Hardcore bands can't live it down. Ever. "Well, it's not as good as _____." That's the response you're likely to get when a band of this variety tries to follow up a breakout record. Just about every time.
Modern Life Is War's Witness was hailed across the board by both fan and critic in 2005, anchored by the band's dark, broodingly black and white style and frontman Jeff Eaton's personal and social reflections. It was considerably "slow" for the genre, a few notches below even the faster tempos of the band's debut, but it was also considerably deeper for it, too. It was nine momentous songs, a practice in restraint that arguably spawned as many followers in the last two years since its release as the band's 2003 debut has in the last four.
Having amassed one of the largest followings in its scene, Equal Vision Records came calling, making arguably its biggest hardcore signing in six years. Cue even more hype. Could one of the smartest, most original and creative bands labelled with such a tag in years deliver?
For the most part, yes.
If nothing else, Midnight in America is easily the band's most diverse effort to date without offering any clichéd surprises that might strike fans as grotesque (upbeat melodic singing, forced metallic sheen, unnecessary breakdowns) when it comes to progressing hardcore acts. That isn't to say the band plays it safe, though.
"Useless Generation" comes sprinting out of the gate with Eaton commencing a furious drum roll with the line "cut through the haze," then finds the band experimenting with strange, bouncy riffs that nearly sound like Dillinger Escape Plan at their most raw and simple foundation. "Fuck the Sex Pistols" is as 1-2-fuck-you as the band have been in some time, blasting through an intense, minute-long middle finger to anyone believing music peaked at any given time in its history. "Stagger Lee" is the band's version of a story about a murderer in 1895, a tale that's already been immortalized in countless songs (initially as blues folk) the past century; the band essentially quotes the St. Louis Globe-Democrat's article at the time word for word, but it's narrated by Eaton convincingly and comes off as a wonderful little experiment.
The few times the band seems to stylistically navel-gaze, it ends up sounding like a perfect, well-executed progression on past tendencies. "Screaming at the Moon," arguably the album's best track, is in the vein of Witness's first third with pulsating, stomping guitar chords, while "Night Shift at the Potato Factory" reels forward with a tempo more reminiscent of My Love, My Way, yet with alternating backup screams that give the song an immediate dynamic. "The Motorcycle Boy Reigns" closes as crushingly as the band has sounded since My Love, My Way's "Breaking the Cycle." "These Mad Dogs of Glory" takes any epic trait from Witness and magnifies it tenfold, the group shouts of the song title may as well being a repeated clip of the Spartans in "300." The title track closes the album, a mid-tempo, mammoth, enthralling piece sparked by the gravelly, demonic growl of cohort and Iowan folky Brooks Strause.
Outside of Dan Yemin, Eaton is still possibly the best lyricist in hardcore, by the way. Not once does he force his "small town" persona despite all the critical celebrations for the expressions of his background, but he doesn't ignore it, either. The dreariness of dead-end working class life and the motivation to find something better is conveyed perfectly in "Night Shift," even when rhymes that sound Dr. Seuss-esque on paper flow in stereo like wine ("Pledge no loyalty to anything but your dreams. / Stuck in a rut. / They'll give you just enough to keep your mouth shut. / Waste of talent. / Daily degradation. / You better get moving kid, cause time's a wastin'").
J. Robbins does his part, finishing Midnight in America with a coating that's not necessarily stone raw, but hardly glossy. He doesn't once interfere with the band's sound, merely soaking it with the gray, gravelly finish they sound so well in.
Midnight in America may not cause as big an influence as the band's past records have, and it may not have not quite as much lasting value as Witness, so granted, the band will likely find themselves to be victims of that above quote. However, they've come as close as possible to eclipsing it, and recorded 11 more songs that would make a perfect addition to their explosive live show. They've also added an album to their catalogue that's as deserving of the accolades they've already received for attempting to usher in a wave of forward-thinking acts in a genre stocked with pure past rehashing.
The Motorcycle Boy Reigns