[3 February 2008]
Apart from the odd band like Stryper or Trouble, heavy metal is still constantly subject to the unfair stereotype that its minions are nothing but a bunch of devil-worshippers or pagans playing noise. That’s why a small gathering of Christian bands have been working hard to reverse this prejudice in recent years like never before. The efforts of a few are reaping results: there is now a fine crop of healthy young followers in the underground if you know where to look, crafting an explosively distorted, God-fearing assault.
As I Lay Dying and Underoath in particular seem to have paved the way for this so-called “white metal” trend, the latter in particular’s angular mix of jagged hardcore riffage, straight death metal growling, and fleeting melody finding surprising mainstream acceptance in 2006’s Define the Great Line. Where they have led, Michigan outfit For the Fallen Dreams play a more modest game of catch-up on their debut, Changes. Signed to the same label, Rise Records, as like-minded faith-pushers the Devil Wears Prada and Drop Dead, Gorgeous, and with said record’s cover art resembling a still straight out of I Am Legend, an empty city devoid of human life, the band are ostensibly guilty of playing for and within their own exclusive circle before you even listen to any of their material. Luckily, they back their moody, As I Lay Dying-esque metalcore up with aggro hooks and punishing albeit fluent tablatures aplenty, making their God anguish work well in the context.
What’s more, For the Fallen Dreams are some very tortured headbangers. They never really hit the gas pedal in ten tracks’ worth of material, taking a gratuitous pleasure in letting their unresolved minor-key chords, courtesy of guitarists Jim Hocking and Jason Spencer, ring with bitter clarity in our eardrums, often breaking them down into sinister arpeggio figures while they’re at it. This gives Changes an edge of desperation—album opener “Brothers in Arms” chants “Where were you when I needed you” with an almost prayer-like intensity. The group transfer the pain of carrying a great heavy weight on their shoulders into their music, without getting too sanctimonious. Bleakly self-explanatory titles like “Never Again”, “Last Dying Breath”, and “Hopeless” more or less speak for themselves.
Yet they’re not pained enough to disrupt their basic formula: the down-tuned growl of one guitarist meets the nimble, darting runs of the other and clash in the carnage. Chad Ruhlig’s vocal roar is formidably loud, but rather tuneless, even stifled through lack of variation. This doesn’t stop the cuts from serving the goods; the stabbing breakdown at the conclusion of “Hopeless” is a gruesome piece of work that promisingly rivals Lamb of God at their prime, while “The World Around Us” is the album’s most succinct moment, lyrically bereft and ponderous (“Look at the world around us / And how the times have changed / As we go through these trials / Each and every day”) over a monstrous, nasty jam.
Only two tracks on Changes don’t follow For the Fallen Dreams’ template. One suffers for it: the boring “Vengeance” is a redundant nu-metal styled kiss-off with stale lyrics and a snooze-worthy riff to boot, involving a lot of overdubbed f-words and clichés (Ruhlig shouts “You are nothing!” like it’s a revelation). The other is a touch more interesting—the guitarists are finally allowed to stretch their fingers and run free (that is, solo) on a two-minute instrumental title track.
Changes seems like quite a strange proposition on paper, reflective songwriting focused on higher wisdom set to brutal down-tuned thrash. Yet it’s an album that doesn’t sacrifice its heavy ride for realizing the importance of a place for lyrics and their melodic flow, which can only be counted as a triumph for this crew. “Where do I go from here?” Ruhlig implores as the CD closes. The only place they can go from here is up.