Review Summary: How to regain control of your life
It sounds ridiculous, but apparently the only reliable way to coax an album out of post-Universal Flaw is to kick the singer out. Mind you, the phenomenon scales with how severely you dispose of him as well – in 2009, some nondescript figure posted abusive mumbo jumbo on the band’s MySpace page, and that led to a shoddy collection of half-baked demos which barely even qualified as “released”. In 2012, Chris Volz was properly fired, with a replacement being announced and everything, but within a year the band got its collective *** together and the classic line-up reconciled with a newfound focus and determination. Of course, as this is Flaw we’re talking about, half the instrumentalists were out of the picture by the end of 2014, but since then things have been surprisingly calm. The band shopped around understandably apprehensive labels, eventually getting green lit by Pavement and piecing together a proper new album in an actual studio.
The Flaw of 2016 is quite different from the Flaw of yesteryear in terms of subject matter. Fear not, Chris Volz still sings from the heart, but singing from the heart is considerably different when you’ve finally conquered your inner demons. As such, there’s less soul-wrenching inner anguish and more speaking out against social injustice (“Bleed Red”), firm declarations of friendship loyalty (“Choices”), ridding your life of toxic influence (“Let Me Go”) or self-improvement from hardships (“Heal”). Nowhere does the new philosophy shine brighter than lead single “Live and Breathe”, which features a dazzling “crawled to the light at the end of the tunnel” chorus that tugs a different kind of heartstring than the band accustomed us to. However, it does it so expertly that the old kind of turmoil isn’t missed, and by the time the slightly needless piano reprise of “My Letter” (originally featured on their major label debut) rolls around, it feels more like reminiscence through the fog than anything else.
It’s not just Volz that brings his A-game, as compact, focused riffs complement his heart-on-sleeve vocals. Flaw began in 1995 when the singer answered guitarist Jay Daunt’s ad, and the reunited pair work together great, recapturing the simplistic chemistry that likely drove them to form the band in the first place. The featured material spans two decades (“Fed Up” was “Disgusted” on their very first independent tape), yet the tracks blend seamlessly into a whole. Flaw largely stick true to their guns, with the only discernible style change coming in the form of a few very pronounced earworm melodies in choruses. This was pioneered on the band’s 2007 Foundation demo, with “Do You Remember” taken from that batch of material and serving as a guideline for followers such as “Live and Breathe”. Elsewhere, “Bleed Red” focuses on the strength of a minimalistic, tritone-spiked guitar line to carry the song to great success. There are no obvious clunkers to be found, with the closest to disposable being the somewhat redundant “Wipe Away the Dust”.
Whilst the songs may all be passionate and come with a largely inspired musical backdrop, a number of easily amendable issues drag the experience down a bit. A helping of directionless electronic blips and bloops crop up throughout the record, mainly in intros, and serve no purpose apart from checking the box of pretending to update the band’s sound. In fact, sometimes they actively get in the way, with a notable example being the grating against the syncopation of the opening riff of “Fed Up”. The production itself is also downright bizarre, as the grotesque, sprawling guitar tone tries to take over every nook and crevice of the mix, the awkward processing making it feel a bit like a ridiculously aggressive synth. It fails spectacularly as the drums and vocals heavily outrank it in level. There’s no denying that it’s the most energetic guitars have ever sounded on a Flaw album though, which makes for a pleasant contrast against the harmless kitten delivery of Through the Eyes in particular, but the production job doesn’t feel like a good fit with the music.
The third major hurdle takes a while to set in. “Fed Up” offers a rewarding wallop. “Do You Remember” offers a rewarding wallop. “Fatal Fall” tries to be a ballad, but ends up offering a rewarding wallop. And so on in this fashion until the wallop-free piano afterthought rolls around. The Flaw of old had a good dynamic spread to their music; there was room for dedicated heavier tracks and songs with ballad leanings. Everything on Divided We Fall falls under the former moniker even when trying to be the latter, and whilst the constantly distorted guitars try to change the dynamics up a bit (“Choices” contrasting hushed verses with a punishing smash of a chorus), the fact the amps are permanently stuck in overdrive severely limits the ground that can be covered. I’d peg this one on the fact Jay Daunt is the lone surviving guitarist, and he probably feels the need to provide a sufficient amount of thunder to fill up the void once occupied by a second player. It doesn’t help that a number of these tracks were previously available on independent releases with more varied arrangements, and having access to a wider dynamic spread didn’t hurt them one bit.
In fact, a comparison of “Fatal Fall” against its forefather (“Keep Me Behind”, an outtake from the band’s sophomore album) serves as a perfect juxtaposition of the band then and now. “Fatal Fall” trades a message of inner turmoil for one of deep concern for a friend, and loses an expansive, varied arrangement full of anguished melodies in favour of a streamlined song with a smashing chorus. They both accomplish slightly different things, and they both work at what they do. The band plays their hearts out (lovely bass acrobatics throughout), knocking out some lovely simple gems that come together to make their second best record. I hope by the time a follow-up rolls out, a second guitarist will have been added to allow for the deeply needed clean sections to return with a vengeance. However, this can’t be done at the cost of the band’s well-being – Volz may have already sung that it will all be okay at the end of a 2007 demo, but this time he really means it among the elated flurry of double bass that closes out the album proper.