A well-known band in metal circles for years, Shadows Fall are officially ready to make a stab at the big time. For the past couple years, the Boston quintet has been heavily hyped by their label Century Media, hailed repeatedly by their label as the second coming in American heavy metal. Thanks to constant touring, appearing on the Ozzfest second stage, and getting their videos played regularly on MTV2, the band's last album managed to sell a very respectable 100,000 copies, but skeptics were still doubtful whether Shadows Fall was truly deserving of such praise. The band's new album, their third, is now upon us, with the publicity juggernaut hitting full throttle yet again; this time, with the devoted fan base the band has built up over the last few years, they have an excellent chance at breaking through to mainstream audiences, but the one question that needs to be answered is, can they finally live up to all the hype?
All that publicity has, of course, alienated almost as many fans as those who have been won over. Young metal fans remain a very stodgy bunch, and as history has proven, headbangers have always preferred, to use a phrase by writer Martin Popoff, the "cusp" album, the record that comes right before a band's commercial breakthrough (for instance, Metallica's Ride the Lightning, Sepultura's Arise, Slayer's Hell Awaits). Well, those kids are going to have to get used to some change, because 2004 has shaped up to be a pivotal year for the genre, as the turgid, boring sounds of nu-metal and rap metal are beginning to fade away, with more traditional, aggressive, technically proficient heavy metal returning to the mainstream for the first time in over a decade. Bands like Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage, and Atreyu have led the resurgence in good, honest American metal this year, and with The War Within, Shadows Fall is poised to make a similar leap.
Many naysayers have accused Shadows Fall of riding the coattails of Lamb of God, but the truth is, they've been building up to this album for a long time. 2002's The Art of Balance was a very solid, workmanlike album that wore its strong metalcore influences on its sleeve (midtempo, crunchy riffs, shout-along choruses, simple melodies, and hoarse-throated vocals), but at times, as on the superb "Stepping Out of the Circle", they started to step away from that sound, incorporating more of a thrash metal sound, bearing a remarkable similarity to Bay Area thrash legends Exodus, as they brought in tighter, staccato riffs, changing time signatures that ranged from stomping, mosh-inducing riffs to all-out speed, and singer Brian Fair employing a more melodic vocal style, surprisingly similar, in fact, to former Anthrax vocalist Joey Belladonna.
The War Within continues that growth, and this time around, the band settles into a comfortable groove, carving out a recognizable sound of their own, finding an appealing middle ground between metalcore and more melodic '80s metal. The band sounds the tightest and most adventurous they've ever been; riffs by guitarists Matthew Bachand and Jonathan Donais are much more nimble than before, drawing a very strong influence from such Scandinavian stalwarts as In Flames and Children of Bodom. Drummer Jason Bittner is phenomenal, the band's broader musical palette allowing him to get much more creative in his percussion arrangements. Fair, meanwhile, shows even greater vocal versatility than ever, often switching from an authoritative growl to a tender, melodic croon in an instant, taking on a more clear-voiced style overall, enunciating his lyrics much more clearly than before.
If Lamb of God are stylistically akin to Megadeth and Slayer, Shadows Fall keep things a bit more simple and accessible, like Exodus and Anthrax, and that simplicity (don't let that hide the fact that they're not good musicians) will prove to be the factor that will break this band into the mainstream. Both "Enlightened By the Cold" and "Eternity is Within" bear a remarkable similarity to mid-'80s Anthrax, with their catchy choruses, while "The Power of I and I" is a superb, intense exercise in circle pit aggression, the melodic riffs underscoring Fair's hardcore shout. In fact, Fair's voice takes on a gentle quality during "What Drives the Weak" and "Inspiration on Demand"; so much so, in fact, that comparisons to Incubus aren't all that inaccurate, but to their credit, the band never dwells too long on the quieter stretches, throwing enough variation into the compositions to keep things from becoming a whiny mopefest (the breakdown in "What Drives the Weak", after the mellow interlude, is brilliant). Donais's harmonies and solos during "Stillness" harken back to the great halcyon days of power metal, when Accept, Helloween, and Queensrÿche led the charge. "Ghosts of Past Failures" is so shamelessly out of the '80s, it's loads of fun, especially for metal fans in their 30s.
Boasting strong production by longtime collaborator Zeuss, and careening along at a tight 42 minutes, The War Within is consistently pleasing, a much-needed transition album that's sure to catapult this band to metal stardom. No, they're not going to take the genre into new directions like Lamb of God will, and while Shadows Fall aren't innovators, they are showing impressive creative growth, and judging by the growing popularity of traditional metal, they're on to a formula that the kids out there are hungry for. People who don't usually listen to metal will be reaching for this album, and despite what the obnoxious metal geeks say, there's nothing wrong with that. If you're new to contemporary metal, give this one a try. If you're a diehard headbanger, listen to this sucker, suck it up, and admit it's a good one. The sheer quality of The War Within cannot be denied.