Sound — 9
Admittedly, I'm a bit of a recent convert to Tremonti. Having been a big fan of his work in Alter Bridge and spending a fair chunk of my high school years spinning "My Own Prison" and "Human Clay," I've always admired Mark Tremonti as a guitarist and a musician in general, but it wasn't until recently that I realized the ride I was about to take when I first listened to "All I Was" and "Cauterize."
Definitely a lot more thrash-flavoured than his work with Alter Bridge and Creed, his first two records with his self-named band showed a very pronounced influence from bands like Metallica. While their styles are not anywhere close to the same, Tremonti's music differs from Creed's and even Alter Bridge's by focusing on guitar solos, and "Dust" is no different from his first two records with this band in that respect. Every song on this record has a ripping lead section, and there are more than enough notes on this record to satiate the kind of guitarists who voted his solo in Alter Bridge's "Blackbird" #1 in a recent UG guitar solo poll.
It should be known that Mark wrote this album mostly around the same time that he wrote the tunes from "Cauterize," and the sound of the record reflects that, with a pretty similar spread of heavy tunes (as well as a couple of well-placed ballads). Fans of Mark's work who may not have been familiar with his work beyond Creed and Alter Bridge might find the opening salvo of thrash metal from "My Last Mistake" a bit surprising, but much of the album still has a very radio-friendly melodic sense about it. This is, by no means, a bad thing at all, as it gets used to very epic effect in certain tracks, like my personal favourite from the album, the title track "Dust." Tracks like "Once Dead," "Betray Me" and "The Cage" boast both huge speed metal riffs and big melodic sing-along choruses.
Guitar playing fans will no doubt be focusing on the riffs and solos on this record. And they'd be right to, considering that Mark's playing is on fire for pretty much the entire record. But surprisingly, Mark's vocals are a pretty big show-stopper as well. While Mark has shared his vocal style on both Creed and Alter Bridge material before, he really seems to have come into his own as a vocalist on this record. While he defers to Myles Kennedy's talents in Alter Bridge, he proves himself more than capable as a vocalist in this band, and especially on this record, where it seems his vocal skills have shown a noticeable progression. A perfect example of this are his soaring harmonies in the title track, which hit me right in the gut every time.
The album also packs a few surprises with its variety. While many of the songs contain very similar elements, Mark shows himself to be quite the consummate arranger, giving songs many different emotional and stylistic flourishes, from the huge, epic melodic choruses of songs like "The Cage" to mellower moments like "Dust" and even tackling near-psychedelic atmospheres on tracks like "Tore My Heart Out" and "Never Wrong." But for all the variety in the record, it sounds like a cohesive and coherent record. Even the very light closing track, "Unable to See," feels like it fits in perfectly.
And for the guitar fans, there is a lot to love about this record. From downtuned guitar riffs (going as low as B flat on "Tore My Heart Out") to atmospheric clean guitar passages, and all of the solos... Mark reminds us all why he is one of this generation's most respected guitar players. Tone and production-wise, his guitars sound huge and heavy, and there's even a bit of a vintage flair to the distortion and some of the clean tones (check out the phaser-laden intro of the title track!) that make this record almost sound like 1986 on steroids. Mark's solos run the gamut from shredders' delights ("Betray Me," and "My Last Mistake," which Mark recently broke down for UG in a lesson video!) to slower, more melodic affairs ("Dust," "Tore My Heart Out").
All around, the production is spot-on and the performances by the other members of the band are pretty great. Special attention goes to Garrett Whitlock on drums, who performs many excellent drum fills and intros on the record. Wolfgang Van Halen completes the rhythm section by holding down the low-end on the bass. Eric Friedman performs second guitar and vocals on the record as well, and his sound locks in very well with Mark's and provides a perfect backdrop for his playing.
Lyrics — 9
As mentioned in the previous section, Mark's vocals have been steadily improving since "All I Was," and "Dust" reaps the rewards quite well. Mark's vocal style sits well against his most immediate peers, Scott Stapp and Myles Kennedy, and to be completely fair to both of them, Mark may be able to easily give them both a run for their money on this album. The vocal arrangements are done quite well too, with plenty of great harmony vocals (some of them provided by Eric and Wolfgang), and a great sense of melodicism. Mark's vocal delivery really takes the cake on this record, with a distinctive raspiness and a much more well-developed range than previous releases.
Lyrically speaking, a lot of the songs deal with personal issues like betrayal, bad influences, relationships, self-esteem... very atypical topics for the thrash/speed metal genre. One can't help but wonder if the lyrics for songs like the title track (especially lines like "You carried the weight of everyone/After all the time we spent/Rewriting the rules that now we bend/The whole damn thing has turned to dust/You left us alone, defeated us") are allusions to former bandmates, or former lovers, but in a manner that's different for this kind of lyrical style, they're delivered with less vitriol and more melancholy. There are plenty of references to shame and faith and trust on the album, and many layers of introspection.
While the introspective style is not usually one found in speed metal, where we're too used to hearing songs about dragons and swords, it fits the style of the songs quite well on the album. Even during the band's more energetic moments, the well-written lyrics fit well in this setting.
Overall Impression — 9
So, while I am still quite a newbie to Tremonti's solo work, I find myself blown away by the new album. Almost every song reminds me of being 13 again, picking up a guitar for the first time, staring longingly at the Metallica posters on my wall and absorbing every single lesson column from Guitar World I could get my hands on, and why I play guitar in the first place. Even the short time I've spent sitting with this album has inspired my playing, and coming from someone whose tastes usually run more into the progressive metal genre, it's quite a statement to make for this album. Mark has hit a sweet spot with this album, brilliantly mixing excellent guitar playing, heavy riffage, big made-for-radio choruses, and introspective lyricism. While the album doesn't contain a big epic number like Alter Bridge's absolutely magnificent "Blackbird," there are plenty of moments on this album that hark to the kind of epic scope in that song, and the songwriting on this album is mature and even slightly progressive in its own way. The title track has to be the highlight of the album, to me, since it's the most like "Blackbird" with its epic-sounding melodies, huge-sounding choruses and excellent melodic guitar solo.
"Dust" has all the potential to earn a pretty high spot on my top 10 list of 2016, and there have already been some really great releases from other favourite bands of mine this year, like Deftones, Dream Theater, Megadeth and Textures. This album was a huge surprise for me, and this album deserves a good listen if you're a fan of excellent guitar playing and well-written songs. If this is the kind of heavy radio-friendly rock we're hearing in 2016, then I'd be pretty happy with that. If nothing else, it's albums like this that make a great case for good rock music still being alive in 2016.