ALTER BRIDGE: The Last Hero (2016)
2004 saw the rise of a new powerhouse band in the wake of Scott Stapp’s departure from Creed. New frontman, Myles Kennedy, took lead guitarist Mark Tremonti and the new band, Alter Bridge, in a different direction with his soaring vocals and his own song writing and guitar style that helped define a clear identity for the new band, setting it apart from Creed. Their first album, One Day Remains, was primarily written by Tremonti and for the most part, while a solid debut album, sounded Creed-like, but their sophomore release, Blackbird, truly saw Kennedy take front and center as a co-writer and equal part in the band. ABIII and Fortress, while good rock albums, began to suffer from the desire to please two audiences with a series of radio-friendly songs and harder rockers in a way much like Nickelback, Shinedown and other popular rock bands have been known to do. I’ve seen many of these bands in concert, and they like to have the songs to get the crowds riled up, sprinkled in with a few slower songs. However, such a collection of songs doesn’t make for a solid, cohesive album. ABIII suffered from this, contrasting loud songs like “Isolation” with melodic, slower songs like “Wonderful Life”. Fortress was a step up featuring some excellent songs like “Calm the Fire” and “Fortress” but still contained some of the harsher songs like “Cry a River” and “The Uninvited”. What did become apparent, however, especially with Fortress, was the beginning of a fusion of the two frontmen’s songwriting styles.
The fifth LP by Alter Bridge, The Last Hero, shows a pause in the band's thinking, a shift in approach and tone, and a new style of songwriting that compliments both leads' strengths. On my first listen to this album back in October 2016, I wasn’t very impressed, but once I had gotten into it, this is the album that made me start this blog and take on rock/metal album reviews. Even returning to it 10 months later to finally write the review, it took more than one listen to love it again. It is not an album for casual listening, but the complexity of the guitar work by both Tremonti and Kennedy, the depth of the lyrics, and the melodic power brought to each song becomes an immersive experience. This is not to say that anything the band has done previously is sub par. Alter Bridge came out of the gates in 2004 with polished, excellent musicianship. When I compare The Last Hero to previous albums in this review, I am talking within a small range within their remarkable discography. With both Kennedy and Tremonti working on solo projects and tours the past few years, I wasn’t sure when Alter Bridge would return, but return they did.
The Last Hero borders on being a concept album. The songs were written while they were on the road with their respective solo bands – Tremonti and Slash – and recorded between January-April 2016. This album therefore reflects the transition in American politics and the beginning of the election season. Lyrically, Kennedy captured the nation’s frustration with the leadership in DC and over half of the songs represent this. They are able to be political but without taking sides, instead reflecting the feeling of disillusionment in the country. The result is an album that is more socially aware and less introspective than previous ones. This theme is clearly bookended by the album opener “Show Me A Leader” and the title track at the end. In the middle, “This Side of Fate” continues the theme, and Kennedy refers to these as somewhat of a trilogy, lyrically. Where previous albums were more about love and personal loss, the other songs on The Last Hero maintain the social narrative, but keep a positive outlook. To me, the most profound lyric is in “Twilight” with: “Tomorrow is contingent on the tolerance of every heart”.
The band stated that this was the first album where Kennedy wrote his guitar solo parts ahead of time, and Tremonti followed that by saying both he and Slash think Kennedy is the best guitarist of them. It is a unique situation where there really are two guitarists who split the lead and rhythm duties and flip back and forth throughout songs. With The Last Hero, and their songwriting process this time around, this becomes apparent in two ways: the more consistent tone of the album, and the complexity of the guitar work. There are multiple parts going on at all times underneath Kennedy’s powerful vocals. In addition, there are rhythm parts that one would write but the other would play, starting to show their true collaborative relationship as musicians in this band. They approached this album differently than the past ones, venturing down previously unexplored roads like societal issues, while also embracing more uplifting and melodic tones.
The album opens with a blistering suite of guitar work at the front of “Show Me A Leader” that would not be out of place opening an Avenged Sevenfold album. The next few songs keep up the pace, but the best songs are loaded on the second half of the record. I find three songs that don’t quite fit into their new style, and still reflect song styles from earlier records. “My Champion” would have fit right in on their debut album, while “Poison in Your Veins” and “You Will Be Remembered” sound more like tracks from Blackbird. Not bad songs in the least, but they are less progressive for the band than the rest of the album. While it feels like a trademark song of theirs about personal loss, like “Blackbird” or “Watch Over You”, “You Will Be Remembered” is actually a song for our men and women in uniform. “Cradle to the Grave” pushes the album forward with an acoustic melody intro that mirrors the tune of the verse. This song along with “Losing Patience” showcase their more melodic style over previous works. As mentioned before, “This Side of Fate” is part 2 of their thematic trilogy, and is a strong melody written in 6/8. The bridge features some powerful vocals by Kennedy that sound like something we’d get from Muse.
Starting with Blackbird, Alter Bridge started writing songs in 6/8 time, which I often view as a sign of a band’s prowess and songwriting ability, compared to the more common and standard 4/4. This rhythm style has included some of their more epic tracks, including “Blackbird”, “Words Darker Than Their Wings”, and “Fortress”. Here again, they use this beat for their epic finale, which for The Last Hero, is a set of three songs. “Twilight" is the first of this trilogy, and it is here that Alter Bridge truly shines. “Island of Fools”, part 2, is partially in 6, especially in the chorus and bridge, and the title-track finale is also in 6/8, producing a cohesive feel to these three songs that also bring the band’s message to the forefront. “Island of Fools” was inspired by Hurricane Katrina and how fragile our infrastructure is, reminding us that at times we have to save ourselves. The theme behind The Last Hero is that our world as we know it is about to end or change, and we need to save ourselves because no one else will, and we lack the leadership to do it. “Twilight” opens with “The world has gone mad, the future is so unclear/Where do we stand, it feels like the end is near”. Like “Cradle to the Grave”, the guitar line that opens this song matches the melody of the verse as Kennedy’s vocals come in over the pulsing guitars. "Twilight" is the lynchpin of the album, for me. It takes the momentum of the earlier part of the album and launches it forward into the final two song with their classic 6/8 rhythm and strong melody and guitar. "Island of Fools" is one of the hardest songs on the album, but that's almost overlooked by the melodic power and vocals, something not found on the harder songs from earlier albums.
This is Alter Bridge. Gone are the individual guitarists and vocalists as the sort of “new Creed” with some songs by Myles Kennedy. With The Last Hero, Tremonti and Kennedy fuse their musical styles to such an extent that they create a new style for themselves that is melodic, intense, complex, and majestic all at once, and with this album, rocket themselves into the upper echelon of progressive metal bands. There were some hints at this on previous albums, of course, but here Alter Bridge realizes its true potential as a band across a full album. In a day when a lot of bands spit out a new cookie cutter album just to support the next tour without taking any risks, The Last Hero stands out as perhaps one of the best of the decade. I urge metal fans to give this album the time it deserves to truly appreciate it.