Despite a tighter focus and compelling theme of faith, Memphis May Fire still wallows in the mediocrity of the faux-hardcore.
If there was any question that Memphis May Fire isn't a Christian band, there won't be any longer. Their latest release Unconditional is, top to bottom, crust to core, a Christian record. As recently as last year, the band has acknowledged a Christian faith in at least some of their members, and that it has influenced their songwriting, but denied the Christian moniker. There'll be no denying it anymore.
And you know what? Awesome. It's only natural for a deeply-held belief to manifest itself in your art. The band has a right to make this shift.
Unfortunately, that's the only shift the band has made. Their sound is still middling somewhere between the pure metalcore and the pop-punk/post-hardcore hybrids that clearly influence their sound. Songs are samey and the record lacks variation. Lyrically, the band has sharpened their focus, but the sonic palate at work here doesn't make any sense.
The first five tracks are all interchangeable faux-metalcore tunes. There's almost nothing remarkable about their structure, melody, instrumentation or arrangement. You've got the medium-loud verses set apart by a full-volume chorus, which begins with a momentary pause, augmented by guitar feedback or glitchy, digitized effects that are there to tell the listener, "Here comes the drop, it's gonna be big, get ready!" But it's an overused trope of the genre, and doesn't count as actual dynamics. There were few noticeable breakdowns and I can say for the first time I wanted more of them on a metalcore record.
Musically, the bright spots are the ballads. "Speechless" and "Need to Be" feature electric piano and trance-like beats, with mellow singing from the very capable Matty Mullins. His voice shines when Memphis May Fire takes things down a notch. More of these refreshing respites wouldn't go amiss.
The rest of the record is exhausting -- and confusing.
Consider the opener "No Ordinary Love". The song's message is of redemption and unconditional love -- from which we presumably get the album's title. The chorus here is sung from the perspective of Christ, who provides the clean vocals against the aggressive metal screams of a struggling Christian, who yells "I've just failed so many times / Is there any way that I could make it right?"
It's a warm, picturesque lyric, and an effective visualization of how the Christian God pursues his children.
Two tracks later on "Sleepless Nights", bleak, despairing lyrics are delivered against the same backdrop: "I stare deep down into the eyes of my nightmares / As they come to life."
"The Answer" follows directly after, a track praising God for rescuing the powerless from sin: "Now I see it's not about the things I've done / But what you've done in me."
"No Ordinary Love" sets up this genius framework for hardcore music to express the darkness and struggles of the Christian life. The screams are the doubts, the human nature rebelling against truth. The cleans are the voice of reason, or even the voice of God himself, calling after his troubled child. Memphis May Fire tells a beautiful story on track one, only to break its rules on tracks two through five. It's a mess. There are cleanly-sung vocals about desperation, loneliness and fear, and then there are screams and wails of joy and gladness. The record is inconsistent with itself, and lacks fittingness.
The only other time things seem to fit is on the record's best track, "Pharisees". It might be Unconditional's heaviest moment when the band thunderously, percussively bolsters the lyric, which cries "Hypocrite!" at those who spread hate in the name of God. The behavior of these modern-day pharisees infuriates many, and this song is massively cathartic.
A couple oddball tracks -- "Beneath the Skin" and "The Rose" -- are worth addressing as well.
"Beneath the Skin" sets out to be an edgy tune for the Christian set, reminding us that there are those in plain sight marginalized by the trivialization of our culture. Unfortunately, it's marred by cliche; a girl cuts herself because she can't live up to society's impossible standards of beauty: "Is our generation too blind to see / True beauty lies beneath the skin? So ignorant!" The sentiment has been delivered a hundred times before, and better.
"The Rose" is even more confusing. A follow-up in essence to "Prove me Right" off of Challenger, this song rails against the music industry at large, criticizing those who forgot or underestimated the otherwise-humble Memphis May Fire: "Now I won't take all the credit / But you sure don't deserve an ounce."
It's the only song on Unconditional ostensibly not about Christianity, and it's a self-aggrandizing tirade that would be unpleasant on its own, let alone how awkward it feels followed up by a song that asks “How can I need more when I’ve already won?” How indeed.
There is a place in this world for hardcore music. There's a place in this world for Christian music. There's no reason why hardcore music can't also be Christian music. Unfortunately, Memphis May Fire didn't find the right way to bring those two worlds together.