The Catch-Up – 2020 (Part 1)

Stone Temple Pilots – Perdida

So it looks as though the legacy of Stone Temple Pilots keeps on whimpering by, first with their self-titled album in 2018 that was forgotten pretty much as soon as it dropped, and now with Perdida, which seems to have befallen the same fate already. If nothing else though, there’s at least a creative vision with this one that goes beyond a tepid reboot as the most milquetoast of hard rock bands imaginable, but the complete opposite of that with an album that meanders through acoustic foundations while doing nothing to drum up much excitement hardly feels like that much of an improvement. Jeff Gutt still isn’t a patch on either of his predecessors in terms of charisma or personality, and across these muted compositions that drift lazily by (albeit with production that can make the softer elements like the flutes on I Didn’t Know The Time or the saxophone on Years sound genuinely stunning), there’s not much that be obtained to rectify that too much. Even with an instrumental breadth that feels as though a lot more thought has been put in this time, Perdida just doesn’t feel like anything special at all; even as a collection of unplugged tracks taken as adjacent from Stone Temple Pilots’ main body of work, there’s very little that’s all that memorable in a vaguely hippieish meander that has love and positivity on the brain, but not in a way that translates to anything interesting on wax. On the other hand though, there’s bound to be a good number of people who’ll find this direction refreshing for Stone Temple Pilots, especially as something they’ve never done before, but in the context of a career that’s been floundering for direction after the significant hit of losing two frontmen, Perdida barely feels like anything, never mind something that’ll be brought back up again. • LN


For fans of: The Beatles, Oasis, Simon & Garfunkel

Sepultura – Quadra

People will say it’s easy enough to write Sepultura off given that they’ve not had a Cavalera among their ranks for nearly fifteen years, and in that time their output has been spotty at best, but that’s more of a correlation than a causation. After all, Soulfly have suffered from the same uneven quality even with Max Cavalera, and despite not having any of their original members, this current lineup has been established for a long enough time to put any doubts about ‘authenticity’ to bed. Even if longstandingly great material has been thin on the ground, the Sepultura name is one that’s had weight in modern metal for a long time, and if that hasn’t been eroded yet, it probably isn’t going to be at all. And given that Quadra is effectively more of the same primal groove-metal that they’ve always put their name to, you get the impression that Sepultura know they aren’t going anywhere either, albeit this time with the foresight to ensure that this is at least a bit better. It’s hard to really qualify a statement like that, but with Derrick Green sounding suitably guttural on the likes of Raging Void and Autem, and the production allowing greater arranged instrumentation and the tribal percussion on a track like Capital Enslavement hit with more destructiveness, Quadra just feels more robust and well-put-together overall. It’s a bit bloated at the same time and could maybe do with some pruning in places, but between coursing power, some decently prescient lyrics and a sense of invigoration that’s been missing in this quantity for a while, it’s probably Sepultura’s best album in a long while. Maybe that isn’t saying too much, but it’s hard to argue with the results, and this time around, they’re pretty resoundingly solid. • LN


For fans of: Soulfly, Pantera, Cavalera Conspiracy

Lady Gaga – Chromatica

All too often artists will talk a big game about a a full concept or story their album tells and it falls flat, but the titular world Lady Gaga’s latest record Chromatica is set in feels like a tangible utopia. She’s been the most stripped back she’s ever been in her career for the last few years with previous release Joanne and the soundtrack to A Star Is Born both for the most part making use of more organic instruments. While Joanne discussed things more close to home in terms of family, Chromatica digs deep into the psyche of Gaga herself, laying trauma and internal struggles out bare inside the fantastical world she’s created underneath gargantuan dance instrumentals. Those EDM influences coursing through Chromatica – everything from 90s house to Eurodance to drum’n’bass is present, sometimes all in the same song – are glorious, making every song they’re a part of omit a euphoria not many artists could dream of. There’s clearly a deep knowledge of the integrated genres – everything feels 100% authentic and from a place of love, never like Gaga is going through a phase or following some kind of trend, especially considering the obvious lack of any balladry on the record. On top of her admiration, she makes everything she channels work for her. The roboticisms of 911, both in the backing track and Gaga’s singing really helps sell the deeply personal lyrics about anti-psychotic medication and is almost like a mini-exercise in world-building in itself. Fantastic closer Babylon integrates Gaga’s version of Madonna’s Vogue into a gossip-condemning house banger, while Rain On Me featuring Ariana Grande is pretty much a flawless dance-pop song – Ariana’s falsettos and Gaga’s powerful belts work perfectly together, plus the payoff of the triumphant final chorus is one of the best moments on the whole album. It’s not a record where the best songs are unanimously set in stone – some may enjoy songs like Fun Tonight and Free Woman with their sleeker production and some might not be able to get enough of Sine From Above’s genres-in-a-blender lunacy. That said, Chromatica returns Lady Gaga to her dance pop throne, proving why she’s the queen of the modern pop album. • GJ


For fans of: Robin S, Madonna, Loreen

Breaking Benjamin – Aurora

Considering how Breaking Benjamin have somehow become one of the key pillars of strength within US radio-rock regardless of how many useless format changes it undergoes, an album like this is hardly a surprise, in a which a handful of the band’s previous songs have been reworked in a more understated, stripped-down style. But to their credit, there’s more imagination that’s gone into Aurora that could’ve reasonably been anticipated, factoring in tighter but more low-key bass and drum presences to tie together a pretty consistent orchestral backing that flanks the usual acoustic reworking at the front. It honestly sounds pretty good, capturing a grunginess that not only brings out the tension in Ben Burnley’s vocals on a track like Angels Fall, but makes these compositions feel all the more textured and interesting. Transposing the breakdowns to an acoustic guitar on Failure is tremendously awkward, but with an almost Indian-inspired melody that runs through Tourniquet and a duet with Lacey Sturm on Dance With The Devil that highlights a genuinely phenomenal emotional range in both singers, there’s clearly been thought and creativity that’s gone into this rather than just shovelling it out as the obvious stopgap it could’ve been. Filing it under ‘specifically for fans’ should go without saying, mind, but that’s far more pliable this time around; Aurora actually has some moments worth exploring that unlock points of real quality. Nice stuff. • LN


For fans of: Three Days Grace, Sick Puppies, Seether

Algiers – There Is No Year

Following up The Underside Of Power was always going to prove a challenge for Algiers, not only because it saw them almost singlehandedly become the most decorated band that modern post-punk has, showered in acclaim and awards at almost every turn, but it felt as though they’d pushed their sound to its absolute limit. Post-punk, blues, soul and gospel went from rather divisive bedfellows to an incendiary, sweltering combination fronted by a truly incredible vocal performance from Franklin James Fisher, and attempting to build on that or even move it somewhere else seems like an increasingly difficult task however it’s spun. And yet, that sort of recontextualisation is the driving force of There Is No Year, where the fires have now burned out with a charred wasteland left in their wake that Algiers wring as much dread and tension from as they can. There’s still vitality with the juddering paces of Dispossession and Unoccupied, but their darkness encroaches on them further, and when it comes to the industrial grinds and snarls of Chaka and We Can’t Be Found, it fully engulfs them. It really is a harrowingly dense and bleak soundscape that Algiers craft, but it’s one that’s unfailingly captivating, especially when Fisher has the room to show off the lower end of his range like on Wait For The Sound that crafts a fantastic sense of atmosphere. On top of that, it’s not overbearingly bleak either; the closer Void is possibly the most kinetic and volatile example of where Algiers are taking themselves now, but the craft and almost sinuous sense of flow gives There Is No Year not exactly an accessibility, but a magnetism that feels incredibly earned. It’s a lateral move that feels like a band expanding their vision and pushing themselves onward, and yielding some of the best results possible in the process. • LN


For fans of: Idles, Zeal & Ardor, Protomartyr

Black Lips – Sing… In A World That’s Falling Apart

For a band that’s arguably well past their prime nowadays, the Black Lips haven’t been doing all too badly for themselves lately; they’re still buoyed by the frankly insane reputation of their live shows (even if that’s generally been moved past now), and 2017’s Satan’s Graffiti Or God’s Art? was the sort of weirder, offbeat experiment that a band at the stage can get away with, especially when it’s as good as that album was. If nothing else, they’re far from predictable, a notion perfectly crystallised by Sing…In A World That’s Falling Apart in its abandonment of the scagged-up psychedelia and Beatles worship of the band’s last album for embryonic blues-rock and an approximation of classic country roughed up by garage-rock sensibilities. It’s a guise they slide into rather well as one would expect from a band now in their third decade of existence, but the classicist approach is bent just enough by the Black Lips’ typical irreverence to make Sing… another really worthwhile listen. Rumbler and Angola Rodeo may be almost shameless lifts of Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry respectively, but the scuzzier spin that the Black Lips put on them almost serves as a recontextualisation, especially with more focus on sneering humour in the writing that works all too well with Cole Alexander as a frontman. Here, he plays the role of a bedraggled, slobbering reprobate with almost impressive ease, starting with the audible burp midway through Hooker Jon and morphing into a character whose unsavoury undertones barely remain below the surface on Gentleman and Odelia. That’s where the appeal lies though, in how thoroughly seedy and filterless a lot of this album feels, to the point where it tips over the edge on more than a handful of occasions with crumpled production and squonking horns that provide an understandable instrumental backdrop, but not really an enjoyable one. It’s prevalent enough that it holds this album back from being a really great piece of subversion, but even then, the Black Lips’ continuing desire to reinvent themselves in smart and interesting ways comes through once again with an album that really only could’ve come from them. • LN


For fans of: The Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings

God Damn – God Damn

God Damn’s breaking away from riff-rock duo stagnation has felt justly earned, not only in their expansion to a trio but with an increased sonic robustness that’s become a lot more indebted to sludge and noise-rock over time. That’s definitely how this self-titled third album feels, as the dense, oppressive tones feel even heavier and the grooves lock into deeper, snarling lows, something that the band’s more chaotic edge is quick to embrace. But when that feels like it comes at the expense of the pop framework that’s always been such an integral part of God Damn’s appeal, there are tracks that can really start to bleed together, not helped by instances of vocal production that can feel exceptionally ugly and badly blended. The exceptions are there, especially booned by the brilliant Mirror Balls as the sort of massive rock song with the right amount of edge that God Damn should definitely do more of, but apart from its quaking heft and a genuinely intriguing lyrical focus orbiting around everything from politics to religion to addiction, God Damn’s self-titled effort just doesn’t have the spark that its predecessor Everything Else did. It wants to be a rawer, heavier version of that band and does succeed on that metric, but it also sacrifices the sharpness that was always so key, and that can unfortunately take this album down a couple of notches more than it should. • LN


For fans of: Red Fang, Turbowolf, Strange Bones

AJJ – Good Luck Everybody

When AJJ released The Bible 2, it felt like the sort of album that could open a lot of doors for them, as a band wriggling into their own niche of a then-burgeoning folk-punk scene with their own brands of irreverence and wit. It can be a bit of a heavy listen that can be tough to revisit, but on the whole, that felt like the sort of thing that AJJ should be aiming for in terms of taking their thread further than the vast majority of their peers at the time. By comparison, Good Luck Everybody isn’t quite as distinct, but for the latest takedown of worldwide discord, it’s the sort of thing that AJJ can thrive on, quadrupling down on the misanthropy to tackle what feels like everything at once on Normalization Blues and No Peace, No Justice, No Hope, while holding their characteristic wit steady for shots at Trump that actually have targeted power on Mega Guillotine 2020 and Psychic Warfare, and those waiting in the wings whose only gauge for rightness is how obnoxious they can be on Loudmouth. All of this is wrapped in an instrumental package that, admittedly, can be rather choppy in its pushing of acoustic guitars as its primary driving source, but factoring in cellos and a decently lush production job in spots give AJJ the indie-rock sensibilities that a lot of this outwardly political material wants to have but not much of it can muster. Playing to a formula that so many have difficulty with and succeeding rather resoundingly is a good start, and Good Luck Everybody’s commitment to its craft lays an impressive amount of longevity on the cards. • LN


For fans of: The Front Bottoms, Apologies I Have None, Joyce Manor

The Big Moon – Walking Like We Do

While a Mercury Prize nomination is an achievement often shrouded in cynicism towards the institution itself these days, more often than not that institution is responsible for boosting the profiles of deserving new and under-the-radar artists. The Big Moon are one such artist, being nominated in 2017 for Love In The 4th Dimension, a rowdy debut album which had critics hoping for a 2000s ‘guitar music’ revival. Fast forward to this year and the quartet have not fulfilled those asks with their second record, instead turning in an indie-pop direction and besting their debut by a huge margin. Diehard indie fans may hold a different opinion, but Walking Like We Do feels like a fully thought-through project which joins the listener in existential thoughts, cynicism and disenchantment with life and society, but then flips things round to lift them up and remind everyone that we’re all in the game of life together. Take opener It’s Easy Then, which plods along as singer Juliette Jackson matter-of-factly describes sitting waiting “for the piano to fall” before the song crashes into an epic climax in the last minute, complete with a choir joining Jackson in the foreground. Listening to the record in full, life coaches could probably take note from some of these lyrics and the assurance with which they’re sung. It’s an empowering listen, not in a showstopping, grandiose statement way, but in the form of small, everyday reminders. Lots of these songs feel like something much more organic at their root like campfire songs, but their production with pop-tinged electronic touches (this album being The Big Moon’s first dabble in such instrumentation) add an audible sheen without losing the crunch of old releases. Take A Piece and especially Holy Roller (which lightens up a grungy bassline with perky glockenspiels) are two of the most exciting moments on the album by combining the band’s old and new musical incarnations. The bottom line with this record is fun and it is just that in every way. With the way the world is at the moment, Walking Like We Do is the embodiment of what we need from an album in 2020. • GJ


For fans of: The Magic Gang, Hinds, Sunflower Bean

Danzig – Sings Elvis

As much as the idea of Danzig covering Elvis makes perfect sense on paper, it’s also one that’s about thirty years out of date. Danzig’s recent output has been – to put it nicely – not stellar, and that can be exponentially applied to their success rate with covers, as anyone who remembers 2015’s abysmal Skeletons will be able to attest to. And so, when Sings Elvis comes as a perfect storm of both of those perspectives, it’s certainly expected to a degree, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of, if not the most awful, viciously unnecessary things put to record this year, if not this century. For starters, to say Glenn himself hasn’t aged well as a vocalist is severely downplaying how completely shot and amateurish he sounds, regularly falling off key with a weedy attempt at emulating his signature baritone that just makes him sound unwell. Then there’s the fact that the music itself sounds like it’s coming from other side of the fucking planet with how quiet and insignificant it sounds, occupying a tiny corner of this booming mix with what sounds like no production whatsover. It’s pared back even further when pretty much the only instruments here are a scratchy guitar and a piano that sounds universally out of tune, in the vein of bad karaoke that’s butchering classic songs beyond all recognition. So yeah, if listening to Glenn grumble his way through a load of Elvis songs with the fidelity of a phone recording takes your fancy, more power to you, but there’s literally an infinite number of things that would be preferable to hearing it done like this. It shouldn’t be surprising with Danzig’s recent track record, but that fact that it still manages to tip over that line is just woeful. • LN


For fans of: nothing

Le Butcherettes – Don’t Bleed

Le Butcherettes wowed with last year’s bi/MENTAL, an album pulling from post-punk and garage-rock alongside a palpable sense of discomfort and Teri Suárez Cosío‘s penchant for being true firebrand of a vocalist. It was unlike anything else that came out in 2019, which makes it all the stranger that the band are choosing to follow it up already, even if this just an EP. And in a pretty expected turn, Don’t Bleed definitely isn’t as impressive as its predecessor, though that’s not a result of resting on its laurels. The onus this time is on the throbbing electronic pulses that give a track like Tunisia its propulsiveness, or even add a poppier slant reminiscent of Portishead to Don’t Bleed, You’re In The Middle Of The Forest and Love Someone. It’s more simplistic in execution and thus a bit less accommodating to moments of off-kilter deviations like on the jerky, underdeveloped Boom, but it’s another lane that Le Butcherettes can wring success out of. Even on the more straightforward garage-rock cuts like Out For You where the pop focus is a bit more ingrained in their core sound, it’s not like Le Butcherettes aren’t finding ways to move pieces around to make a more distinct and interesting sound; when Now I Know peels out a bass groove that’s uncannily similar to War’s Low Rider, it occupies the exact pop sphere that would probably be expected from Le Butcherettes. And if the aim was to have a play around without the weight of an album on their shoulders, Don’t Bleed is a good example of how that can be pulled off; it’s not as weighty of a presence, but it fills the exact role of a stopgap and then some. • LN


For fans of: Garbage, Portishead, Queen Kwong

Echosmith – Lonely Generation

It’s frankly amazing that Echosmith are still around given that their sole features of being a family band and an unflinching level of safety have effectively put them in the shoes of a Gen Z version of The Osmonds. What’s even more amazing is that they’ve managed to weather a fairly rough drought after Cool Kids and Bright became their only real hits, to the point where Lonely Generation comes a full seven years after their last full-length. But if all that is amazing, it’ll be a minor miracle if they go any further, especially when this album shows a band unwilling to move out of their generally milquetoast pastures. For one, it’s roughly about as clandestine as ‘indie’-pop gets (and even then, there’s a certain Christian rock vibe that seeps through in the guitars of a track like Last Forever), and that subsequently sands off any sense of adventurousness in a collection of songs that really are as light and frail as they appear. Sydney Sierota might have a pretty voice and there’s a certain spryness to Lost Somebody that’s at least easy to appreciate, but that’s hardly Echosmith’s default setting. Mainly, that comes in a series of blurry production bases and fragments of guitar and piano to give the impression of a rootsiness or organic quality, but that’s not a suitable substitute for tones that actually forge a sense of progression, or writing that can do more than extremely family-friendly, radio-ready platitudes. It really is far too tame to get all that worked up about, but Echosmith’s path isn’t leading them to any wider expanse as much as it’s boxing them in more and more, and Lonely Generation is the greatest extent of that to date. • LN


For fans of: Switchfoot, The Band Perry, Rachel Platten

Selena Gomez – Rare

Mainstream pop artists have long needed to ‘earn’ their fame to be seen as deserving of it, which for the most part has meant being multi-talented to a staggering degree – a long list of in the spotlight and behind the scenes skills are all expected of such artists instead being seen as bonuses. Selena Gomez, though, is something of an odd one out. She’s been put under the microscope many a time for everything from weak live vocals, weak dancing and only having a singing career in the first place because of her previous Disney Channel career, but her last record Revival showed an artist taking steps towards expressing who she really is as a singer and breaking away from industry standards. This year’s Rare carries that on, and it’s her most confident record to date – she knows not only her worth personally (shown in her lyrics) but her abilities as a musician. Some of the decisions made on the songs here are really smart ones, focusing on musical backgrounds that work with her more understated contributions rather than flashier, more traditionally pop ones best for more powerful singers. Funky bass is the perfect partner to Dance Again’s repetitive, almost robotic-sounding lead vocal, as is the acoustic guitar on Ring which adds a sense of fun that Gomez isn’t known for adding to her songs by herself (take the aptly-titled Fun later on in the record which is laughably, well, not). Vulnerable takes notes from the EDM tracks Selena has lent her voice to in the past (another style that has really worked for her), while the stunning ballad Lose You To Love Me really benefits from string swells and sparse Julia Michaels-trademark plucks instead of anything more showy. It’s disappointing that Rare is a very top-heavy album, the much less innovative second half ending up completely forgettable after an opening seven songs where Gomez so clearly knows who she is – it almost feels like she’s run out of ideas halfway through and just resorts to safe frameworks she can’t carry as well just to fill time. Because of the tail-off, Rare can’t in good conscience be labelled a great album. But with the first half of the record, Selena has definitely bested everything she’s put out as a musician so far and made a case for critics to see her as a truly respectable pop artist. Let’s just hope she can carry that through for a whole album next time.


For fans of: Camila Cabello, Julia Michaels, Bebe Rexha

Delain – Apocalypse & Chill

Let’s address the elephant in the room first – yes, that is among one of the worst titles and artworks of the year so far. It’s best for Delain to have even something that sparks a response though, considering they’ve regularly been passable yet ignorable within symphonic metal at best, and totally nondescript at worst. It’s honestly worth considering how a band like that are now six albums deep, especially when Apocalypse & Chill does very little to shift the paradigm whatsoever. If nothing else, there’s the poise and bombast that even the weakest of symphonic metal has to its advantage, as tracks like Vengeance and Masters Of Destiny provide the colossal swells and Ghost House Heart dials it back for a softer, piano-driven track, and they at least form some moments of enjoyment here. But for an album going on for the best part of an hour, the momentum really is sporadic, and it’s kneecapped even further by the fact that Delain still aren’t bringing anything unique or stridently standout in a genre where that’s desperately needed. It’s not hard to tell that male / female vocal dynamic isn’t a regular thing considering how much it’s crowbarred into the two tracks where it shows up (as well as being a clear move towards territory that Lacuna Coil have already monopolised), and even Charlotte Wessels as a frontwoman, while still good, ends up so middle-of-the-road in terms of personality. That’s probably the best way to describe Delain and this album as a whole – they’re both fit for purpose, but the minute something even remotely more interesting comes along, they’re almost guaranteed to disappear without a trace. • LN


For fans of: Within Temptation, Nightwish, Epica

The Hell – Doosh

While any reasonable person would’ve believed that The Hell had simply run their course (which, for a comedy hardcore band like this, isn’t an unfair expectation), clearly the masked mob believed they still had more to offer, even if they might’ve been the only ones. At least they’ve managed to circumvent the very real danger of staleness with Doosh, being just four tracks that can collate an already-limited thematic set of overblown posturing into a much more digestible package than their full albums tended to be. And for as brief and shallow as this EP is, it can’t be denied that The Hell can be tremendously entertaining when they want to be, even if all four tracks once again revolve around how insanely cool they believe themselves to be. At least this time the embrace of new sounds is a bit more palpable; the big rap-metal grooves of Best Around and Taste Tha Flava have some great power to them, but the highlight of the entire project comes in the quick-stepping Jump The Fuck Up, infusing its punk gallop with an almost Latin flavour that – like everything The Hell have ever done – has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. Naturally the half-life with this thing is almost impossibly short, but for a bit of fun that doesn’t take itself too seriously and certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome, Doosh fills that hole for whatever brief time it’s around. • LN


For fans of: TRC, Feed The Rhino, Rise Of The Northstar

Alestorm – Curse Of The Crystal Coconut

Are Alestorm coming close to running out of ideas? Probably, seeing as there’s only so much mileage to be gotten from pretending to be pirates and keeping it up for what is six albums now, but also because the only talking points of their last two releases were, respectively, a Taio Cruz cover, and a deluxe version that featured the entire album with the vocals replaced by dogs. When a gimmick band has to rely on other gimmicks to get anywhere, that’s a really bad sign with regards to how threadbare they actually are, and when Curse Of The Crystal Coconut arrives as a more ‘traditional’ Alestorm album, those cracks begin to widen in earnest. For one, the whole bit is really getting old at this point (it says a lot that moving away from more explicit pirate imagery for a straight-up party track on Treasure Chest Party Quest yields the best results), and the likes of Zombies Ate My Pirate Ship and Shit Boat (No Fans) appear to be severely scraping the barrel when it comes to finding something to talk about and wedge some of the iconography into. And while it’s clear that Alestorm aren’t taking themselves seriously whatsover, it doesn’t make a track like Fannybaws funny or clever, nor does it make it possible to not cringe at the rap-metal influence and flimsy trap snares on Tortuga. It’s gotten to a point where it’s hard to see where any sort of appeal in Alestorm could lie; they’re not going to pick up anyone new with this, and as an album, Curse Of The Crystal Coconut feels so burned out of ideas that even their fans might struggle to defend this one. In other words, there’s precious little treasure buried here, besides the long-overdue realisation that it’s time to throw these mateys in the brig. • LN


For fans of: Swashbuckle, Turisas, Powerwolf

Sea Girls – Under Exit Lights

The expectation for Sea Girls as the current on-the-rise poster-boys for British indie doesn’t deviate too far from the acts they’re following in the footsteps of. Chances are they’ll have a couple of standout singles, play some decently-sized festivals slots and proceed to hang around the scene without doing too much else to impress. They already seem to be more or less there given the festival season they had last year and how Ready For More has become their definitive hit, but Under Exit Lights does seem to have a bit more going for it overall. At its bones, it’s no different from other reams of indie bands about whom the same complaints can be made – it’s not all that adventurous sonically or lyrically, and Henry Camamile isn’t exactly a wealth of personality as a frontman – but there’s charm in just how spry and catchy Seal Girls’ brand of indie is. Violet has all the makings of an indie club hit-in-waiting, and Why Won’t You Admit and Soldier On could sit pretty comfortably among the newer canon of festival anthems. Even in the production, there’s a few nice string passages woven into Ready For More and Why Won’t You Admit to break up what’s otherwise a pretty rote and recognisable job. It’s still junk-food indie overall, but it’s at least of a higher standard to fast track the rise that Sea Girls are clearly on. Going off this evidence, that doesn’t seem like such a bad outcome. • LN


For fans of: Circa Waves, Blossoms, The Killers

Kygo – Golden Hour

Considering much of the world has been robbed of a summer so far this year, we’ve needed a Kygo record more than ever. A pioneer of tropical house, the Norwegian DJ has an inexplicably warm signature tone to all of the music he puts out, a warmth that can translate to anywhere between a sweltering hot beachy day or huddling around a campfire. Like most commercial dance records, not every song on new album Golden Hour is worth your time, but there is at the very least a handful of EDM bangers to soundtrack your next night out, at most a lot to appreciate. One of the most noticeable things about Golden Hour is how mutually collaborative it feels. Kygo moulds each track around the artist featured on them, particularly with the more established guest stars. Kim Petras gets a galloping dance-pop backdrop that lets her powerhouse voice shine on Broken Glass, How Would I Know has a minimal drop which is the perfect fit for Oh Wonder’s subtle, delicate voices and while there’s no doubt that Someday is a dance track, its tempo and pre-chorus handclaps hint at the country world of featured artist Zac Brown to make him feel slightly more at home (though his commanding voice makes him a perfect vocalist for dance songs, for what it’s worth). Where Golden Hour struggles most is with the generic dance pop fronted by faceless, indistinguishable male vocalists (Ryan Tedder included – OneRepublic track Lose Somebody brings almost nothing to the table, Kygo himself is barely audible). There are often two or three of these clustered together in the tracklisting, and while these times allow Sandro Cavazza’s charisma and Sam Tinnesz’s beguiling huskiness to stand out more than they perhaps could on any other EDM record, it just highlights how important interesting, or at least strong (like Zara Larsson on Like It Is) singers are on EDM records. So yes, while Kygo’s latest release might not be a consistent or revolutionary release, the highs are gold standard EDM – cherry pick them and you’ll be transported from your bedroom to an Ibiza club in no time. • GJ


For fans of: Martin Jensen, Matoma, Felix Jaehn

Dryjacket – Going Out Of Business

Even if For Posterity wasn’t entirely great, you’d still like to think it would’ve given Dryjacket enough momentum to stick around, particularly at a time when emo was rekindling its relationship with math-rock which would only get stronger in the coming years. Sadly that’s not the case, and when Going Out Of Business already seems to have landed without a trace and disappeared just as silently, that feels rather telling regarding where Dryjacket’s position in emo lies. It also says a lot about how forgettable Going Out Of Business is as well, where any nebulously memorable qualities have been shed by an even greater amount for the spidery, mid-level emo canvas to generally take hold. That gives way to a lot of tracks that struggle to find much stable ground to stand on; Icicle Pyramid and Pass Through The Night are probably the closest it comes to being catchy, with an increasingly dull and faded quality laid over everything else. It comes down to a lack of discernible personality pretty much across the board, as Joe Junod’s vocals never stand out and instrumentation that’s not rooted in anything deeper than math-rock noodling even when it could be a lot more (see My New Favorite Restaurant). For as much American Football as Dryjacket want to channel, it’s worth noting that these are the issues that have afflicted most of that band’s work too, and playing into them isn’t necessarily the best way to progress. It becomes especially true when a band like Hot Mulligan is currently proving that technicality doesn’t have to be an alternative to hookiness, and that simple fact leaves Going Out Of Business more or less redundant. • LN


For fans of: American Football, Charmer, Free Throw

Sløtface – Sorry For The Late Reply

As indie-punk has continued to balloon, that on paper should ultimately devalue a band like Sløtface. Their debut Try Not To Freak Out effectively embodied everything that scene has claimed as staples and felt fresh when doing so in 2017, but given how many diminishing returns have come simply through ubiquity, there’s definitely a bit of concern that sophomore full-length Sorry For The Late Reply won’t be able to keep its head above water in the same way. It’s actually quite the opposite though; Sløtface’s use of these elements just highlight how much more confident they come across, being able to delve further on both the sides of punk and pop with Crying In Amsterdam and Stuff respectively, but also simply through how much stickier their melodies and hooks are. As far as production techniques and Haley Shea’s vocals go, it’s nothing out of the ordinary (which unfortunately does means that blasts of overly-distorted guitars crop up for no real reason), but it’s hewn from raw materials that hit so much more effectively on Tap The Pack and Static. There’s definitely a rock edge that’s been prioritised on this album, and that gives way for lyrics about struggling under the pressure that modern life inherently generates hit with the tension and gritted teeth it needs. Sorry For The Late Reply came out in January and has really become lost in the shuffle since, but this is the sort of album that’ll keep Sløtface on their higher pedestal; it’s the sort of thing that already does what it does extremely well, and only has the potential to grow even further. • LN


For fans of: Martha, Press Club, Muncie Girls

Grouplove – Healer

It’s hard not to feel for a band like Grouplove. Meeting expectations and advancing a career is difficult for any artist with a massive one-off hit which will likely stalk them for life, but it’s even harder when you want to change your sound. Best known for their hit Tongue Tied, a song intrinsically tied to the American Apparel-clad, Tumblr-obsessed indie scene of the mid-2010, Grouplove have gone through a self-described “rebirth” on new album Healer. The context behind this record makes the sonic shift it houses make sense – Grouplove’s founding drummer and producer left the band in the middle of their last album cycle, later on singer and keyboardist Hannah Hooper underwent brain surgery mid-way through writing this record, and  they could also see the Mexican border and protesters from where they were recording. It’s not exactly the perfect environment for happy-go-lucky pop songs to be cooked up in. There’s a more traditionally indie approach to dancing songs, with synths usually kept to the side as little flourishes rather than main motifs, but in all honesty it’s something that hurts this record in the long run. Much of Healer blurs together and it wouldn’t be surprising if plenty of people reached the end of the final track and immediately forgot about everything they’d just heard, if they’d remembered anything at all in the first place. The times the record fares best is when Grouplove marry their ever-present cheerful lyrical approach with likeable music – take Hail To The Queen or Youth, which is essentially a 2020 (or more forgettable) version of the type of song the fresh-faced Grouplove of old would have made. That’s the issue with Healer – Grouplove simply haven’t played to their strengths, which is what people come to them for. On this record the colours in the music itself are diluted and while some fans who’ve grown up with the band may appreciate such a thing out of loyalty, it’s hard to really go in on this album knowing the joy Grouplove have conveyed so well in the past. • GJ


For fans of: Foster The People, Young The Giant, Local Natives

Cavetown – Sleepyhead

It can be quite startling to see just how much music that Robbie Skinner has released under the Cavetown moniker up to now, but at the same time, the fact that his first real breakout is happening now isn’t all that surprising. With homespun, twee indie-pop seeing its upswing continue, Sleepyhead arrives at a rather fitting time, and the subsequent buzz around Cavetown makes this fourth album seem like Skinner’s most important to date. And, to no one’s surprise, it’s a very tart, sugary listen that’s undoubtedly an acquired taste, as is probably telegraphed by song titles like Pyjama Pants and I Miss My Mum that deftly circumvent any subtlety and go straight for a very concentrated, almost childlike headspace that can be a bit much at times. Skinner’s quieter, meeker voice brings forth a lot of that on its own, and with the slighter nature of his indie-pop and how tracks like Pyjama Pants and Snail co-opt the ‘soft boi’ aesthetic to an almost weaponised degree, the tweeness can subsume this album to a degree that can be hard to stomach. On the other hand though, a more polished palette of sounds is more likable for something as small-scale as this, and for all the twinkling production touches and soft, reduced guitars that only serve to emphasise how fragile and gentle it all is, it’s still fairly pleasant to listen to overall. Still, this is designed for a very specific audience who’ll get much more of a kick out of it, and for anyone even immediately outside of that group, Sleepyhead isn’t an album that warrants returning to all that much. • LN


For fans of: Lauv, dodie, Troye Sivan

HMLTD – West Of Eden

It’s rather odd to see HMLTD actually releasing a full-length album when, up to now, their openly sleazy yet glittering art-punk has always felt more suited to singles and EPs given how unhinged it can be. It’s certainly a more natural setting than a fifty-minute album centering around humanity’s steep decline flying through multiple genres with reckless, almost gleeful abandon. It goes without saying that it’s a total mess, but it’s HMLTD’s dogged dedication to rampaging through conventionality with distinctly theatrical provocation (see Where’s Joanna? for the best example) that makes West Of Eden a captivating listen, if only to see if the blatant cracks will become too much for the whole thing to withstand. It’s debatable whether that does or doesn’t happen, but a suitably kinetic and erratic performance is given either way, particularly from vocalist Henry Spychalski who’s able to run the entire gamut from parading showmanship on Satan, Luella & I, electrocuted vitriol on Death Drive, and malevolent seductiveness on Nobody Stays In Love. Add into that a musical pallet that’s capable of threading glam-rock pomp into everything from snarling electro-punk (Loaded), to trap-inflected country rollicks (To The Door) and pounding gothic slinking (Nothing Stays In Love), and this exercise in packing fifteen pounds of inspiration into a five pound album turns out to be unexpectedly effective. HMLTD already look to hit a point of terminal velocity here where it may be impossible for them to keep up in the past, but even still, if their moment is destined to be a relatively brief one, they’re throwing literally everything they’re capable of into it. • LN


For fans of: Sorry, Algiers, Tropical Fuck Storm

COIN – Dreamland

They’ve shown that they’re more than adept at writing funky pop bangers on 2017 album How Will You Know If You Never Try, but a label change and switch-up of their members encouraged Nashville three-piece COIN to completely reinvent themselves and remodel their sound. While their previous material was often very much guitar-led, on this year’s Dreamland they’ve made the jump into much more current-sounding indie-pop. Guitars are still the backbone to the songs here and are often a big part of bringing fun to the record, but they’re less prominent in the mix and flanked by pretty electronic elements. There’s nothing overly deep to Dreamland, particularly in its straightforward lyrics, but with a record clearly orchestrated to soundtrack a good time, who needs anything more than something to dance to? The title Dreamland describes not only the echoey interludes and hazy tracks of Lately III’s ilk, but the hope of someone coming back to you, living in a dreamland of hope until it works itself out, happily or not. Lots of these songs perfectly encapsulate the vibrancy of love and colour emotions like heartbreak and yearning with playful guitars and space-filling synths. It’s the sad / happy bangers like crowning moment Valentine or Youuu that make you want to cry while stomping to the beat that feel the most connected to what this album wants to do. Singer Chase Lawrence is a great asset to COIN, selling the tongue-in-cheek Crash My Car just as convincingly as he does reflective closer Let It All Out (10:05). It’s easy for indie-pop bands to get lost in a sea of similar-sounding rivals, but on Dreamland COIN show that they have something that can stand out. • GJ


For fans of: lovelytheband, The Band CAMINO, Bad Suns

British Lion – The Burning

You’d think that breaking away from a band with global ubiquity like Iron Maiden to make your own music would be conducive with something really experimental and filling in the passion project niche, but that’s clearly not the plan of Steve Harris. His 2012 solo album British Lion was pretty standard, pretty forgettable metal, but clearly the impetus was there to evolve it into a full band. Thus, we have The Burning, the debut from the band British Lion that feels just as unnecessary as the album, perhaps more so. For starters, Richard Taylor just isn’t a good singer with tones reminiscent of a myriad of C-list and D-list metal vocalists, all wrapped up in flat production that just slaps his vocal track on top of an already underwhelming mix. And while Harris’ bass work is trying to pull everything together, an instrumental breadth of pub-metal with no flair or innovation stretched across an hour can’t even make him look good. There’s nothing even remotely worth returning to with this album; it’s over-long, it’s painfully boring, and a bevy of mediocre performers across the board just put it at a level of amateurish that such a storied musician should be ashamed to be a part of. If Harris’ name wasn’t attached, this band would be absolutely nowhere, guaranteed. • LN


For fans of: Saxon, Blaze Bayley, U.D.O

Gabrielle Aplin – Dear Happy

Trialling your shift to pop music with EPs instead of a full-length album (and all of the planning of a new ‘era’ that goes with it) is an incredibly smart move. An artist can dip their toe in the water of a genre without fully committing should they decide to backtrack, along with getting any initial bumps in the road production-wise out of the way. Such a strategy has lifted the fog of scrutiny that would have shrouded Gabrielle Aplin’s third studio album otherwise, and Dear Happy is all the better for it. Context aside, this is a staggering pop album. The central star of the record is self-assured, both with her abilities to sing and carry full-on pop songs but also be vulnerable in much of the album’s subject matter. Gabrielle’s vocals are pretty and airy but have a power behind them so that they’re never overshadowed by any instrumentals; the marriage between them and the thick walls of interwoven synths that radiate warmth no matter the mood of the song is truly entrancing. Above all though, these are just fantastic pop songs (to a point where it’s hard to imagine her making any other kind of music). Fun just oozes out of Like You Say You Do and the uber-creative Kintsugi, Losing Me featuring JP Cooper and Magic demonstrate a new kind of maturity (not seen in Aplin’s career before) without losing the listener, while there are plenty of opportunities for full-on dancing, singing pop liberation across the tracklisting (So Far So Good and Nothing Really Matters among the best examples). But what really ups the ante when it comes to likability and relatability with Dear Happy is the expert way Gabrielle draws on her folk roots when she needs to. She’s damn good at writing lyrics, be they gorgeous reflections on a happy relationship, patient self-love and acceptance or racing thoughts of anxiety and uncertainty, they add a depth to the melodic hooks few others can get close to. Dear Happy is just a beautifully well-rounded pop record, and certainly an album of the year contender. • GJ


For fans of: Nina Nesbitt, Lauren Aquilina, Tessa Violet

The Chats – High Risk Behaviour

In a year where both Dune Rats and Violent Soho have made conscious efforts to show that Australian garage-punk is more than capable of growing up, the arrival of The Chats’ debut full-length is another prime opportunity for one of the scene’s newer bands to similarly refine themselves, particularly after their breakthrough track Smoko just felt like more of the same narrow, tediously scruffy norm. Sadly, High Risk Behaviour is not that even slightly; if anything, it feels like the performative debauchery that both of those bands sloughed off their last releases has been compiled by The Chats in order to make a limp attempt at ‘riotousness’ that, thanks to a lack of tempering that with any deeper grounding, burns itself out in record time and leaves precisely zero trace. It’s why the attempt at social commentary on The Kids Need Guns feels so thin and unimpactful, as it barely applies its subject matter as it is, but feels even more out of place among material that has nothing outside of its own bluster. Sure, there’s a bit of personality thanks to Eamon Sandwith’s snotty Aussie accent and a couple of localised lyrical flourishes on Pub Feed and Ross River, but the attempt to so neatly fit into the stereotypes of a ‘true’ punk on Drunk N Disorderly and Do What I Want (while also trying to keep up a veneer of grubby ‘realism’ with tracks like The Clap) is done so in such an uninteresting way. When paired with garage-punk that has tautness and speed but lacks flair and comes packed with the usual rote, lo-fi production job, High Risk Behaviour almost feels like a parody of this sort of thing rather than anything with genuine creative intent behind it. At least it’s quick to get through at not even half an hour, but even then, saving graces don’t get any more perfunctory than that. • LN


For fans of: Dune Rats, Amyl And The Sniffers, The Ramones

Bleak Soul – Existential Medication

Given the darker, more intensely confessional direction that As It Is had taken on their last album, it’s not really a surprise that Ben Langford-Biss has sought to continue that train of thought on his solo work after breaking off from the band. His input always felt like one of the most creatively significant in that band, especially when it came to injecting that darkness in, and that’s what’s been isolated under the Bleak Soul moniker in a way that highlights how it’s not quite enough to fill a whole album on its own. On Existential Medication, Langford-Biss ventures into moodier but still irrepressibly polished alt-pop, and while the echoes of PVRIS arrive with depressing familiarity on Why Am I Here? and Death Of A Stranger in their shimmering guitar chimes and heavily atmospheric synth work, it’s refreshing to see that’s not the sole creative touchstone here, being built on by the hazy theatrics of A Beautiful Murder, A Hideous Sunrise and the slightly rougher tension of Handmedownhead. But amongst all of that, Langford-Biss’ limitations in vocal range aren’t helped by a mix that feels so open and reverberating, making another crop of lyrics touching on depression feel more hollowly sullen than anything with real punch. The thought processes can definitely be seen here and it’s not an awful attempt at this sort of thing, but when it’s also this small, underdeveloped struggles to piece together its ideas effectively, Existential Medication feels like a one-and-done without much to return to. It’s okay in spots, but that doesn’t count for much overall.


For fans of: PVRIS, Andy Black, The Faim

Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated Side B

It feels like Carly Rae Jepsen treats every album cycle as a victory lap these days, and the added sprinkle of leftover tracks that didn’t make the tracklist cut makes the wait between acclaimed lovesick albums that little bit easier. With last year’s Dedicated, Carly had enough leftovers to fill an entire full-length record’s runtime and as people have come to expect from her, the material is superlative whether it’s on a ‘proper’ album or not. It’s kind of amazing that someone can continue releasing material about the same subject for a number of records or even a whole career without it ever getting stale, but Jepsen’s creative approaches and sparkling personality make every offering delectable, not to mention the obvious fact that she has a real talent for enveloping people in the giddy, crush-ridden state she articulates so well. Dedicated Side B is no exception to anything else she’s put out so far and the fact that it’s home to few surprises helps. She further confirms her skills for dance pop with This Love Isn’t Crazy and album highlight Solo, radiates pure joy on WIndow and This Is What They Say and delves into more mature territories on Felt This Way and Summer Love, all with her trademark 80s synths, disco dabbling and glint-in-the-eye delivery. She definitely chose the right tracklisting for Dedicated Part B’s older sister, but this release is a lovely time by itself, nestling itself in amongst the best pop releases of the year and further drilling in everything we already know and love about Carly Rae Jepsen. • GJ


For fans of: Cyndi Lauper, Robyn, La Roux

Broken Witt Rebels – OK Hotel

Broken Witt Rebels were always a prime candidate to fall into trad-rock banality without so much as a second thought. Their self-titled debut in 2017 was solid enough at taking the baton of a more mainstream-ready southern-rock sound that Kings Of Leon have left abandoned for so many years, but the allure of the retro-rock money-printer can be too strong for a band like that to handle sometimes, especially when that band isn’t too far removed from it already. In hindsight though, following their forebears into tepid radio-rock was never too out of the question, especially when OK Hotel sees them diving in headfirst to predictably uninspiring results. The biggest issue is how, despite it never working with material designed to be this rustic, overworking the production gloss just wipes away any sort of muscle, though with the grand, sweeping bluster and thudding percussion on the title track or Love Drunk (or regrettably, the canned beats on Caught In The Middle and Give It Up), this is quite clearly a modern pop-rock venture in all but name. Even then though, Broken Witt Rebels are ploughing through such a stale take on it, regardless of whether Danny Core’s raspy howl can feign rootsiness among it all. It’s all so tired, brought down further by writing that’s equally drained in its relationship sentiments and sending a fair chunk of OK Hotel to fade away as soon as it lands. Even if Broken Witt Rebels did opt to move more definitively into the throwback lane, they’d at least have an audience willing to hear them out; with this, it’s a mystery who it’s supposed to appeal to, and when it’s not even that good to begin with, that demographic is even more up in the air. • LN


For fans of: Kings Of Leon, Switchfoot, Sunset Sons

Happy Accidents – Sprawling

With two albums to their name that have already stood as much better examples of in-vogue indie-punk than most, there’s a lot of hope surrounding Happy Accidents on Sprawling, even despite what could be seen as the odds slowly being stacked against them. Since 2018’s Everything But The Here And Now, they’ve slimmed down to a duo, as well as endeavouring to run this entire album campaign on their own, something which a more discerning bystander could translate as some in-band foundations currently being tested. But while that doesn’t appear the case explicitly, this is definitely a step back for Happy Accidents, moving into slower, more melancholic material that doesn’t have the immediate pop appeal of their best work. That’s not to say that appeal is absent entirely, especially when the more even vocal split between Rich Mandell and Phoebe Cross lends something a bit more dynamic overall, and the likes of the title track and Sparkling embracing slightly more opulence to pad out their deliberate pace makes for a clear set of highlights. But it’s also hard not to notice that this is much less tight than previous outings, with Secrets and Inside presenting glimmers of what once was amongst a bloodier, duller mix that simply doesn’t pop as much as it used to. It’s a good fit for the lyrics, sure, but on the whole, Sprawling as an album struggles to connect as emphatically as either of its predecessors, with enough solid parts to stay afloat but not go above and beyond. For anyone deeply invested in this scene, this is hardly going be a juncture to jump ship at considering it is still decent, but Happy Accidents are capable of material that’s a lot better and more memorable than this. • LN


For fans of: Fresh, False Advertising, Nai Harvest

Beach Bunny – Honeymoon

Gen Z indie-rock has no more prevalent face at the moment than Beach Bunny, a band who’ve not only managed to slip effortlessly into the bedroom-pop scene to rapturous acclaim, but who also got their big spurt of exposure thanks to their track Prom Queen going viral on TikTok. With all of that in mind, the questions pertaining to Beach Bunny’s longevity are certainly floating out there – particularly now that TikTok has become the platform of choice for one-hit wonders to snaffle up their fifteen minutes – but Honeymoon has at least a few hints that Beach Bunny could be a more-than-competent indie-pop band with a bit more time. There’s still some of the detachment and deliberate chintziness in a track like Racetrack that’s become so tiresome within the bedroom-pop scene, but the fact that Honeymoon does seem to have been given more of a budget and a willingness to drive into youthful exuberance means it hits a lot harder. Hell, the likes of Ms. California and Dream Boy could almost be lost Taylor Swift songs, not only because Lili Trifilio’s vocal timbre is remarkably similar, but the big, heartfelt sentiments combined with poppy, irrepressibly catchy melodies anchor it all in such an appealing pop framework. There’s not much bang for your buck with nine tracks at only twenty-five minutes, but Beach Bunny are capable of some of the most potent isolated moments their scene has delivered in ages, and that can be worth the price of admission alone. • LN


For fans of: Future Teens, Diet Cig, Charly Bliss

Conan Gray – Kid Krow

Increased societal discussions on the topic of mental health have led to a new type of ‘heart on your sleeve’ lyricism in the latest generation of musicians. Conan Gray is the latest poster-child for the phenomenon, showing a true talent for writing on his debut record Kid Krow, released in March. Gray has a conversational, diary-entry style of arranging his words but they never feel contrived when he’s singing them. Metaphors like describing growing up as graduating from little league baseball and manoeuvring being treated badly by a lover as a game of chess are accessible images that never feel like low-hanging fruit has been picked and regurgitated. He conveys relatable situations so accurately and emotively that you’ve no choice but to sit up and listen at the times when he’s telling his own personal stories. Gray has already outlined the facts of many of the difficulties he faced in his childhood on his YouTube channel, but the way he speaks about them in song is a different story. His relaxed narration of his life on closing track The Story is completely enveloping and you feel every line about teen suicide and being kicked out of your family home as though you’re the one experiencing it. His words are the anchor that make every song so arresting, but there are peaks and troughs when it comes to the actual instrumentals. There isn’t necessarily a bad song on the record, but Conan Gray is at his best when he ups the energy. Sweet melodies on Wish You Were Sober, the pure dance party fun of Maniac and the pure euphoric rush of Little League, a song lamenting the loss of youth done absolutely right, are without a doubt the high points of the record. While the slower songs on this album are executed brilliantly, the more fun pop moments feel like the much-needed exhale to the deep emotional dive that is the lifeblood of much of this album and are more memorable as a result. These are small criticisms though. Kid Krow is as fully-realised and consistent as it gets, and Conan Gray has not only built a super solid foundation for a future career, but released one of the best breakthrough records of the year so far. • GJ


For fans of: Cavetown, FINNEAS, Clairo

Halflives – Resilience

Few bands have made an effort to infiltrate the glossy modern pop-rock scene as – fittingly – resilient as Halflives’. They might still be finding their feet overall, but that’s yielded a sound that’s far more developed and professional than could often be expected from such an ostensibly young band. It’s definitely paying off too, not only landing them at a place where getting Sleeping With Sirens’ Kellin Quinn for a guest spot on this new EP is possible, but also to where Resilience could easy slot into basically any faction of contemporary pop-rock or alt-pop with ease. That, of course, means factoring most traces of rock out of the equation, and while they do often make use of darker, more propulsive tones to leave some of the edge in like on Rockstar Everyday and Snake, that’s clearly not a definitive technique just yet. One Bad Day sounds like a Eurovision cut in its big, pseudo-inspirational swell, and Hard To Break has the spunk of an In Our Bones-era Against The Current song along with the same amount of hollowness. Halflives are undoubtedly better when digging into the grimier side of alt-pop, and while that’s all relative given how much sheen is present across the board, there’s at least something reminiscent of a less-refined PVRIS that comes through on Snake or Time Bomb. The seeds of those good ideas are beginning to sprout, but more than anything, Resilience feels like an attempt at nailing down a home for Halflives without properly committing to where they want to go within it. There’s definitely a recommended direction based of this evidence, but it’s all still a bit up in the air. • LN


For fans of: PVRIS, Against The Current, Tonight Alive

Butch Walker – American Love Story

Butch Walker’s production discography has the scale of a figure within pop and rock with a suitable amount of clout, given his work with such marquee names as Fall Out Boy, Weezer, Taylor Swift and countless others. But even among all of that, he’s amassed a fairly sizable catalogue of work himself; affiliations with rather fringe acts like SouthGang and Marvelous 3 serve among his earlier work, but his solo catalogue over the course of the last two decades is almost shockingly extensive in itself, with American Love Story being his ninth full-length. It’s certainly a dense effort too, being a concept album examining racism and divisions in the USA, as well as looking to wedge in handfuls of interpolations of other songs for a radio-playlist among an already wide collage of ‘90s power-pop and contemporary alt-pop. And besides the tremendous broadness of the overall throughline and characterisation that can be really ham-fisted in its intentions – see the borderline caricature of 6ft Middle-Age American Man or the relentless cheeriness of You Gotta Be Just Who You Are – this generally isn’t too bad. The moments of unflinching honesty and lighter lyricism on Out In The Open and Torn In The USA respectively are seldom but welcome, and they lend themselves to a very jam-band headspace that this album can have, especially with the reinterpretation and recontextialisation of recognisable melodies, like REO Speedwagon’s Take It On The Run for Fuck It (I Don’t Like Love). Beyond that, there’s definitely some clutter in the instrumentation with abrupt transitions and vocal snippets that have a habit of coming in at awkward moments, but there’s at least a catchiness to a track like Flyover State in its sunnier acoustic progressions reminiscent of a band like Sugar Ray, or in the smoother, more openly sensual Pretty Crazy which positions itself somewhere between John Mayer and Keith Urban. It’s not an album that exudes replayability, and it can be a bit too long for its own good when the narrative is this broad, but this is generally likable, even if there’s nothing much more visceral that can be said about it. • LN


For fans of: Fountains Of Wayne, Pete Yorn, Motion City Soundtrack

Steve Aoki – Neon Future IV

Anyone who’s heard one of Steve Aoki’s Neon Future records knows the drill by now. His middling EDM has a USP of featuring artists from different genres and achieving varying levels of success. The quality not quite being guaranteed is what makes going into Neon Future VI a daunting prospect – it’s 27 tracks long, clocking in at an eye-watering 91 minutes and branded his most ambitious project to date. Digging in, Neon Future VI is fine enough as a casual listen, perhaps while doing something else that needs concentration and energy. But when listening solely to focus on the record and what it has to offer, its repetitiveness becomes glaringly obvious and swamps the whole thing. Previous effort Neon Future III had a handful of solid tracks that held up away from the project’s melting pot novelty (take the AJR and Lil Yachty featuring Pretender as a gloriously odd example), but this one doesn’t really have much that can exist outside of the album’s framework. Songs featuring Sting, Mike Shinoda and Lights, Backstreet Boys and Zooey Deschanel might raise an eyebrow when read on paper, it’s hard to even recall anything from their tracks. A grand total of five songs on this record are memorable (four of those for good reasons, Soundcloud rapper Global Dan and Travis Barker’s drums make for a truly unpleasant experience on Halfway Dead). Depressingly, only one of those successes is down to Aoki himself (Homo Deus, where a spoken monologue by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari descends into storming beats, the DJ’s best work on the album by far). Icona Pop breathe life into I Love My Friends (which could be a summer banger if it had a little more oomph), Maluma provides much-needed relief to the tracklist with his trademark reggaeton on Maldad, while Darren Criss delivers on solid dance pop song Crash Into Me. Obviously, it’s not a great hit rate. Aoki has billed this as his most ambitious release to date, but it doesn’t feel like a collaborations album with eclectic artists, which he is capable of to a degree and has done in the past, just a hollow mishmash of names on a bloated tracklisting. Maybe Neon Future VI isn’t supposed to be consumed as an album to just sit and listen to which is understandable, but if that is indeed the case then perhaps conversations need to be had about how to release material like this in the future. • GJ


For fans of: David Guetta, Afrojack, Nicky Romero

The Hara – We Are The Movement

It’s a bad sign when the most exposure that The Hara have received so far comes from their series of performances in UK schools, something which is hardly indicative of a band making organic moves within the industry, and more of what feels like either marketable, family-friendly rock given its usual boost off concept rather than ability, or deliberately edgy, surface-level ‘transgression’ where the end result is exactly the same. And yeah, this is the latter of the two at its most emphatic, but at least The Hara give the early impression of knowing that added bombast is what makes this sort of thing work with opener FYI. Take that away though, and what’s left is a band appearing as Palaye Royale by way of Royal Blood, in which the bratty embrace of their own mistfit status is conjoined with fatter garage-rock grooves to perfectly target every vogue cross-section of modern rock as efficiently and shamelessly as possible. It’s hardly the worst this sort of thing has ever sounded as The Hara can at least pull out the odd indie riff that has some nice meat to it, but they aren’t doing anything new with it, such is the case when blasé lyrical content like chastising vapid celebrities on Blue Tick Souvenir or the customary call to arms for the outcasts on Youth comes with the fetid stench of Yungblud-esque myopia and a dearth of imagination. As far as this sort of thing goes, We Are The Movement is far from the impenetrable barrier that releases like this often end up being, but that’s not some glowing recommendation on The Hara themselves. Rather, it’s a case of a band being in a righter place at the right time, and coming out the other side with a slightly less mediocre release. • LN


For fans of: Palaye Royale, Catfish And The Bottlemen, Yungblud

Brand New Friend – A Cure For Living

Of all the acts in the Xtra Mile camp, it’s surprising that Brand New Friend haven’t been given more of a push than they have. Theirs is the sort of primetime-ready indie-pop that would be ripping up radio playlists if it came from someone like Blossoms, with their debut Seatbelts For Aeroplanes having some real gems on it that, unfortunately, went largely unnoticed. That seems to have had a knock-on effect on its follow-up A Cure For Living as well, acting as a fairly brief EP to follow up as opposed to a full-length proper that could have seen the necessary traction finally pick up. But credit where it’s due – even in these narrow confines, Brand New Friend still have an irrepressible knack for power-pop euphoria, packing in fizzing energy and bounce that might be a complete sugar rush through and through but is definitely entertaining. There’s a bounding spark to the likes of The Letter A and The Karma Party that’s so easy to become swept up in, while the slower acoustics of You Can’t Know Anything and the buzzier keys running through Plastic Flowers widen the breadth of sounds by just enough to keep it lively. There’s real exuberance across this EP, buoyed by Taylor Johnson’s youthful vocals that place Brand New Friend in good company among much of the mainstream indie-rock of the 2000s, but with a slight indie-punk edge that widens the goalposts for where they can go. Embracing that will be key in advancing beyond where they are now, but A Cure For Living is an incredibly solid conduit to lead into what, by all rights, should be where Brand New Friend really begin to break. They’ve certainly got everything they need; all that’s left is the push to get them going more than ever. • LN


For fans of: Bloc Party, Happy Accidents, Ducking Punches

Oh Wonder – No One Else Can Wear Your Crown

Oh Wonder have never been about crashing in and making bold statements – their music is like a much-needed cuddle in uncertain times, comforting and warm, ready to flit away when you need them to. Their beautifully airy sound is the best of its kind in the indie pop genre, but it’s much easier to get sidetracked by more shiny, flamboyant acts than to go back to something like Oh Wonder again and again. On new record No One Else Can Wear Your Crown though, they make welcome changes to the way they do things. There is a huge jump in the layering and dynamic play they started experimenting with on previous record Ultralife, with the duo electing to replace the electronic keyboard sounds they’ve always used as a base with pianos and sweeping strings. Oftentimes Oh Wonder are fragile and delicate when it comes to their vocals, but crafting slow builds that meld with their talents, such as on the gorgeous rousing climax to Better Now or the dramatic drums on Hallelujah and Drunk On You, something which really adds another level to singing that could come across as quite feeble if produced and handled incorrectly. Of the ten songs, the shimmering Happy by far stands out the most. Its bright production and jaunty strings feel much more like a real pop statement rather than any other tracks on the record, or even anything else in their discography thus far. Songs that follow the more traditional Oh Wonder blueprint fade more into the background but not much aside from In And Out Of Love out and out bore – serenity and calm is more the effect. When it comes to lyrics, more personal ones like those on Nebraska shine sweetly above acoustic guitar and piano backdrops and I Wish I Never Met You’s titular statement hits you in the chest alongside string accompaniments, although there are times where more sweeping statements are made and the lyrics describing them can come across as a bit too cliche and saccharine. Take album opener Dust, which includes the album’s title as a lyric and feels hollow with its generic ‘live, laugh, love’ positivity, or Nothing But You, whose zingy synth flourishes do more to invoke emotion than the actual words being sung. Regardless though, Oh Wonder continue to be a comfort, and while the gems are fewer than one would like, you could certainly do worse next time you need a take it easy album. • GJ


For fans of: Amber Run, The Japanese House, LÉON

Best Ex – Good At Feeling Bad

The last time Mariel Loveland released something under the Best Ex moniker was in 2017 with Ice Cream Anti-Social, a decent indie-pop EP that showed flashes of the inspiration that so often characterised her previous band Candy Hearts, but overall was unable to capitalise on it across the entire runtime. Well, clearly the last three years have been spent retooling what Best Ex is all about, as Good At Feeling Bad is much more in line with polished modern pop, now with indie-pop touches to keep its colour and spark remaining as meaningful factors. And yet, the main similarity shared between the two is that Good At Feeling Bad still doesn’t feel like the vehicle for Loveland’s creative vision that suits her most. When a clear indie mindset is still as prevalent as it is, songs like Bad Love and Feed The Sharks can feel a bit awkward when trying to present those ideas through clattering pop templates, doubly so when Gap Tooth (On My Mind) and especially Two Of Us can convey such an intimacy really effectively. It’s more a case of inconsistency than outright lack of quality; Loveland remains an evocative songwriter, and the quick-stepping Lemons or the brassy title track which is probably the best conduit between both larger and smaller scales here complement that. It’s just that Good At Feeling Bad as a whole still feels torn on an overall direction for itself, and is capable of spawning a handful of genuinely solid moments without solidifying that across the board. • LN


For fans of: Lights, HalfNoise, Jetty Bones

NOISY – Press Space To Play

The buzz around NOISY’s breakthrough track So What? earlier this year evaporated pretty much as quickly as it came, given the ridiculousness of a track in which frontman Cody embarks on an assertive, confrontational rant about some general mundanities that no reasonable person would ever call him out on isn’t really worth trying to keep going for the long term. The same thing could be applied to debut EP Press Space To Play as a whole though, in which NOISY’s brand of electro-rap-rock that so desperately wants to feel cutting-edge and emblematic of the genreless musical zeitgeist is beyond tame for the fact it doesn’t really achieve those goals too well. That’s not to say it’s terrible, especially with the grimier production that lends a more terse rumble to Bring The Drums Back, or an admittedly good ear for a sticky chorus at times like on Afraid. But by comparison, NOISY’s writing about defiant, hedonistic living comes across as pretty weak when it becomes clear they aren’t really rallying against anything in particular, and Cody isn’t a vocalist with firebrand passion or strength to eke out some punk spirit from it all. It’s just kind of a mishmash of ideas that doesn’t pan out nearly as well as it wants to – it’s not reckless or challenging; it actually sounds pretty dated; and beyond some nice ideas that have flashes of potential to them, there’s not much that NOISY are doing to hint they’ll be sticking around for too long. If nothing else, the sort of moment in the sun they’ve already had will likely never come around again if they keep this up. • LN


For fans of: Hadouken!, VANT, The LaFontaines

Snarls – Burst

The resurgence of emo has been fascinating to watch over the last few years, if only to see where a genre that arguably has no clear sonic consensus can come up with over the passage of time. As such, that’s led to a clear segmentation within the genre that’s almost generational in each focal point lies, but a band like Snarls is a rare case where they’d fit into any of the three major delineations and they’d still sound great. Debut full-length Burst has the dusty ruggedness of the ‘90s, the poppy sparkle of the 2000s and the insular self-examination of the 2010s, brought together with real punch and command of its own sense of melancholy. There’s definitely a touch of Hayley Williams in Chlo White’s more desperate vocal turns on a track like Concrete, something which proves remarkably adaptable throughout the jangling grunge of Marbles and Falling, and especially the gorgeous glisten of opener Walk In The Woods, in which Snarls kick the album off on its highest note by showing exactly how lush and vibrant their production style can be against its yearning lyrics. Admittedly, the over-familiarity of the post-breakup meditation is something of a fault to pick, but even then there’s at least a core of strength when the album’s centrepiece is White’s confrontations of her own self-sabotaging nature on Hair, in which the low-slung emo grind feels like an excellent turning point. It highlights how resolute Snarls’ tapping into the very core appeal of emo is, bringing range and depth while still remaining accessible, and in that regard, Burst’s status as an underground gem seems to already be all but sealed. • LN


For fans of: Great Grandpa, Oso Oso, Charly Bliss

Alma – Have U Seen Her?

It’s felt like Alma has been struggling to carve out a real artistic persona aside from ‘girl who likes to party’ for a while. The pop aspects of her early songs Chasing Highs and Dye My Hair showed promise and exhibited a powerful raspy alto. As time has gone on that artist has seemed to fade further into the background in favour of integrating genres like trap and diluted forms of dance into her sound. But while her debut record Have U Seen Her? is cohesive (lots of these bass-drenched songs would get an electric reaction if they were coming out of a club speaker instead of a phone one), it’s difficult to really, well, like. The record-opening title track’s autotuned cacophony of nonsensical vocals from the singer is so obnoxious that it’s almost unlistenable, with horrific lyrics like “let’s get young like Botox”. Nearly every song has at least a reference to how hard she parties – she’s like that annoying friend who starts every story with “so, I was wasted and…”. To be completely fair to her, Alma addresses this on multiple songs, telling of a friend’s mum asking if all she does is party and going in-depth on the dark side of hedonism on the bouncy Loser, but as hard as Alma she tries to make things engaging and at risk of us sounding like party poopers, it’s just not entertaining to listen to after a while. Mama is supposed to be the big ballad moment of the record and it’s still about the singer being incredibly hungover. It’s not all bad – King Of The Castle is maybe the most pop-oriented song on the album, its hook making it tie with the aforementioned Loser to be the most memorable song on Have U Seen Her?. Worst Behaviour featuring Tove Lo is also the most tolerable of the party songs, but none of these beg you to come back to them once the album’s over and done with. It feels like the main downfall of this record is the one least likely to change. Alma herself, the focal point we’re supposed to engage with, just feels completely detatched and unlikable despite her obvious talent for composing these types of songs. Pair that with the fact that a lot of the songs on Have U Seen Her? are pedestrian to say the least, and it’s not really the ideal takeaway for a much-buzzed about artist’s debut full-length project. • GJ


For fans of: Charli XCX, Tove Lo, Grimes

Johnossi – Torch // Flame

If Johnossi are good at one thing, it’s being forgotten. Even for a band that’s been stronger than most no-frills rock bands in their lane, it hasn’t translated to the huge, worldwide success that it could, and it might be their lack of gimmickry that’s the ultimate cause for that. As strong as their hooks and melodies can be, that alone won’t pick up attention in the same way it used to, and it’s left them more or less in stasis for a fairly long time. It’s a shame that the same fate will likely befall their new album, too; they’re maintaining the meat-and-potatoes sound that probably won’t pick up that increased traction, but they’re still really solid at it. A lot of that comes from a wider range of musical sources that Johnossi are a lot more successful at compiling, meaning that bigger, more riff-driven numbers like Hot Thoughts feel perfectly suited to sit beside material like Longer The Wait, Harder The Fall and Heavens (Then We Begin) which is a bit more radio-ready. The common critique of Johnossi being too fixated on the middle of the road hasn’t gone away here, but they’re able to maintain a comfortable pace regardless, especially with John Engelbert’s more unique, nasal vocal timbre that gives the whole thing a sense of pliability that it might otherwise lack. It’s not incredible stuff – none of Johnossi’s work really is – but for a rock album that aims a bit higher and generally achieves what it sets out to, Torch // Flame is a good bit of fun even outside of its lane. • LN


For fans of: Foo Fighters, Kings Of Leon, Royal Blood

The Bombpops – Death In Venice Beach

Simply from the fact they’re signed to Fat Wreck, it’s easy to get a pretty clear picture of what The Bombpops sound like without hearing even a single note. This is ‘90s California punk through and through, a market that continues to be thoroughly tapped (often by this band’s own labelmates), but where some of the originators have begun to show how long-in-the-tooth they actually are, Death In Venice Beach feels like a more youthful, exuberant alternative that’s a good bit of fun. It’s a pretty faithful recreation of the old sound too, to the extent that dual frontwomen Poli van Dam and Jen Rezavi (the only real prescient matter in the Dance Hall Crashers comparisons that’ll inevitably arise), but that’s where the vast majority of the charm comes from. Can’t Come Clean and 13 Stories Down have the pace and juddering thrum in the bass, while Dearly Departed and Radio Silence do a bit more with the band’s poppier side that’s just as well-formed. The Bombpops clearly have all the right areas of knowledge surrounding the period they’re emulating, and between the tight, suntanned production and a crisp half-hour runtime, Death In Venice Beach rarely buckles under the weight of the scene it’s in. It’s worth stressing that there’s not one thing that’s essential or deviating from a norm that’s been set in stone for about three decades, but in capturing the spirit and firepower of those seminal acts that might be losing their luster, The Bombpops are a band worth giving some time to. • LN


For fans of: NOFX, Bad Religion, The Copyrights

Gengahr – Sanctuary

Gengahr have long been pushing their own brand of dreamy indie rock in a lane they’ve carved out for themselves, something that may well have earned praise from many directions yet not exactly setting the world on fire in a way music of the sort has had the opportunity to in the past. Second album syndrome hit in 2018 with Where Wildness Grows, so it’s no surprise to see them try and experiment more on January’s Sanctuary. It’s not a complete reinvention – the trademarks of fiddly guitars, odd motifs and Felix Bushe’s flitting around high octaves are still firmly in place – but there are obvious efforts to branch out, the pummeling guitars on You’re No Fun, spacious Fantasy and haunting aura of Never A Low springing to mind. The more orthodox Gengahr tracks that punctuate Sanctuary work too, with Atlas Please and almost 8-bit-backed Anime both having enough to hook you from the get-go. That said, while the more ambitious nature of Sanctuary is what is easiest to praise, it’s also where the issues lie with the record. Gengahr are so focused on trying to create a laid-back, expansive world that things to grip onto are pushed to the background, if even thought about at all. Songs on either end of the spectrum – the aforementioned ambitious Fantasy and then the hooky Icarus and Atlas Please – work best, but lots fall somewhere in the middle, leaving you floating with no rope to hold. Most songs on Sanctuary are enjoyable enough and it’s a solid album choice if you’re specifically after music to lose yourself in, but for new listeners it’s easy to find yourself meandering and then forgetting everything but the overarching tranquility once you’re out. Most of the time artists are looking to strike a balance, but it seems that for Gengahr, choosing a side may fare them best in future. • GJ


For fans of: Foals, Superfood, JAWS

The Wrecks – Infinitely Ordinary

The Wrecks are a perfect example of how basing your entire band’s identity around following trends is never going to be a sustainable plan. What was once a middling pop-rock band is now an equally middling indie-rock band, and new album Infinitely Ordinary wants to make that fact as obvious as possible in how there’s next to no identity here whatsover. It’s all here – the production wants to simultaneously gritty and pop-friendly which leads to the usual horrendous buzzsaw guitar blasts on Out Of Style and We All Get Lonely, and the billionth iteration of SWMRS-by-numbers writing throughout. It’s almost universally nondescript, only venturing to do more on Four with its acoustics and strings that actually sound quite good and are pretty much emblematic of what a deviation from the norm is like on albums like this. Otherwise, Infinitely Ordinary isn’t going to be The Wrecks’ ticket to indie-rock stardom; it’s barely going to get them out of the mould of profound mediocrity they’ve always been in, such is the lack of worth or character that could reasonably do anything like that. To make it as brief as possible, the title really does say it all. • LN


For fans of: SWMRS, Wallows, New Politics


It’s disappointing that most of modern hard rock has come to encapsulate the dreary monotony of retro-rock, mostly because the near-immediate gag reflex that that often triggers doesn’t have to apply to that wider scene as a whole. Badflower have proven that hard rock can go in a forward-thinking direction without having to succumb to blatant nostalgia-baiting, and though not quite as good, BRKN LOVE have some similarly robust strings to their bow. They aren’t totally averse to glancing back to the past as the blues grooves of Shot Down and Flies In The Honey show, but this self-titled album is a more modern affair overall, especially when tracks like I Can’t Lie and Toxic Twin fit into the radio-rock mould with no concessions made, though with a bit more sleekness in the production. It’s a solid sound overall, let down by lyrics that aren’t nearly as conscious of their modernity as the sound, but as hard rock of this stripe tends to be, looking past them for the some decent riffs is a perfectly valid option. Otherwise, the band themselves are serviceable if not entirely remarkable, though pooling their talents together does a bit to mask the lack of overt innovation with a likable enough collection of songs. It won’t set the world alight, but BRKN LOVE are far from the worst that modern hard rock has to offer, even if they’re not doing all that much that could put them among the absolute best either. • LN


For fans of: Badflower, The Blue Stones, The Glorious Sons

Super Whatevr – Don’t You Wanna Be Glad?

There’s been a couple of key changes made since Super Whatevr’s 2018 debut Never Nothing. They’ve slimmed down to a two-piece since then, but also their polished but emotionally-charged emo has made quite the stark leap to alt-pop and a generally brighter, more accessible sound. In other words, an attempt to replicate the Twenty One Pilots business model has rarely seemed as blatant, and reflects rather heavily on Don’t You Wanna Be Glad? when it becomes most apparent that Super Whatevr’s shedding of their former identity has been generally unwise. To be fair, they’re more adept at outright catchiness than most on a track like So Am I., and when that translates into a pop-rock mould on Unhealthy., that’s a good fit for them. It’s just a shame that that’s forgone on the bulk of the rest of the album, as the duo bounce between very recognisable archetypes of alt-pop styles in an aesthetically-pleasing but ultimately ephemeral style, and that leaves Do You Wanna Be Glad? feeling caught in a profound identity crisis. It’s not like the glossy, bass-driven alt-rap of I Wanna Be Cool. is anything new or distinct, nor is the stiff pop of Yours Truly. or the watery guitars and woozy synths of Melancholyism., and across a very standard lyrical set for this sort of thing, Super Whatevr are rather explicit in their inability to decide where to go next or how to further themselves. Anyone who’s a mark for this sort of thing will probably find some enjoyment here, but that’s really because Don’t You Wanna Be Glad? is so shameless in what it pulls from that the likelihood is you’ll have heard this exact thing plenty of times before. • LN


For fans of: Twenty One Pilots, Waterparks, I Don’t Know How But They Found Me

Dogleg – Melee

The acclaim for Dogleg’s Melee really has come from out of nowhere this year, but when Spanish Love Songs’ Brave Faces Everyone has continued to tear a swathe through the critical landscape with how bitingly, rawly relevant it is, it should come as little surprise that an album aiming for similar goalposts would yield some similar results. The differences are still apparant with Melee being a lot more ragged and unkempt (especially in the vocal mixing that places Alex Stoitsiadis a bit too deep within), but this is the sort of post-hardcore that hits a high bar pretty much by design. The pace and tone is pretty much perfect throughout, constantly moving with a rambunctious but keenly focused energy, and with a wild, shaggy punk attitude that really gives a heaviness to tracks like Kawasaki Backflip and Wartortle without removing an effortless grasp on melody. It’s reminiscent of bands like Hot Water Music in essence, but the emo flavouring and fit-for-purpose nature within that alt-punk scene is what pushes Dogleg over the top, not to mention the searingly honest vocal performance that’s always a guaranteed mark of quality in this scene. On the whole, Melee just feels like a condensation and exacerbation of the the best of alt-punk and post-hardcore, rarely sounding anything less than enormous and landing high on a ladder that’s already renowned for its quality. • LN


For fans of: Spanish Love Songs, Hot Water Music, Heart Attack Man

Lil Xtra – Taking Up Space

Artists continuing to buy into the farcical notion that emo-rap has longevity is one thing, but it’s another entirely when labels who should really know better start doing the same. In the case of Lil Xtra (a name that’s so fixated on that emo-rap headspace that it could almost be a parody), he’s Hopeless Records’ horse in this race, and while he proves he’s capable at edging ahead of the competition on Taking Up Space, it’s hardly enough to matter. Yes, the more organic instrumental style in the vein of nothing,nowhere. is a better fit for the spacier Hive or the softer, acoustic Normal, but the same case of rustic guitar echoes being minorly reshaped over a pretty sparse collection of beats does drag as it drifts into usual emo-rap banality. It’s worth praising Lil Xtra for at least endeavouring to mix things up when needed, but that results in the greasy post-hardcore sludge of Hxhxhx or a frankly bizarre attempt at Machine Gun Kelly-esque pop-rap on Wasted In Paris, neither of which are indicative of any sort of nuance to him as an artist. To discuss anything else on top of that would just be to repeat literally anything about other emo-rap releases in this vein; he has a better voice than some but his weedy simpering is still incredibly performative, as is the usual slew of lyrics that can be summarised by so much of the empty whinging that’s been run into the ground countless times already. It means that, while Taking Up Space isn’t the worst this style has to offer, it’s still far away from anything all that good, and serves as yet another piece of evidence for emo-rap’s continued ephemerality. • LN


For fans of: nothing,nowhere., Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, guccihighwaters

Lights & Motion – The Great Wide Open

Three years may have passed since cinematic post-rock project Lights & Motion last released a record, but that doesn’t mean mastermind Christoffer Franzen has been sitting around doing nothing. Along with composing a full film score, he’s been using organically collected inspirations to carefully craft The Great Wide Open, an album centred around escapism through music. Sound-wise, there aren’t really any surprises – there’s the same quality of lush orchestral landscapes born to make hearts swell and feelings run wild there always is on a Lights & Motion project. There are some truly gorgeous moments on The Great Wide Open, such as the delicate ringing notes on Glistening, Phoenix’s haunting leading piano line and flourishing string accompaniments which build up to create an ineffable wall of sound designed to soundtrack only the highest of stakes, and Woven’s stunning incline to arguably the best crescendo on the whole album. Vocals from Johan Hasselblom and Frida Sundemo really add a new dimension to Wolves and closer I See You respectively, the rest of this album and much of Lights & Motion’s previous work being without lead singers entirely making that fact shine a lot more. Mood-wise, much of The Great Wide Open is very one note – there isn’t much here in terms of adrenaline-rush excitement (something Lights & Motion have excelled at in the past with songs like Drift) or even just pure, unadulterated joy. Emotions evoked here more fall into the category of wonderment or discovery, like finding new beauty in something you see everyday or maybe take for granted. A Lights & Motion album (or even song) is designed specifically with emotion in mind – if we’re gauging The Great Wide Open on what it makes you feel, then it, like everything Lights & Motion do, is a beautiful success. • GJ


For fans of: Sigur Ros, The Echelon Effect, Random Forest

Mundy’s Bay – Lonesome Valley

Mundy’s Bay are an unexpectedly difficult band to pin down, even though a sound comprised of elements of indie-rock, post-punk and shoegaze wouldn’t really insinuate that. The gentler atmosphere and Esther Mulders’ washed-over vocal performance remain consistent, but debut Lonesome Valley has a rumble and a propulsiveness to it, almost serving as a carry-over from the band’s punk and hardcore roots. As such, Mundy’s Bay have a lot more dimensionality and pliability than a lot of their contemporaries, and though there’s still room for them to grow into the breadth of ideas they’re getting down, there’s a remarkable proficiency here already. There’s an almost pop-punk quality to the likes of Goodbye and Sleep Away The Summer that fares remarkably well from being deconstructed by the open sonic climes and prominent bass; meanwhile, Window In The Shade comes imbued with menace and discordant blasts of noise that’s more openly post-punk in execution, but still feels like a natural move. There’s a fluidity to Lonesome Valley that’s quickly earmarked as Mundy’s Bay’s greatest strength thus far, and a sense of melody that’s perfectly effective to transpose across said fluid progression makes this album a pretty fulfilling listen on the whole. There’s tightening up to be done, but nothing that won’t come naturally over time; right now, Mundy’s Bay are still a compelling and surprisingly unique band. • LN


For fans of: PINE, Homesafe, Safe To Say

Boniface – Boniface

Since they started to make music, Boniface (aka Micah Visser) has always poured every drop of emotion they could squeeze out of their daily life into the songs they write, coating it with a synthpop glitter to soften the blow. First impressions of their self-titled debut record are slow – opening songs Waking Up In Suburbia and I Will Not Return As A Tourist are heart-wrenching ballads. But just as you start to believe this record will be a bit too sentimental and heavy to persevere through, I Will Not Return As A Tourist erupts into a stunning emotional synth break. The synthpop that follows on this record is incredibly tasteful when combined with Boniface’s passionate vocal. Fully-fledged sugar-rush songs like Dear Megan are amongst the best parts of this record, but there are also incidences like Wake Me Back Up where the glitter is left firmly in the background to work its magic and provide a setting for the singer’s story. But on starker ballads which don’t come with the musical synergy Boniface does so well elsewhere on the record with their synthpop tracks, it almost feels like there’s something missing. The feeling is there in bucketloads as the singer tells the tales of home, identity and love that are the foundation of this album, but without another musical element present it’s easy for everything to get too melancholy which takes much more effort to engage with. An exception is Your List whose lyrics tell a compelling relationship story that doesn’t feel ordinary although it describes just that, but faults with the musical scarcity do still expose gaps, in this case Boniface’s high pitched vocals feeling shaky and strained without an instrumental crutch to support them. All of that said, this is an impressive project that hours upon hours of raw emotion and passion have clearly gone into. It’s a more introspective collection of songs than some of Boniface’s more radio-friendly contemporaries have out, but there’s an ambition present that plenty don’t have, something sure to serve them well in the future. • GJ


For fans of: LANY, HONNE, I Break Horses

City Mouth – Coping Machine

City Mouth might be another band piled into the ever-growing cadre of rising emo acts, but their overall style is much easier to mark out as its own definitive thing. They’ve got all the introspective lyrical focus of the modern breed, but above all else, Coping Machine finds itself basking in the emo-pop of the 2000s, the sort of thing that could easily be dismissed as a guilty pleasure, but also never dislodges itself once it hits. Unfortunately that isn’t true for the entirety of this album, leaving Coping Machine as quite a scattershot listen with not nearly as much focus gone into it as it should have. And yes, that does have a fair bit to do with the sound and how it’s used, taking the form of the tart, precise electro-pop of Hellogoodbye and merging it with parts of acts like The Format and even early Panic! At The Disco. It can be absolutely joyous when it works, like with the glistening power-pop euphoria of Sanity For Summer and Wednesday, or the more deft bass licks among the bounding pop-rock of Parking Lot. If that was where Coping Machine kept its focus at all times, this could really be great, but the tightness feels considerably more lax on the title track and Drifitng Blue, showing the full effect of the sharp, sugary execution without any of the ensuing rush. They’re still catchy, for sure, and Matt Pow’s vocals have the innocent quality to them that fits in remarkably well with this sound, but it’s hard not to think that City Mouth aren’t consistently making the best use of the talents they have. The best moments can bump it up a few notches on their own, but it’s probably worth spinning them on their own over a full album that doesn’t quite match up. • LN


For fans of: Hellogoodbye, Motion City Soundtrack, Something Corporate

Stitched Up Heart – Darkness

Looking at Stitched Up Heart and the general sources of information around them, it’s easy to form a rather detailed picture, particularly when it’s nothing really new. Here’s a band that lives and dies on its frontwoman Mixi Demner, further reinforced by the fact that she’s the only original member left after multiple lineup changes, and the fact that original guitarist Nikki Misery now plays for New Years Day to drill in even further how interchangeable these sorts of pop-metal bands can actually be. And sure enough, Darkness compiles all of that monotony into one handy package, where the omnipresent overproduction blacks out any instrumental weight or punch, and Demner’s expectedly powerful vocal performance has a similarly expected dearth of individual personality. As is typically the case, Stitched Up Heart are certainly capable of doling out big choruses like with Straitjacket and Dead Roses, but even with that being its highest high point, it’s playing to the exact template as so much other forgettable alt-metal, and a copy of a copy has next to no chance of rising above the pack. Factor in the scratchy, blurred-out sputter of a drop on Bones and the flickering trap murk on Crooked Halo as ventures in sounding ‘contemporary’, and a guest appearance from Godsmack’s Sully Erna on Lost for presumably clout-based reasons, and Stitched Up Heart are going about finding favour in the modern musical climate in all the wrong ways. Radio-rock doesn’t need more monotony, especially from a band who make it evident that they have nothing else to bring. • LN


For fans of: New Years Day, Falling In Reverse, Forever Still

New Hope Club New Hope Club

The boyband story is a tale as old as time, and as with everything in popular culture, if you don’t adapt, you’re out. Back in the day, you had to be able to dance. Not too long ago, you had to be able to play instruments and denounce the ‘boyband’ term altogether. Now, eyes are on those belonging firmly in 2020 like Brockhampton or K-pop Idol groups, so just the fact a band like New Hope Club, who are a step behind the current zeitgeist, are doing the rounds at the moment raises an eyebrow. “But surely they must have some kind of place in 2020?”, we hear you cry. “Why else would they have an album coming out?”. They uploaded a cover of The Vamps in 2015, were signed to The Vamps’ label later that year and sound like…The Vamps. Listening to New Hope Club’s self-titled debut album, they just feel like a band whose every move is masterminded by a label solely to capitalise on parents desperate to placate their fanatic teenage girls. Everything is sanitised, with nauseating clout-chasing references to getting too drunk (off two Smirnoff Ices, probably) and refusal to let a full profanity leave their mouths which you can practically hear the wink in. The lyrics in general are incredibly vague with no tangible emotion or anything to make any of it feel rooted in real experiences. Sometimes things with a little less substance musically can be excused by personality or even just a sense of fun, but for the most part New Hope Club don’t have anything of the sort to distract from how little they really have to offer. The closest they come is on the teeth-clenchingly teenage Permission or Let Me Down Slow featuring R3HAB who provides the chorus dance break – the one thing that gives the song any kind of character. Yes, this record might be exactly what you’d expect from a group like this, but what’s most baffling is how out of touch the whole thing is. If this album was released in 2013, it might just have been the cash cow the suits wanted, but now? No chance. • GJ


For fans of: The Vamps, 5 Seconds Of Summer, Why Don’t We

Choir Boy – Gathering Swans

A band like Choir Boy present an incredibly interesting proposition in the world of indie music, as a band whose intentions to lean into more synthesised, electronic tones don’t deviate too much from the wider norm, but do so through gleaming recreations of ‘80s synthpop and new romantic music. It’s a decision that’s clearly been made to cultivate as much nostalgia as possible, but not cynically so, and that’s what’s key in making Gathering Swans so enjoyable. A clear love of this sound is the only way for the emulation to be this spot-on, with the blurry chimes of guitar, glittering plumes of synths and percussion that dissipates at exactly the right moment serving as carefully crafted throwbacks, and when allowed to really sway and careen like on Nites Like This, or channel a greater pop tightness on Sweet Candy, it’s all phenomenally well-realised. Granted, it’s really the only trick that Choir Boy have, and that can make Gathering Swans feel a bit one-note, not helped by Adam Klopp’s vocals which are undoubtedly pretty in their heightened, swooping aloofness, but masking them behind a cloud of blurry production is what makes them stand out less and simply flow along with everything else. But again, when that flow is so expertly crafted and the mood hits with a glamour and elegance throughout, this is something that hits the spot of easy-listening bliss in a way that barely any albums of its kind can. • LN


For fans of: Spandau Ballet, Cold Cave, Drab Majesty

Zuzu – How It Feels

An artist like Zuzu comes across like an equivalent of someone like Kate Nash, but updated to fit in the Gen Z landscape. For one, she sings in a stridently regional accent (in this case, Scouse), and her particular brand of alt-pop does also rely on the indie textures and pickups of the era to flesh it out a little more. But whereas that could easily imply another drab bedroom-pop project with little to write home about, How It Feels has its sights set on a much bigger stage, mainly because Zuzu feels a lot more comfortable transposing an indie spirit into straight-up pop. There’s a lot of colour and sparkle on this EP, but Zuzu as a performer is notably rough around the edges, and uses that to her advantage with a more insular focus on tracks like Skin And Bone and Can’t Be Alone. It helps a lot when that’s all buoyed by a tremendous command of melody that has a decidedly 2000s indie sensibility to it, especially the brash indie-pop of What You Want with its fizzy synths and propulsive guitar rollick; it’s a festival anthem in the making if there ever was one. There’s really nothing much deeper to this EP; it’s just a collection of really solid songs that could benefit with the wider climes of a full-length, but already has Zuzu well ahead of the pack as far as upcoming indie singer-songwriters go. • LN


For fans of: Kate Nash, Lily Allen, Bloxx

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

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