"There's a lot of raw emotion on this record," begins Rise Against singer and guitarist Tim McIlrath as he describes the Chicago punks' highly anticipated and searing new album, "The Black Market" on Interscope Records. "It's a raw nerve," he clarifies, "it's going to be a hard thing to ignore."
These words should not be taken lightly. After 15 years, and six incendiary albums, Rise Against have become one of the most successful, challenging and revered punk rock bands on the planet. While selling four million albums globally across their last four releases -- with 2011's "Endgame" debuting at number one in Germany and Canada, and number two on the U.S. Billboard charts -- they've also always adhered to the idea of music as a vehicle for change. In doing so, they've appeared alongside superstars like Adele and Sting on Amnesty International's "Chimes Of Freedom -- The Songs Of Bob Dylan" compilation in 2012, toured with Rage Against The Machine's iconic guitarist Tom Morello, campaigned against gun violence with the Demand A Plan organization and advocated the Make It Stop campaign's attempt to raise awareness of LBGT teen suicides and bullying, working closely with "It Gets Better." It's important to keep this rich heritage of protest in mind when discussing "The Black Market."
On the one hand, "The Black Market" was forged like other Rise Against records. Tim McIlrath, bassist Joe Principe, guitarist Zach Blair and drummer Brandon Barnes recorded it between January and March, 2014, at the Blasting Room Studios, with long-time producers Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore. But something was different this time around.
"I underestimated just what a Rise Against song is, what the lyrics are and how they can sometimes take you to a dark place," explains Tim. "I used to go into songs and walk away virtually unscathed. When I was creating this record I was having a hard time walking away from it -- I was wallowing in the sadness and the angst of the songs."
The superb title track addresses this subject directly. Not only does it question the world, it also examines the burden of the person who feels compelled to ask them. "As a writer I've always felt some responsibility to not just acknowledge the sadness of the human condition but to help people find a way out," reveals Tim. "That's where the whole Black Market idea came from -- we're trafficking these emotions, we're living in them and it can be a dark place, but overall it's a way for people to get over their hurt."
This idea soon came to embody the record itself, in turn leading to the most personal record Rise Against has made. One that even took its own creators by surprise, "It never occurred to me what Tim had to do for the lyrics," explains Rise Against bassist Joe Principe on the concept. "It caught me off guard. You can sing about the problems with the world, but when you make it that personal, there's an innocence to it." And this innocence is constantly under fire throughout "The Black Market"'s 12 superb tracks.
It begins with "The Great Die-Off," an unapologetic broadside against pernicious traditions that will only pass once the generations that transmit them are gone. Elsewhere, "Awake Too Long" tackles war in unflinching terms; rich in dark detail and resolute in its appeal for accountability. On "The Eco-Terrorist In Me," meanwhile, Rise Against return to the musical intensity and lyrical rage of their explosive 2001 debut "The Unravelling."
"Post-911 America is trying to find terrorism in places where terrorism doesn't exist," explains Tim about the vilification of activism -- otherwise known as the 'Green Scare' -- that inspired it. "We have this huge anti-terrorism part of our government, but we don't have enough terrorists to justify it. So what do they do? They broaden the definition of terror to include environmentalists."
Another song sure to provoke a strong reaction is "A Beautiful Indifference," which reflects on the Occupy Movement and takes armchair critics to task on both sides of political spectrum.
"It sort of showed me that our generation has this kind of sick ritual of dismissal for any kind of activism," says Tim, confirming that Rise Against's legacy of social protest continues without any symptoms of cynicism or tempered feeling.
All the while, however, "The Black Market" focuses on the cost of self-awareness. "Rise Against has always been a political band, but also a personal band," says Tim. "We've always had songs that have a foot in both worlds. This album is a lot more introspective to me." The intensely melodic strains of "I Don't Want To Be Here Anymore" is a case in point -- riding a huge chorus and speaking of universal themes of entrapment and escape. Elsewhere, "Methadone" sees Tim examining a love affair succumbing to its own toxicity, while album closer "Bridges" articulates the dissolution of the American Middle Class through the prism of a fracturing relationship.
It's on "People Live Here," though, that the "The Black Market" concept resonates most clearly. Over an acoustic guitar and sweeping strings, Tim strikes a universal emotional chord, wandering through a world suffering from climate change, religious schisms, war and the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
"I have a kindergartener," offers Tim. "It's a very real thing to look at her and imagine her classroom being a part of that and think of some of the channels that made that possible and America's love affair with guns." Once again, the boundaries between art and life, personal and political, self and society, news and reporter grind against one another in Tim's lyrics to produce songs that educate, challenge and terrify.
"The Black Market" also marks the maturation of Rise Against's sound. The melodic breadth, the impassioned screaming, scissoring guitars, bubbling basslines and whipping drums still exist, but other moments have no reference point in their discography. It's something that Joe is particularly proud of, signalling out the Foo Fighters reach of "Sudden Life," the groove of "Zero-Visibility" and the aforementioned intensity of "Eco-Terrorist In Me."
"I think there's growth musically," say's Joe. "I'm excited that we can do that in 2014 and it not sound forced. It's important that new fans know where we come from."
It all shows how "The Black Market" respects Rise Against's roots while transcending them.
"When you hear a song from this record you won't ask, 'what record is this from?'" concludes Tim. "This isn't another Rise Against record part two. That's a victory for me. We created something different and relevant, and I'm proud."
And rightfully so, after 15 years, "The Black Market" casts Rise Against's relationship with their own music and social struggle in a stark new light. It may be a raw nerve to behold, but's it's also a magnificent one that will surely be felt across the world. It deserves to be.