Album Review: Among Criminals “Break” to New (and Old) Mutiny

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.

CDfrontcover

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.

The Break is available through CDBaby and iTunes, and Among Criminals can be followed through their website and on facebook.

Nobody Listens to…Among Criminals

There may be a little bit of pressure writing about a band when I know that at least one of its members will read this.  Having said that, when I remember that I watched these guys play acoustically in a park in my hometown when the Dallas stop of their first national tour was cancelled, I can breathe a bit easier.  In any case, this week brings you the best act to come out of Philadelphia since Will Smith: hard-rocking and reggae-grooving Among Criminals.

Among Criminals

I was still in high school when I first heard Among Criminals.  At the time I was pretty plugged into the community of fans that followed the band State Radio (read: I geeked out reading and occasionally posting on the band’s fan forum), and heard about a really great group out of Philadelphia that not only had some great music, but made a point of being accessible to anyone who followed the group.  I followed the group’s progress, downloaded their albums, and struck up an online correspondence with the band through the myspace page that they personally managed. 

According to Ryan Gaughan, Among Criminals’ singer and guitarist who was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the group, he and the bassist known only as “Bean” were childhood friends who reunited as bandmates upon returning to Philadelphia after time in Boston and Las Vegas, respectively.  While in Boston attending Berklee College of Music Gaughan met drummer Jarrod Pedone, who happened to come into the market for a band at the fortunate moment that Gaughan and Bean were looking to round out a band.  Among Criminals was born by fire when Gaughan introduced his prospective rhythm section immediately before the group’s first show in Trenton, New Jersey.  The trio hasn’t looked back since.

Gaughan truly has found a way to live the dream.  After Among Criminals’ early rehearsals, the three decided that they didn’t have anything better going on, bought a van, and proceeded to play roughly four hundred shows in three years (“that number inflated depending on who we talk to!” reveals Gaughan).  After three self-produced albums and sharing bills with State Radio, SOJA, Dirty Heads, and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, Among Criminals went for broke (literally) and recorded their first professionally produced work.  As I write this the band is in Los Angeles shooting their first-ever music video.

The three shaggy-headed members of Among Criminals each brings a wild energy to the group’s recordings.  Gaughan lists 90s alternative rock giants such as Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters as playing as much a role in the band’s musical heritage as punk and reggae acts The Clash and the Police.  Each song is as likely to settle into a hard-edged reggae bounce or a hot latin groove as it is rise into a distorted and blistering rock song; for that matter several of Among Criminals’ songs boast all of the above. Pedone is an impressively fluid drummer, and shifts styles somewhat effortlessly as the group’s varied music demands.  Bean seems constantly in the pocket, and ensures that the bass guitar demands as much attention as any other aspect of the power trio.  Gaughan remains in the center, his soft vocals juxtaposed with his virtuosic brand of Joe-Strummer-meets-Carlos-Santana-on-amphetamines lead guitar work

All of this accompanies the righteous anger and hope beyond hope that the highly political and social lyrics of the music contains.  The group has no qualms about wearing their beliefs and ideologies on their collective sleeve, and Gaughan’s calls for an end to violence, war, and political corruption fall in line with both a musical style that is recognizably influenced by The Clash and Rage Against the Machine and a social stance that has led to the group’s placement on bills with Tom Morello and Anti-Flag (Among Criminals signed on for two shows to benefit Iraq Veterans Against War that never happened, much to Gaughan’s chagrin).

As can be imagined, Among Criminals’ songs are typically highly dynamic.  From the quasi-latin riffing of “Cold Solider”, “Fire”, and “Last Bullet” to the distortion-heavy numbers “Bare-handed Hitman” and “Smartest Man in the World”, elements of the song are both hauntingly distant and unabashedly in-your-face.  Working through the band’s discography, however, reveals unexpected surprises: almost tribal chants float over a constant guitar skank in “War”, the world nearly comes to an end in the genre-bending odyssey of “Ghost”, an upbeat funk groove belies more angry lyrics in “Step Back”, and lighthearted acoustic tunes like “Go Say” and “I See” occasionally pop out (mentally prepare yourself for the guitar solo in the latter before listening).  The pacifist ballad “Killin’ is Killin’” even features steel pans.

To note any differences from album to album would be an exercise in futility, as each album is more the result of funds coming through to record tracks that are constantly in flux.  The freshly-minted 2012 release Among Criminals even features new recordings of several songs that appeared on the trio’s earlier releases,Kill the Myth and Happy History.

It’s been four years now since the night I gathered a few friends and met Among Criminals as their van rolled into a neighborhood park in the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth.  Whether it was the impressive skills each member of the band has honed on their instrument of choice or the diverse influences that form Among Criminals’ music, I always felt that the songs translate just as well to an acoustic setting as to the high-decibel rock that characterizes the majority of the trio’s shows.  In any case, Among Criminals is a band that tours tirelessly, and spares no expense in their continuing quest to make a name for themselves.  As mentioned above, the group is currently shooting their first music video for a single from what they hope to be their breakout album (an album which, by the way, can be purchased for just seven dollars on the group’s official website).  The self-titled Among Criminals is currently available to stream in its entirety on the band’s facebook page, and members of the trio still regularly communicate to fans through social media.  If nothing else, this is one of the most endearing aspects of Among Criminals’ life as a band: in addition to writing and performing good music, the group makes an effort to be responsive to those who follow their music.  Nobody is listening to Among Criminals much right now, but hopefully the hard work that the band has put into both connecting with fans and producing a powerful sound will soon pay off with appropriate success.