It’s never a great feeling to see a creative band struggle to find its identity. It’s even more painful when the band is so close to getting the formula right, but just can’t seem to put in the extra effort to connect the pieces. Perhaps Halfway Human is a more apt title than it initially sounds for Within the Ruins’s fifth album—halfway to perfection, and entirely human with its flaws. Shining beacons of brilliance stuffed in between songs seemingly written in auto-pilot make this an enjoyable, yet disappointing experience.
For more context, let’s step back in time. The band’s debut Creature came out when progressive deathcore, more specifically Sumeriancore was still hitting its stride. Creature was a tight, focused beast laden with syncopation and a delicate balance between rhythmic and technical playing. The immediate appeal of this album lead the band to their sophomore effort Invade. Here, the band tones down some of their idiosyncrasies to create songs that were more coherent, but in return they also added more memorability to their sound. While these two records favored different approaches, they both seemed like they explored different edges of the sweet spot for the band.
Then came Elite, which was the first stumble in the band’s path. They kept turning the dial further away from technical and exotic playing, but there wasn’t an equal exchange this time. What was lost in complexity did not get replaced with anything rewarding, just simplistic syncopated breakdowns. Phenomena was next, and while it didn’t change course, it polished the approach found on its predecessor. However, it was marred by overly edited production, taking away the human element.
Enter Halfway Human, where Within the Ruins seem explicitly aware of past mistakes, yet seem unable to recover from them effectively. Production is still inhuman, however it makes more of an effort to cover that. The playing is more oriented towards chugging along on guitars than ever, but to balance it out they experiment more with a few off-genre sections here and there, like a ragtime break. The problem is, unlike August Burns Red who are masters of the ragtime break, they don’t incorporate these elements into their sound and make an effort to grow the song around them. They’re simply thrown in there, as if their mere existence is supposed to make the music better with minimal effort. This is a trend throughout the album. Half-measures executed with unconvincing sterility. The band have decided to add clean vocals into their arsenal. They’re fine— however, they’re not utilized enough. There’s less than a handful of them, and Within the Ruins never commit to them, so they’re yet again an underutilized gimmick. If the band pushed forward with this idea, it could have been a seriously worthwhile element to take them forward.
All of this isn’t to say that the album is terrible. It’s not even bad. It’s just disappointing. Every song is at least passable, if not excessively repetitive. They’re all decent crowd-pleasers who are easy to listen to and even easier to forget. It’s a shame to see a band who was once so capable to waste their talent on music that seems beneath them. The instrumental suite introduced in Invade continues here, and this iteration is perhaps the best yet. This shows that the band still have their chops, their wits about them, it’s just that they don’t fully apply themselves.
As such, Halfway Human is just halfway good. A band so clearly capable and creative as Within the Ruins deserve to be remembered for better music. This is their third release in a row that is aggressively disposable, and while there are a few moments where it shines, it’s overall not worth the time to listen to it more than a few times, especially when there are so many alternatives out there that are simply better in every regard.