Being a fairly big fan of Atreyu over the years, I was sad to see the band go on hiatus. After their 2009 release of Congregation of the Damned though, a lot of people, including myself, felt that the band needed a break before taking a stab at writing and recording again. And though Atreyu isn’t back and running on full cylinders again, Brandon Saller is right on pace with where the band left off. Saller’s side project, titled Hell or Highwater, is an opportunity to let his clean vocals shine while giving him some exposure in the hard rock scene.
My friend’s cousin (Joey Bradford) is the bassist for Hell or Highwater, so I was a bit edgy to hear the band’s debut, Begin Again. And it starts off with “Gimme Love,” which beautifully executes hard rock and is a great example of the band’s crisp sound. It is an astounding track that exemplifies a finely-tuned stretch of guitar leads and builds up for a strong, catchy chorus. Saller’s vocals go along with the instrumentals a lot smoother than I expected, though without the typical Atreyu screams to fall back on, it feels like something’s missing.
Then comes “Hail Mary!” a track that is hard to not enjoy. The reason I expected to like this song is because of the fact that any song ending in an exclamation point should be pretty rad. Why? Because they’re just screaming for your attention. And this track is no exception. A more Southern branch of the band’s sound is a great way to keep the song sounding “old school,” while the more negative tone adds variety and a more typical hard rock attitude.
If there’s still more to like, it comes in the song “Go Alone.” Saller’s vocals mirror M Shadows of Avenged Sevenfold here, while having a Western feel and a unique storytelling perspective. The lyrics in the album are subtle and optimistic, and not as serious and bitter as Atreyu’s, but still employ the same emotions. With this, the lyrics actually aren’t too well-written; they’re trying to be appealing but lacking that certain “touch” that bands like Art of Dying have. They’re strong in “Tragedy,” where you can almost feel the disaster evolving (in addition to Saller’s strongest vocal effort on the album), while they’re more cliche in “Find the Time to Breathe.” But don’t worry; though the lyrics are less commanding, the thick wall of music, with influences from rock, pop (the high-pitched guitar), punk, and metal, feels right at home.
In addition to some wailing guitar intros (“Terrorized In The Night,” Crash & Burn”) that keep your attention, a horde of solos control the music, fitting snugly in front of drummer Captain Carl’s hearty beats throughout the record. Saller’s vocals are raspy and gritty like usual, and when it comes to technicality, Hell or Highwater hits the mark perfectly. Begin Again is far from being overproduced, nor is it too raw. It also shows that the band has mastered the genres that influenced their sound. The choruses are edgy and memorable, while the Southern effects aren’t overwhelming.
Hell or Highwater, though not being as big as bands like Avenged Sevenfold or Seether, is a band that could possibly become a big name in the genre. While not being one of the most perfect albums out there right now, Begin Again is a solid side project for Saller, and even with some rookie weaknesses, it’s a very convincing freshman effort for Hell or Highwater.