- Malbec Blood
- Shallow Believer (Feat Matty Mullins of Memphis May Fire)
- El Rey
- Drags, Drugs, and Bones
- The Valley
- Alexandria 363
- It’s in Our Blood
- The New World
- Set My Face Like a Flint
Fallstar released their previous album Reconciler. Refiner. Igniter. through Come & Live in 2010 and has since seen over 10,000 downloads. Combine that with the facts that Fallstar is, in their own words, a “touring band” and take into account the overall style the band holds musically, and its easy to see why a powerhouse metal label such as Facedown Records would come knocking. With Backdraft, Fallstar has upped their game and have unleashed an album worthy of the history of the iconic label they now reside on.
Backdraft was produced by Kris Crummett (Sleeping with Sirens) to be a layered and diverse release that is a clear evolution on the band’s sound. Musically, Backdraft is in that metalcore/melodic hardcore category that so many bands aim for these days, but this is one album that is not afraid to experiment and defy genre tropes where necessary. While there is a core that holds true to (some would say tired) trends in the genre, Fallstar is not afraid to include diverse elements in each song to spice things up.
A great example would be the song “El Rey.” On the same track you have the typical guttural and clean vocals expected in the genre, but also fry screams, staggered vocals (a sound similar to what you get by tapping on your Adam’s Apple while singing), gang vocals, whisper vocals, and more layered into just one track. With all of those vocal stylings in one four minute song, it would be easy for the whole to become a chaotic mess. This doesn’t happen, however. Fallstar seems more than capable of holding a core sound close to the chest, yet straying from it where variation will help improve and diversify the final product.
The strength of this album is further shown in the fact that Chris Ratzlaff handles the majority of the vocals (though others contribute), even across the various stylistic changes that occur frequently throughout. In spite of this fact, every style is handled with excellence. In a recent review, I gave a small demerit to an album for moving from absolutely breathtaking guttural vocals into rather uneven cleans. In spite of the many vocal/stylistic changes that occur (often on the same song), I never noticed the vocals being mismatched or uneven here. Where there was a distortion here or there, they felt very intentional and added to the songs overall.
What is even more amazing in this line of thought is that I found many elements of the album to sound (even momentarily) a great deal like other bands, and yet the whole was strengthened for it. There are moments on the album where astute listeners will notice parallels to For Today’s guttural vocals, Haste the Day’s screams, Devil Wears Prada fry screams, Children 18:3’s punk-pop melody, Sleeping Giant’s gang vocals, brief rapping, and even a moment where I thought they were going to take a song into Family Force 5 territory.
Normally, I mark album scores down for frequent foray into other artists’ sounds. Typically when this is done, it comes across strongly as if the band simply couldn’t land on their core sound and so they just made a hodgepodge of other artists’ styles. But, Backdraft doesn’t feel this way, at all. While the inspirations are clear at points, Fallstar has a core sound that is their own anchoring the chaos. In the end, Backdraft is unrestrained punk-metal-core. It is almost as if Children 18:3 and August Burns Red got together to do a collaborative effort that Family Force 5 acted as producer on…and it works.
Thematically, the album is certainly spiritually driven. Songs like “Shallow Believer,” “El Rey,” and “Set My Face Like a Flint” exude a spiritual vibe. Other songs share moments of doubt and the effect of sin on the world. Such songs include “The Valley” and “Millionaires.” One theme that runs throughout, is the idea of wine/alcohol in the blood. It seems to be portrayed in a very negative way throughout, with reference to “alcoholic” persons showing up in a couple songs (notably the line “alcoholic millionaires” in “Millionaires”).
This theme begins in “Malbec Blood.” Malbec is a type of grape used in making wine (and also a type of wine). As such, “malbec blood” refers to either the dark color of the blood or its infusion with wine. As an opener, “Malbec Blood” shines. It is a brief, chant driven, song, but it really stands out and gets the record moving. It also nicely spills into “Shallow Believer.”
“Shallow Believer” and “El Rey” follow, and both are standout tracks on the album. In fact, I would put “El Rey” as the overall best song on the album without question (with “Shallow Believer” not far behind). As mentioned above, the songs move from fry vocals to Children 18:3-esque punk-infused clean vocals seamlessly. “Shallow Believer” is also one of the heavier tracks on the album. Thematically, “Shallow Believer” is a polemic against fair-weather saints and “El Rey” (spanish for The King) acknowledges the problems of this world (the song opens “Bear with us killers and our predator nations”) but looks to “the River” and focuses on an unrelenting drive to head towards it “until we are face to face.”
But, don’t take my word for it. Check out “El Rey” for yourself:
“Drags, Drugs, and Bones,” “Millionaires,” and “The Valley” pick back up the themes of the brokenness of this world established in the first three tracks. “Millionaires,” more than the rest of the album, feels punk-driven. The style changes in drums and guitar work are handled well throughout, even in changing between the harder and more punk-driven elements. The lyrics to “The Valley,” “can you heal my soul?…turn me inside out, because I’m just a shell of a man” point to the doubting sting of the world set against the reassurance found in “God’s blood.”
The title of “Alexandria 363” seemed to me to refer back to an Alexandrian council in 363 A.D. Perhaps the council that heard the Arian controversy and reaffirmed the Nicene Creed. Despite searching through my various Biblical encyclopedias and resources I couldn’t find the council, however (good thing my Masters is in Theology and not Church History!). Regardless, “Alexandria 363” is another riotous and standout song that ventures into new ground throughout. This is the track I referred to above in commenting about a Family Force 5 style production. It also features some great hip-hop flavor mixed in.
“It’s in Our Blood” seems to hearken back to the disconnect between “Malbec Blood” and God’s blood. The song returns to heavy August Burns Red style guttural vocals and mixes in both Sleeping Giant style spoken-word and some crisp clean vocals. The thematic elements of this song continue the threads woven in past songs, but starts to uplift and point more to the “new world” and rest in an intimate knowledge of God.
“Eclipse” is a powerhouse of a heavy song that paves the way for the closing songs “The New World” and “Set My Face Like a Flint.” I say closing “songs” because the album progression and flow really leads to these tracks being two sides of the same point of closure. “The New World” takes a heavy look at the hope of heaven that should reside in all Christians’ hearts. Quoting Paul’s,” to live is Christ. To die is gain,” the band brings something close to an anthemic treatise, complete with clearly demarcated fist-pumping sections.
While I mentioned above that Fallstar never falls into the trap of being a slave to the variety of styles presented, the title itself of the final track kept tripping me up. This is not a knock against it, but every time I came across the line “Set My Face Like a Flint,” I couldn’t help but immediately mentally return to fellow label-mate War of Ages’s powerful use of that very phrase. Overall, however, the song itself is a great and inspiring anthem that does a great job (especially when paired with “The New Word”) of closing up the various themes and threads that run through the album.
Overall: Fallstar is certainly a great fit for Facedown Records. With Backdraft, they have grown musically, vocally, and as song writers. While the album has many moments that sound as if they could have been heavily inspired by the styles of other bands, Fallstar never falls into the trap of losing themselves. When looked at as a whole, Backdraft does a great job of providing a fresh and unique-by-way-of-variety spin on a punk-infused metalcore sound. Fallstar has given the world one of the more unique heavy albums of 2013 so far and it is certainly worth your time to check it out.
RIYL: August Burns Red, Children 18:3 (read the review to see how those belong together), Willows