Album Review: Four Year Strong - 'Brain Pain'

Pop-punk scene stalwarts Four Year Strong are back with their latest, somewhat more mature effort.

2007’s Rise or Die Trying - Four Year Strong’s debut effort - rode the crest of the pop punk wave, leading them to share stages with a range of the biggest names at the time, from mainstream radio’s golden boys Blink-182 to punk rock legends Bad Religion. In a career spanning almost 2 decades, the Minnesota four-piece have become known for their masterful blending of the aggression of hard rock with metalcore riffs, unleashed to weave through the sunny infectiousness of the classic early pop-punk sound.

Image credit: Press.

They reveled in their youthfulness, incorporating bouncy hooks, tight riffs and huge choruses, topped off with the classic pop-punk trope of long, irrelevant, and irreverent titles (highlights include Stolen Credit Card!, What The Hell Is A Gigawatt and Your Ego Is Writing Checks Your Body Can’t Cash). But despite the current emergence of the new wave of pop punk along the lines of The Story So Far, The Wonder Years and Neck Deep, the scene which Four Year Strong represent has mostly become history - something the band must be all too aware of. Aided by veteran deathcore producer Will Putney, their blending of genres seems to carry a deeper significance on their newest album, Brain Pain.

Especially through their use of lyrical focus on mental health, loss and inner struggles, Four Year Strong are moving beyond merely exploring the boundaries of their sound. This experimentation appears rooted instead in a more potent tension between the comfort of their youth and the looming inevitability of the future; the question of where this leaves the band in terms of their connection to their fans, but also their desire to create and explore something truly personal for themselves.

Opener It’s Cool bristles with angular riffing from the get-go, layered across rough, distorted vocals. Intensity builds until the first of the album’s many breakdowns rips through, kicking the tempo up into swelling guitars perfect for headbanging and building up to thrashing riffs to round out the track. Grungy guitars douse a cool, swaggering attitude over Get Out of My Head, a rebellion against the words of others which may become deeply ingrained. Crazy Pills loses no momentum - even so early in the album - galloping in with a sharp metalcore structure, accentuated by bouncy vocals layered to create a self-righteous anthem, accepting the confusion in moving on and letting go.

'This experimentation appears rooted instead in a more potent tension between the comfort of their youth and the looming inevitability of the future'.

A strong, steady, pounding drum beat drives the pace of first single Talking Myself in Circles, cleverly reflecting the catharsis of the topic and the lyrics themselves (‘I keep repeating the same thing without any meaning/Just hoping that it takes me back to the beginning’) in the structure of the arrangement, powerful in its simplicity. More understated and less aggressively upbeat than some of the earlier efforts which defined their sound, the chugging guitar lines and a catchy hook which blossoms into a melodic chorus nonetheless mean a retention of the key features of the band. Meanwhile, the slower, more simplified arrangement pushes their sound into new territory; it was an appropriate track to be released in anticipation of the album itself.

Learn To Love The Lie bounds forward in its wake, bringing a much more familiar, groovy sound -something which easily could have been catapulted straight from 2002’s Warped Tour. With a much simpler pop-punk sound lending a fresh breath of energy, it adds to the album’s overall flow, preventing it from stagnating. Title track Brain Pain is packed to the brim with breakdowns, chunky riffs and soaring vocals, all vying for center stage. While a strong track which thunders towards a more hardcore sound, overall, it comes across as more of an arrangement of clichés from other genres, rather than a coherent blending of their classic sound to push it in a new direction. Arguably underwhelming as a title track from a band known to push the boundaries of their sound, it shines a spotlight on their technical abilities, and is definitely growing on me with each listen.

Although navigating important topics such as the simplicity of youth and struggling with feelings of numbness in the modern world highlight their evolving songwriting prowess, from Mouth Full of Dirt onward, the band seems to lose momentum, descending into a much less inventive sound where they play only slightly with the formula they have concocted so far. The dynamism is momentarily revived with Be Good When I’m Gone, drawing from their most recent album which features pure acoustic reworkings of some of their most popular songs. A swelling orchestra underlays the delicate, stripped back guitar work, offering a bittersweet apology to those left behind by the demands of tour life.

'While a strong track which thunders towards a more hardcore sound, overall, it comes across as more of an arrangement of clichés from other genres'.

The final track Young At Heart is a stand out, providing a strong ending with their most experimental and mature effort. An ambient, almost post-metal opening is met with blistering guitars and the album’s rawest vocal work, lending a poignant and desperate intensity brimming with palpable emotion, until pure silence interrupts.

Brain Pain shows that Four Year Strong haven’t evolved in the way that many other bands they emerged into the scene with have. Rather, they have streamlined and perfected their sound in an authentic evolution, selecting and nurturing the best elements of their previous albums to arrive at an album which is unapologetically them. The fathers of easycore are back, and it certainly doesn’t seem like it must really suck to be Four Year Strong right now.