22 November 2009

Flyleaf – Memento Mori


Polydor (2009)

There is something to be said for second chances. Upon first hearing Memento Mori, second album from Texan major label melodic metal crew Flyleaf, it didn't make much of an impression. Or, to be more precise, it made a very poor impression. Their first album, 2005's self-titled effort, was quite the concise display of the genre. While it was unlikely to challenge the classics of recent mass-appeal metal – such as Incubus' Make Yourself or, perhaps more pertinently, Paramore's Riot! - it was a fun way to pass your time.

Memento Mori, initially at least, was less fun. Its 43 minutes (when we discount the international mix of 'Again') were rather a drag, and it didn't sound like it was a bold step on from the debut, as one might expect from a sophomore album. The guitar, especially, was – as they might say in Texas – mealy-mouthed. Further listens reveal an album more full-blooded than originally suggested. 'Beautiful Bride' is a fantastic tune, chugging groove riffs intertwined with a strong, individual, vocal performance. It's anthemic and dynamic: a vibrant start to the album. The pacing, guitar tone and vocal melodies are reminiscent of the ethereal debut album by A Perfect Circle.*

'Something's missing in me', Lacey Mosley sings in 'Missing'. While the song-strength holds out at least to the point of this song (admittedly only four tracks in), it's nevertheless a portent of things to come. As strong as the first half of the album is – somewhere between the first and second Paramore album, (f)emo fans – the second sees the band stagnate somewhat. There are one or two ballads here ('Set Apart This Dream', 'Tiny Heart'), but the prevailing sense of sluggishness is more due to a lack of real inspiration. 'In the Dark' brings faster riffing in parts, but it seems a bit too contrived. 'Now for the faster song', you can almost hear them yawn. Perhaps this is overly harsh judgement of what is ostensibly smart pacing, but the problem lies in the failure of such pacing to be felt over the course of the album. If you mix speed and ballads in with your mid-paced rockers, the overall effect shouldn't seem so one-dimensional.

At this point we should broach the subject of Christian rock. As an entity, I don't mind it as much as many other observers seem to. Bob Dylan's late-1970s conversion led to his best music of that (post-Desire) period. Chicago doomsters, and noted God botherers, Trouble (they had a record called Psalm 9) were one of the finer metal bands of the 1980s. The greatest album of this decade was about how 'Texas is the centre of Jerusalem', and contains comic discussions between God and his devoted, though self-aware, subject. Flyleaf, at this point in their career, are nowhere near that level. Nor are they Stryper. They're more a kin to POD, whose similarly accessible brand of metal could be listened to without once turning your thoughts to the spiritual.

So is the case with this. Debates over the point(lessness) of religion to one side for the purpose of this review, religion has a centuries-long history of inspiring art. Rather than being defined by, or even inspired by, the religion that precedes Flyleaf (let's face it: rarely does a band find itself described as agnostic rock, so why the focus on Christianity?), this is a chart rock album like most others. Maybe I'm not listening sufficiently closely. The album's title is, of course, a reference to divine judgement; the ever-present spectre of death's possibility. The cover art depicts imminent mortality, and its observation thereof by an implacable, regal, figure. The songs do little to communicate this.

One would imagine, if one were to meditate on a religious rock band, possessed by a fanatical fervour, wondering about the razor's edge on which we reside; that mortal coil off which we could soon shuffle all too easily... that such music would be imbued with an urgency to justify its faith. Judgement is looming; that point in time we face up to cold evaluation in the harshest light of day. What have you done? What are you doing? What change are you effecting, either within yourself or others? If, at such point the Rapture occurs, how inspired are your listeners? For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.

Or are you simply retreading the musical footsteps taken by Lacuna Coil, The Gathering, Paramore and Evanescence? Using religious imagery, the sounds of sanitised emo-core, guts and viscera hidden away by over-production, and the blind faith of the Christian rock market, to lead you to the everlasting light of the pay window? To create largely agreeable pop-rock is one thing. It's a fine skill, for which many bands are suitably rewarded. Memento Mori is certainly no worse than the most recent Incubus or Deftones albums. But to dress it up in religious imagery, in mock-heroic robes, and hope titular association with a historical artistic movement is enough to raise it on angels' wings, is a leap of faith too far.

* A Perfect Circle were, of course, rather opposite in their belief to Flyleaf. 'How your saviour has abandoned you / Fuck your god, your lord, your Christ / He did this / Took all you had and left you this way / Still you pray' makes you wonder if there is any intentional influence.

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