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A phenomenon specific to the newest generations is the concept of a "quarter-life crisis", or the culmination of high cost of living, low wages, high tuition, etc... that make it harder for the younger generation to be successful than it was in the, say, 1950's and 60's. Such a sense of despair at not having a stable career/not being in college/etc... induces a sense of panic and loss of identity, a sense of not knowing what to do with one's life and running out of time to make a decision, with the 30's rapidly approaching.
As this phenomenon started to silently make it's way into our way of life around the 80's, it's natural that as the 90's unfolded, Flotsam would ultimately suffer such a crisis with respect to their career. Like most thrashers of the 80's, the 90's had bad news written all over it, so in hindsight Flotsam and Jetsam did better with "Drift" than many of their contemporaries, like Metallica or Anthrax who were rolling in the suck around this time. Drift doesn't really suck, but it sure doesn't know what the hell it wants to be. On one hand, you have the truly great moments of the album, which seem to be the less metal moments of the album, reminding me of a more progressive and metallic Alice in Chains. They're not super great, but they're refreshing and, while undeniably 90's, songs like Missing seem to work the best, doing airy progressive rock/metal with that early 90's vibe that the Flots seems to have latched onto during this stage of the career as a way of surviving the 90's. I think of it as interpreting the heavier elements of the early 90's Seattle sound through the lens of how their earlier albums in the 80's interpreted thrash metal.
The first half of the issue is that this album can't stick to that. Other than a few moments here and there, usually scattered in this mix, a good chunk of this album seems to be really uninspired groove, as if halfheartedly reaching out to the Far Beyond Driven / Black Label Society crowd (which then makes me wonder why they're doing the light airy rock stuff right alongside it.) Songs like 12 Year Old With A Gun or the quite humorous Blindside aren't bad, but really, here's where we are seeing the first part of their identity confusion integral to the quarter life crisis, where they seem to be struggling to adapt to the changing musical environment -- for the first time since they started making music and experienced musical growth and inspiration, the musical world experienced a paradigm shift (to use a 90's phrase) and they had to adapt, much like how 20-sumthings nowadays are struggling to adapt to a changing world enough to survive. In other words, it's super phoned in groove-sounding stuff. There are good sounding riffs scattered here and there, but take away the sparkling Neil Kernon production, and it's mid tempo chugging. That it isn't downtuned is to their credit that they didn't completely whore themselves to the 90's like every thrash band seemed eager to do at the time.
The other half of the issue is that the band seems slavishly intent on returning to the past. Even the grooviest songs here have their good moments (if you ignore the sometimes banal lyrics), and this album is full of hidden gems, which are quite enjoyable once you intently give up Flotsam and Jetsam as being a thrash band...
...And then they open their album with an up tempo attempt at thrash, which they seem to half heartedly attempt later in songs like Remember and the aforementioned Blindside. I suppose they're decent enough, but really the one flaw all the attempts at thrashing Flotsam and Jetsam attempt on Drift share, is that it's unconvincing. And really, with thrash, there's nothing more damning than being unconvincing. This is because at heart, thrash is an inherently simple style of music to play. Though many thrash bands play around with progressive song structures, like Watchtower, early Meshuggah, and of course Flotsam and Jetsam themselves, that is in essence cross pollination from other styles. And that's a good thing, because if it was even 1990 and every single thrash band was still doing a simplistic hybrid of early 80's hardcore punk and speed metal, that would be boring as all hell and completely uninteresting to listen to. However, attempting to do that formula of playing demands an earnestness and credibility, and Flotsam just LACK that here in spades. 30 seconds into "Me" and there is no credibility left as a thrashing outfit, and hearing A.K.'s lyrics first off destroy and hope of salvaging that spark that lit the fires of their first two albums in 86 and 88.
In essence, wasted uptempo moments that try to be thrash. But let's get real, this isn't thrash, and unlike probably many people, I wish the band had not wasted their time trying to salvage their past. Much like how awkward it is for a 28 year old to be hanging around the old hangout spots he hung out at in high school, doing the same things, attempting to blend in with that crowd, etc... these attempts at establishing credibility as an aggressive metal act don't work at all and severely ruin the utility of "Drift", as in I hate having to keep the skip button handy, as opposed to the repeat button, which I had handy for both Doomsday For The Deceiver and No Place For Disgrace. And if this album were chock full of repeat button moments, it would totally undo those BEYOND cheesy skip moments, and the quite frankly hilarious yelp of "MOTHERFUCKER" at the end of Blindside that is in the end completely ineffective regardless of its possibly unintentional comic value.
While Drift has quite a few good moments, and a select moments of genius scattered about, those repeat button moments just don't come often enough for this still-noble attempt at adapting to times increasingly hostile to thrash and the bands that played it.
I remember first seeing the optical illusion cover image for the fifth Flotsam and Jetsam album and filed it away in the 'different but cool' cabinet. Of course, after Cuatro, I was not exactly looking forward to any output from the once great Arizonans, but inevitably my curiosity got the best of me and I wanted to see if the music itself had undergone some sort of revolutionary evolution along with the choice in artwork. I was surprised to discover that Drift was a bit more straightforward and metallic than its predecessor, and honestly a fraction superior in terms of quality. The lineup from Cuatro had remained, and they'd even reined in Neil Kernon once again to handle the production and some of the mixing. However, it's ultimately just as banal as its predecessor, and there's a good reason why so many I've spoken to struggle to even recall its very existence...
Drift opens with a tune called "Me" which is a bit of a choppy hard rocker with a few melodic tremolo mute patterns that collide into the rock configuration of the chorus, but despite the questionable use of 'what I take I take on the chin' as a vocal line, it's peppy enough to have a little fun with. Once "Empty Air" arrives with that electronic intro that bursts into the big bass lines and guitar grooves, though, you can tell that Flotsam were still pretty settled into the idea of becoming a more commercially viable heavy rock band with only traces of their former selves present in the songwriting; that they were still trying to rise to the shifting landscape of the 90s and unearth some fresh new sound that was going to rejuvenate their following. Not bloody likely when half the album consists of rock songs like "Pick a Window" or the almost Western feeling power ballad "Destructive Signs" (which feels a little like Death Angel's "A Room with a View"), but at least they prove that, in a kinder world, they may have had the chops for the passive, mainstream radio rock audience.
A couple of the songs, like the bass driven "Smoked Out" or the biting groove-fest "Blindside" manage to retain a bit of the band's original aggression, though once again we might argue that these were trying to be alt-metal or grunge and have very little to do with the power/thrash that initially fueled Doomsday for the Deceiver. Lot of bluesy little guitar fills and leads, and really there are only a few cuts here like "Remember" that possess the proper muted thrash riffs you might recall from When the Storm Comes Down. Eric A.K. sounds decent once more, but the performance here is a little less balanced or dynamic than Cuatro. He's a little more incendiary, or acidic, and in places redolent of No Place for Disgrace, though I wonder why the rest of the band couldn't also 'regress' and beat the tar out of us with the actual music.
In the end, though, despite my stylistic indifference towards a lot of the sounds that went into Drift, it's not poorly written for what it is. A number of the tracks are weak, and few of them are compelling beyond a few minutes' exposure, but I feel like it's an inch harder than Cuatro and pretty tightly structured. Just be warned that it's NOT the Flotsam and Jetsam you worshiped from 1986-1988: aside from the vocals, and a few throwback riffs, this is a polished, modern take on hard rock. The lyrics suck, the worst they had written to its day. It did not do well for the Arizonans, who would in turn not be able to renew their deal with MCA, and instead drift back over to their alma mater Metal Blade Records...hopefully to come to their senses and remember exactly what the fuck they were doing in the first place.