Employed To Serve – Force Fed
To many, Employed To Serve are the face of the UK’s hardcore boom that, in recent years, has seen an enormously diverse and exciting cast of bands rise to prominence in a way that previously would’ve seemed ridiculous to even consider. And yet, they’ve managed to do it, combining the forces of independent voices that actually care about vibrant new music and a brand of hardcore that’s as vicious and uncompromising as it is riveting. And somewhat predictably for this band, Force Fed only continues down that line, once again placing Justine Jones’ face-ripping screams against a hardcore backdrop that manages to display just how tight it can be while sounding utterly enormous and packing one hell of a punch at the same time. It’s all rather par for the course for Employed To Serve, that much can’t be denied, but when the anger is so palpable and the delivery practically foams at the mouth to get it out there, it’s hard to argue with this being modern hardcore at its absolute finest, ready to rampage like the true force of nature that it is. With this as the first taster, that new album can’t come soon enough.
Vampire Weekend – Harmony Hall / 2021
When indie bands of Vampire Weekend’s scale make their return, the way that so many sit up and take notice is always a sight to behold, though not entirely unjustified, especially in this case. The pretentiousness and art school chic has always been a factor, but Vampire Weekend have frequently been more colourful and experimental than a lot of their indie-pop peers, and it’s led to some genuinely great music over the last few years. That doesn’t seem to be the case here though, as both Harmony Hall and 2021 make it difficult to see where they’re actually going, both being understated, fairly unassuming tracks that don’t have a lot to offer besides the usual sunny navel-gazing, but this time, the artiness has resurfaced in an even less likable way. Harmony Hall can at least be forgiven as a chipper indie-pop track that slides into jangle-pop reasonably well (even if a lack of real instrumental structure can feel like something of a killing blow), but the awkward electro-pop of 2021, truncated to barely feel like a fragment of a song, feels so out of this band’s wheelhouse, and throws incredibly worrying glances towards the worst decisions that The 1975 have made lately. Right now, there’s just as little idea of what Vampire Weekend are scheming as before these tracks were even released, and while that’s probably what the band intended, it’s a move that just ends up with exasperated frustration, both at the band and the sub-par nature of these tracks.
Foals – Exits
With each subsequent album, Foals have made greater and greater steps towards becoming modern prog juggernauts and leaving their early identity as math-pop nerds behind, and it’s largely worked out well for them. What Went Down was arguably their most successful album to date, and with the sort of groundswell reserved for the biggest of alternative acts spurring the decision to release two albums this year, it looks to be another instance of a band who don’t come around often, but make some serious waves when they do. And with Exits, it certainly conforms to the framework that Foals have set out for themselves in the modern day, with the hypnotic, rolling instrumentation that features hints of glassier math-rock textures, but remains primarily rooted in a muscular alt-rock core. That’s one thing they can definitely be commended for, as the throbbing, swelling soundscape of this track feels particularly gripping, especially with Yannis Philippakis’ inimitable vocals and off-kilter lyricism to give the whole thing a tilted uncertainty that really works in its favour. It might run a bit long considering what it has to offer, but it’s about as emphatically defiant as a comeback single can be, something that Foals have rarely stumbled on in the past, and with this, it’s a track record that hasn’t been broken yet.
Florence + The Machine – Moderation / Haunted House
High As Hope certainly wasn’t Florence + The Machine’s best album, but to see the magnitude of some of the distaste towards it was genuinely surprising. Typically, Florence + The Machine have never inspired a typically extreme reaction in either direction, and thus these two new tracks feel like damage control in a sense, looking to hit back at those who thought that last album was two slow or monotonous with a pair of tracks that show the stomping, more outwardly theatrical and performative aspects of Florence Welch come through again, both with Moderation’s bracing stomp and rock ‘n’ roll pianos and Haunted House’s glassy, dreamy miasma that’s definitely returned to the depths of the Kate Bush well. The former is definitely the stronger in its sneer and twisting darkness, but both do show a side of Welch that’s always good to see, especially when it’s been toned down so much on recent material. Whether this will mean a quick follow-up to capitalise on a pair of stronger cuts remains to be seen, but even if this is it, it’s a good showcase of some once-dormant skills regardless.
American Football ft. Hayley Williams – Uncomfortably Numb
Somewhat predictably, a lot of the discussion when American Football announced their third self-titled album was the presence of Paramore’s Hayley Williams in a relatively rare guest spot. It was enough to ramp up the anticipation for this album considerably (at least outside of the emo circles where American Football are already revered), and with Comfortably Numb having dropped, it’s more or less what was expected, with the obvious Pink Floyd reference acting as the lynchpin line for Mike Kinsella’s older, more subdued vocals to play off Williams in a similar mould. It’s frankly quite impressive how much chemistry they both have, with each contribution blending into the next in a way that’s actually rather unique, and feels like a suitably mature take on the introspection that both American Football and Paramore have become known for. Coupled with the delicate, light-dappled instrumentation that’s sanded off some of the more austere math-rock edges, this mightn’t be big on thrills by any means, but it’s overflowing with poise and heart, something that’ll always keep American Football afloat regardless of the situation.
The Xcerts – You Mean Everything
It’s not secret that Hold On To Your Heart was a true highlight not only in The Xcerts catalogue, but of 2018 as a whole, and to see them following on so quickly with a brand new EP is definitely a good sign; the more music out there from this band, the better, and if You Mean Everything is an indication of what’s to come, it’s going to be another special release. The palpable vulnerability in Murray Macleod’s vocals returns with its quivers and lilts intact as another stellar pop-rock ballad comes from the polish with all the heart and sweeping, bracing size of only the best ‘80s pop, especially when the gentle guitars intertwine with the glittering keys for something truly wonderful. Like all of The Xcerts material, simplicity is key to success, and You Mean Everything plays to the most straightforward power-ballad formula but absolutely runs away with it. Again, right now, The Xcerts have the biggest platform of their careers, and songs like this are precisely the reason why that should remain exactly as it is.
Simple Creatures – Drug
Given how well All Time Low’s collaboration with Mark Hoppus on Tidal Waves went down (not to mention the fact that they’ve often been billed as a younger version of blink-182), it’s hardly surprising to see Hoppus and Alex Gaskarth collaborating again, though forming a brand new band out of it did admittedly come out of left field. Unfortunately the sound is also exactly as expected given the pair’s most recent individual efforts, namely over-polished, underwritten alt-pop with very little to live up to the legacies of both men involved. The slapped percussion feels especially cheap, but paired with a guitar line whose main contribution is to screech across the mix, and instrumentally it’s not impressive at all. That leaves Hoppus and Gaskarth to cram everything else into place, and it’s so obvious that they’re both on autopilot here, cruising along predictable pop-rock love song territory (the title alone should be a good indication of the central metaphor, and therefore how narrowly the net is cast out) in a way that feels so incredibly beneath their abilities. As a first impression, it’s half-baked to be kind about it, and ultimately feels like a project thrown together out of the realisation that both names attached to it will sell as much as possible. Apparently there’s an EP coming soon, but there’s not much hope for anything different.
Brutus – War
To see the magnitude of the sea change of rock in full force, one only has to look at Brutus, the Belgian trio peddling off-kilter, wildly experimental music that, just a few years ago, would’ve been consigned to the deepest corners of the underground without a second thought, and yet is currently thriving today. Part of it AFI’s definitely due to the newfound acceptance of different genres and how they can be blended together, but Brutus’ talent as a band speaks for itself, and new track War hits all the right marks for this band to really shine. For one, the scope that’s always been such an enormous benefit for them remains untouched, transitioning effortlessly from careening atmosphere to harsh, heavy black metal in a way that feels so natural, as Stefanie Mannaerts’ vocals cut through in a manner that’s decidedly unrefined, but fits perfectly within the rest of the heavy, heady mix. It’s a track best suited to being allowed to soak in a greater atmosphere, but even on its own, Brutus are continuing down a path that’s distinctly their own, and it seems to be just as good as the first time around.
Lizzy Farrall – Barbados
It’s surprising that more people haven’t paid attention to Lizzy Farrall at this point. Across pretty much all of her material she’s displayed an adroit command of pop hookcraft paired with pop-rock instrumentation that’s not hugely innovative, but leads to music that’s catchy and accessible enough to move some serious numbers. Barbados feels like an even greater step in that direction too, taking cues from sleek ‘80s synthpop (the main synth line on the verses runs somewhere in between Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone and Paul Engemenn’s Push It To The Limit) and having them augment a deceptively simple but irresistibly catchy pop track. One of Farrall’s key strengths is restraint, and she’s able to maintain that enough to preserve the wiriness of the groove and underselling the personality and depth within the writing, a balance that’s overall hard to maintain but is done so rather well. On the other hand, it can lack of bit too much points – particularly the rather sparse verses – but this is another incredibly solid track from a talent who should be making waves much more readily than she currently is.
Novacub – I Still Need It
Novaclub might be relatively unknown now, but they already boast some impressive credentials amongst their ranks. Vocalist Louise Bartle has served as a session drummer for the likes of Eliza Doolittle and Selena Gomez while bassist Iona Thomas has toured as a harpist and backing vocalist for Neneh Cherry and Laura Mvula, and with Bloc Party guitarist Russell Lissack in tow, they’ve got a good foundation. The same can be said of the music as well, with I Still Need It being the sort of ludicrously tight, catchy and energetic indie-pop track that can really set a band alight if all goes well. Bartle has a solid voice with a good level of power, but what really makes the most of her abilities is how well the frenetic percussion and dappled synths mesh together with it. It’s not exactly propulsive in a traditional sense, but Novacub can layer their sound excellently, and I Still Need It has a lot of interesting moments that feel like the product of a band with a lot to offer. It’s still some rather meagre evidence at this stage, but going forward, it would be unwise to not at least keep an eye on what Novacub are up to.
Crows – Chain Of Being
Crows are the newest signings to Balley Records, the label ran by Idles’ Joe Talbot, and that should really be all the information needed to glean what this band has to offer. It’s definitively in the same vein as Idles, playing with a post-punk framework but steering away from the lairy, anthemic qualities for something darker and more grinding. And really, that’s about it for Chain Of Being, and that can form a pretty limited image about a track that, in truth, is pretty limited. James Cox is hardly the most enrapturing vocalist in the world as he drones against an instrumental canvas that has a nice sense of airy atmosphere, but beyond that, struggles to lift itself out of the post-punk doldrums and into something a lot better and more inspiring. It feels like a first draft overall, where the initial ideas are being compiled but there’s still a lot of refinement to take place, and for Crows, that’s probably the next port of call if they hope to do anything substantially good.
High Rise – My Solitude, Your Hope
With the way that bands like Feed The Rhino and Our Hollow, Our Home have been enjoying decent amounts of underground success in their pairing of metalcore with a more traditionally streamlined metal sound, it’s not surprising that more bands have turned to the same thing. High Rise seem to be positioned as the latest to do something great with it, and while My Solitude, Your Hope isn’t the most definitive evidence for that, it shows a band who’ve become fairly competent and proficient at what they’re doing. Jovic Staddon has an impressive voice even if his screams could be given a bit more muscle, and there’s a good deal of instrumental heft to do the heavy lifting in a way that’s definitely not swinging for the fences, but has scope and ambition in its sights. Sure, it can feel a bit samey at points, especially when a good number of bands are doing this sound that bit better, but there’s no harm in having High Rise around, especially if they’re only going to keep growing and improving. For a new band, they’ve got an astoundingly professional sound, and that’ll serve them well further down the line.
Words by Luke Nuttall