There’s a big difference between being in a comfortable place and sounding audibly comfortable. With three gold albums, a near 15-year career, and relatively little inner-band turmoil, Rise Against have reason to be comfortable in their current position and the state of their union. Unfortunately that fact is, at times, all too evident on The Black Market. Tracks like “Sudden Life” and lead single “I Don’t Want to Be Here Anymore” fail to improve on the formula that vaulted them to massive success. Instead, they comfortably sit still – repeating the chugging verse, melodic, soaring chorus style that the band has been working with for years. There are times on The Black Market when passages and even full tracks feel like they are over just moments after they begin, simply because there is little new substance to grasp for those familiar with the band’s catalog.
The album kicks off with “The Great Die-Off,” which fits snugly next to past album openers “Collapse,” “Architects” and “Chamber the Cartridge” – a little romp to get the show started, with snappy snare-tom fills and backing “whoa-ohs”. From there the pacing is as stable as can be, never pushing frantically forward and still allowing for the signature down-tempo Rise Against strum-along (“People Live Here”). On “Awake Too Long” and “A Beautiful Indifference” they sprinkle a handle of the spices from their punk past into the purely alternative essence that they have adopted, whereas “Methadone” is a full-on acceptance of a melodic, reaching radio-rock style. The Black Market brings fewer experiments than Rise Against albums of past, opting instead to fuse off-time bridges and breakdowns with calculated segments. There are times when the pleasantly entertaining cohesion of the album becomes almost lulling, and it becomes hard to tell how much time has passed since the opening notes.
On the bravest, and most fully realized moments of The Black Market, Tim McIlrath stands out as one of the most talented vocalists that the punk scene has produced. His range is impressive for any style of rock music, and the distinct snarling shout that is littered across Rise Against’s albums is still as strong as ever. Look no further than “The Eco-Terrorist in Me” for proof of his persisting ability to carry a track. He catapults from frantic shriek to mid-tempo harmony to charging chorus without missing a beat. The song is essentially a solo performance, as the instrumental track merely follows him through his motions. On other tracks, however, McIlrath sounds almost disinterested, oddly caught floundering in ambiguous and vague subject matter. “Zero Visibility” shows him awkwardly telling a story that flips between the first person singular and plural, never fully taking control of the narrative, and weakly accompanying the chorus with an attempted unifying call.
Moments like these bring to mind Rise Against’s mission in 2014. The stories that beg to be told feel buried at times beneath tracks that simply exist, never pushing or pulling in one way or another. McIlrath is and always will be a beacon of talent among his peers, but the aura of stasis and passivity that is scattered across The Black Market is disappointing. On the album’s title track he sings, “We traffic in the blackest of markets,” but it’s hard not to wonder if this statement is losing its truth as they opt for the standard and less challenging side of their spectrum.