- San Diego, California - In 2009, I picked up a physical copy of The Devil Wears Prada's With Roots Above and Branches Below due to a good friend's recommendation of the band. At that time, I gave the album one or two listens before putting it down because I found its relentless sonic energy somewhat annoying. In picking metal albums to review, I decided to give it a refreshed and more critical listen, in part due to the album's commercial success. While I can appreciate the dexterity and ferocity exhibited in this album, the lack of variation in tone and intensity in the album makes it a very homogenous production that does not give the listener any time to breathe.
This album contrasts neatly with Oh, Sleeper's Children of Fire in musical intensity and variation. Mike Hranica utilizes a few different types of screams--screeching, mid-range screaming, and growling, to be specific--but all of them have the same apocalyptic level of energy. Since these screams blanket the album, they become numbing and even sonically frustrating rather than being gripping or galvanizing. Similarly, Jeremy DePoyster's singing never changes intensity, tone, or pacing, with the exception of "Louder than Thunder," a scream-absent track that sounds a bit like "Exit Lights"-era Falling Up. While single and dual guitar leads appear regularly throughout the album, often they break down to riffing on a single low note in sync with the rhythm. This metal cliché appears in nearly every track, often with little else going on musically or melodically. The drum parts only ever seem to change pace for half-time breakdowns, but since they never actually calm down, their intensity is lost on the listener after the first few minutes of listening. This lack of musical nuance makes the album feel simplistic, even though the technical proficiency required to play many of the songs is incredible.
The mixing choices made in this album baffle me--rather than attempting to minimize the tonal and rhythmic repetition in the album, the up-front placement of the kick and low-tone rhythm guitars exaggerates it. The mix actually de-emphasizes the guitar leads, string parts, and other sources of musical variation in order to keep these sheerly rhythmic elements at the front. The screaming vocals stick out of the mix awkardly, sounding as if they were pasted on top of a completed (instrumental) performance. This becomes incredibly clear when screaming and singing occur together, as the singing vocals have by contrast been heavily treated to "fit" in the space of the mix. I feel like the screams could have benefited from some high-frequency-taming EQ to decrease the grating quality of Hranica's voice and some more treatment in general to make it sound like it's part of the sonic space that the rest of the instrumentation occupies. There is very little sonically that impresses me in this album because what is consistently put in the forefront--sixteen-on-the-floor double kick beats, chugging guitar rhythms, and awkardly distinct screams--overshadows the elements that provide variation in the album.
The musicians in The Devil Wears Prada definitely prove their dexterity and technical proficiency with this album, but they perform without a sense of pacing or nuance. Even the metal genre benefits from musical variety and changes in pacing; with the unfadingly full-steam-ahead approach utilized in With Roots Above and Branches Below, the band's prolonged ferocity works against itself and makes the overall performance feel flat and uninteresting. Though one or two tracks may be enjoyable on occasion, the album as a whole fails to deliver a gripping or satisfying performance that encourages a listener to stay with the album from start to finish or return for subsequent listens.
Rating: 1/5 Sour Grapes