Album Review: Hanging On By A Thread
By The Letter Black
By Paul Anthony | April 22nd, 2010 | Posted In Album Review
Hanging on By a Thread erases any doubts: This is a heavy band that does good work.
From the first riff of “Fire With Fire,” it is clear that Hanging On By a Thread will be a much different album than Breaking the Silence, which featured one good song and several other good moments but suffered from Sarah Anthony’s inconsistent vocals, inconsistent production and a general feeling of uncertainty as to just what the band wanted to be. “Fire With Fire” answers that question: The Letter Black want to be heavy, and they are.
The song is an immediate jolt, the kind that was never delivered on Breaking the Silence.
That jolt continues throughout the album, from the strings-infused rocker “Believe” to the catchy “My Disease” to the album’s closing aggressive tracks, “Care Too Much” and “Wounded.”
In between are a number of more traditional hard rock tunes that work well, even if there’s nothing particularly spectacular about them. Two carryovers from the EP, the title track and “Moving On,” feel like better songs simply because they are no longer asked to carry the weight of a smaller, weaker album.
The third carryover, “Best of Me,” also works better, though it remains just as sunny and unique as it was on the EP. It’s all acoustic guitars and strings, with a touch of electric in the chorus. It’s easily the best of the record’s three ballads (which is one too many, and more the pity that the weakest, “More to This,” is the longest song on the album). It has Air-One favorite written all over it.
Musically, there is simply very little to criticize. The other two ballads are formulaic, as is a couple of the rockers, but by and large they are performed well enough to forgive a little formula, and after all, it’s a formula for a reason: it generally works.
Lyrically, The Letter Black leaves a little more to be desired. By and large, the album tackles relevant topics forthrightly and honestly. The title track and “My Disease” both deal with the struggles Christians face in a culture that values impurity and compromise. “Fire With Fire” and “Moving On” tackle unhealthy relationships in productive ways. “Moving On” especially throws in a lyrical twist, juxtaposing the angsty opening of “I don’t care about you anymore” with the healthier “I forgive you, now I’m moving on.”
But The Letter Black edges closely to a line of Nickleback-ization that often afflicts bands apparently attempting to cater to the high school audience, that is overly focusing on failed relationships and what went wrong, often without any context or clues for the listener. The Letter Black should be lauded for taking a better approach than others, as nearly every track that deals with relationships focuses on learning from mistakes and moving forward, which is obviously a healthy and useful lesson for the teen girls likely to make up a large segment of the band’s following. Nevertheless, it’s an aggressive optimism that the band finds difficult to maintain when discussing continually such an inherently negative topic.
The final complaint is the third ballad, “More to This,” which feels unnecessary, being on an album with 12 other songs and two other ballads. It is not musically distinctive from “There’ll Come a Day,” which does the ballad formula much better, and it lyrically relies too much on cliche to be effective.
But these are minor quibbles, as the lyrics overall are well suited to the audience, and much better and more relevant than many other, more popular Christian rock bands. The music is simply top notch, ending with “Wounded,” an impressively aggressive kick in the teeth with an opening guitar riff that would be at home on any Disturbed album and some impressive screaming from Sarah Anthony that will leave any headbanger wishing for more.
There is certainly room to grow for The Letter Black, which clearly has made many strides in songwriting and vocals, which are the most important areas. Instrumentation is solid but unspectacular, and lyrics, as mentioned, can always grow deeper and stronger, regardless of the band. As songwriting improves, the band will rely less and less on formulas for both its music and its lyrics, and therefore allow its musicianship to grow accordingly.
But it’s important to remember: This is a major-label debut. And it is a fantastic one, at that. Debuts are rarely perfect, and they are rarely as good as this.
It’s unfair to The Letter Black that its fairly unique status of being fronted by a female singer will draw the obvious comparisons — Flyleaf, Fireflight, Evanescence, and indeed fans of all these bands can find much to like here. Branching out, the lyrics will pigeonhole them as a Christian rock band, which will invite the obvious comparisons to Red and Skillet, with whom The Letter Black compares more than favorably. But this is an exellent hard rock album from an excellent rock band, no qualifiers necessary.