EP Review: Keychain – “Breaking Out”

…OK, let me start by laying my cards down on the table from the start: I normally hate nu-metal. I’d not go so far as to say that I regard the subgenre as about as enjoyable as a full frontal lobotomy, but nu-metal in general is a genre which I have little love for even when it is at its best, let alone when you get to the depths of such godawful crap produced by the likes by bands like Crazy Town.

So, why am I reviewing a nu-metal release, you might ask? Well, just because I hate something on a genre level doesn’t mean I cannot potentially find quality in it: Fefe Dobson convinced me that modern pop can be really enjoyable, Amaranthe stopped me from writing off anything with the metalcore label as a complete waste of my time and I have VERY reluctantly acknowledged that Nas’s debut, 1994’s Illmatic, is actually a reasonably good rap record that is just not my personal prefered listening material overall. Plus, I have found some stuff connected to the nu-metal genre which I have actually liked: I love Issues’ song “Hooligans”, think Alien Ant Farm’s cover of “Smooth Criminal” is a really great cover and still have some nostalgia for Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life”. While I won’t say that Keychain sounded hugely interesting to me (and the fact that one of the bands who they were compared to were Limp Bizkit didn’t really help much in my eyes: I absolutely LOATHE Limp Bizkit!), I figured that I might as well try to give them a fair chance, since we all have to broaden our horizons sometime in our lives.

So, let’s start by answering the question everyone has been asking: who exactly ARE Keychain? Well, they’re a Canadian nu-metal band from Montreal who are on Zombie Shark Records (who, from my brief research, are a VERY new label founded by an ex-member of The Browning…don’t worry, as much as I hate The Browning, I won’t hold that fact against him!)…and that’s all I’ve really been able to nail down on their actual history. Considering the nu-metal revival that has been happening over the last few years, the limited information on the band before this year and the fact that this is the band’s debut EP, I don’t think I would be wrong in assuming that the band formed in the last few years, a fact supported by the fact that their debut single release event was held in February 2015. The band’s musicians don’t sound familiar to me from anywhere else, either, although I’m not really all that big on the nu-metal scene, so this might be completely wrong on my part.

So, after that brief bit of history, let’s get to talking about Breaking Out. I’m probably going to surprise a few people when I say this, but I actually didn’t dislike this EP. I’m not going to be joining the people who have been proclaiming them to be the next big thing in nu-metal and I highly doubt that they are capable of reviving the subgenre on their own (although I don’t think anything will actually revive the genre in the eyes of the mainstream, so that’s not really a fault with them so much as the fact that most people who are old enough to remember nu-metal the first time would rather forget it ever happened and the locking out of rock and metal on the radio means getting a lot of radio airplay of this material is unlikely at best), but I certainly couldn’t justify saying that this is something that I disliked, because I actually found it a fun listen and would actually be prepared to hear more by these guys in the future.

keychain-breaking-out-ep-cover-2016

Let’s start by nailing down the band’s sound, because nu-metal is more of an umbrella term than an actual genre in and of itself. The band’s core sound isn’t really anything all that new, as they have the usual expected fusion of hip-hop (including some rapped vocals) and alternative metal that one might expect to hear from a typical band in the genre. This is definitely not the sound of a band pushing boundaries in their genre of choice, which I’d normally consider to be a negative due to the presence of bands like Issues showing that there are ways to combine nu-metal with other genres in a way which still sounds really unique, but I’m also aware that not every band needs to be pushing boundaries and it’s the band’s first release, so I’ll only say that their sound won’t win over anyone who wants to hear something different from the genre and leave it at that.

The band’s songwriting tends to fall back on the usual cliches of the genre, but they do have a few pleasant surprises up their sleeves which I think helps them to stand out. The first one is that they actually have an instrumental track on this EP, “Journey”, which does a surprisingly good job at ending the EP on a somewhat atmospheric note that shows some definite potential in the band to add some more interesting ideas to their songwriting (helped by it actually reminding me a bit of Nevermore in terms of the sound of it, though I suspect Keychain themselves wouldn’t say that was what they were aiming for). Opening track “Primetime” is also a monster of a track that, for all my criticisms of the genre and the lack of any really new ideas in terms of what the song offers to the genre as a whole, is actually a really great song that I can’t help enjoying due to the versatile vocal performance (even the rapping is actually pretty solid on here, which is something that I am surprised to be saying, because I usually don’t like rap much!) and the pretty solid (if, admittedly, a tad repetitive) instrumentation behind it all. I could see this having been a potential hit on the radio had this song been released back in the original nu-metal scene and, even now, I suspect that it could catch on with potential radio listeners if it was given a shot. I also think that “Pay Load” has some reasonable guitarwork and a pretty solid chorus (as does “Breaking Out”, now I think on it), though it sadly joins the rest of the tracks in being just generally listenable rather than particularly great. That’s really the big problem for me: one great song and a great instrumental don’t really make up for the fact that there are four other songs on this EP which simply don’t leave much of an impression: they go in one ear and out of the other. I would certainly regard this as a step up in comparison to what usually happens whenever I try to listen to nu-metal (which usually results in rapidly changed artists), but I’m not entirely sure whether saying that I didn’t hate this EP enough to want to turn it off counts as praise (considering my usually rock bottom thought on the genre) or a huge insult (considering I’m hardly saying that I thought it was a solid record from that wording). I’ll leave you guys reading this to be the judges on that one…

The musicians in the band don’t really do anything that special in the grand scheme of things, but they get the job they have to do well enough. Guitarist Bran Panic doesn’t really do anything to help him shine here aside from in “Journey” (which is kind of the norm for nu-metal as a whole, really: it’s not a subgenre of metal which really demands a lot from guitarists), but he definitely can play his material to a reasonable standard, so I’m personally inclined to put the skills he displays down to the style of music being played over his own skills (though I certainly don’t see him playing any Dream Theater or Nevermore any time soon). Bassist Jeff Jenkins isn’t really challenged to do much on this recording, but, again, this is more of a general thing with nu-metal than anything else, so I am inclined to put his performance down to the style of music being played rather than a criticism of his performance skills. Cody Taylor (presumably no relation to Slipknot’s Corey Taylor) is probably the band member who has the most to do on this record on the instrumental level and he doesn’t do a bad job with it, though he doesn’t really reach the level of drumming skill demonstrated by extreme metal drummers.

Vocalist JP LaChapelle is a generally solid vocalist for nu-metal standards. His rapping is actually not too bad overall, with a decent flow to it and fitting what the music demands of him, his yells are respectable (nothing all that impressive if you’re used to extreme metal, but certainly reasonable enough for the standards of the band’s style of music) and his clean vocals, while falling into the usual cliche with nu-metal vocalists who can sound somewhat like emo vocalists and be dismissed as whiny as a result, are tolerable enough in their own right to not bother me that much. HIs vocal range isn’t all that impressive overall, but his ability to utilise three styles of vocal performances makes this a bit less of an issue that it might seem to be on paper. He doesn’t really stand out from the crowd, but he doesn’t do anything which I can objectively say is bad about his voice for nu-metal standards and he does the three styles well enough to say that he is a reasonable vocalist. Not Corey Taylor or Mike Patton levels of talent, but certainly reasonable enough to hold his own against other nu-metal vocalists in the scene.

The production on this EP is fairly reasonable, though there are some issues that I notice with it. The album’s mix is mostly fine (could have done with a bit more bass, but it’s not too big an issue with me), but the sound of the guitar feels like it has had a huge amount of distortion used to try to cover up the limited skills utilised on them, which doesn’t really work as well as it should do because you can recognise that the notes haven’t changed much if you’re listening carefully. The mastering is a bit on the louder side of things, which I guess is somewhat authentic to what the original nu-metal bands sounded like, but that was because they were on large labels which didn’t focus so much on respectable mastering practices, while Keychain are a pretty small band on a small label, which doesn’t really make the loud mastering work so well. I’ll be fair and say that there are FAR worse mastering jobs out there, but this did strike me as an issue which didn’t need to have happened. Beyond that, though, I think the overall sound of the EP is reasonable enough for what the band are aiming for and it’s hard to say that it isn’t at least serviceable for the band’s needs.

Ultimately, Breaking Out is a decent bit of nu-metal that, while not going to convert the unconverted, gets the job done well enough to remind those who like nu-metal of why they liked it in the first place. It’s not a release that I can personally see myself listening to a lot, but I will admit that Keychain have piqued my interest enough that I’d like to see where they go from here, which is a surprisingly promising sign when you consider my personal dislike of this style of music. Nu-metal fans should give this a shot while those not convinced by the genre would be best advised not to bother, because there’s nothing here that you haven’t heard before now from nu-metal in general.

Breaking Out was originally released on the 1st of September by Zombie Shark Records.