It is no accident that While She Sleeps are one of the most important bands in the UK metal scene right now. Their dedication to their music, and their fans dedication to them, meant that when they left their record label, they were able to crowd-fund money to record 2017’s triumphant third album, You Are We, in a studio that they built themselves. They are a band who refuse to stand still, and every album so far has contained surprises, but they have never lost their signature bludgeoning riffs and shouted anthems that has seen them amass hordes of fans who share their frustration at the state of modern society. For their upcoming fourth album, So What?, the band have cited influences such as, erm, Daft Punk and Clubland music. Well at least no one can ever say that While She Sleeps are predictable…
Things start off in comfortable territory with lead single, Anti-Social. I have had it on a loop ever since it was released towards the end of October last year. Four months later and the introductory riff still gets me excited, I still feel the anger of the lyrical attack on societies shortcomings and still think that the call and response between the vocal line and the drums is a touch of genius. As great as the track is, it will be mostly familiar to existing fans, with little in the way of the promised experimentation. You don’t have long to wait though. I’ve Seen It All opens with a pitch-shifting, tapped guitar riff that shows an embracing of electronic effects. The standard rhythm guitar work and layered chorus vocals you expect from While She Sleeps are still there, so subtle effects like this are clearly being used to embellish and broaden their sound rather than give it a complete overhaul. The result is some of the most diverse music While She Sleeps have produced to date. Title track So What? uses more pitch shifting and tremolo effects to give a sharp metallic edge to what would otherwise be standard melodic metalcore fare, Good Grief adds electronic layers to the verse backing vocals line (plus a very Nintendo-esq guitar melody in the middle section), and Gates of Paradise opens with what sounds like musical radio static from an old Star Trek episode. Not all of these subtle tweaks will resonate with everyone, but you have to respect the bands drive to push beyond their comfort zone.
Elsewhere it’s business as usual for a band who are crafting some of the finest anthems in modern metal. I’ve already mentioned Anti-Social as a battle cry for those who are, as the song states, ‘anti-bullshit’. The likes of So What?, The Guilty Party and Elephant are all dripping with the melodic anger and frustration that fans of the band know and love (the opening to Elephant in particular should whip up a frenzy in a live setting). There are more melodic hooks than on previous albums, and songs often rapidly switch from all-out riffing and screaming to stripped back clean guitar parts and gently sung vocals to give the melody a moment to itself. Some of these melodies do fall a bit flat, with Inspire and Good Grief being the main culprits. This isn’t because they are bad per say, it’s just that there are better songs available and these don’t bring anything extra to the table. They show While She Sleeps falling victim to their own formula. The same style of guitar lines, vocal pitch and rhythms, and overall tempo means that some impact and identity is lost. The band did save some of the best until last though, with Back of my Mind and Gates of Paradise. They both feel like the culmination and perfection of ideas scattered throughout the album, with some of its heaviest and anthemic parts crammed alongside some of the most ambient and experimental.
So What? is not an album that I got on first listen. Or the second. Or the third for that matter. And I didn’t expect that from a metalcore album. This is While She Sleeps most experimental album to date, and at times the insertion of electronic effects and rapid switches in intensity can seem a little disjointed and random. But when it works, it works really f**king well, with the album containing some of the best songs the band have produced. It’s a shame that they are alongside a couple of their blandest, with the important and relatable lyrical messages sometimes getting a little lost in some overly-similar vocal deliveries and guitar patterns. But, the most poignant still punch through and stick with you for days. The increase in the use of cleaner, more melodic vocals will undoubtedly infuriate some, but, as the album title says, So What? It’s not like the harsh vocals have disappeared. This is another bold step forward for While She Sleeps that, for the most part, is as exciting and invigorating as they have ever been.
Highlights: Anti-Social, Elephant and Gates of Paradise.