SHADOWS FALL: THREADS OF LIFE
I don’t want to hear it from the Blabberbrats, so for the sake of objectivity let’s avoid genre categorizations altogether for the purposes of this article. Whatever you call the brand of metal that Shadows Fall makes and whether or not there have been a million annoying copycats since these Massachusetts natives released their first album in 1997, Shadows Fall helped invent this kind of music and they are still the best at it. Threads of Life is exactly what you would expect from Shadows Fall — aggressive thrash riffing and Swedish death-metal inspired guitar interplay underneath Brian Fair’s assortment of screams, singing, and something halfway in between the two — only this time the band has refined their songwriting abilities even further and lets their ’80s hair metal influences hang out even more. Fans who were worried that the Shads’ jump to major label Atlantic Records would alter their sound for the worst, fear not; this is precisely the album you would expect, and hope for, from Shadows Fall.
After toiling in the metal underground for much of the late ’90s and early ’00s, Shadows Fall scored some recognition in 2002 with The Art of Balance (Century Media) which netted them a slot on the 2003 Ozzfest tour. Their 2004 release The War Within found the band refining their sound and really put Shadows Fall on the map just as the genre they helped bring to America started to experience widespread success. Brian Fair and co had one album left on their deal with Century Media before they could be let go, so rather than try to buy their way out of the contract the label released Fallout From the War, a surprisingly solid collection of B-Sides, re-recorded old songs, and covers.
Threads of Life is chock full of songs that would have fit in quite nicely on The War Within. The album opens with the lead single “Redemption” followed by “Burning the Live” which are as good as anything the band has previously written. Combining aggressive American thrash and Swedish twin leads with melodic choruses, this is what these guys do best. “Just Another Nightmare” and album closer “Forevermore” follow in this vein with a pummeling double-bass assault and relentless guitar riffing.
“Another Hero Lost” is a big departure for the band that will undoubtedly cause some of their core fans to cry “sellout.” To thee I say this: you can go fuck yourselves. This is a power ballad of the highest order, and is one of the best songs the band has ever written. My first thoughts upon hearing this song were “I Remember You” and “18 and Life” from Skid Row’s debut album, or even “Wasted Time” from Slave to the Grind, and no one would dispute the heaviness of the latter. But the lyrical content of the song adds an unexpected twist that is undeniable even to the staunchest of metal purists — the song is not about love but war. “Another Hero Lost” is an ode to a dead soldier who went to Iraq and didn’t come back; and that soldier happens to be Fair’s cousin. Musically this is the perfect song from start to finish; acoustic intro, masterful pre-chorus (and really folks, if Def Leppard taught us anything it’s that IT’S ALL ABOUT THE PRE-CHORUS! “Forever is waiting / The final steps you’re taking / Will soon be buried in the sand”), lead guitar pre-verse solo, masterful without-being-over-the-top chorus, SCORCHING guitar solo… this song’s got it all. In fact the only ’80s power ballad trick the band didn’t pull out of their bag of tricks here is a modulation for the last chorus, a wise move that prevents the song from going over the top. Everything here is in good taste.
Jonathan Donais has elevated his guitar performance to the next level on Threads of Life; nearly every song has a guitar solo, and Donais seems to be the latest in the long line of modern metal guitarists paying tribute to No More Tears-era Zakk Wylde shreddery (see also Rob Arnold’s work on Chimaira’s Resurrection). Those who delight in lightning fast pentatonic runs interspersed with screeching pinched harmonics will wet their pants when they hear this album. It’s also worth noting that drummer Jason Bittner has continued to refine his chops and is undoubtedly one of the more skilled drummers in modern metal.
“Final Call” is a mid-tempo number that again finds the band in their comfort zone, this time adding a pretty typical alt-metal chorus with gang vocals (after another brilliant pre-chorus!) that should net this track some decent radio play if they should choose to release it as their second single. Just hope they don’t axe the guitar solo for the radio version; this is one of the best on the album.
The only gripe I have with this album is sonically speaking. This is to say nothing of the work of producer Nick Raskulinecz’s (Foo Fighters, Rush, Velvet Revolver), who I think did a fantastic job getting stellar performances out of the band members and in helping them develop their songwriting skills. Rather it is the overwhelming presence of auto-tune on Brian Fair’s voice during the clean sung parts that is a huge nuisance. Let’s get this out of the way: Brian Fair is not a good singer, a fact that Brian Fair himself would probably admit. He is at his best while screaming and summoning the spirit of Phil Anselmo, and if I’m not mistaken one of the other band members covered most of the clean sung parts on prior releases. For whatever reason the band decided to let Fair do his own singing this time around, and the result is way less than impressive creating a dire need to use the ever-present auto-tune. The thing about auto-tune is that it’s good for fixing single notes when the recorded performance is close, but when you’re this far off it just sounds robotic and fake. Unfortunately that is the case here, and it really detracts from the listening experience of this album from a sonic standpoint. It can’t be ignored; Fair’s pitch-corrected voice just sounds so doctored that it grates on you like nails on a chalkboard. Otherwise this album sounds amazing and it’s a shame that it’s tainted by these far below par vocals.
Threads of Life a really solid effort from a great band that has proven Shadows Fall not only as innovators in their sub-genre of metal but that they are worthy of continuing to carry the torch of the American New Wave. That having been said, I want to make one thing perfectly clear, and I want it to be known that I am going on record as saying this now, on March 28, 2007: THIS MUST BE THE LAST ALBUM THAT SHADOWS FALL RELEASES THAT SOUNDS LIKE THIS. End of story. With Threads of Life they have taken the sound that they have been developing from the beginning to its logical conclusion, and this must be the end of it if this band hopes to continue to be successful and maintain credibility. Next time around they have to branch out, try some new things, reinvent themselves a little bit and move on to something else that pushes boundaries just like they did in the beginning. There can be no Threads of Life Part II, or to be perfectly honest The War Within Part III. That having been said, this album rocks and you should go buy it the instant it hits the shelves on April 3. You will not be disappointed.
(four out of five horns)
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