Album Review

Coal Chamber - Rivals

Released May 19, 2015
Dylan Sonderman
If you don’t remember Coal Chamber… well, I understand. The gothic-tinged nu-metallers were hardly getting heavy radio play during their late 1990s/early 2000s heyday. But if you do remember them, I imagine you were as surprised as I was to hear that well over 10 years after their breakup the band was returning with a comeback album.
Back in 2003, Coal Chamber didn’t just break up. The LA-based group practically self-destructed and imploded from within. From onstage fist fights between vocalist Dez Fafara (who went on to form Devildriver) and guitarist Miguel Rascon to public feuds between Fafara and ex-bassist Rayna Foss to the firing of founding drummer Mike Cox months before the final split, the notorious drama surrounding the band seemed to completely rule out the possibility of a reunion down the line.
But here we are in 2015 with a new album entitled Rivals. The record features Fafara, Rascon, and Cox (all original members) and bassist Nadja Peulen. While Peulen never played on a Coal Chamber record before this one, she served as a fill-in bassist several times while Foss was pregnant, and was a full-time member at the time of the band’s demise. Despite its own obvious differences, this resurrected line-up sounded seriously legitimate to me. As a longtime fan of the group I was excited at the possibilities. And I have to say, amazingly, I am in no way disappointed.
We all know most comeback albums suck. Or at the least, fall a little short. I was prepared for that. And I know “nu metal” is hardly “en vogue” in the metal community these days, but goddamn it I grew up in the 90s and those dark, down-tuned, angsty, groove-driven anthems and sludge fests were my musical bread and butter. #NotAshamed. But, even I can admit much of the music of that era has not aged particularly well. With all that in mind, Rivals still surpassed all my expectations.
Not only is the album incredibly faithful to the group’s original sound, but it also evolves and expands the sonic palette without losing an iota of authentic-Coal-Chamber-vibe. Fafara’s screams, bellows, and croons sound like they haven’t aged a day in the 13 years since Dark Days, the group’s last studio LP. The lyrics are bitter as ever; as cynical, sarcastic, and generally hopeless as some of my friends, family, and co-workers present themselves. I truly wonder why they don’t embrace darker-themed music like this sometimes. Too real, maybe? Ideas too close to home? I find this sort of music a great release that helps me process such emotions and deal with them in a saner manner.
Anyway, I have to tip my fucking hat to Miguel Rascon and Mike Cox. The playing is tighter, heavier, and surprisingly more technical than I would have expected, especially after the long period of inactivity. I guess those guys have kept up on their chops. The songwriting stays true to the basic, groove-riff style the band originally utilized, but the songs contain far more breaks, fills, and bridges than before, which keeps the fairly uniform and consistent record sounding a little more dynamic. “Wait”, “Another Nail in the Coffin”, and “Bad Blood” all have some pretty cool guitar leads, while “Another Nail”, “The Bridges You Burn”, and “Suffer in Silence” feature at least one badass drum-fill a piece. Nadja Peulen does a great job with her first recorded bass appearance. The bass fits in smoothly and provides excellent low-end support but rarely stands out, except during the intro of “Wait”. By the way, that song kind of sounds like early Korn with a thrashy guitar solo.
Additionally, Coal Chamber notably featured a few prominent guest musicians on some of their tunes in the past, such as Elijah Blue of Deadsy on “My Mercy” and Ozzy Osbourne on a cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey” (both from 1999’s Chamber Music, which also included Jay Gordon of Orgy on keyboards). Rivals continues with tradition with industrial music legend Al Jougensen (of Ministry and the Revolting Cocks fame) providing co-lead vocals in his signature style on the song “Suffer in Silence”. I think the guest spot is great and definitely boosts the track to standout on the album.
Now, let me at least take a step back and state the obvious: Coal Chamber isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I think I can count on no hands the amount of friends I have that would express excitement at the prospect of hearing an album I described as “spooky, grinding, cathartic alternative metal” or “atmospheric nu-hardcore goth rock” or some such. But I’m the one writing this review, and any self-respecting cook trusts their own taste to know when the soup is good. And I think this record kicks serious ass. And hey, maybe I’m not as alone in that notion as I might have thought. Rivals debuted at number 80 on the Billboard 200. Maybe that’s just a sad sign of how few people buy music anymore, but hey, one thing it does show is that apparently “nu metal” fans still have some loyalty to the bands they love.