Hot on the heels of their most acclaimed release to date, do these redeemed rockers deliver on their highly anticipated third album?
Alter Bridge - AB III
1. Slip To The Void
3. Ghost Of Days Gone By
4. All Hope Is Gone
5. Still Remains
6. Make It Right
7. Wonderful Life
8. I Know It Hurts
9. Show Me A Sign
11. Breath Again
12. Coeur D' Alene
13. Life Must Go On
14. Words Darker Than Their Wings
Here’s a question: how exactly do three musicians hailing from one of the most despised bands of the 90’s suddenly regroup and become one of modern rock’s elite acts?
Perhaps this query is a little bit of an oversimplification; the group’s triumph wasn’t all that sudden. Their debut album was a pleasantly forgettable foray into mainstream hard rock, but with the advent of 2007’s Black Bird, Alter Bridge got their ducks in one seriously tight row. Black Bird was a megaton slap upside the heads of the doubters. Where One Day Remains meandered in middling competency, Black Bird clawed and screeched its way to success. Tremonti’s Cimmerian riffs and fret melting dexterity paired with a more integrated role of frontman Myles Kennedy and his “light in the darkness” vocal dynamic made the group’s sophomore effort an album well worth blasting at high decibels. It was officially acceptable to like the band without qualification.
From day one, Alter Bridge had painstakingly worked to distance themselves from Creed and, with album number two in place, it seemed as if they had finally carved out a path of their own. Given this momentum, Tremonti, Phillips, and Marshall’s decision in 2009 to re-enlist with Scott Stapp for a new album and world tour seems a little puzzling. Would this mean the end of Alter Bridge and if not, would they even be the same band?
Well, good news boys and girls, it seems that the trio’s time back in Camp Creed has hardly rekindled any fond memories of mush-mouth preaching or Top 40 mediocrity; with the opening salvo, “Slip Into the Void,” the black hole returns with a vengeance.
The piece begins in a surprisingly restrained fashion, greeting the listener with a vacuum of soft, inky keys and Kennedy at his most foreboding. The aching minute-and-a-half intro builds to a crest of inevitable tension before releasing with the boisterous riffs and belted singing Alter Bridge fans know all too well. This might be the same band musically speaking, but their message is just a little different this time.
Left to face this alone
Left to die with nothing you can own
Left to break in the cold
In the void that you made
The moment you let love go
-Slip Into the Void
Alter Bridge has never been a religiously affiliated band (although, technically Creed wasn’t either…), but their songs have always reflected a sort of self-affirming positivity and optimism that aren’t all that far flung from the spiritual themes of groups like Skillet and Thousand Foot Krutch. In this sense, AB III marks a critical departure from the band’s roots. The lines in the passage above are not the words of someone scorning another’s faithlessness, but the anguished internal dialogue of a person caught amidst a dire crisis of belief.
[It’s] the idea that you’re stepping into this really dark place, into this place you haven’t been before, where there’s a lot of doubt to the point of denial, really.
This is the encompassing motif of the record that, in a loose conceptual frame, develops from the unexpected angle of religious disillusion. Naturally, an album tied up in internal strife and existential warfare is pretty much guaranteed to rock very hard, and, in that sense, AB III doesn’t disappoint, not even a little. The first single, “Isolation” picks right up after the decay of the opener with more blazing riffs, shreddy solos, and killer choruses. The track is great choice for a single making fine use of the band’s deft balance of melody and face-ripping… ness (there’s not a chance that’s a word). “Isolation” also furthers the work’s story, portraying the character’s deeper entanglement in the murk of uncertainty.
While the guys ease up on the gas a little with the bittersweet “Wonderful Life” and “All Hope is Gone” (actually not a Slipknot cover) the dark din persists throughout and seems to escalate as the record unravels. “Still Remains” creeps in between with an eerie opening lick that ushers in one of the most obsidian chord progressions Tremonti has ever crafted. The song is interestingly told from the perspective of the protagonist’s abandoned belief system, adding a further layer of depth to the concept. However, the sinister nadir of the album isn’t revealed until “Give Me a Sign” and “Fallout” descend upon the listener. The two consecutive tracks contain the most effective and haunting lyrics on the record, well embodying the personal struggles for purpose and meaning that many have experienced. While the tracks are not the heaviest of the bunch, the group manages to create an unexpected feeling of suspense within them, be it through unsettling guitar harmonies that lurk in the background or epic riffs that are nurtured into deserving climaxes.
There is, no doubt, that a lot of impressive content is to be found on AB III, yet there are some serious stumbling blocks that keep it from “masterwork” status. One of these issues is Alter Bridge’s softer repertoire. As far as the ballads go on this effort, they are overall pretty decent, but as has been the case in the past, they largely fail to capture the same sense of urgency or emotion present in the group’s more rocking moments. This could be attributed to their very noticeable tendency to write ballads almost exclusively in a plodding 6/8 pace. This becomes more than a little taxing over an album’s duration, especially given that the band has also overloaded this work with fourteen tracks amounting to an hour-long runtime. The main exception to this critique is the closer, “Words Darker Than Their Wings” which is a gorgeous vocal duet between Kennedy and Tremonti reminiscent of the excellent “Black Bird.”
Another issue arises with the group’s handling of the more radio-friendly fare. While their greater willingness to experiment with differing moods and dynamics in even their poppier songs is worthy of praise, it also makes for some pretty awkward instances as apparent in the out of nowhere “devil-horn moments” that briefly surface in the mostly tame “Make it Right” and “I Know it Hurts.” The effect is akin to driving along on a beautiful, sunny day and having your car momentarily leveled by Mother Nature only for it to be magically resurrected with a new Maaco finish seconds later. Fortunately, these oddball transitions are relatively rare.
The 411: 2010 has delivered some very impressive gems in the areas of heavy rock and alternative metal, particularly with Deftones’ Diamond Eyes and Filter’s The Trouble With Angel’s; go ahead and add AB III to that list. There are a few duds in the bunch, but there aren’t a lot of bands out there that can take the familiar elements of the tried and true rock/metal formula and craft something genuinely refreshing and memorable with them. Alter Bridge have done just that on their third release.