When Set Your Goals made the jump from Eulogy to Epitaph for their sophomore effort, This Will be the Death of Us, they separated themselves from the pop-punk crowd; combining saccharine sweet melodies with aggressive hardcore is a fine tight rope to walk, but it’s one that the San Francisco sextet did well. The positively received disc and their exhaustive touring schedule led to the much anticipated release of their third album, Burning at Both Ends. Unfortunately, the promise set forth on Death of Us has not come to fruition.
The problem is not that much of the material on Burning at Both Ends is bad. On the contrary, there are several solid tracks and almost no terrible ones. A good portion of the disc, however, is just plain mediocre or leaves you with a feeling of musical blue balls. For example, the promising and blistering melodic hardcore opening of “Exit Summer” bleeds into a blah, too pop by half-chorus. Nostalgic posturing litters the disc, including tracks with lines like “I always want to feel this young” and a song about losing one’s virginity (“The Last American Virgin”). The Bay Area rockers do their own I Love the ‘80s episode, dropping references to Van Halen, Punky Brewster, Kiss, and Friday the 13th in “Product of the ‘80s”. The boys remind us just how old they are pointing out they grew up without DVDs, MP3s, or plasma screens. Can you imagine?!
Some of the album does capture the magic from Death of US. “Trenches” combines a catchy, crunchy riff with the uplifting vocals of Jordan Brown and Matt Wilson. The song also boasts the strongest of the truisms on the album: “Nothing comes for free, can’t put a price on feeling satisfied.” Solid guitar and vocal interplay anchor the infectious “Certain”, and despite its emo-ish lyrics, “New Year’s Day” displays SYG at their best, featuring punky yet polished guitars and Brown and Wilson’s mid-range verses and crooning choruses. Even still, none of the tracks reach the pop-hardcore fusion of “The Few That Remain”, “Equals”, or the accessible ferocity and social consciousness of “Gaia Bleeds (Make Way for Man)” from Set Your Goals’ previous release.
Veteran indie producer Brian McTernan does a stand-up job manning the dials, following the industry standard of shiny guitars and slick mixing without entirely muting aggression. Thankfully, there are no attempts at experimentation with acoustic ballads, strings, or pretentious song structure. There is, however, an odd and sophomoric dub-rock hidden track featuring cats and burping; but hey, it is a hidden track, so we’ll give them a pass. What we will not give the band a pass for is the somewhat disappointing nature of the album as a whole. In a stagnant and stale genre, Set Your Goals has too much going for them to not be head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. Either way, the band probably won’t care much what critics or anyone else think about them, as they make clear from the line from “Start the Reactor”: “I don’t do this to fit in or feel cool / I do this because it is what I love.”