It’s understandable that Frank Iero didn’t think he’d make solo albums. After rising to fame as the guitarist for 2000s emo titans My Chemical Romance, finding his own identity became a daunting task. He proved himself wrong twice. Now, Iero’s third outing finds him joining forces with a new band—The Future Violents. Along with guitarist Evan Nestor, bassist Matt Armstrong (Murder By Death),drummer Tucker Rule (Thursday) and keyboardist Kayleigh Goldsworthy. With Steve Albini behind the mixing board, Barriers exceeds expectations in just about every way. Emotive, diverse and unfiltered, it’s easily one of the best albums anyone from Iero’s wave has made since the emo heyday.
“A New Day’s Coming” inexplicably starts off Barriers with gospel and soul. Iero’s unfiltered singing isn’t exactly on-key, but his unpolished, intimate delivery reflects the song’s origin as a lullaby he’d sing to his kids. Its swaying groove and major-key progression brings to mind older Jack White numbers, setting a tone for musical exploration. It’s also a surprisingly positive start to an otherwise angst-laden album, as exemplified by the cathartic lead single “Young and Doomed.” The classic emocore structure has a profoundly despondent feel, as Iero wears his tortured heart on his sleeve. Coupled with the gritty production and mournful melodies, it’s not often something this visceral comes from Iero’s musical sphere.
Iero’s music takes some strikingly dark turns on Barriers. “Fever Dream” achieves a chilling atmosphere with gothic keyboards and dissonant guitars, setting up the frontman’s insane caterwauls to cut through the culminating motifs jagged guitar riffs. The same could be said about the conspicuously named “Police Police.” The band seamlessly combines numerous influences from post-hardcore to death rock as Iero bemoans the dire corruption within law enforcement. “Every time we condone another version of hate/ We get farther from God,” he sings.
More than a showcase for Iero, Barriers is a multifaceted collaborative effort. Goldsworthy’s piano plays a central throughout the album, whether it’s modulative support for “The Host” or taking the lead on “Ode to Destruction.” She backs up a more melodic side of Iero’s voice, punctuating ‘90s power-pop drum and guitar grooves with warm piano chords. The compelling performances contrast tastefully with his more gritty vocal delivery. On the latter cut, Iero peppers in dark humor and hopeless romanticism. While never entirely euphonic, he serves the song with genuine depth.
Over the course of 14 songs, there’s a lot of room for the band to mess up. Luckily, all of these cuts have something to offer. The dramatic power chords and singalong choruses of “Basement Eyes” might bring Iero’s MCR days to mind. It spotlights Armstrong’s chunky bass tone, along with guitar chemistry between Nestor and Iero. Where “Moto-Pop” implements blitzkrieg riffs and a call-and-response singing, classic rock organ tones and synchronized band hits keep the songwriting up to snuff. Iero himself elevates cuts like “No Love,” as his dynamic voice increases the impact of the death-rock-esque reverbed guitar chords and drumming.
Thick, heavy guitar playing carries lighthearted piano on “Great Party,” recalling Smashing Pumpkins in its harmonious power. It’s the perfect backdrop for Iero’s longing to escape toxic attractions: “My heart needs work/ It does what it wants to do/ Keeps falling in love/ When I should’ve known better.” The vulnerability on display is strong throughout, like Iero’s pained spoken delivery on “Six Feet Down Under.” His anguish about past hardships weaves into the addictive drum-and-bass groove, increasing its intensity alongside the brooding thee-count blues feel’s momentum and volume.
The Future Violents get plenty of chances to shine, but the way they embellish the slow burn arrangement “Medicine Square Garden” is admirable. The last minute careens into an absolute romp of Southern rock goodness, heavy as it is hooky. Closer “24k Lush” brings things to yet another level with brilliantly harmonized bass and guitar drives the intro. Iero’s passion and musicality reflects in this final triumphant chorus, painfully awareness of his shortcomings, yet embracing who he has become in spite of it all.
It’s easy to dismiss solo projects from the likes of Iero as either cash grabs, or attempts to recapture the success they had with their original band. In the case of Barriers, it’s better than anyone could have expected. It not only differs from MCR but displays multiple facets of his unique musicality and moving melancholia.