At this point, it seems absolutely ridiculous to think that there was ever a time when faith in While She Sleeps to deliver was low. That shouldn’t have been the case from the start, mind, and the fact that Brainwashed is still viewed as a disappointment to some remains absolutely baffling, the last couple of years have given rise to a steamrolling force within UK metal that might’ve shown glimpses of that ferocity in the past, but now has the opportunity to rampage consistently unhindered. It feels as though You Are We can be thanked for that, not only seeing a band deliver their most creative, expansive and vicious album to date, but doing it all off their own backs to a degree that fostered something much more unique for them. It was always going to be a difficult act to follow on principle alone, but So What? already looks to aiming towards a bigger, even more ambitious project, taking in even more varied sounds and styles on the preview tracks alone, and while it’s good to see a band continue to push themselves even after doing that so much already, it would be naive to not experience at least a bit of apprehension. Sure, everything up to now has been undeniably successful, but pushing a sound so much that it totally breaks has happened plenty of times before, and to see that happen with While She Sleeps, especially so soon after they’ve solidified a place among UK metal’s elite, would be truly tragic.
And when the public consensus towards So What? is eventually released, you could put money that plenty of While She Sleeps fans will be proclaiming exactly that. After all, this is a fairly big leap from anything this band have previously released; the emphasis of clean guitar lines and programmed layers is much greater, and while the punk influence that’s always played such an integral part in their sound remains, it’s sharing space with approaches that can easily be traced back to nu-metal and hip-hop. In an age that’s seen so many bands veer away from tried-and-true sounds in order to chase modern trends, the reactionary response from some is to brand While She Sleeps as simply the next to fall off and get in line. But that’s simply not true, and while So What? is admittedly a more polished and melodic release (even if the latter is something that this band have never really shied away from), it’s done so in a way that augments their existing features rather than replaces them. If nothing else, it’s the sound of a band taking the approach that this album’s title would suggest to the predisposed notion of rules for this sort of thing, opening themselves up to advance rather than hem themselves in, and coming out with something pretty great in the process.
Of course, ‘something pretty great’ is more or less the default setting for While She Sleeps at this point, but it’s a testament to their skills and creativity that they’ve embraced such a level of freshness to the degree they have. For a comparison point (albeit a rather overdone one at this point), you only need to look at Bullet For My Valentine’s Gravity and how stifled and hollow that prevalence of electronics and cleaner production proved to be for it. With So What?, however, While She Sleeps work with that rather than against it, and it gives an incisiveness to the intricate melody lines on Good Grief and Back Of My Mind, or the space for the title track and The Guilty Party to drop into more overtly restrained passages. That’s not to say these turns never feel out of place (the out-of-place rap segment towards the end of Back Of My Mind proves that’s certainly not the case), but more often than not, there’s a malleability to this album that gives it a wider plane to flow freely across, most noticeably in the vocals. Here, Mat Welsh feels like a far more established co-vocalist given the frequency of his contributions, but it’s that aforementioned malleability that’s so effective in terms of how he and Loz Taylor operate as a single vocal force, dipping between cleans and screams between them in a way that reflects a less rigid creative approach. Even moving away from them, vocal samples are moulded into their own layer of instrumentation on I’ve Seen It All and Inspire, playing with unconventionality and shattered expectations in a way that actually feels interesting. This isn’t some cynical pivot towards trendy sounds for relevance’s sake; it’s genuine experimentation with an intent to eke out as much potential from this core sound as possible, and for the most part, While She Sleeps nail it.
Perhaps more critically though, So What?’s sense of spaciousness serves as a much-appreciated boon for a lyrical focus that could easily be seen as undercooked or a simmered down take on the politics of You Are We, but in the context of sound like this, is able to pass by unscathed a lot more often. Besides, it’s not like While She Sleeps have offered the most thought-provoking commentary anyway – they’ve always been far better at channeling the bigger, more fiery, immediate emotions than anything much more detailed – but So What? is perhaps the ideal setting for them to embrace that more than ever. The anger is unquestionably still there, and While She Sleeps are still able to pull out the barbed one-liners they’ve always been brilliant at (see Anti-Social’s takedown of general societal apathy with “I’m not anti-social / I’m anti-bullshit”), but the gang choruses and tight multi-tracked hooks feel a lot more natural here, slotting into an album that has a greater focus on melody already in a way that does them more justice than maybe ever before, at least from an executional standpoint. As far as construction goes, it hits a point of overuse that unfortunately becomes the only formulaic thing about this album, but it’s hard to zero in on what would’ve been more effective overall; While She Sleeps are hitting that populist bullseye consistently, and doing so on an album that’s given them more of an opportunity to do so than ever before.
That’s not a statement that should be misconstrued either; there’s room to covet that wider reach without shredding integrity and creativity, and that’s exactly what While She Sleeps have done on this album. With surprisingly few bumps in the road, So What? feels like such a profoundly daring leap in a totally unmarked direction, and yet they’ve managed to pull it off with fantastic dexterity and acumen. But even more than that, this is still a metal album, and with everything thrown into it, a supremely modern one at that, something that While She Sleeps continue to embrace where so many have sloughed it off out of fear of not being cool anymore. That’s not even a factor here though, and by doing what they want to do and making the music that they want to make, While She Sleeps continue to prove that it’ll be a long, long time before their UK metal throne is going to be usurped.
For fans of: Bury Tomorrow, Bring Me The Horizon, Cane Hill
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘So What?’ by While She Sleeps is released on 1st March on Sleeps Brothers.