Review Summary: A compendium of classic Chevelle elements spiced up with the band’s best guitar work to date, NIRATIAS is a fun but inessential effort from the rockers
What does Chevelle have up its sleeve, now that it’s past the quarter century mark?
Ten years ago, in the course of a review for the lackluster Hats Off to the Bull, I made some observations about Chevelle that bear repeating/paraphrasing:
“Each Chevelle album sees modifications (but not exactly revolutions) in the band’s sound. It's not a secret that Chevelle releases a set of 11 hard-rocking, radio-friendly(ish) tracks with crunchy guitar, impassioned vocals, and somewhat dark atmospherics every two years or so. Their latest effort ... certainly doesn't change this formula. Let's not kid ourselves: This band isn't defined by its rhythm section. I've listened to this album 5 times now and I cannot identify anything particularly interesting about Sam Loeffler's performance behind the drum kit. On the bass guitar, [the] basslines have two purposes: they either provide a rollicking drive to the song or take a backseat, going along hand-in-hand with the guitar. So, per usual, the album's success depends on Pete Loeffler's guitar, vocals, and songwriting.”
These observations held up with subsequent releases “La Gárgola” and “The North Corridor,” with the former marking a substantial step up from “Hats” and the latter leaning into some heavier elements, with mixed results. “NIRATIAS,” the band’s ninth LP and its first release since 2016, leans into a more melodic sound and futuristic themes. So let’s cut to the chase: do Pete Loeffler’s guitar, vocals, and songwriting propel this album to Gárgola-esque heights, or are they unable to elevate the band beyond the limits of its formula?
Answer: Yes. For starters, “NIRATIAS” boasts the flashiest and most diverse guitar work of Chevelle’s career, and the band wastes no time letting you know the guitar will be the star of this show. Instrumental album opener “Verruckt” opens with some dissonant, mid-tempo riffs with some welcome time signature variation. “So Long, Mother Earth,” an album highlight, follows with a relentless assault of diverse, fun, melodic riffs. “Peach,” “Self Destructor,” and “Remember When,” the album’s first three singles, make inventive use of pull-off and/or tremolo-based riffs, while “Ghost and Razor” and “Mars Simula” lean into the band’s well-honed sense of groove. As a whole, the RPM (riffs per minute) on this album has to be the highest of any Chevelle album. But the guitar performance doesn’t start and end there. “Peach,” “Piistol Star,” and “Ghost and Razor” include some quasi-solos, a refreshing shift from a band that seldom lets loose for big solos. Additionally, the slower, atmospheric tracks “Test Test… Enough” and “Endlessly” make excellent use of reverb and delay effects to immerse the listener in a sound that’s subtler but no less engaging than the heavier, riffier cuts.
With respect to the vocals, Chevelle listeners should know what they’re getting into by now. In “NIRATIAS,” Pete makes ample use of his well-worn deliveries: angsty, soaring tenor, complemented with the occasional whispers and screams. He runs the gamut on “So Long, Mother Earth” - while the verses feature some of the nasally vocalizations that can irritate fans, Pete’s performance in the falsetto pre-chorus and soaring chorus are absolute masterworks, with impressive screams coming as a cherry on top at the end of the choruses. Most of the album’s vocals fall somewhere in this range, though well-mixed background vocals on “Endlessly,” ethereal effects on “Ghost and Razor,” and spoken-word closer “Lost in Digital Woods” add some variety to spice things up.
Which brings us to songwriting. On the positive side, the guitar is incredibly active, diverse, and prominent; the onslaught of riffs generally keeps the listener on his or her toes throughout. On most songs, the vocal melodies are marbled cleverly with the guitar: lead single “Self Destructor” is a perfect example of the push-pull dynamics between guitar and vocals, with each taking turns as the 1A to the other’s 1B. Additionally, interludes “Sleep the Deep” and “Test Test… Enough” are well-written and well-placed, making the album a more coherent listen than one might expect from a radio mainstay in the era of streaming. And, at risk of over-emphasizing its awesomeness, “So Long, Mother Earth” is quite simply one of the best-written tracks in Chevelle’s catalogue.
In many ways, however, “So Long, Mother Earth” is an exception. Two songwriting features render the album a bit unrewarding, both of which can be filed under “diminishing returns.” The first is a sense of familiarity with previous Chevelle songs: several of this album’s stronger cuts echo prior material. The opening riff to “Ghost and Razor” is nearly indistinguishable from the opener of “Door to Door Cannibals.” Crooner “Endlessly” borrows liberally from “One Ocean.” “Mars Simula” comes off as a hybrid between “An Island” and “Joyride.” All three are excellent tracks: “Ghost and Razor” is a significant upgrade over its predecessor, while “Endlessly” puts “One Ocean’s” melodic sense in a blender with the tone and instrumentality of A Perfect Circle’s “3 Libras” and Thrice’s “Red Sky.” Still, with the strong guitar work on this album, the play-it-safe approach of the songwriting limits its ceiling.
The second problem, though, is the bigger drag on the album: too many songs overstay their welcome. “Peach,” “Remember When,” and “Piistol Star” are three of the biggest culprits here: all three end with reinterpretations of their respective choruses or main riffs, long after those concepts had worn out their welcome. “Self Destructor” is another example, and by far the most disappointing. The song lures the listener in with cleverly written hooks, and sticks juuust a bit too long with its pull-off-centric main riffs before kicking the energy into high gear in the bridge. The bridge is ferocious, with frenetic guitar punctuated by screams of “It’s Like War.” That section, ending at the 4:11 mark, would have been an absolutely perfect close to the song. The band, however, made the puzzling choice to revert back to a dampened-down chorus and low-key piano for the song’s final 100 seconds. Lop off this epilogue, and “Self Destructor” becomes an all-time-great Chevelle song; instead, it’s one of many interesting ideas on this album that peters out upon repetition.
Ten years ago, I lamented that “the pros and cons of the band are becoming a little too familiar,” and predicted that the band would soon decline. I ended up eating crow, of course, as “La Gárgola” quickly showed that the band has plenty of juice left when it branches out in tone, structure, and production. “NIRATIAS,” with its inventive guitar, interesting production, and palpable energy, nearly hits the mark in those respects. The band’s worst enemy, of course, continues to be the law of diminishing returns, and NIRATIAS can't quite escape unscathed. Still, diminished or no, as long as those returns involve Chevelle doing what they do best, it’ll still be a pretty f****n’ good listen.
So Long, Mother Earth
Ghost and Razor”
Endlessly (with “Test Test… Enough” as an excellent prelude)