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Shadows Fall - "Retribution" (CD)

Shadows Fall - "Retribution" CD cover image

"Retribution" track listing:

1. The Path To Imminent Ruin
2. My Demise
3. Still I Rise
4. War
5. King Of Nothing
6. The Taste Of Fear
7. Embrace Annihilation
8. Picture Perfect
9. A Public Execution
10. Dead And Gone

Reviewed by on September 10, 2009

"After 13 years together their original ideas have gotten stale and their former followers easily beat them at their own game."

Shadows Fall was one of the originators of the new wave of American heavy metal. Starting in the mid-1990s, Shadows Fall effectively combined classic metal with modern extreme metal styles and set the early standard for imitators. And as the originators of sorts, they broke the genre into the mainstream music world with a couple Grammy nominations in 2006 and 2008. Largely sticking to their original formula over their 13-year career, Shadows Fall returns rejuvenated with their new album, “Retribution.” The well-worn road that Shadows Fall walks arrives exactly where the map points to, and they only rarely leave their predetermined path.

“Retribution” begins with a quick acoustic guitar track, which is a bit of a surprise, as the expectation is for a roaring riff to blast out of the gate. After that surprise, it is easy to hear why the third track, “Still I Rise,” is the first radio single. With sing-song choruses and the continuously smooth vocal delivery, it goes down way too easily. Jonathan Donais rips a good solo, but that is the only departure from bland radio rock. The next song, “War,” seems to try to make up for the previous track, but it comes off as an awkward thrashy and deathy throwaway. Brian Fair’s vocals don’t pack the necessary wallop and the riffs sound pathetic in their faux heaviness. Donais’ solo is again the bright spot.

There are more low points than high. “The Taste of Fear” is a lame attempt at a modern ballad, as is “Picture Perfect.” Both end up sounding too much like Creed. “King of Nothing” wraps vocal-centric music on top of double-kick drums, but neither can carry the day until the last refrain when the band finally lets loose and gets heavy.

As the album progresses it becomes clear that the band can’t compete in brutality and heaviness in today’s extreme metal landscape. The riffs and chords from Matt Bachand just aren’t big or powerful enough to get there. Fair’s dirty vocals don’t have the weight and his clean vocals are pretty bland. Jason Bittner whacks his drums with enthusiasm, but he ends up falling behind the rest of the band with his misplaced double kick drums and occasional blast beats. There are two things, however, that save this from being a front-to-back derivative piece of rock.

The first is the lead guitar of Jonathan Donais. His solos are fantastic and give each song a kick in the jewels, momentarily breaking them out of the mid-tempo morass. When each moment comes and his guitar starts firing, it’s easy to picture him running through a battle slashing furiously with his axe and saving all his compatriots. He combines blazing 32nd notes and slower textures to excellent effect, as each solo is unique while still staying within the sonic structures of each song.

The three songs over six minutes are the second saving grace. The longer runtime of these three songs gives the band an opportunity they sorely need – the freedom to experiment with new musical ideas.

The other seven tracks are poor shots at modern extreme metal, as the band boils each down to the necessary component parts: chorus, verse, breakdown and solo. And they don’t have the muscle to keep it that simple anymore. However, when they take the opportunity to expand from that core structure, the music takes off.

“My Demise” has clever tempo changes throughout, and hero Donais isn’t limited to one section to shine. Without the need to pack each component into a short song, the music breathes. The drums and rhythm guitar settle into an easy groove, and the plodding, mystical bridge and breakdown leading into Donais’ solo is fantastic. Huge riffs backed by Fair’s multi-tracked clean and dirty vocals and Donais’ soaring solo counter the searing 32nd notes that follow.

“A Public Execution” has an excellent intro and Paul Romanko’s best bass work on the album, although his featured bass lines get a bit old the third time through. The thrash groove and Fair’s varied vocal delivery make the song a good listen. The band isn’t afraid to just groove the guitars and let Fair and the gang vocals take over, instead of pressing for something that isn’t there. Even the two bars of blast beats work, as they are used to cap a crescendo, rather than being there just to be there. The abrupt change to a clean guitar break is unexpected and quite refreshing, as it leads into the final crescendo that ends the song well. “Dead And Gone” follows suit, with muscular rhythm riffs throughout, and the intro may be the heaviest part of the entire album. The clean and dirty counterpoints are also seamless without sounding weak. These two songs create a fantastic end to a mediocre album.

Shadows Fall has encountered a natural musical midlife crisis. After 13 years together their original ideas have gotten stale and their former followers easily beat them at their own game. However the band shows extended glimpses of the excellent musical chops and songwriting skill that they rode to stardom initially. While “Retribution” suffers because the band is still using their talent to hang onto the past, the sooner they refocus their skill on the future, the better.

Highs: “My Demise,” “A Public Execution,” and “Dead And Gone” are fantastic songs.

Lows: “Still I Rise” is junk.

Bottom line: Three great songs and a bunch of filler.

Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls
2.5 out of 5 skulls

Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)