Review Summary: Entrance, ending in sight...
Study music for long enough, and you may uncover a certain category of “final records” that share a set of bittersweet characteristics. Some of these are releasing just before a band’s demise, being significantly different than the rest of the catalog they exist in, going under appreciated (especially at the time of their release), and generally being something all-around and truly special. Refused’s Shape
and At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command
come to mind, along with more controversial inclusions in this category, such as From First to Last’s Throne to the Wolves
and Lipona’s Networks
, which were also both followed by breakups of their bands. These records are marked most distinctly by a sense of adventure, quality, and desperation. They went somewhere that was worth going to, even if it wasn’t obvious at first.
Perhaps no album exists as an element of this category as rightfully, and as gloriously, as Magnetic North
. In many ways, this is the album that never was. It had no real tour, no unified fanbase to stand behind, and no respect - its label, now-defunct Trustkill Records, infamously removed a song from the album, "Saskatchewan" (fortunately, today’s listener can now easily find it on YouTube). This song was the favorite of essential guitarist Joshua Brigham, its removal being a circumstance which was later cited by him as his immediate motivation to quit making music altogether. In fact, after this album released it didn’t even have a band; all members of Hopesfall quit besides lead singer Jay Forrest, who rounded up a makeshift, touring version of the band in an attempt to give the songs some version of an on-stage life.
And certainly, as a listener, it is easy to see why he would’ve done so. Despite all the chaos surrounding the record’s release, I can safely call Magnetic North
a masterpiece in my mind. Make no mistakes, this is one of the most underrated punk albums of all-time. Of course, I only attach that label because it feels the most natural considering the band’s history (which includes the beloved post-hardcore triumph, The Satellite Years
) in conjunction with the content of the album, which retains many sonic elements of post-hardcore, and uses them in untraditional ways. The sound of Magnetic North is comprised of a beautiful, haunting mixture of post-hardcore, alternative, grunge, and space rock. This is all supported by a strong foundation provided by bassist Mike Tyson and one-time drummer Jason Trabue, who both make their presences known with memorable parts, such as the moody bass line in “Devil’s Concubine”, or the nicely handled drums that fill the winding, multi-part bridge of “Swamp Kittens”. This sound is chiefly led, however, by the guitars and vocals, which emanate from guitarists Joshua Brigham and Dustin Nadler, and vocalist Jay Forrest. Allow me to brush all the darkness, uncertainty and fanbase-division that surrounded this album in 2007 aside, bottle it up and send it to the intellectual incinerator: these are landmark performances.
The aforementioned “divided” fanbase was probably most directly created by Forrest, who led the radical departure that was A Types
with his emphasis on emotive, melodic clean vocals. In hindsight, his performance on that album was something of a triumph in itself, but here the approach is refined to a degree so captivating and expressive that is an absolute wonder how this album went as under the radar as it did. On this album, Forrest manages to give the band an accessible but deep sound with complicated, but catchy melodies. It’s quite a feat; fragments of Magnetic North’s
choruses will be stuck in your brain long before you have remembered them fully and seen just how intricate they are. On top of this, every once in a while he pulls out a well-trained, powerful scream. His singing is very expressive as well, and a large contributor to the dark atmosphere of the record. It’s clear that the band wasn’t in a great place when recording this album, and the associated emotions come through in Forrest’s work. For instance, in the pain of the screamed bridge of “Bird Flu”, or during the dejected refrain of the second verse of the overall haunted “Head General Hospital”, where Forrest repeats one of his many ambiguous but thought-provoking lyrics:
“There are no bleachers by bedsides
People build people in their heads”
Ultimately, it’s an incredible performance that should’ve occupied much larger live settings than it did.
But, to be fair, Brigham was a part of that fanbase disruption too, wasn’t he❓ As the only member besides Forrest to survive the transition from The Satellite Years
to A Types
, Magnetic North
marks the full realization of a new sound that he wanted to create just as much as Forrest did. A look back on the history of the band might credit Brigham with being the one who made Hopesfall, Hopesfall. The clean, heavy, and ethereal guitar work is the one consistent element of the band’s career, and he the one consistent member. Magnetic North
contains what may be this sound’s best incarnation, if the delicate balance between “heavy” and “spacey” is to be of primary concern. Some parts chug while others float, often the guitars are somewhere in between or simultaneously doing both. It’s a bit of a perfect storm, as the more melodic, rock-oriented sound the band went with after The Satellite Years
is a perfect home for this balance. Now, I would be a fool to give all the credit to Brigham here and ignore Dustin Nadler, as from my perspective it is impossible to tell who wrote what riff and all of the guitar work on this album is amazing, start to finish. As with the vocals, certain guitar parts will imprint themselves on one’s memory, enticing them to return to the album and dig deeper into the beautiful atmosphere presented here.
Finally, that is just what I will discuss: atmosphere. I have called Magnetic North
a masterpiece, and I would never say such thing of a record that doesn’t powerfully transport me away to a distant place. The diverse vocals, stunning guitars, and solid rhythm section all combine to create a scenic, ethereal sense of place that perfectly realizes the motifs of the excellent album artwork by Chandler Owen. It is all too easy to overlook just how big of an achievement this is, especially when considering how closely Hopesfall sticks to the standard rock band setup. Magnetic North is proof that post-hardcore can be extremely atmospheric without losing its edge, and the potential demonstrated here is to this day mostly unachieved. This is perhaps unsurprising, after all who could create their chosen sonic world as delicately and carefully as is done so here❓ Such musicians don’t appear too frequently.
The preceding paragraph may have been more about the defining achievement of Hopesfall as a band themselves, but that atmospheric expedition is certainly done uniquely here when compared to the other standout moments of the band’s discography (even including 2018’s wonderful Arbiter
). Over the past few weeks, countless listens have made me totally immersed in this atmosphere, with the album’s complicated structures and passages slowly revealing themselves fully, weaving their way through my sensibilities and forcing me to consider this release one of my favorites. Spearheaded by amazing guitar work and excellent vocals, Magnetic North
is an absolute beast of a record, comprised of excellent songwriting that makes for memorable, emotional moments. It is victorious in spite of so many factors trying to guarantee its defeat. At this point, having just about circled back to my introductory topic, I have said enough, and perhaps too much - the rest must be communicated by the music itself, and so I urge you to go and give this tragically overlooked record a listen of your own.