In rock music culture, “selling out” is a pejorative used to accuse an artist of compromising their artistic integrity for commercial viability. This is signified to fans by drastic changes in both songwriting and sound, met with negative reception from those fans. As such was the case with Metallica’s radio-ready “The Black Album,” or Radiohead’s IDM-lite “Kid A,” the Yorkshire band Bring Me the Horizon are currently the subject of this same scrutiny. The group’s most recent full-length, “That’s the Spirit,” debuted at number two on the charts for both the United States and the quintet’s native United Kingdom. These sales figures contrasted by a group whose earlier albums were markedly different from “That’s the Spirit” make the band an easy target to accuse of “selling out.”
Forming in 2003, the group’s early work was metalcore rife with throat-searing screams and down-tuned guitar chugging. The repertoire from their first two albums often felt predictable, dominated by tempo shifts between molasses-slow and breakneck fast. The band wore its influences on its sleeve, emulating Suffocation’s signature guitar breakdowns and percussive blast beats in the style of The Red Chord throughout an album’s runtime.
However, the band turned both fans’ and critics’ head with their last full-length, 2013’s “Sempiternal,” the definite point in Bring Me the Horizon’s career that first elicited the “sell-out” label from fans. Many of “Sempiternal’s” tracks, like opener “Can You Feel my Heart,” were composed around processed vocal loops and synthesizer hooks instead of the guitar riffage typically associated with metalcore and its contemporary heavy styles. In October 2014, the band debuted “Drown,” the first single from “That’s the Spirit.” The song’s melodic vocals, clean post-rock guitars, and drums that crescendo tactfully immediately polarized fans. Where the band would go next was uncertain, and many fans felt that “Drown” was just a b-side leftover from a band running out of ideas.
This is where Bring Me the Horizon distinguishes their music from “selling out” to progressing. While the ensemble’s two most recent albums are worlds apart from their output at the start of their career, “Spirit” is not the sign of a band running out of steam. With “Spirit,” Bring Me the Horizon continue to move away from the Hot Topic trending metalcore of their early days. Lead vocalist Oliver Sykes even went as far as to cite post-punk revivalists Interpol and art-rockers Radiohead as the band’s current influences in a recent interview with NME. The end result is a record rooted in pop and studded with glitzy electronics.
Unlike on “Sempiternal,” the band has maintained a consistent line-up and subsequently performs like a seasoned ensemble on “That’s the Spirit.” The most recently added member, keyboardist and backing vocalist Jordan Fish, feels considerably more integrated in the group, as his melodic lines and phrasing mesh with the band rather than contrast their playing. The interplay between Fish and guitarist Lee Malia during the verses of “Throne” comes across with confidence, building a solid foundation for Sykes’ singing. The tremolo-picked guitar of “What You Need” recalls the work of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but is then complimented by a punchy bassline that would fit comfortably on an early Coheed & Cambria record. The bridge opts to develop dynamically, as Sykes explores the lower registry of his voice while drums and guitars gradually prepare the listener for a forte finale.
Attention to detail is ubiquitous throughout “Spirit,” as its songs were both composed and produced carefully, unlike the band’s rushed debut, “Count Your Blessings.” Fish and Sykes handled production duties together instead of hiring an external producer, and this certainly shows with balanced mixing and nuanced dynamics across “Spirit’s” 11 tracks. “Follow You” demonstrates this, starting with the same pop minimalism and skeletal structure that was once a niche maintained by London-based The xx. The song initially pivots around 808 drums and introspective guitar harmonics. However, the chorus throws a curveball at the listener, with Sykes switching between a proud growl and reserved falsetto within the same phrase, further embellished by Fish’s backing harmonies.
Closer “Oh No” is easily the biggest surprise on the album. The opening electronics are reminiscent of Jon Hopkins’ production style, complete with sugary backing vocals that are later complimented by jangly U2-esque guitars. The composition introduces fretless bass and muted brass following the first chorus, creating a texture closer to Weather Report than Suffocation, and unlike anything the band has done before.
While Bring Me the Horizon’s discography can be sonically separated into “old” and “new” categories, many of the band’s detractors use this dichotomy to label them as “sell-outs.” This begs the question as to whether or not the group’s late-career success can be attributed to newfound accessibility and a simplification of their original blueprint, or to better songwriting, production, and musicianship. That’s the “Spirit” points to the latter. Unlike the poor diction and inconsistent vocal control Oliver Sykes demonstrated at the start of his singing career, he powers through stadium-sized choruses on “Spirit” like Jared Leto or Bono would. Percussionist Matt Nicholls plays tastefully and shows restraint, unlike the blast beats of the group’s first two albums. Most importantly, the band finally sounds like a band and not like individual players vying to be the loudest voice in a composition. “That’s the Spirit” may prove to be one of the best rock records of the year, written by a band that refuses to plateau any time soon.
Jeffrey Holmes is a fourth-year student majoring in philosophy. they can be reached at JH791223@wcupa.edu