The hardest part about reviewing The Act is the conflict between what is expected and what is perceived. In their latest release, The Devil Wears Prada bravely charts new waters, leaving behind the burden of pressure to make something conventional, trendy, “heavy,” or anything else that falls under the umbrella of expectation. Instead, what these seasoned vets have produced is an experience that can’t (shouldn’t) be dictated by comparisons to any of their past work and will never be encompassed in a simple star rating.
This time around, three years since Transit Blues was released, approaching the latest Prada album comes down to relinquishing those expectations. The new album is raw, avant-garde, and unlike anything they’ve ever done. Fans won’t be able to press play and hope to relive their Roots Above scene days.
What fans can expect, however, is the same heart and artistry that the band has always brought to the table. The band recorded most of the record live (not in concert, but in a live studio setting) after covering Julien Baker’s song, “Sour Breath,” which results in an acceptably uncomfortable dance between raw, live energy and electronic, production-heavy perfection. Combined, the mix offers a depth to the listening experience that spans beyond mere musical dynamics, and the instruments, depending on the vocal delivery to direct their velocity, are a beautiful driver. With minimalistic verse compositions in songs like “Lines of Your Hands” and “Isn’t It Strange,” Mike Hranica’s poetic vocal delivery cuts through with unique texture that, while it may not boast extraordinary aggression, is felt with close-up emotion.
Largely written by the band’s touring keyboardist, Jonathan Gering, there is no shortage of audio space on The Act. The band’s tasteful use of piano and synth from song to song highlights a reflective, cinematic element that has always had a presence in Prada’s music but never brought this close to center stage. The emotional strength in the melodies, the vivid lyrical content, and the relentless tone of the guitar throughout songs like “Chemical” and “Numb” reinforce the album’s honesty.
Prada’s experimental approach to this record is respectable and meaningful to rock music, and die-hard fans can also rest easy knowing there are still plenty of hard-hitting facets throughout The Act. The guttural screams in “The Thread,” the mean riffs in “Even Though,” and the double-headed punk rock monster of intro and chaotic breakdown in “Spiderhead” keep the thread the band and their history intact; Prada’s roots are clearly still very much alive and possibly hit harder in the context of the less-aggressive majority.
So often, bands are cornered into an idea of “redefining” themselves, when really, they are just expanding their breadth and reach into what is musically possible within a group of people. The Devil Wears Prada has been a behemoth in rock and metal, and The Act is yet another footprint on that path. Though some of the songs on the album feel a bit directionless and perhaps excessive, they are matched by tracks that boast conviction and spirit – and all of those parts are necessary to establish that first new footprint. In an effort to translate live energy from the stage onto a record, Prada took a bold step by trusting that their fans will listen with openness and intention, something to be commended.