Pittsburg punk rock band Anti-Flag released their newest album titled American Spring on May 26 through Spinefarm Records. You can stream the album via Arts for Amnesty, which is Amnesty International’s platform that brings together artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers and all types of creative people who help us navigate the complex human rights challenges we face today. The decade-plus relationship between the band and this platform has seen Amnesty International volunteers serve as speakers at Anti-Flag shows.
Going into this album, I was a little anxious – I have been a fan of Anti-Flag for many years and have always wondered towards which directions they would turn with their work. Although their shirts would hang on the walls of D-Tox beside those of cheesy pop punk groups and radio-rock bands, there was always a substance to Anti-Flag’s music that I thoroughly enjoyed, and held onto like an overlooked gem. I’ve always appreciated the very populist way the band put together chant-along choruses and singsong melodies, while maintaining intellectual depth with their writing. In addition, as a musician myself, I’m a fan of Chris #2’s bass playing style and the way the band manages to weave their instrumental lines together. In listening to their best work, each instrument plays integral roles in the way the songs function, and oddly enough no members appear to be in the foreground or background. Something about this band utilizing such a formula always appeals to me and somehow seems very appropriate – a band whose message is based on fostering intellectuality and equality seems to embody it with the way they play their music.
When the first track, Fabled World, kicked off, I immediately got hit with my nostalgic love for this band’s catalogue, and in particular their work from albums like Mobilize and The Terror State. Fabled World has catchy verses and choruses and a well-played eight-bar solo. “If Dr. King were here today, he’d fight for much more than a dream,” singer Justin Sane yelps out. However, even with such a passionately wry line, I found a strange barrier in my enjoyment of this song that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. This barrier remained looming for the rest of the album, and became identifiable in listening to their older material afterwards.
To put it simply, American Spring is like a watered-down version of older Anti-Flag records. The band in this album still sounds like Anti-Flag and still play like Anti-Flag. Hell, they even have kick-drum bridges like Anti-Flag that ramp up, with the drumroll into the final chorus. However, when songs from previous albums like Turncoat or The W.T.O Kills Farmers urged a call for action out of listeners by enlightening them and teaching them political facts, American Spring acts essentially as a call to action without ever really telling you why. Most of the songs on this album come off as general to the point that the lyrics become an unimportant part of the song, when they once would have been a focal point.
In one of my favorite Anti-Flag songs, I’d Tell You But…, the words read like poetry and elicit an emotional response out of me. When taking the perspective of a casualty of war, Sane sings:
I loved to read, write poetry
I loved my friends, my family
I loved the sand and love the sea
The water splashing over me
Now I’m dead
My life is life no more
Your bullets cut into my flesh
In this song, Anti-Flag uses a creative story to illustrate the devastating impact of violence. In American Spring, pretty consistently throughout the album, the band skips the whole – you know – poetry part and instead hands out slogans about how war is wrong. In Without End, as well as most other songs on this record, the lyrics end up bordering on corny:
It’s the same game we all play
It’s a game that we can’t change
And there’s nothing you can say
To shake the sands of our own fate
Without end we rise!
I often enjoy musicians who utilize vague and general imagery. My Bloody Valentine and Pixies are masters of this approach to lyricism. However, my gripe with Anti-Flag taking on such an approach is that composing entire songs out of general statements and slogans, in the punk rock genre, ends up coming off as preachy and insincere. While there may be good intentions behind a song like Break Something (which I assume stands as a song in defense of rioters who are fed up with an unfair system), the band never deeply goes into them. Half the song ends up saturated in verses such as “I’m gonna break break something today!” Through such an approach, it becomes easy to imagine young teenagers hearing the music and seeing it as a justification for senseless violence, when surely this is not Anti-Flag’s intention – being so close to Amnesty International and all.
The watering-down, in my opinion, seeps into other parts of the new album as well. Listening to The Terror State and American Spring back to back, it’s easy to hear how much more complex Anti-Flag’s music was in their earlier work. Although many of the riffs on the new album are pleasing to the ear, the band’s lack of interest in musical discovery quickly becomes evident. All of the Poison, All of the Pain is a song based around a single riff. Every song on this album (except for To Hell With Boredom, a minute-long song) is composed around a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure. Perhaps this wouldn’t bother me so much if the lyrics were more interesting. Perhaps then it would seem as if Anti-Flag were commandeering the pop formula, to use it to their own ends. However, that is not the case of American Spring. Even the performances seem weaker than on past records. Less improvisation is heard from the bass and drums, while the vocals sound higher than usual.
This brings me to my problems with the production of this album. Compared to previous work, the bass is much lower in the mix and thus becomes barely audible, unless when it is playing alone. Some of my favorite parts of this album only end up as short introductions to songs like Sky Is Falling, which is introduced by the bass grooving away. On much of the rest of the album, it is difficult to pick up what the bass is doing: guitars have the spotlight and are mixed much louder, giving this album more of a radio-rock sound. In addition to this, the mix ends up with a very high range of notes, making the songs seem screechy at times but very rarely brooding, sinister or even danceable. Perhaps this new production style came from the band’s switch from SideOneDummy to Spinefarm Records. Whatever the cause, the mix ends up sounding unequal and throws off a crucial part of what I love about the band.
In the end, despite these flaws, this is not a horrible album. Some of the songs like Sky Is Falling and Fabled World are very catchy and have some standout instrumental parts. A couple of the songs still have glimmers of witty lyricism. In The Debate Is Over, Sane sings, “Just change the light you buy or just change the car you drive, but don’t change the makeup of their economy,” critiquing the rising trend of passive social leftism. As a whole, this album is nonetheless a disappointment for me. The aforementioned lyric is juxtaposed against countless verses that subconsciously propagate a call for passive leftism, by hammering in slogans while refusing to give substance. In Low Expectations, Sane describes it being difficult to actually care about political problems and the human tendency to follow status quo in a “sheep”-like way. This perhaps is a well-intentioned sentiment, but is only backed up by lines like “this place, it sucks and I don’t give a fuck” and not much else. The songs end up reading like thesis statements with no arguments. Because of this and the band’s reputation for standing for intellectuality and aversion to ignorance, this album has something hypocritical lodged very deep within itself. The message of this album ends up fighting against itself, which in turn greatly reduces the listening experience for me. This record will end up appealing more to a fan base interested in the “rebellious chic” than to actually changing the world. In my opinion, this makes the band a little more deserving of their D-tox t-shirt spot. American Spring will nonetheless gain its place on the Ipod of kids who knows nothing about politics and who aren’t looking to learn anything of substance from Anti-Flag’s music, but perhaps buy into the corporate leftism that the band denounces. Thus, this album ends up being a step back for me and I believe the band can do much better.