It annoys me when rock and metal fans use the word 'pop' as an insult, acerbically spitting the words through snarled lips. It's meant to be an insult, but it misses the mark, and instead of branding the music as heretical to the cause, shows that it's the 'fans' in question who deserve the harsh treatment. I often cite the adage “there's nothing better than a three minute pop song”, and for good reason; it's true. No matter what style of music you're a fan of, there's something comforting and enjoyable about hearing music that wants you to enjoy it. We, as rock and metal fans, are inundated with countless albums that stretch the boundaries of how much noise we can swallow before giving up. It actually makes it a more daring move to embrace pop tendencies, to write and play music that people who aren't miles removed from the mainstream can enjoy.
That's what Halestorm does on their second album, “The Strange Case Of...” They garnered attention for their first album, through the sexually charged single “I Get Off”, but they were a band clearly finding their way. While that album was a collection of songs that were enjoyable, they were embryonic compositions, the formative stages of a band that still had yet to grow into itself. “The Strange Case Of...” is Halestorm coming into their own, upping the ante and fulfilling the promise the best moments of their debut hinted at.
“Love Bites (So Do I)” wastes no time in declaring the band's intentions, serving up their most aggressive riffing to date, as metal a track as they have yet to record. The lyric is the kind of tongue-in-cheek, veiled euphemism they made their name on, but delivered with just enough subtlety to avoid sounding desperate. It's not far removed from “I Get Off”, but shows the growth the band has undergone in the meantime, and fares much better on repeated exposure.
“Mz. Hyde” makes reference to the literary classic, and serves as the best summation of the album. This set of songs has a split personality, and are ordered to maximize the contrast. Those initial songs, along with standout “I Miss The Misery”, and the call to arms “Freak Like Me” are blustery rock songs that bring as much drop-tuned guitar power as they do pop sensibility. The back end of the album is similar, with the defiant “You Call Me A Bitch Like It's A ad Thing”, the bluesy riff snaking through “American Boys”, and the rallying cry that is “Daughters Of Darkness”. Sandwiched between these sets are a trio of songs that move in the opposite direction, stripping away the excess and anger, instead turning to vulnerability as the propulsive force.
“Break In” is a strong, piano-led song that serves as a power ballad, without the negative connotations of sappy drama you come to expect. “Beautiful With You” is the most startling of these tracks, a softer song that features a remarkable vocal from Lzzy Hale. Her voice is clear, passionate, and massively powerful. It's her voice that makes “The Strange Case Of...” work as well as it does. Switching between tender cleans and a melodic roar, she proves herself over the course of these songs to be not only the band's best weapon, but one of the best pure vocalists in all of heavy music. She is that impressive.
But no voice can sell an album on it's own. A strong set of songs are needed, which Lzzy and a staggeringly large team of co-writers take care of. The dozen songs on the album (three more on the deluxe version) traverse different styles, but all boast sharpened pop hooks that can't help but latch on, often the first time. They're songs you'll find yourself singing along to, even if you have the hardened heart of the most stoic metal fan. By no means is this party rock, but the energy and the sense of fun these songs emanate is addictive.
“I Miss The Misery” is a pop song with revved up guitars, but that's the whole point. Rather than trying to shoehorn their big melodies into the framework of 'true' rock music, they build songs the other way around, focusing on the vocals. It's an approach that ensures every song has a strong identity, and anchors the songwriting in a way that allows the instrumentals to try various approaches, without sacrificing the band's identity. So when “Here's To Us” caps off the album with a drinking song sing-along, it doesn't sound the last bit out of place. Hearing Lzzy screaming how “the last few days have kicked my ass” is not unexpected, and damn near irresistible.
The deluxe edition of the album adds on three more worthwhile songs, including the amazing “Private Parts”, a duet with Sixx: AM frontman James Michael. Digging once again into the bag of sexual innuendo, the track could have become just another effort to follow the blueprint of their breakout hit, but it's a completely different take on the trope. A dramatic duet, the song boasts more than a bit of Michael's writing influence (he has written for Meat Loaf, after all), and may just be better than anything that made the proper album. It may be a bonus track, but it's vital.
“The Strange Case Of...” is a giant step forward for Halestorm, a fully-formed statement of who they are, and how they plan to conquer the world of rock. They do what few bands can, writing hooky pop songs that never betray the fact that they're a rock band at heart. They straddle the line between rock and pop, taking the best of both worlds, and appealing to fans of both. It's a difficult trick to pull off, but Halestorm manages to do it, and because of that they've also managed to put out one of the best albums of 2012.