Make no mistake – Rise Against’s The Sufferer And The Witness is loud. It’s also one of the most interesting punk albums ever to hit a mainstream audience. Loud and effective in its overarching passion and energy, it’s the rare album in the genre without even a single filler track. Part of a legion of bands that helped to bring politically-minded (but not always so!) hardcore punk to a wider audience, this is the album that cemented the more accessible direction they were heading in. That doesn’t mean the record isn’t fast and heavy, though – in fact, that’s far from the truth.
First things first, it’s important to note where Rise Against were at during this time. Having garnered a wide fanbase with their album Siren Song Of The Counterculture, that record was buoyed by the acoustic hit “Swing Life Away”. It would’ve been easy to build a collection of mid-tempo and acoustic tracks in a similar vein and call it a day, and realistically it probably would’ve sold hundreds of thousands of copies anyway. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. What Rise Against managed to do instead is create songs with a distinct flair and alternating tempo shifts to create something truly exciting.
“Drones” is a great example of the above. It’s one of many songs here that push McIlrath’s vocal range and abilities to the absolute limit. With a range of shouts, yells, screams, and ridiculously good melodies, he’s one of the genre’s most talented vocalists for a reason. Lyrically, there’s enough here to not fall into tired cliches. How Rise Against manage to turn a song like “Prayer Of The Refugee” (a song about refugees and forced displacement) into one with some of the catchiest hooks of their career is anyone’s guess. There’s a true sense of desperation on high-octane tracks like “Drones” and “Injection”, but these songs (and the album as a whole) carries an overarching message of hope as well.
Just about every song on Sufferer has some sort of massive hook or memorable moment that draws the listener in. Many of them demand your attention just through sheer willpower or the all-important catchiness factor. Vocalist Tim McIlrath sells everything he sings on here, with passion dripping from standout songs like “Ready To Fall” and “Survive”, the latter of which might be the album’s most interesting song. On “Worth Dying For”, McIlrath’s intelligent and direct lyrics that greater causes are worth dying for will no doubt hit home with civic-minded listeners – and possibly inspire the average person to do the same. Meanwhile, “Prayer Of The Refugee” injects huge vocal hooks and dueling guitar melodies into a song that’s ultimately about the plight of refugees and immigrants. It should be particularly noted how some of these songs segue effortlessly into others, especially the latter into “Drones”. There’s many songs here that are arguably some of the heaviest that Rise Against had released to date – album opener “Chamber The Cartridge” and the ebb and flow of “Survive” still throw out some surprises.
It really speaks to the band’s musical gifts that their talents sometimes get overlooked. Even the singles carry many interesting musical traits. “Ready To Fall”, in particular, might be the album’s biggest reason for succeeding. Carrying on the tradition of the bands who came before them in crafting catchy punk rock with a message, Rise Against tackle subjects like suicide with an emotional depth not often seen. Considering that “Ready To Fall” is among their most successful songs, it shouldn’t be a surprise how huge the chorus still sounds to this day. The great part about these songs is that no single instrument overpowers the other – in true punk rock fashion, each one has a chance to shine.
For Rise Against, it would’ve been easy to intentionally make an album that had broad commercial appeal. However, instead of doing that or focusing on Bush-era political topics that might be a bit outdated today, Rise Against expanded their songwriting abilities and tried a few ideas while they did it. Everything they were already good at and known for – sharp, heavy melodic punk rock – was refined into an album that they arguably haven’t topped since. And that’s no slight against Rise Against – it’s difficult to make an album in the genre that’s this good. Eventually becoming one of their two RIAA Platinum records, its influence can still be felt today.