In Brief: Thoroughly average outside of a few fleeting moments of excitement. I defended Evanescence back when everyone thought they were formulaic in the old days, but now I no longer can.
There’s a terrifying moment in the life of most young parents, still trying to learn the ropes of when to let things slide, and when to be the bad guy and say something their kids won’t like to hear, when the alarm bells suddenly go off in their heads and they realize, “Oh my God, I sound just like my parents!” Personally, I haven’t had the experience just yet, but speaking as a music critic, I think I’ve felt something similar. A band that I used to love has given me the sudden urge to go back in time about nine years, grab my younger self by the shoulders, shake him, and say, “Don’t get too attached to this band. They’re not destined for greatness.” And in preparing to explain why their latest work is mediocre and not at all great, every specific critique that I can think of sounds exactly like something that a more seasoned critic might have said to fanboys like me back in the day. So it’s happening – I’m starting to sound like those old party-pooper music snobs. Ah, well. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em in making the next generation miserable, eh?
The band in question is Evanescence. Boy, was I ever obsessed with this group back in 2003! It was like the perfect storm of intriguing elements to me back then – a crunchy but catchy modern rock band with dark, cinematic take on modern rock music (which many described as “goth”, to the ire of actual members of that subculture), with classical elements interwoven into their arena-sized, hard-driving style, some not-so-subtle spiritual elements, and a talented female vocalist at the eye of the storm. I wasn’t dumb. I knew that they had been groomed for stardom and were making a calculated bid for the top of the charts – but with such an intoxicating sound, I didn’t really care if it struck others as selling out. I’d been fortunate enough to hear the band on a smaller scale right before they hit it big, and I knew that they were versatile enough to have more than just world domination on their minds. Still, Fallen emphasized their poppiest tendencies, and its front-loaded hits were seemingly everywhere for the rest of that year and well into the next. I knew they had their failings – a guitarist who was a little too obsessed with simplistic power chords and a lead singer with a habit of putting her foot in her mouth, to name a few. I winced at the fallout over the “Christian band” thing and the sudden, messy departure of founding member Ben Moody. Still, I believed Amy Lee would get her chance to grow and change and express her stranger tendencies without letting the spotlight squelch them too much… and I was sort of right about this when their follow-up album The Open Door dropped, but I had to admit some moderate amount of disappointment with that one. Beyond that, they sort of fell apart, with members seemingly coming and going at random, some of the departed members of the group even going so far as to form a whole other band with Moody and with American Idol also-ran Carly Smithson in the place of Lee. Ouch. She wasn’t exactly the visionary rock heroine I had made her out to be, and I could hear all of those old “I told you so”s ringing in my head. I figured the band would end up on one of those vague “eternal hiatus” things and they’d be left as a footnote in history. Instead, they somehow managed to regroup in 2011… and that’s where they started to sound to me like they had sounded to a bunch of those other music critics all those years ago.
The first bad sign was the album title itself. Evanescence. Three albums in (four if you count Origin), and now they’re releasing a self-titled? To me, that jettisons any notion of a thematically interesting concept and says, “We’re starting over and just trying to make sure you know who we are as a band.” Which would be fine, if the new tracks were brimming over with personality. But to be honest, compared to old Evanescence, a lot of them feel bland, lacking in personality despite Amy Lee’s very best attempts to emote the pain and anguish and frustration felt by the protagonists of her songs. Remember when the Dave Matthews Band spent a few years working on a new album, ditched it because it was too downbeat and un-commercial, and released Everyday instead? We can only guess what Amy was cooking up (not to compare it to the DMB’s Lillywhite Sessions, but still) before she decided it was veering too far in the direction of the solo album and that she wanted a project that emphasized the band. Fair enough. There are five people present and it takes her than just her star power to make the Evanescence magic happen. But the end result is that nearly everyone feels like they’re punching the clock, as very few instrumental parts stand out to me on most of these songs. One might be led to assume that this new material was conjured up in a rush to meet a deadline. Some of it is quite catchy, likely bound for hit status on radio, though not to the same level of ubiquity as something like “Bring Me to Life” (which was never typical of the Evanescence sound to begin with, but for better or worse, it’s the rubric that all of their future singles will be judged by). Terry Balsamo, filling Moody’s shoes, can sometimes bring a chill to your spine with a dark, bent, pounding riff, but Moody had a certain flair for storytelling that Amy has struggled to conjure up without him present. There will be nothing on the order of “My Immortal” with him gone, no matter how hard Amy and the rest of the current roster may try. The old Evanescence might have been manipulative, but they were damn good at it. Here I feel a lot like I do when I tune in to an old favorite TV show that I forgot was still on there, only see to see that some of the most beloved cast members are missing and that the storylines lack the fresh wit that they once had. It’s still marginally enjoyable entertainment, but when it’s over, I’m still hungry. This is especially frustrating given how big of a hook they try to grab you with on so many of these songs. If you’re the type of listener who likes to sample the first 30 seconds or so of every song before deciding to buy an album (and if so, you’re thankfully a dying breed), then you’ll probably be impressed enough to buy this, only to realize months later that you rarely actually listen to it.
The flipside is that Evanescence doesn’t really do much to embarrass themselves here. The worst they’ve ever been is mediocre – even Fallen, for all of its glossy grandeur, had its middling tracks like “Taking Over Me” that I couldn’t really get into. The Open Door had a few more of those, though sandwiched in between some moderately interesting experiments. Evanescence is almost entirely populated with songs that could have easily been B-sides on past records, which is staggering when you consider the extended edition of the album that does contain four B-sides. But unless the Evanescence sound in general makes you cringe, there’s no particular song here that I think will be looked back on as the bane of the band’s existence. It’s just the occasional peak (usually an interesting riff or chorus hook) surrounded by an endless landscape of nonstop climax that evens out to a plateau. When you’re bone-headedly pushing for straight-ahead drama with every song, but you don’t throw enough twists and turns in there to make the drama surprising when you jump back into it, then it just gets plain tiring to listen to. And that’s my overall impression. Evanescence isn’t a bad album… it’s just a tired one released several years too late to recapture the band’s former glory. I couldn’t care less about them ever achieving mainstream relevance again, but it would have been nice to see more than just the occasional spark of experimentation here.
To put it more succinctly: I told me so.
1. What You Want
For all of my griping, I will say that the group’s comeback single is a pretty good way to announce that they’re back, because it plays to their strengths while being easily identifiable as Evanescence. With its big, thundering drum beat and its catchy, fist-pumping chorus of “Do what you, what you want!”, it might just be the first Evanescence song that shamelessly acknowledges their status as a pop band, and the typical Evanescence elements (piano, electronic keyboards, strings, Balsamo’s power chords) are all used in service of its big, walloping hook. They’ll delve into the faux-goth melodrama in due time, but for now, they’re quite content to be upbeat, defiant, and all up in the face of whoever dared to use the word “can’t” in reference to Amy Lee. As a result, the song balances the usual dark, haunted-by-the-past musings that Amy could write in her sleep with a surprising dose of encouragement. Here, you’re in control. You don’t have to be limited to what everyone thinks you’ll always be. Man, if only they spent the rest of this album taking their own advice, now that would have been a fun record to review.
2. Made of Stone
Now Evanescence is up to their old tricks again. I didn’t mind the old tricks when they were new to me, and I don’t even really mind a track or two that nods to the old sound, but I’m pretty sure that this song is only standing out to me because it comes so early in the album. The atmospheric keyboards and crushing guitar riffs are the kind of thing that these guys could do in their sleep by now, and while Balsamo’s attempts to bend and squeeze a little extra creepiness out of his chords are admirable, the song overall still comes across as whiny thanks to Amy. She tries her best to write a defiant breakup song about never measuring up to someone else’s expectations, but her tendency to always gravitate towards extremes and ultimatums is like a noose around the song’s neck. There’s no nuance to it. What could be a deliciously creepy track in the vein of Fallen‘s “Haunted” instead feels a bit flat and tired. (These are adjectives that, by review’s end, I’ll probably have run out of synonyms for.)
3. The Change
More moody mid-tempo stuff follows here. Will Hunt is certainly trying to keep things interesting with an unusual drum pattern during the verse, and some nervous strings and background effects help a lot in that area as well. But we’ve got another song about a relationship being over, and if there’s any topic that can drag an Evanescence song out of the realm of deliciously dark fantasy and crashing back to the mundane earth, it’s got to be the endless analysis of breakups. It just isn’t Amy’s strength as a songwriter. The trappings of her band’s chosen genre (some crunchy, metal-influenced riffage here, the occasional dark chord change there) are really all that separates a song like this from your typical pop or R&B song on the subject. Given the emphasis on “whoa”s to bridge the gap between a lot of nondescript lyrics about lies and screaming and pain, it almost feels written to be a showcase for a powerhouse vocalist. I’d say Amy fits that bill. I like her voice. But she needs more than sad vocal acrobatics to really shine as the frontwoman of a legitimate rock band. Otherwise, the rest of the guys might as well be playing backup for an aspiring American Idol contestant. (Whoops, did that hit too close to home? Sorry.)
4. My Heart Is Broken
Track 4 is where the weepy piano ballad that starts off quiet always goes on an Evanescence album. At least that’s what we’re lead to expect, though after a mere two lines of lyrics, the drums pick up and it becomes a fundamentally different song, so admittedly it’s kind of a neat misdirect. Still, we’re being baited to expect another “My Immortal” or even a “Lithium” after such an intro, and what I end up feeling is that they had a quiet slow song, realized it wasn’t going much of anywhere, and tried to beef it up by upping the tempo a hair and having the rest of the band participate more. On the surface, this is yet another song about someone broken by a relationship. The emphasis is more on this person’s need for healing than on telling off the no-good jerk who hurt her, so at least there’s some sort of a thematic progression happening here. Far, far beneath the surface, it’s actually from the point of view of a woman who was the victim of sex traficking. Pretty heavy stuff, and the song doesn’t really do justice to the weight of its subject matter. Not that I’m saying I expect it to be frank and exploit this woman’s torment or anything. But it’s sort of frustrating to have the impact lost due to lyrics that could just as easily apply to a high school girl whose crush failed to notice her. Amy keeps her lyrics at a very generic level on this album, so if you want to miss the point entirely and make this song or any song about your personal angst, you’ve been given the tools to do exactly that.
5. The Other Side
How many times can Terry Balsamo hit the same gruff power chord? Once again we’ve got the kind of pseudo-slow metal mood that is fun for exactly one song on any given album, because it gives Evanescence a sense of roughness that offsets their inherent poppiness, but after being used more than once, it feels only skin deep. Here we’re revisiting Amy’s fascination with death – she wants a lost lover back. Again, a subject that’s been much more fascinatingly explored – see “My Immortal”, “With You”, “Even in Death”, etc. The music was more interesting in all cases than this mid-tempo shlock, that’s for sure. On the upside, this song at least recounts positive memories of a relationship – it seems the protagonist of an Evanescence song can never be truly happy, but at least this one once was, with a companion who was apparently taken from her too soon. There’s a brief, vulnerable moment as the bridge leads back into the otherwise predictable chorus here, where all but the piano, strings and Amy’s voice falls away, and she does that restrained, I’m fragile-don’t-hurt-me thing that I have to say she can pull off quite well when she remembers not to sing everything at full blast. They could have gone in a more creative direction and allowed the song to end on a tense note like that, sending the phoned-in band away for a minute and just letting that hopeful glimpse of the afterlife hang out there on its own. But instead they have to dive back in and do exactly what the rules of rock radio dictate, just like they do everywhere else. It’s disappointingly un-clever.
6. Erase This
Here was have one of the more triumphant examples of piano and guitar working together on an Evanescence record. Will Hunt’s rhythm really takes off and grabs the attention compared to the turgid pace of most of the album, and while Balsamo’s riff is repetitive, it’s quite fast paced, fingers dashing up and down in a pattern that’s probably easily committed to muscle memory, but that still packs a punch. The song has an action movie feel to it, like a chase scene where you’re narrowly escaping something. Amy’s still angsting about “waking up in someone else’s life”, so clearly she still has a bone to pick with whatever relationship she was in ages ago that made her feel like a non-person. The desperation actually comes across quite believably, until the rhythm takes a sadly predictable turn for another power-chord-heavy chorus where everyone is hammering on the quarter notes and seemingly nothing else. The terminology of this pained lament is still as general as possible, to make sure there’s not one angry fist raised in the audience whose owner feels like they can’t personally relate. Ultimately it’s a downer – “If I could just erase my mind. But I cannot erase this lie.” But at least the band brings it to a riveting finish. Since there ain’t much to choose from, this ends up being the second best track on the album after the similarly punchy “What You Want”.
7. Lost in Paradise
Well, we’re sliding into the second half of the record… anyone up for another predictable power ballad? You know what’s gonna happen here due to the slow, brooding start with just Amy’s voice and some stark piano chords – it’s just a question of when. I guess right after the first chorus is as good a time as any for the full band to kick in. When they do, it’s just as trite and phoned in as any soft-to-loud transition in the last fifteen years of modern rock radio. Amy’s angst this time is more apologetic – she’s down on herself for failing to keep promises and for turning something that was supposed to be paradise into a dull wasteland… or something. I’m guessing because once again, there’s not much in the way of specificity or even curious turns of phrase to go on. Instead we get non-committal musings like, “As much as I’d like the past not to exist, it still does.” Come on Amy, this is ninth grade emo blogger material. You can do better!
I don’t know what’s weirder – the fact that this song’s murky guitar intro has Creed written all over it, or the fact that this is an interesting enough change of pace that it doesn’t bother me. I suppose it’s a healthy reminder that we could do far worse in the songwriting development, because just about any song in that genre automatically becomes an easier sell when the listener is assured that Scott Stapp is in no way involved. (This explains why I enjoy the music of Alter Bridge, after all.) The stuttering drums are a nice touch, and we’re setting things up nicely for one of Evanescence’s more deranged songs, in which Amy gets herself slowly worked up about how messed up in the head we all are – and blissfully unaware of it, too? Surely this is going to explode into something chaotic and edgy, right? Nope. The rest of the band lets Amy down in the chorus, as her vocal seems hit all the right peaks on the words “SICK of it all! SICK of it all!”, but the rest of the guys are doing their damndest to dilute it with just about the safest quarter-note rhythm and dull power chords they can muster. This reduces what could be a lively rant to a bunch of excessively dramatic whining. The music needs to sell the drama for it to really work. And of course the lyrics drag the song down further once Amy starts churning out angsty nu-metal mantras like “This bottomless pit of lies.” Amy, I think you’re sinking in a bottomless pit of clichés.
9. End of the Dream
It’s really sad that on an album which is so generic overall, we still get songs like this that are so nondescript that I don’t even remember anything about them later. This one just drags at the same medium tempo that characterizes many a forgettable commercial rock song. It’s probably more forgettable than even any of the bonus material that was left off the album (and some of that stuff’s quite rubber-stamped as well). Something about the complete lack of rhythmic cadence in Amy’s vocals makes it feel like drones on for an eternity, despite it being just as compact in length as the average Evanescence song. The bridge features some moderately interesting riffing, but it’s gone within mere seconds. Why does Terry Balsamo try to throw these wicked heavy metal riffs into generic songs in the most workmanlike fashion possible? Riffs like that should be the starting lineup of songs, not the relief players on the bench.
This one’s distinctive due to the “thirty-second sampling effect” – just because it starts with synth and seems like it’s going to take things in a different musical direction at first. Unfortunately this gives way to another somewhat generic song with wall-to-wall grey power chords. Taking a risk and pushing the song further into electronica/darkwave territory might have paid off. Terry just needs to let loose more. Every now and then I hear something like the guitar fill between this song’s chorus and verse that causes my ears to perk up, then my attention span slips away into the murky depths again despite my best efforts. Really trying to dig in and grasp the whole of what is going on here, I can tell that Tim McCord‘s bass is a lot more noticeable during the verse, and that’s about the first time I can recall him doing anything distinctive for more than about three seconds tops. Amy’s the weak link here – despite a modest amount of changing things up in the music department, she’s still wailing about nothing less than a complete loss of faith in someone or something – “Everything that we believed in was a lie.” How much do you have to be punching the clock as a songwriter to even make conspiracy theories sound dull and commonplace? For about tend seconds at the end, there’s a nice little string outro. I say if you’re gonna use strings to add drama to a song, you should give them more of a chance to do something theatrical – really let them get carried away like Evanescence once did on songs like “Imaginary” or “Whisper”.
11. Never Go Back
The opening riff here is probably Balsamo’s most striking one on the entire album. “Erase This” is still a better song overall, but it’s nice to have a shot of energy like this late in the album. Drums and bass dominate the verse – and this is the first time I can recall an Evanescence song trying to showcase the rhythm section, which ain’t a bad thing even if they’re playing a fairly standard rhythm. This probably should have come earlier in the album, just because it’s the kind of mosher-friendly anthem that would benefit from greater visibility. Then again, when the chorus slips into the exact same slump that the band hit in “Erase This”, I’m reminded of why this song was relegated to the penultimate slot on the album. It just doesn’t hold a candle to the verse, with its dull quarter notes (Again! How hard is it to employ a little more syncopation?) and Amy’s elongated words that remove any feeling of feistiness from what she’s singing about. (What the heck is she singing about, anyway? Oh, just drowning and complete despair and realizing she’s lost without someone. Nothing to see there, apparently.) A chorus should be one of a song’s strongest elements, not the dull part you sit through to get back to the fun part. How can there be so much emoting, with the strings all in a flurry and Amy’s voice scaling the heights, and yet a song can still just seem to DRAG on interminably?
12. Swimming Home
The album closes with the one track that I’d consider a genuine experiment. It’s much more synthesized, constructed largely from keyboards and programmed/sampled elements, sort of like the one new studio track “Missing” that was released on the group’s live album back in their heyday. The one big difference is that in the midst of this synthesized sea, Amy’s plucking the harp, and that brings back the “mystical” element that has been sorely lacking in an album mostly preoccupied with rocking out but not being able to keep the energy level up. When the group is actually trying for a gentle lullaby, they actually manage to pull it off. Amy’s voice here is sweet, apologetic. After all the angst, she’s directly contradicting the previous song and finding the resolve to cross that vast ocean and find her way back to a place she belongs. Still vague as all hell, but there’s a dreamlike quality to it that might just manage to not be objectionable to folks who are normally turned off by the stereotypical “poppy goth” space that Evanescence normally occupies. While I don’t mind the electronic elements, I actually wish the rest of the band had a little more to do here. I feel like this was a holdover from the aborted album that Amy was mostly working on by herself, and they just said, “Whatever, it’s a good track, and we don’t really have a convincing ballad to end on, so let’s just go with it.” It sort of trails off on a “To be continued…” sort of feeling, like this is really how you would close the first half of an album, rather than it being a true grand finale. But whatever. It’s nice and it’s something different, and if Evanescence threw more curveballs like this in the future, I wouldn’t have to be so hard on them.
The bonus tracks aren’t really worth going to any level of detail about, so I won’t. I’ll admit that “Say You Will” is kind of fun in a superficial, thrash-about-and-belt-it-at-the-top-of-your-lungs sort of way, and “Secret Door”, which focuses more on Amy’s harp, is definitely worth hearing. Stuff like that needs to be better integrated into the album material instead of relegated to B-sides while non-starters like “End of the Dream” get stuck on everyone’s copy of the album. Unfortunately, since this sucker seems to be selling well enough (not multi-mega-platinum like the first two, but probably well enough for the label to keep them around), Amy Lee and co. will probably take away from it the lesson that playing it safe is the only way to maintain a decent-size crowd at their shows. So, barring some sort of Deus Ex Machina that causes Amy to go away and dream it all up again, I’m guessing that Evanescence is probably going to be almost strictly formula from here on out.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
What You Want $1.50
Made of Stone $1
The Change $.50
My Heart Is Broken $.50
The Other Side $.50
Erase This $1.50
Lost in Paradise $.25
End of the Dream -$.25
Never Go Back $.50
Swimming Home $1.25
Amy Lee: Lead vocals, keyboards, harp
Terry Balsamo: Lead guitar
Troy McLawhorn: Rhythm guitar
Tim McCord: Bass
Will Hunt: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: