Continuing a streak of creative force that makes them one of the best metalcore bands in the business, August Burns Red has churned out an album that makes a convincing argument for their best album yet. Bolstered by diverse instrumentation, melodic overlays balancing out the metalcore framework, and a consistent, relentless intensity in tone, Phantom Anthem is bold without being pretentious, accessible but not cliché.
The first statement to make is perhaps the most obvious: August Burns Red is not your typical garden variety metalcore band. With astounding longevity (this is their eighth full-length release) and widespread critical acclaim, August Burns Red is one of the few Christian bands to have a strong presence in not only the Christian music circles, but in the broader culture as well. The success of their most recent album speaks for itself: the album broke the top 10 of the Billboard 100, and took top positions in the Christian, Rock, Hard Rock, and Independent Billboard charts. Later, the single “Identity” was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Metal Performance category (though the award ultimately went to Ghost for the song “Cirice”).
All of that is to say that there were high expectations going into this album. Since Rescue & Restore, the group has done highly skilled and creative work. But Phantom Anthem is no exception. The diversity of musical styles found on the album – at this point an expected trait of an August Burns Red album – has already been referred to. But it’s more than just the sonic vibes of the album – the group is tackling serious issues. They kick off the album talking about the demonic nature of depression (“My happiness is your defeat/Your heartache makes me feel so complete”), a Christian perspective on suffering (“Tearing myself down to nothing/Has allowed me to become something more than this” and elsewhere “A mistake is a chance to grow/Into something stronger and bolder”), and in the end, calling us to turn back to God (“Imagine watching your heroes cower/Your father’s face sink lower/As he tries to save you for one more hour”).
Phantom Anthem is not, to the best of my knowledge, a concept album. But in a sense, it plays like one, using a small handful of themes, presented in a flowing arc of ideas and concepts. The album starts with songs that are as aggressive as many in the genre, conjuring up an enemy to scream at, fostering anger and resentment. The songs gradually grow more introspective, however, turning to an internal focus on suffering. By the time we get to “Invisible Enemy,” the emphasis isn’t even on hating the enemy anymore. It’s about the difficulty of the struggle. This comes to a crescendo in “Quake,” when the conclusion is “You can’t make it on your own.” The album then turns to a more redemptive theme, such as in “Coordinates”: “Inhale the bravery/Exhale, exhale the worry.”
This mold doesn’t fit perfectly, and I suspect it may not even have been intentional. But it is noticeable as a listener, and the depth of those ideas – a hate for the enemy maturing into acknowledgement of my own weakness and need for God – is at the very core of Christianity. Some of these songs have more than just the members’ faith in view. “Carbon Copy,” for instance, is a pretty clear reference to climate change, and “Hero of the Half Truth” seems pretty directly pointed at authority structures. But it’s the way they approach the problem, not just identify it, that brings the greatest lessons to bear. If there is a weakness in that approach, it’s that the album can be almost too heavy. It’s very serious, even for metal, and can feel almost oppressive in moments. This certainly aids the cohesiveness that the group is shooting for, even if it can make the experience, at moments, something of a bear.
Be that as it may, the album has more to offer us than depth of lyrical theme itself, as if that weren’e enough. These ideas are couched in an album that brings in melodic guitar riffs and instrumentation that sounds almost classically influenced, but with a more cohesive thread woven throughout. Guitarist J.B. Brubaker said in an interview with Alternative Press: “When writing, I want the song to be awesome before vocals are ever added to the track. Theoretically, the majority of the album could stand alone instrumentally. Because of that, a lot of melody is written into the guitars, versus being dependent on the vocals to provide that element.”
A successful album on every front, Phantom Anthem is the sort of album that metalcore fans find themselves returning to for weeks upon weeks after release. What you will find here is Christians making great art, and continuing to make an impact in the broader culture.