Some people peak early.
If you graduated high school more than five years ago, you can be guaranteed that somewhere in your hometown is someone who was once at the top of the pecking order, some star athlete or valedictorian or prom queen. Only now they’re no one special. They’re somewhere in this spectrum: get out of school, maybe get married, get a boring job, have a kid, get fat, have another kid, get divorced, get laid-off, join a church league softball team, retire, die. Their life isn’t over (except in the final case), but barring some unexpected twist of fate, their greatest glories have come and gone. They didn’t crash and burn; they didn’t bottom out; they just met the middle, settled down, slowed down. And so they just keep plugging along, seldom failing but always falling short of flying.
Despite the band’s decades of falling short, I remain a Flotsam & Jetsam fan. I was one of the those excited by the reunion of the Cuatro-era line-up, because I was (and am) one of those who likes that record, who doesn’t denounce it for being the post-Black Album attempt at mass commercial appeal that it was. Sure, like everyone, I concede that Flots was best on their first two, 1986’s Doomsday For The Deceiver and 1988’s No Place For Disgrace (except for that Elton cover, which is dreadful). But I’ll also readily admit that I enjoy some of the mid-period groovy Flotsam. Drift, High, Unnatural Selection: each of those discs has some moments. Dreams Of Death piqued my interest, since it was evident with that one that Flotsam was closer to being back on track, back to having some fire in their guts, and I found The Cold to be a bit uneven, although its better moments were certainly among some of the top Flots metal in twenty years. (Unfortunately, it also has “K.Y.A.”)
With the past decade’s resurgent interest in all things thrash, one would think the time was right for a reunited Flotsam to flourish. The legions of patch-vested-and-high-topped kids in the audience should appear as if plucked straight from the late 1980s. Further feeding the fire, fellow first-wavers Overkill, Kreator, and Testament have all released some seriously strong offerings in the last few years, reaping the benefits of the second coming. The only difference in the No Place For Disgrace line-up and this one is the presence of bassist Jason “No, The Other Bassist Jason” Ward, the only constant member of Flotsam since 1992. And to top it all off, Ugly Noise is the first Flotsam & Jetsam album since No Place to feature songwriting input from former bassist Jason “The First Bassist Jason” Newsted, who famously defected to Metallica post-Doomsday. So, if there was any moment for these Arizonan thrashers to re-establish themselves, it was… well, honestly, about five years ago, and they almost did with Dreams Of Death, but today still wouldn’t have been too late to dig down deep and give us one more Flotzillan hammer to the head…
And Ugly Noise falls short.
Funded by crowd-sourcing, self-produced and picked up later by long-time label home Metal Blade, this resulting Noise is not so much ugly as it is just bland and unexciting, with a few decent metallic moments floating in a sea of rock mediocrity and bad ideas, the same sea that watered down most of their records from the 1990s to now. Mostly, Ugly Noise is more of the same post-Cuatro Flots rock-slash-mock-thrash, dashed through with some unexpected gothic tints and the occasional moment of inspiration. The title track opens the disc on a nearly Queensryche-ian note – its piano-driven chorus could’ve been lifted from one of Geoff Tate’s moodier works, and it’s an interesting approach that mirrors The Cold’s introductory moment, and like that, it’s regrettably offset by the generic groove-thrash song around it. That same pseudo-gothic melancholia is revisited in “Run And Hide,” with its electronic gait, keyboard flourishes, and bass-register counterpoint vocals. “Run” is borrowed straight from the late 1990s, and it’s likely the farthest into Ugly Noise that anyone hoping for a return-to-thrash record will go. Thereafter, Noise struggles through the snooze-worthy ballad “Rabbit’s Foot,” the acceptable “Play Your Part” (which does have a decent riff or two), the dunderheaded-but-uptempo “Rage,” and the execrable “Motherfuckery.” By the time the listener reaches the closing pair of “To Be Free” and “Machine Gun,” those tunes feel like godsends, possessing both energy and power, though neither is exactly brilliant. Neither of those tunes would be a highlight on even Dreams Of Death, and certainly not on a classic Flots record, but both stand higher and hit harder than most every second that comes before.
Vocalist Erik AK still has a distinctive and charismatic voice – as good now as in the olden and golden days, gritty and emotive, even as he no longer utilizes the upper reaches of his range. AK has long been Flotsam’s not-so-secret weapon, their finest quality, and especially so since they’ve forsaken almost any vestige of memorable riffery for the better part of twenty years. It’s AK’s Tate-tinted performance that lifts the title track above its pedestrian riffing, and it’s his snarl that helps the thrashier material succeed. But he can’t completely salvage a bad song, and much of Ugly Noise falls into that category.
In the end, I fear Flotsam is trying to recapture the wrong era – or maybe I’m listening with the wrong expectations. Those hoping for another album that would’ve fit pretty fairly where this line-up left off (which would be immediately after 1997’s High) will likely be satisfied. These highs are as high as High’s, though these lows go lower than those. (And the latter outnumber the former.) But any wayward fans thinking that the Flotsam reunion would at least equal Cuatro’s quality will be disappointed, and anyone holding out hope for another attempt at No Place For Disgrace will be despondent.
Some bands peak early.