There’s an interesting debate to be had about mental illness and music, and ethical implications that come with using it as such prominent subject matter. On one hand, music has always been seen as the easiest and most effective form of catharsis, and particularly in genres like hardcore, that’s easier to connect to and relay for both band and fan. For as mawkish as the notion of music saving lives has always been, it needs to be said that it becomes the most effective way to purge these feelings on a purely primal level. On the other hand though, there are accusations towards acts using mental illness in such a prominent manner as a vehicle for profit, and no band are more guilty of that than The Amity Affliction. That’s not to denigrate Joel Birch’s depression whatsoever, but when it’s been conveyed musically with so little conviction or emotion, and in a method that essentially boils down to releasing the exact same album every couple of years, the whole thing reeks of profiteering from exploiting an audience that believes there may be something to connect with.
But that really all circles back to the fact that The Amity Affliction are more akin to shrewd businessmen that musicians, knowing that if there’s at least a modicum of depth in whatever they put out, no matter how surface-level it may be, their fans will snap it up without hesitation. And that, in turn, has led to the turgid feedback loop in which the band get a free pass to blatantly recycle their ideas time and time again and ultimately get away with it. So it’s about time they actually started to change things up, and Misery feels like the product of that. It’s just a shame that – in a move that couldn’t be more on-brand for The Amity Affliction – it makes the whole thing even worse, accentuating how much a washed-out, micromanaged product they really are, all while diluting anything close to real emotion or grief by unforgivable amounts. Honestly, for as bad as Misery seems on the surface, it’s the underlying implications that make this totally irredeemable.
There’s still plenty to say about the actual music itself though, mostly because The Amity Affliction are totally incapable of making even a single fucking note sound pleasant. For starters, in no way, shape or form is this a metal album, more the musical equivalent of a Fisher Price toy with how plastic and rounded at the edges it is, and alongside the, shall we say, concessions made to the album’s sound, it sounds horrendous pretty much from front to back. To put it nicely, Misery is probably least objectionable when it strives for a closer alternative to metalcore like on Beltsville Blues; even if the guitars sound like they’re wrapped in roof insulation, it’s probably the least objectionable track here for at least having some vestige of competence. When The Amity Affliction embrace their synthetic, pop-laced tendencies though, Misery bottoms out in record time, like the squealing, lumpen attempt at what appears to be an EDM-inspired drop on Feels Like I’m Dying, or the glitzy electro-pop strut of Burn Alive which is honestly laughable,.
And of course, with The Amity Affliction’s notorious habit of sounding utterly disinterested in anything they do, nothing about any of these songs feels like more than a perfunctory cash cow. How Ahren Stringer remains such an incompetent clean vocalist is totally baffling, giving how this is his sixth album of monotone, spaced-out Tom DeLonge-isms that only serve to make these songs somehow less active than they already are. What’s worse is that his influence seems to have reached Joel Birch too, one the solitary thread valiantly trying to hold up this sinking ship, but now in his transition to more prominent clean singing, he too sounds more disinterested than ever and, on Ivy (Doomsday) and Black Cloud, burdened with vocal production that just sounds straight-up vile. Of course, that’s not really a surprise given sanitised and lacking in any significant heft this entire album is, but for what used to be the single saving grace of this band and their over-polished turds of albums, it’s disheartening to see that even he can’t be bothered anymore.
It’s in the writing where Misery crosses over from being an awful album to an insulting, borderline reprehensible one though, and it’s a culmination of all previously-mentioned factors alongside where The Amity Affliction stand in the “mental illness in music” debate. That’s nothing new either; as often as The Amity Affliction’s material focuses on depression, the overworked nature of their sound and the lack of credo in their vocals has always been the breaking point of why they as a band simply don’t work. Misery is no different on its own, but it’s the fact that, rather than going any sort of distance to rectify those prominent issues, they’ve instead decided to double down on them and come across as commodifying depression more than ever. Take a song like Holier Than Heaven, which already becomes crushed under the weight of its own gloss and production that cripples its lightweight guitar even further, but when it opens with Stringer’s nonchalant declaration of “I’m still sick with my depression” without even a hint of emotion, it’s impossible to see what something like that offers beyond a clear tell that The Amity Affliction know that this can be sold. And again, Birch has been incredibly vocal about his own depression in the past and that can be appreciated, but when he’s in a similar dead-eyed form, it’s so much harder to believe that this is any sort of release. He might have gone on record saying that it’s difficult for him to listen to this album all the way through, but given how tame it is with nothing that can even remotely be deemed emotional beyond simple, surface-level declarations, it’s harder to believe that as little more than a tightly-crafted pull quote. Even on closer The Gifthorse, a song about a friend’s death that’s allegedly the emotional crux of the album, the general nothingness of a swamped-out trap-pop ballad that feels so in keeping with contemporary trends that it hurts severely offsets how believable that can be.
By now though, that’s all par for the course. Even on the album that’s arguably the most they’ve ever changed as a band, this sense of general disinterest have become so ingrained in what The Amity Affliction are that they need to be there, for better or (almost always) for worse. And if that was simply the case again, this would easily be another awful, awful album, but one that would at least fall in line and be forgotten in due time, like This Could Be Heartbreak before it. But Misery feels like a special kind of awful, almost as if The Amity Affliction no longer care about coming across as a competent, well-meaning band, and have simply blitzed everything out for their most shamelessly commercial and careless pivot to date. Unfortunately, that makes this one stand out even more; how much they thrive on selling false hope to an impressionable audience has always been a present factor, but never has it been so nakedly obvious, or that they care so little. And in the end, it all circles back to the fact that The Amity Affliction really don’t care; this is not the product of a band who believes in what they’re selling. It’s as soulless and vapid as they come, and the fact that they can’t even convincingly hide it anymore is ultimately the final straw. If this band never make another album after this, that’ll be the most just thing that can happen, because frankly, they don’t deserve to.
For fans of: Chase Atlantic, Memphis May Fire, Sleeping With Sirens
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Misery’ by The Amity Affliction is out now on Roadrunner Records.