Sound — 6
Weathering change in any genre of music is something that's tricky in and of itself for any artist, but in metal, it always seems to be a gamble whether you change or not. Bands that refuse to budge from their formula tend to be accused of growing stale and dated, while bands that evolve are often labelled as "sell outs". This appears to be particularly true in the more extreme variations of metal, and for metalcore/alternative metallers All That Remains, their changes in style have certainly divided a lot of opinions. With their heavier earlier material contrasting with their more melodic and vocal-led current material, the evolution of this band has led to their last album, 2015's "The Order of Things", to receive a rather lukewarm reception. Its more melodic and mainstream tendencies did not sit well with fans and critics, and coupled with some statements from outspoken frontman Phil Labonte, the band reached a surprising low in popularity.
Given a chance to redeem themselves on this new album, the band wastes no time with its bludgeoning opening track, "Safe House", to remind us that at the end of the day, they are a metal band at their core. With its quick, galloping rhythms and Labonte's strained harsh vocals, it's exactly what one expects from the band, and in a sense, almosts lulls the listener into a false sense of security about the album, as the following title track brings in clean vocals, piano and synth programming for a more industrial metal style. The chorus is the kind of thing that would sit well on radio, and even sounds like it utilizes pitch-correction software for an effect on Phil's voice. Guitarist Oli Herbert still gets a great solo, and his co-guitarist Mike Martin is no slouch in the riff department, either. But the pervasiveness of synths and piano sounds in parts of tracks like "Nothing I Can Do" might be a bit of a put-off for some fans, and the fact that its chorus kind of plays as a somewhat heavier version of what Bring Me The Horizon is trying to do on their most recent album doesn't help matters. "If I'm Honest" ups the ante even further, with predominantly clean guitars and a very mainstream-sounding vocal that leaves a bad Nickelback-meets-Five Finger Death Punch taste in my mouth.
Luckily, "Halo" brings back some energy with a bit more of a classic heavy metal stomp almost comparable to current Trivium, as well as some genuinely impressive drumming from Jason Costa. "Louder" combines the approaches of the songs on the album, with cleaner parts edging closely with harsh vocals and gang-chant vocals, some heavier riffs, and probably my favourite Oli solo on the album. The opening of "River City" almost starts us off believing it will be a pop song, but luckily, a heavier riff comes in, though the vocals are still predominantly clean. Even so, this song has a very effective melody and all things considered, it's a rather catchy song. "Open Grave" returns us to the feel of the opening track with a harder edge and more of Phil's harsh vocals. "Far From Home" goes back to the sort of "modern hard rock radio ballad" formula, and finally has something to show Aaron Patrick's bass playing in a flattering way.
"Trust And Believe" is a classic metalcore stomper, and the opening of the track is probably the most "metal" moment on the record. The band still gives us a very catchy chorus and lots of clean singing, but not really anything particularly interesting. "Back To You" is the album's acoustic ballad, and alongside Phil's singing, almost kind of has a country drawl to it that may make this a popular song for bonfire nights around the world, but if I must be honest, I don't really find anything interesting to draw me into the track. "Never Sorry" is kind of a standard All That Remains track at this point, really only recapitulating the musical themes brought in on the other tracks. There's nothing wrong with the track at all, though. I actually really dig the pre-chorus of the tune, with the synth blips and the guitar rhythm locking in particularly well with Phil's vocals and the band's rhythm section. Lastly, the album closes with a cover of Garth Brooks' "The Thunder Rolls", and to be honest, it's actually a pretty well-done track. It definitely keeps the emotional content of the original version while the band adds their own spin to it.
Production-wise, the album was produced by Grammy-winning producer Howard Benson, and it certainly has the glossy sheen of modernity throughout to prove it. However, there are many moments where the quieter elements such as the acoustic and clean guitars are pushed far too loud in the mix, to the point of harsh clipping, and sadly, despite a great performance, Oli's guitar tone during the solos sounds far too processed and lacks the clarity of other lead guitar tones I'm used to hearing in modern metal productions. The songwriting is done well enough, but what seems to be a propensity for more mainstream songwriting convention kind of makes the album feel a bit boring after several songs.
Lyrics — 6
Depth and introspection have never exactly been Phil Labonte's strong suits, and "Madness" is no exception to this rule. The opener, "Safe House", is about as blunt of a violently pro-gun anthem as I've evere heard in this day and age, seemingly praising the concept of the USA's "stand your ground" laws: "Before you knew which house it was/I knew where you'd come in/Welcome, I've been waiting/To think you'd find your victim here will be your fatal sin/Welcome, I've been waiting/The lights were out, the car was gone/The door was left unlocked/You've already been caught/The path was laid, the road was fresh/And every gun was cocked/You've already been caught". Followed by a refrain of "Welcome to my safe house/Do you feel safe now?/Semi-automatic, I don't panic when it goes down", it really seems to suit some of Labonte's more outspoken moments over the last few years. "Louder" takes on critics of his political views, proclaiming "You're loud, I'm louder/You're weak, I'm power/Go ahead and try to paint me red/Cause I'm like no one that you've ever met/You're loud, I'm louder".
At the same time, Labonte does at least make an attempt at a bit of inward soul-searching, even in the context of songs with his usual themes of "I'm right, you're wrong", such as on the chorus of "If I'm Honest": "If I'm honest, I'm not afraid to die/Not afraid to live, not afraid to try/If I'm honest, you couldn't change my mind/Couldn't break me down/So don't waste your time/If I'm honest, I'll be alright". But when the rest of the song's lyrics paint a picture of someone who claims to have "been around the block and [knows] this game", and that ever-classic rant against political correctness: "They'll try to twist and turn and try to drown me out/But that won't change my mind", it comes off as a little cringeworthy. Politics in music has always been a very important development, and I usually welcome it, but it seems these days that everyone wants to get off on having as divisive of an opinion as possible and saying "I don't care what you think", without offering up anything deeper than that. To me, political music has always been more effective when there's some kind of actual message of change being conveyed, and to me, this all just seems to be defensive, pissed-off ranting, and I do start to think a lot of this political lyricism is akin to the emotionally whiny lyrics that plagued metal in the early half of the 2000s. This is, of course, subject to your own opinions and tastes, and I certainly don't expect many to share my views, but I do feel that this does affect the lyricism of "Madness" in a particularly negative way.
Phil Labonte's voice is unremarkable but pleasant on the record. Perhaps a lot of this unremarkability has to do with thew band utilizing a producer who utilizes Auto-Tune in the studio and believes that those who don't are "nuts"(Howard Benson's words, not mine), but also partly due to his clean vocals being kind of trapped in that mainstream modern hard rock sound and not really stretching out too much. He's not a terrible singer by any means, but I really struggle to find anything particularly captivating about his singing. The exception to the rule, strangely enough, is the Garth Brooks cover, "The Thunder Rolls", where his vocal style actually fits the song perfectly well, and complements the band's arrangement of the tune with equal excellence.
Overall Impression — 6
Musically, this isn't the strongest effort from the band so far, and it doesn't really feel like too much of a step up from "The Order of Things". Lyrically, Labonte's attempts to try a bit of introspection are thwarted by politics and just a bit too much ranting (though to be honest, I could see the merit in this lyrical style if I were in a different mood regarding political news than I am these days). That said, this album does have a few moments that shine with some brilliance, and the instrumental performances on the album are not completely disappointing.
But sadly, the album as a whole is a bit overproduced, the songs aren't really "there", and there were too many moments where I felt like this band came off as a bit faceless and generic, that this album could have been made by any popular mainstream rock artist these days, or even a decent attempt by some local-level hard rock top-40 covers band at making original material. It's not an atrocious album, and if it had been released by a much lesser-known band that hadn't been known for putting out much better work, it might even be worthy of some genuine praise. But All That Remains can do so much better. It's a rather disappointing album, much in the vein of recent works by In Flames and Bring Me The Horizon, making attempts to bring in a wider mainstream audience, but at the expense of watering down their sound. Overall, I did not find this album all that impressive.