HAIM – Summer Girl
It’s rather obvious to tell that the hype around HAIM is nowhere near as vigorous now as it once was. A generally underwhelming sophomore album in Something To Tell You will ultimately do that, but even for a band drawing from elements of classic girl groups and hefty amounts of Fleetwood Mac, a presence within the modern indie scene means they’ll more than likely get shifted aside when the next new hotness comes out. That’s a shame too, because HAIM’s formula is generally solid, and Summer Girl feels like a good example of that. It’s in the vein of low-key soft rock in its generally muted presentation, and with the saxophone and bassline more than a bit reminiscent of Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side, it’s a clear play towards the classic cool that HAIM can channel so effortlessly. Indeed, with Danielle Haim’s very understated vocal whisper, the laidback vibes are the overriding factor, but it’s never unpleasant regardless of how inessential pretty much everything here can feel. But then again, that’s a suitable descriptor for HAIM in general, but at least when they can channel it for strong results like on this track, there’s a lot to like.
Refused – Blood Red
This is a bit of surprise, mostly because it seemed as though Refused’s only endeavours in 2019 would be with the Cyberpunk 2077 soundtrack. But instead, they’ve got a brand new album ready for release in October, arriving four years after Freedom saw them reshape and redefine the hardcore they’d previously ushered in to runaway success on an underground level. With Blood Red though, it takes the streamlined approach that a lot of Freedom took and makes some weirder twists with it, mixing segments of garage-punk with darker, almost gothic acoustic passages in a way that’s interesting, but doesn’t necessarily coalesce into much beyond that intrigue. Dennis Lyxzén still has the barbed, elasticated voice that a role like his demands, but it’s the only constant in a track that can’t settle on what it wants to be, so smashes them together in a way that doesn’t amount to much at all. The shifts in pace do jar, and while the sonic palette has a decent amount of depth, particularly when the acoustics are brought to the fore more within a deeper mix, it lacks the presence and punch of the best Refused songs beyond the fact that this is a new Refused song in 2019. Again, it’s not terrible, but it implies a different direction again for the band’s new album, and while it’s encouraging to see experimentation continue well beyond when it really needs to, it’d be nice if it could work better than this.
Foals – Black Bull
Intrinsically, the first lot of material from Foals’ second of two albums was always going to feel less certain, almost entirely because of how these things tend to pan out. Given that the first part of Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost was pretty good, the feeling that its companion would be weaker was always hanging there; that’s what tends to happen anyway. But Black Bull definitely feels like a surprise, not just because it’s good, but also because it’s one of the most robust and straight-up rock-influenced songs that Foals have to their name. Yannis Philippakis has a snarl to him that perfectly compliments the driving guitars and thundering percussion, and while it’s not entirely new ground for Foals, it’s been a while since they’ve felt this adrenalised, moving even further from the tentative math-pop that characterised their earlier material, but in a way that feels like the next natural stage of their evolution. Coupled with the fact that it’s kept as raw and tight as possible, it’s a great track that actually sets up some high expectations for this next album, and for a project like this, that’s exceptionally rare indeed.
Yungblud – Hope For The Underrated Youth
Apparently one of the big selling points of Yungblud is the sort of socio-political bent to his music that makes him stand out within the modern scene, but considering how that’s been far more superficial on previous examples than anything else (or on a track like Parents, as laughably embarrassing as it comes), there’s really no hope that he’ll improve at this stage. Indeed, you’d think that projecting the title of this new single on the Houses Of Parliament would fill the minuscule quota for each promotional run, but Hope For The Underrated Youth is a genuine shock in that it’s a fair bit better than really anyone would’ve expected. It’s still little more than a broad call to arms for outsiders that’s been done to death time and time again, but the bigger guitar line gives a sense of anthemia that all of Yungblud’s music has lacked up to this point, and with a wider breadth of vocal toying, from quicker rapping to ragged howls that lean into the lack of refinement in his vocals that actually works, it feels like this track is shooting for more than the bare minimum for a change. The overly-slick modern pop-rock production doesn’t really help, but this is a rare example of a Yungblud song where the complaints are actually a minority, and in general, the whole thing does come together rather well. It’s certainly a surprise, but an unexpectedly pleasant one.
Wage War – Prison / Me Against Myself
Does it not feel as though Wage War are trying to erase everything about them that was once compelling? To be straight, this isn’t I Prevail levels of derivativeness, but it’s a reaching a state where that looks like a very real possibility in the near future if they continue to trend in the direction of these two new tracks. At least Prison keeps the thudding nu-metal-tinged guitar work that they established themselves with; Me Against Myself falls into sickeningly-produced butt-rock balladry that genuinely could be Wage War’s worst song, simply for the fact that it’s so at odds from the refreshingly real metalcore that was present just an album ago. But with both of these tracks, they fall into painful clichés about inner struggles and demons and all the usual prostrations that these bands devoid of creativity tend to throw out there. It’s a shame having to group Wage War among them, but the evidence here would suggest it’s more than justified.
Microwave – DIAWB / Carry
Microwave’s place within modern emo has never felt as crucial as many of their contemporaries, but at the same time, they’ve often felt like a band that it’s good to have around. They’ve never broken the mould in any way, but they do solid work regardless, and these two new tracks feel like a decent if somewhat unremarkable continuation of that. DIAWB is perhaps the most notable with its ragged, fuzzed-out rage that brings to mind various stripes of off-kilter indie-rock that’s interesting enough, while Carry ebbs back to the more melodic foundations to allow Nathan Hardy’s smaller vocals to get more airtime. Neither are particularly fantastic, mostly due to the ramshackle, scuzzy production style that’s starting to feel really overworked at this point, but they’re at least moving in a way that insinuates that Microwave have something more to offer; the fact that two songs this different from each other serve as lead singles is a good indication for some potential experimentation. Honestly, the biggest flaw of both is that neither are that memorable, and while they make a decent play for Microwave being a band that people actually take notice of, it’ll take more concrete evidence to fully make that judgement.
DragonForce – Highway To Oblivion
When a band like DragonForce announces an album called Extreme Power Metal, it can generally be implied that they’re trying to make some kind of statement about what it’s going to sound like, and how any deviations from previous formulae will be effectively nonexistent across the board. And – quelle surprise – that’s exactly what Highway To Oblivion is, another cartoonishly overblown outing from an act who appear to be more meme in modern metal than genuine band. Granted, there’s no shortage of power metal bands for whom that tag can be applied, but DragonForce wear their love for the overblown so clearly on their sleeves that it stops feeling tongue-in-cheek and begins to feel that this more sci-fi-inspired bent is something they’re actually taking seriously. Of course, with the blazing guitar work and helium vocals, it’s hard to imagine that this is all that sincere, but the work ethic is showing if nothing else, and they deserve credit for that. Otherwise, it’s a DragonForce song, and no other description can ever be more fitting than that.
Lagwagon – Bubble
Amongst the punk bands that unfailingly abide by the mantra of ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’, Lagwagon have always gone relatively unrecognised compared to the Bad Religions and NOFXes of the scene. There’s no real reason for that either, considering they’ve typically been strong in their output, and with a track like Bubble that ultimately tries to recreate a youthful, childlike energy, both in the presentation and the writing, it’s generally likable stuff. Admittedly it can be easy to lose within the torrents of stuff that sounds virtually identical to this, but with a nice sneer in Joey Cape’s vocals and a decent amount of pace kept throughout, it’s not as weighed down by the ravages of age as some of their contemporaries have been, whether that comes by accident or not. It at least feels like Lagwagon are trying to play this a bit lighter and have more fun, and it comes out enjoyably enough to the point where it’s hard to begrudge them of anything like that.
Vinnie Caruana – Better
It feels incredibly on-brand of a musician like Vinnie Caruana to release an EP called Aging Frontman, especially given how heavy on self-examination and criticism his work with both The Movielife and I Am The Avalanche has been. Of course, many would also see that title as something of a synonym for an artist losing their touch and falling into mediocrity, but Better establishes that is simply not the case in spectacular fashion. With gorgeously melodic production that gives the robust guitar work a sense of shimmering depth and Caruana’s ragged-edged voice that has a degree of confessionalism and weariness that’s arguably superior to everyone else in his field, this is much more than standard ‘frontman-turned-singer-songwriter’ fare. The content mightn’t be on the whole, but it’s presented in a way that shows the effects of that weight and how hard it comes down, and Caruana sells it perfectly. It’s a fantastic song that’s yet more proof of how great Caruana’s solo work is, and how it just keeps getting better over time.
Words by Luke Nuttall