Regarded as pariahs by fans of traditional metal, it’s easy to understand why Atreyu has been the subject of great derision from the metal crowd over the last couple of years. One of the most popular metalcore bands in America, the Orange County, California, band employs every cliché in the book, from the all-too-overused “good cop/bad cop” vocal style (in which a hardcore “screamer” is offset by an emo singer), to relying heavily on power metal guitar riffs, to those silly haircuts and that eyeliner. However, as silly as Atreyu look, as straightforward as they sound, from a musical standpoint they work the clichés well enough to stand out from the rest of the metalcore hordes. The dual vocals are actually done rather well, Alex Varkatzas’s tone-deaf retching matched by the singing of drummer Brandon Saller, who pulls off some very catchy vocal hooks. While the guitar work is nothing new, Dan Jacobs is a very talented lead guitarist, capable of nimble riffs that sound equal parts Accept and Diamond Head, not to mention some of the flashiest solos you’ll hear in metalcore today.
Trouble is, Atreyu never take enough risks. Their 2004 album The Curse was bolstered by some tremendous songs that transcended the cookie-cutter vibe, such as the galloping “Bleeding Mascara” and the terrific, ultra-catchy single “Right Side of the Bed”, both of which dipped into early ‘80s metal while sounding trendy enough to please the kids. Despite being a somewhat likeable album, too many songs reverted to plain-jane hardcore, pandering to the spin-kicking hardcore kids, and boring the hell out of the headbangers. If that wasn’t enough, their peers in Avenged Sevenfold left Atreyu in their dust in 2005, as their epic, fabulous disaster of an album City of Evil ingeniously melded Iron Maiden and Helloween with surreal, pop-punk choruses. As big a mess as City of Evil was, it was an album that dared to attempt something different, and Avenged Sevenfold’s boldness was rewarded by huge sales.
Which leads us to Atreyu and the crucial follow-up to their commercial breakthrough, and while A Death-Grip on Yesterday does take some baby steps in an attempt to build on the success of the previous record, it’s ultimately a complacent piece of work that, despite some good moments, can’t quite manage to fully take flight. To no one’s surprise, the vocal hooks still dominate, as Saller continues to pull off an uncanny Grant Hart imitation (that’s Hüsker Dü, kids), his melodies dominating tracks like “Creature”, “Shameful”, “The Theft”, and the oh-so-cleverly titled “Untitled Finale”, but for the most part, producer Josh Abraham, who has worked on massively successful, yet painfully drab albums by Velvet Revolver and Staind, has the band dumbing-down their sound more than ever, relying heavily on uninspired riffs that sound more nü-metal than metalcore. Actually, if it wasn’t for the fact that nearly every song is rescued by choruses that are guaranteed to thrill the Warped Tour crowd, the album would be a complete waste of time.
We do get traces of old school metal appearing from time to time, as on the tasteful gallop of “Our Sick Story”, the melodic single “Ex’s and Oh’s” (dudes, seriously, work on your titles), and “My Fork in the Road”, all of which are highlighted by the fluid, fleet-fingered fretboard work of Jacobs (dig those ‘80s divebombs on “Ex’s”). Unfortunately, as the saying goes, it’s hard to soar like an eagle when you’re in a room full of turkeys, and Jacobs’s talents are for the most part wasted on an album that has Atreyu taking the easy way out, a paltry 32 minutes of lowest-common-denominator kiddiecore, instead of playing to their strengths. Their many fans deserve something better.