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Rise Against

Thanks to Daniel Ran for this review of the  Indie Band Rise Against.

Only an unjust world could summon the voice that cried out from the Chicago, USA, underground scene twelve years ago. Formed from the ashes of 88 Fingers Louie and Baxter, Rise Against has since risen from their successful independent roots to become one of the most acclaimed punk rock bands of the decade. With strong, politically charged lyrics and a musical style as desperate as its cause, they are a response to both a sense that something is wrong in the world and a desire to make it right once more.


Rise Against

Rise Against

From the bottom of barrels and the depths of hearts pumping punk, a couple of instruments and a growling guy joined together under the name Transistor Revolt. After two years and one EP, they signed with independent label Fat Wreck Chords and changed their name to Rise Against. Their first album, The Unraveling – Rise Against*, was met with considerable underground success. It featured a raw yet melodic style, embellished by subtly poetic lyrics touching upon politics as well as the uneasy side of love and self-empowerment, themes that would become more frequent in their songs later in the band’s career.
Before leaving Fat Wreck Chords, Rise Against released one more album; Revolutions Per Minute – Rise Against*. A further development of their established style, it featured a more refined sound with clearer harmony and melodies, most noticeably in Like the Angel and Halfway There. Many original fans consider this the band’s best work given its relatively small move from the underground sound while still significantly improving their songs as experienced songwriters.

The Front Porches of Chicago
“I don’t want to write a song about people of a specific country,” lead singer Tim McIlrath says while throwing a baseball back and forth, the American flag flying in the background, “but about the issues that are affecting all of us as people, as humans; not as citizens of countries – because we have so much more in common than that.”
He often looks the way he sings; one foot in his own world and the other keeping the beat, one eye to the sky and the other looking blithely at all the people wondering why this man is playing his guitar on the subway train. Amongst the many songs that were written for and about the world as a whole, there are some that touch upon the more personal experience of being human; the words that if lost would leave all else sparse and bleak.
Swing Life Away from the first major label release and first mainstream success, Siren Song of the Counter Culture – Rise Against*, tells of their home; where their lives and the music began. The album reached gold and platinum in the US and Canada, respectively, prompting the band’s first worldwide tour, playing alongside other acts such as Story of the Year and Alkaline Trio.
To some of their already existing fans’ dismay, Rise Against’s sound had moved on from the more coarse and tarnished underground style to one of a more approachable and crisp character. However, in addition to the lyrics, all written and sung by Tim McIlrath, the band was still easily recognisable by the picked Fender bass, played by bassist Joe Principe, the only other founding member still with the band today. His elaborate and fast-paced riffs have become an integral part of Rise Against’s sound, no less so in Blood to Bleed (Siren Song of the Counter Culture) than in Like The Angel (Revolutions Per Minute).
Perhaps as a tribute to their roots, Siren Song of the Counter Culture features two songs that are most reminiscent of their previous albums, State of the Union and Obstructed View, both of which contain heavy growling from McIlrath, chromatic and rough guitar riffs as well as dire political lyrics. These qualities are also still very much present in many of the other songs’ bridges, particularly in Blood to Bleed.
The most notable improvement, however, is found in McIlrath’s voice. The almost shaky and uneasy singing from the previous two albums had been replaced by a confident mixture of both raspy vocals and tearing screams, the latter often embellishing lyrical climaxes. With significantly more multi-tracking and overdubbing, the tracks now sounded like properly produced releases, very revealing of their move to a major label.
The two highest charting songs, Swing Life Away and Life Less Frightening, reached to 12th and 33rd on the US Alternative Songs chart, respectively. Whilst no singles were certified gold, Rise Against were already well-known amongst fans of mainstream punk.

A Cry from a Bleeding World
The band’s second major label release, The Sufferer & the Witness – Rise Against*, earned the band their first gold-certified single, Prayer of the Refugee. Featuring a McIlrath with short hair and an even bluer left eye (his right eye is brown due to a condition called heterochromia), Rise Against now had three singles in the top 20 of the US Alternative chart. Well on their way to becoming what The Offspring has long been to the genre, their style now reflected a significantly more mainstream production of punk rock aimed at a wider audience.
The third track, Injection, sounds very much like the afore-mentioned band owing to similar dramatic guitar riffs and stronger chord progressions. The desperation long carried by Rise Against was escalating, both in the musical style and the lyrics. Many tracks on the album cover a dire interpretation of personal suffering and a strong desire to merely escape a horrible fate.
“Take me from this world, save me,” McIlrath sings in Worth Dying For, a song detailing a person’s realisation that the place they live in was no longer any measure of a good world. “Although we have no obligation to stay alive, on broken backs we beg for mercy; we will survive,” he exclaims in Behind Closed Doors, singing about an indomitable spirit that is nevertheless being crushed under the weight of powerlessness.
The Sufferer and the Witness is quite arguably the most personal and least political album in Rise Against’s discography, containing songs that focus almost exclusively on what the album’s title implies. It is also the most commercially successful of the band’s albums to date, selling over 800,000 copies in the US alone.
Reasonable Voice of Dissent
The idealist inside McIlrath could not stay in the background for long, and the band’s next release, Appeal to Reason – Rise Against*, saw tracks that were once again filled with social and political criticism, some of which can easily be tied to individual real-world issues. The most prominent example of this is the guitar ballad Hero of War, featuring the story of a soldier in a war, any war, and their discovery of not only how gravely misrepresented the nature of war has become but also how downright cruel the effects of it are on every single human being involved. As the soldier returns home, it becomes clear to them that there are no heroes in war and that their actions were deserving of no pride whatsoever. “A hero of war, is that what they see?” he cries out after three verses of merely doing what he was told. “Just medals and scars, so damned proud of me.”
Nevertheless, McIlrath’s lyrics almost always end with either hope or a still burning love for his country; for all his critique of everything between heaven and hell, he’s doing it not to destroy or instil despair, but as an attempt to change things for the better. His resolve is encapsulated in the bridge of Hairline Fracture, in which he sings, “I walk on wounds that never prove to slow me down. I laugh this constant pain away, so you can’t tell. But there it lies under the smiles, it drains me mile after mile, but seldom proves to slow me down.”
Appeal to Reason earned the band their second gold-certified single, Savior, although both Audience of One and Re-Education (Through Labor) reached high on the US Alternative chart, topping out at places 4 and 3, respectively.
Significantly more approachable than all their previous albums, Appeal to Reason featured a style quite far from the band’s punk rock roots, focusing both on slower, softer tracks and what one could easily describe as friendlier lyrics. Audience of One focuses on neither politics nor personal suffering, but on graduating from school, moving away from all your friends and starting your first job. Savior, although with a slightly more grim sound, covers the story of a relationship breakdown that didn’t end in death or anything dramatic of the sort.
It’s safe to say that the desperation had taken a step back. True to the album’s title, it contains music that is, for lack of a better word, reasonable. However, what comes up must come down, and the contrast would become strongly apparent in 2011.

Desperate and Hopeless
Featuring one of the most misleading first tracks in the history of punk rock, Endgame – Rise Against*, the band’s latest release to date, brought back the fiercely political lyrics of underground punk and the desperate tone of The Sufferer and the Witness. Opening with Architects, a very approachable and hopeful song about building for the future, the album then takes a steep drop with Help Is On the Way about hurricane Katrina, followed by Make It Stop (September’s Children), detailing the plight of homosexual teenagers. Then onto Disparity by Design, screaming out the injustice of the capitalist financial system and… you can tell where I’m going with this.
Safe to say that Endgame had for the first time dropped a lot of the ultimate hope found in so much of McIlrath’s lyrics. Even the only other track with a more positive disposition is entitled This Is Letting Go, and tells of yet another relationship breakdown. Most every track can be easily identified to an individual problem facing the US in modern times.
The most telling song of all, however, is Wait For Me. “Wait for me to take off this crown, to break all these vows,” McIlrath sings. The lyrics very clearly depict the end of his tether, that for the first time he’s starting to realise that he has to give up…. Just not yet.

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Thanks for the review Dan, who describes himself as: Musician by day, writer by night, and web designer whenever I run out of wine and sunflower seeds. I write about it all on my blog, Ranorandum, which is well worth a visit.

*Purchases made through the Rise Against link will result in the indie bands blog earning a commission.

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