Sound — 7
Though Anti-Flag's adamancy for keeping the real punk spirit and aesthetic alive from square one had arguably crossed the line into caricature - from the liberty spikes hairdos to their debut album being brazenly named "Die for the Government" - their effort was much obliged in an era where bands like Blink-182 and Green Day were fronting the burgeoning trend of pop punk. Even more so, it was that commitment to dissention that landed them on the radars of other highly-political rockers. NOFX's Fat Mike signed them to his independent punk label, Fat Wreck Chords, to release their third and fourth albums, "Underground Network" and "The Terror State," and the band also established a rapport with Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello, who co-produced "The Terror State."
This substantial growth led to Anti-Flag parlaying into a record deal with major label RCA Records in 2005, which sparked outcries from listeners, believing that this was the moment of the band "selling out," both in terms of dissentious messages and true punk energy. Their fifth album and first with RCA, "For Blood and Empire," proved that prediction incorrect, but their follow-up, 2008's "The Bright Lights of America," eventually validated that aforementioned fear and loathing, with Anti-Flag's sound traveling substantially into alt-rock territory. Anti-Flag made obvious efforts to backpedal from that deviation afterwards - they signed with the acclaimed independent punk label SideOneDummy a year later, and the two albums they released under that label, 2009's "The People or the Gun" and 2012's "The General Strike," were clear efforts to renew the band's punk fervor.
Keeping this "two albums per label" pattern going, Anti-Flag have signed with Spinefarm Records to release their ninth album, "American Spring," which shows some substantial change in Anti-Flag's sound within the past few years. Contrasting the fleeting tempo carried throughout "The General Strike," "American Spring" spends half of its total runtime in a midtempo gear, which has the album verging into pop punk territory. As scary of a remark that may be for the same people who dreaded "The Bright Lights of America," that fear is only half-right. While some songs fall into that commercial punk meekness (like "Sky Is Falling," "Song for Your Enemy," "Break Something" and "Brandenburg Gate," which features Tim Armstrong) or bear conflicts in composition (like the rhythm chords in "Fabled World" that drown out the lead guitar melodies and solo), Anti-Flag also use this breakaway from their trademark style for the better. "All of the Poison, All of the Pain" is powered with one of the catchiest riffs of the album, "Walk Away" incorporates a frenetic bassline stylistically similar to that heard in their first album, and "Without End" features Tom Morello, who brings some great RATM-style guitarwork to the table.
Anti-Flag also opt to include a fair amount of classic-style material in "American Spring," which helps in counterweighting the pop punk stuff as much as it helps satisfy the listeners who revile any and all change in the band's sound. The breakneck-pace cuts of "The Great Divide" or "To Hell With Boredom," and the top-notch basslines found in "Set Yourself on Fire" and "Low Expectations" prove that Anti-Flag are still willing and able to channel that classic punk spirit, but this part of the album also points out its flaw of being self-derived. Whether by coincidence or not, the lead melody in "Believer" echoes that of "Confessions of an Economic Hitman," and the singalong melody in "The Debate Is Over (If You Want It)" is similar to "Cities Burn," and it makes for a necessary message of how too much of the same thing each time is detrimental in the grand scheme of things.
Lyrics — 5
With Anti-Flag's lyrical matter always containing a wide range of political topics and a knack for specificity, "American Spring" feels hamstringed compared to earlier albums. Only in few cases do songs wholly identify and tackle an issue (like the epidemic of income inequality in "The Great Divide," and cognitive dissonance dealt by the media in "All of the Poison, All of the Pain"), while other songs quickly pass by topics that beg to be elaborated upon (like "Fabled World" brushing over the topic of genocide and mass incarceration, and "Break Something" brushing over the topic of white-collar criminals and the military-industrial complex). "Sky Is Falling" succeeds in being the most poetic set of lyrics in the album, where the first verse POV of an American witnessing 9/11 ("Blasted lives lay in the debris / Blasted hearts where there once were dreams / Right now it's the dark / And this is just the start") hands the baton to a second POV of someone in a Middle Eastern country being bombed in unjust retaliation ("The world just sits by, waiting for us to die... / Counter insurgence or insurgency / Religious, ethnic, or sectarian seeds / Manipulation, born out of total greed"), but with other cases of lyrical blunders diluting things as well (like the unbelievably rudimentary line "This place, it sucks / And I don't give a f--k" in "Low Expectations," the spotty lyrical quality of "American Spring" leaves much to be desired.
Overall Impression — 7
While Anti-Flag have had troubles before with deviating from their expected punk sound, the effort and strategy shown to branch out in "American Spring" works better than it did in "The Bright Lights of America," - or rather, as best as it possibly can. With the pop punk parts of the album being undoubtedly polarizing, and the classic punk parts coming off a bit stale, the album proves that it would have been more problematic if it fully invested in either side. Ultimately, "American Spring" takes the yin-yang route, and instead of ending up as another pariah of an Anti-Flag album or inspirationally inbred, it results in a feasible balance.