When the melodic hardcore outfit Rise Against switched from Fat Wreck Chords to the “evil” major label Geffen Records in 2004, cries of “sellout” were uttered by mohawked suburbanites everywhere, even before the album was released. Siren Song of the Counter Culture‘s new addition of poppier guitars, strings, and an acoustic track confirmed for many the fatal prognosis. While such additions may have opened the band to ridicule, in truth the hardcore heart of the songs was still there, only in a more accessible manner.
The Sufferer and the Witness, Rise Against’s second album for Geffen, picks up where Siren Song left off, with 13 tracks of hard-nosed punk with a focus on melody, crunchy hooks, and shout-along choruses. Unlike Siren Song‘s opener “State of the Union”, the loudest, angriest, most bare-bones hardcore on the album (perhaps an attempt to show that the band hadn’t softened their attack on a major label), TSATW opens with the less acerbic, and all around more mediocre “Chamber the Cartridge”. The ode to old school hardcore comes later on with “Bricks”, a loud, biting song with a chorus that matches the brash guitar attack: “With hope in our hearts and bricks in our hands we sing for a change”. “Drones” takes this mile-a-minute mentality and mixes it with a rolling bassline, pleading vocals, and harmonies to showcase Rise Against at its finest, fusing melody with aggression.
Lead singer and lyric writer Tim Mcllrath’s ragged vocals provide the glue that holds the firestorm together. With earnestness that emo singers can only dream of and the ability to sing and scream on key, Mcllrath’s voice is one of the best in loud music. The content of his yowls also sets Mcllrath apart from his colleagues in scream. While much of the band’s subject matter is politically and socially conscious in nature, Mcllrath and the boys do not call for anarchy or curse the government. Rise Against prefers the reflective approach, pondering rather loudly over man’s inhumanity to his fellow man and war-torn scenes in tracks such as “Behind Closed Doors.” Mcllrath’s lyrics also focus on a more microscopic scale, with introspective songs about past relationships (“Roadside”) and his frustrated search for meaning (“Worth Dying For”). Unlike typical emo rants filled with despondency and arm chair philosophy, the songs are hopeful in nature and deal with the reality that life sucks, but we must move on. This last sentiment is summarized in the closing track, “Survive”, in which Mcllrath bellows, “Life for you has been less than kind / So take a number stand in line / We’ve all been sorry, we’ve all been hurt / But how we survive is what makes us who we are”.
The topsy turvy movement from frustration and anger to hope and empowerment and back again is best exemplified by “Prayer of the Refugee”, in which a refugee of war softly sings to his son of their plight over lamenting guitars, only to jarringly explode into an empowering chorus complete with driving rhythm and urgent vocals. Other changes of pace on the album include the less than effective spoken word poetry over music on “The Approaching Curve” and the decidedly stronger drum-free mix of strings, piano, guitar, and female backing vocals on “Roadside”. While the track adds some diversity to the disc, Rise Against are still at their best when they mix the anger and energy of their loud roots with genuine lyrics and mainstream accessibility — a feat in and of itself.