SEVENDUST “ALPHA” ALBUM REVIEW
Since guitarist Clint Lowery departed Sevendust mid-tour in 2004, fans have wondered how the band would fare without their primary songwriter. Around the same time the band cut their ties with former record label TVT, making for a crossroads of sorts for Sevendust. Moving to the independent Wine Dark Records, the band released the mostly uneven Next in late 2005. The album was met with a smattering of mediocre reviews and sold only 170,000 units, an all-time low for Sevendust. Wine Dark folded, leaving the members of Sevendust deep in debt. March, 2007 finds the band again on a new label, releasing their latest effort Alpha on their own 7Bros. imprint through Asylum / Warner Bros. Fans hoping for a return to Home-era aggression will no-doubt be thrilled with this album; fans like myself hoping that the band would move forward and expand their sound into heretofore unexplored territories for Sevendust will be mostly disappointed. The verdict is in that the band is just not the same without Lowery. The disc is not without a few very rewarding tracks, but as a whole piece Alpha does not tap into the potential that everyone seems to think Sevendust had and may still have.
Sevendust is now six albums into their career. They have been together in one form or another since 1995, at that point under the moniker Crawlspace. Their self-titled debut came on the tail end of the first wave of nu-metal acts, delivering plenty of raw aggression and energy but leaving listeners with a sense that there was something different about this band that, if nurtured, could grow into something truly special. Home (1999) continued in the vein of Sevendust, but found the band’s songwriter a little more refined. On Animosity (2001) and then even more so with Seasons (2003), the band took their songwriting to the next level and began to experiment more with melody, harmony, and greatly improved sonic production techniques thanks to Ben Grosse and Butch Walker, respectively. To the record label this represented a better shot at radio and MTV; to many die-hard fans it represented the fast-track to throwing the CD in the trash can. To me it was a big step for the band, and in my opinion Sevendust was truly at their best on these two albums.
Free from the shackles of record label A&Rs telling the band what to sound like, Sevendust went out and made Next in 2005, which saw the band seemingly trying to return to their more aggressive-sounding roots. While not a bad piece, the album lacked anything spectacular about it and even the die-hards seemed a bit disappointed. Alpha is a slightly more focused affair; the band is clearly not trying to please anyone at radio and as such sticks to the more aggressive numbers for the most part. It’s not that I have a problem with Sevendust playing aggressive music; it’s that they’ve been writing songs in the same style for six albums now, and I’d really love to see them expand a bit more. The potential to do this is shown at times. Songs like “Deathstar” feel like a cop-out to me; this is a mediocre song, and I feel like guitarist John Connelly could easily shit riffs like this for days and days. Add in some pummeling drum/bass riffing, Morgan Rose screaming in the background, a soulful and melodic chorus from Lajon Witherspoon and presto. Sevendust could make 100 mediocre albums of songs like most of the tracks on Alpha and none of them would be bad. But therein lies the problem; none of them would be great either. And six albums in, Sevendust is quickly losing the license to do the same thing time after time. If that’s where these guy are at right now in their lives, that’s fine, but to cement this band’s legacy in history (and for my personal tastes) there really needs to be more in the way of growth.
There are, however, a few shining moments on this album where the band explores unchartered territory. The standout track by far is the 9-plus minute “Burn,” buried deep in the album second-to-last. This is what I’m talking about as far as potential — this is NEW for Sevendust, this is FRESH! Sevendust has never written a song like this one before — it’s a RISK! Yet it still sounds distinctly like Sevendust, in a good way. Great bands push the envelope by taking risks, expanding their sound while retaining their core identity, resulting in long and varied careers. This is what Sevendust has done with the epic “Burn,” and I wish they’d do it more often. An extended mostly acoustic instrumental intro leads into a typical riff-based verse but quickly explodes into one of the catchiest choruses the band has ever written. Later on a pummeling breakdown opens up to an epic bridge. The song ends with three minutes of beautifully layered piano, acoustic guitar, and percussion, with super-soulful and melancholy Lajon lamenting the failure of a relationship. Lyrically the song stays on target with most Sevendust material, which is to say angry and frustrated, but here it works because of the expanded framework in which it is set. “Wash away the colors of the shame that you gave to me / so I can see again / so I can live again. / I pray the day will come when you will see what you took from me / so when it all began / the way I used to be.”
“Aggression” is also a great track, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the second single. Though this song follows the Sevendust formula to some degree they are still expanding here, again using piano and featuring a chorus with a searing guitar-riff unlike any I’ve heard this band play before — great work on this one, John! The lead single “Driven” is another choice cut.
For all that I’ve ranted about sameness of material throughout this album, even when Sevendust sticks to what they know they are pretty darn good at it, which is why I’ve stuck with this band over the years. You can’t help but bob your head to some of these driving riffs, even if you’ve heard them before in various incarnations, as is the case on “Beg to Differ”. The fact that Morgan Rose is one of the most talented drummers in metal greatly helps the cause, making the album entirely more interesting.
Those looking for something to groove to in the mosh pit will love this album. Those looking for growth in the band will be a bit disappointed, but there are a couple of treasures for you as well.
(three out of five horns)