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In 2004, during my formative musical years, I was comfortably spinning Brand New and Taking Back Sunday albums of what I then thought to be the ‘cutting-edge’ of alternative adolescent music. But then a friend passed along a record label sampler CD that had some “heavier shit” on it, which he thought I might be in to. That sampler was ‘Trustkill Records: Blood, Sweat and Ten Years’ and is notable here for two important reasons. One: it was my introduction to the likes of Most Precious Blood, Poison The Well, Throwdown, Walls of Jericho, NORA, Bleeding Through and Eighteen Visions, essentially solidifying my love for early and mid-2000s metalcore (a love which runs very strong to this day, and is arguably the best era of metalcore; fight me). And two: it was the beginning of my affinity with North Carolinian post-hardcore outfit Hopesfall, through the incredible tracks ‘Decoys Like Curves’ and ‘The Bending’ off their seminal 2002 album, ‘The Satellite Years’.
While the first reason above provided the impetus for an entire decade’s worth of musical discovery, leading down a labyrinthian rabbit-hole of alternative, hardcore, metalcore, post-hardcore, post-metal, and post-rock, the latter is crucial for igniting my deep and passionate love affair with Hopesfall. After the band’s unfortunate split in 2007, following the release of their last record ‘Magnetic North’ and some drastic line-up changes, I’ve been waiting eleven long years for something like ‘Arbiter’ to come along. And if I’m being completely honest, it was my most-anticipated record of this decade (only to be rivaled by the heavily-rumored and long-awaited reunion album from the original Misery Signals line-up).
Now, in terms of teasers, the pre-release tracks for this record certainly had my full attention. Lead single ‘H.A. Wallace Space Academy’ is Hopesfall at their most definitive: pounding percussion, churning riffs, shimmering guitar melodies and vocalist Jay Forrest’s hypnotic croon-come-throat-shredding-scream. Next came the mid-tempo banger ‘Tunguska’ (also my personal favourite track), which features a delicate, melodic intro section, thrumming rhythms and one of the band’s most infectious yet also curiously complex chorus lines (give it a cursory listen and try to get that “Personal austerity…” vocal hook out of your head; it’s a total ear-worm). Final single ‘Faint Object Camera’ rips open the record with crashing drums and piercing, spacious screams, perhaps subtly alluding to the distant and cosmic void at the focus of the song’s title (look it up). For any other group, it would be a slightly odd choice of single, let alone an album opener, but here it’s classic Hopesfall. Eerie vocal melodies playfully intertwine with soaring guitar passages, before an instrumental turn at the track mid-point finds the band calmly drifting off into the sonic abyss.
Listening to ‘Arbiter’ in full, it becomes immediately apparent just how cohesive and comprehensive this record is. The material on the record was originally conceived by guitarist Joshua Brigham for another unrelated musical project. However, once the various members of Hopesfall reconnected over the years, and the desire to create new music together grew, and this demo material eventually morphed into a fully-fledged Hopesfall album. As Brigham notes in an interview with Alternative Press, the band’s ‘all-star’ current line-up – featuring Forrest on vocals, Brigham and Dustin Nadler on guitar, bassist Chad Waldrup and drummer Adam Morgan – pulls talent and input from across the band’s twenty-year history, with all members having been “in the band at some point but in different times.” Returning to producer Mike Watts, who worked on the band’s last two full-length albums, the soundscapes on ‘Arbiter’ run the gamut of the latter Hopesfall discography: the kinetic energy of ‘The Satellite Years’ (their most explosive album); the stadium-ready hooks and dynamism of ‘A-Types’ (their catchiest album); and the ominous, moody atmospherics of ‘Magnetic North’ (their darkest album).
Apart from the two pre-release singles which open the record, Side A of ‘Arbiter’ finds the band exploring a variety of textures and themes. ‘Bradley Fighting Vehicle’ (a BFV) finds Brigham and Nadler weaving lurching riffs and twinkling background melodies against Morgan’s crashing cymbals, filling the dynamic range of the track, as Forrest channels his inner Vonnegut with a plaintive “So it goes…” refrain before the bridge. Slightly longer cuts like ‘C.S. Lucky-One’ and ‘I Catapult’ both utilize the straightforward song structures and vocal layering that made the alt-rockier cuts from ‘A-Types’ so effective. In the former, the lead-rhythm riff combo that punctuates the closing breakdown is easily an album highlight; while the latter is a bit of a slow-burn that reaches peak combustion around the two-and-a-half-minute mark, with a quickfire tempo change that burns brightly through to a simmering finale.
Following the sure-fire hit that is ‘Tunguska’ on Side B was always going to be a tough order of business, which is likely why ‘Aphelion’ slots in here. As far as Hopesfall instrumentals/interludes go, it’s not the strongest, however, it does break up the record quite nicely and flows perfectly in to the album’s final tracks. ‘Drowning Potential’ is a total nostalgic flash-back to the previous decade’s peak era of post-hardcore: gruff verses, super catchy chorus lines and creative intra-track transitions. ‘To Bloom’ recalls the furious intensity of ‘The Satellite Years’ material, with dark, introspective lyricism and a cheeky nod to ‘Escape Pod for Intangibles’ from the aforementioned album. Closer ‘Indignation and the Rise of the Arbiter’ takes the band’s affinity for cosmic themes and completely doubles down on that shit and then some: space stations, dark matter, war and robots all get brief, fleeting mentions, as Forrest delivers a knockout vocal performance against some of Brigham’s most engaging guitar-work, ending the record on a weirdly melancholic high-note.
Remaining objective with bands you care about is a difficult task, especially in the case of reunion/comeback records, which is largely due to the stakes being higher: Do you go back to basics and keep things safe? Or do you level-up, incorporate new influences and take some risks? Thankfully, on their fifth full-length album, Hopesfall accept this challenge and manage to do both simultaneously. As a fan, ‘Arbiter’ is the record I wanted to hear from Hopesfall. It takes care of all the usual journalistic buzzwords: heavy, melodic, catchy, dark, moody, etc. Yet it also manages to avoid the trappings of pretension and cliché, with expert production, great songwriting and near-perfect album sequencing. While it’s certainly not a departure from their existing sound by any means, it’s also a distillation, refinement and blend of everything that came before; an uplifting, radiant and engaging record that comfortably speaks to the potential of a bright future.
- Faint Object Camera
- H.A. Wallace Space Academy
- Bradley Fighting Vehicle
- C.S. Lucky-One
- I Catapult
- Drowning Potential
- To Bloom
- Indignation and the Rise of the Arbiter
‘Arbiter’ is out now through Graphic Nature/Equal Vision Records and you can find copies of the record in various formats here.