Rock and roll is dead, they say. Perished and gone past any point of salvation; de facto disappeared from the limelight. It’s undergoing a fundamental identity crisis, they allege, which started just at the turn of the the twenty-first century’s inaugural decade and slowly caused its vanishing from the charts, after nu-metal, emo, and garage indie guitar bozos kept it afloat on life support in the early noughties. Fast forward to the approaching sunset of another decade, and rock is blatantly accused of exercising virtually no more influence on popular creative culture. But then—quite ironically—a quick superficial scrutiny of today’s most successful hip-hop (read: mainstream) artists would be all it takes to denote how so-called faux cutting edge and avant-garde rappers and MCs do little more than lifting inherent and eroded rock staples. This manifests in both the artistic and fashion sense, beginning with the gentrified appropriation of industrial palm muted guitar-led walls of sound atop which they oughta spit out bars in pockets, a wide variety of emo sounds and aesthetics, as well as death metal iconography and design statements on their attires.
Then—as if by a divine intervention of sorts—Friday 18th October 2019 came along and flushed away any residual breadcrumbs of doubt as to whether rock and roll and ancillary alternative music were still to have a seat at the mainstream culture table. Most likely unbeknownst to one another, although the potential irony of this being a coordinated effort wouldn’t be lost on me (and yet this might suggest otherwise…), three monumental and highly influential bands repping the penultimate heyday wave of rock dominating charts and radio happened to release their latest studio albums on said same glorious date. Stephan Jenkins-masterminded California rock outfit Third Eye Blind, alt-emo veterans Jimmy Eat World, and Swedish iconic post-hardcore trailblazers Refused all dropped their highly-anticipated sixth, tenth, and fifth studio LP respectively on this proud mid-October Friday. This occurred much to the surprise of focus group-affine taste making gatekeepers, who thought that rock’s highest moments today ought to be confined to Guitar Hero and regional redneck fairs. One single listen to each record is enough to confirm that these three groups have never sounded tighter and more cohesive, notwithstanding that they’re all steadily embarked onto their third decade as bands.
Let us begin with Third Eye Blind (3eb), who return the favour to emo-rappers and genre appropriators by turning heads with a straight up tongue-in-cheek trap number at number ten on their new LP Screamer’s tracklist. In doing so, “2X Tigers” accomplishes what most generic trap beats can’t, in measuring out just the right amounts of rattling hi-hats, 808s, autotune, and lyrical razzmatazz. Overall, 3eb’s new joint is a generous 40-minute, 12-track outing helmed by carefully doctored synthetic atmospheres and soundscapes, employing trademark subaltern vocal deliveries by flamboyant frontman Jenkins, coupled with real pedestrian relatable storytelling. Carefree and lighthearted slow-burners such as “Ways“, sophomore single “Walk Like Kings“, and “Who Am I” stand to indicate that the record flows by sans the dirt and aggression off their early late-nineties projects, although Screamer’s stunning lead single slash title track, followed by the grassroots anthemic punk/rocker “The Kids Are Coming” prove that the San Francisco quintet hasn’t lost its bite and attack over time.
Recruiting the Smashing Pumpkins‘ Billy Corgan as ‘musical consigliere‘ throughout the creative process certainly helped safeguarding a certain degree of weirdness and experimentation being factored in, too. This shows brightly on a few cuts on here, such as the EDM-infused “Tropic Scorpio“, as well as power-pop oddity “Got So High“, with the latter disclosing the inherent clue in its title right out of the gate, alas supplying cringeworthy lyrics and a pointless beat switch-turned-outro (“So I walked down on Tavern Riaz / I watched a movie starring Cameron Diaz / I got a guitar amp that’s louder than Jesus“). One might also wonder whether the self-indulgent custom Pac Man-esque listening video game launched as promo for the full length is to be traced back to a studio banter with Mr Corgan, though perhaps this stone is best kept unturned. All in all, Screamer finds 3eb delivering a powerful and assertive statement of eternal raging youth, sparkled with drops of hope, courage, and desire for bold change. Front to back, the album plays as slick and smooth as butter, and is wrapped up by one of the most earnest and delicate songs Jenkins must’ve penned in a long while (“Well they smashed us but well / We found our feet and found our voice / Now we give ’em all hell / And now they’re gone“). All killers, no fillers.
On Surviving, Jimmy Eat World on their part choose to tap into crisp, clean cut, yet larger-than-life sounds, haphazardly flirting with their 2007 Chase This Light sonic moodboard, making Surviving its spiritual successor. This comes with big choruses and thick guitars, immediately proven guilty as charged by opener combo “Surviving” and “Criminal Energy“. These are two of the punchiest, fiercest, and most unhinged songs to come out of their repertoire in more than ten years. However, the Arizonans make sure to reassure us they haven’t lost their knack for distilled melancholic melodies on follow up track “Delivery“, a stomping and tremolo-ed heart-on-sleeve emotional journey doubling as the natural—slightly more seasoned—hybrid between “Always Be” and “Firefight” off their aforementioned superior 2007 milestone. Elsewhere, Jim Adkins and co. kill two birds with one stone when they repurpose and remaster last year’s excellent standalone power chords-bonanza single “Love Never“, lending the hammering late capitalism anti-hero anthem a needed production re-tooling that helps better singling out the song’s urgency: “It’s gonna seem so far / It’s gonna feel so hard / Until you want the work more than the reward / Do you want the work more than the reward?”.
Together with “Surviving”, “Criminal Energy”, and “Love Never”, cuts like “One Mil“, “Diamond“, and epic 6-minute closer “Congratulations” reinforce the inherent heaviness of this project, without much concerns related to overdoing palm muting and/or distortion. Ever the subtle and refined writer, on this album Adkins also manages to sculpt one of Jimmy Eat World’s most singular and counter-intuitive works with the airy and celestial 80s drum machine galore “555“, a superlatively cathartic moment moonlighting as second single in promotion to the record. Speaking of singles, Surviving’s chosen flagship one (“All The Way“) is unfortunately the dullest and flattest chapter on here, coming across too sterilised and formulaic for anyone even remotely familiar with the Mesa, AZ band’s past output. That said, this new half hour and change procured to us by the alternative rockers sweeps by like a spinning rush of watertight loud rock, topping Jimmy Eat World’s more recent efforts (2016’s Integrity Blues and 2013’s Damage) on both the songwriting and sonic delivery front.
Hailing from the apparent idyllic paradise of Sweden and responsible for one of the mightiest watershed moments in the experimental post-hardcore scene, Refused are no strangers to leaving evident battered marks in the ground they cover. Tallying up just their fifth studio album to date in nearly thirty years as a band, the modern punk stalwarts have had to put up with a ‘too big to fail’ legacy that might or might have not prompted their 2014 reunion—after abruptly calling it quits in 1998 at their highest career peak. With their newest studio full length War Music, which follows up on their softer and dividing fourth LP Freedom in 2015, the Swedish woke and socially-conscious quartet choose to revert back to flat out in-your-face meat and potatoes mannerisms. Cases in point, the skin-crawling, spine-bending incendiary lead single “Blood Red“—a manifesto to holding up to one’s ethics and ideals from cradle to grave—and the violent bona fide hardcore throwback “Turn The Cross“. Perhaps unsurprisingly in this saturated and overproduced musical zeitgeist filled with loudness wars, the Dennis Lyxzén-fronted project generally opts for peeling back a few layers and marry stripped back, extremely raw and rebellious sonic contours, albeit not always so spotlessly.
Soul-punk and groove-distributor “REV001” works flawlessly as sonic baptism to the whole shebang, even though its efficacy can’t be reprised as seamlessly by its follow up on the tracklist (“Violent Reaction“), the latter resounding too tired and thin-stretched. Meanwhile, the album’s inflammatory closing set of overtly alienated socio-political statements (“Death In Vännäs“, “The Infamous Left“, and “Economy of Death“) vehemently address neo-liberal gimmicks, diminishing returns, thought leadership apathy and jadedness. Stuffed in the middle of this 10-track dissenting capitalist opera is a host of straightforward and true blue Refused playbook material (“I Wanna Watch The World Burn“), math rock riffing aggression galore (“Damaged III“), and exquisite foreboding marching potency (“Malfire“), with the latter track culminating in a witty and excruciatingly harrowing take on contemporary population management issues: “They came in boats, they came on land / Alone and scared with empty hands / The founding thought, come if you can / Your tired, poor, your huddled mass / In grand old eyes, a life reviled / Becomes a threat, a parasite“. Another solid, trustworthy, and long-overdue check-in from a band that has and will continue to make important waves in the current unenlightened climate.
This should suffice, though if the above supporting evidence isn’t enough, be my guest and throw in the following exhibits to counterclaim the assertion that alternative rock is no longer alive and well. These were all released within the last few months: Sam Fender’s Hypersonic Missiles, Puddle of Mudd‘s Welcome to Galvania, and blink-182‘s NINE. We love rock and roll, so put another dime in the jukebox, baby…
I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.
THIRD EYE BLIND
2019, Mega Collider Records
JIMMY EAT WORLD
2019, Exotic Location Recordings/RCA Records
2019, Spinefarm Records/Universal Music