Sound — 8
I've always thought of Alter Bridge as being somewhat like a 21st-century Van Halen. They definitely have a lot of the ingredients: a ridiculously talented guitarist-slash-consummate songwriter, an in-your-face frontman with some of the most distinctive and powerful pipes on the music scene, a rhythm section that locks in perfectly and adds to the music without detracting from it in any way, and a rather seamless and timeless blend of styles both past, present, and, perhaps, future. Huge riffs, blazing solos, wailing vocal melodies, epic song structures, not a single AB album has failed to live up to expectations so far.
"The Last Hero," the fifth album in Alter Bridge's catalog, gets cracking in a spectacular way with opener "Show Me a Leader," with its epic and bombastic extended instrumental opening giving way to some very powerful hard rock, with a hell of an earworm in the chorus, and a brief but enticing guitar solo. This track really sets the tone for the rest of the record, which matches heavier riffs (some of which mark the first time the band has utilized seven-string guitars) with soaring, epic melodies. Even the solo in the tune has some really catchy phrases, and that's one of my favourite things about Mark Tremonti's guitar playing, is that it actually sounds like he is having fun playing his solos, and that they don't sound at all like a guitarist going through pointless exercises to string together a solo. Later on in the album we get heavier riffs like the intro of "The Writing on the Wall" and "The Other Side," which are some of the most "metal" tracks the band has released in recent memory, and could perhaps be a bit of Tremonti's thrash and speed metal influences coming through from his recent solo album releases. "My Champion" is an uplifting rocker with some very catchy major-key guitar parts and lovely vocal melodies from vocalist Myles Kennedy. "Poison in Your Veins" continues where "The Writing on the Wall" and "The Other Side" left off, with some more metal-tinged riffs.
"Cradle to the Grave" is one of my two favourite tracks from the album, with a bit more of a dynamic sound, incorporating acoustic guitars and softer verses with heavier choruses. The middle section is even a little proggy, with Mark's repeated guitar ostinato preceding another absolutely excellent solo. "Losing Patience" is another good, riffy hard rocker, with possibly my favourite chorus on the album. The band seems to really enjoy doing these types of songs on this record, but up until this point I had been lamenting the lack of any material that could match the epic grandeur of my particular favourite song of theirs, "Blackbird." "This Side of Fate," however, may have made me change my mind a little. This is definitely my favourite song on the record, bar none. The acoustic guitars, the vocal melodies, the modulations in the choruses, the little guitar solos here and there, this song comes off to me as one of the most inspired pieces on not just this record, but on all of their records since "Blackbird." Another repeated guitar lead riff about halfway through the song adds a bit of progginess to the track, along with another good heavy riff that sounds like it might have been played on a 7-string as well. Even the main guitar solo is one of the best on this entire record, evoking a bit of John Petrucci at times. I could go on about this song for days, but there are still a few more on the record to go through, like the uplifting and inspiring "You Will Be Remembered," the heavy "Crows on a Wire," the upbeat rocker "Twilight," the heavy and epic "Island of Fools" (which has some truly excellent singing and a really cool guitar solo!), and the epic closing title track. While it doesn't quite match "This Side of Fate" for me, it's pretty damn close, and it plays on a lot of the reasons I'm loving this album, like the epic, soaring melodies, the heavier riffs, the dynamic changes from quiet to loud, the slightly-more-prog arrangements, Mark's incredible guitar playing.
As mentioned early on in the article, while the band's sound is much like Van Halen in that they're a rare band where both the vocalist and guitarist could be considered "equal frontmen," Brian Marshall (bass) and Scott Phillips (drums) do an absolutely solid job throughout the record, giving Mark and Myles lots of space to perform their asses off, but still contributing in their own way by accenting and understanding dynamics. While they don't get any big, grand solo moments, their sound is still integral to the band and I feel it'd be hard to replace them.
About my only criticism of the sound of the record might be that the production makes this album sound a little too over-the-top at times. Michael "Elvis" Baskette does a fine enough job of mixing (though the mix is a little loud at times), and even provides string arrangements and keyboards for the band, but at times it seems like he's thrown a few too many elements into the mix where something a bit more stripped-back and raw would have been far more powerful. It's probably for this reason that I enjoyed the tracks with softer sections more, since there was a bit of breathing room on those tracks, and the volume maybe didn't stay cranked to 11 the whole time. But that's a rather minor criticism compared to the excellence of the music on display here.
Lyrics — 8
Alter Bridge has always had a pretty good mix of lyrical themes, including politics, faith, relationships, and uplifting inspirational themes. For all the darkness of a lyric like "The Other Side" ("If you believe yours is the only way/Then you're the fool who lives to die/Well you deserve the Hell, you're gonna pay/On the other side"), there seems to always be some light in the form of more inspirational messages like the one in the following song "My Champion" ("You've lost so many times it hurts/But failures made are lessons learned/Cause in the end what you are will be much more/Than you were"). And even though some of the songs, such as "Show Me a Leader" or "The Writing on the Wall," dabble in politics, it doesn't seem to be an "us vs. them" approach, or a partisan kind of political lyric, but rather showing disdain for the entire system all at once. You can be on either side of the political coin and find something to relate to in lyrics like "Don't tell us this is normal/Don't tell us there's no change/So selfish and immoral, you're to blame/'Cause you're the great disrupter/Still crossing out of line/Now tell me who will suffer for all your crimes? /We are running out of time."
Belting out these lyrics, Myles Kennedy proves himself on this album yet again as one of rock music's most potent current singers. He does seem to push a little more on this album and there are fewer moments of him using a more subdued voice than on past albums, so any live performances focusing on material from this album are likely to be a test of his stamina. To be honest, though, I do miss some of the softer moments with his more subdued voice, as the first few times I've listened to this album, Myles' singing did come off as a little exhausting. But if that aspect of this band turns you off a little, worry not, as I did eventually settle into it, and have even come to enjoy that aspect of this record. But vocally speaking, my favourite track is still "This Side of Fate." That's the track where all of my favourite elements of Myles' vocal style (as well as the rest of the band, as mentioned above) came together flawlessly.
Overall Impression — 8
The last few Alter Bridge albums were kind of a mixed bag for me, and the last album of theirs I really got into was "Blackbird." None of this stopped "AB III" or "Fortress" from being critically acclaimed, and they're excellent albums in their own right, but the strength of the title track of "Blackbird" kept me yearning for another epic track like that to appear on a new AB record. It seems like I got that wish a few times over on "The Last Hero," which displays a penchant for epicness throughout the album. It's not a completely perfect record, but I feel that this is the band's strongest moment in years, and perhaps the influence Mark Tremonti brought from his recent solo albums might have been partly responsible for this. As expected, the guitar playing on this record is absolutely sublime, and if you're looking for someone to show you a leader of shred guitar in 2016, look no further than the last hero, Mark Tremonti (okay, I'll stop with the puns now). Between this record and Mark's recently-released "Dust," he's been an absolutely prolific player, and these two records have such quality to them that they'll cement Mark's place in guitar playing for a long time to come.
And if you're just looking for a really good hard rock record in 2016, "The Last Hero" is a great blend of old and new, modern and classic rock, and I'd definitely recommend giving this a spin. Definitely one of the best albums Alter Bridge has come out with in a long time.