If you listen to SiriusXM’s Octane, you have undoubtedly heard Nothing More’s “This Is The Time (Ballast).” The song has been sitting atop the Big ‘Uns Countdown for the past two weeks, and before emerging onto the countdown, Nothing More was featured as an Octane Accelerator band (designed to help break new artists). To call Nothing More a “new artist” is a bit misleading, given that the band has actually been together since 2003. However, the self-titled album that just came out this week is the band’s first label release after a long and arduous journey that began in the suburbs of San Antonio, TX in middle school.
Getting to this point in their career would not have happened if the band didn’t have the fortitude to buck conventional wisdom and ignore the admonitions of those close to them to stay in school when they reached college-age. According to frontman extraordinaire, Jonny Hawkins, “staying in school would have been ‘settling,’ and having a ‘plan B’ was a recipe for failure, so we decided to ignore everyone’s advice and totally dedicate ourselves to being in this band.”
People tend to throw around terms like “dedication” and “commitment” so loosely nowadays, that the words often times ring hollow. However, the members of Nothing More literally have the scars to prove that their words are not just lip service. When the band first started, they branded themselves on the arm after each tour as a reminder of their commitment to each other. They would need this commitment to persevere through less-than-ideal conditions.
Their first “tour bus” was fashioned from a dilapidated, raccoon-infested RV, and they made their own stage rigs to use during their dynamic live shows, taking the DIY concept to an entirely new level. Hawkins credits Nothing More’s early struggles for the band’s evolved spiritual and philosophical outlook…“it made us a lot more open to other ideas and gave us a deeper faith in our own instincts. I think that reflects in our music.”
With self-awareness, wisdom and a philosophical mindset that goes well beyond their years, Nothing More has channeled their early struggles into a musical and lyrical masterpiece with their debut label release.
If the term “thinking man’s metal” (which has been associated with the likes of bands like Rush, Queensryche and Dream Theater) enjoys a renaissance in modern times, it isn’t hard to imagine Nothing More being at the forefront of the movement.
The band’s debut album certainly has its “metal moments,” but what makes them rise above the din is a unique style which is an amalgam of a variety of genres that doesn’t adhere to any preconceived notions of what hard rock should be, and thus, they cannot be pigeon-holed into a neat, marketable package. Yet, it is easy to see how this complex collection of songs will have as much appeal to the masses as it does to audiophiles and fellow accomplished musicians.
The album begins with the familiar refrain from “This Is The Time (Ballast)”…
When did we become these sinking stones?
When did we build this broken home?
Holding each other like ransom notes
Dropping our hearts to grip our brother’s throat
The moody, psychedelic opening lines are actually from the first track, “Ocean Floor.” It isn’t until the refrain repeats with Hawkins’ impassioned delivery that “This Is The Time (Ballast)” actually begins, though there is no separation between the two. The song about being enlightened enough to know that change happens from within has generated a nice buzz for the band, but it is merely the tip of the iceberg of a musical journey that takes you on a roller coaster ride of emotions, and makes you think deeply about the world that we live in today.
It doesn’t take long for Nothing More to turn conventional wisdom on its head by questioning those who speak in absolutes about what is right and wrong in the eyes of structured religions. “Christ Copyright” may anger those who believe that there is no room for gray areas in religion, but it will give food for thought to those who believe that questions serve a greater purpose than unquantifiable “absolute truths.” With influences that range from the electronic style of The Prodigy to the soaring vocals and progressive sound of Coheed and Cambria, “Christ Copyright” shows that Nothing More is not confined by other peoples’ boundaries, musical or otherwise.
Back when MTV was relevant to rock artists, few (if any) bands would ever speak out against the channel and what it represented. “Mr. MTV” is a theatrical song that features Hawkins’ incredible vocals and a powerful, enlightened message that is often times lost on the “me generation”…happiness comes from within, not from buying material things to “keep up with the Joneses.” This song offers the first glimpse that Nothing More is ready to carry the anti-establishment torch that was held by Queensryche for so many years before the original members parted ways.
Life is filled with good days and bad days, but the bad days always seem to come in waves. “First Punch” is about surrounding yourself with positive people to help you weather the inevitable storms that come your way in life. As the saying goes…“life is not about waiting for storms to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.” The message is complemented by an infectiously melodic chorus that leaves you feeling uplifted.
The subdued, textured “Gyre” provides a beautiful, acoustic interlude beneath the calming voice of Alan Watts, allowing you to catch your breath before the intensity of “The Matthew Effect” kicks back into high gear. Once again, Nothing More seamlessly blends a variety of influences and musical styles to create something unique. Mark Vollelunga’s guitar versatility shines through as he vacillates between mood-setting airy notes and dirty, crunchy chords that hit you like a punch to the gut.
“I’ll Be OK” is emotive, passionate, melancholic and energizing all at once. Hawkins’ vocal range is on display as he effortlessly transitions from a smooth, lower register to soaring high notes and back, just as Geoff Tate did in Queensryche’s halcyon Rage For Order days.
One of the most straight-forward songs on the album, “Here’s To The Heartache” would make an ideal follow-up single to “This Is The Time (Ballast).” Beautiful vocal harmonies, an infectious melody and nuanced layers give the song depth while being easily accessible to the listener.
Many people spend their lives bemoaning the mistakes that they’ve made and wishing for a “do-over,” instead of treating the mistakes as teachable moments. “If I Were” once again shows a maturity beyond Nothing More’s years as they embrace past mistakes as a valuable part of life. This powerful, melodic anthem would also make a good future single.
Paul O’Brien was the one drummer that met the incredibly high standards set by Hawkins (Nothing More’s original drummer). Even though he turned over the drumming duties to O’Brien, Hawkins still uses technology to create drum parts while writing. On “Friendly Fire,” Hawkins created drum parts that no human could replicate, but rather than relying upon machines to produce the sound, the band embraced the imperfection of the human element, resulting in one of the most intense songs on the album.
“Sex & Lies” features an eclectic mix of genres and influences that most bands would never think to combine. The band shows off their prog rock chops with an incredibly tight song that fuses Daniel Oliver’s heavy groove bass (reminiscent of “Higher Ground” by Red Hot Chili Peppers) with the unique vocal structure of Queen’s “Bicycle Race,” and the overall sound of classic Queensryche mixed with Coheed and Cambria.
Just when you think that Nothing More couldn’t possibly get any tighter, they take it to another level with “Jenny,” a song about a drug addict’s downward spiral to rock bottom. A layered guitar sound (a la Stanley Jordan) provides the backdrop for Hawkins to deliver the emotional opening verse that sets up Jenny’s story. Textured electronics increase as the intensity starts to build before the song reaches a climactic crescendo of anger and frustration with crushing guitars and Geddy Lee-esque bass lines. The driving rhythm fuels Hawkins’ heartfelt vocals, which are nothing short of brilliant. Lyrically and musically, “Jenny” is like a kick in the teeth, yet you can’t help but feel a rush of adrenaline as you crank it up to maximum volume.
The intensity is dialed back a bit at the outset of “God Went North,” a song about the loss of a mother. Anyone who has suffered a similar loss will feel the pain all over again, but also take solace in the fact that others can empathize with their plight. If ever there was a song that encapsulated every stage of grief, “God Went North” is it. From the melancholic opening to the tortured pinnacle moment in the middle to the calming chant at the end, the song runs the gamut of emotions felt by anyone who has sustained a painful loss. The abrupt end to the chanting is symbolic of the abrupt ending that comes with life’s final breath.
The musical journey that is Nothing More’s self-titled, debut album ends with “Pyre,” a 10-minute, electronic soundscape featuring the voiceover of Alan Watts sharing his philosophies. It is not necessary to buy into Watts’ philosophies to appreciate his contribution to the album, which is both painfully real and cathartic at the same time. His influence on Nothing More contributed as much to the brilliance of the record as the musical influences that permeate each song.
Is there another band out there that would end an epic debut album the way that Nothing More did? Is there another label like Eleven Seven Music that would give a “new” artist the creative freedom to do so on their debut album? The answer to both of these questions is…probably not.
Albums like Nothing More’s self-titled debut are few and far between. It may sound hyperbolic, but with the passage of time, it will likely be considered one of the greatest hard rock debut albums in the history of the genre.