For Fans Of
When Four Year Strong dropped 2007’s ‘Rise Or Die Trying‘, they were young early twenty-somethings writing hooky songs with silly movie-quote titles, riffing about getting remembered, relationships that were and never will be, friends, and their love for music, good hangs and fun times. With bright pop synthesizers, instantly recognizable vocal hooks, and tough hardcore breakdowns aplenty, they’ve been ‘easycore’ darlings ever since. Now in 2020, on the loud and confident ‘Brain Pain,’ five years since their last album, Four Year Strong are grown men in their 30’s grappling with personal issues and anxiety, with a spotlight on mental health. (Hence that detailed, metaphorical cover.) It’s matured in what it discusses, maintaining the band’s relatability and authenticity with as much intensity as ever.
‘Brain Pain‘ is the band’s first record with Will Putney since 2010’s go-big-or-go-home ‘Enemy Of The World‘ LP – inarguably their greatest record – and coincidentally, it’s also their best record since that aforementioned 2010 release. With massive choruses galore and an off-the-charts riff-meter – squealing pinch-harmonics, tight chugs, dueling harmonies, and huge melodies – Four Year Strong blow the roof of this album’s ceiling at many points. (It’s a ‘guitar’ focused album, first and foremost.) Their 2015 self-titled record embraced every part of their sound: a fitting, solid eponymous release armed with killer hits like ‘Stolen Credit Card,’ ‘We All Float Down Here,’ and ‘Go Down In History.’ That five-year-old record was a reaffirmation of who the band was and where they’d been over the years. ‘Brain Pain‘ achieves to accomplish two things: showing fans they’ve still got it and pushing the band forward. And it nails both!
‘Brain Pain‘ is by and large defined by many of the band’s well-used shout-along, feel-good anthems that skirt pop-punk, metal, and melodic hardcore tones and a range of big tempo changes. Case in point: ‘Learn To Love The Lie,’ a harmless but fun and bouncy rock song with a GIANT chorus loaded into its chamber. Or you can check out the somewhat repetitive, one-note nature behind the decent and straight-forward, double-kick-laden aggression of ‘The Worst Part Of Me‘ or the grungy punches and pop hooks that bolster ‘Get Out Of My Head.’ Then there’d the bouncy bass-lines that begin the mid-tempo hook-fest about burn-out, ‘Talking Myself In Circles,’ kicking off a classic, upbeat guitar-driven tune; the kind that FYS don’t even break a sweat nutting out now.
The punk rock speed and dueling guitar harmonies to the knuckle-dragging tale of numbness in ‘Mouth Full Of Dirt‘ is one of this record’s finest examples of FYS’s tension-and-release chemistry between their riffy, hardcore verses and the groovier, melodic choruses. All with one of the heaviest, meatiest breakdowns heard from these guys in years! During the youthful teenage reflection of ‘Seventeen,’ the band gets their “breakdown in the key of happy” schtick on, and on the cleverly titled ‘Usefully Useless,’ they aim for radio-rock heights. When I say that these particular handful of songs are the “weakest” parts, I don’t mean they’re bad songs or anything of the sort. They’re just the more direct, simpler and anticipated style for FYS to take part in, yet they’re all executed in a competent manner.
After a quick drum-fill, ‘Crazy Pills‘ rockets off with angular, bleeding guitars and shouted vocals, with the six-strings dropping out of the verses for a brief moment as the rhythm section of drummer Jake Massucco and bassist Joe Weiss lock-in together super well. The subtle acoustic guitar strums that slip into the second verse anchor the songs punk rock ambitions but in a helpful way. Its theme of losing control and feeling like you’re going crazy becomes best embodied during its heavier hardcore bridge passage, with “hey hey” gang vocals screamed, busier drumming taking the lead, racey guitars and feedbacking amps firing off. It’s definitely one of the better “standard” FYS songs on offer. All of these typical tracks for their pop-punk/melodic hardcore style are very fun and catchy moments, if kinda cheesy. But they’re like cotton candy: sweet and sugary going down your gullet, yet you also don’t regret consuming them because they tasted so good! It’s so impressive that with each new album, Four Year Strong still remains so relevant and consistent.
With album number seven, Four Year Strong also haven’t just cashed in on a nostalgic 2008-2012 circa easycore sound. Instead, all of their familiar songwriting characteristics have just been injected with a hefty quality-of-life update. It’s a tried and tested sound, for sure, but not a tiresome or a trite one for the four-piece either, thankfully. More than that, ‘Brain Pain,’ as an album, is a statement: that the band is still here, that they’re not going anywhere, and that they will continue to grow. No bigger is their an opening statement for that intent than with the first song, ‘It’s Cool.’
With a wicked repeating riff motif that slowly builds up in dynamic intensity, with the second guitar coming in to beef it up shortly afterward, as vocalists Dan O’Connor and Alan Day trade vocal hits, ‘It’s Cool‘ reaches a boiling point. Just as it seems like it should explode, everything drops away as Dan softly utters: “With all I have to complain about, it’s cool.” And then it’s like a bomb suddenly went off. For a few seconds prior where you could hear a pin drop, now you’re hit with Jake’s galloping, double-time drumming, Dan and Alan’s blinding array of high and low octave guitar antics, plus their awesome branded dual-vocal chemistry, and the kind of infectious songwriting energy that has always oozed out of every orifice of FYS’s sound since day one. And don’t even get me started on that mental, nightmarish breakdown at the end that’d make bands like Stray From The Path envious. It’s a major high-point for the LP, and in my mind, it’s one of the band’s best songs too.
Including that powerhouse opening move of ‘It’s Cool,’ there are three other key songs here that show real growth in what Four Year Strong can do. First, there’s the bonkers title track: a heavier, borderline-prog, metalcore track with pop-punky refrains that pushes all of their glorious pop sensibilities and metal influences to the front lines. From the intro’s gnarly, nuclear-grade riffs, harmonies and string-skipping (and those neck-running, finger-twisting pull-offs and hammer-ons just before the halfway point) that seem like they’re ripped straight out of the playbook of Protest The Hero; the shimmering mid-section that just has soft vocal lines and soothing ambiance; to the mighty pick strokes and head-bobbing, slowed-down, half-time second half that makes for an incredible resolution.
Then there’s the melancholic, softer and self-defeating acoustic number of ‘Be Good When I’m Gone,’ offering up some sonic diversity and dynamism to the record’s flow, complete with a wonderful string arrangement from Randy Slaugh backing up this piece about missing family when you’re away. (You may not recognize his name, but if you’re reading this review, you’ve more than likely heard his work: Randy has composed for Periphery, Devin Townsend, Architects, and TesseracT.) It’s like a great throwback to their acoustically re-worked compilation LP, ‘Some Of You Will Like This, Some Of You Won’t,’ with as much as charm and honesty as you’d hope for.
Finally, we have the stunning closer, ‘Young At Heart.’ The noisy waves of saturated, thick distorted guitars that dominate the start of this song are like that of a post-rock or post-metal band, with clean guitar licks and sub-kicks moving through a sparse atmosphere, as Dan and Alan team up together in vocal harmony. After a good 90 seconds of this, the bending riffs and burly grooves that make up the skeleton of this track pop off, with both singers reaching up into a falsetto range and a more intimate, lighter timbre; something not often seen by them in terms of their vocal arrangements. (Except for the start of ‘It’s Cool.’) From there, things ramp up as the vocalist duo shout “I’m trying to hold onto you” over a tsunami of sound where the bass and guitars threaten to overwhelm the drums. It’s a climactic finale for not just the song, but the record too, showing FYS still have a real knack for heart-filled spectacle.
Look, this is not another ‘Rise Or Die Trying’ classic, nor another ‘Enemy Of The World’ classic. What ‘Brain Pain’ is, however, is a damn fun, super memorable, well-sequenced and quite endearing comeback record for Four Year Strong. It’s filled with the kinds of hooky-but-still-heavy pop-punk tunes in the vein of those that have made FYS a household name in this scene over the years. ‘Crazy Pills,’ ‘Learn To Love The Lie,’ ‘The Worst Part Of Me,’ and ‘Talking Myself In Circles’ are safe yet enjoyable, competent and solid tracks in their own right. Showing that while we must pay time’s debt at some point, the passing of time hasn’t withered the bulwark of FYS’s robust vessel in the last five years.
Yet it’s with bigger, core standouts of the jaw-dropping ‘It’s Cool,’ the rendering ‘Young At Heart,’ the cute ‘Be Good When I’m Gone,’ and the insane title track that ‘Brain Pain’ achieves greatness. It’s in these four songs that the band’s genius and growth of these four men come out to play, without sacrificing their sense of charm or passion. This is a mighty fine comeback LP, separating itself from the stigma that’s often attached with such records; sounding like a personalized modern reiteration of what this band did so well for so long. ‘Brain Pain’ also comes in hot with their most introspective lyricism to date, making for their most honest work yet with what it has to share. So welcome back Four Year Strong. I’ve missed you and your return makes me a very happy man.
Get Out Of My Head
Talking Myself In Circles
Learn To Love The Lie
Mouth Full Of Dirt
Be Good When I’m Gone
The Worst Part About Me
Young At Heart
‘Brain Pain’ is out now: