After significant hype regarding this album and a hosted stream on this very website, I was surprised that there wasn’t a review of this album submitted right away. I chalk this up to how much of a departure this record represents from the band’s previous material and a high degree of what might be termed as “you have to listen to it a few times to get it” syndrome. Regardless, this release represents one of the most interesting and enjoyable efforts released so far this year.
The band's previous material was essentially a melodic take on fast East Coast hardcore. Here, the band embraces keyboards, handclaps, sing-alongs, and more than a few Latin-influenced moments. Instead of Dag Nasty and Gorilla Biscuits, it’s the Smiths and the experimentalism of later-era Crime in Stereo. In some ways it reminds me of Saves the Day’s transition from Through Being Cool to Stay What You Are, with the lessening of distortion and greater emphasis on melody over simply raw energy.
That said, Hostage Calm still knows how to play to its strengths. The guitar playing is still creative and performed flawlessly while the drums stay busy and powerful but always within in the confines of the song. With the new emphasis on songwriting and lighter moments, the bass is given more chances to stand out and the bass player Tim Casey fills his adjusted role admirably. For a punk or hardcore band, Hostage Calm is extremely well-rounded.
One concern regarding this metamorphosis might be the vocalist, Chris Martin. While I liked his vocals on their last album Lens, it was much more of a shouting hardcore approach than straight-up singing. There have been quite a few hardcore vocalists who have made the switch over the years and while many fail, Martin has pulled off the jump. He has a unique voice, one that wouldn't be considered a classically “great voice,” but I’ll always take personality over the choir-boy perfection of bands like Cartel.
As usual with Hostage Calm, the political aspects of lyrics are front and center, although a little toned down and less literal than in previous efforts. “Ballots/Stones” takes its chorus lyrics (“Did you cast a ballot or a stone?”)from a picket sign protesting California’s recently defeated Proposition 8 while “Rebel Fatigues” looks at American wars from the perspective of the other side. Beyond that, Martin does tackle more personal issues including the difficulty of distance between loved ones (“Victory Lap”), the pains of letting go of adolescence (“Jerry Rumspringer”), and the difficulties of growing up between divorced parents (“Affidavit”). As with Lens, this release is another worth actually reading the lyrics along with the record.
As far as the songs go, there are a few clear standouts. The aforementioned “Ballots/Stones” features a keyboard laden Latin groove that wouldn't sound out of place on a Smiths or Clash record. The closer, “War on a Feeling” is one of the most straightforward tracks on the record and features a great melody over top a simple major-key chord progression. The multi-layered vocals work well and the energy of the song builds all the way until the end.
Hostage Calm’s new sound should still appeal to the band’s old fans but should also pique the interests of fans of bands that take more chances with punk rock like Gatsbys American Dream, newer Crime in Stereo, or even Brand New. Few bands will branch out this much this year, and this record deserves a solid chance from listeners.