In these easily offended times, titling your album Chemical Warfare is both ballsy and risky—two adjectives that perfectly encompass Escape The Fate’s latest. Sure, this is a band that has made a career out of doing whatever they want, like collaborating with the sensational Lindsey Stirling, but it seems that this was just the beginning! Poised to make you think (and listen) twice, then thrice, they return with their latest on Friday, April 16, 2021 thanks to Better Noise Music.
“Throw out everything you thought you knew about this band,” enthuses Vocalist Craig Mabbitt. And his band’s seventh full-length is definitely going to ruffle some feathers, particularly those of fans who keep hoping for a return to 2008’s This War Is Ours and 2013’s Ungrateful. Of course, the bad boys of Metalcore stigma that followed the band through their transition from Ronnie Radke (Falling In Reverse) on vocals to Mabbitt is one that they began trying to kiss goodbye to on 2015’s Hate Me, so the idea of a sonic shift is not exactly new. It’s fairly easy to hear the band’s evolution: one that took them from singing about fame-chasing groupies to commiserating over the struggles of being human.
But for Chemical Warfare, Escape the Fate—Mabbitt, Guitarist Kevin “Thrasher” Gruft, Bassist TJ Bell, and Drummer Robert Ortiz—plunges feet first into a rabbit hole of experimentation that picks up where their last release left off. Produced by the multi-talented Thrasher and the legendary John Feldmann (The Used, Panic! At The Disco), the 12-song collection uses 2018’s I Am Human as a launching pad to travel further down the Alt Metal/Hard Rock path. Whereas their former release balanced heavy moments with the lighter aspects of the quartet’s sound profile by splitting its tracklist down the middle, Chemical Warfare takes a different approach, often trying to encompass all extremes within the span of one song.
The results are understandably mixed. For gateway tracks such as “Invincible,” released ahead of the LP and featuring electric violin virtuoso Stirling, there’s a sense of bridging into the future with grace and dignity. And though the elements here might initially seem odd and disparate, they create massive layers of entrancing melody that are matured yet still catchy. The same could be said for rocker “Hand Grenade,” which straddles the line between the more accessible tracks that create the bulk of Chemical Warfare all while somehow maintaining what fans traditionally expect from Escape The Fate.
The bulk of the album, however, is about taking risks. Take, for example, album opener “Lightning Strike,” whose funky verses are aimed at throwing listeners off balance from the outset. Evoking thoughts of Modern Rock bands such as The Strokes, the song builds to choruses that flaunt Pop-sensibilities yet still carry what we will term the ‘essence’ of Escape The Fate. Synthpop offering “Erase You” goes much further off-script, experimenting with Hip Hop cadences and atmospheric programming as its creators languidly drink the memories away. It’s hard to believe that this is the same band that only three years ago released “Recipe For Disaster” and “Digging My Own Grave,” but that is clearly the point.
They do not allow their heavier side to accumulate dust, however: evil howls emanate from the delicious “Demons,” while Bell holds it down with some killer bass work on “Ashes (Broken World).” These two tracks, at least, show a loving respect for where Escape The Fate has been even if they are systematically moving on to more commercially-appealing pastures. And it’s hard not to term the album “radio-friendly” thanks to its mélange of dreadfully generic offerings, such as “Unbreakable,” “Burn the Bridges,” and “Not My Problem,” the latter of which features blink-182’s Travis Barker on drums. Sure, there are some delicious breakdowns and soaring choruses on these songs, but the overall feeling is that Escape The Fate can do better.
As previously stated, much of Chemical Warfare experiments with fluidly shifting genres within the body of one track. So while “Not My Problem” might begin as something blasé, it does eventually explode and offer some of the heaviest moments of the entire collection, while “Burn the Bridges” juxtaposes verses that would make a Top 40 listener orgasm with brutal moments and rocking choruses. Counter to this, some of the songs that remain more consistent throughout, like the cyanide sweetness of “My Gravity” and the titular “Chemical Warfare,” end up sitting so comfortably in the middle as to be easily overlooked. So what do we know?
Well, one thing that we are certain of is the enchanting positivity and uplifting spirit of the album’s show-stopping conclusion, “Walk On.” Released ahead of the LP, and featured in the 2020 film Sno Babies, the ballad is easily the most accessible track on the record and one of its most satisfying moments. We dare you not to sing along! In fact, even in those moments when Chemical Warfare suffers a bit for its experimentation, it is still a catchy collection of material from a talented band who know how to craft undeniable hooks.
In short, Chemical Warfare takes a lot of risks, and much as in life, some of them pay off and others fall a bit flat. How you delineate the specifics depends on your hopes for Escape The Fate’s future: Do you want mega stardom or a growling, stomping underdog? Whatever your heart speaks there is still a level of respect due to a quartet who, with fifteen years under their collective belt, continues to challenge themselves to evolve even if that means venturing into polarizing territory. Because Escape The Fate has to understand that any dramatic shift will rile their fans and gain them some hideous social media comments. We’re on Team Experimentation, so Cryptic Rock gives Chemical Warfare 3.5 of 5 stars.