It’s frankly amazing that Tonight Alive have lasted as long as they have. They’ve been dogged by some not entirely objectionable Paramore comparisons since inception, and even if their first two albums managed to largely circumvent the negative effects of said comparisons, that shadow still loomed over. And then in 2016, Limitless happened, an attempt for the Aussies to forge their own path through light, atmospheric synthpop that, to avoid mincing words, wholeheartedly flopped in every conceivable manner, refusing to sit with a vast majority of their fans when it could actually be remembered at all. It means that Underworld has Tonight Alive going into a new album further on the back foot than ever before, not just from the residual backlash of Limitless, but also with the departure of longstanding guitarist Whakaio Taahi, and the repressed, festering emotions of vocalist Jenna McDougall that fuel a lot of this album.
And yet, if you’re counting on Underworld to be the album that catapults Tonight Alive back from the darkness and into a satisfying mainstream rock lane, you’re going to be disappointed as this is a profoundly underdeveloped listen, the sort of album with big ideas and a bigger execution in mind, but ultimately squanders that with how flat and uninteresting it all is. For all the polish and unashamed love of micromanaged pop tones that modern pop-rock has adopted in recent times, there’s at least flair there; on Underworld, even that seems to be too much to ask of Tonight Alive, and what’s left is a collection of tracks replete with all the necessary sheen and gloss, but lacking so much of the exuberance and firepower that could potentially see it cross into passable territory, rather than just meandering a few rungs below.
But maybe that’s the point. Given that Underworld is an album exploring McDougall’s own mental anguish, maybe mirroring that in darker, colourless tones and a more world-weary delivery could do something to tie each individual piece together. And credit where it’s due, McDougall as a vocalist is easily the standout factor of this album. Her alternations between glassy distance and anxious jolts on Temple are easy to like, while on Just For Now and the piano ballad Looking For Heaven, there’s an impressive emotional range that feels borderline effortless to convey. All the power necessary for an album like this is accounted for, crystalline with a certain degree of delicacy, but strong and broad enough for McDougall to hold her own against a disappointingly anonymous Lynn Gunn on Disappear and a bizarre appearance from Corey Taylor on closer My Underworld, whose well-honed ear for melody makes for some wonderful interplay between the two.
That’s all well and good, but it’s only one element of Underworld that makes significant headway in establishing what Tonight Alive want to say, and placed alongside everything else, it’s what predominantly ends up doing the heavy lifting. That’s because, for all the neuroses that Tonight Alive clearly want to put to the fore with this album, there’s such a feeling of restraint and artificiality that’s a major crutch. There’s an obvious direction that’s being looked at, whether that’s a broad picture of some kind of despair on Temple and In My Dreams, a call to power through back into the light on Burning On and Waiting For The End, or a couple of incredibly saccharine love songs with For You and Last Light, but between a well-worn furrow that’s already stripped of whatever little fertility is left and a lack of detail that verges uncomfortably close to a critical blow, it’s difficult to say that any of this works at all. In a way, it’s vaguely reminiscent of Linkin Park’s One More Light in how it feels more like a simulation of real depth than ultimately conveying it itself, but where the events following that album has only increased its poignancy, Tonight Alive have nothing of the sort that’s even remotely beneficial.
And when the intended atmosphere is one of inner darkness and conflict, having a mix that’s so cold and undercooked only highlights how little impact will be had. At the very least the guitars that Limitless was so starved of are back, but it’s hardly worth celebrating considering they’ve now been fashioned into big, Thirty Seconds To Mars-esque blocks on the likes of The Other and Crack My Heart with no texture or grit, just crashing down into a low end that’s nowhere near as heavy or muscular as was clearly intended. Factor in a production job whose pristineness is far more intrusive that is reasonably should be (the AutoTune drizzled all over Book Of Love hardly makes for an enticing opener) and a remaining fascination with synthetic bursts that only widens the distance from any real emotional resonance, and the result is an album that’s far more sterile and robotic than it should be, particularly for an album that wants to instill itself with such grandeur and depth, and particularly for a band who can do so much better.
It’s not secret that Tonight Alive can do better either; just go back to their first two albums for some perfectly fine examples of that. But overall, Underworld feels like a band who are well aware that they’ve mismanaged themselves and are scrambling to put together something that might put them back on track, but just feels like an exercise in treading water. This is far from the return to glory that Tonight Alive really needed, and while it’s not necessarily pushing them further down, you’d be hard pushed to say this is really aiding them either. Perhaps next time they’ll be able to finally recognise where their core skills lie, provided, of course, they’re actually given a next time.
For fans of: Thirty Seconds To Mars, All Time Low, PVRIS
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Underworld’ by Tonight Alive is released on 12th January on Hopeless Records.