In the light of last year’s US presidential election, a recurring mantra spread throughout the music community, affirming that the election of Donald Trump would breathe a new lease of life into the contemporary punk scene, ushering in some of the most aggressive, biting and vigorous hardcore punk to have been released in years. As much as countless music publications attempted to reassure their readers of this claim, there was really no reason to presume that this would, in fact, be the case. For a start, punk isn’t the through-and-through politically-charged genre now that it was upon its inception, and those bands who are active in promoting or denouncing certain sociopolitical ideas had no reason to alter their stances upon the election of President Trump. After all, for those concerned about issues that have typically been at the forefront of anarcho/hardcore punk, Trump could merely be seen as a physical embodiment of problems that were already ingrained into the American political system. What’s more, these types of punk groups had no real reason to become any more vocal about the Trump administration than they had been about, for instance, the foreign policy of the Obama administration. Truth be told, as long as there is authority, there will be something for punks to resist, so the inauguration of President Trump was unlikely to bring about this new wave of political punk as we were promised. When it comes to the case of Rise Against, however, who rank amongst the most commercially successful politically-charged punk outfits of the 2000s, frontman Tim McIlrath expressed prior to the release of their newest record, Wolves, that Rise Against were to be a band to stem Trump’s tide.
Although this may not have come as a surprise to many of their fans, given their fruitful history as a politically active and vociferous group, Rise Against have never been a punk band to name names during their diatribes. Indeed, rather than a pinpointed sniper shot, McIlrath’s brand of political outspokenness has yielded lyrics that read more like scattered shotgun blasts aimed not at any specific politicians or institutions, but at more general trends in US politics and public opinion. Of course, a sceptic might say that this obscurity to their lyrics and unwillingness to call a spade a spade arises from the band’s success on the charts and rock radio preventing them from voicing any opinions that are too direct or divisive. Then again, with Rise Against having retained a degree of mainstream relevancy since the early-to-mid-2000s, it could also be said the group understand that saying anything too contentious could lose them some of their platform, so instead they simply promote critical thinking and compassion in a rather general fashion in an attempt to engage their mostly young audience to at least consider issues of politics and ethics. As such, the idea that Wolves could actually see McIlrath address Trump directly is undoubtedly worthy of raising some eyebrows. However, with the full album having now arrived, there’s little here that would suggest that a game-changing election had taken place since the release of The Black Market back in 2014, rather the group stick to their guns when it comes to the aforementioned shotgun blasts of political fervour. If anything, much of Wolves could be said to be even more general, and borderline vapid at times, when it comes to providing any semblance of profound criticism of the current state of American politics. Musically speaking, too, Wolves is lacking in much of the punch or the poignancy that brings such a striking sense of potency to the band’s hard-nosed punk rock tunes and their heartfelt ballads respectively. That’s not to say that this album is completely missing any of the pieces that comprise the core appeal for a group like Rise Against, rather there are instances in which a flare of ferocity or spark of solicitude are unequivocally evident, but much of Wolves nevertheless lacks the edge, both lyrically and musically, that tends to ignite their melodic hardcore anthems so fiercely.
Rise Against’s best albums tend to be all about balance. When it comes to their music, it’s an effective equilibrium between fast-paced punk punchiness and touches of well-worked, arresting melodies that captures the best of both sides to the band, whilst one could always expect a nuanced balance between their vehement, denunciatory politics and their appeals to populism and hope on the lyrical side of things. In the case of Wolves, if we are to unpack its lyrics first, the scales seem to be tipped more towards the forward-looking resolve of their discourse, rather than the accusatory causticity that many expected to hear from McIlrath given the election of President Trump. Of course, if the group consciously came to the conclusion that focussing more on promoting an image of optimism and hope for the future would be more beneficial to strengthening the morale of the politically disenfranchised fans amongst their audience, such a move would be perfectly admirable. However, it’s not so much that Wolves witnesses Rise Against intentionally opt for such an attitude, rather than the songs throughout the tracklisting that prioritise populism over pointing fingers tend to be far more successful in bringing any particularly insightful or refreshing ideas to the table, which is wherein the more zealous tracks fall somewhat short. The closest McIlrath comes to directly addressing Donald Trump appears on the cut How Many Walls, but his rhetorical questions regarding immigration policy and gun legislation seem to simply evoke many of the platitudes that can be heard on any left-leaning media outlet, whilst the handful of other clichés that are referenced, such as being fed lies and needing something to change, don’t shine any new light on such issues either. Coming to think of it, McIlrath has always had a tendency to ask rhetorical questions in his lyrics, and this is potentially because they provide a means of planting certain ideas in the listener’s head without having to be heavy-handed in expressing one’s opinion. However, in the past, the singer has occasionally used them as a crutch to avoid bluntly expressing an especially controversial or critical opinion, and it’s across Wolves wherein this seems more evident than ever. Unfortunately, this is slightly true of The Violence, which, despite being the record’s lead single and the first song from Rise Against in nearly three years upon its initial release, is not quite the forceful first statement from the band since the 2016 election that it was portrayed as or could have been. This is largely a result of much of the rudimentary doomsday imagery invoked by McIlrath during the first half of the song, but the frontman’s ruminations during the chorus regarding whether humans will ever amount to “something greater than the violence in our nature” is a rather striking, if somewhat pessimistic, point of consideration. Thankfully, the heightened confidence in McIlrath’s contemplations — which grow more assertive as the song progresses, until reaching the point of calling for a storm to wash away the dirt that has stained US politics — provides an admirably well-assembled building and release of tension that bolsters his appeal to change at the point of the song’s climax. Outside of a very narrow selection of examples, however, much of Wolves covers ground that has already been explored by Rise Against in a far more compelling fashion previously, with a track like Bullshit being a rather insipid vilification of those who have remained compliant with the direction of American politics, as it’s hard for such a song to carry any real weight without naming any names or citing any examples. With even the relationship-focussed tracks on the album, House On Fire and Politics Of Love, appealing to the same turbulent emotions that typically work their way into these sorts of songs for Rise Against, Wolves can feel somewhat less inspired than the group’s previous material, even in spite of its context.
Likewise, Wolves plays to Rise Against’s usual territory on a musical basis, and anyone who has heard a recently released record from the band will likely know exactly what to expect from their newest release. That’s not to say that there are any bad moments across the tracklisting, but there certainly isn’t the same diversity in songwriting and presentation that made this record’s predecessor, The Black Market, such an impressive — and, in my opinion, underrated — undertaking for the group. Perhaps the salient reason for this arises from the fact that Wolves is Rise Against’s first record to be released for Virgin Records and, as such, is their first album in 11 years to not feature production credits from long-time partners Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore. Instead, Nick Raskulinecz is sat at the control desk, and the fact that he has worked with bands who often strike a similar balance between power and melody to Rise Against, including the group’s current touring partners, Deftones, would make it seem as if he would be a prime candidate to receive the baton from Stevenson and Livermore. Despite this, Raskulinecz’s production seems to too heavily favour Rise Against’s hardcore side, leaving their melodic leanings slightly played down in a way that renders Wolves lacking in dynamic range, to an extent. This is only exacerbated by the fact that this album is missing the moving ballad towards its backend — à la People Live Here from The Black Market, as well as other famous Rise Against acoustic songs, like Swing Life Away and Hero Of War — which has often provided a satisfying sense of momentary respite before a record’s final few, foot-to-the-floor, hardcore punk bangers. Instead, many of the refrains read rather similarly across Wolves, leading to only a handful of stand-out moments. Of course, there are some exceptionally gripping songs to be found throughout the tracklisting, with the opening title track being a perfect example. The slightly odd phrasing of the initial, call-and-response punctuations between McIlrath and the rest of the band set the listener off balance in a way that demands their complete concentration instantly, and Rise Against make the most of having their audience’s attention, with the singer’s vocal melodies, Zach Blair’s guitar licks and the group’s abrupt accents throughout the rest of the song being amongst the most engaging and generally well-written across the course of the album. House On Fire keeps up the melodic vitality of the opening track during its opening breaths, but by the time of the chorus, Rise Against begin to fall into their usual routine, with the refrain being rather rudimentary, just as the usual cut-outs and build-ups during the bridge section could be seen coming from a mile away for any fan of theirs. Deeper into the tracklisting, with songs like Parts Per Million and the closing track, Miracle, following the Rise Against compositional blueprint to the letter, it can be hard to view Wolves, as a whole, as adding anything of note to the group’s catalogue.
Essentially, Wolves amounts to a release for Rise Against that, although far from bad and perfectly decent overall, quite simply lacks a discernible edge to set it apart from the band’s past output in a particularly potent fashion. The group applies the same songwriting fundamentals that comprise their strongest material, but leave them unaltered to the point of missing the element of surprise that could make these songs so much more gripping. Much of the same could be said for the lyrical content across the course of the record, with the end product being a positive album, but one that nonetheless makes no defining statement for the band and, thus, leaves little in the way of a mark on their discography. Indeed, perhaps the greatest weakness of Wolves is that it’s almost disappointingly innocuous. The compositional groundwork is here and is effective enough to make the record a worthwhile spin, but Rise Against have made much more commanding statements in the past.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10