South Carolina's Stretch Arm Strong have become one of the posi-core community's most recognizable faces, delivering their uplifting hardcore message to the masses since forming in '94. The quintet have returned once more with "Engage", an album which is rather surprising, as vocalist Chris Mclane has focused more intently than ever before on melodious singing and is assisted by some of the group's close friends in the indie scene.
"Engage" boasts a wealth of guest appearances (including members of Thursday, Reach The Sky, Kid Dynamite, 9 Lives and Brother's Keeper to name but a few), which is an uncommon novelty for the hardcore genre. However, despite the inclusion of these guest vocalists, Stretch Arm Strong never waiver from their evangelistic sermon of equality and unity; Though the band seem even more feral in their desire to encourage the youth of the benefits of remaining positive this time around, an element that carries this album from beginning to end. This should come as no surprise to long-time listeners, as the band's posi-core dedication has always been an integral keystone to the formula, as are the traditional aspects of their rousing group sing-a-longs and Jeremy Jeffers' frenetic bass dominance. What does come as a bit of a shock to one's system is the group's sudden affinity for pop/punk, as this album has it's fair share of upbeat head-bobbing numbers ("Miles Apart", "Black Clouds"). The style seems to fit moderately well, and in all fairness they are worlds more entertaining than the all too generic broken heart odes that adorn rock radio, yet this is territory Stretch Arm Strong aren't overly renowned for and these occurrences tend to disrupt the album's overall flow. The album also ends on a rather flat note, as the band have merely tacked on their cover of N.W.A.'s "Express Yourself", a mildly humorous reinterpretation that unfortunately sounds like a slightly more punk Hot Action Cop. Having already been released as part of the "Too Legit For the Pit" compilation, this addition makes for an awkward and unnecessary conclusion to an album that never quite feels 100%.
To hear the group attempting to expand on what has, up until this point, been a rather fitting hardcore/punk formula is intriguing, as one would imagine that the band have settled into their niche quite comfortably after almost a decade together. Mclane has always had the ability to sing when necessary (and did so quite often in fact on "Rituals Of Life" ) yet never has he attempted to cover this much range, though he does so favorably, all things considered. The only real issue is that this sudden desire for change has arisen from seemingly out of nowhere, especially the group's forays into pop/punk. As such, whether or not it was to appeal to a broader audience will likely be cause for much discussion for the scene politicians so quick to declare sell-out. Regardless of its inspirations, "Engage" does feel more like an off-the-cuff collection of studio pairings and rarities than it does a full-fledged album, making this the group's most fun-loving & accessible offering to date, but unfortunately also their weakest.
(2.5 / 5)