With its explosive, infectious roar, "Wake Up" alerts Story of the Year's fanatical, global following that the epic, uplifting The Black Swan is upon us. An artistic triumph in every sense, the beloved, million-selling band's third studio album is unequivocally its finest, building on the strength of past accomplishments while celebrating a newfound allegiance with Epitaph.
"Making this record felt like starting over," says Dan Marsala, frontman for the St. Louis-reared quintet. "We're like a brand new band. You can hear it in these songs, we're excited again. I think we've really stepped it up on this record."
If Story of the Year's career achievements - from 2003's smash debut Page Avenue to headlining massive festivals such as the Van's Warped Tour and Taste of Chaos, to world tours with the likes of My Chemical Romance, Linkin Park and The Used - have been abundant, they've also been the result of the esteemed modern rock outfit's tireless work ethic and willingness to push boundaries musically. Approaching the follow-up to 2005's In the Wake of Determination with a burst of creative freedom, Story of the Year - which also counts guitarists Ryan Phillips and Philip Sneed, bassist Adam Russell and drummer Josh Wills - elevates The Black Swan with these same key convictions.
Leaps and bounds beyond the standards of what an alt-rock anthem can be in 2008, the remarkably powerful, hopeful and deeply personal "Tell Me" is undeniable. "It opens with a fucking gnarly, classic riff that hits you right between the eyes," Ryan enthuses.
"It's about our band," Dan acknowledges. "Before we signed to Epitaph, things were up in the air for us. We knew we didn't want to be on a major label anymore. We were like, 'What does this mean? Is our band done?' We really had to work through it and it was a weird time for us. But it's also been a really positive experience. Like, 'we're going to get through this together and nothing can stop us!'"
Thematically based around the concept of impactful, unpredictable events, The Black Swan hits home with Story of the Year in that it relates to a massively successful rock band breaking free of confines and restrictions to thrive on its own terms. "Epitaph seemed like the perfect place for us at this time in our career," Ryan explains. "It's a much more creative environment." To which Dan adds, "We could tell that Brett [Gurewitz, Epitaph's founder] loved the songs."
Despite a back catalog that counts a half dozen radio staples (like 2003's "Until The Day I Die" to 2006's "Take Me Back") and a wall full of gold and platinum awards for record sales in North America, Japan and Australia, Story of the Year's loyal fans are its principal concern. And the legions that discovered the group via Page Avenue will be pleased to learn the group re-teamed with producer John Feldmann for a handful of tracks on The Black Swan.
Among them is the aforementioned, explosive "Wake Up," a collaboration between Phillips, Marsala and Russell, which took lyrical inspiration from Carl Sagan's book Pale Blue Dot. Written from a global perspective, Dan says of the track, "When you think about just how small the earth really is and just how small the human race really is, our existence is almost insignificant in the greater scheme of things. You think of how the wars and all of the fighting and killing are just so unnecessary. It's pointless, and we should all be living our lives to the fullest."
Elsewhere, the band's first bona fide ballad, "Terrified," upholds the same line of thinking, with an emotional and uplifting delivery. "It's an amazing story about a man who goes off to war leaving a pregnant wife," says Ryan. "It narrates from both sides; their fears, emotions, and the fact that she doesn't even know if he's still alive. It's a hard hitting song that needed to be personal and epic instead of heavy."
"A lot of this record explores social and ethical issues that we feel strongly about," explains Marsala. As is the case with the melodic charge of "We're Not Gonna Make It" which explores the struggle for an interracial couple to find acceptance and support from their parents and beyond in an overwhelmingly prejudiced America.
Equally poignant is the thought-provoking "Message To The World," which sends a global memorandum via the refrain, "When you kill me do it slowly." "People have this weird blind nationalism," says Dan. "Like, 'we're from America! And America is good. And we've gotta support America. And nobody else matters, because we're better than everybody.' And it's pretty obvious that having that kind of outlook will only result in things ending badly."
Additionally, Story of the Year teams with it-producer Elvis Baskette (Chevelle, Escape The Fate) on The Black Swan. "Elvis is a little more organic," Dan laughs. "He wants the guitars loud!" Be it "Welcome To Our New War," a stand out track that takes the group's shredding mastery to new heights, or the powerful riffs that propel "Apathy Is A Deathwish" - a track Phillips says, "Makes me want to smash stuff and drink a car-bomb shot" - the results are simply stellar.
Ferocious and thought-provoking, The Black Swan finds Story of the Year in the rare position of being one of the biggest bands in the world, while being left to its own devices to evolve and flourish creatively.
"I hope people really read into the lyrics and respect the fact that we don't sing about lollipops and gummi-bears," Ryan explains. "Musically, we've grown so much. We have some very unique, timeless, face melting guitar riffs and solos that have come to define our sound, without compromising the idea of a classic song."