In Brief: Rife with volatile energy, and yet surprisingly mature. This may puzzle longtime fans, but I think Blindside has done their best work yet.
Hard rock fans, I have an ugly confession for you: I seem to enjoy Blindside a whole lot more when Howard Benson is on board as their producer.
OK, so for the few of you left who aren’t rummaging through your homes to figure out where you last left your pitchforks and torches, let me explain: It can be an ugly business when Hollywood-oriented producers with their eyes clearly on Grammy bait get involved with bands that were previously know for being more on the fringes, decidedly less mainstream. As soon as you put a clear, melodic overlay on top of their music, particularly if they were a “harder and edgier” band to begin with, you’ll immediately get fans crying “sellout”. This has happened to Blindside as far back as their mainstream debut, 2002’s Silence, which acquainted Benson with the group after he produced Satellite for their buddies in P.O.D. No doubt fans of their old days had a tough time swallowing that one, and both those fans and a lot of the new ones that came on board for the comparatively melodic sound of Silence had a difficult time swallowing the strange mutant of a follow-up album, About a Burning Fire. But that’s where I came on board. There was something about Fire‘s inherent weirdness, its messy clash of genres and apparent refusal to make up its mind, that I found exhilarating once I got the hang of that record. It ran the gamut from somber, spiritual ballads, to prog-leaning rockers with oddball time signatures, to electronica, to the full-throated face-melting screamfests their old-school fans probably expected, and even to acoustic mode at one point. A little something for everyone, perhaps. It was one of my favorite records of 2004, not just for being accessible, but for marking out its own distinct path. Apparently almost no one agreed with me, because the band got dropped from their major label deal after that, and more or less went back underground to record The Great Depression, a much more harsh and less commercial-sounding album. After that and their brief resurgence on the radar with 2007’s The Black Rose EP, they more or less disappeared, and I figured their time in the limelight was more or less over.
So now, after a four-year drought, along comes With Shivering Hearts We Wait, which reunites the group with Benson and finds them in a more modest record deal with INO (which ain’t Elektra, but it leaves them reasonably more exposed than either of their “underground” phases). It’s a bold, brash, loud, melodic hard rock record, and for the first time in Blindside’s history, I loved it upon first listen. The gut reaction is to say they’ve gone pop – and it’s certainly something that they flirt with on a few tracks that eschew the expected screaming entirely and instead seek to grab the listener with big, catchy riffs or even (shudder) dance beats. “Uh-oh”, I remember thinking upon first hearing these elements. “The old-school fans are gonna hate this for the same reasons they hated About a Burning Fire.” But it’s that sort of happy marriage between accessibility and unpredictability that really gets me excited. I can get into raw aggression as much as the next guy, but it takes more than simply playing fast and vocalizing loudly to keep my attention. Hard or soft, I’ve come to enjoy music more for the compositional aspects and the lyrics. And here, on Shivering Hearts, I find myself intrigued more than ever by Blindside’s chosen palette of sounds, and by the chosen subjects for their songs. More than ever, it feels like the music is being chosen to fit the mood, and that means the angry songs are harsh while the more sentimental songs (while not particularly quiet) have stronger melodic and rhythmic hooks. A handful of the new songs seem almost cinematic in their scope, even to the point of bringing in the dreaded string section, but without ever losing focus on the dynamics of the band. It’s a lean release with only 10 songs and 39 minutes of run time, but I’d say it’s a good example of a record that trims the fat nicely, only getting long-winded (that’ll be recognizable as a pun later) when a song really calls for it, and not getting mired down with so-so song selection in between. From start to finish, it’s really hard for me to find anything negative to say here, even though I can realize how picky some of their fans are gonna get with this one.
The thing is, even while giving a wink and a nudge towards the group’s more “pop” aspirations, I never feel like they’re trying to masquerade as a softer band, or calm down for anyone else’s benefit. Lead singer Christian Lindskog has a powerful range that seems to have only improved over time – he knows how to run the full scale from a melancholy croon, to a bitter whisper, to a nerve-rattling scream, often sliding back and forth on the continuum between these vocal sounds, which means that blood-curdling yell might not be without its own shades of vocal color, or that softly sung passage might not be without its own dose of creepiness. Hack vocalists in this genre scream because they can’t sing. The good ones have generally run the gamut and proven that their ability doesn’t rely on a single gimmick. When Blindside wants a song to freak you out a little, they’re generally quite believable, as opposed to some of their contemporaries in bands like P.O.D. or Linkin Park who, despite often coming up with songs that I enjoy, can sound rather silly doing this. When the intended mood is more reflective, they seem to manage this without setting off my cheese alarm – and I’ve listened to enough so-called “Christian music” that this is no easy task. The genre shifts may be unexpected, but the record remains cohesive, a fun thrill ride from start to finish, and while they might subvert fan expectations, it never feels like they’ve lost their edge or aren’t being true to their core sound, because the distorted guitar chords, and strong drum/bass grooves are still there, and Christian’s vocals still seem like they’re threatening to erupt at unexpected moments. I came into Shivering Hearts expecting maybe a handful of interesting new songs from a band I had mostly become lukewarm about over the years – but it turns out they’ve gone and crafted their best record yet.
1. There Must Be Something in the Water
Completely THRILLING opening track here – Blindside seems to always know how to start their records off right. The harsh, rolling rhythm fools me at first into thinking it’s a straight 6/8 – combine that with talk of storms and drowning and it’s easy to be reminded of About a Burning Fire‘s opener, “Eye of the Storm”. But where that track sounded like a complete mess at first and had to grow on me, this one wins me over right away with its action-packed, dramatic score. Christian shouts defiantly at some force that is attempting to pull him under, promising that its efforts are futile, that he will not allow himself to succumb to the elements. He moves so effectively between singing and screaming that his loudest moments feel natural, like the punctuation in a sentence. What I assumed was a simple rhythm actually proves to be the song’s greatest strength, with the main riff hurtling forward in a pattern of 21/8 (or, for the pedantic musicians out there, I guess it’s 6/8 + 6/8 + 6/8 + 3/8?), and the verses relaxing slightly, almost smoothing it out to 4/4 even though the vocals and guitar riffs are still highly syncopated. These interlocking, shifting rhythms are most effective during the coda, after a scream of “Don’t you dare speak my name!” gives us a false ending, only for the string section to come barreling back in along with the pummeling riffs and percussion. It’s one hell of a fun ride.
2. My Heart Escapes
Structurally, this one reminds me very much of Blindside’s breakout single “Pitiful” – the slicing but catchy riffs, the overall fast pace, and the excited screams that permeate the chorus without flattening its melody all seem familiar, yet re-envisioned in a new context. “Pitiful” was an anguished song, while the content of this one seems more sentimental – definitely a bit melancholy since Christian seems to be brooding about missing a wife or child left back home while he’s out touring, but still quite sturdy in the rock department. Especially during the bridge, there’s a stuttering effect that reminds us just how easily Blindside can mingle dissonant, edgy elements with unmitigated hook value. This seems to be one of the songs that the band members are most proud of, so it likely holds deep personal meaning for a group of guys who hadn’t seen a summer in Sweden for many years until they finally took the extended hiatus that led to this record. That makes this song paradoxical – its musical muscles are right there rocking out with the fans, but its heart and mind are off daydreaming of home.
3. Monster on the Radio
Speaking of paradoxes, this track might have turned out to be a bigger paradox than Blindside realized when they recorded it. Either that, or it’s a deliciously subversive joke. I’m not sure which, but I know most of the metalheads will probably hate it from the first few seconds, which consist of a hilariously dated dance beat that should have no business on a hard rock album. When this collides with the sort of guitar riff that’s likely to rattle around in your head for days, it feels like this must be a remix of some long lost original version – but the trick is that this unholy collision of genres is crucial to the meaning of the song. It’s basically about how the human ear is a slave to catchy rhythms and melodies, and how an audience full of lemmings will gladly pump their fists and shout at the top of their lungs to the tune of songs exactly like this one, that they probably don’t even understand. If you’re like me and you find this collision of sounds to be a total blast (which, to be fair, isn’t far from what nu-metal and “crunk” rock bands have been playing around with for well over a decade now – only arguably more self-aware), you may be part of the group it’s poking fun at. So maybe the only honest response from a “true fan” is to hate it. But there I go upending the rules, liking this exactly because it’s so obnoxiously loud and brash and self-referential. If it were all canned music and didn’t require any talent from the actual members of the band, I’d probably hate it, but the gang shouts are downright vicious, like they’ve all got evil grins on their faces, and when the live drums and bent guitar riffs come pouring in, it’s hard to deny that behind the sheen of superficiality, there’s some solid musicianship here.
4. It’s All I Have
We blaze straight ahead with the fast-paced power chords – this one feels a bit more like a simpler slab of melodic pop rock, though it isn’t without its passionate cries during the choruses. Give Blindside some credit – they’re tackling a subject as heartwarming as missing a wife who is with child – a band member’s own flesh and blood waiting to be born, with thousands of miles of land and ocean between this man and the arrival of this new chapter in his life. Where Christian screams here, it can feel out of place at first, but it’s not out of anguish so much as excitement, as if his voice quavers, a little lump forming in his throat when he’s hit with the full weight of becoming a father. “You look beautiful in that bracelet of joy/You shine when you put on that necklace of peace”, he reminds his wife in sentiments that must seem strange for an edgier rock song. It’s hard for bands like these to do this convincingly, but listen at least as far back as Silence and songs like this have always been a part of Blindside’s DNA.
5. Bloodstained Hollywood Ending
Another uneasy marriage of paint-peeling hard rock intensity and bouncy pop inclinations, while not as blatant as “Monster on the Radio” shows up here – this is a reasonably bitter song in general, but listen to that simple hook – “Oh-oh! Oh, oh-oh, oh-oh!” – as it keeps perfect time with the drums, and tell me your ears don’t perk up. It draws attention to a sour story of a breakup, a relationship or perhaps a marriage that got anything but the perfect movie ending, and that finds the protagonist admitting, “You gave your all and so did I.” There’s resignation here, but also a hesitant strand of hope – “You’re half asleep, I’m wide awake/You’re frozen, is the ice about to break?” The chorus is where Christian really lets loose. There’s a strong chord progression and the screams all resolve to definite notes, but as far as this album goes, it’s definitely on the harsher side of things.
6. Our Love Saves Us
This one’s simultaneously a bold experiment for Blindside, and a single waiting to happen. It’s the rare song in their canon that doesn’t rely heavily on guitars – Simon Grenehed‘s rhythmic riffs are still important here, but they play a supporting role to the ambient waves of synth and the chilly, Nine Inch Nails-inspired heartbeat of the drums, which switches from a stark programmed beat to the full-on, stadium-sized echo of live drums for the chorus. It’s got all of the fluttery emotions of an 80’s-era synthpop song, but with appropriately dark hues, aptly portraying a mental image of an iced-over landscape that’s just beginning to thaw. (Fittingly, this is the track from which the album derives its title – it’s cold, but still hopeful.) The lyrics described a relationship that’s been battered and bruised, that’s in clear danger of falling apart, but unlike the bitter forfeit of “Bloodstained Hollywood Ending”, he’s defiant and hopeful here, turning their refusal to throw in the towel into a defiant anthem. It’s the most likely thing to cause the lighters – excuse me, iPhones – to get broken out at Blindside concerts. Once again, this would feel like a cheap marketing ploy to make Blindside more palatable to the masses if it wasn’t so smartly executed – it’s a wholesome and uplifting song at its core, but it’s anchored with the supple strength of a rhythm section that knows how to balance live action with the carefully crafted, synthetic mood that floats throughout the song.
7. Bring Out Your Dead
Alright, so for those of you who were starting to think Blindside had gone soft, this one’ll probably get your attention. I wouldn’t quite put it up there on the hardness scale with, say, “About a Burning Fire”, but it’s still quite vicious and genuinely creepy. Unrelenting, too, as it comes blasting out of the furnace with little warning, its heavy chords and decidedly bent lead guitar fully embracing the band’s more sinister side. It still packs a strong rhythmic punch as it zigs and zags in 6/8 time, with only a brief respite of 4/4 for a relatively quiet (though not at all less creepy bridge) that is later reprised in heavier form. The lyrics seem to be from the point of view of someone who has the unenviable task of collecting corpses during a mass epidemic such as the Black Death, and they get a lot of mileage out of the word “corpse” and the notion that bodies piling up can make a place stink of pure despair. It’s probably all a metaphor for some sort of spiritual bondage, especially considering Christian’s ragged screams of “I DIDN’T COME HERE TO DIEEEEEE!!!” The overall effect – while not without its own wicked hook value, is genuinely terrifying, and yet it doesn’t sound like a simple compromise or pure genre exercise to keep the old fans on board. It’s harsh and atonal because it fits the material, and that’s a skill Blindside seems to display again and again where other “Christian” hard rock bands often have trouble finding something that’s actually worth screaming about.
File this one under “mood whiplash”. The opening and closing piano chords offer a false sense of calm surrounding a song that is anything but – a twisted beast that seems to wrestle with itself, unsure if it wants to detour into proggy wilderness with its lopped off rhythm of 7/8, or resolve to a straightforward and transparent chorus (“Hey, I’m still glorious/But I’m withering like roses in the fall”), or go the dark and dissonant route like “Bring Out Your Dead”. The thing is, it switches between those modes so effectively that I don’t notice the weirdness until I break the song down into its various pieces. Like many of Blindside’s experiments, it’s a hybrid, a grafting of styles that aren’t supposed to match each other but that all make sense in this band’s Frankenstein world. The feeling of chasing something that can’t be found permeates the song, as Christian moans, “This is hide-and-seek with no point whatsoever”, possibly also making a nod to one of the past year’s most fascinating films when he comments in the second verse: “You’re the inception of beauty.” (Just imagine this track alongside one of the more action-packed sequences from that film’s eerie labyrinth of dream worlds.) Of course, it may be the strings furiously humming along with that offbeat rhythm that get me thinking, “Soundtrack bait”. But it’s all played so seamlessly that the frustrated breakdown near the end of the song feels like this is exactly how such a situation should come to a head.
Lots of dark song titles in the back half here. They’re doing a stellar job of building up songs around the theme as we head into the home stretch. These songs must be thematically linked, as the last one was about a withering flower, and in the first verse of this one, a flower is placed in the protagonist’s pocket as a reminder. Here he’s starting to become aware of the unquenchable thirst that this dreamlike obsession of his generates, and he’s more resolved to call it what it is and leave it behind. It’s one of those songs where the bottom of your stomach sort of drops out when you grasp the meaning of it, because it takes place in that unenviable moment where two former lovers realize they have nothing left to offer each other and they part ways. At least, that’s the effect it has on me. Musically, I find this one harder to distinguish from some of the other tracks on the record (it’s straight ahead power-chord sprint being most similar to “It’s All I Have”, though decidedly darker in tone), but the staccato percussion and palm muting during the bridge are used to great effect as Christian stumbles to spit out the word “goodbye” – “This could be a good… a real good… this could be a good…” By the time that last syllable “-bye” finally gets blurted out, it’s an exasperated scream, and then when this section is repeated at the end of the song, it’s a whisper that stops the music dead in its tracks. Brilliant little touch right there.
10. There Must Be Something in the Wind
A final stroke of brilliance comes in the form of this generously long closing track, whose title quite obviously echoes the opening track, but whose musical mood is a world apart from it, “There Must Be Something in the Water” was afraid, defiant, thrashing. “Wind”, on the other hand, is a song of beautiful acceptance, sensing an entirely different force of nature and willingly giving oneself over to it. It unfolds slowly, with the jangle of Simon’s electric guitar providing the only rhythm during the first verse or so, Marcus Dahlström‘s drums creeping in quietly and eventually picking up to a full gallop. This gives the feeling of starting out in the shallows, testing the water, much like the man pictured wading on the album’s cover, and as the song progresses and he begins to recognize that benevolent spirit in the air, the layers of sound grow thicker, and he becomes less and less afraid to lose himself. Be it the whispered heartbeat of “Silence” or the harrowing, refining flames of “About a Burning Fire”, Blindside seems to always end their albums reverently pondering an encounter with the Almighty, and this song evokes that same otherworldly feel, strings swooping about like the titular wind. Seven minutes gives the band ample time to unwind, so what starts out reminding me of “Shekina”, one of my very favorite tracks from About a Burning Fire, ends up evolving into a full-on percussion breakdown that goes completely digital by the end, which in a funny way brings to mind “Where the Sun Never Dies”, my other favorite track from that same album. What’s important is that this highly danceable rhythm, artificial in nature though it may be, has its own lifeblood, shifting and changing as the song pushes ahead to its climax. It’s highly unorthodox and yet strangely appropriate, solidifying my belief in Blindside as a band that’s just as much about their restlessly creative side as they are about their punishingly loud side. This might just be my favorite Blindside track ever, and it’s quite likely in the running for my favorite track of the year 2011 as well.
It’s because With Shivering Hearts We Wait ends on such an exhilarating, inspiring note that I come away from it so refreshed – it’s a rollercoaster of moods that flirts with the dark but ultimately surrenders to the light. While reactions to the many genre shifts Blindside attempts here will definitely vary, I appreciate the band for crafting all of these sounds in such a way that captures the war between light and dark. If this is how they approach their second shot at a career in the mainstream, then I for one hope they never go back underground.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
There Must Be Something in the Water $2
My Heart Escapes $1
Monster on the Radio $2
It’s All I Have $1
Bloodstained Hollywood Ending $1
Our Love Saves Us $2
Bring Out Your Dead $1.50
There Must Be Something in the Wind $2
Christian Lindskog: Vocals
Simon Grenehed: Guitar
Marcus Dahlström: Drums
Tomas Näslund: Bass
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Originally published on Epinions.com.