Alter Bridge – Blackbird: Who needs Scott Stapp when you’ve got these guys?

2007_AlterBridge_BlackbirdArtist: Alter Bridge
Album: Blackbird
Year: 2007
Grade: B+

In Brief: What it lacks in inventiveness, it makes up in sheer instrumental power. A formidable metal/hard rock record if you can get past the sometimes hackneyed lyrics and the Creed stigma.


Alright, so I’m about to review the work of a band mostly populated by former members of Creed. So I’ll get the obligatory disclosure out of the way before I begin:

1) Yes, I used to like Creed. I am not ashamed of this fact. I wasn’t a huge fan or anything, but they had some solid songs.
2) Yes, I joined with many others in making fun of Creed up to and after their breakup. Just because I like a band doesn’t mean that I’m too dumb to see when the lead singer and de facto mouthpiece of that band is behaving like an idiot.
3) I have been – and continue to be – extremely outspoken in my criticism of bands who attempt to emulate Creed’s sound.
4) No, I didn’t like what any of the members of Creed did immediately after disbanding. Alter Bridge‘s first album was subpar, and Scott Stapp‘s solo debut made him more of a laughingstock than he already was.

OK, I think that gets the essentials out of the way regarding past opinions of mine that are easily readable on this site and that I shall make no attempt to hide. If the apparent contradictions above don’t jeopardize whatever credibility I may have as a critic, the fact that I actually enjoy a record put out by Alter Bridge will probably do me in. But I can do nothing other than tell the truth about how I feel, and since I’ve had a good six months to process the band’s latest album Blackbird, I can say with absolute certainly that I think the band has shown significant improvement since their debut. Comparisons to Creed be damned; this thing stands up quite nicely on its own.

Alas, as much as I think this band may have finally freed themselves from the shadow of its former incarnation, there are moments when I’m forced to admit that we can’t blame all of Creed’s failings on Scott Stapp. If you listened to the band back in their turn-of-the-century heyday (and this was hard to avoid even if you detested them), it was pretty easy to assume that all of the broad-sweeping pretentious generalizations that their lyrics were often guilty of were the product of bellowing, scratchy-throated lead singer Scott Stapp, as well as the often-unimaginative, sometimes lethargic power chords that many of their songs were built on. There was an oft-cited rumor that Mark Tremonti was some sort of a guitar god and that Stapp’s overbearing presence was holding him back. I bought into this rumor, as well as the temptation to blame Stapp for everything short of the national deficit, and then found that these claims weren’t entirely accurate when Creed disbanded, a new band with all of its members, including its former bass player Brian Marshall but excluding Stapp in favor of a new lead singer, formed rather quickly, and Alter Bridge’s One Day Remains was unleashed on the world in 2004. (When your entire band – including a member who voluntarily left during your tenure with that band – reforms and lets you know in not so many words that you aren’t invited, then well, I can’t think of a much more obvious way for someone to give you the proverbial middle finger.) You know what I found on that album? A lot more of the same old lyrical cliches and a lot more of the same sludgy, bland post-grunge anthems, just with a more easily digestible voice in front of it all that didn’t bring to mind any notable controversies. That album certainly had its flashes of musical inspiration – most notably the lightning-fast fingerwork on its title track and some down-and-dirty metal-inspired riffage on one or two of the feistier rock songs. But for the most part, I couldn’t stomach it. I realized that Tremonti had his own heavily cliched burdens to deal with… anything might have been better than Stapp’s bellyaching, but just because Mountain Dew is better than crack cocaine doesn’t mean that Mountain Dew is actually good for you.

Needless to say, I didn’t keep tabs on Alter Bridge after that point. I kept tabs on Stapp – just because his music was so bad that I found it hilariously entertaining in the sick sort of way that only a dedicated music critic would. But Alter Bridge managed to slip in another album completely under my radar – Blackbird quietly appeared in 2007 without me or anyone I knew taking notice. (The mainstream rock world might have noticed, but I’ve been voluntarily out of touch with all forms of radio these days.) It was March or April of 2008 before I finally caught wind of it, and decided, “Oh, what the hell, I’ll give these guys one more chance.” So I gave it a listen… and I was promptly blown away by a powerhouse blend of the less lethargic end of 90’s-era post-grunge with more 80’s metal references blended into it than I could ever possible know how to name. (I’m not really up on my rock music history; crucify me for making that admission if you will, but this is where I have to leave it to others to fill me in on who’s paying homage to legends and who’s simply aping them and hoping really young fans won’t notice.) To put it succinctly, this was a kickass record.

Alright, so we’ve shored up the musical problems – namely every song needing to be a rhythm guitar-heavy power ballad – that plagued Creed and its offshoots for so long. So what of the lyrics? This is the one area where Alter Bridge still has a lot to learn. I won’t say that they write horrible songs, but I will say that the phrasing still tends toward the generic “Stand up and fight against the nameless oppressor!” stuff that gets fists pumping in big arenas and that you’ll hear a lot of in a more “commercialized” hard rock setting, with occasional shades of the more downtrodden sentiments common to “alternative rock” music in the 90’s. Lead singer Myles Kennedy is now a fully-integrated band member, sharing songwriting duties with Tremonti, and clearly this was helpful, because I feel truly inspired by several of these songs even if I can’t usually point out a single line and say, “Hey that was a clever way to put it”. They won’t win high marks for originality here, but they manage to evoke feelings of nostalgia without being overly corny or pompous about it. In short, this band does a really good job of not embarrassing themselves. That’s not something I can give them five stars for, but considering the musical excellence on display here, it certainly lands the band in “above average” territory despite the fact that nothing they’ve done here could be considered “innovative”.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Ties that Bind

I run, but the chains pull me right back to the floor
You control, I rattle the cage
I won’t be your slave anymore…

This seething, raging rocker is exactly how any kickass rock record should start – it swirls around madly with rapidfire, scratchy guitars and a good dose of quick-fingered soloing. Tremonti and Kennedy waste no time locking together into an irrepressible, frenzied groove that takes the best elements of Creed’s “Bullets”, minus the awkward melody and the pretentious spoken intro, and adds a hell of a vocal performance to it, with Kennedy going the old-school metal route during the bridges and hitting a thrilling high note as he bellows, “Damn you all, I’m gonna find my way!” in a place where a lot of modern “hard rock” acts might find it more appropriate to scream. This approach might sound dated, but to me, it’s a hell of a lot of fun, and in less than three and a half minutes, Alter Bridge has come charging out of the gate like a rabid monster, proving they’ve got more to offer their audience than mid-tempo nu-metal sludge.

2. Come to Life
Hey, the bulletproof are so resilient
To every fool with an opinion
They never break…

The dark, edgy riffing continues with this slightly more restrained song that makes up in the form of distorted vocals and Scott Phillips‘ energetic drum fills what it might lack in the form of sheer speed. Tremonti’s got some solid, metallic guitar runs going on here, with Kennedy once again backing up with livelier-than-usual rhythm guitar work, and on vocals, Tremonti’s the one playing the solid supporting role, with both men contributing to an overlapping chorus that wouldn’t sound right with just one guy at the mic. The lyrics seem to piggyback off of the previous song as it proclaims boldness in the face of fear and the possibility of escape from one’s oppressors with an almost religious fervor, and while the band isn’t terribly specific in the lyrics department, their defiance rings loud and clear. It works for the kind of fist-pumping song that it’s meant to be.

3. Brand New Start
This desert road that we call home, this is our destiny
We chase the setting sun, as we outrun a life of agony
God, how we ache to be free…

As the waning cry of the previous song’s outro riff fades out, an appregiated, sort-of-acoustic-but-not-really guitar intro bleeds in, which is Tremonti’s classic way of indicating, “BIG POWER BALLAD GOES HERE.” Alright, so the approach is a bit obvious, but it gives Kennedy ample space for a powerhouse vocal performance, so I ain’t complaining. His high notes just leap out of the speakers during a chorus that just begs the listener to sing along with its simple words. This almost makes it easy to overlook some of the well-worn cliches about wandering desert roads and starting over and finding one’s destiny, etc., that comprise pretty much the entire song. Sure, I could picture Creed doing this one, but not with nearly as much vocals finesse or with as much texture and nuance to the guitar playing. Tremonti’s generous solo during the bridge is nothing if not impassioned, and I love the “weeping” effect of the filtered guitar during the intro – it gives me a picture of torrential rains dripping down the outside of a window on a dreary winter’s day.

4. Buried Alive
Another shot, slip into the haze
Another night soaked in my disgrace
Toast to the lie, I’ll raise my glass and run
A wasted life, what have I become?

The band gets down and dirty for this old-school metal boogie, using liberal amounts of whammy bar (or at least that’s what this amateur who only plays acoustic guitar thinks is causing the bending, squealing sound to come out of Tremonti’s axe) and probably recalling a lot of 80’s bands that I’m not hip enough to have checked out back when this genre was in its prime. It’s a song about getting caught in an avalanche of addiction, and its only real weak link is a chorus that seems to coast by in cruise control mode in terms of its melody and tempo – it doesn’t quite match the vicious, jerky tone of the verses and the instrumental part. That and isolated lines about things like “a world of constant sorrow” sabotage the song a bit in terms of rising to the heights that it could have, but even the average tunes on this record are highly listenable, so I’m not too perturbed.

5. Coming Home
Every shooting star, they all fall so hard
They all fade like a played out song
Now is the time, before all is lost…

Songs that are played in 6/8 time always make me think of circles – the rhythm always has a different feel to it than the standard 4/4, especially when a song is uptempo and heavy like this one is. it gives it the feeling of being caught in a whirlpool. What worked so well for “Ties that Bind” also works well with a slightly more restrained tempo here, thanks largely to the attention-grabbing, jumpy chorus melody and an overall feeling of constant restlessness that permeates the entire performance. Phillips impresses once again with some highly aggressive drum fills and tons of crashing cymbals. In terms of Kennedy’s riffs, I could almost imagine Chevelle playing a song like this, but in terms of melody, they’re a bit too dark to be this vibrant. Call it pop-metal if you want, but for me, it’s the best of both worlds.

6. Before Tomorrow Comes
I curse my worth and every comfort
That blinded me for way too long
Damn it all, I’ll make a difference from now on
‘Cause I’m wide awake to it all…

Despite the dark flavor of a lot of the guitar riffing, it’s hard to deny even for a second that Alter Bridge’s lyrics plant them firmly in “inspirational metal” territory, and that may make it sound cheesy, but I think this band’s quite skilled at getting the “rise up and make something of yourself and don’t take no for an answer” approach. That’s perhaps best exemplified by this song, which seeks to take no prisoners with its unabashedly radio-friendly melody. It works because it’s still got a lot of grit and edge for such a poppy song, especially when the guitars come squealing in as the verse leads into the chorus. I like that the band’s focus isn’t just on self-help for one’s own sake here – they’re advocating a rejection of society’s “me first” attitude by insinuating that helping oneself entails getting off of one’s rump and helping others. The bridge begs us not to ignore it, with Kennedy’s sharp-edged shouts of “Does anyone dare justify how we’re living? Does anyone here care at all?” Alright, you got me. Cheesy as it may sound, you reminded me that I still care.

7. Rise Today
Seems to me that we’ve got each other wrong
Was the enemy just your brother all along?

Speaking of radio-friendly material, this was apparently the first single released from Blackbird just over a year ago… and in my mind, it was a bad choice. It’s one of the record’s weakest track, and it’s helped in no way by its positioning immediately after “Before Tomorrow Comes”, since its lyrics mine similar territory and set to a similar medium speed. The hooks simply aren’t as strong, particularly in the chorus, where the band relies on rather weak repetitions of the following call to action: “Yeah… oh yeah… I wanna rise today and change this world.” This band’s good enough to enable me to put up with a lot of cliches, but this one’s where I have to draw the line – too obvious and heavy-handed. I like how the bridge trades off between a line of vocals and a line of fiery guitar soloing a few times in the road, and there’s even a bit of Southern twang sneaking into the song during the more relaxed chorus that follows, before they kick back into full distortion mode for the final lap, but none of it enables me to get over that awful chorus. Despite another spirited performance, this is the record’s first true dud.

8. Blackbird
Ascend, may you find no resistance
Know that you made such a difference
All you leave behind will live to the end…

I honestly wasn’t prepared for this record to have such a mammoth title track. This is the true centerpiece of the record, nicely placed at almost its exact center despite the fact that I think it would have made for a bring-down-the-house finale. Clearly the band wanted to add their own “Freebird” to the rock music lexicon, and while it would be pretentious to compare it to something as legendary as Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s signature song, I do think it’s the kind of song that would be widely regarded as a classic if this thing had came out while Alter Bridge’s preferred genre were in its heyday. What starts out sounding like a weepy, clean-toned ballad about a friend with a terminal illness waiting to die turns into an instrumental powerhouse due to this band’s dedication to never play it too soft when a bit of metallic bombast will help heighten the drama. That might sound like a slam, but I mean it as the highest compliment, because this band pays tribute to their deceased friend in such a way that elevates the familiar analogy about a bird flying to its home in the sky into the musical stratosphere, by way of a pair of generous solos (first Kennedy, then Tremonti) that draw the song out to eight minutes. It’s showing off, perhaps, but it’s not there just for the purpose of showing off. If you’re going to sing about a bird taking its final flight, then your guitarists had damn well better be prepared to soar – and these guys mean business. The feedom from the usual constraints of radio-playable song lengths allows the band to let the song wind down when it feels like it’s time to do so, and not a minute earlier – my only real complain is that they might have whipped out the emotional chorus of “Let your wings carry you home/Blackbird, fly away/May you never be broken again” too early in the song. Despite that, it still resonates at the end. This the sort of epic song that Creed attempted with songs like “Who’s Got My Back?” and even their classic “Torn”, but those songs never really flowed with the sort of energy that this one has. Even if you think you can’t stomach this band’s typical output, you really oughta check out this one song.

9. One by One
The sacrifice of flesh and blood
For a promised land that may not be won
Let us not forget the hero laid to rest…

The downside of having a highlight like that last track in the middle of the record is that anything following it is gonna sound like a disappointment. It might be for that reason that this somewhat hackneyed tribute to the armed forces falls on its face, or it might just be because it takes an all-too-obvious approach in the midst of a political climate that doesn’t exactly favor the war our country is currently mired in. I don’t think the band’s intent here is to claim a stance in favor of the Iraq war or anything – rather, I think it’s their take on the idea of “supporting the troops” even when one doesn’t agree with what their commander-in-chief is asking them to do. They seek to honor fallen soldiers and their families and say, “Win or lose, right or wrong, we still respect these men and women for their bravery.” Which I think is a good thing. But it’s a bit of a heavy-handed message to deliver in such a straightforward rock song, and other than the stuttering guitar riffs here and there, I can’t think of much that is memorable about this song on a musical level.

10. Watch Over You
Leaves are on the ground, fall has come
Blue skies turning grey, like my love…
This next track might be a bit too obvious, too – hell, we’ve even got acoustic guitars and it’s painfully obvious that we’re in “sensitive ballad” mode. Now keep in mind when I say this that I’m not opposed to “metal” or “hard rock” bands doing sensitive ballads – I still enjoy “With Arms Wide Open” a great deal despite the flak that Creed got after it became near-ubiquitous. Consider this to be the flipside of that song – instead of celebrating the beginning of life, it mourns a life that is coming to a close, from the person who’s about to pass away, asking who will take care of a loved one in his absence. Sure, it’ll be the track your wife/girlfriend/daughter/etc. is most likely to enjoy, but that doesn’t mean the band can’t put their full thrust into it when it comes time to do so. The sheer force of the drums and the more harmonic approach on Tremonti’s guitar ensure that there’s still passion in the performance even when the band is showing us their lighter side. Online, you can find a version of this song with Lacuna Coil‘s lead singer Christina Scabbia singing a duet vocal, which is sort of an intriguing idea, but being used to the album version, I’m not so sure this one works as a duet. To each his (or her) own, I suppose.

11. Break Me Down
The weight of a thousand lies
Promises broken, harm me all the time
You say that you’re sure to change
But that black heart reveals that you always stay the same…

Coming into the final stretch now, we have another midtempo song that might be one too many for this album – while not without merits, it doesn’t seem to offer a whole lot that stands out in the riffage department, nor do its lyrics say much that hasn’t been said in a lot of nu-metal songs about vaguely broken relationships with people who lie and tear down their partner’s self-confidence. I don’t hate it, but it does feel like the album’s fallen into a bit of a slump at this point, which is what ultimately earns Blackbird a 4-star grade instead of the 5-star quality that most of the first half delivers.

12. White Knuckles
The damned are done believing
And the cursed dream no more
So hold on for your life
Because only the strong survive…

Unity among the disenfranchised seems to be a theme that modern metal bands like to return to so often that it’s more than a cliche at this point. I can’t say it’s not an effective one – as evidenced by this final bit of thrashing frenzy that nicely sets us up for the album’s closing track – but I also can’t blame you for feeling like you’ve heard these lyrics before, written with more visceral and convincing details. Listen to this one for the sheer joy of fingers flying up and down the neck of a gruff-voiced guitar. Because the other cliche of radio-ready modern rock music is endless, unimaginative power chords, and Tremonti seems to want to undo that cliche with his affinity for monster riffs made up of single notes that likely require a lot of concentration to keep up with. Of course rhythm guitarists like Kennedy are still gonna do the power chord thing, but he’s doing a lot of jumping around, too, so there’s an extremely kinetic feel to this one that fits with the roller coaster ride described by the song. Sometimes I feel like the “nu-metal” craze did us a disservice by largely avoiding fast tempos in favor of sludgy grooves. There’s a time and a place for both. I happen to prefer my riffing at warp speed, so I’ll happily strap myself into this ride and take the dizzying drops with my hands high in the air.

13. Wayward One
City lights, broken sprawl
In a place no one can know
Show no grace, show no love
These mean streets are meant for none…

Alter Bridge might be on the verge of plagiarizing themselves here, given how closely the melody and structure of this song resemble the superior performance already heard in “Brand New Start”. There’s also a lot of pressure on this one to be a powerhouse closer – thanks a lot, “Blackbird!” – and it’s tough for it to fully deliver. Switching around the track order or not putting two similar tracks out on the same album may have helped, but this song isn’t without its merits. It brings back the hint of religious imagery that helped to elevate some of the previous tracks above a simply self-serving message, describing the plight of “prodigal son” characters who have been rejected by the establishment and who Kennedy is pleading for us to welcome back despite whatever bad blood might be between us and them. As in “Before Tomorrow Comes”, it’s that concern for one’s fellow man, that notion that they’re not gonna shut up until we admit that we actually give a crap about looking out for more than just #1, that causes the song to grab my attention. Kennedy gets in one last instance of his tried-and-true “jump to the high notes and grab ’em by the jugular” strategy during the bridge – if I haven’t already made it crystal clear, this guy is a hundred times the singer that Scott Stapp will ever be. Add one last bit of guitar pyrotechnics from Tremonti, and a quiet, eerie vocal outro, and that’s it for the album.

I’d say that Alter Bridge went the extra mile in terms of their performance and their desire to sing about something that mattered, even if they didn’t really go too far outside of the box in terms of creativity. They meld their influences together well – now I’d like to see them experiment a bit without sacrificing the obvious passion that goes into their performances. I’m not sure what that would sound like, or whether it would be commercially viable (I’m not even sure their current style is commercially viable any more, so it might not matter), but I’ve seen this band go from mediocre to impressive within the course of two albums, so I’m willing to be tthat their full potential hasn’t yet been realized.

Oh, and a final note to Wind-Up Records (which the band wisely left before releasing this record): Stop trying to pressure these guys to make up with Scott Stapp and reunite Creed. IT’S OVER. You took a band for granted that was just starting to come into their own, and that’s your loss.

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Ties that Bind $2
Come to Life $1.50
Brand New Start $1.50
Buried Alive $1
Coming Home $1.50
Before Tomorrow Comes $1.50
Rise Today $0
Blackbird $2
One by One $.50
Watch Over You $1
Break Me Down $.50
White Knuckles $1.50
Wayward One $1
TOTAL: $15.50

BAND MEMBERS:
Myles Kennedy: Lead vocals, rhythm guitars
Mark Tremonti: Lead guitars, backing vocals
Scott Phillips: Drums
Brian Marshall: Bass

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
https://open.spotify.com/album/21lOBQT94kjWSiYQbpm3RG

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.alterbridge.com/
http://www.myspace.com/alterbridge

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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