THE LAST HERO by Alter Bridges
Genre: Hard Rock, Alternative Metal
Favorites: “Writing on the Wall,” “The Other Side,” “Cradle to the Grave,” “Crows on A Wire”
Josh Todd, lead singer of Buckcherry, recently stated that “rock [right now] is really muddy and kind of forgettable, and it’s not fun anymore.” While this is coming from the guy responsible for meat-headed douchebaggery disguised as music such as “Crazy Bitch,” a lot of modern hard rock does take itself too seriously, mistaking angst and whining for legitimate sadness and emotion. “Too serious” might as well be the tagline of Creed, the overwrought and preachy post-grunge quartet whose attempts at seriousness were always undercut by lead singer Scott Stapp’s ridiculously gruff voice, gurgling every word he sang into incomprehensibility. The rest of Creed made the best decision of their lives when they left Scott Stapp and started a new band with Myles Kennedy under the name of Alter Bridge.
While the band started out as slightly harder Creed copycats, they eventually carved out a distinct identity for themselves with a melodic fusion of thrash metal, alternative metal, and ʼ80s hard rock a la Eddie Lee Roth-era Van Halen and Guns N’ Roses. They are just as comfortable with pummeling thrash riffs as they are with contemplative power ballads and more menacing, atmosphere-driven progressive metal. Their gradual transition to a more dynamic and progressive sound did not come into complete fruition on their last record, FORTRESS, which had far too many uninteresting passages to justify its intimidating 60 minute run time.
Alter Bridge usually treads the same lyrical topics as Creed, such as faith, hope, and suffering, but THE LAST HERO adds in some politically-minded material as well. However, the record is less punk-rock righteous and defiant as it is disillusioned and frustrated. Opening track “Show Me A Leader” brings that skepticism right to the forefront with lines like “Well, they’re selling another messiah here tonight / But we’re all way too numb and divided to buy it.” The somewhat awkward melody of the chorus is kept in check by the dramatic cymbal crashes, and the solo in the bridge is among THE LAST HERO’s best. However, the chants of “no” should have been cut down a little in the pre-chorus and chorus. The band wisely does not portray themselves as above the infighting and demonizing of each other that defines our political climate, and it helps a lot of the political songs from feeling condescending. Myles feels like an active gear in the political machine rather than some passive observer passing judgment.
“Writing On The Wall” is the best of these political songs, as it features Myles at his most standoff-ish towards those who deny climate change. The riff is straight out of ʼ80s heavy metal, and the chorus of “And the writing’s on the wall / That the end will begin / Still you do nothing at all / Throwing lies to the wind” is among the album’s sharpest. Myles feels like a modern day Cassandra, wailing at those who won’t listen to reason, pretending that everything is alright as they go up in flames. “Crows On A Wire” is another political cut about people’s complacency regarding their position within the media and government, and how they trick themselves into thinking they are not subject to manipulation or betrayal at the hands of their employers. The second verse is one of THE LAST HERO’s best, as Myles warns that “If you wanna step into the ring / Well, you can’t hide a goddamn thing,” a rather brilliant use of the THE LAST HERO’s only expletive to describe how they will always find a secret or personal flaw to destroy you with.
THE LAST HERO is not only about frustration with politics. “The Other Side,” one of the heaviest cuts, takes shots at religious fundamentalists who see themselves as holy and pure, but are in fact acting the complete opposite of how their God wants them to. The buzzing, alarm-like guitar and the menacing harmonies add an intense feeling of danger, like the fundamentalists have died, only to see that all their life’s work was not what God wanted and they have been shunned for their sins. “Cradle to Grave” discusses Myles’s mother and her recent illness (comparable to STAGE FOUR), as Myles realizes our parents are not going to be there for us forever, and that we will eventually have to find someone or something else to serve as our shoulder to cry on. It’s one of the few tracks with a distinct light verse and heavy chorus dynamic, which perfectly fits the song’s contrasting moods of desperate longing and eventual surrender to the fact that nothing lasts forever.
Alter Bridge want to be taken as seriously as Creed does, but the reason why Alter Bridge works and Creed doesn’t is Myles Kennedy. Kennedy said that some of his favorite records of all time are jazz records, and that makes perfect sense when you look at his singing. Unlike Scott Stapp’s deep guttural moans, Myles has a more high-pitched, soulful wail to him that conveys pain and anguish much better than Scott’s voice, sounding more controlled in the process. He has an earnestness and sincerity that allows him to shine on softer cuts like the soldier-honoring power ballad “You Will Be Remembered,” or the major-key, movie-montage ready “My Champion.” However, his vocals can get a little shrill, especially on “This Side of Fate,” where his lyrics become just as gargled as Scott’s. The song is probably the weakest cut on THE LAST HERO, as its ambition and length are tripped up by a bare-bones chorus of two lines that needed way more meat to justify its frequent repetition.
THE LAST HERO is over an hour long, and some of the deeper cuts tread too many of the same lyrical paths as previous songs. “Twilight” has striking harmonies and one of the more head-banging melodies on the album, but lyrics about “time running out” were handled far better previously and end up redundant as a result. The music can also be overly compressed, as lead guitar, rhythm guitar, and bass guitar end up fusing together, with none of them being allowed to fully shine. However, such moments are the exception rather than the rule, and most of the riffs and solos are fierce and powerful without being overly distorted and chugging.
Much of THE LAST HERO is not “fun,” but the moping and cynicism are definitely earned and made deeply understood. While such jadedness can feel like a half-hearted appeal to angsty listeners who can’t explain why they’re so angry, Kennedy makes the negativity feel like the end result of aspirations and idealism that have been repeatedly shot down by reality and taken advantage of those with selfish motives. Alter Bridge can craft distinct melodies and stadium-rock ready choruses, write engaging lyrics that showcase struggles with faith and hope in a way that feels relatable without being manipulative, and have some of the best vocals and solos in mainstream hard rock. While some of the last fourth of the THE LAST HERO gets a little redundant lyrically, as a whole,l no spot on the album feels devoid of effort, and it never feels tired or as unnecessary as much of FORTRESS did. The album title is certainly justified, as Alter Bridge earns the right to once again be called one of THE LAST HEROES of hard rock.