Crown the Empire’s impressive debut album, The Fallout, and equally solid follow-up, The Resistance, have seemingly propelled the Rise Records signee’s into scene superstardom over the past few years. While not straying far from the formulas that made metalcore label-mates like Of Mice and Men highly popular in the alternative music circles, Crown the Empire certainly carved their own spot in the genre with their unique, grandiose storytelling that spanned both of the band’s concept albums. Their extremely catchy hooks, combined with thrashing riffs and distinct theatrical style, indicated that perhaps Crown the Empire were well on their way to bringing the next generation of metalcore to new heights. Headed into recording sessions, the band announced their departure from their “Runaways” story arc for their third album, the newly released Retrograde. Theatrics aside, does Retrograde allude to a fuller realization of potential for the young 5-piece? Unfortunately, with the omission of theming also comes the exclusion of many of the other elements that made Crown the Empire one of the most exciting bands (both live and on studio releases) in the scene.
Fall of 2015’s deluxe reissue of Resistance came with two brand new tracks, “Prisoners of War” and “Cross Our Bones,” which, in retrospect, serve as the preview to Retrograde. While “Prisoners” was an easily forgettable anthemic arena-rocker, “Cross Our Bones” was an impressively infectious pop song with a metallic edge. No doubt, the songs were released with intent to ease the band’s fan base through the transition of musical style between LP’s, as neither quite meshed well within the context of Resistance. They would, however, feel right at home within the track listing of Retrograde, and, unfortunately, would likely be album highlights at that. Ultimately, this stylistic shift can be compared to that of genre-mates We Came as Romans and Bring Me the Horizon, groups who both departed the metalcore umbrella for stadium-ready sounds with varied results.
Retrograde is a mixed bag of genres and directions, and the growing pains of a young band taking a new stylistic path are evident. The pop-punk/pop-rock tendencies of “Cross Our Bones” shine through in “Hologram” and album-closer “Kaleidoscope,” the former sparkles as a live-set staple to be sung along to by the masses, while the latter seemingly falls flat in similar intent. Comparatively, the radio-ready (and downright catchy) “Weight of the World” and the grower “Aftermath,” take structural cues from their predecessor, “Prisoners of War.” Lead single “Zero” is certainly impressive, and would fit into either of the band’s previous albums. The lyrical focus of the song seems to indicate that perhaps it will be the final Crown the Empire track to do so, and that future releases will continue down the paths forged on Retrograde by “Hologram” and “Weight of the World.”
Also found in the Retrograde melting pot are tracks like the acoustic-tinged “Signs of Life” and “Oxygen,” led by subtle electronics. Ultimately, both tracks are quite weak in execution and can be best compared to, though fall well short of, the Resistance’s impressive power-ballad “Millennia.” On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Lucky Us,” a mid-tempo track which chugs along led by David Escamilla’s unclean vocals. Unfortunately, it is almost completely devoid of the band’s infectious energy found on the heaviest tracks of previous releases like “Two’s Too Many,” “MNSTR,” or “Bloodline.” Thus, it results in nearly four minutes of forced, “heavy for the sake of being heavy,” dull metalcore. Similarly in terms of lackluster content, interlude “The Fear is Real” is an unnecessary three minute chunk placed in the middle of the record, and “Are You Coming With Me?” contains a gang vocal chorus that is just not quite catchy enough to keep the track afloat. The song feels similar in structure to the arena-conquering “Throne” by similarly shifting artist Bring Me the Horizon, but the hook is unfortunately quite weak in comparison. In fact, many tracks on Retrograde can be compared to popular radio rock bands in both style and composition. The soaring chorus and electro-tinged power chords of “Weight of the World” would fit in nicely alongside “What I’ve Done” from Linkin Park’s 2007 Minutes to Midnight, or “Burn it Down” from 2012’s Living Things. Additionally, “Aftermath,” save for the screaming in the bridge, would not be unwelcome on the track listings of Breaking Benjamin’s Dear Agony nor Three Days Grace’s Life Starts Now. There are clearly influences aplenty, but Crown the Empire must decide on a clear style or direction to successfully progress on a future follow-up to Retrograde.
Vocalists Andy Leo and Dave Escamilla have long been two of the most gifted in the alternative scene, as Leo boasts an impressive range and Escamilla showcases solid clean vocals to an already powerful screaming talent. Neither shine quite as bright as on previous releases, but their performances are more than adequate and drive many of the songs along quite well. While Escamilla is certainly an excellent vocalist, his screaming is vastly underutilized due to the nature of the songwriting. Also nearly entirely absent is lead guitar work. It is worth noting lead guitarist and songwriter Benn Suede is no longer a member of the band and Retrograde is the first release without him, perhaps indicating directional differences. Drummer Brent Taddie is also skilled in his craft, but does not stray from his comfort zone in terms of creativity and fills. Though ultimately the drums work well with the music, the interesting work on releases past is not to be found here. As a whole, Retrograde does not feel as inspired nor as driven as the band’s previous albums. Perhaps this is due to their extensive touring cycles and lack of time to work together on the release, or due to the aforementioned melting pot of influences and directions that can be heard on the album leaving each area spread a bit thin.
While this is certainly not Crown the Empire’s best or most impressive release, there are several tracks to be found that would be a welcome presence on mainstream rock radio. It has become apparent that this was the goal of the record all along. Unfortunately, with this restriction of sorts, many fans of the heavier side of the band will certainly be left disappointed in this release, and the term “sellout” will likely be tossed around social media comment sections. And, due to similar paths taken by other Rise artists (notably Sleeping with Sirens and Of Mice and Men), fingers may be pointed at the label for potentially influencing the shift of Crown’s direction. Regardless, it must be stated that a record can still maintain interesting qualities while pumping out radio-ready tracks. Too many artists take the watered-down pop rock approach to songwriting in attempt to reach radio success (see We Came as Romans’ latest effort and the aforementioned Rise bands), and that plagues Retrograde on tracks like “Weight of the World” and “Sign of Life.” Yet the band is certainly a talented group, and genuinely solid tracks like “Hologram” showcase that, yet the focus needs to be tightened up on future releases for Crown the Empire to realize their full potential.