Sunday, June 5, 2016

Flotsam & Jetsam - Flotsam & Jetsam (2016)

The eponymous record. Inevitable in the hands of nearly any long time musical artist. The obligatory statement of 'self', of purpose or re-purpose, commitment or re-commitment. Arizona's long ailing, but unflinchingly persistent power/thrashers Flotsam & Jetsam waited until studio LP #12 to resort to the tactic, adorning it with a simple logo & skull image that seems to suggest a humbling of tone and expression, which ironically is not at all how this album feels. While it's no question that Flotsam & Jetsam is comprised of and composed of a gestalt of riffing styles and tempos that the band has explored throughout its 30+ years of existence, it's put together really well. To my surprise, bordering on shock, I've gotten more enjoyment and replay value out of this in the last couple weeks than I have any album they've put out since No Place for Disgrace in 1988, and while it's no rival for that classic, it's evidence enough that old dogs don't always need new tricks, just a proper ratio of bite to bark.

One might argue that the album plays it fairly safe, and I can't argue that, but it does so with a solid slew of engaging riffs and well-developed vocal lines and choruses that almost all integrated into my memory even on the first flight through the record. Pounding, mid-paced thrash rhythms capture a lot of the 'gladiatorial' feel you'll recall from No Place, and a few of the tunes were supposedly written in that era, but here they are clad with the clarity and pomp of the guitar productions they've used on a lot of their modern albums. There is the occasional deferral to the meaty groove/thrash that bands like Pantera or Machine Head made viable in the 90s, and that's a minor distraction, but even there the material is handled tastefully, serving as a means to an end that is achieved with glorious confidence, or a neck-pumping exercise to make bands like an Exodus in its prime proud. Workmanlike rhythms are affected with NWOBHM-like melodies that strive and attain a good balance, and the leads whip into their furors with cautious ease, slightly short of remarkable but light and entertaining. The fact they've got a tune here called "Iron Maiden" sort of tapes into the self-referential genre examination which highly characterized their 1997 effort High, but without the disposable mediocrity.

The disc doesn't suffer from the production pratfalls that even their fantastic sophomore fell victim to, but at the expense that it definitely feels a little overly clean, like you'll hear from a lot of the modern efforts from these veteran acts (Overkill, Queensrÿche, etc). That said, it has its benefits, like the fluid thump of Michael Spencer's bass lines or the concrete consistency of the drumming, which is simple but effective at helping hammer out a lot of the record's simpler, 'been there' riffs. The MVP here, however, is Erik A.K.'s vocals, which sound emotional and detailed on nearly every line he spits out over the 55 minutes. The lyrics are often loaded with tireless streams of cliches, but when he hits the choruses in tunes like "Time to Go" or "Verge of Tragedy" he really shows a seasoned patience and mastery of exactly what ranges to strike to drive a tune from just 'alright' to one I wanted to hit repeat on numerous times. He might not have the wailing, brash rage of his youth, but the voice still has a lot of that same character we can remember from Doomsday or No Place and its certainly a far cry better than his performance on the latter's remake two years ago.

And better, by extension, than the long procession of disappointments I've experienced at their hands over these last several decades. To be clear, Flotsam & Jetsam HAVE put out some decent songs in the interim. Albums like The Cold or Dreams of Death had their moments, just precious few of them, whereas this disc is the first in forever where I'd actually play straight through the track list and then do so again, without any desire to skip over anything. That doesn't mean all the riffs or songs here are written equally, and the album still lacks in a few areas where the energy lags, or the lyrics just seem effete that they drag down the music below them, but it's very much enjoyable and if not a classic for a new generation, it's at least a solid enough execution that one can hold out hope that the fires have not now, or may never fully wane for the Phoenix elite.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (a bed of spikes for eternity)

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