There was a moment, about halfway through the first track of Flobots’ second major label effort Survival Story, when I thought I might be hearing a group finally taking the template provided by Rage Against the Machine so many years ago and running with it, giving it a 2010 spin. “Cracks in the Surface” is bursting with energy and noise and yelling and righteous indignation, a combination that Flobots’ previous effort, Fight with Tools, hinted at, but never achieved. Unfortunately, the rest of Survival Story goes back to the rock-radio-ready hip-hop of the previous album, complete with a slick sheen that feels a more than a bit incongruous with the anti-establishment, anti-war, anti-government sentiments of the lyrics.
The problem is that there’s a fine line between passion and preaching, and Flobots fall on the wrong side of it too often. It’s commendable that they want to rhyme over beats provided by a band rather than studio machines (and that they want to employ a full-time violist as part of that band), but so do the Roots, and at least the Roots have some concept of subtlety. It’s just as commendable that they want to open their listeners’ eyes to the injustices and conspiracies perpetrated by those charged to lead us, but perhaps falling so often on awkward metaphor isn’t the best avenue to achieve that goal. Survival Story is absolutely packed with good intentions, but those intentions are too often wasted on bluster for the sake of bluster.
For example, first single “White Flag Warrior” is an anti-war anthem that feels years late. “They say war is necessary / But we say war is child abuse”, says Jonny 5 before Tim McIlrath starts yelling that “we’d rather make our children martyrs than murderers”. Right or not, anti-war furor is lower than it’s been in a long time thanks to the host of domestic issues dominating the press, so much so that it’s hard to imagine much of an audience for it. “Defend Atlantis” is more timely in its message, but equating our fate with that of the famed lost underwater city feels simultaneously obvious and extreme. “Whip$ and Chain$” decries the phenomenon of power in the hands of the rich, suffering from a similar sort of metaphorical obviousness.
The problem is that it all amounts to a whole lot of complaining, without a call to action to back it up. What made Rage Against the Machine so vital all those years ago was that you never doubted the band’s willingness to stand up for its beliefs, to try and change the system it so despised, to stand as an example of what its members expected from their audience. While it would be presumptuous to go so far as to call Flobots’ activism a gimmick, their music betrays their intentions by portraying them as a band too focused on finding clever ways to complain.
If there is a bright spot to be found, it’s in the viola work of Mackenzie Roberts, who is too often overshadowed by the weighty production work of longtime Beastie Boys producer Mario Caldato, Jr. The apocalyptic musings of “Defend Atlantis” are made tolerable by both the viola motif that gives the song its basis and the minor key scales sung by Ms. Roberts; when she disappears from the song it sounds like Generic Rap-Rock Tune #7,152. The plucking of closer “Panacea for the Poison” may evoke the Flobots’ one big hit just a little too closely, but at least they give the song identity. It’s easy to think of Roberts as an afterthought as the guitars and drums and vocals crash all around her, but the sometimes stately, sometimes fiery work that she does is perhaps the most important and impressive musical element of the Flobots sound.
Viola’s not enough, though. Survival Story is Just Another Rap-Rock Record, something you’ve probably heard if you ever listened to P.O.D., or Linkin Park, or Limp effing Bizkit. It’s trying to say something, but it’s failing, and all we end up hearing is noise.