In Sonic Doom, we delve exclusively into the back catalogue of critically-reviled acts in a bid to discover the odd unstained gem. Conor Donohoe dons all black and a variety of different haircuts as he sits down for his most gruelling examination yet: Papa Roach.
After tackling both Nickelback and Limp Bizkit over the past couple of weeks, and feeling a touch musically weary as a result, it was suggested to me that Papa Roach would be good subject matter for this feature [Editor’s note: I’m really, really sorry].
I’ll admit, I was cautiously optimistic – I had little to no knowledge of the curiously-named Jacoby Shaddix and company, other than the pre-pubescent anger anthem ‘Last Resort’, and was tentatively looking forward to sinking my teeth into their eight-strong catalogue of studio releases. Yet, it quickly became apparent that this was going to be the most brutal Sonic Doom experience thus far.
Really, it’s astonishing how difficult this was. Papa Roach aren’t exactly explicitly, laughably awful, but I’ve never come across a discography that feels like it is just delivering repeated, metronomic blows to your head with a blunt object – until now. Most of their music is uncannily similar and over the eight albums there is only the tiniest sense of any progression in the band’s sound. I’ll try to give a rundown of the albums in chronological order in the usual manner, but at some point in this exercise I think I may have had a resultant temporary loss of cognitive function, so bear with me if this is a little sketchy.
I wasn’t expecting much from 1997’s full length debut Old Friends From Young Years, but it’s actually an interesting listen. It stands out from the pack more than any of the subsequent albums, but this is mainly due to the self-produced quality, and also because this smacks of a band who don’t really have a clue what they’re doing yet. It’s a melting pot of genres, vocal and guitar styles. However, having said that, and despite an often painfully raw vocal performance from Shaddix, it’s actually a decent study of early nu metal with some surprisingly engaging instrumentation and riffing at points (albeit never for any extended period of time). There’s also, dare I say, a hint of promise here.
Alas, this ember of potential didn’t really spark into much for 2000’s Infest. Sure, it kicks things off decently with the title track and the synonymous ‘Last Resort’, and it’s definitely not the worst nu metal album ever released, but for some reason it just left me feeling cold. ‘Dead Cell’, ‘Between Angels and Insects’ and ‘Blood Brothers’ deserve honourable mentions, but there’s nothing here to really focus your attention. That said, there’s definitely more character here and definition from one song to the next than on some of their later offerings.
The follow up, 2002’s lovehatetragedy, really appears to kick things into gear, at least with its opener. ‘M-80 (Explosive Energy Movement)’ is easily the best thing they’ve ever recorded, and what it does right only serves to highlight everything wrong with Papa Roach before and after it – it has a frantic, infectious, genuine energy that they haven’t even attempted to replicate since, the guitar line grabs you by the scruff of the neck with surprising ferocity instead of being just a passenger, while the vocals accentuate the urgency of the whole piece. Unfortunately, the rest of the album is a mere footnote in comparison to this one song. It should be noted though that Shaddix has all but abandoned the rapping ever-present on the first two albums, and his attempts at melodic vocals are much more convincing here than they were on Infest.
From here on in though, it really only gets worse, and it becomes more and more difficult to tell the albums apart. It’s evident that there are flirtations with ‘pop’ on 2004’s Getting Away with Murder and 2006’s The Paramour Sessions that would remain a focus from this point forward, and while there’s nothing wrong with that in principle, it’s to the music’s detriment here. Jerry Horton’s guitar work has never been the main selling point of Papa Roach, but from 2004 onwards it seems to settle into an all too mundane comfort zone. Anything that could be considered even mildly interesting fretwork all too often reverts to basic, rhythm-less power chord accompaniment. It’s no surprise that any attempt to deviate from this formula grabs your interest instantly. For example, ‘Roses on My Grave’ (The Paramour Sessions) makes a decent fist at orchestral accompaniment, but even then, Shaddix’s increasingly familiar sounding and altogether too safe vocal melodies sully the experience.
They spent 2009’s Metamorphosis pretending that the emo scene still existed (and also doing their best Nickelback/Buckcherry impression, thematically-speaking, on ‘I Almost Told You That I Loved You’), and it wasn’t until 2012’s The Connection that there was any hint of forward progress as a band. There’s a noticeable synth presence here, and while it isn’t exactly to the forefront, its simple inclusion as another texture beefs up what would otherwise be the same songs that Papa Roach has been writing for nearly a decade at this stage. Still, it rarely saves any of the songs from the seemingly irresistible temptation to fit themselves back into that same formula at some point, and usually all it takes is a chorus for any interest to be instantly flattened, such as ‘Silence Is The Enemy’ and ‘Before I Die’. 2015’s FEAR does nothing unique to turn heads, either, sounding like a slightly overproduced version of The Connection.
So, is there anything positive to take from this whole ordeal? Sadly, not really, apart from a handful of songs that manage to keep their head above water instead of drowning like the rest of them. Singles ‘She Loves Me Not’ and ‘Getting Away With Murder’ are commendable efforts, for example, but it’s not because they sound any different to any of the other dozens of songs that coasted by – it’s just that they’re the least forgettable.
And for a band who has released eight studio albums, “forgettable” really shouldn’t be a suitable adjective to describe them, but it’s the most fitting one I can think of. It doesn’t help, either, that there’s been very little effort made to diversify their style over the years. Sure, the first three albums aren’t very comparable to the most recent five, but from Getting Away with Murder onwards I genuinely found it extremely difficult to tell the albums apart. If it wasn’t for the conscious, physical act of switching between albums, it would have been nigh-on impossible to figure out where one finished and the next one began. It feels like they write every song to a specific template, with energy or urgency frustratingly absent. After a while, it can feel a bit like trudging through mud, and you’re begging for an injection of pace into the music that very rarely comes.
In all honesty, I would rather loathe Papa Roach, because at least they would have evoked some kind of passionate emotion from me with their music. Instead, all I can muster is a yawning sense of apathy. And that’s probably the most damning indictment of them all.
[Ed note: Again, sorry]