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Back in 2016, The Amity Affliction’s Joel Birch guested on an episode of Lead Singer Syndrome, hosted by Silverstein’s Shane Told. In this episode, and due to the time period, obviously, the topic came up of Amity’s formula and what would come next following that year’s ‘This Could Be Heartbreak‘. The frontman openly shared to the host that with the band self-aware of their musical mould, their next album would need to sound different; “it’s gotta be the changing album“; “the next one is when we need to [change]“.
Those answers always struck me, that use of “need to“. Not want to, but need to. To be fair, this could just be an in-the-moment thing where an interviewee is getting out answers and not thinking too hard about it, but it spoke volumes in my mind. While The Amity Affliction has indeed changed lanes with ‘Misery‘, they’re still heading down the same figurative multi-laned highway. You can still hear many remnants of their older sound across this record. (The shoe-horned, heavy-sounding throwback here that is ‘Black Cloud‘ comes to mind). They haven’t taken that rural overpass, but they’ve changed over a couple lanes and it’d be disingenuous of me to say that they haven’t changed on LP #6. And I don’t think this is a “sell-out” move or anything like that – Amity was incredibly successful commercially off the backs of their previous, heavier records. Rather, this feels like a release born out of necessity after backing themselves into a wall with the closed-in style of their last three albums. Yes, the members themselves have grown older – they sure aren’t those wild party boys from the ‘Severed Ties‘ days – and they have changed in their musical tastes (as Joel mentions in said podcast), but this switcheroo doesn’t feel all that natural or genuine.
Of course, the band have always had a lighter takes on their metalcore/post-hardcore in the past, but never to this poppy degree. The biggest change to Amity’s sound is frequent clean singing from Joel (we’ll get to that) and a stronger adherence to electronics and keys. The latter being elements that have been in Amity’s music for yonks now. Although, these parts do seem imbalanced with the role they serve to the rest of the arrangements. Almost as if the abundance of keys, piano and synth are trying to mask a lack of notable guitar, drum or vocal performances by throwing in some fancy programming from producer Matt Squire. Other than all of the bland guitar chugs and simple riffs, Dan Brown’s guitar solos in ‘Set Me Free‘ and ‘D.I.E.‘ were the only guitar-focused moments that even came close to giving my heart rate a kick up the arse when listening to this thing. Former Defeater drummer, Joe Longobardi, who is a fantastic drummer, was recruited to track this drums for this album but you sure could’ve fooled me. Ex-drummer Ryan Burt’s absence is shockingly apparent here is all I’ll say. And there’s still barely any audible bass playing from Ahren Stringer other than just filling out the low-end frequency spectrum. I’m really hoping this changes in the future, but I don’t hold out much breath if it hasn’t already happened by this point in time.
Before sifting through the rest of the negatives – and there’s plenty of bollocks to chat about – I’ll head to a much nicer front with the few positives I found within ‘Misery‘. Because there are indeed a couple good things to discuss, and god knows that I’m far too much of a negative person already.
First off, the cover artwork and the album’s art direction, done by Joel and Ahren. No, for real, I feel that it’s distinctive. I think it’s the best artwork Amity have had to date alongside ‘Chasing Ghosts‘ – it stands out. When you see just the artwork, you’ll remember which band it was and what album it was for. (For better or for worse). You can’t say the same about most other releases going off the artwork alone. Then there is the ‘Misery‘ music video trilogy for ‘Ivy (Doomsday)‘, ‘Feels Like I’m Dying‘ and ‘D.I.E.‘. Say what you want about this record and those three videos’ gritty Underbelly-esque format, this is one of the biggest bands in Australian heavy music showing that you don’t have to make boring clips where your band soullessly mimes along to the song; praying that some nice colour grading and tricky edits in post will save the day. That you can indeed aim higher for a bigger narrative and make it a solid watch too. Hopefully, more Aussie bands – big or small – take some cues from Amity in this regard and how they approach their own film clips.
As for the songs themselves, the big highlight for me is the record’s title track. And man, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I fucking love this song! If you’ve read KYS over the past year or so, you’ll know that I’ve fallen head over heels for the resurging synthwave movement. Gunship, The Midnight, FM-84, StarSpawn, ALEX, Tokyo Rose, Delos, Dreddd, and Timecop1983, along with others, are great artists creating some amazing music for this revived retro genre. So to find Amity mixing this very style in with their own is something I never thought I’d hear. Because goddamn, this song is so interesting. No, not in the way when a mate shows you their harsh noise project and the only comment you can make is: “Yeah dude, it’s… interesting“. This is a genuinely different beast than what anyone would ever expect from Amity. The pulsating 80s synth bass, the pounding plate reverb snares, those synth-pop arpeggios, the robotic vocals – it’s all there! It’s so surprising, but it works well and I’m all about it. Plus, the “I just want to die!” voiceover sample that begets a glitchy, well-produced virtual choir-backed breakdown is actually pretty solid; a section that carries legit flow and weight, even featuring some brief yet decent 8-bit vocal and instrumental edits as a nice little touch.
‘Misery‘ itself is an easy standout, and the lack of conversation around it in reviews tells me most didn’t care, don’t want to care or wouldn’t give proper time to the song – whether because it’s Amity or because they’d have written this album off anyways – when the band legitimately went further than usual for this piece. Trust me, you cannot say the same about most other songs on offer here. Or at least, that the band did go far for the rest of the tracklisting, except it was just in the wrong bloody direction.
Another standout moment for the record is actually its credits scene, ‘The Gifthorse‘. Written and dedicated to the memory of The Gifthorse frontman, Shane Collins, who sadly took his own life earlier in 2018, this is a real gem. I speculated that this particular song would be the most heartfelt song from Amity in literal years back in September. And as it turns out, I was right! Sparse, cavernous guitars slip around poppy production and electronic percussion, with a decent vocal back-and-forth, that all leads up to a genuinely solid climax to end a mostly subpar record on a real high note. This closing track truly comes from the heart. As I know that Shane and Joel used to play in Crimson Hellkite together, long before Amity or The Gifthorse were even concepts. So the connection and emotion is as raw as it damn well gets, especially as this song’s chorus pulls its lyrics from The Gifthorse track, ‘Give My Body To This Town’: “There’s a message at the bottom of this bottle/And it’s calling out to me“. Honestly, I haven’t cared about an Amity song this much in what seems like forever. ‘The Gifthorse‘ is a truly touching piece of work.
As for one other small part that goes down alright on ‘Misery‘, we have the third song, ‘Holier Than Heaven‘. The high-low double-tracked “dragging me to Hell” scream from Joel right before the song’s breakdown hits with force. As this section, and the song itself, aren’t just carrying over the same ol’ tired dynamic that this band normally adheres to. So now it has an actual impact, actual weight behind it, when a new section enters and a dynamic change occurs. Proving that deep down, there was something to this record’s sonic change-up at one point in time… before it got lost in all of the pop conformity and mediocre songwriting. But that’s about it as far as the positives for ‘Misery‘ go. Now, time for the gloves to come on.
I gotta say that I think it’s nice to hear Joel taking a risk and doing some actual clean singing – with all of that coarse gravelliness – but a great singer he isn’t. At times, it sounds like he’s forcing himself beyond what he can actually do. Take the choruses of ‘Ivy (Doomsday)‘. Yet other times, like on the verses of ‘Feels Like I’m Dying‘ he sounds quite comfortable in his range. But then on ‘Burn Alive‘, there’s little character or range to his vocals. Overall, his clean parts are pretty up and down across the whole record. It’s a nice change-up but some sections will leave you wanting. (I’ve labelled this as the “Oli Sykes Effect”). Though hopefully, this is just the first step in Joel processing his singing voice better and growing stronger as a vocalist hereafter. Hopefully.
However, the “yeah, yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah” vocal chant during the bridge of the saccharine ‘Burn Alive‘ is just out-right atrocious. This woeful track is also where Amity go full pop in terms of influence and sound, other than the pieces sorely out of place screams. Plenty of bands within post-hardcore and metalcore have integrated pop influences spectacularly so over the years. Just look at the cleaner, poppier songwriting and hooks of Issues last record; the production and styles used on The Plot In You’s new album; and to obligatorily include the biggest comparison to the ‘Misery‘ material, Bring Me The Horizon’s previous album. But here, it feels so incredibly forced and so sickeningly cringe. And those light pianos and clean, major guitars don’t help matters at all. I’ve used this description before in regards to ‘Feels Like I’m Dying‘, but this piece truly sounds like an abysmal Punk Goes Pop cover whose only “novelty” is just how bad it is.
The sing-along ring-in of ‘Drag The Lake‘ sees Ahren reaching deeper into his higher register during the chorus (and holy shit, he actually does it decently live too). In fact, the guy’s done away with some of the over-produced vocal production of pitch correction and does sound more natural here at times. The auto-tune is still there, but hey, small steps, I suppose. Other than that , I still can’t see why cuts like ‘Drag The Lake‘, the forgettable ‘Beltsville Blues‘, and the sappy rock-ballad of ‘Kick Rocks‘ were recommended to me by peers as if they were the best thing since some madman looked at bread and thought “fuckin cook it again” in order to make toast. Is there just something I’m missing here? No, it’s the children who are wrong. These songs are more or less the usually structured Amity tunes without the over-reliance on breakdowns, a bigger emphasis on keys and electronics, and all feature more clean singing. And you know, there’s nothing wrong with basic song formats, but it’s a different matter when you start insulting the listener’s intelligence and try to go from one crowded scene (metalcore) into another scene (electro-pop-inspired post-hardcore) that’s already starting to get cramped. Amity has tried to stand out with this LP, but ‘Misery‘ will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Every time I show someone ‘Feels Like I’m Dying‘, they laugh their heads off when the chorus kicks in after those cheesy, squelchy-synths that sound like they belong in a Ghostbusters soundtrack appear. But these people weren’t laughing with the band in their hysterics. As for the refrain, Ahren’s softer timbre vocals in the chorus actually make for one of my favourite refrains in an Amity song in a long while. It’s just a real shame said passage is stitched to the rest of this accursed thing. Good Lord, and then there’s ‘D.I.E.‘. This song’s hard-on for pianos is fine, but the repetitive, nursery-school-like second verse, where Ahren hilariously spells out “D.I.E/M.Y D.A.R.L.I.N.G” is the worst and most laughable part of any Amity record thus far. The whole thing tries way too hard to be this melancholic, poignant song about death, mortality, our actions and all things pertaining to the end, but feels so unnatural and phoned-in.
Songs like ‘Feels Like I’m Dying‘, ‘D.I.E.‘ and ‘Burn Alive‘ all weigh this album down unbelievably hard. They also make the record feel like a self-parody; like it’s a separate band mocking the very themes and ideas of Amity’s own work. For a record like this, one that deals its hand with heavy topics such as depression and personal devils, overcoming alcoholism to find sobriety, suicide and mental illness, this shouldn’t be a thought that enters anyone’s mind while listening. All from an album that at one point in ‘Set Me Free‘, samples the famous 1939 Yankee Stadium speech from Major League Baseball legend Lou “the Iron Horse” Gehrig, two years before his passing to what we now call ‘Lou Gehrig’s Disease’. Done so in order to highlight this record’s theme of hope and determination: “Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”
What baffles me even further is the process in which such songs like ‘Burn Alive‘, ‘Feels Like I’m Dying‘ and ‘D.I.E.‘ – by far the ugliest parts of ‘Misery‘ – had to undergo in order to make it to the finish line. Meaning that they went from the Amity themselves, through producer Matt Squire, over to mixing/mastering engineer Josh Wilbur, then to their label, and lastly to the final tracklisting. Yet at no point did anyone turn around and say, “yeah nah, maybe we should re-think this“. Now that’s just fucking insane to me.
Honestly, I think there is a real silver lining to the awfully mediocre dark clouds that hang over ‘Misery’. Now that the band has ripped off the “experimental” cloth, some really interesting music could potentially come from The Amity Affliction from this point onwards. This album is no doubt one of those ‘step over the edge and see if we can fly’ type of moments for this newish sound. (And a #1 ARIA would definitely a nice confirmation of this, even though a lot of that came down to early fan pre-orders). Sure, I really don’t like huge portions of this record, but there are rare moments here that do work admittedly. Even if that’s all they are: mere moments. Though I do sincerely hope that we’re heading into better, uncharted waters with Amity’s music moving forward. Despite the huge miss-steps of ‘Misery’, for the first time ages, things are kinda exciting for this band again – in one way or another. And hey, at the absolute very least, ‘Misery’ is something different. As I said, I guess there’s a real silver lining to all of the shite here.
- Ivy (Doomsday)
- Feels Like I’m Dying
- Holier Than Heaven
- Burn Alive
- Kick Rocks
- Drag The Lake
- Beltsville Blues
- Set Me Free
- The Gifthorse
‘Misery’ is out now and has been for months. And yes, I know this review arrived long after the record’s initial release, but I have my reasons for holding off. Besides, better later than never.