And the Hero Fails - Empire Smile (2006)
The goal of the American Metalcore Project has always been to highlight overlooked and underappreciated records, but rarely is an album we cover as unjustifiably ignored as Empire Smile. And the Hero Fails are without a doubt one of the most finely-honed and stylistically assured bands we’re likely to cover, and on paper, couldn’t possibly have come and gone like they did.
Starting out as a vegetarian grind band, the shift to metalcore (and carnivorism) was incidental, a matter of changing tastes that led them to play a unique blend of Fear Before The March Of Flames and Hot Damn!-era Every Time I Die, the angularity of the latter tempered with the structural proficiency of the former. Yeah, Fear Before dropped “the March of Flames” from their name, but And the Hero Fails’s sound makes specific reference to Odd How People Shake and Art Damage in the snotty cleans and cat-screech highs of “They Came Covered In Snow” and “Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” which are almost indistinguishable from those of David Michael Marion and Adam Fisher, and are in stark contrast to the mid-range growls that dominate the album prior to “Song of the Wolf.” This interlude, too, recalls the weirdness of Fear Before The March Of Flames, being a lengthy spoken prayer (in what I presume to be Russian) that divides the album’s most straightforward bone-crunchers from more experimental fare. What’s so great about And the Hero Fails is that they have enough personality and compositional know-how to make what are really wildly different interpretations of their core sound seems like complementary halves of a cohesive whole.
“March of the Wolf” (there’s a lycanthropic motif here) is about as no-nonsense an intro as you could want. It fades in with a slightly off-center breakdown built around a crashing hi-hat and a sinister riff, then explodes into “His Imperial Victory.” Back-to-back with “A Massacre Prevents A War,” it makes for a killer one-two punch, bombarding the listener with well-executed riffing of both the mathy and Swedish variety. The same formula appears on “A Massacre Prevents A War” with the addition of some nasty, prominent breakdowns--just try to sit still when the song turns into a full-on battle anthem, replete with marching rhythms and chants of “One alive is worth five dead!” And the Hero Fails’s grind background noticeably informs the track’s adrenal fury and the following track, “Sun of Man,” keeps the band’s energy up, featuring dissonant passages at a stormier, more methodical pace, as well as a brief guitar solo.
The second half of the album could have been a jarring departure if As the Hero Fails didn’t ease us in with the first half of “They Came Covered In Snow,” which channels the aggression of “His Imperial Victory” in a more disjointed time signature, and takes its time unpacking the panic chords before the song launches into a dissonant, addictive call-and-response. FBTMOF’s influence, and the mathcore overtones it entails, are already on our minds thanks to the build-up, so the introduction of Rodriguez’s impassioned shrieks isn’t quite so left-field. The song continues layering odder and more expressive guitar lines and even slips in a couple of Deftones-y clean vocals; and although the song ends on a fade, “The Escape” feels of one piece with the experimental nature of “Snow.” The higher vocals take on another texture: a punk yelp (which is present, but easily missed, on “A Massacre”), and the one-dimensional growls descend into pig-squeals for the closing breakdown. And the Hero Fails manage to not only make this dated technique sound as brutal as it was intended to be, but even kind of tasteful.
For some reason, “Preface to Extinction” is another interlude. It’s easily the weakest of the three and consists of less than a minute of simple drumming, clean tones, and muted bass that could have either been developed into an interesting song in itself or folded into the runtime of “Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” since it ultimately serves no further purpose than to introduce Empire Smile’s closer. Whatever disappointment this conjures vanishes, as this this is easily the most varied song on the album. Many of And the Hero Fails’s heavier tendencies are subdued to make room for an emotive four-and-a-half minutes: while the song does feature a breakdown, it’s so embedded that it registers as more of a transition than a mosh-moment and is quickly overpowered by some August Burns Red-like shredding and distorted rambling. Around the three-minute mark, the song breaks into a resounding chant of “We’ll carry on without them” and chiming guitar, but the moment is swept into a back-and-forth between shredding guitars and uplifting cleans before finally resolving on a short breakdown passage.
How Empire Smile didn’t make And the Hero Fails huge is beyond me. It’s polished and technical without coming off artificial or impenetrable, and played with obvious passion, craft, and a gift for experimentation that places them above and ahead of their peers. Despite what titles like “A Massacre Prevents A War” and “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” might lead you to believe, their lyrics are neither overtly brutal or navel-gazing but thoughtful, confident, and fairly poetic. It’s a bit tragic that after all the talk of “carrying on” And the Hero Fails did not, and left far too short a legacy behind. But that, too, is par for the course with the American Metalcore Project, so enjoy what’s here and on their debut, The Mistake That Cost the World. We’re not getting more!
Wherein Brian hilariously overanalyzes a subgenre of metal!