Rise Against do their best impression of Rise Against.
Appeal to Reason is a Rise Against album. If you possess more than a passing familiarity with the band, I wouldn’t even bother scrolling through the rest of this review, and I’d certainly avoid checking out the rating at the end of it -- because that first sentence, for better or worse, says everything that needs to be said about this album. You know exactly -- let me stress that: exactly -- what you’re getting, and reading this review would be as redundant as, well, writing essentially the same album that you’ve been writing for your entire career as a popular music artist. Which is, of course, what Rise Against have done with Appeal to Reason.
For those of you who don’t know exactly what you’re getting: lots of Bad Religion-influenced punk rock, most of which has one foot in traditionalist hardcore and the other in pop-punk harmony; empowering chant-along choruses replete with more “whoaohhh” and “hey! hey! hey!” backing vocals than you’ve likely heard on a single album in your life; socio-political commentary (courtesy of chief vocalist/lyricist Tim McIlrath) that, while imbued with all the subtle poetry of a brick hitting someone in the face, remains endearing through its sheer sincerity; and a frustrating, unwavering devotion to the old verse-chorus-bridge structure.
As is the irony with many self-styled punk rock albums these days, Appeal to Reason is remarkably safe, conservative even in comparison to Rise Against’s past efforts. McIlrath rarely reaches beyond his one-note vocal performance despite apparent and commendable earnestness, and if he does let loose with a few screams they’re cordoned off to the end of the track where they can’t contaminate the chorus; he never channels the intensity of early-career songs like “Dead Ringer”, let alone the intensity of Henry Rollins. The other members of the band don’t fare much better: new lead guitarist Zach Blair, in particular, might have his three-chord attack down to a science, but the formula wears thin by the time the album gets through its first 30 minutes -- and after that, there are still 18 to go. And the song writing doesn’t get much more imaginative in the disc’s final act.
In fact, there are only three timbral variations throughout the entirety of Appeal to Reason, which I’ll just go ahead and list here in the interest of being thorough: (1) The acoustic ballad “Hero of War” which, despite being an obvious retread of the band’s surprise 2004 hit “Swing Life Way”, manages a cynical lyric that makes the song’s sentimentality work in its favor, (2) the bridge of late-album track “Entertainment”, which takes the form of a completely unexpected calliope waltz that would be more at home on a System of a Down album, and (3) the final track on the album begins with a few seconds of, uh, birds chirping.
But, despite the dismissive tone of this review, this is by no means a bad album. Any artist who stakes out their territory in the realm of hardcore punk is inevitably going to run up against the walls of the genre, and it’s there that they face a difficult decision. Either leave the confines of that genre behind for the sake of artistic growth -- as Rise Against’s goth-worshipping peers A.F.I. have -- and soldier towards an uncertain future, or get comfortable within that genre and hold on to a devoted core fanbase in the face of a slow slip into irrelevancy and stagnation. Rise Against have evidently chosen the latter course of action, and Appeal to Reason represents a workman-like refinement of their sound. Like the work of a carpenter who’s learned, through experience, the quickest and cleanest way to get a job done, it’s technically polished and modest in its aims.
But there’s something to be said for the law of diminishing returns and Appeal to Reason finds Rise Against rocking, quoting McIlrath himself, to the “rhythm of a time bomb ticking away”. Let’s hope they find a way to dismantle it, because it would be a shame for such a genuinely earnest and likable band to have no one listening when the thing eventually goes off.