Sum 41’s career has always thrived on balance. Back when the band were still playing pop punk, they weren’t afraid to blend elements of hip-hop and heavy metal into their sound, giving them a leg up on the next set of spiky-haired, sweatband-wearing suburban punks looking for a major label meal ticket. Over time, though, their albums grew hard-edged and cynical, rooted more in politics and Generation Y disillusionment than the slap-happy songs on All Killer, No Filler. It was certainly a winning combination, spawning hit singles like “We’re All To Blame” and “Pieces”—and even earning Deryck Whibley and company a Grammy nomination for the song “Blood In My Eyes” from 2011’s Screaming Bloody Murder.
The band’s sixth album, 13 Voices, occupies a similarly grey in-between. After a near-death experience at the hands of alcoholism, it would be understandable for Whibley’s words to mirror the dark road from his hospital bed back to the stage. That’s certainly true to an extent; look no further than the album’s tracklisting, awash in morbid song titles like “A Murder Of Crows (You’re All Dead To Me),” “Goddamn I’m Dead Again,” “Twisted By Design” and “Fake My Own Death.” And, yes, there’s a fair amount of anger here, both directed at Whibley himself and the poison that nearly took everything from him. But there’s also resounding hope. Songs like “War,” “Breaking The Chain” and, yes, even “Fake My Own Death” are life-affirming anthems, Whibley’s resolution to dance with the devil and leave his past life buried. As a songwriter, it takes bravery to let the darkness in and open up about life’s lowest moments, but it pales in comparison to the strength required to push toward the light. Whibley balances both with ease here.
That’s not to say 13 Voices is soft. If anything, Whibley’s songs are more passionate and fiery than ever. Musically, the album largely recalls the bite of 2004’s Chuck—and it’s likely no coincidence that this coincides with the return of longtime guitarist Dave “Brownsound” Baksh, who departed after Chuck but returned to the fray in 2015. Baksh’s playing style and penchant for eye-popping guitar leads gives 13 Voices a swagger and energy missing since the Chuck days, not to mention the crowning jewel of his career: two absolutely scorching solos within the first two minutes of “Goddamn I’m Dead Again.” Elsewhere, first single “Fake My Own Death” is dialed-in modern rock complete with a bouncy chorus and metal-inspired riff, while “Breaking The Chain” layers violin stabs with Linkin Park-style brooding, and “The Fall And The Rise” sees Whibley’s hip-hop influence rearing its head again, albeit with much more restraint than in the “Fat Lip” days.
All of these influences swirl into a red-and-black painted hard rock sound that should find success on the radio for its duplicitous catchiness and pure power—but the album is perhaps consistent to a fault. With so much heaviness here, a few sonic curveballs or more upbeat material would give listeners a break from the weighty, emotionally draining nature of the album. Still, the fact that 13 Voices exists at all is a testament to Whibley’s vision and resolve. In life, the light at the end of the tunnel could be an oncoming train or the path to a better tomorrow, but it’s a road Whibley, now sober, is happy to walk with guitar in hand.
Hopeless Records http://www.hopelessrecords.com