Sound — 6
Not only did Jonny Craig make a name for himself in the post-hardcore scene by being a standout vocal performer, but his notoriety amplified five-fold from his caustic, substance-fueled demeanor (one could call it the spirit of a true rockstar or the spirit of a true douchebag, take your pick). Of course, it was that same demeanor that made his music career a particularly nomadic one, and despite his renowned singing talent, he would be kicked out of Dance Gavin Dance for his flighty lifestyle, kicked out of Emarosa for his flighty lifestyle, parting on tense terms with Isles & Glaciers for his flighty lifestyle, and after rejoining DGD for a highly-anticipated reunion album of sorts, got kicked out of DGD again for his flighty lifestyle.
Between weaving in and out of bands, Craig maintained a solo career for a bit of time - the most fundamental move to make guaranteeing you don't get kicked out of a music project - but last year, Craig broke back into the post-hardcore scene with the supergroup, Slaves (with guitarist Alex Lyman of Hearts & Hands, bassist Colin Viera of Musical Charis, and drummer Tai Wright of Four Letter Lie). Craig's status as founder and chief operator of the project presumably makes him unable to be kicked out of it (then again, if dictators can be ousted out of the countries they rule, anything's possible), and though technically a fresh project, Slaves' higher-brow post-hardcore sound displayed in their debut album, "Through Art We Are All Equals," is easy to trace back to the same kind of sound as Emarosa.
Wasting little time to follow up from that debut, Slaves' second album, "Routine Breathing," generally continues the post-hardcore formula that built their debut album; though with the band choosing former Memphis May Fire/Woe, Is Me producer Cameron Mizell to produce the album (instead of Craig's longtime producer friend Kris Crummett), it contains much more polished production in comparison. Along with more synth elements (amplifying "Drowning in My Addiction" and making a We Came As Romans-esque intro for "Burning Our Morals Away") and orchestral elements (especially prevalent in "Death Never Lets Us Say Goodbye" and the neoclassical flair of "Shoutout to All My Toasters") the biggest overhaul of this production job is making Craig priority one in the album. From the layered and overlapping vocal tracks, to the amount of processing and effects equipped to a near unnecessary degree in "As the Light Cracks the Foundation," "Running Through The !6! With My Soul" and "We Are SO Michelle Branch," Craig's vocals are a constant king of the hill.
That hierarchy becomes a fault when guitar leads are routinely buried in the mix of songs. Though Lyman's lead activity in "Shoutout to All My Toasters" and "Is Robbing Your Friends Supposed to Be Tight?" rightfully take the spotlight, other lead melodies strain for attention in "Why Fit in When You Can Stand Out?," "Death Never Lets Us Say Goodbye" and "If Only We Could Change," but with the guitar melodies composed here being the same kind of Emarosa/Circa Survive-derived guitar melodies that built "Through Art We Are All Equals," there isn't much to be missed.
The other times that Slaves mix up this "same old, same old" songwriting is when they bring out a guest vocalist, and uncannily, those songs are tailored to sound like the songs of the guest vocalists' main gigs. Though Garrett Rapp's appearance doesn't influence "The Hearts of Our Broken" to become a stark metalcore cut a la The Color Morale, "Winter Everywhere," which features Dance Gavin Dance's Tilian Pearson, is a curveball acoustic pop ballad that sounds like it came from one of Pearson's solo albums. And with Spencer Chamberlain giving both clean and harsh vocals on "Who Saves the Savior," the song itself not only sounds crafted in a similar vein to latter-era Underoath, but even the song title mimics the Underoath song title "Who Will Guard the Guardians."
Lyrics — 7
Craig's lyrics in "Routine Breathing" come off very similar to his lyrics in Slaves' previous album, using the same kind of emo-certified anguish to fuel his articulating of experiences regarding heartache and other moments of screwing up. Though with the many songs that have him pining over his battered heart and falling victim to lies, Craig wields a type of rancor that empowers him to pick himself up from his woeful pool, incanting vengeful lines like "At the hands of your work / You'll get what you deserve" in "Share the Sunshine Young Blood, Pt. 2," and "I'm fighting back this time / I'm gonna rise up / I'm taking back what's mine" in "Shoutout to All My Toasters."
Craig also shows some improvement in his lyrical savviness with recurring sentiments (like the hoping for rebirth via an emotional restart in "As the Light Cracks the Foundation" and "Running Through the !6! With My Soul," to the "kill what you love" statement that wears a destructive context in the drug abuse confessional "Drowning in My Addiction" and a pragmatic context in the ode to sincere artistry of "Burning Our Morals Away"), though he also has his share of clunky lines (like the redundant "I stand alone on this lonely road" in "The Hearts of Our Broken," and "We can't high-five death" in "Death Never Lets Us Say Goodbye").
Overall Impression — 6
Whereas "Through Art We Are All Equals" had Craig unsubtly picking up from where he left off with Emarosa and returning to a scene he was well comfortable with, "Routine Breathing" shows a further setting into that comfort zone he found years ago. It's a continued sort of homecoming display intended for Craig to show that, among his spotty past of falling in and out of bands, Slaves is here to stay, but with the only real advancement of "Routine Breathing" being a shinier production job that focuses on Craig's presence, it makes Slaves veer closer to the likes of Craig's vanity project rather than the supergroup it claims to be, and that hierarchy heard in the album has its flaws. Craig might be able to take this victory lap now, but if he keeps opting for the same gesture, Slaves will only run in place and exhaust itself.