The success of Siren Song of the Counter Culture, Rise Against's previous album, should have been a surprise, but frankly, I must admit that it wasn't. The single that broke the band was a simple contribution to a little compilation called Punk Goes Acoustic. But even then it was clear that it was a little moment of greatness; a powerful hardcore/punk band channeling their emotion through a simple acoustic song, and when it was re-recorded and released on Siren Song, I knew that it would have an impact.
That's not to say that I even understood what happened when the band left Fat Wreck Chords and signed to Dreamworks; I loved the album that garnered them major label attention, but it seemed too honest, too dark and too real to be force-fed through glamorous MTV singles; they didn't have the striking image of an AFI, or the friendly snottiness of Green Day. But I had faith; the label might try to change them, but I knew they'd refuse, and for the most part, they did.
The one disappointment then, was that they were coupled with a talented hitmaker producer that unfortunately just didn't understand this genre of music. His influence resulted in an album that suffered in small but significant ways as he tried to force the band's gritty Midwestern sound into a slick modern rock package. To their credit, the band managed to keep things somewhat raw despite his influence, but it seemed clear to any fan that something wasn't right. It was a good album, but not as great as Rise Against could be.
With The Sufferer & the Witness, Rise Against has delivered an album that fixes those problems and surpasses Siren Song and their previous best Revolutions Per Minute handily and also expands the band's range without changing their sound. Lyrically and musically, this is a surprisingly dark record, and powerfully single-minded and cohesive. Tim's vocals are at the forefront, delivering scattered snippets of shout-along rage, interspersed through some remarkably strong and anthemic melodies, his voice conveying both abject despondency and earnest hope throughout.
Tracks like "Injection" and "Drones" are perfect ragers, delivered in Rise Against's trademark double-time, replete with apocalyptic imagery derived from very real fears. The first single, "Ready to Fall," with its devastatingly powerful video, is an escalating, complex track with a throat-shredding bridge, and a compelling chorus. Even the album's more unorthodox moments, like the mumbled opening lyrics of "The Approaching Curve," are carried by powerful choruses and an incredibly tight instrumental section.
The next potential single is also the dramatic "Roadside," in which Tim couples his increasingly confident vocals with the stunning voice of Holy Roman Empire's Emily Schambra; it's not an acoustic single and certainly not the graduation day parade of "Swing Life Away," but it's a beautiful song, driven by minimal instrumentation and tasteful use of strings. Closing the album is the anthemic "Survive," which sounds like the best of Revolutions with a shredding guitar riff and warp-speed drumming.
Production is another highlight of the record; having returned home to Bill Stevenson's Blasting Room studios, Sufferer sounds like Rise Against should. It's flawlessly recorded, but never sterile, and in many ways, Stevenson demonstrates how he is really the fifth member of any band he produces. The vocals are solid, guitars are warm and thick, and the rhythm section is driving but never dominant. Listening to Sufferer, it becomes clear how wrong any other producer would be for this band.
In my review of Revolutions, three years ago I commended Rise Against for their ability to convey emotion without succumbing to self-pity; with their ability to be catchy without writing pop songs, and with their reverence to roots steeped in hardcore punk. With Sufferer, the band maintains this virtue, while continuing to evolve as songwriters, musicians and as people. Another incredible effort from one of the finest outfits around today.