I was heartbroken when Lacey Sturm announced her departure from Flyleaf late last year. I believe it was late in 2005 when I heard the band via the American station 103.3 The Edge (I was working twelve-hour night shifts close to lake Ontario and could listen if my car was parked in the right place). I seem to remember having to special order their first record as they hadn’t yet broken into Canada. Flyleaf changed a lot for me. First and foremost, I was a vocalist at the time and Lacey changed the way I tackled vocals. My entire technique changed overnight. She is without a doubt my favourite vocalist of all time, her powerful vocals never lacking subtlety. One minute, her gorgeous contralto would be wailing out with all the power of a police siren, the next it would be trembling beautifully, almost fluttering like butterfly wings. And the screaming, of course, is also fierce and unbelievable considering her petite frame. I have never seen a vocalist able to compromise their voice mid-note so many times and get away with it (for example, check out Third Day‘s tune “Born Again,” specifically the way she chose to sing the word ‘real’ in the line “the love that I feel is so much more real than anything.”)
Over the course of further EP’s and guest appearances, Flyleaf’s sound evolved into something much more unique than what was showcased on the first record. Finally, a second full-length record was released in 2009. The glorious Memento Mori is among my favourite albums of all time. The vocals have improved ten-fold and the music as well. One of the most fantastic things about the band itself is that vocals aside, the music is more unique than anything else in mainstream rock music. The sounds generated by the dual guitarists are unparalleled and Pat Seals’ bass-playing is as big a part of the band as even the vocals. The seemingly basic drumming keeps pace with the complex textures of the music without ever going over the top, a blessed achievement in its own right. I also got to see them live when the album was launched and it was among the best live shows I’ve ever seen. Seals and guitarist Sameer Bhattacharya are all over the friggin’ place!
So yes, I was crushed when Lacey said she was leaving. Her announcement came in October 2012, just before the release of the band’s third full-length album New Horizons. The album was thus a bittersweet ordeal. While I did find the music altogether bland compared to previous released, Lacey’s work on the record is wonderfully passionate. It certainly felt as though she knew this was it for her and that she could hold nothing back. As a result, her voice is run ragged in certain tunes and it adds to the tone of the lyrics and feelings she’s trying to convey. So many beautiful moments on that record. When Alice In Chains released their album Black Gives Way To Blue, I had a discussion with my sister, who is a huge Layne Staley fan. I remember cussing her out because I felt, and still feel, that Black Gives Way is Alice’s strongest album to date, and I really like that Layne’s replacement, William DuVall, is an exceptional vocalist and is as unique as Layne while at the same time being in no way similar. It was a very respectful and touching record and I don’t really get how any Alice fan could turn their nose up at it. Now, my sister eventually warmed up to it, but she did propose something to me at the time. She asked me if I’d still love Flyleaf if Lacey left. “Of course,” I replied, “the guys are just as big a part of the band as she is.” After all, for God’s sake I was able to accept (and even champion) all of the vocal changes done to Yes, Genesis, and Crimso over the years.
So now we come to the supposed focus of this article, the new EP Who We Are. Shortly after Lacey announced her departure, the band announced that Kristen May (formerly of Vedera) was to be Sturm’s replacement. The Who We Are EP is the band’s first release with May as lead vocalist. Seeing only scattered footage of May singing during the band’s New Horizons tour, I wasn’t very impressed but I kept my official verdict down, waiting to hear how she would sound on new studio material. I mean, had Ray Wilson been able to perform more of his own stuff with Genesis, I think his time with the band would have been far more successful.
Who We Are is our first chance to hear Kristen May performing in studio with Flyleaf. Word to the wise, however, there is but a single studio track on the album. That track, “Something Better,” is a very good track but I feel it is something closer to what Paramore was doing on their exceptional album Riot!. Much like in New Horizons, the formerly unique instrumentals have taken a backseat. Everything’s unfortunately a little flat, but it’s the type of song that doesn’t really need anything unique I suppose. Kristen manages to match Lacey’s timbre almost perfectly and I was very impressed that they’d captured at least that. Her voice is powerful and very nice, but I feel there aren’t the same challenges to form that came in Lacey’s studio efforts. Sonny Sandoval of P.O.D. offers male vocals that do add something that I feel was necessary, but are not overwhelmingly great either. In the end, I’d like to remove the comparison to Lacey from my final verdict of the song, since it’s only fair to Kristen. The music is but a very dim echo of even the limited textures of New Horizons, and is a few steps down for this band (hell it doesn’t even really stand up to my Paramore comparison, but mostly cause I love Hayley Williams). “Something Better” is a really nice tune, with a catchy chorus and sweet lyrics, but Kristen May’s vocals are about the only thing working overtime. When not compared to anyone else, Kristen’s voice is phenomenal and her spirit and tenacity, when tasked with being a replacement, are very admirable.
The other four tracks on the album are live recordings from the New Horizons tour. Overall, I find the quality of these live tracks not terribly impressive. The band’s previous live release, the simply breathtaking “How He Loves” offered up much more in terms of clarity. The band leads with “Call You Out,” which was the second single from New Horizons. I was mostly disappointed with this performance. It’s not fair to Kristen but this is one of the tracks that Lacey ran her voice ragged for on the studio recording, and when performed live with vocal preservation in mind, it just doesn’t compete. Most of the fire of the song is lost in the smoothness of Kristen’s voice and the male background vocals are atrocious.
The next track. “Fire Fire” is a lot better. This was one of my favourite tunes from New Horizons. Kristen really steps up and takes the reins. While she doesn’t have quite the same magical flutter in her voice as Lacey had, Kristen has her own which is very pretty, and there is a lot of pitchy stuff here, something Lacey didn’t really do. I should have seen one of my pet peeves for female vocalists showing its ugly head, however. At roughly 2:22 on this track you can hear it. Lacey would have strained to hit this note as a male singer would have, giving it rasp, but Kristen has opted for the typical female Fat Albert growl which I’ve never really understood. Sure, it preserves your vocals but it rarely sounds bad ass. All I hear is “Hey hey hey!”
Pardon me while I go out of sequence. I’m trying to steer this review in a certain direction and for that to work, I need to cover the last song next. To close the album, “Sorrow,” one of my favourites from the band’s first full-length record was chosen. Ah, a test. Can Kristen capture the more classic material? I do love Kristen’s performance on this track. The pitchy stuff is excellent, particularly during the “familiar breath” and “by-and-by” parts, and of course during the choruses. There are two things that annoy me, however. The first is our old friend Albert making his gaudy appearance in the second verse (“smothering me” … it’s especially distressing considering how much I like the pitchy twist given to “girl” just prior) and the second is the fact that the last line of the song is not screamed. I realise that Lacey rarely screamed that part either toward the end, but I figured, being Who We Are was the band basically saying “we’re still us, nothing has changed,” that at least one scream was going to be on the record. Nope. The record ends rather anticlimactically with absolutely no proof that Kristen can capture that particular piece of Flyleaf’s sound.
“Broken Wings,” the second last tune on Who We Are, was going to be a sensitive thing for me. This is one of my favourite Flyleaf songs. They’d done two versions of the song as Passerby early in their history, and I favour the second one which featured a slight change in melody (an uplift during the chorus). A third version was recorded to end the New Horizons album and I wasn’t nuts about it at first. At the time I didn’t feel it was done epically enough to be Lacey’s swan song and there were some questionable structure changes made. I have really come to appreciate it, however. The song really is beautiful and it’s been with the band so long. The added uplift on “a thousand broken hearts” really grabbed me and the chant on top of the song’s coda was quite neat.
So how does Kristen’s version hold up? Magnificently. Being it starts off quite gently, one can really hear the sweetness of Kristen’s tremendous voice. When the song picks up, her vocals belt out and soar over everything triumphantly. Oddly enough, my favourite part of the song comes at 1:23 when Albert returns. Here, he is used subtly as part of a powerfully gorgeous strain and highlights that feeling of the singer pouring her friggin’ guts out. To date it’s the only time I’ve heard the Fat Albert technique used effectively as a good thing. Pardon the pun, but “Broken Wings” really is an overwhelming song and Kristen’s vocals here shatter any doubt I’ve ever had about her competence. My emotions still get the better of me when I listen to the song and in the end that’s what really counts.
I wasn’t instantly impressed, but over the course of many listens, Who We Are did grow on me. While I feel there isn’t close to enough on this record to make it an essential part of a Flyleaf fan’s collection (previous EP’s such as Remember To Live and Much Like Falling are, in contrast, quite important), there are many fantastic moments to be heard on the record. I only really wish that the band gets back to their former glory instrumentally on future studio material, and that they had opted to do three new studio tracks with “Fire Fire” and “Broken Wings” as the only live tracks. Would have made a better impression on a doubt-stricken Lacey Sturm fan.
Bravo, however, to Kristen May. While I still just can’t ever see her capturing the souls of fans like me the same way Lacey did, I am always amazed at seeing someone taking on such a task. It’s a hell of a brave thing to do and, although it’s of course not ever going to be the same. I am happy she is giving it her all, and that she sounds fantastic as well.