Sound — 8
Making difficult-to-classify hybrids of metal, hardcore punk, rap, reggae, and whatever genres they see fit to include since 1994, (Hed)P.E. brings us another slab of music that refuses to be pigeonholed with "Forever!" This album features a new lineup, including guitarist Greg "Gregzilla" Harrison (replacing Jackson "Jaxon" Benge), bassist Kurt "Kid Bass" Blankenship (replacing founding member Mark "Mawk" Young), and retaining drummer Jeremiah "Major Trauma" Stratton and founding vocalist/keyboardist Jared Gomes.
Stylistically, the album starts with several metal-influenced tracks, like the opener "Liv!," which has shred-like lead guitar melodies that evoke the likes of Steve Vai and Devin Townsend (never thought I'd be comparing (Hed)P.E. to them!), and interesting vocals that utilize rapping, death growls, and gravelly melodic singing. "Pay Me" has an opening riff that can compare to bands like Gojira, and an intense groove with a great melodic chorus. The band evokes bands like Korn (especially in their most hip-hop influenced moments) on "Closer," with a chorus that would fit on any Mudvayne album. "Hurt" opens with one hell of a groovy southern-metal riff, topped with Jonathan Davis-esque vocals and some death growls. "It's You" continues the trend, but features some really good riffs and nice clean guitar parts near the end. "Waste" is about as traditional of a hardcore punk song as you'll hear on the album, with some extremely aggressive vocals and instrumental playing. A reggae-tinged outro leads into "Jah Know," a perfect 50/50 mix of classic metal riffage and reggae vocals. The mix is incredible and it works so much better than one would think. "One of a Kind" relies heavily on synth pads and electronic beats, only to have the thick palm-muted guitar and pounding drums come in for the brief choruses, and through a fairly shred-influenced solo. Short synth interlude "The Higher Crown" leads into the decidedly sexy, fairly traditionally-flavoured reggae song "Shadowridge." "Together" features accordion and horns to create a very lazy, laid-back feel, and continues the traditional reggae sound from the last song. Album closer "Always" continues where "Together" left off, completing the "reggae trilogy," without any metal elements. The deluxe edition of the album contains the song "Ganja," a reggae song about marijuana (duh!) and its healing properties and push for legalization, and it sounds like a very rough demo-quality track (possibly recorded by a past lineup of the band, as I couldn't find any info on that). The transition of the album from metal to reggae on the album was kind of jarring considering that it happens between one of the album's more aggressive songs ("Jah Know") and one of its lightest ("One of a Kind"). But this isn't really a problem considering how easily the band blends all of its influences throughout the album.
The instrumental performances on this album sound incredibly well-informed, as mentioned by the comparisons to Steve Vai and Mudvayne, as well as the band's ease of performing in an authentic reggae style. The production ensures that the band's performances don't go unheard, especially given the importance of the bass in reggae. The sound is heavy without being overbearing, and gentle without being saccharin.
Lyrics — 8
Like all of (Hed)P.E.'s albums, the lyrics on this one cover a wide variety of topics, and while I may not agree with nor endorse some of the band's views, I definitely admire them for bringing up the topics in the context of a metal album. "Pay Me" deals with economic issues involving inequality, and seemingly mentioning the drug trade. Overall, it just sounds like a series of harsh socioeconomic truths. The band also touches on topics like love, religion, individuality, conspiracy theories, pop culture references, sex (especially "Shadowridge"), and marijuana legalization. It's a far cry from the usual dark "woe is me" lyrics typical of these genres, and while I don't necessarily endorse all of the messages in the lyrics, it is quite refreshing to hear lyrics that are against the norm. There are also very positive messages throughout the album, like the rallying cry of the opening track, "Liv!" ("New souls here to go/We commit to build the bridge and not a wall/The future is waiting for vision/Don't waste your time now/Now good friends are hard to find, that's the truth") and even the most aggressive-sounding track on the album, "Waste" ("It's not a crime/To try and save the human race/Religion, division and hate/Are just a waste of time.../Waste of time! It's all a fucking waste of time!").
Jared Gomes' vocal style is also a bit of a breath of fresh air against all the other metal vocalists out there this side of bands like Skindred. At times, he can sound like Chad Gray from Mudvayne (the chorus of "Closer" definitely evokes Chad's vocal style) and Jonathan Davis from Korn, and other times, he can sound as gentle as Bob Marley. Death growls, rapping, gravelly melodic singing, tight vocal harmonies, hardcore punk shouts, there's nothing out of Jared Gomes' reach on this album. While I have to admit to not being very well-versed in reggae (so, apologies if my only basis of comparison is Marley), his vocals in that style feel authentic (possibly having to do with his Brazilian ancestry) and not forced at all. But his chameleon-like approach to vocals make this album feel constantly surprising and fresh.
Overall Impression — 8
With an eclectic mix of headbanging riffs, chilled-out Caribbean music, great musicianship, and left-of-center lyricism, (Hed)P.E.'s cult-icon status remains unchallenged on "Forever!" While this album may not stand as being as iconic as their early work, there is definitely a lot of good quality music on this album, and people who are just fans of interesting mixes of genres will find something to enjoy on this record. There's not a lot of other music out there that I know of that's very easy to compare it to, and it almost feels unfair to lump this band in with other "rap-metal" or nu-metal bands. Unlike a lot of metal bands, there's a sort of positivity to this record that's infectious, and this is music that gets under your skin.
This album was one I was quite surprised to find myself enjoying as much as I did, and even more surprised to find myself recommending, and I do recommend checking this album out if you've never heard this band before.