Thursday, October 15, 2015

Album Review: Downtread - "The War Behind the Wolf"

Decades come and go, trends and fads wax and wane, but the monolith that is rock and roll truly seems to be forever.  The basic tenets of rock music have become so nominally assimilated into popular music as to be indistinguishable on their own; they now compose the framework of all that is not electronically generated (though tendrils of rock often find their way in there, too.)  Nonetheless, there are cynics who are only capable of examining the present to find the justification for their dismissal of rock as old and pass√©.  They lose the forest for the trees and automatically discard as old fashioned that which does not attempt to rend the pillars of rock asunder.

Enter into this mix Downtread, a raucous Minneapolis outfit that seeks to remind us all of the timelessness of rock, that the genre was momentarily shaken but not ultimately diminished by the bastardization of the genre by broadcast radio in the first decade of the young millennium.  Thus, their third full-length record “The War Behind the Wolf” descends unto the masses.

Glancing at the band’s website, part of their biography is that the band is “modern rock with a mean twist.”  This is not mere bloviating by a band trying to show themselves; Downtread is no more or less than that de facto mission statement.  “The War Behind the Wolf” is ten well-composed tracks that see a band present the timelessness of rock and roll with talent and aplomb.

Listeners need not get far to experience the band’s central theme – “Next Victim” kicks off the experience with a fat, chewy riff that rebounds into each measure, maintaining momentum through a hook chorus and a breakdown worthy of the title ‘rock and roll.’  Rock and roll has always had this kind of rollicking power-fest in its secret heart and over six decades our understanding of the genre has distilled this pure form out of it.

Speaking of distilled, one of the refreshing points of Downtread’s performance is that it remains largely free of the unnecessary garnishments, bombastic bullshit and ghastly crude innuendo that seem to come and go in generational waves of rock.  Sure, “Rise Up” has a stereotypical big, dramatic chorus and the song’s bridge puts the brakes on the compulsive chug of the opening verse, but that’s the price you sometimes pay in rock and doesn’t mean the outcome is made worse.  The point is this: okay, maybe the addition of a slow, tenor guitar solo wasn’t the best for that particular song, but as an artistic decision by the band it’s well done, fits in their idiom without consequence, feels appropriately genuine and is still several leagues short of Slash being videoed from a helicopter while he wails away in the desert outside Axl Rose’s ill-fated wedding.  But we digress.

Downtread shows a lot of punch throughout the ten tracks and highlights all the common forms of rock we’ve come to accept and anticipate, all enhanced by a borderline heavy metal guitar tone and subtle but sharp bite.  “Broken Man” is a highly melodic and singable anthem that falls somewhere at the crossroads of pre-rehab Aerosmith and good Collective Soul, but with an added rhythmic churn bottled up in the foundation.  “Perfect Day” is a good slow burner, a crowd-pleasing head-nodder in the middle of the album that functions both as a moment to catch your breath and also to reaffirm the central theme of Downtread’s statement on societal ills and individual redemption (the werewolf theme that pops up here and again isn’t on that track, but you can’t have everything…)

On the downside, it does bear noting that “The War Behind the Wolf” falls into the practically inevitable rock and roll trap of feeling a little checklist-y.  The first sentence of the previous paragraph is both a blessing of versatility and a curse of predictability.  In performing all the common tropes of rock anthems and rousing crowd inciters, Downtread forfeits an ability to hold the listener in suspense – there is little that is surprising or unanticipated, with few ‘wow’ moments, except for the little bit of production magic at the end of “Minds Erased” which was unnecessary.

For all that though, “The War Behind the Wolf” stands as one of the better pure hard rock albums to come across the desk in a while, probably since Monster Truck’s “Furiosity.”  For all the musicianship of Downtread (which we did not discuss in minute detail but is very solid,) the album’s greatest success is in properly appreciating the intelligence of the listener; the record never stoops to the lowest common denominator, nor does it attempt to bamboozle and awe by speaking artificially over the audience’s head.  This is an enjoyable common sense rock album by a common sense rock band, capitalizing on a genre that could use more of both.

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