No longer prophets in plain clothes.
Defeater truly do not have a bad or awful record in them. However, with their newly released self-titled album, Defeater do have a pretty average release in their creative bones, as it turns out. For the best way that I can sum up their fifth LP is that it's almost like a Defeater covers release. Like a band missing what made them great but trying hard to re-capture that old feeling.
While not a complete write-off, so many of these 11 songs are sorely lacking the magic, the "it" factor, that first made Defeater such a house-hold name amongst the Topshelf and B9 roster with releases like their ferocious debut LP, 'Travels' (2008), the masterful 'Empty Days & Sleepless Nights' (2011), and even the consistently solid 'Letters Home' (2013). Shit, you can even see, hear and feel all of that with the more-holy-than-unholy 'Abandoned' (2015). People still speak fondly about 'Travels', but it's nearly-impossible to think that most will care about this self-titled LP the same way in ten or even one year on from its release this month.
This album makes it abundantly clear that Defeater parting ways with long-time guitarist, producer and songwriter Jay Maas in 2015 was a grave mistake. He brought something crucial to their work ethic that cannot be replaced, and his absence is shockingly apparent in the final product, especially with the guitar work that is noticeably different in tone and riff-output. Defeater choosing to also label this a self-titled record is fine and all, as it does sound like them and where they've been before, but it's mostly an empty shell of what they once were. And as a big Defeater fan, it brings me no joy to say that.
[caption id="attachment_1107162" align="aligncenter" width="760"] Defeater, 2019. [/caption]
During Defeater's recent Reddit AMA, they gave a cop-out answer about who this record was about, saying "that's for you to figure out", implying it's up to the listeners interpretation. Later on in the same thread, they did admit it's about multiple characters, and peeling back the lyrics reveals this. It all centres around the Father's Brother, before bringing in the Father and the Priest (whose story this album seems to be most about), also introducing another potential character known as Dealer.
They're all marooned ship-wrecks, beings who are isolated and tortured by the horrible things they've done and seen. Alongside from allusions to bodies of water, bastards, debts, and day-night cycles, there's more than a few call-backs to past songs and albums. The bleak wartime lucky charm mentioned in 'Rabbit Foot' from 'Letters Home' returns in the choruses of 'Atheists In Foxholes', and the "Man of the cloth" spoken in 'No Guilt' and the "Father on a bend and on the outs with God" mentioned in decent closer 'No Man Born Evil' is the strung-out, hopeless Priest that 'Abandoned' focused on. Here, the Priest, after so many mistakes, seems to meet a grim end come this record's final moments as he looks towards the "western sky", much like the younger brother did in 'Travels' before ending his own life. On top of that, various returning locales from 'Travels' and 'Empty Days...' also get a passing mention. As for the Father and his Brother? Well, they're just sorta there.
However, this album sees the plot starting to get a little convoluted. When your albums are all conceptual, that's not a good thing. When it was just about a working class New Jersey family dealing with personal tragedy after personal tragedy in a post-WWII era - following two wayward brothers, an unfaithful and later-deceased mother, and their far-too-gone papa - it all worked well. Simple and effective. The issue with having multiple characters and a chronological story presented out-of-order, such as this record, is that it stagnates the overall plot, with Defeater maybe not up to the task to properly tell it.
It feels like they ran out of ideas, are trying to set up the next record's story (if there is one), or are re-treading over the familiar ground of past releases that we've already learnt about, rather than actually pushing things forward. That last part is notably felt the the hardest during the WWII moments, the Brother's survivor guilt, and the Father's mental/emotional fall, which we all mostly know of due to 'Travels' and 'Letters Home'. Even the Brother, who is a newish character, draws upon a similar thematic pool as the Father, so nothing about him feels like a fresh take or a new perspective. (Other than a grisly murder that leaves me somewhat confused about who the actual victim and culprit were, as detailed in 'No Guilt'.)
In some ways, other than seemingly wrapping up the Priest's arc, a lot of this record's narrative is just superfluous exposition and context that isn't needed. (Kinda like my reviews.) It feels somewhat aimless, at times moving without direction. Sure, allusions to past events, places or characters with certain phrases and metaphors acts as really solid fan-service - and I don't mind that stuff - yet it also never felt that meaningful or final to me. Not like how the best, concluding cuts off 'Empty Days...' or 'Letters Home' so powerfully did and still do. The band has pulled-off side-character tales competently before, like on 'Abandoned' or in the oddly under-rated 'Lost Ground' EP (2009), but here they've dropped the ball. At least it's not Game of Thrones season eight bad.
Still, for its potential faults, the lyrical world-building at play is better than what most other bands who attempt long-running conceptual narratives can do. Defeater's tragic universe does feel connected and lived in, even with all of the deaths and losses that it so frequently suffers. Repeated lines and motifs do admittedly help to flesh things out, like the various metaphorical uses of a candle no longer burning littered throughout this new LP. (Which, ironically enough, applies to the band's output.) Defeater do seem to take some care in how they're presenting the story, even if it all might be getting messy and with some threads unravelling or currently lacking further and needed explanation.
While the actual music and songwriting does feel fumbled, Derek Archambault's lyrics do not. They're still a saving grace for what is a mediocre listen; offering interesting musings on fate, guilt, shame, and how our actions have consequences to those around us. As per the album's cover, we're just shuffled cards in the same deck.
Speaking of Derek, the biggest point of contention from fans and listeners is how his vocals sit in mix. Defeater and producer/engineer Will Yip have made the choice to push Derek's vocals into the background of these songs, having the instruments and vocals sit around the same level. Apparently, this reflects the group's wider array of musical influences, as the band themselves put it in that aforementioned Reddit thread. Which is fair enough... except for the fact that Defeater's music doesn't reflect their supposed love of other genres or artists. It's all just gloomy melodic hardcore, now without all of those sublime acoustic detours that they used to feature. ('I Don't Mind' will forever be a classic.) So this approach seems a little at odd with what the band actually does musically.
Burying the vocals deeper into the mix of a song or album isn't the worst thing ever, though. Heck, it might even draw some listeners in more, making them pay closer attention to what's being said. Plus, these are easy fixes. Because you can just pump up the volume, or head over to Genius.com for the lyrics. You can also often find the lyrics in YouTube or Bandcamp descriptions, as well as the actual physical album booklet. So it's not the end of the world. But with Defeater's new album, it's like listening to a live studio session with poorly mixed vocals, thus removing so much of the narrative "oomph" behind these tracks. For instance, could you imagine if 'Blessed Burden' or 'Waves Crash, Clouds Roll' were mixed this same way? All of their necessary, brutal emotional impact would be completely lost. I could not see those songs being the same if that was the case. If any of their previous four records were done like this new full-length, they'd be far weaker releases.
Funnily enough, Will Yip also worked on La Dispute's new record, 'Panorama', a release where some La Dispute fans lamented the quieter vocals. However, I'd strongly argue that because Jordan Dreyer isn't screaming the entire way through - he's singing, speaking, yelling, and everything else in-between - it doesn't hurt that album's palpable effect or its overall quality. Personally, I loved that choice for 'Panorama'. Here? Not so much. That's not to say that Derek is a bad vocalist. On the contrary, what he may lack in a larger range, he more than makes up for with earnest, passionate vocal performances that perfectly suit the lyrical content; a roaring voice whose words genuinely propel the songs forward. (There's even a slightly cleaner, more pitched singing run that Derek delivers in 'No Man Born Evil'.) He's got one-scream, but he does that one-scream really fuckin' well. However, pulling his vocals down by a fair few dB doesn't have the desired effect on LP #5.
For all of my gripes, this LP does start off quite well, with 'The Worst Of Fates' and 'List & Heel'. The former details lyrical visuals of a war-ship sinking in the Pacific, down to what we now know as Ironbottom Sound during the Battle of Guadalcanal (1942–43), with salty water filling up steel hulls, thus sinking the memories and lives of brothers-in-arms that'll never return home. (It's implied that the Brother survived either this or that this is actually his death, and the album is told backwards from that point. Either way, I don't think it affects the story a great deal.) It's a solid opening track that shows off the band's new-found darker atmosphere, with Mike Poulin's punchy bass tones and some decent instrumental layering occurring. Something that the short-lived 'Hourglass' really excels at later on in the track-listing.
The band also experiment by removing Jake Woodruff's and new guitarist Adam Crowe's distortion at times, like on 'List & Heel' (the only cut that I actually love) and 'All Roads'. This sees both tunes kick back in harder later on in their respective run-times with louder distortion; making for some solid tension-and-release moments. This also creates some seriously chaotic sections in the latter example that legitimately feels explosive. Noisy and messy, yes, but eruptive in tone and dynamic nonetheless. Which is more you can for most of the other songs here.
'Mothers' Son' is... okay, showing the band's knack for solid syncopation and groove. But even with one of the album's better choruses, it's oceans away from my top ten or even top twenty Defeater tunes. Even so, drummer Joe Longobardi proves to be one of the best drummers going in modern hardcore today with his playing, with so many great little accents, snare rolls, and hi-hat chokes found across the album. Yet tracks like 'Stale Smoke' and 'No Guilt' sound so hollow; entirely forgettable. Then there's 'Desperate', which is just that. With the only redeeming part being the eerily looped outro, with Derek repeating the opening lines of the mournful, PTSD-stricken character - "Every day and night; laid out and desperate, bloodied and broken", also referencing 'Mothers' Son' - over repeating guitar figures, rolling drum fills and siren-song-like amp feedback.
Not even the band whipping-up their faster, crunchier hardcore-punk moments, like on 'Dealer/Debtor' or 'Atheists In Foxholes', could hope to save matters. Not even Have Heart's Pat Flynn guest featuring in the bridge of 'Atheists...' helps much either. Given who this band is and who Pat is, that's a downright fucking shame. A crossover of sorts between Have Heart and Defeater - two of hardcore's modern greats - should be incredible, but it just isn't. And that's the truly mind-boggling thing about this record; an album that reveals Defeater's once bright, urgent-burning candle has now faded and dimmed.
I love Defeater, I really do, but I do not love their new record. It's one of those mixed-bag albums that leaves me so torn. So much so that I can only scoff at the Epitaph Records bio for it: "Defeater is the band at their most devastating and sonically arresting to date." Their eponymous LP is an empty shell of what Defeater were and what Defeater could have been in the current year with their long-awaited return. The proof is all right there in the pudding. What with the lacklustre songwriting, Jay Maas's absence sticking out, the contentious vocal mixing that takes the wind out of the songs' sails, and for every single engaging song like 'Hourglass' or 'List & Heel', there's countering forgettable moments like 'Stale Smoke' and 'Desperate'.
This release will get A LOT of love and be provided extra legs with it being the group's first new release in four years, and the fan-hype will carry it on for a while longer. So too will the theories and discussions about the lyrical content and the band's larger narrative, what it all means and where it's all going, despite it getting pretty convoluted. Yet there's no doubt in my mind that, both now and in time, Defeater's self-titled will not have anywhere near the staying power their earlier records possessed. They are just no longer those prophets in plain clothes.
01. The Worst of Fates
02. List & Heel
03. Atheists in Foxholes
04. Mothers' Sons
06. All Roads
07. Stale Smoke
08. Dealer / Debtor
09. No Guilt
11. No Man Born Evil
'Defeater' is out now via Epitaph Records.