Sound — 7
Formed back in 1999, From First To Last have gone through some pretty heavy changes since their inception. Their debut "Dear Diary, My Teen Angst Has a Body Count" (named after a line in the film "Heathers") was straight up post-hardcore/screamo with enough diversity and guile to make them stand out immediately. For a 16 year old, frontman Sonny Moore definitely turned a few heads with his high pitched cleans, decent screams and often morbid lyrics. The rest of the band did a good job of making a frequently lamented genre feel fun and dark at the same time.
This trend developed into their follow-up "Heroine," with the music incorporating more electronic and industrial elements, with Sonny's lyrics revolving isolation, public image and recent earth-shattering news regarding his family. This would be his last record with the band as he left to pursue a solo career and further develop his love of electronic music, eventually becoming dubstep titan Skrillex and taking the electronic music world by storm.
From First To Last carried on with guitarists and backing vocalists Matt Good and Travis Richter handling the vocal elements between them. 2008's self-titled effort returned them to the post-hardcore/screamo sound of "Dear Diary..." with mixed results, while 2010's "Throne to the Wolves" took them in a heavier, more metalcore direction, while still retaining some elements of their previous sound. They then went on a hiatus in 2010, with the pursuit of new things being cited as the main reason.
They reformed in 2013 and in 2014 took the bold decision to hire current Periphery vocalist Spencer Sotelo as their new lead vocalist as well as changing drummers and adding a third guitarist. With this bold new line-up, they started working on this little gem "Dead Trees."
The main thing to take from "Dead Trees" is the homage it pays to each of the band's four previous efforts, while also staying close to Spencer's own comfort zone. The opening song "Straight to the Face" would have worked as the opener for "Dear Diary..." with Sotelo's high cleans swirling around the high paced guitar riffs and punk-ish drumming. The Harry Potter themed "I Solemnly Swear That I Am Up to No Good" has a very "Heroine"-esque feel to it, while there are plenty of sing along choruses in "Dead Trees" and "Black and White" to keep everyone happy. The djent influence creeps in on certain songs, "Black and White" being the main culprit but that seems to be the norm in a lot of metalcore at the moment.
Back to "Hannalei" sounds like what "Emily" (the standout acoustic track from "Dear Diary...") would have sounded like if FFTL had recorded it on "Heroine," while the revamped "Note to Self" and "Ride the Wings of Pestilence" ("Dear Diary...") and "The Latest Plague" ("Heroine") allow the band to hark back to their glory days while permitting Sotelo to do justice to their classic sound. The odd ball track here is the closer "I Don't Want to Live in the Real World," which may not be for everyone with its ridiculous lyrics and folky guitar, but is entertaining enough and showcases a band comfortable enough in themselves to do something different.
"2 11" is a standout track towards the end of the album with its bouncy, sliding riff and groove-ladened drum beat, along with a really powerful chorus that you can't help getting behind. "H8 Meh" does OK as filler and does away with the ridiculous stereotypes of scream songs having stupidly long track names.
The only truly weak song on this album is "Electrified" which is really that generic and the chorus tries too hard to be a sing-along without offering any real hook to that effect.
Lyrics — 5
Lyricism usually takes an artistic backseat with screamo. Unrequited love, anger, pain, social acceptance…these topics are all done to death by countless factory standard bands that FFTL were in danger of becoming, following Sonny Moore's departure.
As a clean vocalist, Matt Good was fine for the last two albums but Moore had something more that set him apart from the throngs on floppy fringed singers at the time. Fast forward to "Dead Trees" and Spencer Sotelo is a very interesting choice for lead vocalist. His range is certainly similar to Moore's and his cleans and growls are on point here, complimented by Matt's higher register and Travis' harsher growls. Personally, I think Sotelo works a whole lot better in Periphery; this is where he is on devastating form at the moment and has developed his skill set to match their progressive sound exceptionally well.
Spencer certainly has the pop element to his voice that allows him to put together a good hook and his voice is distinctive enough that he is distinguishable from other vocalists in a crowd. You can tell when FFTL take a heavier approach to a song, Spencer really comes to life and makes the role his own. "2 11" is prime examples of his ability, the growls and cleans complimenting each other very well and his progressive influence shines through here. "Black and White," while having one of the heavier riffs at the beginning, devolves into a poppier affair than first promises and at times the lyrics can become a bit cringey.
This is where the disconnect lies; in Periphery, Spencer is able to write lyrics on a broader range of subject matters and on their most recent effort "Juggernaut," he absolutely nails it with a great concept script. The same cannot be said with FFTL, as they tend to not stray too far from relationships and angst, which seems to limit the lyrics to clichés and only the occasional gem.
Back to "Hannalei," "2 11" and "Never in Reverie" are the standout tracks in terms of lyrics, while "Dead Trees" and "Black and White" provide the anthemic choruses and "H8 Meh" and "Electrified" fade into the mire of metalcore also-rans.
Overall Impression — 7
I was intrigued to see where From First To Last would develop their sound after their hiatus, considering Travis fronted The Human Abstract for a few years and Spencer has an already impressive resume behind him. The fact that they signed to Sumerian Records, kings of the djent and deathcore albums over the past 10 or so years, gave me an idea how the production would sound but the general vibe of the album was cohesive enough to make me enjoy it on the surface.
None of these songs are going to completely reinvent the wheel and do their job admirably in providing a relatively enjoyable listen. This won't challenge you, it won't have you scouring through the lyrics to find deeper meaning and it certainly won't change your opinion of the genre if you've already formed one. It's metalcore, first and foremost, and those wanting anything other than 40 minutes of screamed verses and sing-along choruses should most definitely look elsewhere. For those who want a record to burrow a few melodies into their minds and take a nostalgia trip back to 2004 with crisp, beefed-up production and guitar tone, this is a worthy addition to your collection.