It may be hard to argue against the consensus that these Seattle natives’ stock has plummeted dramatically since the halcyon days of “Operation Mindcrime” and “Empire”, in terms of both creativity and commercial viability, but I still hold that “Operation Mindcrime II” was a great album and one that recovered a lot of lost ground for the band. I thus went into “American Soldier” with a firm sense of quiet optimism, only to have my expectations righteously dashed in every regard.
Advance word on the album has generally been quite positive, with some calling it their best work in many years. I, for one, couldn’t be more unimpressed. “American Soldier” continues the band’s love affair with concept albums, with the songs dealing with the physical and psychological impact of war and life as a soldier. Towards this end vocalist and chief lyricist Geoff Tate interviewed many servicemen (including his own father), enabling them to relate their personal experiences of war. Snippets of these conversations permeate the album to help further the overall narrative, and while the lyrics are deftly handled (neither too pro nor anti-war) the album falls apart because the actual instrumentation is never able to match the drama portrayed in the lyrics. This is the album’s fatal flaw. I can’t help but feel that had a band like IRON MAIDEN helmed this project the results would’ve been astronomically more impressive, in light of their proven track record as far as war-themed songs are concerned. Think of songs like “The Trooper” and “Paschendale” – they had the ebb, flow and theatrical essence that this kind of material demands. Barring a few instances nothing on “American Soldier” even comes close to meeting this histrionic element that I’m alluding to.
It has to be said, though, that nothing on this album qualifies as outright crap; the majority of it is simply average. Most of the standout moments occur during the somewhat respectable first half, and while the modern groove and misplaced harsh vocals of “Sliver” are nothing to write home about the song nevertheless stands out by virtue of it being the only up-tempo song present here. Things get interesting with “Unafraid”, an unusually structured song where the aforementioned interview snippets basically make up the lyrics, with guitarist Michael Wilton laying emotive power chord-driven melodies down on top of it all. “At 30,000 Ft.” Is perhaps the highlight here – a very traditional sounding ‘REICH number awash with powerful (and suitably emotional) vocals, a strong chorus and classy melodic swathes very much in vein of their early material. “Dead Man’s Words” is another cool track that relies on a steady Middle-Eastern motif that is both space-y and dark at the same time, with Tate lamenting the dire fate of a wounded and abandoned soldier. It’s at this point, however, that the band run out of ideas (and riffs, pretty much) as the remainder of the album is uniformly bland and way too laid-back for its own good. The singular focus on power chord strumming never approximates anything other than lame pop-rock, and despite Tate’s best efforts the album never lifts itself out of the pit of mediocrity again. “Home Again” is a fine ballad but the band’s decision to let Tate sing duet with his daughter Emily is questionable – not only is she obviously not a professional singer but she also songs with an annoying lisp that is ultimately very distracting.
I hate bad-mouthing this album since it is obviously a very personal album for the band (especially Tate), but as a fan I have to call bollocks on this one. There aren’t a whole lot of good riffs, the rhythms section of Scott Rockenfield and Eddie Jackson does nothing but keep time with Wilton’s ball-less riffing and the overall tempo of the album is simply too slow. The passion and grit is evident in the lyrics but the music never gets going, and after “The Voice” faded out I had no option other than to declare this yet another sketchy album by a band that has been unable to fully harness and channel their obvious talents into creating something truly worthwhile for a long time now (“Mindcrime II” excepted).
(Online April 26, 2009)