It'd be difficult to describe fully my admiration for Rise Against in one review without boring you to dribbling rigamortis, so I'll just say this: if I could organise the lineup for Reading festival this year, I'd order the NME tent to be burnt to the ground, pray to a god I've never believed in to resurrect Joe Strummer and the various dead members of the Ramones, and have Rise Against as headliners, along with Bad Religion and Green Day. Revolutions Per Minute is one of my all-time favourite records, with The Sufferer and the Witness following close behind and Siren Song of the Counter Culture garnering honourable mention status. Oh, and they're also responsible for the best gig I've been to in my humble life thus far.
Which is why I probably felt a bit at odds with their last release, Appeal to Reason. Yeah, it had some great moments, but they were buried amongst directionless, mid-tempo middlers, songs that trudged and dragged their feet through dingy mud and never really got out of second gear. It had the mark of a band groping around in the dark for inspiration, sometimes coming up with gold, and mostly just coming up with dross. For anyone else, it would have been great, but the fact that it had Rise Against's name on it sort of made the whole affair a bit underwhelming.
So like a disillusioned spouse, I made my excuses and left; it's just not as fun any more, Rise Against, I hope you understand, it's not your fault, it's mine, etc. And when Endgame was first announced, I was adamant. I've moved on now, it won't be the same, I won't be taken back.
Then I heard the two preview songs. Okay, maybe there is a way we can give it another try. And then came today, and my first listen of the full album. It took all of four tracks for my resistance to wane. Who the hell am I kidding? I was a fool to write them off. Just as one swallow does not a summer make, one below-par record does not a mediocre band make.
In fact, the more I listen to Endgame, the more it feels like this record was the natural follow-up to The Sufferer..., and that Appeal to Reason was just part of a set of drafts and design documents that have now been collaborated together to form the final piece I have blasting out of my headphones as I type. It's more focused, for a start - every track burns and crackles with a single, unified purpose, which means that even the weaker tracks fit into place, rather than feel like awkwardly-positioned filler tacked on to boost the running time. And whilst it isn't a concept album per se, it ebbs and flows as one cohesive piece of work in the same way a concept album would.
Frontman and band leader Tim McIlrath seems to have a greater grasp on what exactly he wants to do, and who the targets of his ire are. Rather than ticking from a generic 'protest rock lyrics' checklist, as he did on the last record, he's gone away and taken notes from one of his heroes, Bad Religion's Greg Graffin. And while you won't need to break out the Advanced Oxford Thesaurus to work out what the fuck he's on about, there is noticeably more powerful wordplays this time around, inspired by some heavy real-world events that have added further fuel to his ever-burning fire. And this added dimension also flows into the songwriting, where guitarist Zach Blair has made himself at home and isn't afraid now to rummage around in the tool shed for some new tricks to bring to the table. 'Midnight Hands' rides on the back of a psuedo-metalcore riff, 'Broken Mirrors' stomps and rolls unlike anything we've quite heard before in the Rise Against repertoire, and listen out at the mid-point of the excellent 'Satellite' for some nice harmonised flourishes behind the vocals.
Speaking of the songs, you remember a few paragraphs ago I said how it took all of four tracks for me to be hooked on this record? Well, that's because track four, 'Disparity by Design', is probably one of the best pieces of pure, flat-out punk rock Rise Against have written in nearly five years. Anybody who idly accuses them of being some glorified radio rock band, like a less Canadian version of Nickelback, needs to have this blasted loud into their craniums on repeat until they realise that they're talking out of their punk credibility arse. 'Architects' isn't quite as gutsy an opening track as previous efforts, but I guarantee the hairs will shiver on one's neck the first time you hear the galloping verse drums cascade down into the outrageously anthemic chorus, and McIlrath cheekily takes Against Me! to task at the bridge with the lines 'Don't you remember when you were young?/And you wanted to set the world on fire?/'Cause I still am/And I still do.' Lead-off single 'Help is On The Way' is probably the least interesting song on the album, but the Hurricane Katrina-inspired lyrics still pack a formidable punch, and 'Make It Stop (September's Children)' pulls no punches as it deals with a recent spate of teenage suicides related to homophobia and bullying, a topic that only gets more tragic and gut-wrenching when Tim reads out the names and ages of the kids in question over the haunting outro. So we'll forget where it was you found that shimmering intro guitar effect, eh, fellas - somewhere on the boulevard of broken dreams, wasn't it?
On that point, for all these positives, Endgame is nowhere near The Empire Strikes First perfection, so there are one or two gripes. Here's a recurring scenario, for starters - oh, that's the second chorus done, I wonder what will come next? Oh, shit the bed, a different tempo breakdown! Who'd have guessed that?! Fellas, we know that this is quite a novel idea to you, and you've been mucking around with it for a while, but do you really have to pad out every SINGLE song with this trick? It gets wearily predictable very quickly, and it means every song clocks in at around four minutes - if the songwriting wasn't so stellar this time around, it would turn very quickly into a grind through the same song structure repeated ad nauseum. Also, the finale of the album is a bit of a let-down; it's as if they were midway through recording the title track, then suddenly realised they didn't have a song that felt climatic enough to end the album on, so they clunkily rammed an out-of-place, epic outro onto the end of the song. However, any points they loose for the above criticisms are won back for the fact that they've finally given up trying to write 'Swing Life Away Part II' - it's taken them a few albums, but I think they've finally gotten the message.
In fact, you can forgive most of these criticisms anyway, as overall, Endgame is a strong and gutsy record full of anthems, rousing calls-to-arms, and power-packed riffs aplenty. No, it isn't Revolutions Per Minute, but it's not trying to be either, and in a way it stands on it's own as a proud indictment of where Rise Against are right now. If that bothers you enough to start blethering on about how 'mainstream' and 'radio-friendly' they've apparently become, then save yourself the effort and go back to your copy of The Unraveling, because Rise Against couldn't give two shits about regressional steps backwards to appease hardcore fans, and they care even less about you. This is the Rise Against of 2011, not 2003, and while the sound is a bit more refined, the righteous fury remains the same.
Standout Tracks: 'Architects', 'Disparity by Design', 'Satellite'.
Label: DGC/Interscope Records
Release Date: March 15th, 2011