When an artist waits 12 years to release their sophomore album, things didn’t go as planned.
Acceptance dropped a smart, slick collection of pop-rock songs called Phantoms back in 2005 — only to have its vast commercial potential squandered by some very 2005 issues. The Columbia release leaked nine months in advance, prompting the label to plug copies with anti-downloading spyware that ultimately resulted in mass recalls. Before Acceptance was ready to give move on from Phantoms, Columbia was already rejecting demos for album number two, prompting the quintet to sign off completely — until today.
Presenting Colliding By Design, the long-awaited follow-up album, streaming in full exclusively on Billboard a day ahead of its Feb. 24 release on Rise Records. Sound-wise, not much has changed. Somehow, despite a decade’s worth of new jobs, new kids, new marriages — life, essentially — the members of Acceptance picked up right where they left off in their early twenties, sculpting an album of sparkling guitars and crystalline hooks that delivers on the immune promise left in Phantoms’ wake.
“Somehow we got bigger after we broke up,” guitarist Christian McAlhaney tells Billboard. The soon-to-be-married Seattle native joined up with the like-minded, albeit far more successful modern rockers Anberlin after Acceptance ended. Leading up to their own split in 2014, a funny thing started to happen. “People would talk to me after shows: ‘Oh you play guitar in Anberlin, that’s so amazing… you were in Acceptance right? Oh my god that’s my favorite record and I never got to see you guys play!’” Almost as soon as he became a free agent, a left-field offer came in from Asbury Park, NJ’s Skate and Surf Festival — reunite Acceptance and, in essence, play to a far larger crowd than they’d seen the first time around. May 2015 brought the band’s rebirth, followed by actual touring and a one-off comeback single.
“If you’re just reuniting for reunion shows, that’s gonna lose its luster pretty quickly,” McAlhaney says. “We took money from the shows we were playing and invested it into self-funding the record; we booked [producer] Aaron Sprinkle and started writing songs… As those funds started to get low, we partnered with PledgeMusic and people pre-ordering the record helped us finish it.”
Sprinkle, essentially the Max Martin of Tooth & Nail Records’ Christian-influenced punk and hardcore scene, came in to produce just as he’d done with every Acceptance release since 2003’s Black Lines to Battlefields, augmenting their baseline rock instincts with the studio shimmer — a Rhodes here, a guitar tone there — needed to finally transcend those long-festering demos. Most of the songs are new machines, but not without spare parts from Acceptance’s long hiatus. Take “73,” McAlhaney’s favorite song on the record: “I wrote the initial riff for that song when Acceptance was demoing before we broke up… I introduced it to band during [2016’s] studio session; they vibed with it and built on it.”
The story of Acceptance, version 1.0, is far less fortuitous. After nixing an offer from Tooth & Nail to shoot for the stars with Columbia, Acceptance soon learned the major label viewed them less as Jimmy Eat World-influenced rockers (as they so aspired) and more as adult radio rainy day fare, poised to capitalize on the recent success of Hoobastank’s “The Reason.”
McAlhaney calls Phantoms’ label-picked lead single “Different” a misrepresentation: “Someone could hear it and think, this band’s just trying to sound like Coldplay!” And after Phantoms leaked nine — yes, nine — months in advance, its CD was finally released with an infamous rootkit, strapped with spyware to prevent post-purchase sharing, causing an eventual recall before it could gain any traction.
Outside the major label ecosystem, Acceptance still struggled to gain — well, you know what — within the aesthetically-obsessed mid-2000s Warped Tour crowd. “A lot of bands were harder back then and maybe we were too glossy and clean for the scene,” the guitarist says. “We played Warped Tour a handful of dates and the only reason was another band on our management had to drop off. We submitted, but we were never asked to play.” Too pop for the punks and too punk to be pop? That’s not inaccurate. Alas, Acceptance ended in 2006, with neither end of the spectrum especially anxious for a second statement.
So what sparked the shift? “That’s the million dollar question,” McAlhaney offers, understandably unsure of the coalition of forces that brought his band back to life. Colliding By Design sounds absolutely unstoppable, unhinged from the pressures of a bygone era. “We really appreciate the opportunity and hope that comes across in the songs we recorded and the shows we play. That’s really the whole point of it. Guys have jobs; this isn’t about the money. It’s about being able to be creative again and say thank you to the people that brought us back together.”