Is it possible that Defeater get maybe a bit too much credit? As far as emotional hardcore goes, they’ve been flying the flag for the genre and serving as its de facto representatives for a few years now, but that can often feel like a case of being in the right place at the right time above anything else. That’s not to say that Defeater are incapable of quality, as both Travels and Empty Days & Sleepless Nights wholeheartedly hold up today, but what followed ended up as more of an exercise in how far the band could go at revising and recycling the same ideas rather than any substantial developments. Ultimately, it says a lot that no one really talks about either Letters Home or Abandoned nowadays, and compared to an album like Touché Amoré’s Stage Four (which has only risen to become even more of a benchmark release in this scene), Defeater’s general approach just winds up feeling a little narrow. Again, it’s not like there isn’t quality to be found within it, but the feeling that Defeater would greatly benefit by mixing things up isn’t one that’s faded over time.
That being said, it’s at least praiseworthy that Defeater’s self-titled album sees them taking their fifth crack at what is effectively the same album and coming out with something that’s at the very least solid. The similarities are virtually impossible to miss and it’s not as if general fatigue isn’t a factor, but there’s merit to be found in a band sticking to their guns and prevailing on the whole in the end. The extent to which they prevail might be up for debate, but this definitely isn’t a bad album, albeit one that highlights just how rigid and clear-cut Defeater’s creative process is.
And that in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, not when Defeater still have enough of a recognisable style to take them a fair distance, and it looks as though the change of producers from Jay Maas to Will Yip hasn’t doesn’t that much to deviate from the usual vibe. Melody still serves as a key asset here, coated in the sepia filter that’s often given Defeater’s material a sense of reverence and age that’s typically done well for them, and that’s largely the same here. They still know when to accentuate that like with the languid, emo-tinged hollowness of Desperate and All Roads or the heavier, more guttural churn of Hourglass, but there’s also a viciousness and visceral energy that manifests in the more powerful Atheists In Foxholes, not to mention consistenly in Derek Archambault’s bruised vocal delivery. It’s all rather standard stuff for Defeater, both in terms of instrumentation and production, and while standout moments feel scant when compared to a much tighter focus on consistency, they continue to do it well. It’s not like anyone really turns to Defeater for huge innovation anyway, and to have the band themselves accept and play to that idea does feel like the safest but ultimately most effective play to make. Sure, praising a band for doing what they’re supposed to and not much else can feel like the most pyrrhic of victories, but it’s a compromise that this album does take rather well in its stride.
It’s in the content where that approach is a lot less forgiving, however. For as much flak as Defeater have caught over their last couple of albums recycling themes and their own conceived plot threads, it’s not as if that hasn’t been justified, and a fifth attempt at the same thing only sees their endeavours feel even more disappointingly thin. Once again, it’s told from the perspective of a family set to the backdrop of war, and while it’s not like there’s nothing more that can be wrung out from that, the portrayal on this album doesn’t do a lot beyond a representation of loss and grief that feels oddly lacking in the great detail that could give it so much more punch. It definitely has moments, like in the bleaker gambling imagery that encapsulates Dealer / Debtor and No Guilt, but at least the first handful of songs refuse to go anywhere beyond some rather rote thematic stakes. What’s more, as good as the intentions were with repeated lyrical motifs throughout this album as a means of tying everything together, it can’t help but feel underwhelming overall, like a band desperately scrambling to fit pieces together to reach their overall goal, no matter how little that actually does for them. And sure, the broader picture is one that does ultimately work with Archambault’s delivery to capture the sense of grief, but the lyrical bent and ambition that Defeater have frequently prided themselves on really can feel lacking, something that doesn’t help an album that, in general, can be boiled down to mild variations of a theme dangerously close to running its course.
Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, especially when Defeater can still pull out a decent hardcore album with emotional heft when needed, but this is nowhere near to the standard of their best. It’s almost workmanlike in its execution at points, sticking so closely to the story they’ve been doggedly following over the years that it can feel as though they’re trying to eke out content that simply isn’t there, and it leaves this album as more of a step down than would be ideal. Moments of quality are undeniable, and when Defeater hit their stride, they’re still capable of a great level of power, but this is disappointing on the whole, almost as if this band are beginning to show just how limited they actually are.
For fans of: Touché Amoré, Modern Life Is War, Have Heart
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Defeater’ by Defeater is out now on Epitaph Records.