Sound — 7
It can be said that Canadians have a few national pastimes: hockey, arguing with Americans over the quality of their beers, and apologizing, mostly for unleashing Nickelback upon the world. The Albertan hard rockers have been providing the world with the squeakiest of clean, safe rock songs possible, tailor-designing every song they write to be a potential hit single, working with only the most famous of pop and rock producers to ensure that every song is as overproduced as possible.
...Or at least that's how most people seem to see Nickelback. While the band's material since at least 2008's "Dark Horse" (and possibly even 2003's "The Long Road") has tended more towards blatant pop appeal, the band has had a history of harder-hitting guitar-centric rock music, full of generic-but-still-endearing riffage. At times, it almost seems that the hate the band receives is completely undeserved when you consider tracks like "Side of a Bullet", the band's tribute to murdered Pantera guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott, and even "Edge of a Revolution" from the band's most recent album prior, "No Fixed Address".
On "Feed the Machine", Nickelback seems to have seen these heavier prior moments and expressed a desire to cease the funk-pop experimentation that plagued their recent albums in favour of heavier guitars and an overall tougher personality. Let's start by getting one thing straight about this album: if you're expecting supremely technical riffs and off-kilter song structures, "Feed the Machine" is not going to be a very inspiring listen. But you might find yourself surprisingly headbanging away during the opening title track, which almost seems to take as many cues from modern metal bands like Periphery and Tesseract as it does from classic metal and grunge bands like Metallica and Soundgarden. In fact, this track is a downright good song, no matter which way you slice it. Chad Kroeger belts out a compelling and excellent chorus melody, while the instrumental performances provide an excellent backdrop, even giving us a guitar solo that, while economical and not particularly epic, does really hit the spot. "Coin for the Ferryman" continues in this darker hard-rock vein, utilizing downtuned guitars (either a 6-string tuned to a low B or a 7-string, as guitarists Chad Kroeger and Ryan Peake are wont to use recently) for a heavier, riffier experience, but still maintaining the slick production that made Nickelback one of mainstream music's darlings. "Song on Fire" represents one of the softer moments on the album, a ballad that's a bit more along the lines of Nickelback's expected style. But even for a Nickelback ballad, musically, it's not a bad piece.
"Must Be Nice" continues the band's penchant for dance-rock riffing, mixing pop-style melodies and choruses with harder guitar playing. "After the Rain" does the same thing, but without the funk, instead being more of a typical pop/rocker that overall is an okay song, but nothing particularly interesting, and for me, is a particularly weak point on the album. "For the River" is a harder rock tune, and even though it's a rather generic tune overall, a couple of wicked guest solos from Nuno Bettencourt give this track a bit more credibility. "Home" starts off with a really cool, moody intro, but quickly turns into a rather uninteresting Nickelback rocker, and sadly, another weak point for me. This is, however, followed by the aptly-titled "The Betrayal: Act III", perhaps the closest thing to a "prog-metal" track you'll ever hear from Nickelback, with a great acoustic intro and a surprisingly excellent groove and some of the best vocal performances on the album. The solo plays around a bit with meter, and that's a rather surprising element brought into Nickelback's music. "Silent Majority" brings us back to more of the same kind of plodding hard rock, though the very beginning of the song almost kind of seems reminiscent of some of Devin Townsend's most straightforward works (think "Addicted" Devy, not "Deconstruction" Devy), which isn't all that far of a comparison considering Townsend considering Nickelback's "Dark Horse" an influence on his production style. Sadly, "Silent Majority" is just nowhere near as compelling or interesting of a track. "Every Time We're Together" is another major-key pop/rocker that will do little to inspire confidence in the band's originality, but it's not really a terrible track, and will most likely become a big summer radio hit in my native Canada. Closing the album is "The Betrayal: Act I", a largely acoustic guitar-led instrumental piece that's kind of pretty and ends the album on a rather interesting note, but isn't really that great of a piece, with string arrangements that kind of pop in out of nowhere and don't really do anything for the piece.
So in terms of songwriting, the album is a bit of a mixed bag. The heavier pieces are kind of generic and safe at times, but frankly, they're rather decent. One doesn't go to Nickelback expecting progressive song structures and noodle-y musicianship. The lighter songs run the gamut of being either yawn-inducing to actually being pretty decent tunes. The production is as slick as ever, being accomplished by Chris Baseford and the band, with Chris Lord-Alge mixing and Ted Jensen mastering, giving the album a sheen that makes it perfect for radio airplay, but surprisingly without neutering the band when they get a little heavier.
Lyrics — 6
Nickelback are known for many things, but deep, forward-thinking lyrics are not one of them. When the band attempts to sound political, they definitely seem to be trying to appeal to those who consider themselves "woke", and while there isn't really anything wrong with lyrics like "The gears forever turn to grind the mice/Will you become the fuel for sacrifice?/Power absolutely all for show/The piper blows his flute and off you go" (from the title track), it does seem a little cringe-inducing when you consider that on this same album are lyrics like the very un-clever "Jack be nimble, jack be quick/Jack wound up with a broken neck/Humpty Dumpty, do your thing/Daddy's gonna buy you a diamond ring" (from "Must be Nice") and the sappy "'Cause you should have seen the size of the guys we were fighting/And we shouldn't be alive at the speeds we were driving/But Mama always taught us to never tell a lie, ooh/And every ten-yard pass always turned into twenty" (from "Every Time We're Together"). Lyrically, there's not much wrong with tracks that seem to wax a bit more personal, like "After the Rain", where Chad sings "Choose your friends, carefree and kindly/Choose your words, careful and wisely/Always be there to lend a comforting shoulder/One will be there to share a day when you're older", and these seem to be the better-written lyrics on the album. And while the band's political statements are often kind of flaccid, if I take the lyrics of "Silent Majority" to be a rumination on the vast numbers of people who don't vote in elections, I can actually say that I agree with the sentiment of lyrics like "So what if we all stand up?/What if we don't give in?/What if we traded all complacency for a voice that won't be ignored?/How can we just give up?/How can we just give in?/What if the silent majority wasn't silent anymore?"
Chad Kroeger's vocals are practically unchanged from the band's early material, and I do strongly suspect many tracks on the album of pitch-correction, but his delivery on certain tracks like "The Betrayal: Act III" can actually get quite decent for some of the song's more aggressive parts. And a few of his vocal melodies are also worth mentioning, such as the chorus on the title track, which is definitely an earworm if I've ever heard one. But if you've heard other Nickelback albums and did not care much for the vocal work, this album is not going to change your mind.
Overall Impression — 7
Though it's always been in vogue to poke fun at Nickelback, the whole idea of it has kind of taken on a life of its own, in such a way that I think even if Nickelback released something that could stand up to some of the greatest bands, that aspect of their existence would remain undiminished. Fact is, they're an easy target for criticism and name-calling.
But considering the often terrible things said about this band, they do occasionally prove that they can do some very good music. Talent is not an issue for this band, and there's even a bit of a scientific genius to how this band can compose such perfectly safe, bland rock music and still manage to sell out stadiums worldwide. This album... well, it's like a lot of Nickelback albums. A majority of the tracks are rather typical post-grunge/hard rock tunes, plodding along in their mid-tempo way, with a couple of sappy ballads that show the band's country-rock side.
But strangely, there are a few tracks on this record that show a side of Nickelback that actually warrants a bit of attention. A heavier side that's not afraid to tune down a little and branch out. Tracks like the title track and "The Betrayal: Act III" would be perfectly serviceable numbers by any other band. And let's be honest, even the album's safer, more "generic" tunes aren't really that bad. A few of the tracks are rather yawn-worthy, but overall, this is not a completely terrible album. I'd honestly rather hear a track like "Song on Fire" on the radio than pretty much anything by Drake these days, and for guitar-oriented mainstream rock music, you can do much worse than the new Nickelback album.