In light of recent revelations regarding certain female-fronted American rock bands, it would be easy to dismiss many of its inhabitants as insincere fame-mongerers, built on image and design as opposed to genuine musical talent. Everywhere I look I seem to see disillusionment creeping into the scene, which is unfortunate, as backstage politics should never be allowed into the onstage arena and usurp the true talking point: the music. That said, if Alabama’s Social Jet Lag have shown anything with this release, it’s that there is gargantuan promise yet to be tapped, so don’t write them all off too soon.
What’s most colouring my opinion here is the vocals on this, the debut full-length from the Alabama-based band. They stray quite happily and, indeed, ably into the realm of goth-metal style “Beauty and the Beast” vocals, a style championed by many European metal bands but as yet relatively untapped on the other side of the Atlantic. Without placing undue emphasis on geography, it’s rare to hear this sort of precision from the US – European theatrics and Scandinavian accents befit this sort of thing, so to have an American band not only try it but execute it quite well is very welcome indeed.
Vocalist Melissa Germano has a pleasing voice. It’s sweet, instead of mawkish, with a rare and glasslike, pristine quality that sets her apart from many of her contemporaries. Alongside her, “screamer” Ben Erslinger is a striking contrast, cutting quite the disparate silhouette with a throaty and accomplished growl perhaps more traditional to heavy music. I’m not sure whether such efforts can adequately be described as mature but they are – his vocals are capable, abrasive, well-honed; they stand out in a genre littered with good intentions but poor results. Many have tried growling, few succeed, but the trick is getting the tone right and the vocal interplay here works exceedingly well.
Musically, the band may at first appear formulaic, but a closer listen unveils glimpses of experimental ambition and technical mastery. It would be interesting to hear who SJL’s influences are, as there are enough burgeoning attempts at prog-rock style vacillation to indicate they may be edgier than they appear.
“Everyone Knows A Richard” is a fine opener, an underlying siren tugging at the guitars and adding a compelling sense of urgency to the album from the outset. Everything is dynamic, rough, and ready, and although Germano’s dulcet tones detract a little from the heavy intentions, the contrast almost serves to enhance the song. It, much like the rest of the record, is a surprising package, managing to be both absorbing in its straight-up rock graft and haunting in its undue sweetness.
“Dear Mrs. Grundy” is fairly brilliant fare. It starts off rather innocuously, before pausing in the middle to yield to a savage breakdown that ought to be cataclysmic live. “If Water Could Burn” takes a detour and adds some delicate keys in the middle, lending tenderness and poignancy and signaling a mid-album reroute to introspection, from the furore of its beginning. There’s also a group vocal refrain that reminds me, for some reason, of the group chant in “MIA” by Avenged Sevenfold, which may not make sense to anyone else but is meant as an honest compliment!
Thereafter, “Imperfectbeautiful” seems to take the detour a little too seriously, exploring some readily familiar heartache territory and abandoning the growling for acoustic completeness. That said, it manages to evade much of the cheese factor, the vocals aching with enough conviction to add relevance to a lyrical story we’ve heard many times. Time Machines are a Waste of Time follows and happily reinvigorates the album, featuring some seriously ambitious drum work, and perpetuating the ardor pulsating throughout.
“Give them the Bayonet” chops and changes between urgent and harangued, becoming mellow, bare, and intimate. It’s a triumphantly infectious piece of work, its initial hysterics contrasting deliciously with the mystical refrain of “hallelujah” that paves the way for the record’s denouement. This spiritual vibe lingers in “The Voice,” which builds from abrasive intensity to float upon an almost haunting underlying vocal melody. At first serene and eloquent, the voices later blaze into a bizarre solo that sounds almost scientific in scope and leaves one breathless and ambiguous in the album’s wake.
Ultimately, The Monster Inside is an album of contrasts, from the intensity of its opening to the distinctly softer, more reflective manner in which it closes, to the chugging fury of the music, yet interspersed with gentler moments, and the by turns rugged and chaste vocals. A google search reveals that the term “Social Jetlag” describes a state of misaligned biological and social time, a fitting analysis for an album and band so defined by mismatches. A difficult band to compare, SJL are nowhere near matching the lofty intentions of [say] Epica, but musically, they could almost be a stripped down version. The experimental theatrics are in place and the sublime duality of the vocals is exceptional. There’s less grace and classics, but then again, that sort of eloquence isn’t to everyone’s tastes. This is a beautifully forged piece of work, wrought with earnest vision. It may be divisive, people either warming to its spunkiness and bravery, or discouraged by the same things, but it’s a very rewarding listen. There is certainly an audience out there for female-fronted bands armed with this sort of depth, and Social Jet Lag ought to find a willing one.
Review written by: Grace Duffy