Sound — 6
Though their breakthrough period with 2004's "Siren Song of the Counter Culture" and 2006's "The Sufferer & The Witness" more or less lumped Rise Against in with the trends of post-hardcore/emo (whether by timing, similar sound, or both), the Chicago quartet always made the effort to stick to their primary calling card: politically-conscious music. Even as they grew more commercially successful, with their past three albums all placing within the top five of the Billboard 200, the melodic punkers have never watered down the serious topics they touch on in their music, whether it's human trafficking, LGBT rights, ecological disasters, unjust military action, or class warfare.
That subject matter holding strong may be a testament to Rise Against staying true to their artistic core, but their sound has had to endure being between a rock and a hard place of expansion and expectation. With 2008's "Appeal to Reason" facing listener critique for not being as upbeat as previous Rise Against records (its lower tempos vaguely veering into alt rock territory), Rise Against kicked back into higher gear with their sixth album, 2011's "Endgame," though it ended up suffering from moments of sonic déjà vu. However, the band would find the sweet spot between old sounds and new in their seventh album, 2014's "The Black Market," which ranged from dabbling with hard rock and pop punk, to hardcore-style songs that acted as throwbacks to Rise Against's early albums.
A few things are different now that Rise Against release their eighth album, "Wolves." Parting ways with Interscope Records for the equally major label Virgin Records, the band also part ways with long-time producer and punk legend Bill Stevenson and unite with producer Nick Raskulinecz (who has produced albums for Deftones, Korn, and The Hold Steady). Despite these changes behind the curtain, Rise Against's sound doesn't change further from the previous album, but rather, narrows its sonic scope on the band's home range. Only a few minor deviations from their bag of regular tricks are heard, whether it's the cheery pop punker "Mourning in Amerika," the defined guitar solo in the opening eponymous track, the notable increase of harsh vocals, or the legitimate breakdowns used in "How Many Walls" and the more riff-adept "Miracle."
But with the band keeping things close to their recipe book of melodic hardcore, most songs in "Wolves" are built with the expected parts of well-layered guitars, scintillating basslines (Joe Principe continues to be the MVP of the band), and an excess of Bad Religion-style "oozin' aahs," heard in fit-to-form tracks like "The Violence," "Welcome to the Breakdown," "Bullshit," and "Parts Per Million." Sometimes the expected works well, like the band's guitar harmonics motif that pops up once again in "Politics of Love," and other times it accentuates the meager moments, like the dull vocal melody in the chorus of "House on Fire," or the vocal melody in "Far From Perfect" sounding recycled from the "Endgame" song "This Is Letting Go," but it generally maintains an average that doesn't remarkably disappoint nor impress.
Lyrics — 7
Given the circumstances of politics today, one would figure Tim McIlrath has plenty of source material to pull from for his lyrics in "Wolves," but he only really refers to the most obvious target of the current president and his voter base a couple of times, heard in "Welcome To The Breakdown" ("All hail, the jester has landed / In flyover country he sings") and "How Many Walls" ("How many walls can you put up? / How many guns until you feel safe"). Instead, McIlrath doesn't make the album just about current events, but about the problems that have persisted much longer than what's been in the headlines. This non-evergreen approach makes for lyrics that wield more universal themes, whether it's the endless cycle of violence in "The Violence" ("Are we not brave enough? To become something greater / Than the violence in our nature"), the docile thrall of consumerism culture in "Mourning In Amerika" ("Under moonlit skies and surveillance / As we cheer from the stands in the stadiums / On a jumbotron we all sing to escape"), and the danger of political apathy in "Bullshit" ("Thank you for your silence, your continuing compliance / It's your buried head so deep in sand that ushered in the virus"), though it also results in some retreading of topics, like global warming glossed over in "Parts Per Million" ("There's something wrong, and the temperature is rising / Ignoring every siren as we're marching towards a cliff"), and the rallying cry of the downtrodden masses in the eponymous song ("We are the wolves at the gate / Our numbers are growing every day").
Overall Impression — 7
"Wolves" is an example of how consistency can be both a blessing and a curse. Opting to keep their sound close to their trademark formula of melodic hardcore with few differences, Rise Against sit on a plateau that maintains an average satisfaction just fine, but doesn't strive beyond that. Compared to the previous album's willingness to try some new things, "Wolves" takes a safer route that, for album number eight, isn't much to get excited about, but as a re-up of Rise Against-style punk, it gets the job done.