Review Summary: Defying no-one’s expectations
Of Mice and Men have had a rocky history; originally being known for the powerful contrasting vocal dynamic between harsh vocalist Austin Carlile and clean vocalist Shayley Bourget, a variety of events involving both mental and physical illnesses have lead to both said band hallmarks leaving to pursue other paths in life. With a mountain of pressure upon him, it’s now up to Aaron Pauley, formerly of Jamie’s Elsewhere, to take over the duties of both Austin and Shayley along with bass guitar arrangements; while it could have been a lot worst, Of Mice and Men’s fifth album doesn’t defy anyone’s expectations, and at best is an acceptably catchy Alternative Metal release.
One question needs to be answered right off the bat; yes, it’s better than Cold World, and it’s very clear that the band were trying to tap into the magic they captured in their sophomore album ‘The Flood’ nearly ten years ago, (from the referential album cover, all the way to the sequel song “Forever YDG’n”). However, worship is the worst form of flattery as ‘Defy’ lacks so much of the passion that made this band’s sophomore album so endearing. That doesn’t mean there aren’t glimmers of this band’s illustrious past strewn throughout though; “Instinct” is an addictive banger of a track with a riff that grooves hard and drumming that pounds away with some well placed double bass arrangements, “Sunflower” has infectious tone shifts between soaring melodies and crushing guttural vocal breaks while being supporting by a haunting backing falsetto, and “Forever YDG’n” brings back the monstrous screams and massive cheesy breakdowns to create a fun and welcome nostalgic throwback.
This record gets two things right, and two things wrong; on the positive spectrum we’ve got the return of the metalcore influence of past years and Aaron Pauley’s surprisingly competent vocal performance, while on the negative spectrum we’ve got complacently dull songwriting and Howard Benson’s production job. For every fast paced metalcore verse with Aaron’s pleasant harsh vocal tone, we get another two lackluster choruses meant for radio consumption, and that continual tone breaking approach kills so much momentum that it’s a wonder why the band even bothered trying to go back to their roots if they were going to throw in saccharine nonsense for airtime. The clean vocals themselves are well developed, but the way they’re shoehorned in is like two drunk drivers trying to merge off the autobahn at the same time while on the other side of the speedway with only a quarter mile to go. Lyrically ‘Defy’ is only passable; none of the passionate metaphors from previous efforts have returned here, and most of the tracks churn out the same “I’m stronger now, you’re not getting in my way” cliche that most bands in the scene are currently doing. The only times where any of the songs' messages seem inspired is during the Austin Carlile call-out track “Forever YDG’n”, and on album closer “If We Were Ghosts” which is a heartfelt tribute to late Linkin Park vocalist Chester Bennington.
The best way to describe this album’s overall instrumental tone would be All That Remains’ ‘…For We Are Many’ meets Slipknot’s ‘All Hope Is Gone’, but then Howard Benson liquored them up with a barrel of Everclear and watched them flail around weakly. Howard Benson continues to suck the life out of the mix every band he touches (See Red, Skillet, etc.). His ready for broadcast production style suffocates guitar tones, isolates bass to a point where it’s uncomfortable, and makes drum hits feel like small splashes of water rather than an forceful flood
. The heavy aspects are watered down heavily because of this, and keep the album in this weird “heavy, but not heavy” limbo that continuously teeters the line between wanting to be an Alter Bridge worship album, or an Of Mice and Men album. While ‘Defy’ is a step in the right direction for this established metal act, it ironically sounds drained of the clear anger that’s there that could have been really capitalized on. With a better producer, and songwriting geared away from the “get to the mediocre chorus” mentality, this band could return to create something genuinely powerful once again. The ingredients and recipe are there, but without the proper spices and flavor, we have just another acceptable Alternative Metal release; pleasant and catchy, but rarely steps beyond that.