Papa Roach – Crooked Teeth

You’ve gotta hand it to Papa Roach: their career could have peaked with “Last Resort” and taken them on the nostalgia tour route with also-rans like Adema and Motograter, but instead they’ve been doing a damned good job staying relevant into 2017 without fully crossing over to any one trend. They’ve always been a hard rock band at their core, but the Vacaville veterans gradually gathered other elements to their sound over the years – whether it be the nu-metal of Infest and lovehatetragedy, to their catchier arena rock of The Paramour Sessions, to flirting with electronica on The Connection. So it is that with new platter Crooked Teeth, Papa Roach continues their experimentation with poppier elements heard on more recent fare, while at the same time doing a nice throwback to the muscular angst that saw them playing Ozzfest stages early in their career.

And for the most part, it works. The harder songs of the bunch (like “Break the Fall” and “American Dreams”) are smartly arranged, knowing when to crank up the intensity and when to dial it back. The title track in particular is a wild-eyed stomper that nails the punk energy the band had on Infest and shows why Jacoby Shaddix has one of the most powerful voices in hard rock. Indeed, his voice is what carries most of Crooked Teeth’s songs – including lead single “Help” which could have sounded “eh” in another band’s hands – over the goal line into “catchy and memorable” territory.

There are some missteps, though. The straight-up pop song “Born For Greatness”, co-written with Jason Evigan (Jason Derulo, Maroon 5), puts much of the band in the background in favor of handclaps and stuttering hi-hats, offering little else in replay value. And “Sunrise Trailer Park”, with its acoustic verses and drunk driving storyline, tries too hard to be a moody hip hop tune and instead comes off wayyy dated. Everlast did this sort of thing better, and even a guest verse by Machine Gun Kelly doesn’t save it.

That being said, the second biggest standout on this album besides the title track is, surprisingly, another pop song. The sparse ballad “Periscope” sees Shaddix scale back his pipes to a restrained croon for a duet with Skylar Gray that is more effective than one would think. I don’t imagine it being played live anytime soon, but if Papa Roach were ever looking for a potential crossover radio hit, this could do it for them.

If you didn’t like Papa Roach before, or if you just wrote them off after “Last Resort” got played to death back in the day, Crooked Teeth won’t do much to change your mind. For current fans, or those willing to give it a chance, the album offers plenty of hard rocking moments while throwing in a couple of curveballs. Maybe the cramped Hollywood studio where they recorded this album helped the looser, “let’s do what we want” vibe, but overall the guys do sound like they’re having the most fun they’ve had in years. For the most part, it’s a fun ride for the listener, too.

All That Remains – Madness

Those who have followed the musical arc of All That Remains might have picked a certain pattern over the years, where the Massachusetts metal heroes gradually veered towards mainstream metal territory from their metalcore beginnings. Overcome was a solid mix of the two styles, giving ATR their first 100,000+ selling record, and For We Are Many largely kept to the same formula while cranking the brutality up a slight notch. A War You Cannot Win, though, contained songs indistinguishable from each other, except for ballad “What If I Was Nothing” that sounded tailor-made for the Rocklahoma segment. The Order of Things didn’t fare much better, making a ballad its first track and filling the rest with autotuned vocals and generic riffs. Which brings us to Madness, All That Remains’ first album with producer Howard Benson – and a pop record dressed up in heavy metal clothing.

Things start okay enough with first single “Safe House”; Phil Labonte growls the chorus like he’s ready to step into the Octagon, and the band churns out something that wouldn’t be out of place on Devildriver’s setlist. Then, things get weird, and never quite pick up: the title track switches gears to something that sounds like… well… a Breaking Benjamin song, and Madness has few redeeming moments after that. “Halo” and “Trust and Believe” sound like leftovers from the Overcome sessions, but at least they harken back to the trademarks that ingratiated the band to the modern metal public: double-kick flourishes and single-string riffs that wouldn’t be out of place on The Fall of Ideals. Aside from that, these are mostly hard rock songs with electronic enhancements and little staying power. I have a hard time picturing how any of these tracks will translate well in a live setting, especially when stacked against the band’s classic material.

Phil Labonte’s voice, to his credit, is among the most flexible in his genre; he can roar with the best of them before switching to a soulful croon. His lyrical topics are one of the few things on Madness that are consistent from their other albums: breakups, civil unrest, military themes, Libertarian empowerment, etc.

Turning to the production though, it’s gotta be said: Howard Benson is not a good fit for All That Remains. The drums are overly sampled and sound like the mids were completely scooped out of the mix (especially the snare), robbing them of much of their clarity. He also favors what sounds like the same damned piano sample in at least three songs (speaking of electronics… is that an MPC drum machine on the verses in “Rivercity”?). That’s part of the problem with Madness: in its zest to take the sonic road less travelled, it mines that shit for more than its worth, repeatedly.

Even when All That Remains stood at the edge of utter cheesiness on previous albums (“What If I Was Nothing”), they were still able to step back before it was too late. With Madness, they’ve decided to lock arms and jump off the edge together, consequences be damned. If RMP used a ratings system, this would get a 4 out of 10; a 5 if we're being generous.

For diehard fans, exclusively.

Mastodon – Emperor of Sand

Atlanta’s prog-sludge masters Mastodon have followed their own muse wherever it’s taken them ever since their debut some 15 years ago, and each album in their catalogue has been a fun guessing game as to what path they’d take next: epic concept albums (Leviathan, Crack The Skye), straight-ahead rock/metal stompers (The Hunter), and riff albums that make guitar nerds the world over jizz themselves and their Orange amps in excitement (Remission, Blood Mountain). This free spiritedness has tended to split the band’s fan base into two camps: the purists who love their earlier crazy progressive side, and those who are partial to their more recent, “streamlined” output. Whichever side of the divide you stand on, seventh album Emperor of Sand will offer plenty of moments with which to tickle your fancy, as it’s chockful of hooky riffs while still being Mastodon’s most ambitious offering in years.

We’re treated to another concept this time around, based on the band members’ experiences with the dreaded specter of cancer: the main character is handed a death sentence and is sent to wander the desert, reflecting on himself and the meaning of his life. Lots of musing going on, and the band teams up again with Skye producer Brendan O’Brien (Stone Temple Pilots, King’s X) to paint a compelling picture, with warm drum tones and powerful guitars. Opener “Sultan’s Curse” starts things off in proper Mastodon fashion, a Leviathan-esque rager that has bassist Troy Sanders and lead guitarist Brent Hinds doing their classic lead vocal tradeoffs. By contrast, lead single “Show Yourself” is super-straightforward, clocking in at 3 minutes but packing a lot of memorable riffage and quality harmony vocals behind drummer Brann Dailor’s voice (and seriously, this dude can really SING). Dailor sings lead again on standout track “Steambreather”, with a mean groove and lyrics that ponder “I wonder who I am… I wonder where I stand/I’m afraid of myself.” And album closer “Jaguar God” is just amazing: an epic ballad that transforms into an all-out riff fest, with some of the best vocals Hinds has ever done. “It’s right in front of me/your malignancy” could be towards a mythical villain, a tumor, or probably both, but the delivery behind those lines is gut-punching.

Mastodon have never been a slouch in the instrumental department, and all of the members turn in stellar performances on Emperor of Sand: Dailor’s outstanding drumming isn’t as full of fills as usual, but his cymbal work is on point, and he’s really come into his own as a singer. Bill Kelliher’s rhythm guitar tones are fantastic, and Hinds is simply one of the most underrated soloists in recent years; the guy pulls a ton of emotion out of his instrument. And Sanders’ grinding bass and roaring tenor blends in perfectly with the proceedings.

Emperor of Sand is an album that, to beat a cliché to death, really does reward with repeated listens. Even now as I close this review out, I’ll probably think of other things to point out about it; but quite simply, this is Mastodon’s best album since Crack The Skye. It’s always hard when creativity is sourced from tragedy, but Mastodon captured the emotion and thoughts behind their individual struggles, channeled them into musical form… and delivered. Brilliantly.

Rebel Machine – Nothing Happens Overnight

The last ten years have seen a good share of bands from all over the world doing their damnedest to bring back the type of hard rawk that evokes the golden age of the Sunset Strip. The U.S. has a pretty good foothold with Steel Panther, even if their comedy shtick tends to get in the way of them being taken too seriously. Sweden has been the closest to capture that street-worthy L.A. Guns vibe, with Crashdiet and Hardcore Superstar cranking out both the tunes and attitude to match. But that could all change, because coming around the bend is Rebel Machine, a band of bearded Brazilians who have dropped an impressive DIY debut in Nothing Happens Overnight.

Firing on all cylinders right out of the gate, “Don’t Tell Me I’m Wrong” kicks things off with a righteous “kick the door down and let’s rock” feel, even throwing in a tambourine during the chorus for extra flair. Elsewhere, “Down the Road” keeps the tempo going with driving riffs and lyrics about packing a suitcase and chasing adventure; while the lush harmonies in “Waiting for You” would make the late Jani Lane proud. Later on, the band hits drop D tuning for “Run Away”, a mean shuffle that would make Pepper Keenan and Joe Perry nod their heads in approval. Marcelo Pereira’s voice is the perfect fit for these proceedings, a streetwise grit that can still belt high notes whenever it’s needed, and Murilo Bittencourt’s solos, particularly in “Down the Road”, are shredtastic and tasty. Seriously, Slash would be proud.

The guys might want to kill me for not comparing them to the bands they’ve cited as influences in the past, but honestly I don’t hear the Hellacopters or The Hives anywhere on this album. Whereas those bands are more of a garage-rock thing, Rebel Machine has that extra tightness and polish that could see them open for The Darkness or even Tesla, and hold their own with no problems.

Nothing Happens Overnight is tightly played, hella rockin’ stuff from a band who clearly took notes on what the big boys were doing, and came out of the gate swinging for the fences. If Rebel Machine manages to get signed and tour outside of their borders (I’m looking at you, Century Media), they’ll turn every club into a party. Raise your glasses and shake your asses, folks; the Brazilians are coming!