Ever since I first heard Hopesfall, I’ve loved them for one main reason: their music truly creates its own world. From the spacey post-hardcore of 2002’s The Satellite Years to the brooding rock of 2007’s Magnetic North, the North Carolina quintet made a career out of shrugging off genre descriptors, all while maintaining an aura that was uniquely their own. Sadly, the group dissolved in 2008 following internal turmoil and issues with their label. Several years ago, some former members got together and began writing new music with the intent of releasing it under the name “Arbiter.” Soon they realized that what they’d actually done was reform Hopesfall, and Arbiter instead became the name of the group’s long-awaited fifth album.
In many ways, Arbiter feels like the culmination of everything Hopesfall are. Much like their former swansong Magnetic North, the album takes influence from all the band’s eras while harboring their characteristic sense of longing and distance. Arbiter is the rare comeback album that doesn’t recapture the spirit of early works, it makes it sound like that spirit never left in the first place.
Musically, the record leans most heavily on emotional rock, but trying to describe it further results in a tangled web of exceptions. Is it atmospheric? Sure, but the driving riffs that open “H.A. Wallace Space Academy” feel more kinetic and metallic than anything else. Is it huge? The cleanly picked passages and gleaming leads certainly create a sense of vastness, yet the swelling verses of “Tunguska” and Deftones-esque guitars of “C.S. Lucky One” feel surprisingly intimate. Fuck, is it even rock music? The soaring choruses and moody verses point to yes, and yet often traditional song structures are cast into orbit and left to drift wherever they may.
That’s not to say Arbiter lacks focus. On the contrary, its consistency and structural maturity surpass much of the band’s previous work. Vocalist Jay Forrest is the glue that holds it all together, with a gripping performance that runs the gamut from soft crooning to raspy shouting to mid-register singing. His vocal lines burst with some of the most unique and deceptively catchy melodies I’ve heard all year,1 while his emotive delivery causes tracks like “Indignation and the Rise of the Arbiter” to rise right to the top of my Song O’ the Year shortlist. The lyrics are the cherry on top, with Space Age-themes and esoteric phrases that, much like Coheed and Cambria, I’m perfectly okay with singing along to, even if I have no clue what they mean.
In both its music and production, Arbiter feels at once dreamy and sharp, a crystal harvested from some faraway planet. Like such a rare artifact, I’m amazed we got this record at all. Arbiter is more than a great reunion album, it’s an incredible piece of music in its own right, not to mention a welcome return to the stellar world of Hopesfall.
Tracks to Check Out: “H.A. Wallace Space Academy,” “Tunguska,” “Indignation and the Rise of the Arbiter”