Whoever chose the name “From First to Last” for the so-monikered band likely never envisaged it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But after a gradual decline from the top of the post-emo-hardcore mountain into a muted 2010 hiatus, the latent band has risen in a new, rather intriguing incarnation.
The recruitment of Periphery’s Spencer Sotelo as a vocalist raised more than a few eyebrows (though it’s more than paid off, as will later be explained), and the entire nature of the project has been mired in confusion since its announcement – would it be an EP, or full-length album? How much of it would be made up of re-recorded material? ‘Dead Trees’ is in fact a fully-fledged fifth studio album (bolstered by some new versions of golden oldies) that can at least go toe-to-toe with its comparatively recent predecessors, if perhaps not the two fanbase-revered records with a pre-brostep superstardom Sonny Moore singing lead. Guitarist and band mainstay Matt Good never really did suit that role, and he seems to relish slipping back into a position principally based on songwriting.
More than a decade removed from their debut, From First to Last could be in danger of feeling antiquated given their hiatus and the myriad new kids on the block who’ve pushed the sound of the scene foreword, but their super-sleek take on post-hardcore in fact slots somewhere between a sense of modernity and faint nostalgic charm. The bulk of ‘Dead Trees’ is made up of pop song structure pogo-tempo tracks, synthesised orchestral effects colouring the edges of guitar-driven contemporary rock songs. This means it lives or dies on its choruses, and Sotelo steps up to the plate and then some with a contribution as good as on Periphery’s recent double album, focusing on clean singing and capturing the tone of the music perfectly. ‘Black and White’ and the excellent title track showcase the best of this formula.
But it’s the diversions from the formula that offer the true highlights. “Back to Hannalei” brings the cool electronic background sounds of the album to the forefront for a solemn but enthralling low-key ballad, a complete contrast to the utterly irrelevant acoustic skiffle “I Don’t Wanna Live in the Real World”, bringing the album to a close with name checks to everything from Guantanamo Bay to Miley Cyrus, taking nothing including itself seriously in the process. These are for entirely different reasons two of the best From First to Last songs to date, but tellingly there’s nothing else on the album coming close to their classics, not least genre gold standard “Ride the Wings of Pestilence” (the re-recording of which loses some of the original’s ramshackle charm, but has considerably more polish).
Much of ‘Dead Trees’ suffers from both self-repetition and its sheer refinement, the band’s attack neutered by squeaky-clean production and a lack of any real menace or sonic bulk. The hooks are enjoyable but rendered unmemorable by the enormous focus placed upon them, and many of the big riff or breakdown sections don’t punch hard enough to make a real impact. Beautiful moments like the extended coda of “Never in Reverie” are dragged out; in contrast, album opener proper “Straight to the Face” collapses in on itself before it can really dig its hooks in.
A mixed bag of a comeback then from a group whose return has proven somewhat frustrating in multiple respects. Good and co. still have the chops to knock up a handful of anthemic instant-satisfaction songs to fill out a Warped Tour set, but there’s no real sense of occasion considering how long it’s been since we’ve had a From First to Last album, even with a frontman as gifted as Sotelo in tow. Everyone involved in the creation of ‘Dead Trees’ has put their names to better recordings – it’s a country mile of quality away from the self-titled D.R.U.G.S. album, for one – but considering this looks unlikely to be a full-time project, a return that conjures up more positives than negatives as this one does can probably be marked a success.