The chances are that, had Bad Wolves not released their cover of The Cranberries’ Zombie and subsequently had it absolutely blow up, they’d be nowhere near the position they currently are. Even though last year’s Disobey was a few licks better than the majority of the US radio-metal crowd, that cover has really been the only thing that most have had a vested interest in when it comes to this band, both within the industry and outside of it, and it places Bad Wolves in a position where that’ll be their defining factor for what feels like an indefinite amount of time. And despite their debut’s relative quality, it’s not hard to see why, especially with their existence as a baby Five Finger Death Punch that’s seen them ride the coattails of that band a lot of the time and forgo their own momentum outside of their very enclosed scene. Therefore, it makes sense that N.A.T.I.O.N arrives as a rather rapid follow-up, as Bad Wolves look to shed their status as both a fluke and pretender, and endeavour to forge their own lasting legacy as quickly as possible.
But that also comes as an even more concrete realisation that Bad Wolves simply don’t have enough to them to make that a viable proposition at this stage, and rather than coming across as a new flavour of modern hard rock, N.A.T.I.O.N is simply more of the same that feels increasingly tired and over-familiar. Doubling down on the Five Finger Death Punch comparisons is not the way to go for a band looking to do their own thing, and yet Bad Wolves have tumbled into pretty much all of the pitfalls of doing so with impressive ease, massively paring back what little original personality they had and ending up as yet another bog-standard radio-metal band. There’s enough sheer heft and melody to stop it from being truly awful, but N.A.T.I.O.N is a step down, and in a pretty obvious fashion.
It’s worth acknowledging, though, that while that might be the case, Bad Wolves’ are generally workable enough in their base form to get some form of enjoyment from. For one, the guitars haven’t been truncated to the point of worthlessness like with so many of their contemporaries, and there’s a decent metalcore crunch to instrumentation that does go harder than it needs to on I’ll Be There and The Consumerist. There’s also a lot about Tommy Vext as a vocalist that’s good as well, with a deep, commanding presence throughout that can easily convey fury or vulnerability with ease when needed. But if those exact descriptions sound like they could be attributed to Five Finger Death Punch without much alteration, that wouldn’t be wrong, and the obviousness with which N.A.T.I.O.N is trying to emulate their approach can be disorienting when it’s as close as it is. It doesn’t help that a good deal of this album doesn’t feel like Bad Wolves’ A-material either, with either an underwhelming presence in terms of composition or memorability, or just not doing enough to differentiate themselves from the swathes of others just like them. It’s not enough to call N.A.T.I.O.N anonymous, but the modern genre conventions haven’t exactly been flipped here; the instrumentation, production and delivery is all rather stock, to the point where there’s really no extra momentum here that hasn’t been carried over from their debut and utilised in the same way.
Unfortunately, that’s the same sort of underwhelming roteness exemplified by the writing, the place where the Five Finger Death Punch comparisons feel their most realised, and where Bad Wolves become the most entangled in genre trappings. On a surface level, it’s easy to cut Bad Wolves some slack for not being all that technically proficient as long as they can muster a solid hook (it’s ultimately the saving grace of Learn To Walk Again), but again, it’s a case where the potential of anything distinct doesn’t even feel humoured, instead dipping into usually disparate pools of themes that are typically fine on their own, but aren’t engaged with a way that’s made to feel interesting. There’s the usual posturing in I’ll Be There and The Consumerist where Vext tries to establish how controversial he can be to – putting it charitably – varying degrees of success (a line like “They scream ‘Trump’, you just fucking cry” on the former just screams how hard he’s trying), while Better Off This Way and Sober opt for angsty introspection, and Back In The Days and L.A. Song are criticisms on materialistic cultures that are about as pointed as a tennis ball. There’s clearly an aim to play into the hands of a very particular radio-rock audience, and while it’s hard to deny that Bad Wolves don’t succeed in their intentions, it’s not like those exact intentions are about as gated as they come, and leave N.A.T.I.O.N with very little in the way of meaningful content in the way that Disobey could at least muster in spots. It gets the job done, but without much in the way of staying power, and especially at this stage, that’s not really a good sign.
Of course, this isn’t going to be the momentum-capper for Bad Wolves that it could be for a lesser band, not when the push behind them remains so huge that any shortcomings have pretty much no bearing on their forward movement. But at the same time, it would be nice to see them capitalising on that push with material that’s not afraid to get a bit more experimental and diverse, rather than playing it so safe with very little consequence either way. It’s perhaps that which makes N.A.T.I.O.N as much of a disappointment as it is; there’s ample space for Bad Wolves to become a true force all on their own, but the reticence to do anything of the sort leaves them falling into the same dead zone that’s claimed so many of their peers. This isn’t the final nail in the coffin by any means, but the lid is definitely a lot less mobile than it once could’ve been.
For fans of: Five Finger Death Punch, Breaking Benjamin, All That Remains
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘N.A.T.I.O.N’ by Bad Wolves is out now on Eleven Seven Music.