For a period, it looked as though ROAM finally had everything figured out. While their debut Backbone introduced them as a bigger presence in the scene, it didn’t do anything to see them burn brighter than any of their pop-punk contemporaries, and so when Great Heights & Nosedives used the genre’s waning pull to its advantage for something more concise and away from sonic trends, it was unequivocally better. And in theory, that could still work now; in the two years between that sophomore effort and now, pop-punk hasn’t recovered to the same extent it once was, and it’s not too out of the question to see ROAM in that guise as something of a flag-bearer for the UK branch. Except, judging by Smile Wide’s singles, ROAM appear to be diverting themselves in the direction of vogue emo and grunge accompaniments to their pop-punk foundation in a way that’s yet to really exceed decent. That’s not to say they won’t succeed, but ROAM’s past struggles with settling on a sound have made approaching with caution something of a necessity.
And that’s a generally smart move, as Smile Wide really has a hard time finding its feet pretty much everywhere. As much as ROAM want to tap into darker or more dour tones to represent the oppressive real-world stifling they’re looking to buck against here, they don’t really do a lot with them on the whole. If that was it, it would still be a rather glaring flaw in such a thorough overhaul in approach, but when, on top of that, there’s little connective tissue whatsoever that’s engaging or has sufficient depth, what should be a more realistic, human album ends up falling flat and fading in record time.
To give ROAM the slightest bit of credit though, they have to ability remain anchored to solid melodies to keep everything from going totally off the rails. There’s a sharpness to tracks like I Don’t Think I Live There Anymore and Fire On The Ceiling thanks to an instrumental palate that splits the difference between ‘90s alt-rock and power-pop, and paired with Alex Costello’s delivery that’s a bit more ruffled in its puppyish spirit, they’re both decent, mid-paced pop-punk romps. And really, these songs could be stripped down to their pure rhythm and a lot of them could have workable tracks built around them, but Smile Wide’s instrumental choices don’t flatter what they’re working with as much as they should. LOUD clearly wants to be a huge arena-rock anthem with its backing chants and clattering drums, but they completely overpower the squalling guitar line that bottoms out before it even gets going and a particularly unenthused delivery from Costello. Meanwhile, Piranha goes for a deliberately lazier, more playful lilt, only for a stodgy guitar tone and jerky progression to kneecap any potential flow or momentum. In general, there’s more of an emphasis placed on deeper, louder guitars, and considering that ROAM have always yielded the most success out of their exuberance, it can leave Smile Wide feeling horrendously one-paced for strings of tracks at a time. They really only nail this sort of low-down alt-rock vibe on the closer Turn, but that’s only because it’s suitably eased back for a smoother, more contemplative vibe; for the most part, ROAM lose what’s the most effective way to use these influences among the sound itself, and the result is an album that struggles to move under how unwieldy it can feel.
When taken as a whole though, the kernel of ROAM’s intention is at least easy to come to terms with, as they create a rumbling, turbulent backdrop for examinations on society’s need to keep everyone in line and keep any sort of creativity out of view. ‘Examinations’ might be a bit of a strong word though, mostly because Smile Wide is not a deep album and rarely forgoes its own pop-punk populism to get deeper or more incisive in its subject matter. The imagery and metaphor does the job on the whole, but there’s a surface-level quality and predictability that saps them of any flavour. LOUD and Hand Grenade both centre around breaking out and self-expression; Piranha uses the titular fish to symbolise being surrounded and in peril; Toy Box represents feeling trapped; these are all basic literary devices that eventually crawl over the finish line, but it’s the sort of Pyrrhic victory that’s far below ROAM’s pay grade at this point. They’ve already earned their profile and thus can afford to be more imaginative than this, and the fact they aren’t taking that opportunity is just disappointing on all fronts.
Then again, that feels about right, given that Smile Wide is a disappointing album. The seed of an idea was there, but between an awkward execution and lyrics that don’t really even try, the seed isn’t given much room to blossom into the inevitably superior final product. And it’s not like there’s anything inherently wrong with ROAM taking up these ideas or moving into these sonic waters either, but when they’re not tailored to the band’s strengths, the final result ends up like this, a lumpen, awkward listen that, at the best of times, doesn’t even seem to try to pull itself out of the hole it’s fallen in. It’s a shame that ROAM’s hot streak had to come to this abrupt end, but at least there’s solace in knowing they’ve gotten themselves out of situations like this before. There’s potential there, at least.
For fans of: WSTR, Sleep On It, Weezer
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Smile Wide’ by ROAM is released on 6th September on Hopeless Records.