Album Review: While She Sleeps - 'So What?'

29 April 2019 | 11:53 pm | Alex Sievers
Originally Appeared In

That's an accurate album title.

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On March 1st, While She Sleeps released their fifth LP, 'So What?' Despite it being out now for almost two months, it sounds and feels somewhat dated. Not for the band's lack of trying, however!

If you've heard the previous two Sleeps records, then you know what you're in for, just now there's some added instrumental elements and plenty more sing-alongs. I've seen writers talk about how WSS seemed to have taken note of Bring Me The Horizon's drastic changes and chosen to be more measured and slower in their style shifts; slowly bringing in larger vocal arrangements, providing more melody, and getting a little 90's or electronic at times but still having cool riffs and heavy breakdowns. While that's true, things could've gone a little further in their instrumental and stylistic additions. More so than the band mixing their usual hooky, melodic metalcore in with not-so-subtle nu-metal influences. Which goes up and down in quality across 'So What?', from 'solid' to 'just kinda there'.

The melodic guitar leads and hymn-like female vocalisations at the start, middle, and end of 'The Guilty Party' are a really nice touch. As are the cleaner guitars and soft singing heard in 'Good Grief', along with those down-pitched spoken word parts. Elsewhere, notice the samples and poppy, pitched-up vocals under-pinning the tight grooves on 'Inspire', or even the rapping mid-section heard in said song that begets a riffy breakdown attack. Those hard-tuned vocals during 'Back of my Mind' also must get a solid mention. Then, check out those short-lived, snappy little drum breaks on 'Haunt Me' and 'Gates Of Paradise' (excluding the latter's string parts). And don't forget about that awesome but criminally brief eight-measure section in 'Anti-Social' where massive choral vocals merge with racey riffs and brutal double kicks around 3:17, let alone the wicked breakdown mere moments later after the 3:44 mark.

Thing is, while these changes work well, they're confounded with odd structural decisions. For instance, 'Elephant' should've ended right at 3:07, but just continues on in a superfluous manner with another EQ'd guitar rise until the band repeat themselves again. 'Back Of My Mind' has a rapping guest feature from Griffin Dickinson and it comes after an urgently-paced chorus that would've made for a better end. Except said guest spot becomes another excuse for a riff-china combo and a breakdown that adds nothing. (Lawrence "Loz" Taylor screams "bang your fucking head" during that finale and it's as awkward as it sounds.) The title track has this pop-rock intro, with vocals from guitarist Mat Welsh singing about getting outside of one's comfort zone, before it abruptly ends, acting as some false-start before WSS do what they normally do. It would've worked much better kicking the track off with Loz's part. I understand having a bait-and-switch introduction, but it didn't help the larger song.

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Lyrically, excluding songs about insomnia like 'Back Of My Mind' and speaking about a communal-coming-together, 'So What?' is a whole lot  words to say nothing at all. (*Insert self-deprecating jab about how that's all my reviews are*.) It's an album trying too hard to be this politically-charged, free-thinker, but it never feels organic, despite the band coming from an honest place. 'So What?' parades out various in-vogue comments about the state of the world, with many timely comments made on corrupted governments, flawed systems, toxic social media, finding "the truth", a lack of facts, how money talks, and so on. Yet it never says anything that new or interesting in terms of these wider issues. We all know shit's royally fucked and that it could go tits up at any moment, but we don't need a new Sleeps albums to tell us that. I'm not going to change the world, but neither will this album. Ironic, as that's what the band get at with the lyrics in 'Haunt Me', so at least they're self-aware.

It seems like Sleeps want this album to wake people up, as if it's some kind of provocative 90s rock album, almost like their own Rage Against The Machine release. The album's cover of a red question mark spray-painted over a white amp supports this; these guys wishing to use their music and art to question the world around them. An idea that could work wonders, but that ain't the case here. That's definitely not to say artists cannot get political - I actually fully encourage that - but it needs to specific, lest it feel too generalised.

A great example of a record specifically pointed and politically-motivated, about many topics, and one that's also a killer listen, is Anti-Flag's 2006 career-peak, 'For Blood And Empire'. I also mentioned this in my recent post about Hacktivist's 'Reprogram', but there are volatile political situations brewing in the U.K. currently where WSS hail from. Honing in on those issues, whether written after the fact or not, would've perhaps gifted this record with more lyrical weight and therefore more legs. Because what's their big statement here? "I'm not anti-social, I'm just anti-bullshit" and "thank fuck for headphones". How profound.

Guitarist Sean Long's personal lyrics about mental health and various individual life hurdles intermingle frequently with socio-political platitudes, like on 'Good Grief', the lighter-sounding 'Set You Free' and 'Elephant'. However, the messages just get kinda muddled at times. Picking one or the other route may have been a far better option for the lyrical direction given that the political musings don't offer much. As balancing the two together then lacks the strength and pointed nature of following either thematic path all the way through to its end. Sean also stated in the album's press release that: "I don’t want to be following everyone else; I want people to follow us." Which is woefully ironic given this album's lyrical content. So long as they're fans of the new album, right guys?

WSS also couldn't help but slip in a 'Killing In The Name' reference during 'Gates Of Paradise' with Loz hastily screaming "fuck you, I won't do what you tell me". Because of course. Honestly, 'So What?' is an album that metalcore and hardcore kids will listen to in order to feel like they're changing the world or staying informed without doing anything.

While I do take some umbrage with parts of the pre-release talk from Sean and the band, the dude really does upkeep an insane guitar output across these 11 new songs. His serrated, energetic riffs litter this record well enough, as do his clean tapping, vibrato, little bends, and pedal-affected runs. His guitar work is easily one of it's few yet strongest highlights. It's a big saving grace, injecting real life into so-so songs like 'Anti-Social' and 'Haunt Me'. However, contrary to what some may think, riffs aren't quite everything.

Loz utilises his usual snarl and bark, but it's noticeable that vocal chord issues and surgeries have sorely affected his timbre and projection. Which is a real shame, as his vocals were once such a huge driving force behind WSS's songs. No better is this heard then in 'Dead Behind The Eyes'. Loz's performance at this year's Unify Gathering is also proof of that deterioration, as he almost sounds like he's in pain at times. It may really take some time for him to adapt to his "new" voice.

Yet that's the weirdest part about 'So What?', as while Loz is the band's frontman, he's the second best vocalist in the group. As Mat provides some great vocal hooks, often over-shadowing the energy of Loz, and he drives the song's forward so much. Mat's vocal performance is another rare yet strong saving grace of the album. And I must give him props for his vocal evolution in the band too, going from simply doing back-up screams during the 'The North Stands For Nothing' and 'This Is The Six' days, to now being an integral part of their sound. Props, man.

In terms of the melodies and hooks, Sleeps do knuckle down on some huge gang vocals and sing-alongs; moments that do sadly become cheap by the end. This seems like a response to 'You Are We', in them trying to make things feel more hopeful than that album's depressive tone. At first, this method is totally fine. For instance, that gargantuan "I've seen it all, show me your sins" vocal hook during second track, 'I've Seen It All', is one of the album's best choruses. However, the band just keep on cramming these gang vocals in, seemingly not knowing when to stop. Once the second half of the record ticks over, it starts to lose all of its impact.

I truly respect where While She Sleeps have taken their band as a business in recent years. They successfully crowd-funded 2017's 'You Are We', they built their own studio where they brought 'So What?' to life, and they partnered up with Spinefarm Records instead of signing with them as their now under their own label, Sleeps Brothers. However, I'm not here to review the band's DIY business practices nor how they operate the band: I'm here to talk about this new album for what it is. Which is what makes me so torn: I have a lot of love and respect for these guys, but 'So What?' just doesn't go anywhere. And no, Sean Long's mostly killer riffs, Mat Welsh's strong vocal performance and some new genre additions can't save it's inconsistent pace, Loz's failing voice, odd structures, or meandering lyrical offerings.

Going over 'So What?' is like watching a film that has rare scenes you enjoy; cool little moments here and there. Yet the sum of it's parts don't come together to the point where you can say that you liked it overall. While I give the band real credit for trying out new things (most of which go down well), all I can really say about this new While She Sleeps LP is "yeah, so what?"

1. Anti-Social

2. I've Seen It All

3. Inspire

4. So What

5. The Guilty Party

6. Haunt Me

7. Elephant

8. Set Me Free

9. Good Grief

10. Back Of My Mind

11. Gates Of Paradise

'So What?' is out now via Sleeps Brothers/Spinefarm Records.