It’s almost impressive to see Set It Off insist on releasing new music, and a few years ago, that definitely wouldn’t be the case. As of-their-time as both Cinematics and Duality are (the latter especially being brought down thanks to early-to-mid-2010s pop-rock tropes that haven’t particularly aged well), both still pack in rock-solid hooks that few in the genre have managed to best since, and with a noticeable dramatic flair and keen knowledge of pop blending rather than outright assimilation, they’re both more than worthy of returning to nowadays. But then Upside Down happened, and any dreams of Set It Off becoming the household names of pop-rock they could’ve been were dashed by a flaccid, colourless release that, instead of building on what they had, diverted straight to outright pop for by far their weakest effort to date. What’s more, this wasn’t a bump in the road either; looking back on the years that followed, Upside Down did a serious number on their overall popularity as a band, and while their fanbase remains ample enough, so many have gotten off now with zero impetus to look back. That’s why Midnight needs to be a case of reputation repair in the greatest sense imaginable, not only paving over a period that proved more damaging and detrimental than any other, but offering enough to convince those with a waning interest that getting back onboard is a worthwhile move to make.
And actually, it does feel as though Midnight does that for the most part. Instead of going down winding, fruitless avenues to try and force a sound that undoubtedly failed to work, Set It Off have isolated what worked from Upside Down and bolstered it with the sturdier pop-rock foundations that their best material is built on. It’s still unquestionably a pop pivot, but it’s far more successful, and crafting it in a way that feels natural to them. Sure, more blatant fan service isn’t out of the realms of possibility either (the same thing was in fact the biggest criticism when Bullet For My Valentine tried it on Venom), but when it works, it works, and if it takes an abject failure for Set It Off to realise they can still look back to their roots and pull it off, the overall quality speaks for itself in the end.
That quality primarily stems down to sonic space that Set It Off occupy this time around, embracing robust pop maximalism over the flaky trend-hopping that made their last effort so flimsy, and the shade darker but no less malleable pop-rock of their earlier albums that serves as a far more workable alternative. Pop still takes up most of the frame though, but with pretty much every touchstone being exponentially stronger this time around (the hints of Justin Timberlake’s Mirrors in Lonely Dance and Sigrid’s Strangers in Go To Bed Angry really do pay serious dividends when done right), it makes for a tighter, more focused listen on the whole. There’s enough of an edge to the cracking strut of Hourglass or the spiky funk-pop groove of Different Songs to immediately make them feel a lot stronger, while the razor-sharp goth-pop-rock of Killer In The Mirror and Criminal Minds is probably the band’s most faithful throwback to their early days yet, crystallised even further by Cody Carson bringing some of the sneer and sass-driven sourness back into his delivery. On the other side of the coin though, fifteen tracks practically begs for some natural sag, and the album really does run out of steam towards the end with drained cuts like I Want You (Gone) and the now-customary-but-no-more-enjoyable piano-ballad Unopened Windows that couldn’t feel more distinctly out of ideas if it tried. On the whole though, Midnight feels like the product of a band actually putting in the effort to make another of the taut, slightly more biting pop albums they’ve historically done pretty well at, and picking up a lot of the slack that so heavily characterised their last release.
As for the writing, it’s not like Set It Off have ever been profound wordsmiths, and that hasn’t really improved here either. There are definitely moments that can come across as a bit too dicey or mean-spirited for no adequate reason like For You Forever and No Disrespect, but that’s been a feature that’s dogged pretty much every Set It Off album to date, and looking past it, Midnight is fine for what it’s trying to do. The relationship focus is pretty prominent once again but does throw up the odd sweet number like Go To Bed Angry that pairs Carson with Wayfarers’ Katie Cecil, but a tighter, often chillier aesthetic makes room for material with a bit more teeth or mature exploration. An album like this is never going to be overflowing with transgressions – its talons are still sunk deeply into the mainstream pop-rock landscape that, more often than not, stays away from that sort of thing by default – but looking at the callousness of modern life on Killer In The Mirror and the effect it can have on mental health on Lonely Dance put in some decent legwork, as does Different Songs, a call for togetherness amongst great turbulence that’s still able to masquerade itself as an innocuous pop-rock floorfiller with ease. Again, it’s pretty basic stuff in the grand scheme of things, but comparing it once again to Upside Down and the even shallower lyrical focus it had, to see Set It Off looking to pave over their bigger mistakes shows a band looking to improve, and largely getting there.
That’s not to say that this is the vertical shot in trajectory that’ll put Set It Off directly on the pop-rock throne either, because that couldn’t be further from the truth; overcompensation is still an issue, and given the unnecessary length and the filler that brings, they clearly aren’t averse to it. But Midnight is a good album all the same, buoyed by a knowledge of how to improve and applying it when necessary for a much better listen overall. Even more so, it feels like a band back on the right path after a particularly rough patch, and hopefully doing enough to give them the leverage to succeed once again. They’ve done a good job at sorting themselves out, and it would be nice to the necessary rewards come their way.
For fans of: The Cab, The Summer Set, Marianas Trench
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Midnight’ by Set It Off is released on 1st February on Fearless Records.