In Brief: Somewhere between “Slip to the Void” and “Into the light may you fall” is a vast sea of murky grey, with just enough island oases to make it worthwhile.
When I last left Alter Bridge, they had quite surprisingly managed to prove to me that they could successfully leave distant memories of Creed in the rear view mirror, with their second album Blackbird. It was certainly a throwback to days gone by, but one that held steadfastly to memories of the days when metal was fun and grunge could do more than just mope around, splitting the difference between the two as a band might have done back before people started tacking the prefixes “nu-” or “post-” on to either style. Honestly, I wouldn’t even mention Creed and their gradual dragging down of the genre at this point, because Alter Bridge exists well enough on its own as a band with a reasonably good following (interestingly moreso in Europe than here in their native U.S.), so fans shouldn’t have to constantly explain that “They sound pretty good… for a band with three guys from Creed in it.” Unfortunately, with Creed actually managing to reunite and put out a horrible album a few years back, the need to differentiate between the two still persists. Honestly, given that Creed is still the bigger-selling name (however inexplicably) and money could have been the only possible motivation for these guys to decide it was worth putting up with Scott Stapp again, I’m surprised that Alter Bridge even still exists. Somewhere deep down, Mark Tremonti, Scott Phillips, and Brian Marshall must really enjoy the work they do in Alter Bridge, because they somehow manage to pull double duty between both bands, touring for one when the other is off the road and so forth. The revival of Creed could have put a stake through the heart of the idea that would eventually become Alter Bridge’s third album, AB III, but I’m thankful that it still had the chance to exist.
For a while, though, all the album did from my perspective was to merely exist. I just wasn’t terribly impressed with it. Alter Bridge had made every attempt to go deeper, to play harder, to make something thematically satisfying, and to not sell their listeners short. But it was just impenetrable. Blackbird switched up moods and styles enough to overcome the cliched trappings of the genre and provide something I could enjoy listening to, something that connected emotionally just as much as it was good for headbanging. AB III, by contrast, has its fair share of the frenetic, bounce-off-the-walls-like-a-caged-animal moments, but it feels like a step backwards musically, slipping into nondescript mid-tempo territory too frequently and for too long to really be satisfying from beginning to end. There are simply fewer moments that seem to break out of the formula, and while Tremonti and Myles Kennedy are both stalwarts on lead and rhythm guitar, respectively, a jolting riff and a squealing solo that sound delightful in and of themselves often still aren’t enough to propel the song surrounding them into greatness. There are a few moments here that hit me like a ton of bricks, in exactly the way that harder rock music should, while a few attempts to brighten the mood late in the album do come across as genuine and effective. But in between all that, this was an album that I had to slowly chip away at to find the good stuff. It’s been out for what, a year and a half now? And only now am I finding the courage to actually dive in and review it. That’s always the problem that I seem to have with albums that aren’t noticeably bad in any way that I can milk for comedy, but that toe the line of mediocrity just enough to make my life difficult when I’m trying to tell all of the different songs apart (and with 14 of ’em running over an hour, AB III is unapologetically bloated).
Thematically speaking, the album hits its mark if you’re willing to pay attention and see how a few songs that might seem cliched on their own might fit into a larger narrative. In some ways, it’s a conversation between two men – one who has fallen so deeply into despair and depression that he can’t find his way back out, and another one who is determined to snap this guy out of his trance. You can easily tell which is which based on whether it’s in the first or second person, or whether the protagonist is optimistic or pessimistic concerning the possibility of change. This approach can tedious as you get deeper and deeper into the album, but it pays off nicely as the two perspectives dovetail at the end. While I wish the band had experimented a bit more with their sound to somehow set apart these different perspectives, I will say that you can find something distinctive about the riffing or soloing in each song that makes at least part of it worthwhile and doesn’t feel like they’re constantly rehashing old ideas. Ultimately, it’s all worth wading through in order to find the seven or eight tracks that rise above the clutter. They had the backbone of a great album here, but it got bogged down in the process of trying to express too much at once. Cut some of the fat, and this thing could easily compete with Blackbird, even if it never quite gets as epic as that record’s title track.
1. Slip to the Void
I love the dark, murky bass intro at the beginning of this song. It’s detached and a bit chilling, and when Kennedy starts singing, it’s in such a low register that you can’t tell it’s him at first. That makes this song the one that stands out most on first listen, just because it’s not distinctly Alter Bridge for a good minute or so, until they complete the chorus and then Tremonti just RIPS into it. The guitars careen out of control, like someone hanging on to a cliffside by their fingernails. It’s a tortured vision of the soulless empty space someone has found themselves in after abandoning all human connection, and Kennedy’s on the outside looking in at this person, lamenting: “You fear what you’ve become/My God, what have you done/You don’t belong here.” It’s a great showcase Kennedy’s vocal range (and Tremonti’s strong support in the backing vocal department) and also for the range of moods that the band can cover, from the dreary intro to the action-packed bridge where the drum beat goes double-time during an excellent guitar solo. This sort of jacked up my expectations for the rest of the album, since this song was such a game-changer that I figured AB had more left turns up their sleeve. There are a few, but this would still probably be the first song I’d play for a nay-sayer who wasn’t convinced these guys could rise above the “Creed redux” reputation.
A faster-paced song kick in here, with more of a conventional alt-metal crunch to it – the rhythm and lead guitars are both noticeably jagged and mean, but there’s a definite melodic hook within all of the sludgy riffage. It’s sort of funny for a song that urges you to “love again”, but I suppose that plays a bit better in the context of the previous song. This one tries to find a little more hope amidst the bleakness, pointing out what the isolation does to a person and asserting that it is a reversible process, a mindset that can be unlearned. Nothing too deep here, but it’s notable for breaking out of the typical 4/4 for an unusual guitar solo that apparently Kennedy takes the lead on rather than Tremonti. Again, the two work really well together here, and it’s the synthesis of glame-metal glory and alt-metal gruffness that the two bring to the table which helps both men to elevate the song above the trappings of either genre, despite the cliches that it flirts with.
3. Ghost of Days Gone By
This one was a surprise, though admittedly I didn’t take to it so well at first. The bouncy, almost jangly nature of Scott Phillips’ drums and a more fluid, melodic lead riff from Tremonti really caught me off-guard – it’s probably their poppiest song yet if you ignore their ballads. It’s up-tempo and admittedly quite infectious once you get into the right frame of mind for it… and of course, none of that stops the lyrics from being unrelentingly sad. Here, a man looks back at happier times, and he shake off the feeling that things will never be quite that good again, leading to a chorus which reaches out, looking for empathy and understanding: “Do you ever cry for the ghost of days gone by?” By itself, this would just feel like pointless wallowing, but it really lets you inside the mind of the isolated person who can’t quite lift himself out of the rut. It takes a sharp turn towards harder rock in the bridge and at the end of the song, when the band quite noticeably breaks from the poppy chord progression and Kennedy’s elongated notes approach a scream: “I don’t wanna DIE!!!” It’s an unusual hybrid that might get slagged for being “pop metal”, but it doesn’t really sound like other songs in that genre. It packs an unexpected punch. Ultimately, it’s a dark horse contender that comes from behind to stand out as my favorite track on the album.
4. All Hope Is Gone
We plunge headlong into despair here, but at least we’re doing so in 6/8 time. Here, a guy realizes that he’s completely trashed whatever dreams he has left, and he’s just limp and lifeless without anything left to live for. Instead of being morbid and suicidal, he’s just sort of resigned to exist meaninglessly. This will probably strike some as melodramatic because of its use of extremes and absolutes. But it’s pretty accurate to the drab colors that depression paints over everything you enjoyed about life. It’s not one of the album’s more aggressive songs – its success lies more in its moody textures and in the band knowing when to attack, pull back, and attack again. The guitar solo, which is solid though not as remarkable as some of Tremonti’s best work, feels almost like the kind of thing that would belong to a song like their epic “Blackbird” if expanded further, but they keep it within compact, radio-friendly length. That might be my one complaint about AB III – in general, that they didn’t really attempt a show-stopping standout on that same level, so you have a lot of these 3-4 minute songs that feel like they aren’t always living up to their potential.
5. Still Remains
A really interesting intro is unfortunately the thing that stands out most about this song. Kennedy has a vaguely Middle Eastern wail going on here, but it’s pushed so far back that you barely notice it, and this motif is completely abandoned when the main body of the song gets going. Most of the song is characterized by a start-stop riff that seems a bit sluggish tempo-wise, but still gives the band a good groove to play with. The chorus is a little too slick and commercial in comparison, though – it pains me slightly to hear Tremonti just ride those power chords to the finish line, evenly hitting all the eighth notes, when I know what he’s capable of. Here the “voice” of the album, if you will, shifts back to the other side of the conversation, as a friend pledges to do whatever it takes to pull his depressed buddy back from the edge, but he also hits him with some hard truths: “How can you justify the life you’re living?” It’s a little loaded down with platitudes, but the point is that he’s trying to remind the guy he still has his own free will and can’t just cop out and admit defeat.
6. Make It Right
I love the frenetic pace and syncopated rhythm of this one. It’s quite similar to “Coming Home”, one of my favorite tracks on Blackbird. There’s a distinct mix of acoustic and electric sounds in the opening riff, which gives it a little more color than the relentless black and grey of the dark songs leading up to it, though once it gets going, it’s as heavy as most of AB’s work, just with some unusual shifts between major and minor key just to keep things colorful. The song isefinitely more of a call to action – it does so by undermining the protagonist’s attempts to sabotage himself and holding him accountable for the damage done. Our devastated protagonist still has potential potential for a long, healthy life, so while dismantling his self-destructive actions in this manner is a bit harsh, it’s also an encouragement for him not to throw in the towel. I like how this one’s loud and boisterous without slipping into the same sense of utter hopelessness that permeates most of the album. It’s not big on guitar solos, but what we do hear from both Tremonti and Kennedy is 100% triumphant.
7. Wonderful Life
Wow, big surprise here – it’s one of those tender, semi-acoustic ballads sung to someone who is dying or about to die… the kind of thing a hard rock band would throw on to a record to remind you that they have a sensitive side. The problem with Alter Bridge doing this is that it surprises nobody at this point, since their previous albums have done the exact same thing with “In Loving Memory” and “Watch Over You”. There are also shades of “Blackbird” in the ascending guitar melodies here, which is sort of on the same subject, though much more of a powerful song. This one’s soft, reserved, still using full electric power for the chorus, but not quite believable within the ongoing narrative of the album. Taken on its own at face value, I am briefly moved by the notion that he wants this person to pass on with nothing less than the assurance that they were dearly loved and cannot be replaced. But since it’s so out of right-field, it smacks of being put on the album “so your mom can listen”. I mean, he sings “I want you to know I’ll miss you so”, for crying out loud. Who does things “so” any more without a qualifying adjective, outside of bad poetry? I can still appreciate the guitar solo, and it is a strong vocal performance for Kennedy, so while I’m not in love with this song, I have to admit it could have been far more banal.
8. I Know It Hurts
This song’s busy, chugging riff immediately raises expectations for the back half of the record. The rhythm being beat out on the drums is some of Scott Phillips’ livelier work, though aside from that and the strong opening, the song seems like just a straight-ahead hard rock anthem, a bit heavy on the stock phrasing. I know AB has a bad habit of flirting with cliches, but “We all fall sometimes, you’re not the first/But I know it hurts” is probably among their most uninspired choruses. I get that you have to empathize with someone’s pain instead of just kicking them in the butt if you want to help them out of a depression, but with most people who are that far gone, it takes a little more than throwing platitudes at them to really get through in any meaningful way. Thankfully the song’s bridge is a fantastically gnarly breakdown – brief but satisfying for how it stutters and bends and squeals and breaks out of the predictable melody. Tremonti gets a great solo of the more traditional metal variety near the end, too. This song deserved better lyrics, but I’d probably still consider it a highlight if they were to include it in a live set.
9. Show Me a Sign
Here I start to feel like I’m wandering across a vast, arid, rocky wasteland with no signs of life, because the next three songs just seem to drag on forever. At six minutes, this one is the worst offender, not developing enough to unfold into anything epic. The lyrics are just parceled out too slowly, and the melody is too repetitive. It could just as easily be “Say I” or a similar non-hit track from Creed’s Human Clay album. Kennedy’s whispers in the bridge aren’t quite trite enough to approach Scott Stapp levels of bombast, but they’re still an uncomfortably close reminder of a chapter that I wish the rest of his band could bring themselves to close. A guitar solo about midway through the song provides brief respite, but beyond that, we’ve still got three more tedious minutes to go.
This one’s not as weighed down as the previous song, but we’re still stuck in mid-tempo limbo. There’s another acoustic/electric mix in the guitar department, which seems to want to do something a little bluesier like the title track from Creed’s Weathered, but it doesn’t quite get there (and by “there”, I mean the same place Creed tried and failed to go) before it dives right back into generic power chords. The story is that some poor lost soul is cast aside by society, and “he dares to walk the fallout on his own”, whatever that means. I feel like there’s a conjunction missing there, but I’m too lost amidst the obvious pandering (“He is someone just like you who is lost to find the truth”) to really care either way. The bridge almost saves itself with some good stop/start riffing and a wailing solo on top of that, but as we’ve already learned a few times on this album, a good bridge with a good solo does not constitute a good song.
11. Breathe Again
Here’s the third and final chapter in the dull trilogy that bogs down the back half of the album. What were they thinking, putting these three sub-par songs all in a row? The mood is admittedly brighter here, as if coming up above ground after hiding in a bunker for many months. There’s a sense of letting go and finding relief in the lyrics, but they’re a bit too generic in they’re discussion of setting oneself apart and finding new freedom. We’ve had a lot of generic nu-metal singles about being yourself and getting away from the bad stuff, so this seems like a misaimed bid at crossover success where something like “Ghost of Days Gone By” already does that trick so much better. They change things up for (surprise, surprise) another semi-interesting bridge, but that’s becoming a tired formula at this point. It doesn’t rescue an otherwise dull song when you decide only halfway through that it needs a bit of a funky edge to liven it up a bit. That sort of thing should be the starting point from which you create the rest of the song.
12. Coeur d’Alene
I almost wrote this one off as part of the parade of generic songs at first, because it’s another example of alt-rock escapism, and the lyrics sort of blurred by me quickly enough that I didn’t pay attention to its slightly more personal approach. It took having a weird dream about the lake in Idaho that the song is named after to make me really notice it. (I’ve never been there, so I’m not even sure how I knew it was Coeur d’Alene, but the song got itself stuck in my head enough to plant the seed of that dream, so I guess these guys did something right.) It’s a little more specific than “Breathe Again,” in that it at least name-checks a place that is meaningful to Myles Kennedy (who hails from nearby Spokane, Washington). Despite the cliches of being fed up with celebrity and wanting to get away from it all that a lot of angsty alt-rockers could write in their sleep these days, I can detect a bit more personal investment thanks to lyrics that long for a place where he’s simply seen as another human being, not miscast as a rock god. He personifies this special place – “I’m safe at last in your arms”. I’m sure that the Idaho tourism board is thrilled that a hard rock band is discussing the place without turning it into a diatribe against neo-Nazis (or for that matter, an endorsement!) While the music doesn’t seem to gel with a song about a beautiful, natural, uncrowded place, I do still get a strong visual that gives me fond memories of the sorts of places I like to visit on vacation. The moody intro does a good job of setting the scene even though the song overall is more concerned with rough, crunching riffs than with ambience. It’s not a “Kick back and sun yourself at the beach” sort of song – it’s more of an “I desperately need to see that peaceful place again!” sort of song.
13. Life Must Go On
A promisingly sensitive guitar solo starts this one off, almost detached from the song itself as if Tremonti had just been noodling around in the wee hours of the night. It’s too bad that once the actual song arrives, it feels like a throwback to One Day Remains with its unbearable cliches. This is an emotionally climactic moment on the album, being the penultimate track and all, but its impact is sabotaged by half-hearted platitudes: “The sun always sets, the moon always fall/It feels like the end, just pay no mind at all/Just keep rolling, rolling/Life must go on.” I mean, seriously? “Keep rolling?” Is this person a truck driver, or a film director? At best, this vague encouragement to just keep on going makes life sound like it’s merely something you do your best to endure, something that just randomly happens to you and you take it as it comes. And perhaps that’s true to what a lot of people believe, but I don’t see how this information is supposed to be inspirational. Either life really is that tedious and you just have to hope it cuts you a break every now and then before it unceremoniously ends (in which case the music’s all wrong for the message), or else life’s a whole lot more than that, and that’s what Kennedy wants to say to this person but is failing to adequately communicate.
14. Words Darker than Their Wings
It’s easy to get this one confused with “Make It Right” due to the similarity of the opening riff, but the album closes on a slower, more appropriately paced song for one that has to bear the weight of wrapping everything up. It’s probably the best closing thought that AB has provided on an album thus far , and a big part of that is the surprise of Tremonti doing a tag-team vocal with Kennedy. It was born out of a conversation between the two of them, one struggling to believe and the other trying to have enough faith for both of them, and it pulls together the two opposing perspectives that have been explored throughout the album. Kennedy’s all bleak and barely hanging on at the beggining of the song, just as he’s been for most of the album, but when Tremonti cuts in, it’s like the hand yanking him out of the deep well: “Just don’t you lose hope/I swear I never dream that we’re alone/Now don’t you let go/I swear I still believe, though I don’t know.” It’s a heck of a great send-off as the two voices dovetail for one final chorus: “Into the light may you fall/Into the light may you follow/Into the light may you know truth alone.” The big, looming black hole that AB has spent the entire album opening up for us to gaze into forebodingly is now something that, against the odds, can be escaped. Though we’re still stuck with a fair amount of stock phrasing, the message is a breath of fresh air, and it wouldn’t seem as meaningful if not for the downcast songs that had preceded it. The only thing I can’t figure out is what the heck the title has to do with anything in the song. Whose words are darker than whose wings? Oh well. Let’s give Alter Bridge the chance to quit while they’re slightly ahead.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Slip to the Void $1.75
Ghost of Days Gone By $1.75
All Hope Is Gone $1.25
Still Remains $.75
Make It Right $1.50
Wonderful Life $.50
I Know It Hurts $.75
Show Me a Sign -$.25
Breathe Again $0
Coeur d’Alene $1.50
Life Must Go On -$.25
Words Darker than Their Wings $1.50
Myles Kennedy: Lead vocals, rhythm guitars
Mark Tremonti: Lead guitars, backing vocals
Scott Phillips: Drums
Brian Marshall: Bass
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Originally published on Epinions.com.