In one word: epic. But in its attempts at becoming the overarching, multifaceted punk record to close up the decade, Anti-Flag's The Bright Lights of America expands their own musical horizons but merely enforces the musical quo of all things past and present.
Endless ambition, flawless execution, timeless presentation? No, not really.
The overtly ambitious musical drive of Anti-Flag's sophomore major label full-length dissolves any sentiments that reach out to the common man or the disenfranchised teen to drive political and social change, unlike their previous releases. Coming from one who thinks that Anti-Flag was at the height of their career with The Terror State but didn't take much from For Blood and Empire, I feel that A-F bit off more than they could chew. When I first heard that this album would expand and include timpanis, classical interludes and chanting children (the voice of tomorrow?), I was intrigued, but just after listening to the first track, "Good and Ready," Anti-Flag appear above me on an Iron Maiden scale stage backed by Metallica's S&M orchestra, parading for the people.
The experimentation on this album is without a doubt interesting, but incredibly blatant and questionable. It also begs the question: What were the influences while writing this album? While on prior albums, Anti-Flag enlist the impressions of Billy Bragg, Woody Guthrie, Joe Strummer, etc., here the influences are entirely contemporary. Whether it's the uppity Against Me! rhythms of "If You Wanna Steal," the Strike Anywhere melodies of "Spit in the Face," or the horn, harmonica, organ and violin motif from bands like Defiance, Ohio or Fake Problems, listen up: Anti-Flag is invoking the voice of today to inspire…well, the voice of today.
If the ambition on the album isn't enough to exhaust you, the execution and production will proceed to put you on your knees. Filled with bass booms, lo-fi to heavy and compressed transitions, the disparity of light and dreamy from heavy and brooding on this album is draining. The instrumentation builds on the standards, but attempts to purvey more than its worth. The dichotomous guitar work between left and right channels has a tendency to create depth and demonstrate teamwork through valiant composition, but with Bright Lights it is, at times, frustrating and harmful to unity.
Anti-Flag puts forth 110% on this opus of a recording, but it fails to create any lasting meaning or evoke any new ideas. In 1998 we witnessed and participated in The Shape of Punk to Come's provocative sound and energy, in 2006, we admired the modesty and honesty of Hidden World, both contemporary albums that stand the test of time. Here we have an album trying its hardest to work away from its peers and closer to godliness. With morally divine chanting children to infinitely wise and inspirational political soundbites, Anti-Flag overshoots the moon and lands back on Earth promoting MySpace Secret Shows on an RIAA-affiliated label. This is not the next 13-Point Program..., Axl Rose has not been re-reinvented, nor was anything damaged -- this is just four guys finding their own path to personal achievement and self-preservation, a commonplace but commendable act.