Alter Bridge – Fortress

Alter-BridgeAlter Bridge

Fortress

01. Cry of Achilles
02. Addicted to Pain
03. Bleed it Dry
04. Lover
05. The Uninvited
06. Peace is Broken
07. Calm the Fire
08. Waters Rising
09. Farther than the Sun
10. Cry a River
11. All Ends Well
12. Fortress

[09/25/13]
[Roadrunner Records]

Despite an unenviable and inevitable association with their infamous parent act, life has been good to Alter Bridge. The band, whose membership comprises three quarters of the maligned post-grunge monolith, Creed, have now released four albums over the course of nine years. With their latest effort, Fortress, Alter Bridge has now matched Creed’s total output quantity and continue to steadily distance themselves from what might have been a legacy of overblown clichés, cartoonish antics and critical failure. With their intricate, distinctly bluesy take on alt-metal, the band stands apart from the crowd, and never have their consummate musicianship and impeccable songwriting talents been more apparent than on Fortress.

Tight, technical arrangements and legitimately heavy instrumentation abound on this album. Its opening salvo, ‘Cry Of Achilles,’ builds ominously from a classical guitar intro to a modal, thrashy 6/8 stomp that explodes around melodic and dynamic twists for nearly seven minutes. The parade of furiously spiraling, syncopated riffs brings Nevermore to mind, but Mark Tremonti’s subtle-yet-unmistakable blues twang keeps things catchy and brisk. While it would be stretching the truth to call Fortress a prog metal album, it’s head and shoulders above the works of Alter Bridge’s contemporaries in radio-friendly hard rock, in terms of complexity and craftsmanship. Even more impressively, it does so without sacrificing any of the anthemic, sing-along qualities that have long been the crowning hallmark of hard rock. ‘Calm the Fire,’ a midtempo banger, careens into a half-time chorus that seems tailor-made for an impromptu, stadium-sized choir.

Fortress stands strong thanks in large part to the contributions of lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist Myles Kennedy, whose arrestingly polished, triumphal wailing is much more than the cherry on top of a musical sundae. Without his soulful swagger, more straightforward tracks like the ostensible power ballad ‘Lover’ might flatline. Instead, Kennedy’s alternating sultry baritone crooning and powerful tenor howls invigorate the music, supercharging even the less-dense moments in way reminiscent of Axl Rose (without the goofy pretensions). It’s almost impossible to imagine these tracks without Kennedy behind the mic; moments that are merely forgettable niceties on their own become breathtaking when infused with his energy. There are more elaborate harmonies and surprising vocal acrobatics on Fortress than on any of Alter Bridge’s previous releases. In addition, listeners will find a satisfying degree of musical and tonal variety that was sorely lacking on the band’s previous album, 2010’s AB III. Tremonti even chips in with sturdy lead vocal duties on ‘Waters Rising,’ a track that transitions from sparking, open-tuned guitar work in the verses to a growling bridge you’d swear was lifted from a Tool song circa 10,000 Days.

Alter Bridge distinguish themselves with the unique combination of influences its leading duo brings to the table. These are most apparent in the lead guitar work Tremonti’s machine-precise, flashy soloing contrasts beautifully with Kennedy’s more sparse, refined playing (perhaps an effect of his jazz-fusion pedigree) in the extended midsection section of the monolithic title track. Adventurous little touches, like the machine-gun guitar and drum flutters on ‘Bleed it Dry’ keep the album fresh in a way not many modern hard rock albums exemplify.

The only real shame about Fortress is the production. While it’s not a disaster by any means – Bryan Marshall’s growling bass is more audible here than on any of Alter Bridge’s other albums, for instance – it is certainly a victim of the loudness war, and the lack of dynamics in the mix takes away from the album’s overall magnitude. What should have been mighty, eruptive entrances seem small and too tightly compressed, and light jazzy interludes à la Opeth simply take up too much space in the mix. It’s a shame, but it’s par for the course in the world of radio rock.

Fortress is a much better album than the overstuffed and undercooked AB III, but it’s not quite on par with Blackbird, which dropped onto airwaves like an anvil from the heavens in 2007. While the band’s sound may not be as refreshing and invigorating now as it was then, Fortress proves that Alter Bridge haven’t worn out their welcome and are still full of impressive musical vitality. The combined forces of a versatile rhythm section, neatly controlled guitar fireworks and an impassioned showing from the best frontman in rock should prove enough to make anyone forget all Creed, if you haven’t already.

Alter Bridge – Fortress gets…

4/5

– BR