Reflecting On: Blessthefall – Witness

“We’re not dead / We’re not like you said / We’re not dead / We’re not like you!”

In music, there are those special moments that send a chill up your spine no matter how many times you’ve heard them. The opening refrain of Witness, the sophomore album from blessthefall, still cause my hair to stand on end. It’s the rallying cry of a band that many had written off after the departure of lead singer Craig Mabbit, and it’s an explosive introduction to a new era of metalcore that would set the tone for the next decade of heavy music.

You can buy or stream Witness on Apple Music.

Even though blessthefall have released better albums over the course of their 15-year career (Hollow Bodies, Hard Feelings), I go back to Witness constantly – multiple times a year. With an October release date, the record brings back memories of autumn, but truly, this is an album that could spin year round. It’s heavy, but not punishingly so. It’s full of melody, but you’d never confuse it with the pop-screamo scene that proceeded it.

By late 2009, a new wave of metalcore acts were beginning to become household names in the scene. The Devil Wears Prada had achieved a rapid rise through Plagues and With Roots Above and Branches Below and Bring Me the Horizon had bled into the States with the success of Suicide Season. But those bands required a certain proclivity for and background in heavy music to fully appreciate. Witness offered an entry into metal while never feeling like it was compromising. It’s a heavy album that allows you space to breathe.

New lead singer Beau Bokan was just that – a singer. The band’s heaviness came from bassist Jared Warth’s brutal screams, guitarist Eric Lambert’s drop-D riffing, and drummer Matt Traynor’s machine-gun drumming. That opening cry of “We’re not dead” still resonates because of its urgency and authenticity. With Mabbit leaving for the seemingly greener grasses of Escape the Fate, blessthefall had a lot to prove in 2009, having just signed to Fearless Records with a new lead singer and a new sound. What the band delivered was nothing short of astonishing.

What Bokan brought to the band that Mabbit hadn’t with the band’s decent, but relatively pedestrian debut album, His Last Walk, was personality. Getting called up to the big leagues from indie band Take the Crown, Bokan immediately resonated with fans through his live performance and soaring vocals. That opening track leads into “What’s Left of Me”, which finds Bokan singing, “Blood is dropping from my hands / Tell me, is this what you wanted?” The entire album feels rife with bad blood – towards Mabbit and anyone who dared doubt the band could carry on. On the title track, Warth bellows the lines, “Don’t try so hard / We see right through you / You’re a liar, you don’t need to breathe / You said, you said, you said we’re done”.

Even the album’s iconic artwork hammers the point home. A lone monarch butterfly amidst a post-apocalyptic wasteland with the word “WITNESS” in all caps lets us know we’re about to watch something rise from the ashes. It’s at once beautiful and menacing, but mostly, it’s a statement of purpose.

Yet for all of the vigor, anger, and drive found throughout Witness, the band still manages to find small moments of space for reflection, such as album closer “Stay Still”, in which Bokan carries the vocals entirely. On fan favorite “Hey Baby, Here’s that Song You Wanted”, the band leans into scene dramatics, kick-starting the track with a voicemail from a spurned former lover of Bokan’s that I’m still not sure is real or staged. The energy never dies, but the pace does shift enough to allow you to rest your neck.

One of my personal favorite moments on the album comes on “We’ll Sleep When We’re Dead”. Bokan, a vocal fan of Fall Out Boy, drops some of his most Pete Wentz-esque lyrics, singing, “Hide your makeshift hearts / We’re taking aim / And we won’t be leaving”. On “Five Ninety”, a track that bookends melody with crushing breakdowns, finds Bokan digging at the nerves the band likely felt when crafting this debut-redo, “This road is getting darker / You’ve been dying to find your inspiration”.

Though I have no definitive proof, I feel strongly that Witness was the gateway drug that led to the full metalcore explosion that came in the following years. Blessthefall (along with bands like A Day to Remember) allowed both musicians and fans alike to realize that there was room to write for multiple audiences and that the traditional pop punk Warped Tour crowd was open to listening to something a bit heavier if crafted in the right way. Witness doesn’t suffer from a weak moment or a lack of identity. It sets the stage for not only the next 10 years of a band that has become a mainstay and trendsetter, but a decade’s worth of bands hoping to catch that same fire.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Review: blessthefall – To Those Left Behind

blessthefall-splash-new

Let’s take a moment to give credit where credit is due: blessthefall have stood the test of time. In a year where it’s suddenly trendier to jump ship to modern rock and nu metal circles than it is to churn out breakdowns, the Phoenix metalcore act have stayed true to their craft, meticulously whittling away excess fat with each release.

Not only that, blessthefall have also managed to stay extremely relevant in a watered down scene. The band continues to draw mass crowds, headline big fests such as Warped Tour, and generate significant social buzz. Whether you enjoy their music or not, the guys also remain one of the most “liked” bands around. With all of that hard-earned street cred, why risk it by flipping the script?

You can buy To Those Left Behind on iTunes.

You can buy To Those Left Behind on iTunes.

The band’s latest release, To Those Left Behind, is very much a blessthefall album in every way. The production is tight, the technical riffing and flawless drumming surpasses most of their peers, and the songs are a lot of fun to sing along to. However, with their fifth full-length release, is it time to ask for something more?

On 2013’s superb Hollow Bodies, I commended the band for adding some new tricks to the playbook. The implementation of careful programming, coupled with the band’s newfound ability to create tranquil, atmospheric moments amidst the chaos, helped foster a more rounded experience than past outings. While the use of synthesizers still helps build the band towards crushing crescendos on their latest release, blessthefall have left the serene moments behind in favor of a more straightforward brand of metalcore.

Album opener “Decayer” is an epic start with gang vocals that lead into a crushing breakdown atop a soaring riff from guitarist Eric Lambert. The wall of sound carries bassist and vocalist Jared Warth’s screams in style – this is signature blesstehfall, even before Beau Bokan steals the show with a menacing chorus of, “Nowhere to run to hide this feeling / Right from the start / Another lie that I could not forgive / And now the rope’s around your neck”.

“Walk on Water” is an example of the band at their best – Bokan and Warth share the stage, layering their vocals as they climb towards the song’s breaking point. Here, blessthefall contrast their heavy tendencies with light, airy breaks in the action for effect. The result leads to some of the heaviest and more delicate moments on the record, all within a span of four minutes. Bokan’s soaring refrain spills into the track’s dissonant conclusion.

These opening tracks seem to set the stage for something huge, but the band falters with the odd decision to tear into their answer to Saosin’s “You’re Not Alone” with the song “Dead Air”. The track begins with an extravaganza of riffage before turning into Bokan’s American Idol moment. It doesn’t seem to fit in within the context of the album and serves as a stumbling block more than a moment of elation.

From there, the band transitions back and forth between typical blessthefall-by-the-numbers moments and heavier experiments that are invariably more impressive. Songs like “Up in Flames” and “Looking Down from the Edge” could have fallen on any of the band’s past releases, but are rescued from exhaustion by the always engrossing drumming of Matt Traynor, who continues to elevate the band in their weaker moments.

When blessthefall finally decide to commit to the gas pedal, it results in some of the band’s best works to date. “Against the Waves” is the blessthefall song we all deserve – unrelenting and punishing from beginning to end. Warth sounds like a frontman with the way carries the song with his screams. After a five-second gasp for air at the 2:10 mark, the band unleashes a breakdown that just won’t quit, almost literally. It doesn’t stop until 2:50.

“Oathbreaker” falls into this category as well. The guitar tones are grimy and the instruments thrash against one another, creating the best kind of conflict. Even Bokan carries an extra chip on his shoulder during a furious chorus. The album’s title track offers one last dose of retribution before the record comes to a close with the patient “Departures”.

To Those Left Behind is a solid record. Pointing out its flaws seems unfair, but it’s also difficult to ignore the band’s propensity to play it safe. On last year’s Lost Forever // Lost Together, Architects unleashed a blistering mammoth of a metalcore record to near unanimous praise. A year prior, Bring Me the Horizon redefined their career with Sempiternal, an experimental endeavor that pushed the boundaries of the genre.

With To Those Left Behind, blessthefall have padded their stats without reaching out of their comfort zone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – but for a band with this much talent, it’s slightly concerning.

Nevertheless, the band has yet to waver in their persistence in fighting for hope, something that continues to be their strongest attribute. In a scene rife with sour chords and a tendency toward the negative, blessthefall continue to use their platform as an opportunity to uplift. To Those Left Behind captures this message splendidly. Maybe a dose of familiarity every now and again isn’t so bad after all.

3.5/5

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.