Dictionary.com defines talent show as “a theatrical show in which a series of usually amateur or aspiring singers, dancers, comedians, instrumentalists, etc., perform in the hope of gaining recognition.” Talent shows are a stable of every small town community fair, every grade school, every local bar scene. The talent show was, in many ways, the precursor to reality television, so it makes sense that so many reality shows in the past few years have been gussied-up talent shows. Somewhat famously, Trivium frontman Matt Heafy was recruited by original vocalist Brad Lewter after Heafy performed The Offspring’s “Self-Esteem” at a high school talent show in 1999. Lewter left the band soon after, leaving Heafy to the dual duties of lead guitar and vocals.
Trivium released Ember to Inferno in 2003; Heafy was barely 17. Ember to Inferno was very rough and unpolished, sounding more like a collection of demos than a real record. Ascendancy came two years later and was a marked improvement. The band had added a second guitar player and changed bass players. The result was a more full, complete sound and one of the best metalcore records of the 2000s. Everything was massively improved over the previous effort, but you could clearly see how one record led to another. 2006’s The Crusade is where things sort of went off the rails for Trivium. Rather than continue to evolve their existing sound, the band morphed into a Metallica clone. The Crusade had several excellent songs, but was plagued by inconsistency and an uneasy feeling of listening to people cosplaying with instruments in their hands. Or, in other words, just about every talent show I’ve ever been to.
Trivium quickly gave up that direction and basically decided to show off how well they could play their instruments. 2008’s Shogun was a super-bland record that had one really good song, “Down From The Sky,” and a whole bunch of the most blatant musical masturbation this side of prog rock. The most remarkable part of Shogun’s boringness was how “epic” Trivium tried to make it. This only served to bloat the experience; of the 11 songs on the record, not a one was contained to less than four minutes, with the title track leading the way at nearly 12 minutes of forgettable riffing.
In Waves, released earlier this month, brings yet another attempted stylistic change. Heafy and fellow guitar player Corey Beaulieu went around telling everyone that would listen: we’re going back to the Ascendancy sound. Things are going to be simpler. We kicked out the founding drummer because of creative issues. This is our best record yet.
And here’s the problem. No, it’s not that In Waves isn’t their best record (which it isn’t). It’s that this is a group of young men who haven’t grown out of the talent show mentality yet. That’s not a condemnation of them as people, it’s a condemnation of them as a band. Heafy’s a very nice, humble guy, but he can come off as especially eager to please. Despite all Trivium’s success and fans, every new record feels like Heafy is still the 13-year-old playing in front of his high school, trying to show off for the cool kids.
In Waves does have some bright moments. The title track is pretty weak, but the album leads off with “Capsizing The Sea,” a really good instrumental that makes “In Waves” work a lot better than it does otherwise. “Caustic Are The Ties That Bind” fits right in with anything off of Ascendancy. “Forsake Not The Dream” possibly sounds the least like a Trivium song of everything on the record. But for all the ballyhoo of cutting back to their roots, In Waves really just sounds like a stripped down Shogun.
(And it’d be really great if Trivium could start coming up with better song titles. They’re not like Fall Out Boy, whose dumb song names stemmed from Pete Wentz’s overly self-aware cleverness. But shit like “Caustic Are The Ties That Bind” are just awful titles, and they only get worse when you realize these are actual lyrics from the songs.)
In Waves isn’t really a bad record, and Trivium certainly isn’t a bad band. But you get the feeling they’re never going to write another great record until they move on from the talent show.