Wolves at the Gate: The Message of Rise Against

rise_against

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_catKyle 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?

“The Rock Stage is WHERE?” Riot Fest 2014 – Day 1

RiotFest

All things considered, Riot Fest is one of the best music festivals in North America. The few cities to host it bring in the biggest names in rock, along with the festive atmosphere that only brightly lit carnival rides can muster. It’s an incredible journey that traverses decades of influence, drawing bands just as famous now as they were twenty years ago, much less bands currently on fire. And the first day of it was arguably quite miserable. There’s a saying that it’s not punk rock without mud, and Riot Fest was muddy as shit.

Prior to the gates even opening, the rain had fallen for hours to varying degrees. Paired with a cold wind and the rapidly falling temperatures of a Midwest autumn, the evening became the coldest night in months. By the end of the night I was decked out in two shirts, two hoodies and a last minute purchased rain poncho that offered no protection from the weather.

Due to unforeseen circumstance, I was unable to arrive until later in the evening, able to see just a couple of acts and get a feel for the grounds. I am obviously not aware of what led to the planning of the festival and what led it to be held on the other half of Humboldt Park this year, but it was a poor substitute for last year’s layout.

A year ago, the stages were further apart but the grounds were an open sandbox that allowed attendees to find their own path to any part of the park. It allowed for people to see the differing stages from multiple views without the bands stepping on each others sound while the merch tables and beer stands were to the sides and out of the way. The only things to possibly get in the way were the carnival rides facing the main stages.

While this part of Humboldt was definitely bigger, the layout was way more haphazard. Instead of an open layout, there was a clear arcing path alongside the outside of the given area, as a majority of the inner part was a large pond. The main stages were closer together so that it was easier to camp out and enjoy an area for large portions of the day, but maneuvering was considerably difficult.

The main entrance was alone at one end, away from everything and requiring a several minute walk just to see the first stage. Food carts lined the arched outer area, which meant that they were all together for convenience, but directly in the way of the main lanes of foot traffic. In order to avoid this, you were forced to walk through the crowds of the bands playing. Anyone hurrying to see a headliner would find themselves stuck in needless gridlocks of people for minutes at a time due to the few congested pathways.

The stages so close together made it simple if you were planning to stand in one place all day, but making your way to a stage could be problematic, as the areas for the bands was smaller because oftentimes half of the given area was taken up by people waiting for  the next band thirty minutes away. This wasn’t necessarily the case all the time, but I found it an issue while trying to jump between acts.

The night wasn’t without its merits though: Rise Against were pretty sweet. As one of the headliners, they took over one of the stages at the far end of the festival. The weather did little to stifle the energy of the bands that evening but being in their hometown of Chicago, Rise Against laughed it off on stage. Their set toured throughout their discography, spending the largest amount of time with songs from The Sufferer and the Witness before inviting Fat Mike from NOFX onstage to play a couple of Ramones songs. They were sadly all I managed to spy with my little eye.

While opening night felt miserable, the energy rewarded anyone willing to brave the storm and lay the foundation for the next two days. The mud would dry and the rain gave way to warm sun and cool breezes, a vast contrast to the brutal sun of Warped Tour. The grounds proved trickier to manage than in years past but ultimately not much of a trial for the persistent. Riot Fest brought autumn to the Midwest in epic fashion.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle 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 was stuck in rush hour traffic for two goddamned hours the opening night of Riot Fest. Please make voodoo dolls of him.

Review: Rise Against – The Black Market

rise_against

The Black Market can be a difficult album to digest. On first listen, I thoroughly enjoyed it; it sounded like a classic Rise Against album with a heavier punk influence than their last couple of efforts. On the other hand, after my first listen through, I felt like the songs had blended together into a single noise. For anyone not paying attention, The Black Market can be just an average punk album. For anyone looking closer, they’ll find the album that harkens to Rise Against’s highest highs as songwriters.

The Black Market sounds like the album that should have come immediately after The Sufferer & The Witness. The more commercially influenced sound of Appeal to Reason and Endgame don’t play has heavily on this record. The guitars are heavy, loud, and fast. The waves and walls of power chords crush song after song without taking a breather until late in the album. It’s clear that Rise Against are at their best when playing quick and frantically. The production appears to be toned down to make the whole endeavor a bit harsher and dirtier than anything they’ve put out in almost a decade.

This is also the biggest detraction from the album. With such a concise sound to the record, it can be easy for the songs to blend together over time. The writing is superb, but the formula seems to be chronic: heavy punk rock, slower tempo for the chorus and repeat. While the return to a classic styled sound is welcome, it heavily lacks the experimentation and range that a band seven albums into their career should be exploring. Depending on your preference, this will either make it a great Rise Against album, or a mediocre one.

That’s not to take anything away from the powerhouse songs that line the album. “The Eco-Terrorist In Me” is a classic RA song that demands a spot amongst the best songs in the band’s discography. The pummeling rhythm allows for McIlrath to explore his full vocal range from full on screaming to the grunge-crooning he made famous over haunting gang vocals. It’s also a great excuse for the lead guitar to let loose when given the chance.

“The Black Market” lays down some harsh rhythm guitars that slow and turn the song into a jam that ultimately slows slightly to an intimate chorus. While “Tragedy + Time” is a fantastic song that shows the band touching their pop punk side, it feels out of place against the heavy theme of the album and risks pulling you away from the record. “Zero Visibility” is a jam of a song, combining the heavy melody with McIlrath’s shouting chorus, which eventually gives way for a killer guitar solo.

A lot has been said about the lyrical direction of The Black Market and that it focuses on the personal struggles much more than the political atmosphere, as with the rest of the band’s discography. While I may be misreading the lyrics, the only real difference between the lyrical angle of this album and the others is that TBM seems much more generalized instead of focusing on specific political issues.

Opener “The Great Die-Off” sets the dark tone for the album, with a raging chorus of “We want it all and we want it now, tonight I watched your fires burn out.” “Bridges” rages with loud verses of “The very same roads that we now wander, Who once you pass us by on, We paved with our bare hands.” The generalized lyrics don’t carry the same weight as a classic song like “Injection”, but the anger and rage remain all the same.

McIlrath manages to touch upon topics closer to the vest, but they’re equally vague. It’s refreshing, since Rise Against have never really had an album offering personal insight and tragedies, which makes hearing it all the more refreshing. The verses of “Time + Tragedy” sound like a proper pop punk band, hailing against the poppiest song on the album as McIlrath sings, “All that matters if the time we had, Doesn’t matter how it all went bad, Never wonder what it might be like, Shut the door, Say goodbye”.

The Black Market is a raging throwback to classic Rise Against. Though it doesn’t hit all the marks that it should, it’s a refreshing style of music that many fans thought was long gone. That said, it is ultimately up to the fan to make the distinction of where this album falls in the discography.

Anyone thirsting for a sound in a similar vein to a decade ago will find solace in The Black Market and the intricacy of the more maturely written songs. Casual fans may see this as a generic sounding punk album due to the production. No matter your view, Rise Against have shown that they’re still an integral part of the scene and unwilling to completely separate themselves from the path that led them to prominence.

3.5/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle 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 yells at the rain on occasion. He also wants to play you in FIFA.