Sum 41 – ’13 Voices’

By Rob Barbour

We all saw the photo. Deryck Whibley, frontman of arena-bothering rock club inevitabilities, Sum 41, lies on a hospital bed. His tattoos augmented by the tubes and bandages wrapped around his frail-looking frame, the latter reflecting the realities of the rock star lifestyle aspired to by the former, the low light of the Instagram upload makes him appear a literal shadow of his former self.

Years of alcohol abuse had taken their toll on the musician and with the band itself down to just two members of its classic lineup, the outlook was bleak for both. So when news broke a year later, in mid-2015, that Whibley and the band were active again and had welcomed guitarist Dave Baksh – renowned for his unashamedly OTT, 80s-metal-influenced guitar playing – back into the fold, it was hard not to root for Sum 41’s success.

That image of Whibley, apparently on death’s door, reminded many people how much affection they’d once had for the Canadians; for the pop-punk band who not-so-secretly wanted to be Judas Priest. And it’s with that same optimism that anyone who enjoyed the band’s first few records – up to and including ‘Chuck’, on which their sound’s evolution from Green Day copyists to something resembling a singular identity was complete – will likely approach ’13 Voices’.

Explicitly influenced by the events leading up to its creation, the album’s sense of melodrama and lyrical obsession with death and destruction is unsurprising. But it’s no reinvention; despite opener ‘A Murder of Crows’ hinting at a newer and mid-tempo Sum 41, it’s soon back to business as usual, with ‘Goddamn I’m Dead Again’ and ‘Fake Your Own Death’ marrying Baksh’s blistering guitar work with Whibley’s undeniable ear for a catchy, fast-paced pop-punk banger.

Then something strange happens: ’Breaking the Chain’. Ostensibly the closest thing to a power-ballad we’re ever likely to get from Sum 41, it’s a bog-standard, 4/10 ‘anthem’ with a genuinely surprising (and fantastic) guitar break halfway through. For a minute or so, the song then transforms into an invigorating riff-punk track that evokes early-00s underachievers Rufio. We’re just getting excited when the song’s plodding, FM-rock chorus returns, along with its turgid synth-strings.

And that’s the fundamental problem with ’13 Voices’. Whibley is a great songwriter, but his experiences have understandably pushed him down an introspective path and imbued him with a desire to write ‘proper’ (read: boring) songs. The truly exciting moments on the album – and there are plenty: the aforementioned guitar break, the balls-out solo on ‘There Will Be Blood’, the chorus of the title track – come courtesy either of terrific guitar riffs, or Whibley being willing to embrace the snotty punk rock influences of his earlier material.

’13 Voices’ is a confused album. Its moments of stand-out brilliance are shrouded in what feels like a forced attempt to ‘grow up’ but as anyone who’s followed Sum 41 since their early days knows, they’re at their best when they gleefully embrace their bratty, guitar-swaddled, ‘fuck you’ origins. And there’s just enough of that on display here to make its overall absence all the more frustrating.

ROB BARBOUR

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