Crown the Empire - Retrograde

Retrograde-Cover.jpg

Artist: Crown the Empire
Album: Retrograde
For fans of: Bring Me the Horizon, Asking Alexandria, Motionless in White
Reviewer: Ryan Panny

One of the countless Metalcore bands to repeatedly grace the Warped Tour stage in the past decade, Texas five-piece Crown the Empire, have done so little to distinguish themselves from their peers it’s almost as if they have no desire to do so.

The band’s music follows the same formula as contemporaries like Of Mice & Men, Asking Alexandria, and Memphis May Fire–copious breakdowns, angst-ridden lyrics delivered through the heaven-and-hell scream/sing vocal dynamic, and highly digitized production that doesn’t shy away from the occasional keyboard sample.

But a lack of originality or nuance does not always imply inferiority. Crown the Empire have continued to vault themselves toward the top of their overpopulated heap, especially after a ferocious yet dynamic sophomore effort–2014’s The Resistance: Rise of the Runaways–an album that, more often than not, found the band’s ambition intersecting with potential they had hinted at since their breakout EP Limitless in 2011.

The band’s third LP Retrograde arrives exactly two years to the date since The Resistance, and while it’s a solid follow-up, its title is appropriate as it feels decidedly regressive, offering less musically and roughly the same amount in distinguishability.

Immediately noteworthy on Retrograde is a sizable downshift in aggression from its predecessor, with melodic vocals dominating the majority of the record and breakdowns scarcer than ever. It’s an evolution transparently similar to Bring Me the Horizon’s latest two major label releases, Sempiternal and That’s the Spirit, especially the latter.  In fact, Retrograde’s opening cut “Are You Coming With Me” sounds like a That’s the Spirit leftover, particularly with its arena-sized chant-a-long bridge and the dramatic half-whisper with which the vocals are delivered in the verses. The choruses on cuts like “Weight of the World” and “Signs of Life”–the latter of which borders on Pop-Punk–further accentuate this leap into a more poppy territory.

When shades of Crown the Empire’s harsher side do appear later on the tracklist in the form of the scream vocal-centered “Lucky Us,” it feels like a contrived effort to retain the audience that bought Limitless in 2011. But despite that, “Lucky Us” thrives in its simplistic attack, letting guitar riffs take a backseat to a frenetic juggling of clean and unclean vocals upfront, only giving listeners a short breather with some electronic flourishes in the bridge section.

Occasionally, cliché lyrics are an egregious issue on Retrograde. While Crown the Empire’s emotionally-driven musical style does not demand poetic prose at every turn, a generic choice of words becomes offensive on the ballad “Signs of Life,” which asks two all-too-familiar questions in its chorus: “Is anybody there? Does anybody care?” The track “Oxygen” is a first-degree offender as well, resurrecting a beaten-to-death drug metaphor with the lyric “breathe you in, breathe you out, you’re my one true drug.”

But despite the dearth of groundbreaking ideas on Retrograde, the LP’s first half offers up some powerful moments. Lead single “Zero” is an instant crowd-pleaser, stripping away all of the bells and whistles found on Resistance and–pun intended–zeroing in on exactly what the band excels at: visceral screaming verses, a mountainous hook, and a breakdown that’s sure to be absolutely devastating in the live environment.

The track “Hologram,” for which there is a brand new music video, is close to perfection. Between the explosive knockout chorus, the cinematic bridge section, and the compelling desperation put forth in the lyrics, it will quickly cement itself as one of Crown the Empire’s finest hours. The instrumental “The Fear is Real” is also worthy of mention, a well-placed intermission in the tracklist that sounds like a deep cut from Radiohead’s Kid A got dressed in Hot Topic clothing and turned into the soundtrack for a first-person shooter video game.

Retrograde is the sound of Crown the Empire evolving to fit an increasingly melodic Metalcore climate. As a result, it feels a bit lightweight at times, and a unique identity continues to elude the band. But members of the converted should still find a fair amount to latch onto in these 11 tracks. It may leave quite a bit to be desired in terms of freshness and musicianship, but for its specific style and demographic, much of Retrograde is still right on the money.