Review Summary: You wanted As Cities Burn version 3.0. What you got was more like version 1.5.
One question has dominated the discourse about As Cities Burn since their first breakup and reformation (of approximately seventeen total): is the band better with or without part-time screamer/full-time realtor TJ Bonnette? Sure, scenesters loved their debut, Son I Loved You At Your Darkest, which holds up pretty well as a piece of screamy post-hardcore. But there should be little debate that the album’s TJ-less successor, Come Now Sleep, is much better in pretty much every way. And their third album, Hell Or High Water, is also better than their first.
Which is why it’s a bit frustrating that in the several reunions that followed the release of Hell Or High Water a decade ago, they always seem center around TJ being back in the band. It’s also weird in light of the fact that in the band’s own words, their early style was more influenced by the metalcore bands with whom they toured, while their musical interests always gravitated more toward bands like Jimmy Eat World and Pedro The Lion, leading to the indie rock sound of their latter releases. Sure, the two sides of the band sounded cool on “’84 Sheepdog,” which featured a guest appearance by TJ at the end, but could you really make a whole album like that?
Their first new record in a decade reveals the problems with the TJ-centric approach. Scream Through The Walls sounds like a mishmash of all the different styles the band has ever explored, and often it sounds like a disjointed mess. Unsurprisingly, TJ’s screaming sounds out of place on a lot of these songs, which aren’t as dark, aggressive, or discordant as their first record.
ACB has always eschewed typical song structures, but the formula doesn’t work on most of Scream Through The Walls’ songs. “Live Convinced” is the most disheveled, cobbled-together opener of an album you’ve likely heard in some time, where almost nothing works right, and those problems persist through the next four or so unmemorable songs. It takes until “Chains,” halfway through the album, to finally get a song with some decent hooks. This is one of the few songs here that sounds like classic As Cities Burn, which great vocal interplay between TJ and Cody, and plenty of Cody’s twisty guitar playing. Hearing this song live a year ago, it was easy to get excited about a new album if the other songs were this good.
The second half of the album is a little better, with “Bright White Light” holding some of “Chains”’s momentum. But “Venture” sounds like a halfhearted effort to write a song that sounds like something off of My Epic’s “Yet.” On the plus side, “Die Contrary” actually ends the album on a high note, a little more evocative of Come Now Sleep than most of the other songs here. It’s one of the few songs with strong lyrics reflective of their Christian hardcore origins. A lack of engaging lyrics throughout the record is a glaring problem for a band whose previous albums all boasted some great writing from Cody Bonnette.
As Cities Burn are a tremendously talented band and have it in them to make another great album, even lacking former contributors Chris Lott and Colin Kimble, but almost everything about Scream Through The Walls feels lacking, largely because they can’t figure out their own identity. The album feels like a regression for a band that had a much surer sense of itself on the preceding two albums, and much tighter song craft. The unfortunate implication is that nobody in the band is too enthusiastic about their own music, and mostly going through the motions because their other ventures, musical or otherwise, haven’t been as successful as a post-hardcore band whose heyday was nearly fifteen years ago.