The great advantage that Caleb Shomo had when he first unleashed the primal fury of Beartooth on the world was the lack of expectations surrounding the project. His humble beginnings as the keyboardist, and eventual vocalist and mastermind, of crabcore punch line Attack Attack! were hardly an impressive résumé. Now that we know how good Shomo is at delivering his fusion of feral underground hardcore and radio-ready choruses, the bar has been set a hell of a lot higher. Disgusting was one of the best albums of 2014 because it made its obvious comparison points sound toothless, while also beating them blow for blow in the catchy chorus department. It was also obvious that the record was Shomo’s baby, and far more of a passion project for him than anything he had put his name to previously.
On the surface, Aggressive is a very similar follow-up. It repeats the trick of marrying the intensity of Every Time I Die to the mass accessibility of A Day to Remember, though this time leans more towards the latter. Depressingly, though, Beartooth are far less invigorating on this album than they seemed two years ago. Part of this may be because the expectations are so much greater this time around; but on a song-by-song, hook-by-hook basis, Disgusting is clearly the superior to its follow-up. Both albums see few deviations from the screamed verse/anthemic chorus model, but both parts of the equation were handled more effectively the first time around. Aggressive often fails to hit the same heights because it puts more emphasis onto its melodic flavor, but that flavor feels stale. The hooks on the album bleed into one another as it gallops along, repeating the gimmick of bringing in gang vocals to form a call-and-response far too many times. There are some great moments scattered throughout, and both “Hated” and “Sick of Me” hit similar heights to the biggest moments of Disgusting. The album as a whole is a disappointing step-down.
The most frustrating thing about it is the great big coat of polish that’s been slapped on. Disgusting worked so well because the production job was raw as hell, the bass given room to gurgle in the lower end and Shomo’s voice hitting you in the face like he was screaming over your shoulder. Ironically enough given its name, Aggressive feels relatively reined-in, the bear’s roaring jaws trapped in a muzzle. It far too often resembles an airbrushed repeat of its predecessor, from the inferior sequel track “Always Dead” to the angsty lyrics across the album as a whole, which unlike on Disgusting sound less heartfelt than they do amateur, because Shomo isn’t spluttering them out like he’ll expire if he isn’t able to. It may have been that bringing in an external producer caused him to rein in the extremities of his approach. If this was the case, it’s done more harm than good to Beartooth’s music.
Overly repetitive, disappointingly sanitised, and lacking the instantly memorable hooks of old: three big strikes. Aggressive isn’t a bad album, though, and in parts it’s excellent. The first three tracks get things off to a promising start, and the lurching main riff of “Censored” is one of the best the band has penned to date. Most unexpected among the highlights is “King of Anything”, a two minute denouement that closes out the record with aching, restrained guitars, a bare-bones vocal from Cuomo, and nothing else. It’s a startling moment of innovation on an album that’s sorely lacking them. What the song demonstrates is that Beartooth don’t need to be whipping up moshpits to sound intense, they can do so with mood and underlying tension as well. That Aggressive as a whole does not translate this is a shame, and a few more of these reined-in moments sprinkled among the predictable post-second chorus breakdowns could have worked wonders for the album as a whole.
Beartooth are still a better, more interesting band than the legions of identikit Warped Tour metalcore t-shirt salesmen, and remain leagues above anything else Shomo has put his name to in terms of quality. Aggressive is nonetheless a disappointingly tame follow-up to its unhinged predecessor, which aims for a shift towards melody but can’t convincingly make the leap. Housed in a far cleaner production job, and showing little readiness to explore an untapped vein of maturity, this sophomore slump is an enjoyable letdown with its heart in the right place, but it is a letdown regardless.