The mid and late '90s were a special time for melodic, no-nonsense Punk Rock. Preceding the second modern Pop-Punk explosion - of '99 (largely due to Enema Of The State
) - a number of the finest contemporary Punk bands were reaching their peak and releasing some of the most enjoyable and accomplished albums of the generation: NOFX
to name but a few. 1998 itself was a special year. Refused
's legendary The Shape Of Punk To Come
, Lagwagon's Let's Talk About Feelings
and Frenzal Rhomb
's Meet The Family
were some of the many highlights. Perhaps the finest of the bunch is the third full-length release from California's Strung Out
. The fusion of driving, occasionally Hardcore beats and melodic, poppy overtures gives this album an elaborate and sophisticated sound, pulled off with unwavering precision.
Strung Out's greatest strengths lie in their consummate musicianship and the unity of the band. The guitars integrate with astonishing ease to create some of the most enjoyable lead riffs, solos and harmonies in modern-day Punk. Their relationship with Jason Cruz's vocals is seamless and Jordan Burns confirms his reputation as one of the finest Punk drummers going around. The compelling lead guitar work is manifest throughout the exceptional opening, Too Close To See
. Cruz's lyrical ability to tackle introspection and personal adversity with an overriding optimistic outlook is apparent as the opener builds towards the powerful mid-verse break: “Soon, You'll find, There's something more
”. This stunning album opener bodes well for a special album, which this undeniably is. Again showing the diversity of the Strung Out sound, Twisted
glides effortlessly between some of the most uplifting and positive music you are likely to hear and the darker melancholy Strung Out, normally associated with their Hardcore moments. Reason To Believe
takes the album by the scruff of the neck, changing the complexion, feeling and attitude in a two-minute onslaught of ominous Hardcore Punk. It's the standout example of the scope of the Strung Out catalogue yet the more absorbing feature is the illustration of the band's ability to offer up the unexpected. A menacing lyrical piece supported by guitar riffs and a solo more associated with Metal than Punk combine with an imposing vocal performance to give the album an impressive change of pace.
The barrage of Hardcore is revisited on the disconsolate Ice Burn
. Both guitars are used to devastating effect on this dark and brooding track with Cruz at his most ominous. However, this track is uncompromisingly overshadowed by the feverous Ultimate Devotion
. There is some ambiguity as to the meaning of the lyrics, with a notion that they refer to sadism and masochism (S&M). Regardless of their meaning, there are some lyrical gems, such as the suggestive, “Her blood runs hot but her heart beats cold, A devil with an angel's face I've been told
”. Singing of his unwavering loyalty, Cruz imparts both anger and motivation impeccably in this succinct submission. This occasional dark disposition is far outweighed by the prevailing positive message imparted through adamant tunes such as Deville
. The jolted verses stand as the precursor to an overwhelmingly heartening and stirring chorus, led by the enticing vocal lines of Cruz and the contrasting lyrics of optimism and self-doubt: “For one moment I can see clearly, The weight of the world don't seem so bad. Then I find myself here right back where I started from again
.” However it is on the brazenly honest Crossroads
where the emotion reaches fever-pitch. Cruz's personal (and band) evaluation is unashamedly honest and candid, going into lyrical territory many would dare not even consider. One of the most striking disclosures comes in Cruz's discussion of the circumstances surrounding the band's future direction and integrity:
“The music used to be everything,
The music used to heal.
But business soon becomes reality,
And nothing left inside is real
Addressing an issue largely similar to that of the album closer, Paperwalls
is the archetypal Strung Out song, torn between introspection and contemplation & optimism and enthusiasm, with poignant lead-guitar hooks and undeniably catchy vocals. The bass work of Jim Cherry is particularly strong on this track, providing an unfaltering foundation for Cruz's rousing delivery. The sharp guitar riffs continue into the penetrating King Alvarez
. The stuttering verses build towards the flowing pre-verses and the fluent final chorus. Alvarez
is musically somewhat akin to Exhumation Of Virginia Madison
with the two guitars again combining persuasively. This is, however, a song that flows continuously from start to finish and is a shining example of how to 'do' melodic Punk Rock.
There are but a few weak moments on this stellar album, yet it is an excessively daunting task trying to create 14 tracks as strong as the album's opener and closer. Some tracks simply pale in comparison to the pre-eminent moments, yet finding the obvious blemish on this spotless record is easier said than done. Perhaps the intimidating Ice Burn
is the incongruous track of the album: it would certainly feel more at home on The Element Of Sonic Defiance
. Despite this incongruity, the track adds to the variety of the album which is yet another positive aspect. If there is a weak section of the album it is tracks eleven to thirteen. While somewhat unremarkable, Asking For The World
show that even at the more unexceptional moments this is a outstandingly strong album.
Some songs have special places in your heart for whatever reason, whether they remind you of a memorable time, place or person, or perhaps it was the song that got you started on a new musical direction. One of the best album closers my ears have been privileged enough to hear is Matchbook
, and it is certainly one of those songs for me. This is the song that put me on to Strung Out, a band I have come to love over the past six months. For me, this is one of the best Punk songs I have ever heard. The lyrics, the feeling, the guitar work: it is all tremendous. I have listened to this song so many times over the past six months it is ridiculous, yet I am not even close to tyring of it. Singing about the perils of a troubled relationship, the lyrics and delivery are outstanding. The prevailing positive conviction of the album is most evident here, as Matchbook
moves from anger, despair, introspection and contemplation to optimism and self-belief and -assurance. The inspiring final verse is but one highlight of this exceptional composition. The foremost plea of “Don't look back in anger
” suitably captures the emotion of the song and album. If I can recommend just one song from this album, it is Matchbook
Twisted By Design
is generally seen as one of Strung Out's stronger albums, but for mine it is their equal - if not outright - best. The immense feeling and evocative melodies are prevalent throughout, with this album containing some of the best contemporary Punk this side of Beirut. Uncompromising Punk Rock doused with enough talent to keep even the sharpest ears interested, this album is as accomplished and competent as you're likely to hear in contemporary Punk. It is not one of the greatest albums of all time but it is certainly a great album, and I recommend it highly. I was completely infatuated with Matchbook
for several months and couldn't recommend this song more highly. Overall a fantastic album (did I mention that I really like this album yet"), and it gets 4½ from me.