While A Nation Sleeps… is BoySetsFire‘s fifth full-length now, and as the first album after their three-year hiatus, it‘s certainly a very special one as well. The band promised a true BoySetsFire record, with more punk and faster songs but still enough emotion to provide their branded style of post-hardcore, so their fan base had more than enough reasons to get excited over a record that on paper should turn out to be a more than worthy addition to the band’s great discography. Additionally, they put an end to their past issues with labels and started their own label End Hits, being now free of any label interference and ready to shake things up.
Well, almost everyone knows that expectations can be a bitch. While A Nation Sleeps is, as promised, a pure BoySetsFire record and a to-the-bone tribute to their very own sound that changed so much during the last three records, albeit remaining distinctive and significant. And yet, despite the complied premises which should make this record awesome, or great at least, the new album is just plain solid, nothing special at all. Which makes you think, of course. Are their other albums just as ok-ish and does your admiration and enjoyment of their past works stem only from overly nostalgic feelings instead of fascinating musical ability? This thought struck me out of the blue and really made me wonder for a second, but revisiting the genre classic After the Eulogy and their last album The Misery Index helped me remember why I love this band so much – in past and present – and simultaneously revealed the things that prevent While A Nation Sleeps from being the great record it should have been.
For those not familiar with BoySetsFire, the band’s sound can best be described as octave chord-tinged melodic hardcore with a few hints to punk rock, branded by the soaring melodic vocals from Nathan Gray, whose slightly adjusted screaming is one of my first complaints about their newest output. His distorted vocals feel mostly forced and overdone, more like the roar of a strangled animal than a pissed hardcore dude, while the crisp-clean production of guitars and drums produces an odd context for his screechy venom. This weakens primarily the raging hardcore songs like “Far From Over” or “Wolves of Babylon,” two tracks that also fail to deliver their intended passion due to dull songwriting and run-of-the-mill hardcore riffing. When it comes to the clean parts, however, it immediately shows that Gray’s knack for strong melodies and convincing vocal deliveries is still there, knocking out high-flying choruses one by one in songs like the soon-to-be fan favorite “Closure” or the slow-burning anthem “Never Said.” While his lines are definitely a musical eye-catcher every now and then, some tracks are just too plain and instrumentally soulless to fully engage with the listener, leaving not much more behind than a vague inkling of the last 3-5 minutes of straight recited hardcore music. That’s especially deplorable if you consider that the both critical and hopeful lyrics about religion, politics and society are as always chanted with the utmost passion and dedication, being again one of the highlights in BoySetsFire’s music but not sufficient enough to elevate most of the tracks beyond the point of being “just a good song.”
This is the main gripe I have with While A Nation Sleeps. Despite sticking to their tested formula here, BoySetsFire are either not able to fully flesh out some of their song ideas or not creative enough to come up with something more elaborate. While the hardcore songs feel uninspired and feeble, the more punk-driven songs can’t convey their energy for a longer time than just “that one cool riff” or “that really catchy refrain/verse,” partly a result of the unbalanced song selection on the album and partly a consequence of the stale writing. The whole record therefore feels like an incoherent mix of b-sides of the Tomorrow Come Today era that are spiced up with the good old After the Eulogy vigor and served with a chopped up The Great Dictator speech sample that just won’t stop (seriously, why?).
There are some very fine songs on here though, like “Prey” and “Altar of God” which are pretty epic and a more than welcome escape from the deadlocked hardcore/punk exchange beforehand, as well as several other songs that are definitely enjoyable while not overly memorable (“Never Said,” “Closure,” “Let it Bleed,” “Phone Call”), but all in all it’s the lack of originality and exciting songwriting that brings the record down the most. It’s still passionate, true to the band’s roots and joyfully performed, showing a band that is still up for something after so many years of writing and performing music, and that surely counts for something. Yet it’s not enough to make While A Nation Sleeps the great post-reunion record BoySetsFire’s legacy and fans certainly would have deserved.