The debate has raged on; can artists plying their trade on major label grounds be true to their anti-establishment, revolutionary causes? It has indeed been subjects greatly debated. From the days when Rage Against the Machine carried the flag for a disenfranchised generation (while handsomely pocketing large wads of cash) to when Bad Religion trumpeted off into the Atlantic seas with a head full of bright ideas (but with little to no means of urgency), the battle to maintain integrity while venturing off into these unknowns has been a sore subject amongst the many. And the argument presented by these artists for their decision lies with the idea that perhaps the only way to get the message out to the masses is to shake hands with the devil; an argument that does little to salvage the mediocrity that both descended into. And while Bad Religion have managed to resurrect themselves from burning out, Rage’s story of self destruction just goes to show that perhaps, words of revolution can only truly disseminate through the hearts and minds of the people, and not machines.
Much talk rose from Rise Against signing to DreamWorks. And there were no more ominous foretelling of the turbulent landscape they had landed in than when their label was swallowed by Geffen shortly after and their big coming out party was put on hold before it even started. Sure enough, once Siren Song of the Counter Culture saw release, critics descended upon it like vultures, just another easy target of the pitfalls of an indie-to-majors career path. Now months after the initial release, enough time has lapsed for some to casually forget about the pre-release discussion, and one can see that for making a push in the big time, Siren Song… is not exactly some lame, half-hearted attempt. It is for the most part, as blistering and potent as 2003’s Revolutions Per Minute; rumbling forth in a heavy barrage of up-tempo punk, monster riffs, and the kind of blistering melody Good Riddance made famous in the mid-to-late 90s. From the blasting ferocity of the opening track, “State of the Union,” to the consistent barrage of “The First Drop,” little seems to have been lost in their transition.
Lyrically, they’ve once again tapped into much of the instability of life. From the uncertain future we seem to find ourselves in (“Life Less Frightening”), the isolationist nature of heartbreak (“Anywhere But Here”), to the ills of modern society (“Tip the Scales”), there is still a great deal of lyrical potency that Tim McIllrath’s grating voice releases. The album, largely reflective, is a welcome change from the painfully indifferent tone set by the majority of bands hawking their crappy merchandise on the Warped Tour every year; not so much that the subjects matter discussed are all too different, but because McIllrath and company drill home their content with a kind of spirited emotional resonance unfelt by America’s unfettered youth.
The album’s single greatest moment comes with “Paper Wings,” a deft combination of melodic heartache and sonic destruction (and a pretty bitchin’ solo) reminiscent of the material found on A Comprehensive Guide to Moderne Rebellion. With its undeniable choral statement; “and I can’t tell if you’re laughing / between each smile there’s a tear in your eye / there’s a train leaving town in an hour / it’s not waiting for you, and neither am I,” the song rises high above the rest and is a handy reminder that punk influenced music with soaring harmonies need not sound so painfully untried.
Undoubtedly there are flaws, and like much of their kind, the genre can be restrictive on what someone can do within the confines that bind them. In “Swing Life Away,” they strip away all the charge for plaintive acoustics and the results sound rather lifeless; a hokey acoustic song that should have stayed on that awful Punk Goes Acoustic mess. In “Rumors of My Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated,” there is a great deal of melodic wavering (and some cheesy lyrics) but little forceful intensity, making the track nothing more than a muted closing. There really is so much they can do with the genre tools on hand. As we’ve seen with the host of spectacularly dreadful bands in the past few years, one really needs to do the basics well, and thankfully, this Chicago outfit does exceptionally so.
For Rise Against, their bold step into this territory could have easily spelled disaster. But while seeking fortunes in greater landscapes, they have not forgotten the fires from where they rose. The debate it seems will go on, but Siren Song for the Counter Culture is proof that at least during the initial stages, ascendancy into popular culture can go hand in hand with integrity. However, like their predecessors, translating early success into longevity is indeed the greater challenge; and now, there is very little room for error.