If you subtract arena-fillers like Green Day and Blink-182 from the equation, Rise Against likely becomes the biggest punk band in America. They’ve long since eclipsed ’90s icons like Rancid, NOFX and Bad Religion in popularity (having three consecutive Gold records will do that), and when you put their catalog up against the similarly sized Offspring, it’s an easy pick. (I mean, do you ever want to hear “Cruisin’ California (Bumpin’ In My Trunk)” again? I didn’t think so.)
However, at some point, popularity becomes a punk band’s biggest downfall. It means you can’t tinker with your sound a whole lot or risk losing the parking lots full of teenagers who saw you on Warped Tour year after year. It’s why every single Pennywise record still sounds the same, no matter who their frontman is, and why lesser punk bands like Face To Face make a huge deal about “returning to their roots” on albums that follow up more experimental (or more likely, trend-chasing) releases. Considering Rise Against is quickly coming up on their 20th anniversary as a band and already has seven full-lengths in their catalog, it’s easy to figure the band doesn’t plan on evolving much beyond their current form of writing an album with a handful of active-rock radio anthems every few years and padding it out with a lot of “whoa-oh” choruses.
Wolves, for or better or worse, fits comfortably in this formula, which makes the album feel like it could’ve been recorded a decade ago, or maybe three years from now. Sure, the band is on a new Universal Music subsidiary (Virgin, after spending a dozen years with Geffen) and used a new producer (Nick Raskulinecz, after recording five of their last six releases with the team of Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore), but Rise Against ca. 2017 isn’t all that sonically different from Rise Against ca. 2006. Pick slides? Check. Double-time verses into widescreen choruses? Yup. The occasional (but far too infrequent) thick, meaty riff? “Miracle” has you covered. The only real musical shakeup is “Bullshit,” which is Rise Against’s first and hopefully only attempt at incorporating ska upstrokes into one of their songs—the less written about it the better.
Politically, not much has changed, either: While Rise Against is one of the most outspoken popular bands (not so much leaning left as aggressively gesticulating in that direction), Wolves doesn’t feel much like a specifically anti-Trump record, which is, really, what all political punk albums should feel like for the next few years. Instead, there are vague calls to arms such as “Light all the torches/Wake up the king/The smoke you’ve ignored/Is a flame you can’t contain” (the title track), personal affirmations like the chorus of “Far From Perfect” (“We are bruised, we are broken, but we are goddamn works of art”), and a handful of love songs (“House On Fire,” “Politics Of Love”) that don’t do much at all.
However, frontman Tim McIlrath wakes up on circle pit-inducing “Welcome To The Breakdown,” which takes both the current President and the millions of people who voted him into office to task: “It’s a game/You’ve been played/It’s a flock, you’re the sheep/It’s a pied piper song/That has lulled you to sleep.” Is it too much to ask for an album full of this sort of anger? Furthermore, is it too much to expect punk bands who have built a career off of being overtly political to continue to do so? For being one of the first big punk albums in post-Trump America, Wolves doesn’t howl nearly enough and rarely shows its fangs.