Something's gotta give.
In 2013, Beartooth debuted with 'Sick'; a chaotic and furious four-track EP that pulled from some of the best hardcore and metalcore in the business. In short, it was fuckin' sick - pun intended! Then came 2014's 'Disgusting', a solid and emotionally intense LP that confirmed Beartooth was a great new up-and-comer in the scene. But in 2016, sophomore album 'Aggressive' rose to grit its teeth and while not bad, it was just another Beartooth record, really. Nothing that unique about it, with neither it's bark or bite being super memorable. The album's title track was a relentless banger and closer 'King Of Anything' was unforgettable, sure. But the rest of it? Background noise, more or less. Now skipping forward to this month's 'Disease' full-length, the law of diminishing returns is setting in hard for Beartooth. As this is one dastardly average album.
It's not heavier, it's not poppier, and it's not overly different - it's just more of the same. Everything's just so... dulled. Whether it's the breakdowns or mosh sections; the sugary melodic sweetness that hits in the pre-choruses; the Southern-flavored riffs and crunchy guitar tones; the usual chugs, octave parts and bar chords; or how these songs have their second halves merely copy the first half with little change or expansion. (God, that Vow Of Volition "How To Write Like: Beartooth" video is giving me serious flashbacks). There's so little weight to this record as it's a "been there, done that" situation. Tell me why the hell should I care about 'Enemy' or 'Fire' when 'Beaten In Lips' and 'I Have A Problem' are infinitely better tracks? Two better-spoken, meaningful songs that are just a few clicks away from my ears, no less.
'Disease', at its core, is all about the personal inner battles that leading man Caleb Shomo has struggled with mentally in his life. Of course, you could correctly guess that this new record deals with such themes without even hearing it due to two reasons. One: all of Beartooth's prior material dealt with said topics and this band is nothing if not repetitive. Two: this album's artwork of a snake covering a person's eyes is indicative of mental illness and emotional darkness or "evilness" clouding one's mental judgement and their worldview; affecting how they perceive others and themselves. Ergo, the lyrics penned for these new tracks paint tales of personal lows, of trying to stay strong in the face of weakening mental fortitude, and staring down sources of pain - internal or external - to find the 'why?' behind it all. The takeaway here being that mental illness is a disease - that it's an infection, as 'Infected' outlines - and that it's tragically a real killer sometimes.
Despite how personal this record is to Caleb, and even with the album's positive message of finding clarity beyond anxiety and depression, I don't feel a single goddamn thing when I listen to 'Disease'. And I say that as someone who has thought about killing himself more times than he'd ever like to admit; as someone who never saw a future for himself beyond his teen years as he figured he'd have made a 'permanent' decision long before then. Most of these lyrics and their intent may be noble and honest, but that doesn't mean the rest of a songs delivery will make me teary-eyed and praise the band until I'm blue in the face. On top of all that, the actual arrangements and instrumentation here feel incredibly rehashed. Merely sounding like much of the band's prior discography just got cut and pasted right in. Now, Alkaline Trio is one of my all-time favourite bands but even their new album, August's 'Is This Thing Cursed?', was a 75/100 for me. While I didn't think we'd ever get another album from that band, this recent LP fell right in line with what I and many other fans expected from them and their songwriting formula. What I'm getting at is that a record's emotional impact often won't hit as hard when the actual packaging is all-too-familiar. Or in this case with Beartooth's latest, getting really worn out and faded. Simply put, if I'd paid money for 'Disease', and I already owned their last two LPs, I'd be pretty annoyed!
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[caption id="attachment_1103968" align="aligncenter" width="760"] Excluding Caleb, can you name the other four members without looking it up? Something tells me that most people - even fans - cannot. Something also tells me that most people wouldn't care either. [/caption]
Caleb literally built Beartooth from nothing. He damn well made it the success that is now, and I can definitely respect that. Yet on 'Sick' (my favourite Beartooth release) and 'Disgusting', it was still early days. So it made sense that it was only Caleb writing, tracking, producing and mixing everything. However, with a steady and locked-in lineup ever since their first full-length, that creation process has never changed. Mainly as it seemed like the frontman knew what worked and didn't want to deviate from that path; lest he perhaps loses that creative spark that which allows him to begin and finish records. Different people write and create in different ways, absolutely. Yet therein lies the kicker: Caleb doesn't seem to want to do anything differently regarding his writing style. He just wants it to be him - and only him - making the same kind of songs year-in, year-out. As he's stated in their recent making-of videos for 'Disease', it's a really fun process for him. Which is all well and good, but it just seems like it's all stagnated. As we have three Beartooth records with fewer fresh sounds and less interesting takes offered up on each "new" iteration. Now resulting in 'Disease', their most mediocre record to date. As I've said before on KYS, Beartooth is basically just The Caleb Shomo Road Show at this point, which rings true on this LP.
Truth be told, the only difference personnel-wise with 'Disease' is that executive producer and Grammy winner Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Rush) helped engineer it alongside Caleb. But man, you sure could've fooled me with the end result of how these songs sound. (Also, the drum tracks have so much excessive high-end with the cymbals that it physically hurt my ears. I have no idea what happened - whether it's just the record's mix or some weird overtone created with the Haulix stream I was sent - but it ain't pretty).
Lemme put this another way. Imagine having the always-energetic and hard-hitting Connor Denis (ex-Being As An Ocean) keeping time for your band but deciding to record the drums yourself. That's an utter waste of Connor's drumming talents and the resources presented to Caleb. As a drummer myself, if I was in this band, I'd be pretty weirded out about how little my performances played into our latest record. This reminds me so much of how The Fever 333 operates and how it's not really a band, but a project where only one individual - the frontman - is meant to be the star, the face, and the sole voice. In Beartooth's case, everyone else - Connor, rhythm guitarist Kamron Bradbury, bassist Oshie Bichar, and lead guitarist Zach Huston - can hit the bench, it seems. They're all treated like hired guns in a way. I'd love to talk more about these dudes but they don't have a place in this record other than the promo shots and going on tour.
Though, to give the rest of the band the benefit of the doubt, maybe those guys don't want the spotlight? Perhaps they're more than happy for the attention to be squarely focused on Caleb? If that's the case, fair enough! People handle the spotlight differently and some people just don't want to be put under it. But... that's not really conducive towards the band being cohesive or complete unit, is it now? From the outside looking in, letting the rest of the band track their respective parts could take the pressures off Caleb when it's time for new music to be made, thus maybe something that legitimately sounds new? That could be a really good thing, giving the frontman more free time and a less chaotic, less stressful headspace to work within too. He seems to bear so much of the success and failures of the band on his own shoulders; a weight that can't always be easy to carry. Of course, that's just me wanting to see Beartooth actually grow and simply putting an idea out there.
Anyway, let's talk about some of these songs. With an earthy vocal drawl and acoustic guitar strumming, 'Greatness Or Death' opens up the record. If anything, it gives you a real wake-up-call with the massive dynamic range jump felt when the screams and full instrumentals swing together. But that's about as heart-racing or as interesting as the whole song gets. The laughably cringe 'Fire', what with its mixture of radio rock hooks and "aggressive" instrumentals and rather childish lyrics, make it a song I never wish to hear again. 'Believe' is a bright, upbeat and summery-rock anthem about surviving seasonal weaknesses and yearning for escapism; from its major chords, big choruses, stadium-rock guitar solo halfway through, to the kick-kick-snare-flam pattern and "oh-oh-woah-oh" vocal lines during the intro. It's pretty catchy... but so is the flu and I don't want to spend much time with either one, honestly. Look, if Alternative Press is your favourite publication and you think that Warped Tour was the peak of all music, then you'll probably love this song.
Admittedly, the racey and pissed-off 'Used & Abused' is a rare take that makes the tired Beartooth formula seem still workable. It's one of only a two or three songs that I actually enjoyed too, with that confident "I'm not apart of your institution" refrain being dang solid! The fast-paced and guitar-squealing nature of 'Enemy' was fine but overall wasn't a track I loved or hated either way. Which, if you couldn't tell, sums up a lot of this record for me. Then there's 'Manipulation'. This song speaks of breaking free from someone's toxic spell over your own life and is definitely one of the heaviest tracks of the lot. You've got chugs below, octave guitars above, their usual scream-sing-then-scream structure, and more over-used Beartooth hooks where Caleb harmonizes with himself. Aside from the jagged, high-pitched chainsaw-like guitars - which are fuckin' sick - that is heard in the song's breakdown, little else grabs me.
Which is another big issue with this record. There are some decent moments to be had, yes, but that's all they ever are: moments. Another instance of this is the uplifting title track, which has one of the better choruses Beartooth have ever written. Hence why the band repeats the song's chorus to a scary degree across the track's length. I understand that "don't bore us, take us to the chorus" mentality, but this was almost too much, lads. It's quite clear a big sing-along factor was all they wanted and pretty much nothing extra for the song's remaining sections. This is was one of the very first songs written for the record, and I understand what it means to the frontman, but I just do not connect with most of it. I really do hate to say it, but it felt somewhat shallow too.
Then there's the album's worst song, the blunder of ‘Bad Listener’. For an album about looking into oneself to find and address causes of emotional distress and mental illness, this just feels so out of place. It sees Caleb singing about how he'll bang his head until his "brain rots"; that "there's no degree in rock n roll"; and that he isn't deaf, he's "...just a real bad listener". It's one of those eye-rolling "I LIVE FOR ROCK" songs that bands think is cool and endearing when it's not. Cause here’s the thing: rock music dies via complacency. That's why Metallica experiment so much. It’s why Linkin Park wrote six very different records. It’s why Coldplay went beyond the Oasis/Radiohead worship of their first two albums from ‘Viva La Vida…’ onwards. It’s why Arctic Monkeys turned around earlier this year and didn’t release a rock record. (Granted, ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ wasn't very good, but hey, at least it was something different). And it's why no one cares about any AC/DC records from the past two decades. So it’s ironic that Caleb acts like an undying bastion of rock music when all he's opted into is complacency by writing yet another Beartooth song. Chugging riffs, screamed sections, and breakdowns all in their usual places like some kind of template. I also don’t think someone can act like they have clout or that their artistic integrity has been always present when they were apart of one of the most contentious 'crabcore' bands ever: Attack Attack! (‘This Means War’ was the only good thing that band ever did. Y'know it's true).
There is one BIG plus to 'Disease' and that "yes" moment comes in the very last turn of the record. But first, some historical context.
On ‘Disgusting’, the closing track was ‘Sick And Disgusting’; a harrowing curtain-call where following a throttling, darkened hardcore two-and-a-half minutes, ringing feedback and fading amp distortion laid barren a broken Caleb as he decried “dad, I don’t wanna be sick and disgusting”. It was fuckin’ heavy stuff, both musically and lyrically speaking. On ‘Aggressive’, the album concluded with ‘King Of Anything’; a short, gloomy guitar-and-vocal-only piece where Caleb sang eerily over minor chords about his personal growth, his emotional progress and his popularity as a frontman. Via this setup, he lamented the role he’d been put into with Beartooth by the fans, the industry and the media alike. It stripped away all of their formulaic song-writing and figuratively peeled the skin back on the singer to reveal him at one of his most vulnerable moments as an artist. These two key songs also have one big thing in common: their amongst some of Beartooth’s greatest songs!
The same can be said for the final piece of the puzzle for ‘Disease’. ‘Clever’ is actually a great closing song because it subverts what we’ve come to expect from Beartooth in terms of their album sequencings. It's the one song here that I think about when I'm not listening to the record. More than that, it features some great guitar voicings and melodic peaks; genuinely catchy chourses; has real urgency and solid instrumental layering; and also touches on a really nice space between the band’s light-dark/melodic-heavy approach. It’s one of the album’s few moments where Caleb’s lyrics become truly palpable. Here, the frontman talks about how if he’s clever enough with his song-writing and lyrical wording, we'll see he’s gotten better when in actuality, he’s still struggling with his own demons. By using this "revealing the facade" frame, the singer isn’t hiding or pretending to be something he’s not. With 'Clever', he effectively pulls the shades back for us to look inside. He's as honest as ever here whilst forgoing metaphors and speaking directly; whether it's to friends, family or the fans. After a severely less than average ride by this point, ‘Clever’ is like a solid parting gift for those who sat through what was sadly just another Beartooth record. (Oh, look, another statement from yours truly about how Beartooth are stuck in their own formula. How very formulaic of me).
'Disease' will be talked up extensively well by media and reviewers, as the band's fans lap it up without a second thought. Because Beartooth are a really popular band right now; because their kind of audience doesn't ask for anything new from their favourite artists; because the lyrical content Caleb Shomo shares about himself mean that many won't ever criticize the music for fear of being labelled a 'dick'. (When has that ever stopped me, though?) With that in mind, maybe nothing will change when it comes to Beartooth's songwriting formula. After all, if you stick within one particular lane for years and you never grow beyond that until you're suddenly forced to, that change feels phoned-in. Plus, fans sometimes turn their backs on you in harsh manners when you switch shit up. Though I certainly do hope I'm wrong. I sincerely hope that in 18-24 months time I'll be here gushing over a much better new Beartooth release. Truly, Caleb is one damned talented individual, but he can do so much better than what he's put forward on 'Disease'. How do I know that he can do better? Because 'Sick' and 'Disgusting' exist. Because his style of open-hearted lyricism can work so well when not held down by simply retracing what his band has done beforehand.
'Disease' is out September 28th via Red Bull Records.