Credit where it’s due – for a band whose fanbase ultimately know what they’re in for every time, Halestorm have never really put a foot wrong. In terms of simple, arena-ready hard rock with an undeniable penchant for hair-metal flash, they’re arguably among the best, especially with Lzzy Hale’s titanic vocal range and the fact that nothing they’ve put out to date has been that much of a disappointment. Even the country-rock influences of Into The Wild Life, while something of a dip from its far superior predecessor The Strange Case Of…, weren’t exactly terrible, and really came into their own live.
That said, there’s always a danger with bands like this of fortunes overturning at any possible time, and unfortunately for Halestorm, Vicious seems to be just that. Sure, the return to a more back-to-basics hard rock will likely sit well with fans alienated by what Into The Wild Life brought to the table, but by being less distinct than that album and less jam-packed with immediate heavy hitters than The Strange Case Of…, Vicious hits a weird dead zone of being fundamentally fine, but significantly lacking in spark that Halestorm have previously been so good at capturing. For a suitable comparison, look at Black Stone Cherry; they seldom play with much variety between albums, but in their heft and palpable sense of southern swagger, there’s something to instantly gravitate towards to make it all work so much better. Halestorm don’t have anything like that (at least not anymore), and with Vicious as laser-focused as it is on the melting-pot of classic hard rock that’s so frequently pulled from, there’s not a great deal to work with beyond the recognisable tropes that the band can knock out in their sleep at this point.
At least there’s still Lzzy Hale, who remains the engine in overdrive that has pushed Halestorm to where they’re at right now, and with the rock-wrecking power she’s able to throw out without even breaking a sweat, it’s little surprise that she’s easily the best thing about Vicious on the whole. Even if she is dipping into old habits again that have regularly been given an airing on Halestorm albums, she remains every inch the rockstar, flaunting her outgoing sneers and overt sexuality on Uncomfortable and Do Not Disturb, but in a way that she’s more than capable of backing up.
She really is the heart and soul of what makes Halestorm a good band, particularly on an album like this where there’s not much else to go off. Make no mistake, Vicious is definitely a regression, severing what undoubtedly could have taken the band into much richer, more complex sounds that would’ve benefited them so much more, and instead U-turned back into hard rock that, going off the evidence here, feels mostly exhausted. There are definitely standout moments like the more brazen, fiery guitar work of Black Vultures and Painkiller, or especially the cocksure struts of Buzz and the title track, but on average this feels like Halestorm spinning their wheels, doubly so when it comes down to how little even Hale’s personality can mask the fact that these are retreads of topics they’ve gone into numerous times before. And for anyone who’s stuck around this long, that isn’t going to be a problem, but when they actively sound as worn down as they do, the enjoyment is severely diminished compared to when they at least had some fire underneath them.
That’s exactly the same for the instrumentation, too. On the bright side, at least Halestorm have the good sense to keep some crunch in their guitars for the majority of the time, and not sand everything way back as has become the norm among their contemporaries, but the sheen of modern production is definitely there and it mitigates how much of a swaggering classic rock vibe can be mustered. It’s even worse in the ballads though, with Heart Of Novocaine and The Silence cut down to jangling acoustic guitars that don’t have the gravity of Halestorm’s slower cuts in the past, and simply aren’t memorable at all. And that’s where the route of Vicious’ problems lies; Halestorm have always been great at making big, simple hard rock songs that are so easy to pick up on from even the slightest cue, but there’s precious few like that here. A lot of this album unfortunately just blurs together as the ennui that the band are desperately battling against begins to sink in.
That’s not to say that Vicious heralds the arrival of the newest hard rock dinosaurs or anything, but it’s clear that an opportunity to follow up on Into The Wild Life’s more interesting sound was clearly missed in order to play it safe. That’s not what Halestorm do though, and it’s always set them apart from their peers in the fact that they have always pushed themselves where so many have remained stagnant. Here though, they’re running on autopilot, and while it’s not at the lowest level of US radio-rock dreck, Halestorm are capable of so much more than this.
For fans of: AC/DC, The Pretty Reckless, Shinedown
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Vicious’ by Halestorm is out now on Atlantic Records.