To Rise Against’s credit, they’ve at least maintained some degree of credibility in the face of success. The Chicago four-piece has spent the last decade rather comfortably at the top of the Billboard charts. They’ve long since bypassed the underground and are pretty firmly well established in the mainstream. Yet, unlike countless others in a similar position, they’ve retained their fundamental beliefs. They’re vegan, straight edgers with strong political ideologies and are unafraid to fly their flags high. This is the kind of band who include a recommended reading and viewing lists in their liner notes. These lists have included Naomi Klein, Michael Moore and others of a similar political bent. Whatever you want to fire at them, you can’t deny they are passionate about what they speak on. They’re informed, albeit from skewed sources, and want to use their platform of success to broadcast a message for a positive change. One must commend this as they’re in a minority within the industry. But the problem with Rise Against is this: they haven’t delivered a decent album in 15 years. So while the message hasn’t varied, neither has the accompanying music. They’re like Hot Topic’s answer to AC/DC; consistently delivering the same record with minor variations and the occasionally brilliant single. Wolves, their latest outing, is basically melodic hardcore’s Blow Up Your Video. It’s exactly what it says on the tin and little more.
To a degree, it’s hard to fault the band for this as it’s been a constant throughout their career. Pluck any number of tracks from Sufferer and The Witness, Endgame, Appeal to Reason and Siren Song of the Counter Culture and you’d struggle to differentiate them, aside from their production values. Wolves’ songs sit snuggly among its peers. Tim McIlrath’s distinctly graveled bark is offset against “Woah-Woah” gang vocals, while the guitars hit 150 BPM and the drums do that “du-du-tiss” pattern that hardcore kids love so much. There’s no real deviation from this formula. Gone are acoustic ballads and electronic experiments that coloured The Black Market. In its place is straightforward punk music. And while the music isn’t terribly inspired, it does basically do the job well. To focus on the music is a fool’s errand. It’s like judging a Bad Religion record based on the bass performance. Jay Bentley could knock ‘em out the park when it called for it, but mostly we’re interested in Greg Graffin’s intelligent proselytising.
By that token, the main source of intrigue with Rise Against are the lyrics. McIlrath trades in a brand of articulate, well-read rage that few of his contemporaries can match. Yet there’s no new fury. This could have come out at any time in their history. These guys have always had strong socio-economic overtones in their lyrics. They’ve written about LGBTQ suicides, dehumanization of veterans and our society’s eventual collapse at the hands of climate change. Yet, despite the fact that their government is an openly anti-LGBTQ, jingoistic warmongering bunch of climate change deniers, they can’t seem to muster anything exciting or particularly relevant to say. Instead, we get ‘Politics of Love’ and ‘House on Fire’, these melodramatic odes to an unhealthy relationship. As much as we should applaud emotional frankness, let’s not lose sight of the bigger, more pertinent picture. There’s a tiny-handed despot leading their nation. Unapologetic sloganeering is very seldom welcome. But this is definitively the moment where that adolescent passion and simplicity needs encouraging. We don’t need introspection and self-affirmation, we need rebellion and rejection. What’s so frustrating is that they occasionally realise this fact, recognise the error of their ways and deliver a fist in the air manifesto. The best example of this is ‘Welcome to the Breakdown’ which is confrontational, concise and class. ‘Bullshit’ and ‘Parts Per Million’ are decent cuts too, but that lack the immediacy and power that they desperately crave. They’re able to give us the good stuff, but they simply don’t.
The best point of comparison would be Desaparecidos’ Payola. Conor Oberst and crew knew exactly what they were making and made sure that piss, vinegar, and blood dripped from every word and riff they crafted. Rise Against simply don’t. Consider the narrative: a successful punk group who never sold out fighting against a demagogue who represents everything they’ve stood against crafting the soundtrack to his downfall. Spec scripts have sold on weaker premises. Punkers this late in the game making a politically vital treatise and being massively rewarded for it isn’t an impossibility. They’ve made American Idiot into a Broadway show because it was so stupidly popular. With that in mind, this should have been the moment where they became one of the most relevant rock groups in the world and they fumbled it. Let’s hope that’s not a metaphor for the next 4 years. Will Murphy