Halestorm’s May 2, 2015 show at Pier Six Pavilion in Baltimore was cancelled due to the anticipated protests, and the state of emergency then still in effect in the city. I was supposed to go, but I was relieved when the show was postponed to September 26. The rioting and the presence of the National Guard was weighing too heavily on the city and my mind to see myself truly enjoying what would have been a positively energetic concert.
I have seen Halestorm live twice already, and I knew I wanted to see them again. Their on-stage energy and enthusiasm is genuine and infectious.
Halestorm occupies an interesting space in mainstream rock. They are, essentially, one of the few hard rock bands left standing in a genre that is dissipating further and further into niche sub-subgenres of folk-, blues-, and electronic-rock.
Bands like Mumford & Sons, Of Monsters and Men, Imagine Dragons, AWOLNATION, Cage the Elephant, and Fall Out Boy all fall into what we call rock music, but they also all take on other personae of subgenre: folk rock, garage rock, electronic rock, or pop punk. That is not a bad thing, of course, because we have a delightfully diverse range of music to listen to on a typical rock radio station.
“Stand on the Side of the Wild at Heart”
Halestorm, whose third album, Into the Wild Life, was released on April 14, are easy to pin down. They are hard rock. As much as I love the melding of genres, it is actually refreshing to find a band from whom you know exactly what to expect: loud vocals; big distorted guitars; driving drums and bass; and energetic live performances.
It may not seem that a typical hard rock band is remarkable, yet Halestorm is in two important ways.
#1- A band which lives in the realm of sex, booze, and independence — traditional “masculine” themes of hard rock — is lead by Lzzy Hale, a powerful female vocalist whose music is rife with those exact same themes.
The first single, “Apocalyptic”, hits two of those motifs on the head. In detailing the last stand of a physical relationship, this song exudes an angry sexuality. “Give me a red hand print right across my ass / I’m leavin’ scratches up and down your back / Throw me against the wall, bite me on my neck / Like end of the world, break-up sex.” This song exemplifies Halestorm’s intense energy and unabashedly honest lyrics.
#2- While hard rock has been a staple of mainstream rock for much of the last five decades, we seem to have found a dearth of true hard rock bands in current pop culture consciousness, making Halestorm somewhat unique in that respect.
Many of the post-grunge stalwarts of the mid-1990’s and early 2000’s are still hanging around. The Foo Fighters appeared to have unleashed their heavier side with 2011’s Wasting Light, but their most recent creative foray, Sonic Highways, has more of their familiar post-grunge styling than its immediate predecessor. Stone Temple Pilots made a brief comeback with Chester Bennington of Linkin Park leading their stadium-crashing sound (2013’s High Rise EP). Soundgarden, too, returned to the studio for 2012’s King Animal, after Audioslave disbanded.
But in terms of straight hard rock, the pickings are slim in 2015. Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators have made noise as the most recent hard rock supergroup to release a full-length album. Brit-rock upstarts Royal Blood seem to have found an edgy upgrade to hard rock and post-grunge. And Mastodon got a slice of recognition on the mainstream circuit with Aftershock, as “High Road” was nominated for the Grammy for Best Metal/Hard Rock Performance. However, metal has generally been relegated out of mainstream awareness to a niche subculture for years.
What’s interesting is that Halestorm knows that they stand out amidst the crowd of mainstream rock, and relish their now-unconventionally heavier sound. In the song “I Like It Heavy,” they invoke the names of hard rock giants Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Motorhead. Other metaphorical references occur, and then the chorus bursts in, drawing a line in the sand: “I like it louder than the boom of a big bass drum / I need it harder than the sound of guitar grunge.” Now, I don’t think Halestorm is challenging any of their musical peers (or predecessors), but it’s clear that they are proud of their outsider status as hard rockers in 2015.
“Roaring Like a Storm”
Into the Wild Life uses a hectic track order that is difficult to comprehend; some of the songs just don’t feed into each other all that well. However, the album opens with a churning anthem that sets the edged tone of the album. “Scream” kicks off with pounding drums and a melodic chant, which carries through the refrain and chorus: “You’re feeding the fire that’s taking me higher / Coming like a cannonball.”
Midway through the album, the head-banger “Mayhem” dares the world to become just a little more chaotic. These bombastic instrumentals are a mainstay of Halestorm’s music, but ultimately, their songs are carried by Lzzy Hale’s voice.
Lzzy takes off as a vocalist with the second song on the album, “I Am the Fire”. It is difficult to discern whether the power of this song comes from its self-actualizing lyrics — “Cause I am more than this / I promise to myself / Alone and no one else / My flame is rising higher” — or the sheer force of Lzzy’s voice. Lzzy Hale’s climactic vocal scaling into the final chorus is exemplary of the kind of potency, power, and range her voice carries, from ear-piercing wails to throat-shredding growls.
Interspersed with their adrenaline pumping sessions are rock ballad reprieves. Themes of love, heartbreak, and loss are common in these. “What Sober Couldn’t Say” aches with a kind of desperation, as the lyrics speak of someone finally determined to get out of a bad relationship. “The way you want me / Saying nothing / But not this time / I’m gonna say…” It’s not difficult to discern that streak of independence in Lzzy’s lyrics.
“Burning Like a Star”
Much of Halestorm’s songwriting is built on the idea of getting knocked down or pushed around; they’re outcasts, and they know it. What is important here is that their lyrics never seem to get bogged down in defeatism. The stories of life’s struggles and “f-you” declarations are the sparks which light Halestorm’s fire. And that symbolic theme is prevalent throughout this album.
The aforementioned “I Am the Fire” is an obvious example, in which the narrator (Lzzy) questions her own abilities. She then comes alive in the chorus, refusing to let anything get in her way, including herself: “And I am the one / I’ve been waiting for.” “Scream” also features such language: “Say what you want / While I shoot for the sun,” then “You’re feeding the fire that’s taking me higher.” She only feeds off of the criticism. She empowers herself.
This empowerment extends into and is enveloped by Lzzy’s personal sexuality. The song “New Modern Love” is a clear statement of Lzzy’s openness and comfort with this: “I won’t pretend that I don’t feel the way I feel / I can’t forget the taste of something that’s real.” When I first heard this song, I wondered what it actually meant about Lzzy Hale’s sexuality; apparently she’s bi.
“Sick Individual” is similarly part anti-everything and part open love, as it recalls the rebellious, outcast war cries Halestorm has become known for, like 2013’s single “Freak Like Me”. This song also teases a sexuality as yet uncovered by the listener: “Would you like to know what I’d do if I got you alone / Would I sigh, would I beg, would I plea, would I moan”. The pop-sounding “Unapologetic” also admits to this openness: “Unapologetic, turn on the lights, all of the lights / And I’ll take you as you are / We’re burning like the stars”.
“Bad Girl’s World” and “Dear Daughter” add a feminist twist to this independence, with lyrics that empower young women to find their own strength, and act as a reminder of their own support systems.
“Amen” is not as heavy as other songs on the album, but it still carries weight. The verse admits to slogging through life’s troubles — “It’s a hell of a place / To keep your heart from freezing / To keep yourself believing” — followed by the refrain declaring that they won’t run, and that “it’s gonna take more than this for me to break.”
The climax of the album, for me, actually comes in at track 10 out of 15. “The Reckoning” is a raw telling of “you ripping flesh from bone”. The first half of the chorus sounds much like a threat, warning the unnamed wrongdoer that the narrator is “the reaper outside your door,” and she’s getting what she came for.
But I think this song raises itself above petty revenge. The second half of the chorus gives the impression that the narrator is finding the strength within herself to move on and become more; self-actualization. “I said a prayer and buried your name / And up through the ashes, I rose like wildfire”.
“Like the Sound of All the Stars Crashing in the Dark”
The feminist themes in Halestorm’s music are clear, but their music is not exclusively about empowering women, although that is an obvious and valid conclusion. The entire album is about empowerment, living life for yourself, and only using the outward judgment to drive you further.
Rather than building walls of drug- and alcohol-fueled escapism around themselves, Halestorm shreds their pride and exposes their naked selves to the world, flawed and scarred. Then they build themselves back up, not in isolation, but with their audience. This public tearing down of themselves allows them to build their audience up, feeding off of their mutual energy and passion. Whatever lamenting may be done over the ostensibly lighter state of rock music, Halestorm uses their position in the mainstream to tell their own story.