It’s been an interesting year or so for the Southern California metal quartet Of Mice and Men. After founding member and lead vocalist Austin Carlisle exited in December 2016 due to health problems, many thought the band would slowly fall apart without their frontman. But instead, remaining members Valentino Arteaga, Phil Manansala, Alan Ashby and Aaron Pauley have knuckled down and come back stronger than ever, with a fifth album that’s easily up there with their best work.

Possibly the most obvious path for the group would have been to establish a new direction, now that Pauley has stepped up to deliver both clean and heated vocals. However, the band have stuck to their roots and tailored Defy specifically to their live performance. Pauley states ‘the crowd was in our mind from day one’ of recording, and it shows – every song has an aggressive energy and a soaring quality guaranteed to move fans into the mosh pit.

Defy in style kicks off with the title track, with a stop-start riff that signals the group are bringing heavy grooves back to the forefront of their sound. I can’t help but chant along to the chorus, as is the case through much of the album – ‘Unbreakable’ and ‘Vertigo’ in particular have fantastic uplifting hooks. ‘Instincts’ continues the heaviness of the opener, with a lengthy solo showcasing Manansala’s guitar skill. The most radio-friendly single is ‘Back To Me’, that spotlights Pauley’s crisp cleans over subdued verses and yet another soaring chorus.

‘Sunflower’ has an intriguing dark sound that builds throughout its runtime without becoming too cluttered, leading nicely into lead single ‘Unbreakable’. This was a song that really set the tone for Of Mice and Men’s confident future, melding Pauley’s familiar cleans with his fantastic screamed vocals and a crushing breakdown to prove him more than capable of taking up the reins laid down by Carlisle. The aforementioned ‘Vertigo’ has a very memorable riff and some of the best lyrics present, dissecting feelings of losing control in an honest manner.

Without warning, the band throw in an unusual curveball, by covering Pink Floyd’s hit ‘Money’. While I’m sure many purists and mega-fans of the rock legends will turn their noses up, you can hear how much fun the band is having in putting together their version, and the distorted guitars playing the famous 7/4 time signature and blues progressions sound damn groovy. It’s a welcome change of pace, especially when followed by ‘How Will You Live’ – while by no means a bad track, the combination of headbanging riffs and uplifting chorus is nothing the band hasn’t already done on Defy.

‘On The Inside’ provides more depth, utilising an atmospheric lead and ethereal synths to liven up the chugs and growls. It’s a trend which lots of modern metal bands have been following, but it’s done particularly well here – the breakdown alone is mesmerising. Arteaga’s drums are a highlight on the verses – in fact, his performance throughout the album is excellent, organising the chaos into punchy packages. ‘Warzone’ brings the heavy front and centre – the band specifically wrote it for ‘circle pits and crowd surfers’ and the beefy, aggressive instrumentals will certainly do the trick. It’s fantastically raw until a clean section which I found oddly jarring – despite the band usually striking a nice balance between light and dark, it feels forced.

Defy proves that Of Mice and Men are as unbreakable and as determined as they claim

Closing the album are ‘Forever YDG’N’ and ‘If We Were Ghosts’. The former calls back to the band’s history both lyrically and musically, and it’s sure to become a fan favourite. The latter brings the full-throttle pace down with a mellow acoustic number, dedicated to the late Chester Bennington. It’s Pauley’s best vocal performance and features his best lyrics, an incredibly touching and melancholy ending about the pain of missed goodbyes.

Defy proves that Of Mice and Men are as unbreakable and as determined as they claim on their fifth album – instead of imploding after losing their frontman, the group seems rejuvenated and their songs seem to brim with energy and passion. It’s not a deeply complex album, but it’s not designed to be. As an album tailored to the band’s fans and their live performance, this set of headbangers is a real triumph.

Of Mice and Men tour the UK 21-27 April.

 

 

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