With a fresh line-up and new singer, plus a mini-promotion from Chris Daughtry that put them back on the map, Fuel's fourth album is still one of the gloomiest rock you'll hear all year.
As far being radio-friendly goes, Fuel always demanded more respect than most bands doing the circuit, mainly on the strength of several powerful singles across three decent studio efforts. That’s why, after a long absence in which they all but disappeared, save for a useless Greatest Hits cash-in that rightfully tanked in every sense of the word, it’s reassuring to see them bounce back for album number four.
Band member departures are among the most trying times in a group’s career, and it hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride for Fuel, with casualties first in the form of drummer Kevin Miller and then singer Brett Scallions. All things considered, it was only by the determination of the band (or what was left of it) that 2003’s Natural Selection wasn’t their final breath. The two remaining members uncovered one Alaskan-born singer Toryn Green, and drafted former Godsmack percussionist Tommy Stewart. They were given a lucky promotions boost via Chris Daughtry’s American Idol rendition of their chilling “Hemorrhage (In My Hands)”. That guaranteed an audience ready to lap up the new incarnation of Fuel.
Old fans needn’t worry about any drastic style changes on Angels & Devils, if they can forgive it for its beyond unimaginative title. It’s a case of Green sounding identically like the old one, except with perhaps an even more bleak, venomous tone to his scratchy demented caterwaul. Listen to him for half an hour, and you’ll feel like sucking a lemon or something, which isn’t much of a problem, as it suits the music. According to frontman and guitarist Carl Bell, the lyrics are meant to reflect “extreme sentiment in the face of animosity”.
But while he was caught up in such extreme sentiments, it seems as if the band as a whole have fallen behind. The main problem plaguing Angels & Devils is that it lacks tension -- a bunch of reliable, hard rock-tinged post-grunge songs about fizzled relationships that plod along, missing even the high drama of emo. Green strains his voicebox at progressively more strenuous levels throughout a track, and the guitars responds by changing frequency... Bell’s glaringly limited skills confine him mostly to simplistic chord-shapes.
It would be a stretch to ever call Fuel’s music happy, but the lyrics here are their most defeatist ever, and not angsty so much as downright depressed. “The simple truth is hearts were made to fail / No matter how we try”, Green broods on “I Should Have Told You”, in what is otherwise a break-up ode done by the book.
Imagine if first single “Wasted Time”, which would be better titled “Everything’s Wasted”, became a major hit. Based around lush acoustic guitars, strings, and a turned-up-to-11 midtempo chorus, it includes the chorus “Everything’s broken / Everything’s vacant / Everything’s wasted time again”. Then Green complains about “all the bitter pills you made me swallow”. Is he for real? At least Nickelback’s “If Everyone Cared” had a positive temperament to it. We’re treated to two versions of it on the recording, making it difficult to determine which is the better, although the second is perhaps more soulful and crisper.
It would be tempting to brush it all off as insipid, as each song takes an increasingly world-weary stance and a shortage of emotion further hampers proceedings, making the disc comparable to a grey watercolor painting like the one of an angel and devil facing off in the liner notes. However, that would be denying its undoubtable power to stay with you. “Wasted Time” is a ballad as only Fuel can do it, elegantly constructed rather than played to suck as much impact out of it as possible, carefully layered in a way that’s far from groundbreaking but achieves the desired effect. “Leave the Memories Home” has a passing similarity to the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris”, building from an acoustic singalong to a whitewash of spacey piano and synth effects, even if it doesn’t ever quite get off the ground to soar, and “Not This Time” is the heaviest of the lot, with a growling lick nonetheless a bit too leaden.
The band’s strengths remain present in force throughout the whole album, with cuts like “Again” leaving a pained ringing in the ears long after it has wound down, while a churning, spiralling chorus works wonders on “Angels Take a Soul” and “Hangin’ Around”. And Stewart dishes out a roll of consistently impressive drum fills that form the backbone of the album, making it nigh impossible not to tap your foot along in time.
Still, for all that, Devils & Angels is an ultimately frustrating listen, awash in exaggerated dynamics and production but with no soul, one hook-filled standout sandwiched between horrible, corny, outdated post-grunge. Carl Bell is a man afraid to commit and trust, his bluntly pessimistic lyrics spilling out over the record as the dominant theme, especially with version two of “Wasted Time” closing things like an anthemic deathmarch.
It would be revealing to see where all this anguish is coming from; or maybe we should just pray for him to brighten up a bit on future releases, now his band has been reborn. I hate ‘what ifs’ as much as the next guy, yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that Angels & Devils is merely a solid rock album in Fuel’s catalog, when it really had the potential to be great.