There probably won’t be an album released in 2007 that is more highly anticipated, closely inspected, and strictly critiqued than Shadows Fall’s new one, “Threads of Life.” After selling over 300,000 copies of their last full-length (2004’s “War Within”), this Massachusetts-based quintet followed in the tracks of Lamb of God and Mastodon by (finally!) jumping to a major label (this is their first effort under Atlantic Records). Subsequently, the band teamed-up with a well-known producer (Nick Raskulinecz) who has worked with such pop groups as Velvet Revolver and the Foo Fighters. These things considered, this could have been just the thing that haters were waiting to scream “sell out” at.
So what are we to make of the new album? Well, here’s the thing: It sounds slick. Extremely slick, in fact. Atlantic’s big budget and production definitely shine through here, as evidenced by the crisp lead guitars, punchy drums, big choruses, and multi-tracked vocals that are as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Thus, a lot of fans will be immediately turned off that it isn’t as raw, intense, or edgy as, say, 1997’s debut, “Somber Eyes To The Sky.” But there are a couple of advantages of this huge production, including a thicker guitar tone, and hooks that are just spectacular. So, the first listen to “Threads of Life” will probably be spent dwelling on how glossy it sounds, but after giving it a little time to digest, the album will soon reveal itself as the extremely contagious listen that it really is.
Every band member is at the top of his game here, and they turn out some of their best and most professional, realized, and phenomenal music to date. Jason Bittner’s drumming is as quick and forceful as ever, and Paul Romanko proves he is solidified bassist by laying down some of his meatiest and most pronounced bass lines. But there are really three star performers who take up most of the spotlight. The first of which is longtime frontman Brian Fair, who proves he is much more than just a “vocalist” — he is an actual, honest-to-goodness singer! And a darn good one, too! Sure, he can still growl when he wants to, but he never sounds remotely one-dimensional or overly angry, because most of the time he opts for a full-throated singing voice which shows off his warm, powerful pipes. The two other stars are Jonathan Donais and Matt Bachand, who are doubtlessly one of modern metal’s leading guitar duos. Their riffs are deliciously crunchy, their leads are usually blazing fast (without ever being out of control), and their solos have gotten more technical and ripping, and now even occasionally border on being melodic.
The songwriting is superb as well. The Shads’ 2002 release was named “The Art of Balance,” but that title could have just as well applied to this disc, too, because there is variety aplenty here. The result is a superbly exciting, meticulous, contagious, diverse, mature, rich, and well-textured sound. Plus, Brian Fair also chipped in by coming up with some of his smartest and most passionate and personal lyrics. “Threads of Life” has many terrifically memorable songs, and even if some are more so than others, there isn’t a single stinker or filler to be found from front to back. In other words, heavy music doesn’t get much more consistent, listenable, easy to digest, or flawless than this nowadays.
The propulsive “Redemption” hits the ground running with excellent, bullying guitar leads, deft double bass slamming, and a huge, wonderfully harmonic and infectious chorus that will have everyone in the whole arena waving a lighter. “Burning The Lives” works similarly, with a forceful, streamlined chainsaw guitar attack opening the song before giving way to a “Dimebag” Darrell-worthy solo and an open, cleanly sung chorus. “Storm Winds” is the album’s first semi-ballad, but not to worry: the fine singing, well-placed bits of guitar crunch, and terrific solo present here make this song another keeper. “Failure Of The Devout” slips in a nice, Testament-esque acoustic intro, then proceeds to rocket into a river of blistering, chunked-up guitar shred and pounding drums.
Then, however, things start to get a little more experimental. Three of the next tracks, the hooky “Venomous,” “Final Call” (which is highlighted by a grumbling bass line and one of Donais’ best solos to date), and the especially hefty and chunky “Dead Uprising,” are all muscular yet mid-tempo chug and churners which slow down the record’s pace significantly. You’ll probably grow more and more uncertain as you make your way through surprising tracks like the ultra-melodic “Another Hero Lost,” which will instinctively be thought of as a blatant stab at getting radio play. However, after dreamy, ambient acoustic strums, two cool solos (one melodic, the other blazing), and Brian Fair’s mindblowing singing voice and touching lyrics (inspired by Fair’s cousin, who died while stationed in Iraq), are added to the mix, then “Another Hero Lost” turns out to be a great power ballad which any Eighties thrash band would be glad to call their own. Then comes “The Great Collapse,” a gorgeous, piano-based interlude.
Two final songs round out the set, the first of which is one of the biggest highpoints on hand here. In addition to a vertigo-inducing guitar solo, “Just Another Nightmare” boasts an awesome chorus composed of irresistibly sweet, sometimes almost even (dare I say it?) emo-ish crooning that stays in the listener’s head for several days. Finally back on familiar ground, “Forevermore” ends “Threads Of Life” the same way it began, with an all-out onslaught of thrash riffage.
“Threads of Life” will surely be too mainstream for some fans (especially longtime followers), but fair-minded listeners will find absolutely nothing to dislike here. This is an unquestionably epic, excellent and satisfying album which is a frontrunning candidate for the year’s best metal record, and is one of the top thrash releases of the new millennium. It even has the potential to go down as one of the genre’s all time classics, and to say that Shadows Fall are now firing on all cylinders would be a gross understatement. Some would argue that The Shads came close to but did not quite fully achieve true greatness with their first six full-length releases, but there should be little debate over that now, because “TOL” is the kind of stuff that legends are made of.