It’s no secret that Strung Out love metal- from their earliest material on Another Day in Paradise (particularly tracks like “Ashes”) to the predominantly metal-sounding EP The Element of Sonic Defiance, they have over the course of their steady career blended the furious pace of hardcore/punk with metal’s more extravagant thrashing. Some of it was grand, and some, not so much. Enthusiasts will argue that the band have stood tallest when their focus was set on the more melodic side of hardcore- both Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues and Twisted by Design are still arguably the band’s most prolific musical period- but occasionally stumble when they shy away from it. The past few albums have been pretty lean from Strung Out, neither An American Paradoxnor Exile in Oblivion had the lasting impact their predecessors’ did- and while sound in terms of songwriting, lacked the punch (and production value) of their earlier work. Yet the hiccups of the past few releases have not stopped the band from producing one of the finest albums of the genre in recent memory. With Blackhawks Over Los Angeles, Strung Out proves that longevity and a steady hand can still be, and sound, essential.
Working once again with Matt Hyde (who for some reason has done an almost 180 degree turn from Exile in Oblivion), Blackhawks just sounds absolutely terrific. It’s all guns blazing from the start as opener “Calling” is a throwback to songs like “Firecracker” with its up-tempo audio assault, and save for the unnecessary South American instrumental intro, is perhaps one of the best songs Strung Out have written since the start of the millennium. There is no shortage of melodic overtones either, as “All the Nations” (listen below) is the perfect amalgam of high-soaring choruses, toe-tapping melody, and razor sharp guitar work; reminiscent perhaps, of standouts from the past like “Solitaire.” In fact, there really isn’t a sore spot in the entire first half of the album- filled with solid outings like “War Called Home” and “Party in the Hills,” highlighting the band’s new found songwriting energy.
The second half however, is a little patchier. The best tune from the last six tracks, “Downtown,” is a more mid-tempo effort that is heavy on the hard rock riffs and melody-filled choruses, that while doesn’t have the pace of the opening salvo, paints a more languid, settled approach. “Dirty Little Secret,” has received some flak for being a “WTF?!” moment for the band- but while it certainly treads on unfamiliar ground (bouncy, pop-sounding rock), is by no means a mess of any kind. It’s actually a rather sweet sounding song; owing a bit perhaps to late-era Schleprock than agro, late 80s Bad Religion. After these two, there is just not much that stands outs in the latter part- not entirely a knock as the songs are all solid, it is just that they lack the pervasive urgency that the first half of the album exhibited.
Shortcomings aside, Strung Out have found the perfect meshing of their love of metal and what they do best: shredding the boundaries of melodic hardcore like few have ever done before them. The album may just be the best way to connect fans of their earlier work to those more disposed to more recent outings. Blackhawks Over Los Angeles may not resonate the way Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues does, but it’s a solid, if not great, effort that just falls short of being stellar.
(Fat Wreck Chords)
Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die
Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter
At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.
Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.
The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.
The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.
Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.
Fences – Failure Sculptures
Failure Sculptures is a steady outing
Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.
“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.
“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.
This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.