Review Summary: Expectations cry wolf.Mister Asylum
was as good as a debut Highly Suspect could have made. Records like that don’t just come out every day as far as modern rock goes, but they managed to strike gold on their first try. Led by the charismatic Johnny Stevens, his swagger-laden stage presence was a key contributor to the character of the album, and his rockstar attitude helped hasten the band’s rapid ascent to stardom. Then again, maybe it was bound to happen anyway - their Queens of the Stone Age-inspired stoner rock riffs and overall sense of energy could not have been slept on for much longer. The quick release of a follow-up just barely a year after their first album was highly unexpected, yet the anticipation for how one of today’s great young rock bands would succeed their explosive debut remained high nonetheless.
The Boy Who Died Wolf
, with its outrageously try-hard title and all, is not close to the album that Mister Asylum
was. For the most part, Highly Suspect continue to work with the formulaic approach that worked wonders the first time, but to diminishing returns. There are some deviations from the mean, as seen in the piano ballad “Chicago” and the hip-hop influenced interlude “F.W.Y.T.”; still, The Boy Who Died Wolf
sticks to its guns and blazes through eleven tracks of the Highly Suspect sound. Given that, there shouldn’t be much drop-off in quality, but the heart and soul of Mister Asylum
is sorely lacking during multiple moments. The clearest issue is that Stevens brings a lot less energy to the table this time around, and that’s a problem for a group whose enjoyment relies so much on their energy. On tracks like “Postres”, his vocals simply lack the fire they had on cuts like “Bloodfeather” and “Fuck Me Up”, and the difference is notable especially since the instrumentation cannot carry the music alone.
That’s not to say Highly Suspect have suddenly reverted to a completely average band; while the regression is notable, the capability to produce quality stoner-lite alternative rock is still there. Opening cut “My Name is Human” is a slow burner with an explosive chorus that sees Stevens rock the microphone like only he knows how to do. Elsewhere, “Look Alive, Stay Alive” explores the quiet-loud dynamic that shines in the latter, and “For Billy” is a send-off to a fallen friend that captures the feelings of nostalgia with an upbeat yet wistful tone. Instrumentally, The Boy Who Died Wolf
is more low-tempo than its predecessor, with a greater abundance of slower tracks. Stevens’ bluesy guitar riffs feel more natural on the faster songs, but the fuzz plays well regardless. The slow jams give Stevens ample room to bust out into an epic, wailing guitar solo, which would have been inopportune throughout much of Mister Asylum
. As the backbone of the closer “Wolf” and pre-release buzz track “Serotonia”, they stand out as the most notable facets of their runtime.
Lyricism has never been the band’s strongest point - most of Mister Asylum
is simple, repetitive and to-the-point, rarely trying to be deeper than it should or stupider than tolerable. They were never intended to be the focus of the songs anyways, which lies in the guitarwork and the vocal performance, but the linguistic proficiencies of Highly Suspect have taken a step back. Whether it’s the random details about how Stevens wants to “be naked and masturbate all day at home” or the overindulgent attempts at appearing meaningful, the badass attitude is not being used properly, especially when he decides to pepper in an obligatory “fuck” in every song just for the fuck of forcing in an obscenity. There’s also the entirety of “Viper Strike”, an anti-Trump song that comes off jokingly rather than seriously due to its bluntness. “Oh, you’re racist / Geez, that’s neat / Get the fuck up out of my face with that shit” is not nearly as bad as “Oh, you’re homophobic / Wow, what a bitch / I almost wanna blow your mind and just go suck a dick”. There’s no nuance or tact whatsoever, and the immature approach ruins what could have been a meaningful discussion on race relations, gun violence and the child molestation epidemic in the Catholic Church.
One can’t be blamed for feeling disappointed by The Boy Who Died Wolf
. The lofty expectations set by Mister Asylum
made it incredibly hard for Highly Suspect to perform even better than their debut, but for a moment it seemed that maybe they would have been able to harness their skills well enough to make an album that was at least on par with what they had previously brought to the table. While not bad by any means, there’s greener pastures ahead considering the likes of “My Name is Human”, “Little One” and “Wolf”, signs that Highly Suspect can still command their craft well. Perhaps ditching the slower tracks and bringing back fast-paced anthems will help resolve the flaws.