June 25, 2013 - Red River
When we last left Hawthorne Heights, the Dayton, Ohio, quartet were two EPs deep into a three-part collection. Since then, the group have added a fifth member, guitarist Mark McMillion, and seemingly ditched the third EP in favor of their fifth-full-length. Billed as a concept album, Zero tells the story of a group of idealistic young rebels who band together to rage against a tyrannical corporation that’s invaded their middle-America hometown. And, at least musically, the album feels like a return to form for Hawthorne Heights. Whereas Hate and Hope were propelled by a raw, visceral energy—likely the result of being self-produced but also perhaps a conscious decision to strip back the gloss—the songs here have almost equal amounts of melody (“Spark”) and muscle (“Taken By The Dark”). It almost seems like Zero was tailor-made for the group’s trek on this summer’s Warped Tour, whereas the previous pair of EPs mirrored the band’s DIY mentality and career trajectory headlining small clubs.
Where Zero falters, though, is where a good deal of concept albums also come up short: the story itself. In some ways, the album’s underdog theme is a metaphor for Hawthorne Heights’ career, one marked by amazing highs (a Billboard top-3 album) and crushing lows (the death of guitarist Casey Calvert and a very public imbroglio with Victory Records). Trying to dress up these autobiographical events in some pseudo-space opera feels a bit overwrought, something culled from one of Jared Leto’s notebooks. (An accompanying press release claims Zero was influenced by the 2008 film Cloverfield—which to be fair did feature a city in shambles but relied mostly on a metropolis-destroying monster instead of malevolent warlords.) Take a song like “Golden Parachutes,” more easily interpreted as a shot at money-grubbing label bosses than a plot device about tainted medicine dropped by the evil corporation. The album’s story also feels rather shoehorned in; had you no knowledge of the tale Zero is supposed to tell, you’d be hard-pressed to really gleam any plot points from the songs themselves. But beneath the convoluted and hard-to-follow story line are some good songs, a few of these even being Hawthorne Heights’ best in quite some time. The overall ambition is commendable, but perhaps a better plan of action would have been to strip the story completely, cull together the album’s best songs and instead close the EP trilogy with a stronger, shorter release.