Review Summary: Alter Bridge's most politically-motivated album to date is also one of their strongest.
For being on the brink of the most important and potentially dangerous political season of our lives, I’ve heard too few musicians stepping up and making their voices heard. In a year of pop-punk revivalism that has included some of our generation’s most politically outspoken bands, it’s actually quite surprising how silent the outcry against this election has been from a musical standpoint. That’s why when Alter Bridge dropped The Last Hero
, it became –essentially by default
– my own personal soundtrack to America’s broken political system. As we find ourselves ushering either a criminal or a demagogue into the oval office, there is chaos abound: riots are happening right outside of our windows, social injustices are being swept under the rug, and terrorism of all forms is quietly on the rise. If you’re not frightened, or at least concerned, then you might want to take a closer look around you. Alter Bridge appears to understand the urgency of what is happening, and that’s why The Last Hero
carries some extra weight at a time of such heightened fear and uncertainty.
No matter where you stand in terms of your values, this album is not meant to sway you to the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s more observational; gathering tones of desperation and frustration while placing them atop some of the best and most technically precise hard rock currently residing within the mainstream realm. Mark Tremonti lays down some of the best riffs and winding solos out of his career with Alter Bridge, while Myles Kennedy alternates between rougher vocal cuts and his trademarked, perfectly-pitched wails. The high level of energy, bolstered by Phillips’ fast-paced and diverse drumming techniques, are really what Alter Bridge have always
been about. So although the band hasn’t exactly branched off into new territory to express their concerns, it’s a style that fits comfortably within the content of the album nonetheless. Longtime fans may find that this record is more of a mainstream reach than their past few outings – which probably won’t sit well with those who felt Fortress
was the perfect middle ground for these guys – but if it worked for them on Blackbird
, then this record isn’t far behind in terms of overall accessibility.
The Last Hero
is a grandiose album that possesses thirteen tracks totaling well over an hour. Once again, this isn’t exactly new territory for Alter Bridge, and that’s why a lot of the same strengths and flaws from previous outings once again make their respective ways to the surface here. While ripe with melodic highlights and incredible instrumental work, it feels a bit too bloated for its own good at times. Overlong tracks ‘The Other Side’ and ‘Cradle to the Grave’ provide unnecessary padding both within the songs themselves and to the record as a whole. It feels like Alter Bridge is striving to cram as many riffs and solos as they can into each track, even when it’s not a fitting direction in which to take the music. This results in would-be straightforward rockers or ballads almost always
evolving into an exercise in epic songwriting; and after a while it just gets tiring. They’d be better off biding their time with such ambitious bids, but that has never been the Alter Bridge way. On the bright side, The Last Hero
is an album that, in spite of its trekking towards the more accessible side of hard rock, minimizes its sacrifice of technical precision.
Alter Bridge’s fifth album really hits its stride when the band combines memorable songwriting with practical instrumental contributions. While ‘My Champion’ may be almost too
digestible with its mellower tone and stadium-rock feel, that’s not exactly what I’m referencing here – instead take middle ground tracks like ‘The Writing on the Wall’, ‘Show Me a Leader’, ‘Crows on a Wire’, ‘Twilight’, and ‘Island of Fools.’ They’re not quite winding epics, but they still provide a hearty serving of drums and electric guitars to satisfy your deepest hard rock cravings. ‘Crows on a Wire’, for example, is perhaps the best song on the album – offering up a blistering introduction that continues throughout the background of Alter Bridge’s most politically geared song to date: “They’re waiting just like crows on a wire, they pry and conspire…that’s all they do / Baiting to consume and devour the glory and power they gave to you.” While ‘Crows on a Wire’ features lyrics that are somewhat veiled and poetic, similarly stirring tracks such as ‘The Writing on the Wall’ seem a lot more pointed with their intentions: “You’re the great disturber, so crass and out of line…now tell me who will suffer for all your crimes" / The writing’s on the wall, that the end will begin.” Lyrics like this surface throughout, and they couldn’t feel more relevant to the current climate in the United States. While political albums tend to be largely hit-or-miss, Alter Bridge’s even-keeled, observational approach prevents The Last Hero
from coming across and either disingenuous or unnecessarily preachy.
While the more modest songwriting foundations seem to yield the strongest moments here, that isn’t to say that The Last Hero
doesn’t have some tremendously epic moments that pay off. For instance, the opening track ‘Show Me a Leader’ features some of the longest and most complicated solos on the record, but it never feels like it is being stretched too long or being inflated with unnecessary instrumental cuts. In fact, it comes across as The Last Hero
’s mission statement, highlighting Tremonti’s shredding ability alongside Phillips’ machine-gun styled percussion while laying down the lyrical foundation for what is to come – “Who’s intentions are pure, unpersuaded" / We need a hero this time, or we will never survive.” As a whole, the track is a representative blend of everything you’ll hear during the record, and it succeeds on all fronts. Outside of the other obviously epic
choice – the barely under seven minutes closing track and album namesake – there’s the incredible and imposing ‘This Side of Fate.’ ‘This Side of Fate’ begins with some lighter acoustic picking before erupting into a gorgeous, sweeping combination of symphonic sounding synths and electrical guitars breakdowns. The track twists and winds over a stunning soundscape, filled to the brim with heavy rock and even progressive influences while never straying too far from the gentler acoustic sound that brought it all into fruition. Near the song’s pinnacle, Kennedy delivers one of his best vocal performances since Blackbird
’s title track – and that’s saying a lot. It thus goes without saying that The Last Hero
’s problem with larger-than-life bids isn’t that they can’t pull them off, it’s merely the frequency with which they try to do it.
As I watch the news and debates this fall, there’s little doubt in my mind that moments from this record will creep into my thoughts. It’s not a generational
album that will unite a population the way Bob Dylan did back in the 60s or, in my humble opinion, the way we saw Green Day pull it off with 2004’s protest album American Idiot
. This doesn’t come close to that level of cultural magnitude, and it’s not meant to be that kind of an album anyway. This isn’t a rallying cry; it’s a set of songs that prove the band is witnessing what we are and that they’re equally as upset about it. The Last Hero
is about corruption in the government and our society’s need for humble, level heads who can figure out a way to correct it. Musically, they’re not stepping way outside of their usual approach either, they’re merely creating the album that they wanted to make while weighing in on one of the most divisive and uncertain moments in American history. In a time where the most influential voices in music seem to be disengaged for whatever reason, Alter Bridge’s The Last Hero
provides us with a great – if at times flawed – record whose meaning is even bigger than the music that comprises it.