Acceptance is a band that has become nearly as defined by their mythology as they have by their actual recorded output. As the band was preparing to release its debut album Phantoms in 2005, they seemed to be on the verge of major stardom. The band consistently managed to toe the line between pop rock and more hard-edged pop punk in a compelling way, and the soaring vocals of frontman Jason Vena helped make Phantoms one of the most memorable releases from the ‘00s pop rock scene. However, label politics, a botched album rollout, and an early leak doomed the band’s commercial chances before they even got off the ground. Within a year, frustrated at treatment by their label and plagued by creative differences, Acceptance called it quits.
While some of the band’s members continued into other musical endeavors (most notably guitarist Christian McAlhaney joining Anberlin), the group’s greater legacy became largely defined by Phantoms, and the cult following it attracted in the decade that followed. When the band reunited in 2015, questions abounded about whether any new music they put out would be able to live up to fans’ expectations. Fortunately, Colliding by Design is an album largely unconcerned with expectations of what a follow-up to a cult classic album should sound like. Rather than trying to put up a facsimile of their 2005 sound, Acceptance have synthesized a decade of musical and personal growth for the band members into a distinctly modern pop rock sound.
Returning producer Aaron Sprinkle brings his trademark pop sheen to the forefront, and this time the sonic balance shifts heavily in favor of glistening pop hooks and subtle ambiance. The album’s title track is a bouncy jam, with verses propelled by a simple yet catchy drumbeat, and an addictive guitar lick that wouldn’t feel out of place on a song by The 1975. “We Can Escape” uses well-executed synthesizers to give it a sweeping singalong atmosphere, and like many of the tracks here, it wouldn’t feel remotely out of place being performed in a stadium setting. “Fire and Rain” is one of the catchiest pop rock tracks likely to be heard this year, striking a delicate balance between intimate relatability and grandiose splendor.
However, none of this is to say that Acceptance have abandoned their roots completely. Perhaps the single most impressive aspect of Colliding by Design is that no matter how much the band pushes themselves into new sonic territory, the record still feels distinctly connected to their core identity from a decade earlier. Central to this accomplishment is the performance of Jason Vena, returning after a decade largely absent from music sounding as passionate and driven by emotion as he ever did on Phantoms. His soaring vocals give every track its emotional center, and make songs like breakup anthem “Haunted” feel distinctly intimate despite their stadium-soaring sound. Some listeners may find the album contains too many mid-tempo songs for their liking, but repeat listens reveal plenty of depth and variety across the album’s 11 tracks. There will certainly be detractors who mourn the absence of any tracks that feel straight out of 2005, but Colliding by Design was clearly not made as a nostalgia-baiting cash grab. This is the sound of a band that has struck a balance between its under-appreciated past, and a surprisingly promising future. After a decade apart, Acceptance have caught a new breath of life, one that will hopefully carry them forward for many more years to come.
Rating: 4 / 5