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Dark Horse

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★★★★☆
(227 Reviews)

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  • Nickelback’s new album brings with it the first major sonic change since signing with EMI and Roadrunner Records (with the possible exception of “The State”), largely due to influential producer “Mutt” Lange coming out of his “rock-music-scene retirement” of 8 years and putting his two-cent’s worth (and those are two HUGE pennies) in on the record.

    Well known for his uncanny ability to transform a stagnant band or artist into an overnight success, Lange helped save bands like Foreigner and Heart…not to mention what he did for AC/DC and Def Leppard.

    While Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger still co-produced on Dark Horse, you knew things would change because with Lange, there is only one right way to do things. Obviously, with the huge success the band has had under Kroeger’s leadership and production, especially with 2005’s “All The Right Reasons” still going strong after selling millions, this wasn’t a “save” situation…just a great opportunity for Kroeger and company to work with a legend.

    The result is sort of a “Nickelback meets the 80’s” record, and the best way to describe the sound is BIG, FAT and THICK…with little dynamic range…and guitars and drums being priorities. If you’re a fan of 80’s hard rock in the vein of AC/DC and Def Leppard, read no furthur…you’ll love this album.

    However, if you’re like me and prefer the more natural sound of Kroeger’s previous efforts, you may have an issue or two with this record. This sounds a little too manufactured and processed for my tastes. Lange’s influence is all over this album, including how the songs themselves come across. He’s definitely made this into an arena rock record filled with hard rock/heavy-metal type anthems…as a whole it sounds like one major jam session with all dials on ten (except for some of the always-included, mid-tempo Adult Contemporary ballads).

    Multi-layered background vocal chants and special effects are everywhere, and my biggest beef is with the drum sounds…Lange’s trademark electronic-hybrid snare drum sounds are way over-the-top for me. If I wished to hear this type of production today, I’d rather dust off my old Def Leppard and AC/DC tapes and listen to those…I don’t need to hear it on a 2008 Nickelback record.

    That being said, some of the songs aren’t half-bad…”Dark Horse” gets off to a fast start with the incessantly infectious “Something In Your Mouth”…based on a repeated, extremely catchy guitar riff that once in your head, is there to stay. “Gotta Be Somebody” is one of Nickelback’s best mid-tempo AC tunes in a while, and “I’d Come For You” is similar, though slower-paced. Interestingly, “Mutt” Lange’s production style doesn’t seem to hurt the power ballads…they may have actually benefited from the change.

    But when the heavy, straight-forward rock songs come back in, the over-production ruins it for me…on “Next Go Round”, the transducer vocal processor makes Chad sound as if he’s singing through a cardboard paper-towel roll tube connected to a distortion pedal… at least the chorus is hot and catchy. The top half of the lineup is strongest, and after another solid power ballad “Never Be Alone”, “Dark Horse” begins to fade down the stretch in terms of song quality, and limps to the closer, “This Afternoon”. This country-flavored tune doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the collection, and it has a chorus that sounds like it was copied and pasted from a Def Leppard album.

    All in all, the record has its moments, and the average listener won’t be bothered by the loss of a natural, “real”-sounding character, and may actually come away quite impressed by the stacked, multiple-overdubbed, super-polished production.

    I think Nickelback was doing just fine under Kroeger’s direction, and it begs the question, “Why fix what ain’t broke?” For me, the new sound leaves a lot to be desired, and in the end, “Dark Horse” fails to finish.

    Posted on February 6, 2010