Hell Below/Stars Above wallows in quagmire of ’90s alternative rock

Uninspired, unimaginative and hackneyed are just a sampling of words that spring to mind while listening to the Toadies’ new album, Hell Below/Stars Above (Interscope). The album simply recounts the bland and stagnant mid-’90s alternative scene the Toadies played a prominent role in.

This replay in itself is of little surprise, considering that Hell Below/Stars Above is in no way a new release. The album was recorded more than three years ago in the summer of 1998 and did not get shelved by record executives until earlier this year.

While listening to Hell Below/Stars Above, it is hard not to feel the album’s age. Although the musical landscape is not entirely different today, the tracks still manage to sound dated. The album brings the listener back to the day when alternative music was crumbling under its own weight. The moodiness of the genre was beginning to wear thin, especially without the presence of any truly dynamic bands. With the popularity of dark and gloomy guitar-driven rock beginning to fade, the Toadies went into the studio attempting to capitalize on the success of their 1994 release, Rubberneck. But, it would appear that they missed their deadline.

The album’s few bright spots include the first track, “Plane Crash,” a mildly catchy song that proves to be an auspicious start. Hopes of similar-sounding songs fade as the album slowly trudges forward. What is sorely lacking from Hell Below/Stars Above is the presence of lyrical hooks or any deviation from the formulaic use of the same three chords on every song. Without exception, the songs follow two distinct patterns, fast and driving or slower and overflowing with melancholy tones.

The subject matter of the songs also tends to be irritatingly familiar. Dark imagery and tales of sadism pervade Hell Below/Stars Above, continuing the trends found in Rubberneck. With the proliferation of other rock bands such as Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails covering such topics, one must ask, “Is there any such thing as originality in modern rock?”

Sadistic rock is no longer shocking – it is tired. Lead singer Todd Lewis makes the situation worse with loud yelps between verses that are eerily reminiscent of fingernails on a black board.

There is little doubt that Hell Below/Stars Above should be filed under “Sounds like every other mediocre alternative band”.

Hell Below/Stars Above is in stores now

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