Flobots came to prominence in 2008 with their hit single Handlebars, which grabbed people right away with its broad backing band and politically minded lyrics. While it was certainly nice to hear a popular hip-hop single tackling issues other than bling, bitches, and the like, a lot of the attraction came with the different musical approach, which drew in the indie and underground hip-hop crowds alike. The album featuring it, Fight with Tools, received mixed reviews, and indeed had its issues, but ultimately showed a bit of promise. Survival Story, the band's third LP (counting their independently released 2001 debut Onomatopoeia), sadly lives up to very little of that promise, and suffers from the very same faults that plagued its predecessor.
On Survival Story, the Flobots incorporate a hard rock element into their sound, which really wasn't a good move. One of the strengths was their organic beats, which kept them sounding unique in spite of other shortcomings. Here, they push this component too much and it clouds the songs to the point that they sound like generic rap rock. The worse example of this is lead single White Flag Warrior, with Rise Against's Tim McIlrath. The chorus soars unnecessarily with a bombastic arena sound, only made worse by the proclamation that "we'd rather make our children martyrs than murderers," which leads to the issue of the lyrics. This was, as their musical approach, one of the things that set them aside from other hip-hop acts. Political unrest is a great source of inspiration, but just like heartbreak, social awareness, general angst and the like, if it's all you sing about, it's going to get old. Politically charged lyrics run this risk in particular, because they can get preachy if not sold properly, and here even more than on Fight with Tools they come across as pure preachy rhetoric.
Head Flobot Jamie Laurie (or Jonny 5) has received the brunt of criticisms leveled at the band, particularly for his lacking delivery (in addition to the aforementioned heavy handed lyrics), and they're far from unfounded. Laurie has a very sloppy flow, oblivious of tempo, time changes, and really the music in general. This has improved slightly since the group's last album, as there are less awkward moments with the lyrical delivery, but they are still present far too often and ruin the momentum of several songs, especially Defend Atlantis, By the Time You Get This Message..., and Whip$ and Chain$.
The songs that do work on Survival are, unsurprisingly, the ones that depend least on the hard rock facet. Airplane Mode is led largely by violinist Mackenzie Roberts with a great, half frantic, half melancholic melody that the band backs beautifully. The distorted guitars are used quite tastefully on Superhero, which avoids another factor that drags down the songs - a lot of them simply go on for too long. Not many tracks have enough ideas to keep them interesting past the four minute mark, and the ones that do usually are handled so clumsily that the presentation is a total wreck.
Basically the strongest aspect that Fight with Tools had going for it was the music, not creating beats so much as crafting songs with several intricate elements. On Survival Story, they completely cluttered the sound with needless and generic hard rock stylings, particularly the genre's lowest common denominator - basic chords, loud chanting choruses, and basically trying to sound loud and angry. Things like the rapping and lyrics, which could have used a lot more finesse, have been largely untouched, leaving the Flobots essentially making a mess of their initially promising style.