It can’t be easy being August Burns Red. They’ve been around for 14 years, they’ve seen the rise and fall of metalcore. They were one of the most prominent figures in bringing it to a wider audience. They’ve had many opportunities to define themselves, and many have solidified their own personal feelings about them. Does a band in this position seek to change anyone’s minds? Do they just stay the course? Should they even be criticized for doing so? Trying to analyze these trains of thought as a critic can lead one down several rabbit holes. But perhaps one should consider the perspective of the band. They’re on their 7th entry, they have nothing more left to prove, so they can make whatever they feel like. And Phantom Anthem definitely feels like that. A quality band comfortable in their shoes, making the music they want to make.
Found In Far Away Places was something else. Constellations is considered by many to be one of the best albums in the genre. Its follow-up Leveler was a band searching for a direction after a masterpiece, Rescue & Restore was them taking a step in the right direction. FIFAP was the logical endpoint of this progression. Not every band gets a second chance at such peaks, but they did. One might expect a repeat or even a higher peak from the band, but what’s more reasonable is that they’d take a step back and reorient. FIFAP was a very extravagant album, Phantom Anthem is not. It’s more back-to-basics, focusing on the band’s core sound. That’s not to say there isn’t any genre-bending on it, but it feels less like experimentation and more like a comfortable part of the repertoire.
What’s left, then? A solid album by a great band. Perhaps better than most other releases they’ve put out so far. One one hand, it’s not hard to be disappointed, especially as a fan of the stylistic variety present in their previous work. On the other hand, discarding a perfectly good album because it’s not similar enough to a previous entry in a catalog also feels unfair. Then, the best way to evaluate Phantom Anthem must be on its own merits. And those merits are pretty solid. At this point, the core August Burns Red style is quite well-established. They have a brand of metalcore that blends anthemic choruses, clever, catchy riffing and pleasantly off-kilter rhythmic tricks. All of that is here again, and it’s all balanced. The execution is great. Top-notch production, great writing, it’s all here. What’s wrong then?
Well, without the flair, it all sounds a bit plain. Phantom Anthem is a good album, that’s for sure, but does it do anything particularly exceptional? Not if it’s compared to the rest of the band’s career. That could still be a formula for success. But even as it is, the album has some flaws. Since each song doesn’t have a particular gimmick, it can easily get fatiguing. A lot of the album has a similar texture, a similar vibe. Listening to songs individually, this doesn’t really pose a problem. Sure, maybe they don’t necessarily stand out, but the real issue is putting them together. This is a bit of a nitpick, but it’s only because the standard set by the band is so high. Regardless, the end result is a package that just doesn’t impress as much. “The Frost” is a fantastic piece, but it’s pretty much the best song on here, and it was released early on, taking away steam from the rest of the package.
In the end, the listener is left with a dilemma. Is a good album that doesn’t excel in any particular aspect but forms an otherwise solid package sufficient? Surely, for many it will be. It’s not even a negative mark for the band. Regardless, in the end, one just can’t help but think something is missing. This review may sound like a laundry list of complaints about how the album doesn’t stand out, but that’s simply because there’s not much else to say here. Great band, good album, even some standout tracks, but that’s it. In a sea of great albums, even ones from other artists included, there’s little reason to spin this one over and over after a week. Some of the songs will surely make it into the live set of the band for years to come, but the rest is only for dedicated fans.
Phantom Anthem is available 10/6 via Fearless Records.