Four Year Strong currently stand at the absolute apex of what pop-punk could and should be. Where the genre seems to have gone back to its punchline status as fewer new names are breaking about and established acts continue to jump ship for pop security (you can even throw A Day To Remember in that camp nowadays), holding fast has proven to be the best thing Four Year Strong could do, morally if not commercially. The genre’s trending correction was always going to remove some ground beneath them in terms of the latter, but for a band for whom In Any Way, Shape Or Form is considered their ‘sellout’ album, a pivot towards to radio-rock sounds that was still perfectly good and was rectified just an album later, straying too far from their roots was never going to be a worry, especially with the pride that Four Year Strong have always taken in bulking up their pop-punk with meaty breakdowns that have always seemed to connect. And for as regularly as they can slip through the cracks in the modern pop-punk discussion, even for fans of the genre, Four Year Strong’s steadfastness in their creativity is a selling point that everyone should have all the time in the world for.
But even by the standards that have been so regularly high for this band, Brain Pain feels like something different entirely, bringing new elements to the table without subtracting anything at all, remaining concise, punchy and unfailingly melodic while also being possibly the band’s heaviest album to date. And when Four Year Strong keep finding new ways to spin that concept and keeping succeeding with flying colours, there’s a sense of euphoria that bolts through Brain Pain from its first moment to its last. If easycore was still a spurious genre term being bandied around, this would be the best album that scene had produced, no questions asked; as it stands now though, Brain Pain is, head and shoulders, the best pop-punk album of 2020, arguably a new peak within Four Year Strong’s career, and the sort of exercise in blurring the most rigid of genre boundaries that’s going to be a challenge for anyone to best.
That all may sound incredibly hyperbolic, and while Four Year Strong aren’t necessarily throwing anything new into their pre-established bag of tricks, it’s been sharpened to an almost impossibly fine point this time around. The balance between heaviness and melody is the clearest standout, as Four Year Strong pull out building, twisting breakdowns merging into tightly-crafted hooks on It’s Cool and Crazy Pills, and a melodic hardcore gallop on Mouth Full Of Dirt that opens up into a heavy punk rager withou showing so much as a stitch between the two sides. It’s hard to think of an album in recent years that’s found such a succinct way to fuse real, genuine heft with pop-punk craftsmanship that would be an unprecedented smash if it came from someone like All Time Low; there are areas on this album that sound like metal moments, and yet when they’re fed into tracks like Talking Myself In Circles and Learn To Love The Lie to eke out an undeniable poppiness from them, it feels like the most natural thing in the world.
What’s most refreshing of all is how the production gives Four Year Strong the room to go as far out with their heaviness as they want, and the fact they frequently take that opportunity only makes Brain Pain feel all the more satisfying to listen to. The only real dip in pace on the acoustic, arranged ballad Be Good When I’m Gone comes as a necessary breather; otherwise, with a skull-caving guitar tone serving as the norm and the dual vocals of Alan Day and Dan O’Connor being pushed to a searing level of power, Brain Pain never feels more than just a few seconds away from its next crushing moment that unfailingly worms its way in. The fat, chugging bass of Talking Myself In Circles and the thunderous gallop of Usefully Useless feel like the ultimate condensations of that power, and even Seventeen which is probably the weakest moment here thanks to not feeling as fully-formed in its guitar presence, there’s a real, tenacious crunch to it that still keeps it moving ahead at a great pace.
Even in the lyrical sentiment, Four Year Strong once again display their knack for taking what could be relatively run-of-the-mill and giving it a new coat of pain to make it fresh and vital. In this case, it’s the mental health conversation that’s still just as pervasive as ever in modern pop-punk, but with the spin that Four Year Strong put on it, a lot of what can often come across as self-pitying or mawkish is completely paved over for tension and frustration, acknowledging how damaging the dissociation and depression can be on the title track and Usefully Useless, but not knowing what to do about it. Factor in the added strain that comes from being in a relationship where both partners taking out their problems on each other leads to frequent attrition and toxicity on Learn To Love The Lie, and the struggle of the narrator on Brain Pain becomes more tangled and inescapable, to where letting it simply play out as the norm on It’s Cool feels like the only course of action, before finally searching for kindness and solace on Young At Heart. It’s a more brash version of the typical thematic throughline that’s such a natural fit for Four Year Strong, and given how staunchly the focus is placed on their heft and letting themselves rampage through these tracks, rarely is there a moment where Brain Pain doesn’t hit its mark.
It’s difficult to fault in any capacity to be honest, not least because a formula that’s always worked for Four Year Strong has been given even more velocity to it and hits with more of a brusque whack than ever before. And sure, it’s easy to pin this album’s success solely on its heaviness and how well-realised that is pretty much across the board, but with themes that have just as much weight and a freewheeling, perpetual sense of momentum that’s honestly unlike anything that Four Year Strong have put their name to to date, everything coalesces into the sort of vital, overridingly fun punk album that can feel like such a rarity these days. And yet, it’s something that Four Year Strong have always been able to do, and have always been doing to a phenomenally high degree. This one is better than all of them though, and it comes right at the time that it’s needed the most.
For fans of: Set Your Goals, A Loss For Words, New Found Glory
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Brain Pain’ by Four Year Strong is out now on Pure Noise Records.