Having been a teenager in the nineties, I think I first became disillusioned with the vagaries of fashion when nu-metal burst upon the scene. Initially heralded as metal’s unlikely saviour, nu-metal was a genre that rapidly became over-populated and before you could say ‘fickle’ the press had taken against it and any band unfortunate enough not to be Korn suddenly found themselves cast out from a mainstream that had, up until that point, been theirs and theirs alone. Coal Chamber are a particular case in point. When the first album came out, you could not move for images of the band adorning the covers of pretty much every major rock magazine. It helped that the band were ridiculously photogenic, their heavily stylised make up and clothing capturing the imagination of a generation raised on the rather more dour colours of grunge. With the video for ‘loco’ on constant rotation and floor-filling anthems like ‘sway’ removable from the brain only with the aid of industrial solvent, the band seemed set to ride high. The frothing continued for the second album, the excellent ‘chamber music’ which saw the band further develop their more gothic take on the nu metal sound. Unafraid to experiment, the band covered Peter Gabriel’s ‘shock the monkey’ (with a little help from Ozzy Osbourne) and Dez offered up his most personal lyrics yet with songs like ‘Tyler’s song’, a suitably crushing and yet affectionate track in which Dez offered advice to his young son whilst at the same time showing that metal could be both crushing and positive at the same time.
It didn’t last. Cynics might say it couldn’t last, but whichever way you look at it, Coal Chamber seemed to lose traction over night. Through no fault of their own, they found themselves out of fashion and out of time, despite delivering their heaviest album to that point with ‘dark days’. A spot on the ‘resident evil’ soundtrack did little to arrest the decline and the band split ignominiously, seemingly another casualty to the rock rollercoaster. With Dez off fronting the mighty Devildriver, it seemed that Coal Chamber had run its course (and interviews given by various members of the band certainly didn’t help matters) only for the band to suddenly and unexpectedly reform in 2011. The response was rabid and with the harsh spotlight of the nu-metal trend no longer shining upon its former poster-children, the band found themselves able to play to their fans without having to meet the expectations of an uncaring mainstream.
So what to make of ‘Rivals’, Coal Chamber’s first album in an astonishing thirteen years (thirteen?? Man, I’m old!). Well, first up, the band still sound like Coal Chamber, but the years in between have added a certain depth and experience to the band’s sound where previously there was day-glo innocence and wonder at the industry they found themselves in. Dez’s unique vocal sound is still present and intact, but it’s refined and more brutal than in the early days whilst the music is absolutely crushing. As much as I love ‘chamber music’ (and it is an album I still dip into from time to time) there is a feeling, the second that ‘I.O.U nothing’ detonates, that this is the sound that Coal Chamber were destined to make. Heavier, with a searing focus that sees each and every track hit home with startling precision, by the time that you’ve come to terms with how fired up the band sound, you’re already onto ‘bad blood between us’. A dark, groovy track, ‘bad blood…’ sees the band dealing out mid-paced riffs that recall the dance-floor filling stomp of those early cuts ‘sway’ and ‘loco’ but far from feeling nostalgic, the track feels fresh and forward facing, and you can’t escape the notion that Coal Chamber are exactly the sort of band that is needed in rock and metal clubs to get the place really heaving. ‘Light in the shadows’ opens with low slung bass action before shifting gear into the patented Coal Chamber ghoul metal that we all know and love, only for the band to shift the formula on us, introducing light and shade dynamics into the guitar work where in the past there would only have been one of those evil, coiled riffs grinding away in the depths, It’s a further sign that the years of inactivity have seen Miguel Rascon, Mike Cox and Nadja Peulen refining their skills with the result that Coal Chamber are the tightest and most effective they’ve ever been. Opening with a distorted battle cry and featuring the enormous talent that is Al Jourgensen, ‘Suffer in silence’ is an album highlight that sees Coal Chamber at their most effectively aggressive. Coupling a surging chorus to a stop-start verse, the band deliver exactly the sort of vicious punch that made nu-metal so effective a genre back in the early 00’s and, listening to the band gelling so perfectly with one another, it’s almost as if they’ve never been away.
‘The bridges you burn’, a song about the way people choose to cut the ties that bind with disastrous consequences, is coal chamber with a scything, hardcore edge that is as refreshing as it is unexpected and the cut glass riffs act like a dash of cold water, showcasing a side of Coal Chamber that was not previously apparent. ‘Orion’ shows that Coal Chamber have lost none of their skills when it comes to dropping creepy atmospheric tracks into the mix and the song segues nicely into ‘another nail in the coffin’, another album highlight that has a cool bouncy riff and one of Mike Cox’s best performances as he plays with an impressive fluidity, building his beats around the ever-changing riffs and Dez’s impassioned vocal performance. The title track hauls itself out of a mire of screeching feedback and harmonics only to wrong foot the listener, sketching out a dark, emotionally draining track that moves from eerie ambience to full-blooded riffs whilst Dez pours his heart and soul into the vocal performance. ‘Wait’ is a full-on Coal Chamber slammer – all grinding riffs and infectious chorus and this is the closest the album has come yet to the Coal Chamber of old – an instantly accessible beast that nimbly dances around the opposition, delivering brutally effective jabs via its wonderfully chunky riffs and simplistic chorus. ‘Dumpster dive’ is a short segue track that builds anticipation for the scything ‘over my head’ which has a taut dance rhythm destined to keep the bodies moving. ‘Fade away (karma never forgets)’ is a kick ass track that stands tall with the best cuts on the disc whilst ‘empty handed’ sees the album end on a track that could easily have found itself on the band’s debut.
Having lived with ‘Rivals’ for a week now, I cannot quite agree with Dez’s assertion that this is an album likely to attract even those who previously hated Coal Chamber. It is a darker, heaver, more mature album, but it does still sound resolutely like Coal Chamber, albeit an evolved, stronger, harder Coal Chamber. Not that this is a bad thing – the benefit of a little distance has renewed an appetite for the band that was in danger of being permanently sated by overexposure. This is, without a doubt, the best Coal Chamber have sounded, but the formula has largely been refined rather than redrawn, and this is still recognisably the band that produced ‘loco’, ‘sway’ and ‘big truck’ all those years ago. For the faithful, this is nothing short of a momentous occasion whilst for the curious (or the newcomers) this will certainly stoke the fires of fandom. Overall this is a more than welcome return to action from one of nu-metal’s hardest hitters and, should the band decide to leave it here, it is a far more fitting epitaph than the quiet dissolution that took place in 2003.