January 3, 2011

Alter Bridge – Ab III [88/100]

By Daniel

Alter Bridge is a group that I was unaware of before starting the 30 In 30 project. Formed in 2004, they’re the oft-maligned God-rock band Creed minus unintentionally hilarious frontman Scott Stapp. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from them as a band, and knew nothing of their new lead singer, Myles Kennedy. Suffice it to say their new album, Ab III, was probably the best rock album I listened to this year (okay, I’m considering this late 2010. What of it?)

“Slip To The Void” opens with strings reminiscent of an electric harpsichord. Soft vocals on a delay give a beautiful ethereal quality. Acoustic guitar joins in and overdriven electric guitar soon after, really beautiful composition and the soundstage was used to it’s fullest. Breakdown transitions the song into melodic hard rock. The bridge going back and forth between choral one-liners and a slick electric guitar solo is fantastic. Huge emotional ending breaking down to the strings it started with. Tremendous opener.

“Isolation” is much harder rock, Drop-D or maybe Double-Drop tuning and the distortion is paired with an octave effect for a great big mean sound. After the first chorus we find double-bass speeding up the feeling of the track. Vocal work is great, adding a nice melodic counterpoint. Bridge is more excellent guitar work, the solos have been great on the first two tracks. I’m digging the freeform feel of the composition here, the bridge is ill-defined but not jarring when we return to the chorus. Unexpected noise gates at the end keep the futuristic rock sound alive. Another solid one.

“Ghost of Days Gone By” is yet another different style, we’re in much more mainstream rock, something I could see Daughtry or someone of the sort doing. But that they’re willing to do it is good, and for what it is, it’s very well-done. As we get to the bridge there’s a much moodier feel, and sure enough the vocals give it a downright chilling feel for a good fifteen seconds, really changed the complexion of the song. What appears upbeat is truly sad and haunted, an interesting allegory for the story within. I take it back, the mainstream wouldn’t dig something like this, I think it’s great.

“All Hope Is Gone” has a very interesting rustic 6/8 feel, the vocals are stealing the show here, we have more of that booming low sound that creeped me out in a good way in the previous track. The bridge is fascinating, Tool-esque levels of innovation but with an accompanying guitar solo Tool would never do. Fascinating is the best word I’ve got for this one. And listen-worthy, for sure.

“Still Remains” uses the same scale that opened Isolation, but with clean electric guitar, and the second half of the intro has a more dramatic feeling. We’re back in hard rock, good vocal presence, and Myles Kennedy is putting in good work yet again, the vocals soar, and Mark Tremonti’s work on guitar is the sort of stuff he probably wanted to do with Creed for years. I get a bit of a rock ballad feel from the vocals, this one feels a bit loose compared to the first four tracks honestly. Beautiful, but not as focused.

“Make It Right” defies categorization in the opening, overall it’s an upbeat and fun-feeling track, dominated by a tricky little guitar run. For that matter, the song flat-out defies categorization. But it’s good. Trust me. Tremonti closes it out with a solo that reminds me of some of Joe Satriani’s work, and I listen to a lot of Satch. He does too. Good intriguing song.

“Wonderful Life” is a slower rock song with overdriven guitar transitioning into a rather simple little song of love and mourning, even in this they do quite well at blending the norms of the genre with their personal touches. “And though our days come to an end, / No, I’ll never love like this again, / What a wonderful life, my friend.” Gotta admit, even as the song evolves and changes towards the end, I feel it’s a good 32 bars too long.

“I Know It Hurts” isn’t typical hard rock, you have a strong bassline and a plucked melodic guitar line over the vocals, a favorite of mine. They’re not afraid to layer lots of guitar tracks, and when you’re as talented as Mark Tremonti you shouldn’t be. Tempo change at the chorus, and another one at the bridge. They’re tackling all those things that set a group apart as technically gifted instead of merely proficient. Even the drummer gets to have a little fun in this one. Would’ve liked this one to be longer! Maybe it could borrow some time from “Wonderful Life”.

“Show Me A Sign” attempts to throw my timing off early though it’s 4/4, with some tricky deviations from normal rock. Reminded of Tool again, but actually I’ve been listening to The Gracious Few’s “Tredecim” a lot lately and there are some obvious parallels to draw. Beautifully done, everyone is putting in 110% here and it shows. Might be my favorite on the album so far just based on my tastes. Something for everyone here, give this one a listen for sure.

“Fallout” opens with a pretty electric guitar riff, distinct from the others so far, the chorus is a bit of a letdown, I was hoping for something beautifully melodic and it’s a bit too similar to a few other choruses so far. The bridge is that same moody scale they’re using to good effect throughout, again little touches like dropping the beat for a quick riff or two shows these guys have their own ideas on the future of rock. It transitioned into a harder rock song so subtly I forgot how different the beginning was versus the end.

“Breathe Again” is a bit more mainstream-sounding, just this side of soft rock. This one’s not landing with me like the others have. The chorus was a bit predictable. The bridge was quite a bit better, but this one’s still the low point for me so far.

“Coeur D’Alene” has a great melodic hard rock opening, the band drops out for Myles Kennedy’s singing over simple strumed chords at every bar. It’s a beautiful, even sexy rock song. Hard to categorize, but really enjoyed it.

“Life Must Go On” opens with a clean electric guitar solo and transitions into overdriven guitars that fill the soundstage a bit too much for comfort. The verses are clean, but the choruses are honestly a bit poorly mastered, the guitars are too far forward and drown out the vocals, bass and drums. Maybe I’m being a bit mean to their pop-infused tracks, but it really doesn’t feel like their strong suit. They’re not having the kind of fun they had in “Slip To The Void”.

“Words Darker Than Their Wings” opens with an interesting 12-string acoustic guitar that is panned around the stage effectively. This one’s really interesting, different from anything else so far. Moody is what they’re good at, and this one does it with a different set of sounds. I even get a bit of a System Of A Down sound out of it, reminiscent of “Hypnotize.” This one was clearly an experiment, and good for them for putting it out there for us to experience. One of the best tracks on the album really.

“Zero” starts out as standard hard rock but the verses have an interesting trick, for the first half they eschew guitar entirely, leaving just vocals, bass and drums. The bridge and solo are inspired, even driving for the first time in several songs. Glad they didn’t just pad the end with filler, this was a solid song.

“Home” starts out with tons of promise, the intro’s my favorite on the album and we’re at the last song. A simple message, beautiful performance all around. The chorus is slightly less satisfying than the verses, but the bridge makes up for it as expected (they’re quite handy with bridges). The album closes with one last solo by Mark Tremonti, and it’s a good one. This album took me on quite an emotional trip.

Tone and Overall Sound: 20/20 Points. Given my criteria, less than full marks is impossible. Innovation in spades here, and innovating while having a beautiful sound is no mean trick. I particularly liked the variety of sounds they went for with the guitar, we covered a pretty darn respectable chunk of what you can do with a guitar on one album.

Melody and Harmony: 16/20 Points. There’s enough repetition in the choruses to merit a bit of a ding here. They use a great variety of melody, helped in part by branching out into several genres.

Rhythmic Qualities: 16/20 Points. Good mix of time signatures and variation of rhythm, either through syncopation or through little drum riffs and double-bass runs to break up the time. Notable that given all the ground we covered I didn’t pick up much of a change in the drum kit.

Mixing and Production: 16/20 Points. The one big gripe I had in “Life Must Go On” is more than balanced out by a bunch of good decisions in post-production. Effective use of pans and dynamics throughout. Album flow was good, we covered so much ground I don’t know if it could’ve really been improved, but it definitely could’ve been worse.

Theme and Concept: 10/10 Points. I love when a group moves past the normal confines of a genre in search of a theme. The focus on faith, or a lack thereof, makes for great moving messages.

Presentation: 10/10 Points. I’ve gotta admit, I’m a sucker for a black and gold color scheme. Along with some beautiful intricate details on the album cover, it does really feel like a good fit for the group and album.

Total: 88/100 Points. I’m really glad I listened to this album. There’s still plenty of room for innovation in rock, and Alter Bridge shows one path to it. Many reviewers cite grunge as an influence here, I see more rock ballads from the ’80s and early ’90s, some electronica-inspired decisions in mixing and production, and guitar riffs that have equal parts attitude from the ’60s and technical mastery of the guitar virtuosos of the ’90s and ’00s, Satriani, Malmsteen et al. The composition here is a good one, and much like The Gracious Few shows off their talent without the singer that they were a rhythm section for, Alter Bridge are a group of genuinely talented musicians that shed the Creed name for a shot at rock history. This one might be looked back at as something altogether influential in the shaping of rock in the 21st century. Mark Tremonti’s guitar skills here are put on display as honestly the best guitar work I listened to from the 2010 releases. Highly recommended, buying a copy myself.

Scoring Method: http://is.gd/gnNWc [pdf]
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