In the summer of 2004, a little over a year after the United States invaded Iraq, Rise Against released their major-label debut, Siren Song of the Counter Culture. The band had made a name for themselves over the preceding half of that decade as energetic punks with a penchant for big choruses. Their hop from Fat Wreck Chords, the independent label, to Geffen (by way of Dreamworks Records) is less of a surprise in hindsight than it felt like at the time.
Time has dulled the edge of the major-label leap mainly because, reflecting back on Rise Against’s discography, a pop-like pattern emerges; it is a body of work comprised nearly entirely of songs that sound the same. With rare exception—think “Swing Life Away”—the greater extent of the band’s oeuvre contains fast, melodic hardcore songs hallmarked by Tim McIlrath’s throaty vocals. This trajectory continues on Wolves, the band’s eighth studio album. Tradition, as it turns out, can prove to be more meddlesome than gratifying, a problem that inhibits the album from ever really taking off.
It should be said that there’s no other band quite like Rise Against. Their particular blend of melody and grit occupies a space in the greater sphere of punk rock to which few, if any, other band of their stature sounds similar. Many of their colleagues in this realm fall firmly to one side or the other of the “heaviness” line—Billy Talent are more snarly; NOFX ere more to the skateboarding, fart-joke-making realm of the genre. Rise Against, meanwhile, dabble in heaviness and melody at a near even ratio.
While in the past this has made the band a unique experience, nearly twenty years have passed since their debut album, and they seem to have done very little to expand on that initial formula. Worse, where once McIlrath’s compelling growl and evocative lyrics gave life to the songs despite their similarities, we find on Wolves a voice dialed back to a slighter version of itself and lyrics watered down into generalities.
Once, the band were prone to fits of specificity, such as on Appeal to Reason’s lead single, “Hero of War.” The song, which described in detail the violences—physical and psychological, immediate and lingering—endured by an Iraq War veteran, gave no quarter with regard to the band’s opinion of the United States government and its myriad conflicts. Now, the lyrics are concerned with atrocities as more of a concept than reality; Wolves’ lead single is simply titled “The Violence,” and vaguely contemplates the human race’s tendencies toward violent acts.
Punk rock, and protest music more generally, have never needed to be verbose intellectual documents in order to make compelling, important points. But it’s no coincidence that the best anti-war, anti-violence pop music delivers its messages atop infectious compositions. There’s a paucity of anything memorable on Wolves, and so the album doesn’t quite function as either a thoughtful lyrical vehicle or pop-as-protest. As soon as it ends, there’s little to look back upon that can’t be found, in better versions, on previous Rise Against albums.
It could even be that Rise Against has never put out a truly great album; even Siren Song of the Counter Culture has its share of immemorable track fillers. But for whatever flaws each album before Wolves has had, the band maintained enough passion and remained prolific enough to endear themselves with some great singles. “Blood to Bleed,” “Like the Angel,” “Give It All,” “The Good Left Undone,” et al. are among the most affecting and memorable pop-punk songs of their time.
Here on Wolves, though, we find a band, who has always fared better in individual skirmishes than on the greater wars of an album, struggling to even land a punch.