Sound — 9
Alter Bridge has a track record of being a phenomenally talented band who are generally considered to be underrated in the music world, except by those who really, really didn't like Creed and fail to see the difference between the two bands. For those unfamiliar with Alter Bridge, their debut album One Day Remains definitely had a Creed feel to it, whilst 2007's masterpiece "Blackbird" melded the jazzy guitar chops of vocalist Myles Kennedy to the already mega-talented shred king Mark Tremonti to create a phenomenally good, heavy and yet melodic album. "ABIII" showed a slightly different side of the bands and is generally considered to be a step down on "Blackbird," mostly because it had a slightly less progressive feel, although it did introduce Mark Tremonti to the microphone for a duet with Kennedy in "Words Darker Than Their Wings" and put Kennedy in the lead guitar spot a few times. Since the release of "ABIII," Myles has been touring with Slash and Tremonti has released and toured a solo record, and so I was looking forward to seeing what "Fortress" would offer up. The first thing about "Fortress" that I instantly noticed is that it's really, really heavy. I would say that at first listen through, I found it less listenable than the previous two, mostly because the melodies are more original, the chord progressions more progressive, and the riffs using more accidentals, but after a few more listens it really became clear that Fortress is a giant leap forward for Alter Bridge. They've pushed forward their musicality, the singing, and the songwriting. Myles subtle texturing which was so prevalent in Blackbird and "ABIII" seems to have been largely dropped in favour of Tremonti's crushingly heavy riffs. There are lots more little gems served up throughout the album - the classical guitar intro in "Cry of Achilles," Tremonti's lead vocals on "Waters Rising," the original sounding "Lover," and the movie soundtrack in "Calm the Fire" which should satisfy not only Alter Bridge's biggest fans, but also their biggest critics. 01. "Cry of Achilles": This song starts off with an awesome fingerpicked classical guitar line which quickly drops into a typical accidental-ridden crushing metal riff from Tremonti. This song boasts a couple of my favourite riffs of the album - there's a section which shifts to a 3/4 feel, which I love – as well as a couple of clean sections, an intriguing chorus, a bass-heavy bridge, and a memorable middle section. 02. "Addicted to Pain": This was the album's single, and you can fairly easily see why. It's basically a collection of high-voltage riffage from Tremonti, some fantastic vocals from Kennedy, a great solo, and the typically brilliantly tight rhythm section. There's nothing really stand-out about this track on paper, but it's really a solid effort from start to finish. 03. "Bleed It Dry": This is heavy. Very heavy. It has a crushing odd-metre riff to kick off with, through a great verse and straight into a fantastically heavy chorus laden with chromatic accent notes. The clean bridge is the last thing I expected, and was initially a bit disappointing before a jazzy sounding solo from Myles Kennedy (I think) leads us back into the chorus again. 04. "Lover": I didn't personally much like this song to begin with, mostly because of a little niggle with the opening lines "If you deny the words of your lover, you will discover..." That said, with a combination of some fantastic solos, a powerful bridge, the use of so much of Kennedy's phenomenal vocal range and the slow builds present throughout the song, it's a very good song which fills it's place in this album very well. 05. "The Uninvited": Another heavy one. This apparently nearly didn't make it onto the album due to a similarity between it and Schism by Tool, but the decision to put it on is definitely a good one. It kicks off with some clean guitars and Kennedy crooning "Ah" at key points in the lick, and then... Tremonti, metal riffs, odd-metre riffs, big chorus from Myles, dissonant bridge, some lightning rolls from Flip... it's a good song, but not a stand out. 06. "Peace Is Broken": I think this song hangs on the chorus, really. The intro, verse, and chorus all comprise of fairly repetitive big riff which doesn't really do it for me, but the chorus is outstanding, with some huge melodies by both Myles and Mark. The segue into a little clean section and then a anthemic bridge led by Tremonti's strong baritone works brilliantly. Tremonti also pulls some impressive chops in a very smooth and fitting solo. Great song with the exception of that into/verse/prechorus riff, which unfortunately detracts enough to knock it out of my top few in the album. 07. "Calm the Fire": If this doesn't make it onto a film soundtrack, I may have to boycott Hollywood. It kicks off with a delicious acoustic section with some low-pass-filtered licks from Tremonti before dropping into a fantastic riff offers a fantastic melody from Tremonti with Myles providing a higher textured part which interlocks brilliantly. The chorus gives one of those "I can do anything" feelings in your chest between great riffs from the resident axemen and Kennedy's soaring vocals. There's a nice bridge too, but no solo... 08. "Waters Rising": If you've picked up Tremonti's solo album All I Was, you'll know that he's a very capable singing with a strong, smooth baritone. "Waters Rising" features Tremonti taking lead vocals, and it works brilliantly, especially when juxtaposed with Kennedy's sometimes harsh tenor. The song has some great clean verses, a couple of brilliant quick licks the revert back to open strings, a strong chorus, and a bridge that features some haunting melodies from Myles before another crushing apocalyptic Tremonti riff which leads back into the chorus. There's a great solo, which seems even bluesier than usual from Tremonti, which uses some well-established blues patterns with some shred licks for good measure, before handing over the heaviest outro on the album. What larks. 09. "Cry Me a River": The problem with a song like "Waters Rising," is that whatever follows it will be a little disappointing. That said, "Cry Me a River" makes a solid effort and manages to show itself as a reasonably good song, though it lacks the cohesiveness and raw power of "Waters Rising." The chorus is typically Alter Bridge, with some interesting melodies by Myles and some heavy Tremonti riffage. The bridge is fantastic and will no doubt be a highlight of their live show, and Flip gets another couple of great fills. The solo is also memorable and a good listen, and the song reverts to the bridge to close off, which leaves the song on a high note. 10. "Farther Than the Sun": This is another song where the main riff just doesn't appeal to me at all, but that said, after that it picks up and proves to be really a rather good song. The chorus has some weirdly swung drumming from Flip which seems to fit well and some borderline major-key vocals from Kennedy. The bridge is one of the more traditional heavy metal moments on the album, as is the solo which features some smooth legato runs drenched in wah. 11. "All Ends Well": Here is the token ballad, and my God, it's a cracker. We get some great acoustic/clean guitar to kick off the song before building up in a typical power-ballad fashion. This is one of those songs that has some "normal range tenor" from Myles and then when it gets to the chorus you can't help shaking your head in awe as Myles opens up the taps and heads for the top of his range. The chorus is beautifully optimistic, with Myles promising "If you believe in nothing else, just keep believing in yourself/There will be times of trouble, it's gonna hurt like hell/But this much I know: All ends well." The bridge is relatively catchy, and the outro again shifts to a major-like feel, but again, there's no solo where a solo would have elevated the song that much further. 12. "Fortress": This kicks off with one of the most foreboding clean intro riffs I've ever heard and some breathy singing from Myles. The chorus is dark and yet not that heavy, which in a 7 minute song, (hint) means they're saving it for later. Indeed, there a collection of crushing riffs scattered throughout the piece, but overall this piece retains a lyrical, smooth, songwriter-type feel to it. Brian Marshall gets a little bass break to himself (the second on the album) which is really nice, and there is another split solo (I think - one sounds like Myles' tone and the other like Mark's but that's just a guess) which features some great neoclassical type runs, shred passages, and melodic phrases. After that you get another clean bridge before Mark gets bored and hits the loud pedal, bringing us back to the chorus and then a great harmonized outro riff. Overall a phenomenal effort from a phenomenal band.
Lyrics — 9
Not to discredit the fantastic playing of Brian Marshall and Scott Philips, but you buy an Alter Bridge album for two main reasons - the collection of crushing Tremonti riffage and the fantastic soaring vocals of the astonishingly gifted Myles Kennedy. Vocally this album has a couple of brilliant performances from Kennedy - his range seems to be just as elephantine as ever, and his voice just as powerful. To have a range that size and to utilize all of it with as near-as-dammit to perfect pitch is no easy feat, and to extend a collection of truly outstanding vocal performances over four Alter Bridge albums as well as with other bands on the side puts him near the top of a very short list of performers. If you're chasing the best Kennedy performances on "Fortress," the stand out songs vocally for me would be "Calm the Fire," "All Ends Well," "Addicted to Pain" and "Bleed It Dry." The biggest vocal asset of this album for me is in fact the Tremonti fronted song "Waters Rising." Since hearing Tremonti's vocal part in "Come to Life" off the "Blackbird" album, I've wanted to hear more from him, and having a whole song fronted by him is a treat. His smooth baritone fits brilliantly with the band, but really, his trade off/harmonized parts with Myles in "Peace Is Broken" is the highlight of the album vocally, simply because hearing those two voices together, not hidden under layers of Myles' studio harmonies is brilliant, and that's where I want to see more from this band in the future. Lyrically this album seems a little contrived at times, which is possibly just me, but I picked up a couple of lines - "If you deny the words of your lover, you will discover..." off "Lover," "I have to find a place where I belong, I do not like what I have become" from "Farther Than the Sun" and "Now all of the fields are burning: it blocks out the sun, I see all the waters rising to drown everyone" from "Waters Rising" have an awkward cadence when sung which prompted a pang of brief disappointment from me as I felt the lyrics of Alter Bridge which have always been above reproach slip momentarily. It's something that you become more comfortable as you listen through the album though, and for the most part the lyrics are still exceptionally good - covering personal and social topics, and using a collection of smooth metaphors to put together a great album lyrically.
Overall Impression — 10
The fourth album from Alter Bridge will go down with "Blackbird" as being one of the truly great albums this quartet has produced. The songwriting is a step up on everything they've done yet, the playing is tight, the songs heavier and yet still smooth, and the overall feel of the album one of polished precision with very little repetition or filler. The production is tight, and Mark's tone is blessedly less muddy than it's been in years (apparently he's ditched his huge Mesa/Bogner Uberschall/Bogner Shiva/AxeFXII/Voodoo/ rig in favour of a Triple Rectifier and a Cornford for rhythms and the Cornford on its own for leads) though it seems that Brian Marshall's usually booming bass has been turned down a little too far in the mix and with the exception of 2 bass breaks, his parts are usually largely inaudible. The drumming is a step up on what it was – still with jazz-rock beats mashed together with double kicks, the solos are better, and vocally the album is a gem. As I've mentioned, upon a first listen, it's less directly appealing than either "Blackbird" or "ABIII" because it is noticeably heavier and more experimental in its approach than any of the previous albums, but listen again for a while and it will become clear that this album is truly a phenomenal album from start to finish, just a few steps removed from perfection by a thimbleful of unmemorable riffs, a couple of missing solos and a few lyrics that didn't fit with my personal taste. If someone were to steal this album off my hard drive, I would lambaste them for breaking into my house, commend them for having good taste in music and then go buy the album on disc where it can hold a place of honour in my collection besides its three elder and yet not as macho brothers. Truly, "Fortress" is a great album which will go down alongside "Blackbird" as one of the best albums this century has offered so far.