Of all the things I thought I’d be excited about this year, the metalcore side project of Alex Erian from Despised Icon was not one of them. But sometimes life throws you a delightful curveball, giving you lemonade instead of lemons. Here, life also happened to put a generous double shot of vodka into my lemonade. I’m normally a beer guy, but like an unanticipated alcoholic lemonade, Balance is refreshing.
Obey the Brave isn’t doing anything out of the box here; instead, they tinker with a winning formula. Back in 2009, A Day to Remember released Homesick, a fun, catchy, and overall quality record that can be charitably described as Cork Tree-era Fall Out Boy with breakdowns. The combination worked, but A Day to Remember stayed heavily on the pop-punk side of the fence—opening number “The Downfall of Us All” begins on a pop-punk riff repurposed as a breakdown. Obey the Brave approaches a similar idea from a different direction. Imagine if Sick of It All and Hatebreed decided that A Day to Remember had a good idea with Homesick, but it wasn’t heavy enough. Instead of adding breakdowns to pop-punk, the better plan was to implement some strains of pop-punk into songs focused around chugging and breakdowns. Instead of changing the breakdowns to fit the pop-punk, the pop-punk would be brought to the gym, made to bench, and fed red meat until it was burly like the Hatebreed and Terror metallic hardcore base. Well, not quite as burly, but it can hang.
Much as some types hate to admit it, the “good cop/bad cop” formula works for a reason: it’s fun because the contrast is exciting. Yes, we all know a chorus with clean vocals is coming, but we all know that people are going to get shot in a John Wick film too and that’s no less exciting because of the predictability. It all lies in the execution, and execution is where Obey the Brave and the John Wick films excel. “Die Young” hits every right note possible for this style of music—a good shouted line to kick the whole band in (“still call the shots”), a pre-chorus that’s catchy enough to be the chorus, an even catchier proper chorus, and vocals which stay in the pocket wonderfully while chugging guitars cut in and out. The energy and confidence here are infectious, making it the type of song that gives you that extra boost at the gym, that extra life at the party, or that extra lead in your foot while driving. “Smoke Signals” toys with the guitar-led Swedish-American melodicism of Unearth, injecting a bit of variety to keep Balance exciting while the band keep their eyes firmly on the stylistic ball. This is immediately followed by “The Tide” which follows a similar path, sounding like what would happen if Unearth took a liking to A Day to Remember and kept the songwriting chops of both bands intact.
The secret weapon on Balance is structure. It begins with three swift mid-paced metalcore crowd-pleasers with big chugs and bigger hooks, moves to the slower beatdown of “Reality Check,” shifts over to guitar-driven melodic metalcore, and finishes on the fastest and most aggressive material on the record. The advantage of organizing the songs like this lies in giving Balance flow and direction, sating but not oversaturating listeners with one “type” of song and then switching to what would work best next in a live setting. This is all done across nine songs in slightly under half an hour, and Obey the Brave retain their own recognizable style throughout, not changing sound arbitrarily but rather exploring the obvious extensions of their core idea of extremely hooky metalcore.
While I know Balance isn’t a perfect record, it’s such a fun listening experience that I’m disinclined to pick it apart and find faults with it. It’s produced in the typically modern way, with guitars distorted digitally and drums produced to perfection but still obviously played by a human being. The production is no marvel, but it suits the music perfectly and emphasizes the weight of the chugging and breakdowns. Erian’s vocals are great, alternating between a convincing hardcore bark and clean vocals that are rough around the edges, giving them a gritty quality that A Day to Remember doesn’t have. Most importantly, Balance has been a joy to listen to. Obey the Brave have put out a record that’s inviting, invigorating, and interesting, worthy of many loud spins.