When Grade first exploded on the scene they were unlike anything anyone ever heard before. Led by frontman Kyle Bishop, the group mixed metal riffs with soaring pop-punk choruses. Grade quickly attained a rabid following, spawned a legion of lesser imitators, and were credited by some as the founders of “screamo”. Despite their rapid growth and devoted following, Grade never quite achieved the mainstream success that most fans almost expected.
Its been four years since Grade dropped what would be their last album, and frontman Kyle Bishop has been quiet. The Black Maria marks his return to the stage, and it would seem he’s ready for his share of mainstream success. Teaming up with ex-members of Zyon and New Day Rising, Lead Us to Reason is an unremarkable stab at alternative rock. Anyone hoping for the kind of frenetic energy and breathless performances that marked the best of Grade’s material is in for a disappointment. The Black Maria isn’t here to push the envelope, but rather fit comfortably right inside.
It should be noted that Bishop has taken the passenger seat in the Black Maria, with Chris Gray taking lead vocal duties. Picking up the guitar instead and contributing backing vocals has allowed Bishop a greater focus on the songwriting. The songs themselves are extremely well formed, but it comes at the expense of any surprises. Lead Us to Reason is an 11-song exercise that does little to distinguish itself from the glut of likeminded bands that already crowding up the FM dial and the pages of Spin magazine.
The album starts intriguingly enough with “The Memento”. The track opens with hard panned synths whipping in and out of each speaker. It’s probably the most interesting 30 seconds the disc offers, but the band leave it behind and instead step into the Used territory. The music is competently played, but there is nothing new here, nor is it particularly inspired. After five tracks that deviate little from the formula laid out in “The Memento” (minus its introduction), the Black Maria toss in the token piano-driven ballad with “The Lines We Cross”. After checking that one off the list, the band shifts right back into their predictable ways. Curiously, it’s a visit by Everytime I Die singer Keith Buckley that breathes a little bit of life into the Black Maria on album closer “Rats In The Prison”. Coming in at a tight three minutes, Buckley’s contribution and the band’s streamlined musical performance show hints at a much livelier, edgier Black Maria that is perhaps hiding beneath the otherwise lackadaisical songwriting.
There is nothing wrong with a bid at mainstream success, but there is an undeniable weight of expectation that comes with spinning the Black Maria disc. For better or for worse, Bishop will more than likely be the focus of many reviews of Lead Us to Reason. Some will say that the Black Maria should be judged on their merits. Perhaps, but even then, the group deliver little is worth much attention, and at worse, Lead Us to Reason is a pedestrian retread of alternative music over the past two years.