There’s actually a fair bit to be concerned about when it comes to a new Highly Suspect album. On paper, that might seem unjustified given how much of a breath of fresh air they’ve been within US hard rock, never caving to tropes or deliberately sticking to a lowest common denominator, but a lot of what’s surrounded the release of MCID has felt as though even they’re pushing the limits of what they can get away with. Of course big, grandstanding statements about how defining this album is going to be are nothing new, but between lead singles that had appeared rather diffuse in terms of their focus (something that, for as sprawling as The Boy Who Died Wolf was, was very rarely an issue), and guest stars spanning from Young Thug to Gojira only underlined the notion multiple times over that this was never going to be a safe or predictable album. That’s definitely an admirable aim, but there’s a limit to how greatly that can actually crystallise, and when Badflower are currently rising up the ranks with a sound very like Highly Suspect’s and arguably just as good, to take such a stark pivot away from that rather than perfecting what’s already there can be a dicey, often unnecessarily reckless move in the wrong hands.
That’s not to automatically insinuate that Highly Suspect are the wrong hands for the job – they’ve regularly been one of the more creative and literate names to come out of basically any modern hard rock scene – but MCID isn’t quite an example of them firing on all cylinders. It primarily comes in the role that greater hip-hop influences have played this time around and the magnitude with which such an erratic genre shift has been taken up, but at the same time there’s a hard rock core that’s largely gone unchanged and can struggle to accommodate everything new that Highly Suspect are trying to wrench into an already solid foundation. It’s a rather striking example of an album unable to settle on what it wants to be, and while there’s still a number of moments that rise past the barricades that have been stacked up ahead of them, MCID’s transitional nature can be rather galling at the best of times.
But to be totally fair to Highly Suspect, the fact that they’ve thrown themselves so deeply into this sound from the off displays a confidence that does reap rewards, no matter how isolated they might be. As much as opener Fly can feel dangerously close to an Imagine Dragons imitation in its synthetic beat and open, relatively empty production style, there’s far more flow in Johnny Stevens’ voice to avoid a good amount of clunk, and when embracing hip-hop more head-on with the weaving, ominous synths of Tokyo Ghoul and the buzzing, clattering production on The Silk Road that’s clearly got its eyes on industrial music (as well as guest turns from both Young Thug and Tee Grizzley respectively), it’s not like Highly Suspect’s dalliances with the genre don’t yield solid results. It’s the same with the rock side as well; 16 and @tddybear are clearly the projected big radio singles given just how expansive they both try to be, but neither are bad, and the Soundgarden-esque path taken for Canals and Upperdrugs lets the band use their progressive streak for more exciting end results than just a couple more hard rock tracks.
That’s all perfectly fine stuff, but when everything is put together, it becomes abundantly clear that there’s really no cohesive throughline with MCID beyond seeing how far out they can move the goalposts each way, and it can make for a rather jarring listen that, especially when compared to previous Highly Suspect albums, doesn’t feel as much like a big, cohesive statement as it does a few mission statements sewn together with little care for looks or attractiveness. It’s probably most evident on SOS with Gojira bringing a blast of metallic crunch that’s quickly swept away for a theatrical bounce, but throughout the whole thing, there are moments that can feel like a completely different band rather than a simple pivot that still leads to a full, connective result. Between instrumental interludes and blaringly different cuts like Tokyo Ghoul that are so at-odds with everything else, MCID can easily become bogged down with both filler and the result of not using its resources to their absolute most, and that makes for a listen that noticeably peaks and troughs with regards to how well it can hold interest. Middling doesn’t feel like an option for the vast majority of this album, and even when something more akin to a base sound is forged right at the very end with the run of the final three tracks, it doesn’t stick all that well beyond some decent hard rock bluster on These Days that still feels like a weaker approximation of 16 and Upperdrugs. It can be incredibly jarring, and overall, MCID does suffer for it.
That being said, if there’s one thing that Highly Suspect can unequivocally be praised for on this album, it’s taking the stock templates of hard rock writing and turning them into something much more interesting without slicing away too much of their universal appeal. The tropes remain recognisable, of course, but the amount they’re tempered with rawer, more realistic detail does a lot to elevate them beyond the mere templates that so many bands are comfortable sticking with; Fly clearly occupies the self-esteem anthem mould but does a lot more with it thanks to Stevens’ candour about his own neuroses and suicidal thoughts, while 16 veers away from breakup melodrama thanks to grittier details about Stevens’ ex-partner giving birth to a child that wasn’t actually his. Admittedly it’s not a rule of thumb that’s totally exhaustive – both Upperdrugs and @tddybear aren’t too different from other condemnations of drug abuse in the same vein, and the political messaging of Canals and The Silk Road is pretty well-trodden at this stage – but Highly Suspect’s creativity does shine through regardless and gives MCID a lot more personality of its own.
That’s why, for it’s many shortcomings, it’s hard to dislike this album too much. It’s most definitely a step down from where Highly Suspect have been before and doesn’t always make the best use of the directions it takes, but the fact that MCID is willing to be so daring in its execution and go beyond what’s merely expected of it in its content is to be commended regardless. Sure, some of that good will is negated by the fact that there’s next to no consistency through it all and that really does distract at times, but this is still a solid effort overall, especially for trying something so new and so far outside of this band’s wheelhouse. Even if it doesn’t always work the best, it works enough, and an album as transitional as this can ultimately get away with that.
For fans of: Badflower, grandson, The Glorious Sons
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘MCID’ by Highly Suspect is out now on 300 Entertainment.