A lot of bands, after they’ve made a few albums and enjoyed the fruits of success, seem to settle into a pattern. A lot of the songs they make are similar to their past work, and while they are good, the band doesn’t strive to work harder and push the boundaries of what they are capable of. After listening to Alter Bridge’s latest album Fortress, it is clear that they are not one of those bands.
In interviews before the album’s release, guitarist Mark Tremonti and lead singer Myles Kennedy hinted that Fortress would be more experimental, and would contain sounds that fans had not heard on the band’s previous records. This had me cautiously optimistic; the danger with that is that the band will go in a weird avant-garde direction. Not so here. There are more interesting sounds on this album, but Alter Bridge has maintained its emphasis on melody and the accessibility of its music to fans.
One thing to note about this album is that no song on it stays the same for long. Many songs feature sudden right turns that, for a less talented band, would feel disjointed and abrupt. Alter Bridge makes them work quite well, however. The most interesting of these textural shifts occurs in “Calm The Fire,” where Myles sings in a falsetto and the song takes on a peaceful sort of mood. The song “ends” about 1:14 in before powering up again seconds later. I never thought that I would compare Alter Bridge to a progressive rock band, but that start/stop sequence echoes Tool’s pair of songs “Parabol,” and “Parabola,” on their album Lateralus. The riff in “The Uninvited” also has the rapid-fire feel in the main riff of Tool’s song “Jambi.”
One other trap that bands fall into (and that I feel Myles fell into when he recorded an album with Slash a few years back) is that they stick to their usual song structure and format with little deviation. It usually goes verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-chorus. To be sure, this format appears on Fortress, but it’s the songs that break the mold that keep the album interesting to the listener. I was very happy upon noticing this, because their first single made it appear that they were sticking to this format at all costs. But Fortress includes songs like “Cry of Achilles,” and the title track that clearly show they are capable of trying new formats. The former track features several jams, and allows bassist Brian Marshall and drummer Scott Phillips to shine in different moments. The latter song has an extended instrumental period that almost feels improvised, as the band appears to end the song two different times, only to come back with an extra-awesome jam. Many fans have wanted Alter Bridge to try their hand at an instrumental, and the song “Fortress” is about as close as they’ve come to actually doing that.
One other detail to leak in pre-release interviews is that Mark would take over vocals on the track “Waters Rising.” While it is an excellent song (the lyrics make me think of the Cylon attack on the humans in Battlestar Galactica), I’m not quite sure what the band’s intentions were here. I’m not sure if they intended the two vocalists to share the song as they did on “Words Darker Than Their Wings” on the previous album, or if they intended from Mark to be the clear lead vocalist and Myles as the backing vocalist. At times, Mark appears to be taking the lead, but there are moments where Myles overpowers his voice, such as at 3:30 when they both hold a long note. I can’t really hear Mark’s vocals on that. I think the song would’ve been better served if Myles faded into the background a little more (though when you have vocal power like his, that’s hard to do), and Mark got his chance to shine.
That said, Myles does have some great vocal moments. Probably his best vocal delivery happens in “Lover,” where he contributes to the creepy and sinister mood of the song in its opening, and then hits some great high notes when the song shifts gears and we hear a series of questions (“Did you have to shove it in my face?/Did you have to tear my world apart?” and so on). He really belts out the chorus of “All Ends Well,” which makes it all the more uplifting. I know I was sometimes worried that Myles was losing a step, because it seemed he’d often “talk” the lyrics when performing live, rather than really singing them, and I wondered if his vocal abilities were in decline. He answers that with a firm NO all throughout Fortress.
Finally, the album also has some great lyrical moments. Myles had developed a reputation among fans for recycling a lot of phrases and lyrical moments, and they sometimes felt derivative of each other as a result. He really seemed to work to avoid this in Fortress, such as in “Addicted to Pain,” a song that I’ve come to appreciate more after hearing how it fits on the album. In it, he describes someone who has felt let down or screwed over by another and has developed a sort of martyr complex as a result, indulging in their pain to get attention from others. But “the house of cards just hit the floor,” and they are facing a sort of reckoning moment. “Cry a River” goes with a similar concept, calling out someone who pretends to be devastated by a dissolving relationship but who clearly isn’t.
According to my word counter, I’ve written over 900 words about this album, and could easily write 900 more. But I’m going to leave you with one piece of advice: if you’re any fan of rock at all, buy this album. It might be the best album from a band that has given us quite a few good albums and songs since forming out of the ashes of Creed in 2004. You owe it to yourself to check this out.
Here are my track picks:
“All Ends Well”