I fell in love with Rise Against in the middle of college, during the height of the Bush era. To say it was similar to the political climate of today seems quaint, but I remember the boiling of my blood at the discussion of laws to ban gay marriage, of the sick feeling of being in war or watching the economy catch flame. The Sufferer & The Witness was the first album I had ever heard that took a deep dive into politics (not counting my beloved American Idiot). Appeal to Reason and Siren Song of the Counter Culture quickly became new favorites.
The band released three albums during the Obama years (counting a B-Side album). But I can’t say that I listened to them more than a couple of times, and I stopped listening to their older works almost entirely. I don’t have a reason – it could be that I had gotten tired of ‘revolting’, that they started to sound mainstream or the idea of revolutionary punk rock seemed old hat.
Wolves, the band’s newest release came out over a month ago. I picked up a copy on release day, and didn’t listen to it for weeks. Again, I don’t have a reason other than politics these days is a maddening topic, and the idea of listening to rebel songs when the entire world seems up in arms just feels draining.
I listened to Wolves on a road trip, once our other albums had run out, after I had read some ironically hilarious news about an unfortunate meeting the president’s son had last year. Wolves won me back almost instantly. The hooks were less alternative, and screamed of the raging punk aesthetic I originally loved about the band. More than that, it revived my interest in Rise Against completely. From their first album through Wolves, they are the only band I have been listening to, even the albums I never originally went back to. It’s as though I am listening to the band for the first time again.
So why the change? Wolves is a great record, and feels like a return to basics in many ways. There isn’t as much of an alternative edge to it as The Black Market, instead falling back to a more ‘classic’ style punk. The politics aren’t as razor sharp or as damning as they could be given the last seven months. Instead, this is all common practice, as vocalist Tim McIlrath sings , “Stand by to switch on / We fire on all pistons / We’re singing along but no one is listening / From dusk until dawn, we stay up to carry the flame”, on “Mourning in Amerika”.
Throughout their discography, Rise Against maintain the same themes they have had since at least Siren Song, which is railing against injustice and singing ahead of the army as it grows. During the Bush era, when the news made me red with rage, the lyrics from “Bricks” (Sufferer) rang with me: “We’re setting the fires to light the way / We’re burning it all to begin again / With hope in our hearts, and bricks in our hands / We sing for change”.
To say I was pleased with Obama’s America wouldn’t be entirely accurate, but the fire of anger didn’t burn in me. Rise Against’s fury and rebellion didn’t excite me, because it wasn’t needed. I became much more introspective, obsessing over new waves of punk like The Wonder Years. I rediscovered old favorites that I had set aside because they seemed childish when compared to the political climate (Homegrown and The Ataris). As the Occupy movement climaxed, and Black Lives Matter took to the streets, Rise Against felt redundant, almost unneeded. Why should I listen to rebellion when I am seeing it? Why listen to anthems against oppression when it seemed like Obama was more or less on my side?
Maybe it’s because I hadn’t been as into the band as I had been in youth, but it felt like Rise Against weren’t as effective or as evocative during progressive times. The fight doesn’t seem as just, because the message is already being heard. But in the Trump era, it seems like every hour there is something new to be mad about or annoyed at, someone else perverting the country while the rest of the world leads. There is constantly something else to laugh at because sometimes, that is all that’s left.
All the while, Rise Against sang on.
Perhaps it is personal opinion, or a minor slump in their writing or just that songs of rebellion sound petty when the world seems like it could be on the upward tick. It would have been simple, maybe even beneath them to attack the Trump administration with the rage and venom that Rise Against is fully capable of. Wolves doesn’t go out of its way to attack in the same way that “State of the Union” (Siren Song) does, or tackle hard topics like euthanasia (“Injection”, Sufferer), which poked at the heart of morality.
Where Wolves finds its strength is reminding us that although this administration may seem extreme, it is still just politics. But the country seems awake now and ready to resist. Wolves feels like a culmination of the message the band has spent their career leading the march towards. For a band nearly two decades deep, the album seems to relish in the basics. The guitars are loud, but practical. Sonically, this could have been any one of their earlier albums. The production is flatter than Sufferer or Endgame.
The difference is that is that for what feels like the first time in my lifetime, the country is actually standing at attention and actively watching the world. The message doesn’t have to be as cutting or dramatic, because the people are actually pushing back. Whereas a rallying cry on older albums felt like wishful liberal thinking, lyrics like, “We are the wolves at the gate, our numbers growing everyday, yeah ./ You can’t fight us all, no / You can’t fight”, (“Wolves”) feel more charged and dangerous than they ever could have before.
The Russia scandal and sea of constantly updating news makes a song like “Bullshit” something that has a weight it wouldn’t have had 10 years ago. “But this is bullshit / It’s finally coming into focus / You’re lying and I think you know it but you’re too afraid / To face the storm you helped create / Yeah, this is bullshit / And did you think I wouldn’t notice? / Cracks in your theory are showing like a broken vase / Your grip around me dissipates”.
I meant to review Wolves when it came out, but I just couldn’t; the idea of investing in anything remotely more political than necessary just seemed like masochism. But this album isn’t a political hit piece. It’s a reminder that Rise Against have preached the same message for years about not tolerating injustice and recognizing the fight for culture. The difference is that this time, it seems like the country is listening. I am listening.
And on they’ll sing.
by Kyle Schultz
Kyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and just watched his cat throw up on a pillow… Cuz why make sick on something easy to clean?