Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Alter Bridge's 'The Last Hero' - Album Review

I do not think it is exaggerating to say that, at least over here in Europe, that Alter Bridge are one of the biggest rock bands around at the moment. While in their native America the band are still slogging it out on the modest sized club/theatre circuit, over here they can fill arenas. That fact that a band like Alter Bridge can get so big proves that rock is alive and well in the modern world, and it could be argued that they are my generation's Led Zeppelin. What makes their super-stardom a surprise is that they are in no way a watered down hard rock act for the masses. Their music is dark, often heavy, and often progressive; and some of their material can be subtly quite challenging. There is always a lot going on, and they have come a long way since their post-grunge roots since forming in 2004. Since wrapping up the touring cycle for their fourth album, the dark and mammoth Fortress (which I reviewed here), in 2014 Alter Bridge had been fairly quiet. Both of the band's heavy hitters, vocalist and guitarist Myles Kennedy and guitarist Mark Tremonti, took the opportunity to record with side-projects and tour fairly extensively outside of the Alter Bridge machine. Kennedy's work with Slash has made him a household name in the classic rock world, and Tremonti's solo project has explored the heavier side of his songwriting and gained him a lot more kudos in the world of metal. Another Alter Bridge album was always on the cards however, and at the beginning of this year the band went into the studio to record their fifth album The Last Hero. In a surprise move, the band decided to release this new album via the independent Austrian label Napalm Records, instead of the bigger Roadrunner Records which the band has been associated with for a number of years. Roadrunner have lost both Alter Bridge and Opeth recently, two of the biggest rock/metal acts around currently, which makes you wonder why these bands have looked elsewhere. This album will be a big payday for Napalm however, who are more used to dealing with smaller European metal acts, as The Last Hero has, as predicted, been a big seller. It reached Number 3 on the UK album charts, which is a fantastic achievement for a band of Alter Bridge's persuasion. Sound-wise, The Last Hero could be described as a bit of a cross between Fortress and 2007's fan-favourite Blackbird, but in truth this new album definitely feels like a culmination of everything the band have done up to this point. The majority of the songs here are pretty anthemic, with stadium-sized choruses which definitely draws comparisons to Blackbird. The darker, more progressive elements introduced on Fortress, and to a less extent 2010's AB III, are still present however, but are more subtly mixed in with the strong melodies and the concise songwriting style. Production-wise, the album sounds good, although it is a little harsh at times. Long-time producer Michael 'Elvis' Baskette once again sat in the producer's chair and created a loud, modern, and in-your-face hard rock album - although maybe a little too loud at times as some of the nuances are often buried in the fat walls of guitar.

Despite the chiming clean guitar intro, the album opener Show me a Leader starts things off in a heavy fashion. A crunching riff and some tremolo-picked guitar leads herald the arrival of the song proper, before the band launch into a soaring guitar solo and a fast-paced verse. The verse is fairly typical fare for the band, and fans will be familiar with the style. Kennedy's vocals sound as great as ever, and his direct approach to the melodies adds to the overall urgency of the piece. The chorus is simple, and not up to the band's usual anthemic standards. This fits the vibe well however, and sees Kennedy unleash some pretty high notes and some catchy wordless vocals. There is a blistering guitar solo partway through that really gets the blood pumping. Unfortunately the album's booklet does not tell you who performs each solo, but the song's video confirms that this particular one is Tremonti's handiwork. While not the soaring Alter Bridge anthem that many fans might have expected as an album opener, this song provides a different purpose and is gives the album a real kick into action. The Writing on the Wall maintains the same heavy feel as the previous number but packaged into a more openly accessible format. The riffing is toned down somewhat, and the focus is on Kennedy's vocals. The chorus is more what you would expect from an Alter Bridge song. Kennedy delivers once again, and the vocal melodies are extremely memorable. Songs of this nature were all over AB III which was definitely the band's transition album into the heavier territory they now occupy. After two faster songs, The Other Side comes in with some doomy clean guitar notes and sledgehammer riffing that grinds along at a much slower pace. Arguably the heaviest song on the album yet, it shows that Alter Bridge are happy to be a metal band as well as a hard rock one. That being said, the song is still pretty memorable with a strong chorus and riffs that stick in your head. There are lots of spacey guitar effects used in the choruses too, which adds a slightly chaotic feel. My Champion is the album's most obvious 'single' choice, and definitely harks back to the Blackbird era in terms of accessibility. While the band are darker and heavier now, they can still throw together a catchy anthem, and this is sure to become a live favourite for years to come. The playful opening guitar riff is excellent, and the laid back verses see Kennedy taking it easy with the vocals, not pushing himself as he has done so far on the album. The chorus is easily the album's most instant, with some of the catchiest melodies yet and a heartfelt delivery from Kennedy. The feel-good, self-help lyrics that characterised the band's early work return too, and this really feels like a throwback to simpler times for Alter Bridge. Poison in Your Veins brings things crashing back down to earth however, with a dark main riff and a bass-heavy verse which showcases Brian Marshall's playing. He is often buried in the mix, but the verses here are one of the rare occasions where he stands out a little more. The choruses are very in your face here, with a drum beat that really storms out of your speakers and sees Kennedy's snarl employed to fine effect. Cradle to the Grave, while not a proper ballad, is definitely less heavy than anything else on the album to this point. Clean guitars dominate the verses, with some acoustic guitars even cutting through the mix at times, and it takes on a sombre feel. Things do ramp up during the choruses however, and there is an excellent bridge section with some crazy guitar leads twiddling away under Kennedy's mournful croon. This then explodes into a guitar solo, which is easily the song's best moment.

Losing Patience continues on this mournful vibe, at least initially. A murky verse dominates the early part of the song, but the song slowly, and subtly, grows in stature until it hits the strident chorus. This part of the song has real classic rock swagger to it, with guitar leads to back up Kennedy's vocals and a fantastic overall attitude. A slightly proggy breakdown also stands out, with a chugging riff and a flashy guitar lead playing off each other in a call-and-response style. It is one of the few parts on the album where the drums are well-defined too. Scott Phillips is often the victim of the album's loud production, and his playing is less clear than on the band's previous works. Here though his double bass drumming is clear, and just makes me wish he was clear throughout! This Side of Fate has the feeling of a mini-epic about it, with acoustic-led verses and slightly symphonic choruses mixing well together create a dynamic song that makes a strong impression. There is lots of bluesy guitar playing throughout too, presumably from Tremonti, which adds a little touch of class. I like the use of subtle string elements to the song too, something which again is often buried on this album. It stands out here however, and improves the song. You Will be Remembered is the album's only real true ballad, and is as heartfelt as the band's previous efforts. While more 'rock' than previous ballads, song is still a great lighters-in-the-air moment. Kennedy has always been great at delivery ballads. While his lyrics, and his delivery, can sometimes be a little on the earnest side, you can tell that he always means it. He sings from the heart, and that is what makes this type of songs work well. After two song that have had lighter elements, Crows on a Wire is another great in-your-face rocker. This is one of my favourite songs on the album, and contains all of the band's best traits in a condensed package. The song is based around a strong chorus, which has some strange cold keyboard effects that actually work really well, and a strong vocal from Kennedy. The rest of the song is built of a riff that sounds like something Zakk Wylde would have written for Ozzy Osbourne, and is sure to get heads banging when the band play live. This is the band at their most metal, and is a far cry from their post-grunge origins. The shredded guitar solo and the anthemic middle 8 are also excellent, and are just some of the reasons this song is so good. Twilight is another old-school sounding song, and sounds like a beefier version of some of the songs found on Blackbird. The rolling drums with the cleaner sounding riffs earlier on definitely harks back to that era, and the soaring chorus is extremely simple. The guitar solo here is very expressive too, and a world away from the shred-fests that dominate the rest of the album. If you want a real heads down rocker, than Island of Fools is the song for you. The song's main riff is a real bulldozer, and the energy rarely lets up throughout. The song's chorus is slower, but this actually makes it have more of an effect as the rest of the song is relentless. Faster songs have been written, but the riff just roars out of the speakers to great effect. This is one song that actually benefits from the loud production, and helps it have more of an impact. The album comes to an end with the title track, which is another mini-epic. While it does not have the impact that This Side of Fate had earlier in the album, it has a triumphant feel to it that works well as an album-closer. The natural swing feel in the chorus is great and some of the riffing is up there with the band's best. This a song that definitely feels like a culmination off all of the themes and sounds explored on the album, which makes it a perfect closing number. Overall, The Last Hero is an album that shows that Alter Bridge are here to stay. They are my generation's stadium rock band, and they continue to go from strength to strength.

The album was released on 7th October 2016 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Show me a Leader.

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