Fightstar's third full-length, 'Be Human' finally sees the concept-loving, inherently theatrical post-hardcore band hook up with an orchestra.
'The English Way' was the first single to be lifted off 'Be Human,' but this probably has something to do with its very clear-cut, operatic moments, which make it a good introduction to 'Be Human's rock-opera sound, rather than its strength as a song.
While there's no denying that the pre-chorus blasts of full-on, choral wailing are spine-tingling, after the initial shivers have worn off, you'll notice these classical spasms don't really fit with the rest of the song. The chorus itself, where the choir is relegated to the background, is actually much more effective, giving Simpson's desperate vocal grasping the centre-stage position they deserve. There's something gimmicky about that choir's pre-chorus wailing, and consequently 'The English Way' is by no means the album's strongest song, and it's an odd choice of first single.
Likewise, 'Calling On All Stations' isn't the strongest way to open this album. Following a string-centric introduction, Fightstar lurch awkwardly into their usual post-hardcore clatter. You'll be left wondering whether all of this album's much-hyped orchestral flourishes will feel quite this tacked-on.
The chorus is dyed-in-the-wool Fightstar: a solid rush of riffing that accelerates into a drum-led gallop, while Simpson's always-distinctive vocals rise to an addictive falsetto point. Its adherence to the classic Fightstar formula means 'Calling On All Stations' will find an easy home with existing fans, although it won't win over any new ones, and the introduction feels completely unnecessary.
Second single 'Mercury Summer' is much stronger. It's one of Simpson's most inspired vocal performances, as his downbeat contributions to the verses quicken to a poppy, pre-chorus patter, before he launches into those big, life-affirming high notes in a chorus that's guaranteed to put a smile on your face. A sunnier take on the Fightstar sound.
'War Machine' is the first song where orchestra and band really gel, as Fightstar come over all 'Puzzle'-era Biffy Clyro. Opening with a dark orchestral swell and a shimmer of chords, right from the start 'War Machine' is a deviation from usual Fightstar territory.
It all goes briefly wrong on the first verse, as bursts of nails-on-chalkboard strings will have you wincing away from your speakers. However, it all starts to make sense on the second verse, as those string-bursts are replaced and imitated by some crunchy, crackly riffs, in an interesting and inspired parallel.
Elsewhere, 'War Machine' is a lushly tormented rock-opera. The chorus of spiralling 'I'm not a war machine / I'm not a war machine" vocals and dizzying strings, is a powerful aural assault, and that's before the choir join Simpson for the final part of this bombastic, post-hardcore tour de force.
'Chemical Blood' is the other song that seamlessly melds the sixteen piece orchestra and the band. In fact, it's done so successfully, that at times 'Chemical Blood' doesn't sound like Fightstar at all. During the bridge section, Fightstar almost begin to sound battle metal, with military drumbeats and epic, European alt-metal synths. The rest of the bridge sounds a little more like the band, although the classic post-hardcore breakdown section is given a dramatic tweak thanks to some jerky strings. Elsewhere, 'Chemical Blood' thunders along, alternating between fits of machine-gun drumming and indulgent flicks and flourishes of violin.
'Chemical Blood' is a darker, more metallic take on 'War Machine's operatic rock and, together, they form a two-pronged, string-and-screaming rock opera assault of the highest calibre.
'Damocles' is another song where Fightstar are almost unrecognisable. The verses of stop-start, warped-electronica riffing and extreme hardcore vocals are vaguely reminiscent of spazzcore pioneers Rolo Tomassi, and are the most warped and twisted Fightstar have ever sounded.
At the opposite end of the scale, Fightstar go back to their roots with 'Never Change.' While Fightstar are usually the masters of the accessible, sing along chorus, 'Never Change' falls just short in this regard. Simpson's vague and rambling vocals means that the only thing lending character to the chorus, is the cutting edge of its heavier riffs.
'Never Change' may be one of 'Be Human's weaker offerings, but it's still superior to 'Tonight We Burn.' Here, Fightstar dismantle their usual racket down to an odd collection of clunky percussion, twinkling synths, industrial-esque beats and sparse, spiky chords. The vocals don't help matters, being far too poppy and melodic in the context of the album. Things do pick up on the chorus, which is packed with jagged, post-hardcore riffing but this is, unfortunately, the only time 'Tonight We Burn' has any real bite.
Ploughing a similar musical furrow, but to much greater effect, is 'Give Me The Sky.' The verses have a similarly basic, folkish slant, with bursts of whiny acoustic guitar and knocking-on-wood style percussion. It's catchy enough, but really all Fightstar are doing is biding their time until the song's real highlight: its gorgeous, cinematic chorus. Simpson breathes some barely-there vocals over a solid wall of orchestrated sound, overlaid with a frenetic, skittering riff that hits some very odd, bagpipe-like high notes. A passable verse, but the gorgeous chorus more than makes up for it.
'The Whisperer' has a more upbeat, riotous sound than we're perhaps used to from the band. The guitars are a discreet background buzz over which Fightstar layer jangly tambourines, hand-clapping beats and tinkling piano flourishes.
'The Whisperer' dances a frenetic, funky jig that proves, three albums into their career, Fightstar are a band who can still surprise.
Also a surprise, is 'Colours Bleed To Red' which sees Fightstar at their heaviest. Waves of reverberating riffs, drenched in crackle and distortion, wash back and forth across stop-start guitars, which carry some very guttural-sounding vocals with them. Conversely, the choruses are a synth-added, dizzying spiral of sound, proving that Fightstar can pull off both quirky catchiness and metal aggression with aplomb.
Less a song, and more the musical equivalent of a full-stop, 'Follow Me Into The Darkness' draws together all the threads of this surprisingly eclectic album and brings it to a very neat, concept-album worthy finish.
Taking us across extensive musical terrain, 'Follow Me...' rumbles to life with strains of resonating organ and Simpson's breathy vocals. We then make a brief foray into folkish guitar-picking, before an odd, bass synth quivers through the song, gradually taking it to a full-on orchestral assault.
And things get even more dramatic, as the whole band is brought in for a head-spinning riot of wailing strings and crashing riffs, before it all spectacularly collapses into a twinkling piano refrain, and 'Be Human' comes to a close.
'Follow Me...' isn't an easy, hooky song you'll want to stick on repeat, but it's a gorgeous, complicated, instrumental-centric piece of art-rock that you'll appreciate, even if you won't enjoy it in the conventional sense.
'Be Human' is a surprising album that sees Fightstar edge off in many new directions. Subtle electronica and folkish elements are craftily sneaked in alongside the more obvious classical and metallic leanings. The core Fightstar sound is present throughout, and there's more than enough jagged post-hardcore noise to keep 'Grand Unification'/'One Day Son, All This Will Be Yours' fans happy. But, for those who weren't bowled over by Fightstar's blend of post-hardcore and sing along choruses, the thoughtful, rock-opera of 'Be Human' might just be the album to change your mind.