The Soundboard Stereo – February 2020

As much as February seems to have taken over from January as the breather month of the musical year, that doesn’t seem to have been the case in 2020. Sure, the lack of huge albums in the same magnitude of January has been noticeable, but there’s still been a lot going on, especially in terms of new acts looking to stake their claim as ones to watch in a year that’s still young. March looks to be going through the same phenomenon looking ahead (even though there’s still plenty of significant releases on the cards), but before that, here’s what’s been on The Soundboard Stereo this month…

Imagine Dragons – Smoke + Mirrors

There have been few bands who have seen the critical voice turn on them like Imagine Dragons. Theirs isn’t a story of music magazine darlings falling from grace, but of consumers wising up to the bigger picture and spitting out the over-sanitised radio ‘rock’ being fed to them in the place of something much more interesting and meaningful. It’s much easier to be cynical of Imagine Dragons’ newer material like the god-awful Zero from Wreck-It Ralph 2 or latest album Origins, a cakewalk of a record that’s so uninspired that it’s easy to lose faith in current radio music with just one listen. Second album Smoke + Mirrors feels like the first sign of how flawed a band Imagine Dragons are. The catchy and harmless anthemia that made excellent debut Night Visions radio catnip still makes up much of its foundations, and as just a casual listen, there’s enough here for plenty of music fans to be satisfied with. Its singles are predictably the best this record has to offer. The self-deprecation of Shots and romantic soul-baring of I Bet My Life makes them somewhat likeable, yet it’s always surface level – just enough to appeal to the masses but nowhere near deep enough to get a full view of Imagine Dragons as artists. Their biggest crime on this record though, is not knowing how to craft songs to properly create the vibes they’re going for. Production is either horribly flat – the otherwise solid Gold’s attempt to be a tad menacing is completely let down by the obviously inorganic instrumentation while the complete lack of kick when the whole band come in on Shots is pure musical blue balls – or completely overblown like on Warriors or I’m So Sorry which both feel like they’re trying far too hard to be something spectacular (and score advert soundtrack royalties). Any incorporation of less traditional instruments (which apparently is all over this record) inexplicably becomes wallpaper. It’s definitely possible to have a good time with Imagine Dragons’ singles, but the empty promises (both of ‘rock music’ and any kind of real creativity) post Night Visions mean it’s never really worth delving into an album. • GJ

Bury Tomorrow – The Union Of Crowns

Before The Union Of Crowns was released, Bury Tomorrow felt like a small fish in a gargantuan pond. Portraits was a solid debut album and made a couple of ripples among the wall-to-wall metalcore bands vying for attention at a time when that was the sound to capitalise on, but an album like The Union Of Crowns was the watershed moment that put them over the top into the tier of greatness that they remain in today, with an album that does monumentally hold up even eight years later. For all accusations of Bury Tomorrow being a singles band, this remains their most fully-formed and high-quality work to date; the likes of Lionheart and Knight Life being staples to this day speaks for itself, but the enormity and fitting regality of tracks like Royal Blood and Abdication Of Power speaks for itself, and has consistently been the factor that Bury Tomorrow have used to get the edge over the competition. It certainly helps that, even back then, Dani Winter-Bates and Jason Cameron were among the most watertight sing-scream combination to hit the scene in a long time, something that only inflated Bury Tomorrow’s profile to even greater extremes and has withstood all the way up to their modern-day work. And sure, they mightn’t be as much of a wide-scale draw as they were back then, but The Union Of Crowns feels like a landmark moment in 2010s metalcore as a whole, heralding the arrival of the sort of force of nature that, often inexplicably, would come to shape the scene for years to come. • LN

Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

The past recipients of Album of the Year at the Grammys is a formidable hall of fame indeed, but reactions to 2018’s winner – Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour – felt muted worldwide despite rave reviews from all kinds of critics. Country doesn’t seem to boom worldwide in the same inexplicable way it does in the US, so it’s hard for the impact of Musgraves’ work both in relation to her own career evolution and in the wider country scope to be really felt by anyone outside of such realms. But even for those not well-versed in the context surrounding this album, it’s irresistible. Golden Hour is such a lovely collection of songs, utilising Musgraves’ beautiful voice against pretty country backdrops, featuring sprinkles of less tradtional elements like vocoders and genre-bending which keep things interesting as well as entrancing. It’s the then-newlywed singer’s first album about love, and such a musical chassis is the perfect setting for her wide-eyed songwriting, where she’s endearingly amazed by life’s smallest everyday things. It’s a perspective that could easily come off as naive and grating, but her voice is soulful, wise, assured. It’s a record depicting what feels like a modern fairytale – someone who’s been through it with romance finally finding a natural, blissfully all-encompassing partnership that needs to be savoured rather than rushed (Oh, What A World, Slow Burn) that’s still rooted in reality (Wonder Woman). What Kacey Musgraves has conquered sound-wise feels like such a special little corner of music, surely one plenty of singles and couples alike will be escaping to for some time. • GJ

Mabel – High Expectations

Compared to so many other pop stars, there’s nothing as immediately grabbing in terms of personality with Mabel. She’s often been placed in the same camp as Rihanna or Ariana Grande in terms of vocal timbre and her general production vibe, though without some of the experimental tendencies of the former or the immense vocal range of the latter. Above all, Mabel feels more like a comfort food pop artist, one for whom there’s nothing all that transgressive or mould-breaking, but there’s still a good deal to like in her simplicity overall. That’s where High Expectations generally seems to fall, with the tropical production that was endemic throughout the 2010s paired with a sleeker sense of R&B sexuality that’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s perfectly fine for what it is. It speaks volumes in that case that Don’t Call Me Up and Mad Love have become the enormous hits that they have (and to be perfectly honest, there’s a lot of added value that comes from collaborations like Ring Ring and God Is A Dancer that have been added on to the end), but with Mabel herself having a good amount of range and vibrancy, and production that generally favours low-key ticks that are a lot more pleasing for her voice to ride on, High Expectations is an incredibly solid, if slightly predictable, effort. It goes without saying that Mabel hasn’t exactly become a similar level of enormo-star off the back of this album, but the homegrown likability suits her, and this is a pretty good way to execute it. • LN

Canterbury – Heavy In The Day

The phrase ‘rock is dead’ is one that has probably made readers like yourselves roll your eyes so far back that you could see your brain countless times, but a few years ago things were touch-and-go, even within the once-stoic British scene. Bands like You Me At Six and Enter Shikari had large and dedicated followings that would always keep them going, but smaller bright lights were fizzling out left, right and centre, one of the brightest being Canterbury. Heavy In The Day is one of the best examples of the late 2000s form of British rock that so many fell in love with, yet it still remains one of the most underrated releases of that time period. Songs are of the utmost importance in scenes where it’s hard to stick out, something Heavy In The Day is to this day exemplary for. Listening to More Than Know or Saviour and being able to keep still is to this day a remarkable feat, while She’s A Flame and closer Seen It All hint at something altogether more ambitious than many of their peers were attempting. Pasting together influences from all corners of rock from pop to hints of post isn’t something absolutely no one was doing around this time, far from it in fact. But Canterbury’s songwriting allowed their fusions to breathe without any hint of forcing particular sounds to come through, which is what makes songs like Wrapped In Rainbows and Garden Grows, songs that aren’t as in-your-face bombastic as singles Ready Yet?, Calm Down or More Than Know, but brew and wind and explode, feel like really rewarding listens. Many of Canterbury’s peers have also shut up shop now, and though today’s new breed of British rock artists is arguably more interesting than ever, albums like Heavy In The Day make it hard to look back on the early 2010s with anything but fondness. • GJ

M Huncho – Huncholini The 1st

The world of UK hip-hop has become a lot stranger and more explorative in recent years, especially when it seems that every rapper with even the slightest modicum of buzz behind them can nab a charting hit. As for M Huncho, the masked rapper who’s been making moves within the underground and currently seems to be on his own rise, he seems to be taking things a step forward again; the look speaks for itself, but in a fusion of UK drill and US trap that’s a lot different than pretty much anything else in the scene, there is the opportunity to do a lot here. Sadly Huncholini The 1st doesn’t really do that, partly because the styles that Huncho looks to fuse don’t really gel all that well, and what’s left is ultimately rather anaemic when it forgoes the quicker lyricism of the UK side and the denser atmosphere of the US. Exceptions like Pee Pee and Thumb do show up, and Eagles actually feels like a case of experimentation that turns out well, but a lot of this album doesn’t feel all that locked into a distinct identity, flitting between cloudy atmospherics and sharper beats in a way that could work with a bit more condensation, but as it stand now, don’t really stick. It’s a shame too, because Huncho does have a solid flow and recognisable voice in his more willowy register, but where Huncholini The 1st succeeds in moments, it fails to form the connective tissue necessary to join them together. • LN

Words by Luke Nuttall (LN) and Georgia Jackson (GJ)

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