THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT, FOR NOW
Say what you will about Victory Records – and chances are you have, even if you’re in a band that was once on Victory – but it’s hard to find a label with a better sense of marketing and a better understanding of its audience. Its lasting success can of course be attributed to its decision to move away from the buzz cuts ‘n’ bros hardcore on which the label was initially focused and releasing albums of mutated ‘core (post-hardcore, metalcore and later deathcore) and fringe genres that the hardcore kids could grasp on to (third wave ska, indie rock, emo, etc.). A label that can run an ad on MTV2 for Hawthorne Heights, Aiden, and Silverstein one minute and another for BTBAM, Darkest Hour, and Emmure the next is one dedicated to survival, even in an increasingly splintered music climate.
Of course, Victory’s bigness also can lead to big bands getting signed, not the best, and my impression of Victory bands at this point are the commercials they’d air on Headbanger’s Ball a few years ago (before it started airing at 3:45 AM), with floppy haired metalcore bands sounding like slight variations of each other (plus that record where Darkest Hour decided to start fucking singing). So when Vince Neilstein offered me a trifecta of new Victory releases, my schadenfreude gear kicked in immediately upon seeing the names of the bands included in it (Arise and Ruin, Within the Ruins, and Wretched: a smattering of generic ‘core names for sure!) and knowing that the label was most likely interested in deathcore – as that’s what our teenagers are interested in, and they somehow have 89% of the nation’s disposable income. So it was with this in mind that I dove into the project, fully prepared to have triggered bass drums and breakdowns make me twitch by the end.
I wanted more than anything to dislike Wretched, admittedly for no other reason than to throw out some pithy line like “Wretched truly live up to their name” or “Wretched picked the right named for their brand of Wal-Mart deathcore.” (I’m especially mad I don’t get to use the last one.) But, alas, Wretched aren’t bad at all – just often middling, and usually dropping really good, interesting riffs or textures into a mix of reheated Dead to Fall metalcore. One of Wretched’s biggest issues – perhaps the issue with deathcore’s less offensively horrible bands as a whole – is a lack of cohesion: they’re not great at transitioning from part to part, or building off of other good parts. The band’s biggest problem, though, is there willingness to rely on tried and true means (most often stock metalcore and deathcore riffs segueing into generic breakdowns) than expanding on some of the really interesting ideas – little modal tremolo-picked riffs and interesting bits of Psyopus- or Necrophagist-grade technical death – they sit on for 20 seconds before jumping haphazardly into something else. The instrumental title track is where things admittedly get interesting, but it takes 8 essentially interchangeable songs to get there, then is followed by one more and a bloodless instrumental outro; one must wonder why the band didn’t focus their compositional prowess for the rest of the album to boil away the We’re Signed to Victory Records! fat to a bare bones metal record. The Exodus of Autonomy – their full length debut – isn’t so much bad as it is a document of something that could have been much better.
The problem that already starts to surface with The Exodus of Autonomy (perhaps another entry into the unintentionally hilarious Hardcore Faux-Intelligent Gibberish Album Title Hall of Fame?) is the ratio of necessary and/or good breakdowns to actual breakdowns. I counted two – TWO – breakdowns over the course of Exodus that were at all different from every other breakdown I’ve heard since hardcore kids started stealing their big brothers’ Suffocation and At the Gates records a decade ago. This would not be an issue if every song didn’t have an average of two breakdowns in it. As the Chinese proverb goes: if a good breakdown occurs after a dozen or so by-the-numbers ones, is it even a good breakdown at all?
That problem doesn’t plague Massachusetts’ Within the Ruins as much, but it does begin to seep in to the second half of Creature, the band’s full length Victory debut. But even here, it isn’t as boredom-inducing or lazy. The record, while certainly not a genre defining behemoth by any means, manages to perhaps pull off the impossible: a fun deathcore record. While bands like Whitechapel execute their Deicide-with-breakdowns approach with a straight face, Within the Ruins are surprisingly nimble, stopping on a dime (often in mid riff) and also owing quite a bit to Arsis’ technical melodic death metal. Though, this doesn’t mean they resort to kitschy samples, divergences into cheesy music, or a hundred genres spliced together, as many of the genre’s lesser wise-asses tend to do; they’re certainly not a joke band. But the band tweak the hallmarks of metalcore and deathcore just enough to make it sound interesting, with an interesting riff and, yes, breakdown thrown into the mix as well. The band’s busy, shredtastic guitarists and versatile drummer manage to keep things satisfying throughout the record as well. Creature is easily my favorite record of the three.
Venturing over to Arise and Ruin’s Night Storms Hail Fire after Creature was almost nausea-inducing in stylistic difference. While Wretched and Within the Ruins were at least somewhat linked in terms of tech-death and breakdowns (not to mention the letter “w”), Arise and Ruins’ grimy hardcore seemed to be a whole different game altogether. A lot of this can be attributed to Hail Fire’s production, which at best makes the CD’s breakdowns like misanthropic shove fests instead of triggered calls for the hoodies-and-girl-jeans kids to get into the pit and at worst obscures some of the band’s riffs into an indecipherable mess of down tuned picking. The latter comes in especially on Hail Fire’s d-beat heavy first half, which while occasionally exciting, often devolves into a mush of same-y forward propulsion. The album gets interesting when things slow down, though, like when the band settles confidently into a mean, sludgy groove on “A Heavy Dose” or a discordant, mid-paced trot on “In Death.” Night Storms Hail Fire is a bit inconsistent, and it’s hard to tell which side to root for (the band’s fast side could be more interesting if it was cleaned up a little, while it’s hard to say if an entire CD of the band’s sludgy slowness could hold its own). But the album is pretty decent even despite that, sounding mean while many of their deathcore contemporaries just sound cranky.
My initial disdain of the Victory trio proved to be a letdown, in that none of the records were bad. The label’s decision to expand from its hardcore roots a decade or so ago still proves to be a wise decision, as Wretched and Within the Ruins are certainly have the chops to become big figures in deathcore, and Arise and Ruin are great, dirty metalcore with potential. Of course, whether the aforementioned chops and potential will amount to anything remains to be seen. With deathcore’s warp speed trip to oversaturation and metalcore’s decision to buy a condo in oversaturation in 2005 or so, it’s hard to tell if bands with names like Wretched, Within the Ruins, and Arise and Ruin can do enough to set themselves apart from the badly tattooed metal flock. But they’re on Victory Records, which means they have a leg up on most of them. Now if only there were a way to find out which, if not all, of these will wind up in the discount bin at Hot Topic in 4 years or so.
Wretched’s The Exodus of Autonomy:
(2 1/2 out of 5 horns)
Within the Ruins’ Creature:
(3 out of 5 horns)
Arise and Ruin’s Night Storms Hail Fire:
(3 out of 5 horns)