Back in 2004, Rogue Wave released its debut, Out of the Shadow, a slice of lo-fi bedroom pop with enough rough edges and naive sincerity to make it lovable and memorable. I still revisit that album with continued enjoyment. Essentially a solo project of Zach Rogue — coming in the aftermath of a personal catastrophe — Out of the Shadow was the manifesto of a man struggling to find his place in the post-dot-com bust-up. I suppose it is unfair to expect Rogue to display the same charms over and over, especially since the landscape of the band has changed (it’s now a bona fide four-piece) and it has flirted with ever growing success.
That chase of success found Rogue Wave leaving Sub Pop for the cozier confines of major-label subsidiary and pet project of surfer/musician Jack Johnson, Brushfire Records. It’s also meant that Rogue Wave has grown out of the underdog bedroom troubadour into something altogether bigger, both in sound and ambition. Asleep at Heaven’s Gate opens with “Harmonium,” which trumps the most polished moment of the band’s sophomore album, 2005’s Descended Like Vultures, tenfold. Its extended intro is a fitting introduction for Rogue Wave v2.0 at its most expansive. Pat Spurgeon’s burly drums, Rogue’s confidant vocals and the arena-rock dynamics complete the full circle the band has come since its inception. Elsewhere, “Lake Michigan” ups the catchiness and accessibility of “Publish My Love” and succeeds as an infectiously melodic indie-pop song. “Chicago x 12” is a sensitive mid-tempo number, featuring a sympathetic fractured vocal performance by Rogue.
But most of Asleep at Heaven’s Gate is forgettable, uninspired, middle-of-the-road indie pop. I realize it’s a bit hypocritical to chastising Rogue Wave for growing out of the persona that begged for commiseration, but I’m not saying the band shouldn’t develop. I’m saying that it seems fair to expect that in all that growth — and there is growth; Rogue estimates that the band used 150 different instruments on the album, and it’s evident — there should still be something definite to grasp. But this version of Rogue Wave feels hollow. The underdog could have used his new resources to redefine his artistic expression. Unfortunately, he became something entirely different instead.