cohesive way. If Fightstar were to return after such a long hiatus and remain relevant, they would have to come out of the gate with music that not only proved that they still had the talent that they did six years ago, but something that finally gave them a secure, distinct identity.
On Behind the Devil’s Back
, Fightstar achieve all this and more, creating an engaging, sublime listen with immense replay value - and their best album to date. The album was originally set to be an EP, and this sense of economy shows in its lean 37-minute runtime. The ten tracks present here cut the fat from the band’s sound, delivering all the catchy hooks, riffs, and dual vocals they are known for in a more direct format. This concise approach works wonders for the album’s replay value, as nary a moment is wasted in the band’s effort to pack an emotional wallop into every song. This impact is executed through a significant expansion of the band’s sonic palate, as they draw heavily from the atmospherics and stark contrast of beauty and brutality found in alternative metal. The influence of bands like Deftones and Tool is felt throughout, as Fightstar incorporates soothing electronics and beautiful vocal harmonies in quieter moments, only to puncture through the noise with pummeling breakdowns and screams, in some of the heaviest passages the band has ever produced. The contrast between Charlie Simpson and Alex Westaway’s voices has never been explored between explored more poignantly than on tracks such as the soaring "Animal", which opens with Simpson’s brutal screams, before his signature gruff tone carries a truly massive rock hook. Westaway’s ethereal falsetto in the bridge, complimented by the lilting electronics, create one of the most beautiful contrasts on the album, and the cumulative effect of the two vocalists’ efforts is similar to the captivating power achieved by the vocals of Deftones’ Chino Moreno - no small feat. The album’s title track, as well as pummeling opener "Sharp Tongue", provide further proof of the effectiveness of the band’s exploration of dynamics, as haunting melodies give way to passages of all-out fury.
The band’s production has never been more effective at capturing their desired impact than on Behind the Devil’s Back
, as the guitars have a distinct metal-inspired crunch that gives them newfound power, particularly when complimented with the sonorous drums, which give the impression these songs were built for stadiums. Nowhere is the epic atmosphere more effective than on closing track "Dive", in which moody synth collides with thunderous power chords and beautiful falsetto from both vocalists. In addition to being a truly breathtaking finale, it is truly the sound of Fightstar reaching their full potential, creating a spellbinding aura that few bands in post-hardcore could dream of replicating. Fans of post-hardcore will be thrilled at one of the finest releases of the year, and the album has a great chance of appealing to rock aficionados of any stripe. With rumors that Simpson is set to return to Busted already causing division among Fightstar’s loyal fanbase, the band has silenced doubters by delivering their magnum opus, an album that stays true to the band’s roots and expands to new horizons in equal measure.
"Can we dive
The fire drifts on the waves
Can you see it now
Can you see it now
It's our ghost town"