The cool thing that Alexisonfire has always done (and this is not a claim that many bands can make) is that they have always challenged their audience without making it look intentional. When the band’s first album appeared in 2002, for example, the idea that three bands (Condemning Salem, Helicon Blue and Plan 9) could converge and intermingle punk, metal and emo DNA into one unit and also keep all the singers from each band was a very provocative idea, turned exceptional when it not only worked but fans embraced it. The entire idea only got better when the band chose to defy convention, made music as they wanted to and toured when they felt like it – all to the very vocal appreciation and approval of fans – in spite of the fact that those fans didn’t necessarily know what might be coming (be it a new release or tour) or when. In that spirit, Alexisonfire released Otherness – the band’s fifth full-length album and first release of new material in thirteen years – on a timeline which could only be called the band’s own. Critically, that could be seen as frustrating – but there’s no denying that Otherness is also Alexisonfire’s best release to date, so that criticism crumbles right away.
It almost sounds as though Alexisonfire is trying to knock some of the oxidation which may have built up over the band’s downtime off as guitars skronk atonally at the opening of “Committed To The Crime” and, after about thirty seconds, it feels gratifying when Jordan Hastings’ drums set up containment around the field and Chris Steele’s slithers in to add a great sense of menace. It’s in that moment that fans who have wondered quietly but hoped that there may still be fuel left in the cylinders of Alexisonfire are first tempted with satisfaction and, when George Pettit’s voice enters the mix followed by Wade MacNeil and Dallas Green, the engine proves that it has been well-primed and answers with an explosion. The results are spectacular; there is no need for listeners to give any more time for the band to get back into fighting shape, they’re ready to go and, when Dallas Green asks, “Which side are you on,” fans will already know they’re right there with the band – as though they never left.
After “Committed To The Con” lets out, both the band and fans will be warm and ready for more – and Alexisonfire (wisely) doesn’t give listeners a second to cool off at all; they just keep driving with “Sweet Dreams (Of Otherness)”. There, Steele pins down a low end that is as gorgeous as it is bottomless while Green sighs his way into a captivating examination of existential conflict which binds itself to no particular time or place (check out lines like, “Flashes lit up the darkness of wartime/ You can see the paleness of worn nerves/ These were the places that made us/ Now riddled with the ghosts of another world”) and is incredibly affecting because of that. True, the tempo goes out of its way to drag along and the higher notes in Green’s vocal strike against the low end in a way which could only be characterized as harrowing, but the way it all builds together amounts to a very comforting result; after the aggression which precedes it and the heartfelt hurt which follows it, “Sweet Dreams (Of Otherness)” functions as the great dramatic development on the A-side of the album. Simply said, “Sweet Dreams” is the first essential moment on Otherness and, after the song lets out and “Sans Soliel” walks in, it feels like an achievement for which “Sans Soleil” only tries to offer a denouement.
The B-side surpasses its counterpart in a truly spectacular manner as soon as “Conditional Love” opens it, and just grabs listeners by the ears and makes sure they’re paying attention. There, singer/guitarist Wade MacNeil takes the lead (and Green, while present in the song, really hangs back) and issues a great, “no bullshit” hardcore song which does not ebb in intensity or focus for one instant of its five-minute running. The song’s pacing is perfectly even which means that listeners nowhere to hide from the song, the lyric sheet upends convention for grins (even the title, “Conditional Love,” inverts pop orthodoxy) and the song’s unrelenting assault is a perfect example and proof that this kind of power is fresh and is obviously in the band (read: this is a new greatness, not a lost nugget that Alexis has dusted off). “Conditional Love” plays so hard and so well that no listener will have the chance to fall off after having endured Otherness‘ A-side – the only option is to hang on for dear life as it goes. “Blue Spade” keeps the same energy levels up initially too – but it dips when vocals get much lower in the mix and lyrics like, “This mad order has many faces/ My lungs are tired and now I quake/ Is this what grace is?” just get too soft and evasive to hold. Happily, Green jumps back to the foreground with some more refined styling (check out lines like, “We are not our bodies/ We are not our minds/ Halls of black mirrors/ Struggling to find”) before diving headfirst into the band’s own dark night of the soul. Listeners will find the power is relentless and flays senses again for a solid six minutes – complete with every movement that fans would expect – before misty chords and a sense of gentility (along with some really proggy-sounding synths) call the side to a close. Now, because the play to this opint has been so good, listeners may not notice on first play through the album that “Dark Night of the Soul” is actually the weakest cut on Otherness (it has no reason to be – everything that makes a good Alexisonfire song great is here – it just is), but repeated listens will make that fact evident enough.
Even if “Dark Night of the Soul” is the weak spot in the album’s running though, “Mistaken Information” – with its tranquil beginning and Dallas’ sighing vocals – redeems that fall with some great songwriting (which may have been intended for City and Colour – given that both Wade and George stay largely away from the mic, for the duration of the song) and leaves the door wide open for the barnburners which are “Survivor’s Guilt” and “Reverse The Curse.” Through both of those cuts, the band strikes all the notes that fans want again without feeling contrived or put-on and closes the side leaving listeners energized again.
…But the final side of Otherness leaves listeners feeling that something is off in its construction. “World Stops Turning” is the only cut on Otherness‘ D-side; an eight-minute drag (and not in a “racing” kind of way) which sees Dallas Green take stage centre and features basically no vocal contributions from anyone else; there are lots of guitar solos to fill in space, but the result of the song’s construction (the short lyric sheet and length instrumental passages) makes “The World Stops Turning” about as close in form to a Pink Floyd song as Alexisonfire has ever committed to tape. Now, will fans say that such a song is proof of Alexisonfire’s growth as musicians and songwriters, or call it indulgent? The answer to that question is not clear as the needle lifts from the final side of Otherness, and may indeed leave listeners with food for thought when they wonder how long they may have to wait for a follow-up to this record to appear.
Wondering where Alexisonfire might be headed next was definitely where this critic was left, when the needle lifted from Otherness for the final time. Granted, the early running of the album is capable of hitting listeners in all the ways they hoped for – but the final turn on Otherness leaves a lot of questions in its wake. This being the band’s full-length album in thirteen years, for example, how long might fans have to wait for the answers to questions like, “What might be coming next from Alexisonfire,” and, “How long might we have to wait to find out?” The fact is that no one could possibly know the answers to questions like that, but Otherness has enough fuel in it to guarantee that all the fans who embraced this album when it was announced and released will be waiting excitedly to see what comes next – because this album is fantastic. [Bill Adams]
Otherness is out now. Buy it here, from the band’s official site.