Staind find themselves at a bit of a crossroads on The Illusion of Progress. Seven years removed from their biggest success, Break the Cycle, Staind have struggled to strike the right balance of anger and sensitivity on subsequent albums. Though they’re labeled as alt-metal, in truth the group’s strongest, best-received songs are their acoustic ballads about relationships and personal pain. The Illusion of Progress doesn’t change that impression: The softer the song, the more effective it is.
Exploiting a Potent Formula
Staind hit upon a bankable formula with their 2001 hit “It’s Been Awhile,” a quiet-verse/electric-chorus ballad from Break the Cycle where frontman Aaron Lewis detailed his vulnerabilities with candor. Since then, Staind have written their share of hard rock material, but each album was sure to contain a few clones of “It’s Been Awhile.” The Illusion of Progress is no different, as its first single is the romantic “Believe.” It’s hard to accuse the band of milking a sonic strategy, though, since Lewis’s expressive voice is tailored to emotive singing and Staind continue to find new ways to keep their formula potent.
Beyond “Believe,” which is such a textbook piece of radio-ready sentiment it’s amazing other groups can’t write ‘em as easily, The Illusion of Progress has two other strong soft numbers. “All I Want” is a grand, yearning number that allows Lewis to proclaim his love to his special someone while guitarist Mike Mushok provides melodic underpinnings. Even at age 36, Lewis can tap into the romantic urgency of adolescent courtship, and “All I Want” pulses with finely wrought melodrama. On the other end of the spectrum, “Tangled Up in You” details a lasting, mature love. Built around an affecting acoustic guitar figure, “Tangled Up in You” pays homage to a relationship that’s evolved beyond simple hormonal urges into a source of strength in an uncertain world. It’s not hard to imagine the song becoming the sort that’s a first dance for a lot of newly married couples.
Dull Hard Rock
While it would be inaccurate to say that the straight-out rock songs on The Illusion of Progress are meager, outside of Lewis’s screamed vocals in the opening track, “This Is It,” there’s very little metal about Staind in 2008. Instead, Staind have looked more to the thoughtful lyrical anguish of ‘90s Seattle bands like Alice in Chains for their inspiration. Unfortunately, mid-tempo tracks like “Break Away” are often dull expressions of discontent laden with overly moody atmospherics and Lewis’s grunted utterances. These songs make Lewis seem like just another gloomy grump complaining about his problems over tortured musical arrangements.
A Sleek Sound
Produced by Johnny K, who also helmed the recent 3 Doors Down, The Illusion of Progress possesses his sonic trademarks. Even if you don’t like a particular song, you can be sure that it’ll sound great – sleek hooks and smooth multi-tracked vocals are a given. Johnny K’s down-to-a-science style is especially necessary near the end of The Illusion of Progress when Staind try to branch out a little, delving into politics for “Rainy Day Parade” and making an ill-advised stab at Dark Side of the Moon-style soundscapes on “The Corner.” These misfires remain engaging but are ultimately forgettable.
“All I Want”
“Tangled Up in You”
Bottom LineOn The Illusion of Progress, Staind prove they’re still a fine ballad band, which will no doubt help them on the charts. But when they push out of that comfort zone and turn up the volume, their Progress remains stymied.
“All I Want”
“Tangled Up in You”
Release date – August 19, 2008