South Carolina natives Stretch Arm Strong (yes, they are named after those rubber superhero figurines of your youth) have been touring relentlessly across the globe for the best part of a decade, to the extent that they could probably give Michael Palin a run for passport stamps. However, they have shown that punk rock is able to give a little back to the community because, when they’re not touring, two of the band members are teachers at their local high school!
Free At Last, their fifth full-length release, shows just what a mighty long way Stretch Arm Strong have come in their nine-year career because, considering this is a band who have often viewed the studio as something of a hindrance to their true passion of tearing up stages around the world, it might just be their best album yet.
For those who have heard rumours of Stretch Arm Strong “selling out” (read: finally getting the success they’ve worked their butts off for) and going “soft”, well yes there is perhaps more clean singing than screams on this record and yes, there are choruses that Good Charlotte will wish they’d written.
However, this band pretty much exhausted the pure melodic hardcore formula over their previous four albums, and so their flirtation with a more mainstream punk sound may help to kickstart some vitality back into their (musically) stagnant genre.
Opener The Hardest Part is reflective of the album’s nature, which if you are someone who demands pigeonhole references, could be said to sprint between the melodic punk and hardcore camps, pausing briefly to catch its breath in the pop sensibility tent.
Hearts On Fire takes a biting look at the price of a careless foreign policy through some of Chris McLane’s best vocals on the album, although there is a painful lack of a decent breakdown. Faces is a straight mix of Stretch’s hardcore roots – picture Comeback Kid at half speed with an injection of melody to the choruses.
Despite opening with acoustic (yes, acoustic) guitars, The Sound Of Names Dropping makes for one of the album’s heaviest numbers, which finally kicks into some hardcore grooves albeit with significantly softer vocals than long-time fans will be used to.
To The End is a bouncy three-minute ditty that rings out as Less Than Jake minus the horn section, while a seriously metallic breakdown is an unexpected but always welcome intrusion to proceedings.
When All Else Fails opens with a screeching, brutal verse that is criminally deflated by a shamefully weak bridge. However, This Time soon draws events triumphantly back into the abode of monumentally huge anthems – something Stretch appear to have developed a talent for churning out.
If this album is listened to with a narrow mind, expectant of the repetition of pummelling double bass blasts and chugging power chords, it will most certainly disappoint. However, if the more intrepid, visionary hardcore fans out there can bear to take a leap into the unknown, they may just discover the wonders of melodies, tunes and a concept entitled ‘singing’, which I have a hunch they may actually find sounds quite good.