The power of the chorus is often underutilized in modern music. Modern pop songs at their very worst will have the chorus serve as nothing more than a catchy, functional bridge from verse to verse. Or sometimes, the reverse will be the case, with lousy verses framing otherwise fantastic choruses. However, it seems New Jersey’s the Break seems to have to gotten it right. On their second full-length Handbook for the Hopeless, the Break bring sophisticated songwriting to an otherwise tired and oversaturated market of hardcore punk bands. Melodic, well structured verses built into truly anthemic choruses, making Handbook for the Hopeless a truly refreshing and satisfying listen.
Credit must be paid to producer Alex Newport. Quickly becoming the go to guy in the underground scene, Newport has worked with a variety of acts including the Locust, At the Drive In, Ikara Colt and the Mars Volta. However, what makes his work unique is that he doesn’t leave his on thumbprint on a band’s work. Instead he seems to work with the band bringing out their best sensibilities will still maintaining a ferocious edge. Too often, bands that try to combine a melodic sensibility with a harder edge, often lose their fire when they are granted a bigger production budget. Perhaps they work with producers who aren’t quite sure of what to do with such an unbalanced, yet potent sound. Luckily, Newport is one of the few is truly able to clean up a band’s sound, yet retain the very qualities that are the group’s strengths.
However, lets not overstate the work Newport put in on this record, as in the end, a great production job can’t cover up sloppy songwriting. The Break, however, seem to have hooks and melodies coming out of their ears. Over a tightly wound 40 minutes, the Break deliver a caustic blend of smart lyrics and full throttle choruses. The band comes roaring out of the gate on “The Wolves at the Front Door”, an unrelenting fist-pumper that immediately displays the talents of Kevin Tunney and Mike Rummel. Instead of trying to out muscle each other with complex riffs, they pare down their arrangements to the essentials, and deliver them with confidence. The most part the band moves assuredly between the quieter and louder material without missing a beat. However, when the group tries to indulge in either extreme the results can be mixed. “Last Night in Manhattan” is a regrettable ballad that should’ve been left off the disc. Oddly sequenced as the discs fifth track, the song brings down the tempo of the album. On the flipside, the one minute and seventeen second barnburner, “Ride the Snake” is a great distillation of the Break’s sound into one angry piece.
What make the group more compelling, is the straight-ahead lyrics of vocalist John Waverka. Too often, literal, emotionally transparent lyrics can be cringe inducing. However, Waverka delivers these with such a passionate sincerity the listener can’t help but be sucked in. Whether lamenting about a lost chance with a girl (“Eyes Across the Aisle”), railing against religion (“Bullet and a Broken Cross”); the evils of capitalism (“Good Iron”) and complacency within a scene that regards itself as politically important (“The Wolves Are at the Front Door”), Waverka brings an astute and self-analyzing eye to his lyrics. As personal as they are political, Waverka is both honest and fervent.
Handbook for the Hopeless is one of the finer hardcore albums I’ve heard this year. Providing both a discourse on the modern world, and tunes that will bring the house down, the Break and poised to do just that.
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