So the new Stretch Arm Strong album, Free at Last, is upon us. There is, perhaps, only one word that I can use to describe my feelings towards this release: conflicted. SAS has delivered, without a doubt, a solid and very enjoyable album full of screams, hooks and melody galore. Despite this, the reality is that SAS has altered their style considerably from their earlier releases, and for a longtime fan, this is not quite the SAS that I has hoped would re-emerge following their relatively weak 2003 release Engage and a jump to a major label.
It could be that given my love of SAS's fast-beat, quick tempo, melodic, not quite metallic hardcore, I can't give this album quite the fair shake that it deserves. Rituals of Life and Revolution Transmission, are, for many a hardcore fan, stalwarts of their collections. The gut-wrenching yet coherent and understandable scream delivered by Chris McClane on these releases still sends a chill up my spine, especially when I crank my stereo volume up to 25. While on many of the songs of Free at Last the scream remains, the tempo has slowed somewhat and the fast-beat drumming that got my blood flowing those many times is, for the most part, gone. While exceptions exist, as on the excellent fifth track, "To the End" (not coincidentally, my favorite song on the album), minor breakdowns combined with a slower pace are abound on many songs, such as the sixth track, "When All Else Fails." Other great songs can be heard on the record, especially the killer single, "The Sound of Names Dropping," one of Stretch Arm Strong's best, "Faces," the third song, and "(This May Be In Fact) As Good as It Gets," the eleventh track.
Despite the general pace-slowing, it could very well be said that SAS have ventured into a new realm of more inventive, original songwriting. Generally, the songs have a more complex feel than those found on earlier releases. I often found myself hearing traces of Snapcase, and even occasionally Hot Cross. This is not to say that the album is consistent throughout; in fact, a few of the later songs on the album come across as relatively weak, including surprisingly, the original single, "Landslide," the ninth song, and the last song, an acoustic track entitled "A Time for Peace." While calling them filler would be terribly unfair, the imbalance in quality between these and earlier tracks is uncomfortably apparent. Production too, I feel, is not quite what it could have been. While generally solid, I simply feel that the guitars could just use some turning up, a problem I've heard on a few recent hardcore releases (the latest from Bane comes to mind.)
Lyrically, SAS remains as strong as ever. Their tradition of positive, passionate lyrics continues as the listener truly gets the impression that SAS has been through a lot in their long-running existence as a band. McClane consistently encourages the listener the take heart, especially in tough situations.
The ultimate verdict? This album cuts just in between good and great. While SAS have, without a doubt, produced their most mature album to date, it doesn't (and perhaps nothing could) stand up the greatness that is A Revolution Transmission. I want to love, cherish and embrace Free at Last as a milestone achievement for the band, but I just can't quite bring myself to do it. Definitely pick this up if you are a fan, you won't regret it, but bear in mind that isn't quite the SAS of the old days. Seven out of 10.