While She Sleeps – So What?

While She Sleeps have received considerable popular and critical acclaim throughout their career. Yet they also remain one of modern metal’s most underrated acts. Each of the band’s albums has been the subject of substantial anticipation and praise in the lead up to their release, and the band have not only met but exceeded expectations on each and every occasion. However, while their profile has steadily increased with each release, they don’t seem to have left the lasting impression one might expect given the quality and consistency of their output. Perhaps its simply a case of the band’s growth outpacing that of their listeners. While She Sleeps sound has drastically evolved with each new album, and while the jump from 2017’s melodically driven You Are We to So What? might be slighter than that of previous evolutions it still brings some new ideas to the table.

So What? continues the melodic development of You Are We. As with While She Sleeps’ previous offering, there’s more of an emphasis on melody here than there is on riffs, which isn’t to say that there’s no riffage to be had. The Sheffield outfit remain a hardcore band at hear and still know how to get their hands dirty when they need to. They just choose to do so more infrequently and for less prolonged periods. There’s also a slight change of balance in the style of riffing on display. Many of the nu metal elements that began to creep their way into the band’s sound on You Are We are displayed prominently on So What?, to the point that they override the the thrashier undercurrents that defined This Is The Six (2012) and —especially—Brainwashed (2015). Likewise, Guitarist Sean Long continues to play a more prominent vocal role. He already contributed considerably to You Are We, but here it seems like he and dedicated vocalist Lawrence “Loz” Taylor are almost always singing together rather than trading parts, while Taylor himself (who has has previously suffered from throat issues) often employs a cleaner approach than he has in the past—only busting out his harshest delivery on special occasions. As with previous While She Sleeps albums, the adjustments—though slighter than they have been in the past—still take a bit of getting used to. Yet, while previously the band have managed to incorporate new elements into their sound while also building upon previous iterations, So What? sees some areas of the band’s sound come off a touch under-polished.

So What?’s greatest shortcomings are signaled upfront. Opener and lead-single “Anti-Social” is easily the record’s weakest offering. Its musical canvass signposts the increased nu metal influence felt throughout the rest of the record. Yet, while the nu metal elements are utilised well elsewhere, “Anti-Social” comes off as a fairly basic rendition. It also showcases one of the album’s other glaring disadvantages, which is its clichéd lyrical content. While She Sleeps got away with having an album called “You Are We” and an opening track of the same name because a) both track and album turned out to be utterly phenomenal; but also b) due to the palpable conviction placed behind such seemingly contrived sentiments. By comparison, So What?’s opening catch-cry of “I’m not anti-social, I’m anti-bullshit”—although perhaps relatable—comes off as hollow and juvenile. The album’s third track, “Inspire”, also underscores its lyrical limitations. The track is built around the following refrain:

If this is the epitome of our species,
I can’t see the forest for the trees,
If we don’t heal before we realise,
The scale of the problem within.

…which the band actually succeed in making rather catchy, despite its syllabic awkwardness. But what does that even mean? Beyond the fact that the sentence itself appears incomplete, it also reads like something spat out by some kind of new age twitter bot than any kind of genuine articulation. So What?, along with the rest of While She Sleeps’ catalogue is full of similar sentimental fare, although “Inspire” contains by far their most egregious and ineffective combination to date. The track is also plagued by a bunch of ill-fitting, zeitgeisty electronics, which thankfully show up sparingly throughout the rest of the record.

Yet, while So What?’s weaker moments are perhaps enhanced via their being foregrounded, they also represent the exception rather than the rule. Although the album becomes more consistent as it goes on, the exception is true of its earlier moments as well. Sandwiched in between “Anti-Social” and “Inspire” is “I’ve Seen It All”, which shows exactly the heights to which both So What? and While She Sleeps are capable of ascending. More than any other song on the album, “I’ve Seen It All” feels like a continuation and/or evolution of You Are We, and is one of the few moments when its successor matches it in terms of quality. The track is perfectly paced and remains both engaging and effective due to the contrast it creates between its heavier and softer moments.  So What? really gets going about halfway though. “So What?” serves as a solid appetiser, for what’s to come—enticing the listener with its spiky main riff, and building a better sense of momentum than the bulk of what precedes it. However, it’s the one-two punch of “The Guilty Party” and “Haunt Me” that signals when the album has truly arrived. The former is an explosive hardcore number that throws back to the band’s first two records, while maintaining the increased sense of melody that defined You Are We, and the latter is a full blown anthem that stands alongside the best material the band have ever written. The album would likely carry more impact had these two tracks had been placed more prominently in its track-list. Yet, that it contains them at all should not be overlooked, and they only go to show why—for all their pretension—While She Sleeps continue to occupy a league above the rest.

The rest of the record never again manages to reach these same heights, although it remains far more consistent and convincing. “Elephant” is While She Sleeps by numbers, in the best way possible—combining driving, heavy hardcore riffs and soaring, catchy choruses—while “Set You Free” is perhaps the closest the band have ever come to producing a genuine ballad—managing stave of the heaviness for the most part, until relenting in its final moments and finishing things off with a colossal breakdown, because why not? The opening of “Good Grief” brings to mind early-Amity Affliction (which is by no means a bad thing), before unfortunately evoking the Brisbanites’ more recent material via another unnecessary layer of modern pop electronics. “Back of My Mind” stops for an unexpected rap-break before dropping into the most straightforward thrash riff While She Sleeps have produced since their first two records, and “Gates of Paradise” finishes things off with another masterclass of the band’s eclectic mastery. The final track’s should-be-cringy cheerleader chant of “You can do anything you want to fucking do, The rules were made to be disputed by the truth” is far more effective and comes across a lot more genuinely than the similar moments showcased throughout the album’s earlier moments, and just goes to show what you can get away with when you do it well enough.

A couple of early missteps hold So What? back from being the truly triumphant follow-up it could have been. Yet, while less consistent than You Are We, it nevertheless contains some of the band’s strongest material to date. So What?’s strongest tracks easily eclipse even the of what While She Sleeps’ earlier records had to offer, and I suspect—much as the one before it—the album’s appeal will only grow stronger over time.

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So What? is out March 1, via Spinefarm and the band’s own Sleeps Brothers records.

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My pen halts, though I do not. Reader, you will walk no more with me. It is time we both take up our lives.