By Johnny Firecloud at 1:17 PM Sunday, March 13th 2011
Chicago rockers Rise Against have bridged the three year gap between albums with Endgame – a safe, slick twelve-song offering that amounts to more of the same: verses heavy with sociopolitical condemnation in a build-up to bombastic, wailing choruses and a raging “fight for the fire of truth” message under an armageddon of beats and modern rock riffage.
Let’s be clear: this aint punk, kids – certainly no more than AFI or My Chemical Romance is punk. But we’re in a freefall of musical definition, where whatever doesn’t fit the genre tethers itself to association with a “post” or “nu” prefix. And really, what does it matter? Rise Against hit the high commercial tide with 2008’s Appeal To Reason, and it appears there’s no turning back.
Aided and abetted by longtime producer Bill Stevenson, the band have once again returned to the well of structural formulaics. After a blistering five-album introduction, Rise Against became one of the biggest hard rock bands on the planet. The accessibility of Appeal to Reason yielded great rewards, and while not quite making the full commitment to revolution as a fashion statement (a la Linkin Park on A Thousand Suns), it’s clear that the teeth have been rounded off for more omnivorous musical consumption.
Vocalist/guitarist Tim McIlrath is nothing if not passionate, but when you rage against every machine with just enough lyrical ambiguity to fill in your own revolutionary Mad Libs, the bite loses its edge – particularly when the vocal designs shed their traces of ingenuity and the lyrics lose their progressive development. After a thrilling, hi-octane introductory blast to Architects, McIlrath sings, “Don’t you remember when you were young / And you wanted to set the world on fire? / Somewhere deep down / I know you do.”
He’s rallying, he’s trying to reconnect to that old flame over Brandon Barnes’ breathless beats, but the commercial ambition is a thick mucosal sheen that saps the fire to near extinction (especially if you’ve ever heard Against Me!’s I Was Teenage Anarchist). The poppy backing vocals from guitarist Zach Blair elicits cringes, an inevitable daydream avenue to all the rock-market Summer radio festivals the track will cement for the band. Perfectly placed between Paramore and Plain White T’s, the song reeks of anthemic nothingness.
That’s not to say McIlrath’s lyrical designs are any less awakening or damning; indeed, the singer is still wailing his call to arms and awareness, a continued plea to youth to seize control of their own destinies and stoke their own fires… but to what end? When the melodies are rehashed, the screaming a predictable insert within an architecture so formulaic it could’ve been written a decade ago, how much of an impact can one have on a society so proudly complacent and cynical?
Though the chanting march of Broken Mirrors lends a depth to the mechanics, lead single Help Is On the Way suffers from a blandness so paralyzing and repetitive, it’s a wonder fans haven’t clued in to the formula. McIlrath drops a few eye-opener screams in the bridge, and we haven’t grown entirely immune to susceptibility to a well-placed roar, but the color-by-numbers rock was made for radio – which is to say, it’s great filler between commercials. Which is also to say: it’s totally flaccid.
Midnight Hands begins with Blair’s churning chug riff, McIlrath dropping in on the three with an off-tempo melody that sports genuine promise. The anthemic nu-rock infection returns by the second chorus, however, and the screaming in the second half falls victim to the commerciality.
Sound clips about the destruction of America are littered through the opening of Survivor Guilt, with McIlrath declaring, “Block the entrances / Close the doors / Seal the exits, cause this is war!” The sound is slick, the military cadence in the breakdown subtle beneath the “live on your feet or die on your knees” sound sample, but the heavy-handed us vs. them manipulation is tired and visible from the horizon.
We’re no longer in an age where mincing words and offering vague passion anthems carry any palpable weight – but they sure get those registers ringing. Faux-passion is the latest fashion, a loosely-clenched fist in the air, ripe for Twitpicking or overpriced pastel retail silkscreening. Our nation is in a very real freefall of sociopolitical awareness and impact, our eyes witness to amplified administrative injustice and a blizzard of misinformation designed to confuse and dissuade effective action. So until you’re calling out the Koch brothers and corporate royalty directly through song, save the theatrics and pretend-desperate call to arms, the manufactured rage and vague uprising.
Rise Against isn’t cramming their ethical philosophy (straight-edge, vegetarian, PETA supporting, etc.) down our throats, but the artistic cruise-control and bombastic gimmickry dilutes any grander underlying message or cause. Is this the evolution of the protest song? Vague Hallmark fist-pumping and angry, but empty, anthemics? These are polarizing days where power is consolidating and the public is suckered into blind rage against our own interests with a depth and frequency that’s utterly surreal. These issues don’t lend themselves to an elastic, vague discontent, a Target brand packaging of opposition. Not when opposition and discontent have been co-opted by corporate forces and channeled into a new political party set on cannibalizing true patriotism.
Last month, McIlrath attended the Wisconsin musical rally at the state Capitol, standing alongside a hundred thousand strong demanding their voices be heard in the war on collective bargaining rights. He played a cover song that day, a piece which embodied the identity of a cause-specific protest song: Neil Young’s Ohio (check the link above for the vid). The song called attention to the horrors of the Kent State shooting in 1970, where the National Guard turned their guns on peaceful protesting American students, killing four and wounding over a dozen others.
Neil had the balls to call out the President directly by name, to immediately respond in detail to the horrific tragedy that occurred with a chilling depiction of “soldiers cutting us down”. The work was a beacon which shook the foundation of public opinion, which laid out the real consequence of power run wild, a testament to the blood of Americans spilling in the streets of the homeland that lasted beyond the news cycle, beyond the next hit record or international incident.
Where is that fire of pure artistic reflection now? We’re sold wholesale on what passes for passion, we’re herded to the designated purveyors of product with open arms and voices crying “we’re with you” in unison, but there is no real cause here. There is, in its wake, a highly fertile ground of commercial youth angst. More screams! More rock-y riffs! More machine-gun beats! Mission accomplished.