Release Date: 10th May 2019
Record Label: Epitaph
For Fans Of: Touché Amoré, Have Heart, Birds In Row
Forget about the goings on of the inhabitants of Westeros, this reviewer is far more concerned with the latest news from the Defeater-verse – consider that phrase well and truly coined (or ‘copper coined’ for those in the know).
Defeater is the fifth album from the Boston melodic hardcore band, but should also be considered the latest chapter in the fictional world they have crafted. Starting with their debut album, Defeater have told the tale of a family living in post-war America plagued by PTSD, drug addiction, domestic abuse, infidelity and more, with each subsequent release being told from a new character’s point of view. As a result, new material offers new insight into the overarching story, introducing new relationships, motives and a deeper understanding of the family depicted. Much like the fandom surrounding binge-worthy TV shows, a new record from Defeater is met with great anticipation, not just for the incredible musicianship and songwriting the band display, but to learn more of the family’s history and relationships, as fans have developed a connection with the characters of this ongoing saga.
Due to the lyrics being such a key part of Defeater’s music, the vocal performance is a delicate matter with regards to production. Vocalist Derek Archambault has gone from strength to strength with his delivery, and while his performance on the band’s debut Travels is by no means sub-par, his power, tone and diction had come on leaps and bounds by 2015’s Abandoned. Despite this, attention must be drawn to the elephant in the room: the vocal mixing. With all previous releases having been produced by guitarist Jay Maas, his departure from the band necessitated a new producer. Will Yip (Turnstile’s Time + Space, Angel Du$t’s Pretty Buff) was brought in, and even though his approach to the instruments is superb, the singles teased prior to the album’s release were near unanimously criticised for the vocals being too low in the mix. The initial listen to the record does yield a noticeable difference in the clarity of the vocals, but becomes less significant after several subsequent spins. That said, having the vocals higher in the mix would only benefit this record.
As with most of Defeater’s back catalogue, the intensity of their music comes more from the storytelling and vocal delivery rather than heavy guitar riffs and nasty breakdowns, contrasting the current trend in modern hardcore. Atmosphere and developing tension to match the narrative seem to be the raison d’être of the guitars and drums, most notably on previous releases when percussion has been used to mimic the sound of gunfire or an approaching train. The opening two tracks of Defeater utilise clean (ish) guitars playing long, arpeggiated chords to a mid-tempo drum groove, drawing influence more from post-rock or emo than hardcore. ‘List & Heel’ serves as the band’s final single before the release of the album, and we begin to learn of the brother of the family’s patriarch; a character who has only briefly been mentioned in previous releases. As such, most of the narrative concerned on this record covers new ground, with familiar characters appearing occasionally.
Third track ‘Atheists in Foxholes’ ramps up the energy, bringing the hardcore stylings of Comeback Kid to mind at their most frantic. The middle of the track provides a stand out call-and-response passage between lead and backing vocals, with the absence of instruments demanding your focus on the lyrics. Follow up song ‘Mother’s Sons’ served as the first single from the album, chronicling the uncle’s relationship with his brother and his own personal struggles that he is experiencing. Due to this song being the first taste of the then upcoming record, ‘Mother’s Sons’ received the brunt of the vocal mixing criticism, with certain passages requiring the listener to reach for the lyric booklet.
The narrative of this album is particularly challenging to understand. Where previous releases have followed one character, it is suggested that the narrative of Defeater switches focus, starting with the father’s brother who was believed to have died in a shipwreck, before switching to the father himself. Much like the father’s album, Letters Home, the narrative is in reverse order, meaning the story told in the opening track occurs last chronologically (just to make it more indecipherable).
As the album progresses, we are presented a greater dynamic range across the tracks. ‘Desperate’ is a reverb drenched melancholic piece, speaking of the character’s worsening dependence on the drink, whereas ‘Dealer/Debtor’ and ‘No Guilt’ provide the faster moments of the predominantly mid-tempo album, with the latter track reminiscent of Converge, featuring discordant melodies and short, sharp stabs on the instruments. Throughout the album (and all the Defeater albums he is featured on), drummer Joe Longobardi demonstrates his versatility, creativity and above all tastefulness behind the kit. Since there aren’t many balls-to-the-wall heavy moments during Defeater’s music, Longobardi provides an outside-of-the-box approach to hardcore drumming, proving himself as one of the most interesting percussionists in the genre.
Despite the unfortunate vocal mixing, this is another fantastic addition to Defeater’s oeuvre. It may not be the strongest release (many maintain that Empty Days & Sleepless Nights will never be topped), but considering the band lost their guitarist, producer and founding member in Jay Maas before this record, it is an incredible accomplishment. Much like long running drama series, it would be recommended that prospective listeners start from the beginning of the band’s history rather than with album number 5, but you’ll be hard pushed to find a Defeater fan who won’t grow to love this album.
Recommended Tracks: Desperate, Atheists In Foxholes, No Guilt
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