Following the career of an independent band as closely as I’ve followed Among Criminals can give the listener an interesting look into how years of working towards any measure of success can change a musical group. For better or worse, lineups change and sounds evolve. Much has changed since I last wrote about Among Criminals, but on their new album, The Break, there are some welcome calls to the group’s past mixed in with intriguing new directions taken.
Though the group has changed two-thirds of its makeup, Among Criminals’ identity is still very much tied up in the one remaining founding member’s sound preferences and songwriting. On The Break singer-guitarist Ryan Gaughan seems to have really cut loose; though the type of blistering guitar solo we’ve come to expect from Gaughan doesn’t really arrive until late in the tracklisting, the guitar work throughout the album effortlessly slips from delay-draped staccato skanks to heavy distorted power chords. The singer’s voice as well is extended beyond its normal dynamic range: on The Break Gaughan both croons softly and shreds his vocal chords screaming, sometimes both within the same song. New bassist Bhauraw Avhad brings a more metallic sound to the band’s low end, and Kyle Ruggieri’s drumming is as straight-ahead rock as has ever been heard on an Among Criminals record. The Break is really a paradox in itself in that regard, as though the group set out to make a true rock album and ended up with some of the most heavily blended work they’ve yet to churn out.
As always, subject matter is of great importance. It’s easy to read from the album’s cover art (pictured above) and the descriptive imagery used in the songs that these are protest songs. A number of tracks (“Cold Soldier” and “Kingsmen”, for example) continue the Among Criminals tradition of pointedly political songs, but much of the material on The Break is more allegorical. It seems that Gaughan and co. have much to be upset about. Mysterious lyrics point towards tragic young women and an ambiguously innocent narrator. Throughout all of this musical tones and tempi shift dramatically. There is no song on the album that is downtempo, or a ballad, strictly speaking. Instead, there are two or three tracks that begin or end softer and slower in contrast to the aural assault of hard rocking that belies the remainder of the running. Reggae rhythms (“Save Me”, among others) and danceable funky grooves (“Firefly”) are present amidst a very polished mix of general rock hallmarks. Guitars are distorted, voices are strained, and drums and cymbals crash loudly in an inexorable rush through the stories told here.
As mentioned above, the path that an independent act may take through its career can lead to some unexpected choices or unorthodox moves. Mixed in with new material on this album are newly recorded versions of two old favorites among the Among Criminals crowd: “Cold Soldier” from the debut full-length Kill the Myth and “Don’t Tell Us” from the group’s self-titled effort. That these tracks fit in as seamlessly as they do is truly a testament to the cohesive nature of the group’s artistic choices and songwriting prowess. Around these two callbacks to earlier work are such standouts as the leadoff track, “Glow in the Dark”, the sweetness of “It All Breaks”, and the swaying funk-rock “Firefly”. “Kingsmen”, “Save Me”, and “Constant” take the tempo and emotion up a degree before dropping into almost dub-heavy reggae grooves. The album’s closer “Secret (Father Murphy)” has a truly big, bad swagger to it. These songs mean business, and are arresting to the listener.
As Among Criminals continues to evolve as a band in search of wider success and the ability to continue making music, The Break is assuredly a step in a new direction. New band members and old songs come together on this album to give Among Criminals a no-frills record that is in-your-face and unapologetic. Clean production and tight engineering hopefully give this album the greatest gift that recorded music can: songs delivered to the listener exactly as the artist imagined them.