Artist: August Burns Red
So far, 2020 has brought us a boatload of incredible music—and if you follow this site (or my writing) in particular, you’ll notice that we’ve had the pleasure of covering a lot of it. Of all the artists I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and all the records I’ve had the joy of reviewing in the year’s first quarter, not one of them defies the need for an introduction more than Lancaster-based metalcore giants August Burns Red defy the need for introduction.
They’re still going to get one, though.
Erupting from modest beginnings to take the underground by storm before dabbling in more “mainstream” endeavors (you know, like being nominated for two Grammy awards), August Burns Red are a staple for many heavy music enthusiasts, old to new, young to old. The band’s ninth studio album, Guardians follows the overwhelming success of Phantom Anthem, a record that made even skeptics of the group (like me) fans in a single listen. Built on the same unshaking firmament of furious metalcore with elements of progression, aggression and atmosphere about, Guardians sees August Burns Red continuing to blend passion with punishing heaviness refined by a sharp metallic edge. The real question is this—does three years in the oven leave Guardians tasting as sweet as its predecessor, or does it fall flat?
August Burns Red’s notoriety stems from the fact that they intricately—yet seamlessly—blend progressive elements into a backbone of bold, relentless metalcore in a fashion that satisfies the prog-obsessed elite within the genre as aptly as it satisfies those just in it for the breakdowns. Guardians doesn’t disappoint on either front, be it the ruthless aggression within “Defender,” or the jazz-influenced atmosphere abound in “Empty Heaven” and the closing portion of “Extinct by Instinct.” In short, much of Guardians sees August Burns Red doing what they do best. Percussionist Matt Greiner—one of the act’s remaining founding members—is constantly entertaining, bewildering the listener with fast hands and fleet feet on “Defender,” “Bloodletter” and “The Narrative” while using more subtle displays of skill throughout “Lighthouse” and the record’s closing cuts. Greiner’s skills are in top form throughout, with bouncy, fun footwork giving Guardians an upbeat and energetic cadence for bassist Dustin Davidson to add heft and density to. “Bloodletter,” alongside “Bones” are brilliant examples of this—as Davidson’s bass adds a sense of weight and power to even the more ethereal elements present within each track. “Extinct by Instinct,” on the other hand, sees Davidson dialing back on the more aggressive low end and adding a sense of catchiness through bouncy, elastic groove. This same dynamic—the one between brutish bass and more elegant work—defines the efforts of guitarists John “JB” Brubaker and Brent Rambler. Brubaker and Rambler—the remaining founding members—are able to create songs with sections that hit like a fifty pound sledge that flow smoothly into sections that caress and soothe the listener. Take “Three Fountains” or “Empty Heaven” for example. These songs see Brubaker’s riffs and leads working with Rambler’s, and together weaving hither and to, dropping devastating breakdowns in a meshwork of metalcore brilliance. With that said, the duo—and August Burns Red—aren’t spot on all the time. Songs like “Lighthouse” or “Bones” feel somewhat flat and unremarkable when put against “Defendant” or “The Narrative”—two examples where August Burns Red roar on all cylinders. This isn’t to say the band’s pitfalls are catastrophes; they are simply weaknesses in the otherwise mesmerizing experience that is Guardians.
Phantom Anthem saw August Burns Red’s instrumentation not only take a colossal leap forward, but it also saw immense growth on the part of frontman Jake Luhrs. Luhrs went from a somewhat monotonous—albeit powerful—vocalist to one with a broader range and intensified ability to emote. Where the same magnitude of growth is absent going into Guardians, Luhrs surely hasn’t lost his touch. From the onset of “The Narrative,” Luhrs uses August Burns Red’s latest release as a podium to speak on social and environmental injustice, as well as personal struggles—all in the setting of a more grandiose tale—making Guardians one of the band’s strongest records to date in the lyrical theatre. Where “Defendant,” “The Narrative,” “Bloodletter” and “Dismembered Memory” see Luhrs at the top of his game, dominating with a raw mid range yell that dives into grisly lows effortlessly, “Lighthouse” and “Bones,” alongside much of “Paramount” once more fall relatively flat. The chorus of “Lighthouse,” while lyrically poignant, is one of the only truly skippable moments Guardians puts forth, while the closing section and intensity of “Paramount” only just make up for a relatively lackluster majority of the cut. These sections are isolated and ultimately forgettable, but in the context of August Burns Red’s prior success, they feel almost glaring despite their otherwise innocuous nature.
Overall, Guardians is a righteous testament to diversity within metalcore. It boasts heaviness, catchiness, bounce, emotion, groove—you name it, it’s there—but it simply lacks the staying power that made Phantom Anthem such an outstanding record. While August Burns Red’s 2020 release isn’t a whole step backwards, it fails to continue the incredible trajectory and, in many ways, halts the band’s momentum, feeling like a record that—with just a little more refinement—could have been another star-studded entry in the band’s ever-evolving discography.
For Fans Of: Invent Animate, Currents, Killswitch Engage, Fit for a King
By: Connor Welsh