Without a shadow of a doubt, 2013’s ‘Fortress’ was (and is) an astonishing album. A monstrous, metallic yet melodic blast, at the time of release we described it as “… hard rock at its best – memorable, melodic, searing, beautiful and exhilarating – it is everything you could want from a hard rock album and one that demands a place in your collection” (read the full review here). That opinion has hardly changed and ‘Fortress’ remains a go-to album for that stadium-sized hard rock fix that seems to be harder to find year on year. It’s taken three long years for a follow up. In that time, guitarist Mark Tremonti has dazzled us with ‘Cauterize’ and ‘dust’, both phenomenal hard rock albums which demonstrated not only Mark’s unquestioned abilities on the guitar, but also his impressive vocal range. Myles Kennedy, meanwhile, has hardly been less busy, recording and touring ‘World on fire’ with Slash. The question, then, is whether ‘the Last Hero’ could possibly live up to the sense of expectation heaped upon it by its predecessor and the illustrious side-projects of its authors.
A thirteen track album, ‘The last Hero’ is a lengthy, heavy, beast of an album. Produced by Michael ‘Elvis’ Baskette, it sounds a million dollars, but the mastering, which favours a constant loudness over dynamic range, rapidly becomes tiring and you long for greater distinction between the tracks. Unsurprisingly, the songs themselves are executed flawlessly, and there’s no questioning the power of Myles Kennedy who remains one of the great voices in contemporary music, but there is an argument that ‘The last hero’ lacks the concise power of ‘Fortress’. The album opener, ‘show me a leader’, is a case in point. Opening with a simple grungy riff only to head off into Queen territory with layer-upon-layer of guitar underpinning a truly epic solo, it’s a convoluted, albeit attention-grabbing introduction. Typically, another riff is waiting in the wings drawing us into more familiar Alter Bridge territory and this bombastic, over-the-top hard performance stands as a firm reminder that there are few bands today that operate on the scale of Alter Bridge. With barely a pause for breath, ‘the writing on the wall’ leaps from the speakers with plenty of vigour. Slipping into minor key harmonies reminiscent of Alice in Chains and dealing with lyrical themes that perfectly tally with the side-show that the American Election has descended into, there’s no question that the track neatly develops on the themes and styles explored on ‘fortress’. A slower, darker track, ‘The other side’ is built around an edgy, stuttering riff that would not sound out of place amidst the heavier end of Soundgarden’s back catalogue, although the band still can’t quite resist building to an inevitably huge chorus. Nonetheless, ‘the other side’ has attitude and power in spades and is an early highlight of the album. A brighter, breezier track ‘My champion’ offers the same sort of melodic hard rock that the Foo Fighters have dealt in so richly over the years. Unfortunately, the sequencing fails it and it ends up sounding weak when compared to the monstrous track that preceded it. In contrast, ‘poison in your veins’ is the crushing melodic blast needed to maintain the pace and it does not disappoint as the band throw everything but the proverbial into the mix sending the blood pumping around the body in consequence. With an intro comprising backwards guitar, ‘cradle to the grave’ suggests a subtler track is in the offing, only for the band to come crashing in shortly thereafter. Nonetheless, once you’ve made it past the surging riff, there is an attractive, heavy pop song in evidence which draws the first half of the album to a close with a chorus that has sing-a-long written all over it.
The second half of the album arrives with the elastic riff of ‘Losing patience’, a track that deals neatly in the sort of metallic pop-prog that Dream Theater do so well before those Queen comparisons once more come to the fore with the sumptuous ‘the side of fate’. Full of pomp and delivered like the last anthem on earth™, ‘the side of fate’ is a super-charged ballad that gleefully explodes into the sort of blistering guitar work-out that Brian May so enjoys. The album’s quietest moment, ‘you will be remembered’, is an emotionally-charged ballad only for ‘crows on a wire’ to emerge with unexpected force, benefitting from the contrast offered by that which preceded it. Another breezy track that hints at a love of The Who, ‘twilight’ once again sees the production threaten to overcome Mark’s riffing, to the point that it is a relief when ‘island of fools’ proves to be one of the album’s most straight-forward rockers. The album draws to a close with the epic hard rock of ‘the last hero’, a track that feels like it should play over the closing credits of a Hollywood Blockbuster with its crunchy riff and heroic imagery. A hopeful conclusion that demands unity in the face of division (once again referencing the turmoil into which the American, and indeed the global, political system has fallen into), ‘the last hero’ offers some truly jaw-dropping riffing and rounds the album out nicely.
In many ways ‘the last hero’ is the equal of its illustrious forebear – it offers gargantuan hooks, crushing riffs and memorable melodies and yet it falls short of that epic outing. Where ‘Fortress’ genuinely surprised with the dark, heavy musical landscape it explored, the evolution here is less pronounced and the musical surprises fewer in number. That’s not to say ‘the last hero’ is not a very good album – it has a number of genuinely stirring moments, not least the blistering ‘the other side’ – but where ‘Fortress’ was tautly edited, ‘The last hero’ is over-long and, when coupled with the immense production values and relentless pace, it makes for a more tiring listen. Overall, ‘the last hero’ is a fine album in its own right and an impressive successor to ‘Fortress’, but it is not the best album to bear the Alter Bridge name. There’s much here to enjoy here, and it’s easy to imagine these songs truly coming to life in the live environment, but all too often the Kitchen Sink production threatens to swamp the songs with the result that ‘The last hero’ often feels longer than its actual 66-minute run time. 7