REVIEW ROUND-UP: Biffy Clyro, Sea Girls, Erasure, Blues Pills

Biffy Clyro – A Celebration Of Endings

There’s not one band in mainstream rock’s big leagues that’s more of an anomaly than Biffy Clyro. They undoubtedly belong there given that they’re responsible for some of the best British alt-rock of the last decade, but they’ve also got a habit of reminding everyone that they used to be this weird, little math-rock band with a lot of off-kilter ideas, and that’s not a level of instability that music on this scale tends to be able to handle. It’s why putting Biffy Clyro in the same bracket as the Foo Fighters or Muse can feel awkward; regardless of what those bands do, they make sure their safety net is nice and taut, whereas that’s barely a factor for Biffy. And so, when their last handful of releases have been a sprawling, wildly successful double album, a follow-up that tried to condense all of that and felt like a misstep in the process, and a film soundtrack that was honestly better than it had any right to be, A Celebration Of Endings arrives bearing hope and reticence in equal measure. Biffy Clyro are at the stage where they’ve locked in their spot at the top table and nothing can jeopardise that, but a spotty recent track record hasn’t seen that freedom put to the best of uses. That’s not an issue on A Celebration Of Endings though; if anything, this feels like a much better version of what Ellipsis tried to do, condensing each side and face of Biffy Clyro into one standardised entity, still liable to jut out and do its own thing, but now acting with much greater focus. And those improvements are absolutely imperative for why this album is so great, because it allows Biffy Clyro to progress as a mainstream rock band without losing sight of what made them special in the first place. Cop Syrup might be the most defiant example of that as it grows from juddering spikes of hardcore discord into elegant orchestral sweeping without missing a beat, but there’s also the snarling bass of End Of and the proggier looseness of Weird Leisure and The Pink Limit, all of which are undoubtedly forward-thinking rock songs but don’t see that as an excuse for not sounding absolutely enormous. Any initial concerns spurred on by Instant History’s shining pop-rock drops couldn’t be less warranted here; Biffy Clyro haven’t lost their edge or gleeful creativity even slightly, and being able to translate that onto their now-customary radio-ready moments like The Champ and Tiny Indoor Fireworks is exactly the high watermark of quality that crossover artists should be striving to hit.

It’s the complete disregard for sitting still and playing the game that makes Biffy the shining the light in mainstream rock that they are, and there’s clearly an angry streak running through A Celebration Of Endings that furthers that and sees them shake off any sort of stagnation excellently. It’s perhaps the most political Biffy have ever been, for one, though there’s a canniness to their method that’s really smart, especially within the radio-rock sphere. There’s no dumbing down to any great extent – Biffy have always had a wonderfully erratic way of writing lyrics and that hasn’t changed here – but there’s a depth to these songs that probably wouldn’t even be entertained by many of their bigger peers. It’s present right from the opening track North Of No South, a song about uncertainty and the volatility of the future, but arriving at a time when debates of immigration and refugees have once again arisen in the public consciousness, a line like “Have you ever been a place from which you couldn’t leave / But, of course, you couldn’t stay?” carries much more weight. It’s not all as up for interpretation as that particular example – Instant History is the big rise-up anthem but executed with a lot more tact, and Space seems to drop the social pretense altogether for a sweet if not especially moving love song – but even at their most cut-and-dry, Biffy have an intelligence and malleability to them that can run circles around the competition. And again, this is an album that really sticks because of that, and in closing with Cop Syrup, a song to unashamedly take aim at narrow-minded bigots and their discourse with an opening line “I’ve been punching rainbows since ‘79 / It’s self-preservation”, it once more highlights the boldness that so many have been predicting to fade as Biffy assimilate deeper and deeper into mainstream rock culture, but is yet to happen. There’s simply too much creative mojo here for that to possibly happen, and now that they’ve found a way to condense it all while remaining lean, anthemic and defiantly individual within the arena-rock world, that’s an exciting thought. There’s barely another band of this size that’s more worthy of being excited by, but Biffy Clyro have proven themselves as the bridging outlier with what’s probably their best album since Only Revolutions. In the realm of those huge, all-conquering rock bands, Biffy Clyro truly are in a league of their own.

8/10

For fans of: Lower Than Atlantis, Reuben, The Xcerts

‘A Celebration Of Endings’ by Biffy Clyro is out now on Warner Music / 14th Floor Records.


Sea Girls – Open Up Your Head

It almost seems wrong in a way to admit that Sea Girls’ ballooning popularity is understandable. After all, they don’t appear as more than another indie buzz band that’ll ultimately be cycled out by this time next year, but they’re also a band who’ve eked out as much from their own catchiness and festival readiness as possible. They come across as belonging in the same bracket of disposability as so many that have held the same mantle before them, but odd songs have offered genuine likability in a way that can be difficult to disparage. Admittedly that particular conclusion is based on the shallowest possible observations of this band, but at least in tracks like Ready For More and Violet, Sea Girls have started building up their collection of indie anthems that lean into that abject addictiveness that’s perfectly capable of circumventing some more critical viewpoints. And yet, even that might’ve been a judgement made prematurely, as Open Up Your Head barely has that going for it; all the best songs here were either previous singles or already on past EPs, leaving this as an unnecessarily long album that can barely keep all of its filler in check as it gloms onto any number of safe, middle-of-the road reference points. The Killers certainly take pride of position, both in the cinematic, windswept indie darting and a generally flat vocal delivery from Henry Camamile, but there’s also noticeable chunks of Blossoms’ twinkly synth-work, any number of ‘80s new wave and indie artists, and the cut-and-dry 2000s indie-rock formula that shows how Sea Girls clearly aren’t above scouring the landfill for inspiration. It results in an album that sounds fine and has generally nice production (their use of synths and strings is one of their clearer strengths at this stage), but there’s nothing within that that defines who Sea Girls are. This is interchangeable through and through, not even helped all that much by the catchiness that saved their EPs. Ready For More and Violet come back here Under Exit Lights and they’re still the best songs here, and though the opening triplet of Transplant, All I Want To Hear You Say and Do You Really Wanna Know? bring that same sparkle back, it’s rarely replicated to any consistent extent.

Moreover, Open Up Your Head just drips with its lack of inspiration profusely, and at fourteen tracks spanning fifty minutes, it makes the amount of misses seem all the more daunting and prominent. Compared to the condensed space of an EP where a less inventive style can thrive if it’s catchier, an album like this not only has Sea Girls spreading themselves too thinly, but it blows up the lack of ideas they have and makes it seem all the more dull. Lyrically it’s about as rote as indie club / festival fare gets, even on its better moments, and with a lack of edge or knack for wordplay that could at least bump them up by a tiny notch, what’s left just feels unambitious and noticeably so. The biggest quality that Open Up Your Head has going for it is safety, and that’s nothing to get enthused by; this is rock music whose sole goal is to make its creators superstars as quickly as possible, and that’s a very different feeling that was gleaned from the indie upstarts who mightn’t have been all that unique, but they at least had passion and a couple of good songs. Now, it can easily be argued that Sea Girls have neither of those things.

4/10

For fans of: Blossoms, Circa Waves, The Killers

‘Open Up Your Head’ by Sea Girls is out now on Polydor Records.


Erasure – The Neon

There’s an ongoing narrative about Erasure that they’re basically just a less cool Pet Shop Boys, and it would be wrong to say there isn’t some truth to that. There’s always been an air of poise and – for lack of a better word – stiffness to the Pet Shop Boys that Erasure don’t have; their bigger hits tended to come as a result of embracing the plasticity and colour of ‘80s pop, and thus it’s not that big of a surprise that history remembers them more as a singles band. That isn’t a denigration by any means, but it often brings into question how Erasure have managed to sustain the pretty hefty back catalogue they’ve got, never breaking or undergoing a lineup change since forming in 1985, and encroaching on their 18th album with The Neon. In fact, they haven’t changed much at all in any fashion; The Neon hasn’t really moved on from splashy, buzzy ‘80s synthpop, nor does it feel like much more than some singles insulated by notably weaker cuts. It’s evident of how much the formula for Erasure has set in, as it always would after nearly four decades, and how that can be construed as a pretty heavy weakness. That deliberately weighted approach to album creation isn’t one that works nowadays, and so when the blocky glug of Tower Of Love or the rather unwelcome piano ballad New Horizons come around, they feel like they’re there to plug up holes more than anything. It’s not a very satisfying album to listen to all the way through, and while Erasure are generally keeping in theme with what they’ve always done, the fact that they’re so blatantly importing a creative style from the ‘80s that’s distinctively showing its age rather definitively shows they aren’t looking to expand their reach. This is still the work of a singles band directed at those who’ve come to expect it over the decades, and while that isn’t surprising, it’s not the most airtight of creative strategies and will most likely see this album not fare too well to the passage of time.

At the same time though, that also feels kind of the point, in that Erasure are leaning into their own lack of staying power by hitting the right beats in the right order for a nostalgia rush, if nothing else. And to be fair to them, they can do that rather well, especially given that they still sound more or less the same as they always did. That also factors into the songs as well though, and how it’s relatively easy to pick out what the big numbers that are more forceful in punching the necessary buttons. Hey Now (Think I Got A Feeling) is a great opener and one of the more propulsive examples of the fidgety synth blocks and drum machines brought forward, and Fallen Angel has the big-hearted, arms-aloft euphoria of the best ‘80s synthpop, albeit feeling a bit gated from really exploding in the way it could have in Erasure’s heyday. As much as Erasure have tried to fend off their own age – and in the competence of the replication and the fact that Andy Bell is still a good singer, they’ve handled it pretty well – they’re still looking to compete with their younger selves, coming up at a time when this sound was new and cutting-edge, as opposed to now where a good example of it does feel unfortunately dated, even more so when paired with writing that aims to find the human connection and bring everyone together in harmony but feels a bit surface-level in doing so. It’s difficult to resent Erasure for sticking so closely to what they know, but they can’t exactly be praised for it either, and not even entertaining the notion of moving ahead with the times only makes them seem older and less relevant. The fans who’ve stuck around for this long won’t care, mind, but it’d be nice if Erasure would at least try to move beyond the catchment they already inhabit. They might actually do something interesting and not feel like a relic delivering sadly perfunctory albums like this one.

5/10

For fans of: Pet Shop Boys, Yazoo, a-ha

‘The Neon’ by Erasure is released on 21st August on Mute Records.


Blues Pills – Holy Moly!

If one band needed to be picked as definitive standard-setters for retro-rock done right, Blues Pills would undoubtedly be in the running. Unlike so many others who are perfectly content with hopping on the coattails of those who’ve come before and never letting go, Blues Pills have done the unthinkable and advanced upon their influences, to where there’s a fairly considerable gap between their first and second album in how their blues- and psychedelic rock template has become more sophisticated and fully-formed. It’s the sort of appreciation that’s yielded a much greater acceptance in stoner-rock and metal circles; the sound might different, but the way in which classic materials are reshaped to work in more of a contemporary context is about the same. Thus, it’s almost a surprise that more of that hasn’t been incorporated onto Holy Moly!, but that’s far from a knock against the album itself. This is another rock-solid effort from Blues Pills that acts as another incremental but noticeable advance for them, as they continue to develop their classic rock sound into its own recognisable beast. Elin Larsson is arguably the keystone factor in that, with the sort of earth-shattering vocal performance that’s positively coated in rockstar energy, but this is far more than just a case of a star frontperson backed by what amounts to a Led Zeppelin cover band. Instead, there’s incredible talent coursing through every bit of Blues Pills that really does make itself known; there’s a swelter and a swagger to Low Road and Rhythm In The Blood courtesy of André Kvarnström‘s overheated drumming and rich bass work from Kristoffer Schander, while Zack Anderson’s first stab at moving to guitar yields exactly the sort of barrel-chested blues-rock axe-slinging one would expect from an album like this, especially when he gets more a chance to sizzle on the gossamer ballads California and Dust.

The beauty of it all is how, despite being so rooted in the past and in recognisable reference points from those eras, Holy Moly! doesn’t feel old or like it’s throwing around its throwback status for undeserved leverage. It’s not like issues don’t still arise from what Blues Pills are doing – the lyrics aren’t really anything special throughout and particularly on a couple of the later tracks like Song From A Mourning Dove, there’s a tendency to overextend that does see interest begin to drop – but they aren’t tantamount to the bands who’ll so blatantly milk nostalgia as a warmed-over pastiche of classic bands. Blues Pills, meanwhile, do their utmost to actually make something new of the sources they’re pulling from; it’s why there’s so much more detail and intricacy in the composition, and why the production radiates the heavy heat of stoner-rock and heavy psychedelic rock that automatically feels more gripping. It’s a rarity within this scene, but that, along with genuine talent and drive, is what makes Blues Pills stand out so much more. Apply all of that to this album which is arguably their most complete and generally well-rounded album to date, and Blues Pills continue to bound ahead of the retro-rock crowd when it comes to making compelling material. Even with a formula that could still use some tightening overall, the promise of something distinct and powerful once again shows real worth, something that Holy Moly! has in spades.

7/10

For fans of: Royal Thunder, Graveyard, Dorothy

‘Holy Moly!’ by Blues Pills is released on 21st August on Nuclear Blast Records.


Kill The Lights – The Sinner

It’s been hard to root for Kill The Lights ever since they began. Sure, it’s a good thing that Michael ‘Moose’ Thomas has a creative outlet after leaving Bullet For My Valentine (and the fact he got out before that band really went off the rails is even better), but having members of Still Remains and Throw The Fight to bulk out the lineup immediately raises some concerns. It’s not like either of those bands are inherently bad, but they came about in a metal scene that, to be frank, has dated horribly, and bringing their collective efforts together for a single project doesn’t imply a result that’s more than the sum of its parts. They take that thought right up to the eleventh hour with a laughably bad Alfred Hitchcock impression to open Shed My Skin, but in truth, The Sinner really isn’t that bad. That, in part, comes from the leverage that Kill The Lights already have; they’re tightly holding on to the Americanised, early-to-mid 2000s metalcore that the members each made their name with, meaning that the flaws here can be pretty reliably traced back to the source. Of course, that means that writing isn’t very good, not only in how these melodramatic emo holdovers feel derivative of the time (which can leave ballads like Tear Me Apart and Rest as particularly oversold), but in how the very rote word choice throughout doesn’t even attempt to hide that. Had this album been released in 2004, it could’ve easily assimilated with the rest of the scene, such is the lack of real progression that’s been made – hell, even James Clark’s vocals hold the uncanny middle ground between Jesse Leach and Matt Tuck – and when it comes to establishing Kill The Lights as a bold new venture for all involved, there’s not really much evidence of that here.

But that also might be expecting too much from a band who, with all factors taken into account, are still pulling what they used without having diminished by any severe amount. It might be almost anachronistic in what it’s doing, but for a blunt, often suitably heavy mainstream metal album, The Sinner tends to cover its bases pretty well. The production especially is an elevating force here, in how it not only elevates Kill The Lights beyond what could be passed as a throwaway side-project but gives these songs a sense of imposing power on its own, and Jordan Wheeler and Travis Montgomery’s guitar work has precision and weight in its own right. It’s impressive to see how little has been skimped on in making this album feel like a big-budget metal album, and with each member being as seasoned as they are in their respective roles, it’s hard to find a moment where each piece doesn’t come together efficiently. Perhaps it’s a bit long at thirteen tracks, but Kill The Lights deliver a faithful recreation of the 2000s basically across them all, even if that in itself can be a bit limited in what it can achieve. It’s not an album warrants a whole load of revisits, especially when the bands it draws liberally from are still (mostly) doing good things, but that in itself won’t be enough to deter anyone, and for another example of that kind of metal, Kill The Lights can at least hold their own. It’s more an addition to the classics of that scene rather than any conceivable sort of replacement, but that still has value in its own way, regardless of how fleeting or small-scale that might be.

6/10

For fans of: Killswitch Engage, Bullet For My Valentine, Wovenwar

‘The Sinner’ by Kill The Lights is released on 21st August on Fearless Records.


James Dean Bradfield – Even In Exile

James Dean Bradfield’s role within the Manic Street Preachers has always been one of power rather than precision. He’s got a fantastic voice that’s prevailed even up until now, and that makes him the ideal vehicle for Nicky Wire’s frequently political lyrics, even in more recent years when the mood of the Manics’ albums has been unequivocally more subdued. It’s worth saying all that because it places an interesting onus on Bradfield when it comes to a solo album where he’s providing the lyrics; no one really remembers 2006’s The Great Western, and giving the late ‘90s / early 2000s Manics sound a focus that was more personal instead of political is probably an apt reason why. At least that’s one advantage that Even In Exile has right from the jump then, this time with the writing provided by poet and playwright Patrick Jones for what is a loose concept album about the life and death of Chilean writer and activist Víctor Jara. If nothing else, that puts Bradfield on familiar footing when it comes to album creation, and thus it’s not really a surprise that Even In Exile sounds like some approximation of a Manic Street Preachers album, just a bit more fractured and less focused. It’s definitely a more interesting take than what a lot of the Manics’ recent work has yielded, thanks to lyrics that have a bit more flavour to them in the details and Chilean words and places (and thankfully the half-accent that Bradfield almost slides into on Recuerda is permanently sidelined from then on). As a narrative it doesn’t do much, but there’s the spirit of revolution within the story told on The Boy From The Plantation and Thirty Thousand Milk Bottles that’s arguably held just as high, and Bradfield has an evocative enough voice to wring a lot of emotion and simmering passion from them. In that respect it couldn’t feel more like a side-project – on subject matter alone, this is as niche as it comes – but Bradfield’s inherent populism as a performer shines through regardless, and it’s good to see how much of the subtext within Jones’ writing can still be conveyed here.

That said, it’s clear to see that the appeal isn’t going to translate on a one-for-one basis, and between the content and the way it’s presented, Even In Exile doesn’t offer much for a casual listen. Of course it has its moments, where the sound of the Manics is channelled more wholly on The Boy From The Plantation and Without Knowing The End (Joan’s Song), or in the textured ebb and flow of pace that makes From The Hands Of Violeta an off-kilter but charming oddity, but it’s not something that entirely comes together as a package. The more interpretive story is one thing, but the lengthy breaks for instrumental tracks really do break up an already choppy flow; it makes Even In Exile feel more suited to being something like a documentary soundtrack rather than a standalone project. There’s definitely still quality there – Under The Mimosa Tree especially has some beautiful acoustic and strings work – but it makes an already unaccommodating listen feel even more so, and that can be a turn-off. The creativity here absolutely deserves to be praised, and Bradfield and Jones’ collaborative efforts are definitely strong, but Even In Exile is the sort of album that really needs its listener to be in a certain mindset to connect deeply at all. Maybe it’s unfair to hold that against it, but for as solid as the ambition and effort are, and for as refreshing as it is to see Bradfield not watering down a subject he’s clearly interested in and passionate about, it’s not one for permanent rotation or anything like that.

6/10

For fans of: Manic Street Preachers, Suede, Ocean Colour Scene

‘Even In Exile’ by James Dean Bradfield is out now on Delaware Records.


Marsicans – Ursa Major

Summer 2020 must be especially stinging for Marsicans right now. They’re the sort of indie-pop band who’ve earned their stripes around the festival circuit without having the standard one or two definitive hits to their name, and clearly the goal was to get this debut album in time to build that greater profile in proven environments and reap the rewards from there. But now that festival season has been all but written off and Ursa Major has been forced to weather further release date delays, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much talk around Marsicans as there would be had the circumstances not been so, shall we say, mitigating. Some of that might be down to being lapped by other indie-pop go-getters in the interim, mind, but as far as Ursa Major goes, it’s fine. It’s tough to really say much about albums like this seeing as it’s become something of a stock template for indie-pop – a band who are clearly smart and choose to show that through spry, summery earworms – and Marsicans tend to fit the bill about as well as most of them. There’s some personality and personal detail in the writing – Evie is a standout in that regard from the perspective of a divorced father choosing the right time to address exactly what’s going on to his daughter – and there’s certainly an infectiousness in songs like Dr Jekyll and Summery In Angus, the sort of aimed-for-the-heart anthems that would’ve have a more traditional summer schedule on lock for how overall appealing they are. On top of all that, the production has a similar lightness and evenness to it, and while James Newbigging isn’t a powerhouse frontman by any means, he’s got the sort of mid-level tone that’s ideal for songs like this. On the whole, it’s not doing anything terribly new, but it’s also the sort of thing that’s easy to like for what it is doing.

On the same token though, it’s equally easy to ignore, and when discounting the obvious hits-in-waiting that Marsicans position on this album (all of which are in the first half, fittingly), Ursa Major kind of runs out of steam in a hurry. For starters, all of the interludes are totally unnecessary, and while that only constitutes a small part of the bloat this album suffers from, it does add up when considering the tracks that simply fall away. This doesn’t feel like the razor-tight work that Marsicans could’ve created with a sound like theirs that lends itself so well to that, and instead what’s left is a disappointingly patchy listen that really does tail off towards the end. At no point is it ever unlistenable, and it’s honestly quite refreshing to have an indie-pop band so committed to a meat-and-potatoes sound like this, but Marsicans aren’t really leaving much of an impression on Ursa Major. It’s generally okay and will probably go down smoothly for anyone actively seeking it out, but otherwise, Marsicans’ music generally emerges as the equivalent of mid- to low-level festival undercard slots the band themselves are more than used to by now. That is to say, it’s a pleasant time-waster and might even make a new fan or two, but just serves to fill in the gaps more often than not.

6/10

For fans of: Sea Girls, The Magic Gang, Viola Beach

‘Ursa Major’ by Marsicans is out now on Killing Moon Records.


Kid Dad – In A Box

Kid Dad are clearly looking to make their start on as strong a foot as possible. They’ve already gone a good way to establishing their international profile, with this debut album arriving as a result of writing sessions in the UK, Switzerland and China as well as their native Germany, and early comparisons to more intelligent, dynamic-heavy alt-rock from Biffy Clyro and At The Drive In certainly don’t hurt. On top of that, there’s such a reliability that emanates from bands like this, who deliberately sidestep notable trends and fads to just make music that’s, first and foremost, good. That’s certainly applicable to In A Box, where Kid Dad mightn’t stray too far from the ideas of those who came before them, but turn out an album that’s much more than the sum of its parts. The loud-soft dynamic can be played-out in the wrong hands, but it’s much more tense and forceful on (I Wish I Was) On Fire and Naked Creatures, and much less adherent to the unwavering stiffness it can often have. Kid Dad mightn’t be as overtly creative as a band like Biffy Clyro, but the same spirit is there in how their music evolves and reshapes itself, and how they’re able to take what’s effectively the same structure throughout most of these songs without it sounding dull by the end. It’d be nice if they’d toy around with rougher, more scratched tones a bit more often like they do on Happy (an abundance of polish is really the only factor that stops the likes of A Prison Unseen from connecting more emphatically), but there’s rarely an outright bad moment here with what they’re doing already. It’s an album that sounds huge and anthemic without having to restrain itself or cut itself down to meet a set rubric, and Marius Vieth has the sort of unique voice that only underlines that notion further.

It’s more a case of recontextualisation than outright reinvention too; Kid Dad are still playing with very simple, recognisable (some would argue overused) alt-rock and post-hardcore pieces, but doing enough to them to put their own twist on things, if not redefine what they are completely. That’s the impression that comes through in the lyrics a lot, where Vieth offers another perspective on an enclosed mental space, but there’s an ambiguity to what that means and how that context can be shaped. There’s definitely acknowledgment of negativity and self-criticism on (I Wish I Was) On Fire, but In A Box handily avoids a lot of the roteness and overwrought repetition that so often plagues thematic lines like this, and makes it feel just that bit fresher. It’s honestly amazing how much effectively a coat of paint can achieve on this album, and it’s to Kid Dad’s strength that they can get so much out of arguably some of modern rock’s most notoriously rigid templates. For a debut, that’s a considerable hurdle crossed already, and the openness to experiment and explore now stands unimpeded for Kid Dad to do whatever they want within the style they’ve built for themselves. That’s actually a really exciting prospect; In A Box already feels like the product of a fully-formed band with greatness in their wake, and the freedom to grab that with both hands means the next round can’t come soon enough.

7/10

For fans of: Biffy Clyro, Idlewild, Hundred Reasons

‘In A Box’ by Kid Dad is released on 21st August on Long Branch Records.


Stephen – Akrasia

Stephen’s 2016 debut Sincerely really was quite the underrated listen looking back at it, paring more graceful synthpop and R&B with a distinct indie-rock bent and a wonderfully clear and passionate vocal performance that rooted itself in the indie scene but used that extra freedom to its advantage. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was the sort of album that left itself open for expanding upon, something that Akrasia sets itself up to do right from the start, not only fixed towards themes of compulsion for pleasure that can slide into hedonism, but also coming in the wake of his diagnosis with Lyme disease. That’s the overall intention of Akrasia, but what it exposes more than anything is how fragile the alchemy within Stephen’s music is, and how much throwing it off balance can affect the quality. Yes, Akrasia is quite a significant step down from Sincerely, but that’s in almost way and it really does become surprising to see how much Stephen has broken down what worked so well for him previously. The only area that retains most of its posture is the writing, expectedly so given that Stephen is continuing to operate on a very personal, insular level, only now with a focus on his own vices and recklessness that distance his own perception of himself on Idiot and Alien. There’s almost a trace of arc that runs through this album, running from the intro Gratitude that sees Stephen basking in his own contentment and happiness, which is broken down further and further until the closer Hell Of A Night sees him stumbling around drunk and alone, but without precisely denying any sort of problem. It’s a bold move to leave an arc that could be so clear-cut unfinished, but in highlighting Stephen as an unreliable and woefully imperfect narrator, that does leave more of an impression on the whole.

It’s something that he tries to replicate with the music, which, to be blunt, doesn’t go nearly as well, and the impression that that leaves is one of real disappointment instead. For one, the more organic, measured sound of his debut has basically been tossed aside in favour of the blocky, dissonant chunks of sound that a lot of modern electronic music favours, and that just feels like the complete wrong direction for an artist like Stephen to take. There’s just something that’s inherently less appealing about the discordant clank of Tracer or the noisy builds of Delilah that even play fast and loose with a real sense of structure, not helped by Stephen choosing to put his soulful register aside for unhinged singing that a lot of breadth but not much resonant power. At times, it almost feels like he’s taking leaves from the book of a lot of the hyper-pop scene in how more traditional poppy progressions will have tics and whirs baked into them for no discernible reason, but then it’s also easy to pick up on bites from hip-hop and trap, and the whole thing rarely comes together with much elegance or tact. Unsurprisingly Akrasia is at its best when Stephen follows the threads of his debut, even if that’s only partly; Idiot has a smoother sense of flow that its drop can actually pay off with the bubbling bass hits, and Stray Nights kind of has the vibe of a Khalid song in its wistful acoustic R&B tone that does come together nicely. On the whole though, Akrasia is severely lacking in strong moments to suitably recommend, and the retooling that Stephen has undergone only solidifies that notion more. To be fair, a more exposed and chaotic sound fits the overall theme, but that doesn’t cover what’s ultimately a pretty underwhelming and unflattering listen. It strips away a lot of what made Stephen a compelling artist and replaces it with some attempts at conventional unconventionality that don’t seem like anything other than a downgrade, and just makes Akrasia not worth paying nearly as much attention to as its predecessor.

5/10

For fans of: Jeremy Zucker, Eden, Jaymes Young

‘Akrasia’ by Stephen is released on 21st August.


Be Well – The Weight And The Cost

There are some bands that just intrinsically give off the air of a side-project, and Be Well can easily be categorised among them. It’s not as if they’re without pedigree, being led by renowned punk and hardcore producer Brian McTernan and filled out by members of Darkest Hour, Bane and Fairweather, but there’s just something about it all that hasn’t clicked in a big way, most likely the fact that any excitement around it has felt sparing at best. That’s sort of exemplified in The Weight And The Cost too, a solid if unremarkable melodic hardcore album that’ll satisfy but isn’t among the upper echelons of any of these musicians’ catalogues. It’s generally here where a lot of the typical side-project criticisms can be levelled, in that Be Well don’t exactly have a sound of their own, and more often find ways of soldering elements of frantic hardcore stampeding, more melodic fare in the vein of Counterparts, and a few dashes of wide-reaching punk to get their final product. That in itself can be rather uneven, particularly when McTernan isn’t the vocal force that more breathless tracks like Longing require, and especially on Magic he really shows his limitations there. It’s a lot better on the title track, where Be Well fall into more hook-heavy punk with surprising aplomb, and it’s honestly a surprise there isn’t more of that on this album on the whole. It’s there in pieces, but that also highlights the fragmented, piecemeal nature of The Weight And The Cost compared to acts more willing to double down on their core strengths, and that doesn’t make for the most memorable of listens overall.

Still, this isn’t a bad album, something which the lineup of musicians behind it should easily be able to attest for, and if nothing else, there’s a real gusto that it exudes that’s very similar to a lot of modern hardcore. McTernan’s production style places a lot of emphasis on the punk side, and regardless of where it falls on the musical spectrum, there’s a good sense of pace to this album that ensures it’s always moving and never feels too stagnant. It’s possibly the best way that Be Well could circumvent their own inherent issues, and while that’s not always a success, it keeps things pretty solid all the way through in terms of motion. In execution, this has the mindset of modern punk and melodic hardcore’s heavy hitters, and that’s refreshing to see pulled off as well as it is. It also gives a bit more oomph to the content, in which McTernan examines both his own struggles with depression and his experiences with fatherhood, two sides of his life in which difficulty can be an overwhelming factor, but hope and light do appear on the horizon. It makes The Weight And The Cost feel bigger than it otherwise might be, and that’s a healthy boost for what could easily be dismissed among the glut of hardcore that never seems to cease. Granted, Be Well aren’t rising too far out of that particular torrent, and The Weight And The Cost is still tied too much to its influences and lack of refinement to really wow, but this is generally solid stuff that’ll scratch an itch or two if need be. It mightn’t be all that special, but for a project that isn’t really looking to change the world, it’d be unfair to hold that against them too much.

6/10

For fans of: Stick To Your Guns, Comeback Kid, Counterparts

‘The Weight And The Cost’ by Be Well is released on 21st August on End Hits Records.


idle threat – Nothing Is Broken For Good

For clarity’s sake, there’s actually two bands currently around called Idle Threat – a pretty ho-hum Australian hardcore punk band, and this one, differentiated by the lower-case stylisation and a sound that owes more to Touché Amoré-esque post-hardcore and emo. The caveat with this one, though, is that they’re signed to Tooth & Nail, a label which has developed something of a reputation as a breeding ground for Christian acts that can sometimes prioritise that faith heavily over legitimate quality. That isn’t the case at all with Nothing Is Broken For Good, though; in fact, there isn’t even much about idle threat to suggest they’re as relatively young as they actually are, such is the baked-in sense of weight and experience on this EP. There’s a bit of muddiness in the screams that affects how hard they can really hit, but otherwise idle threat are doing a lot to set themselves up well on a larger scale. There’s the same rawness and unfiltered bloodletting that bands like Touché Amoré and La Dispute have made relatively commonplace, but there’s a bit more of a lighter spin on it, tackling subjects like death and loss through the lens of faith, and using that to power on through without losing sight of hope. In a style that can so regularly double down on searing misanthropy and self-destructiveness, idle threat’s approach is an interesting one, and it does make them stand out resoundingly from a lot of the acts they draw from.

It’s also useful to have that because sonically, Nothing Is Broken For Good is pulling from a lot of the same sources as its clear influences. Regardless of how close the similarities are, though, it definitely works; there’s an inherent tension and emotionality that comes from Wave-based post-hardcore fed through an echoing, midwestern emo lens, and an already excellent command of airy production techniques and frayed sepia colouring on Throwing Stones and Cement shows a band that have an unshakably firm idea of what they’re doing. It’s also good to see the inherent liberation that idle threat are bringing, not being afraid to let individual compositions grow and simmer for as long as they need, such is the case with the six-minute closer Ungrateful (Nothing Is Broken For Good) that has enough motion within it to not suffer under its own length like so many tracks like this can. They aren’t reinventing the wheel, but when it comes to making a bid for breaking into a scene where they could do phenomenally well, Nothing Is Broken For Good sees idle threat hit the ground running. The Christian rock association might be offputting for some, but it’s nowhere near this band’s defining characteristic, instead with the music and passion speaking for itself and establishing an act that could have greatness in the making.

7/10

For fans of: Touché Amoré, Pianos Become The Teeth, La Dispute

‘Nothing Is Broken For Good’ by idle threat is released on 21st August on Tooth & Nail Records.


Glass Ocean – The Remnants Of Losing Yourself In Someone Else

At any given time, you’ll always be able to find a new prog / tech-metal band, Australian band or a combination of both (and it’s usually a combination of both) picking up unavoidable amounts of hype, and the roulette wheel that seemingly deigns which band gets their few minutes on the pedestal has now landed on Glass Ocean. They’ve got connections to Northlane and Circles that have stoked their particular fire, but it’s frontman Tobias Atkins who’s really set it alight, a singer who’s already gained a reputation for a soulful, pliable range that can make for an easy lift out of tech-metal mediocrity. To call this album strictly tech-metal wouldn’t be entirely correct though, as Glass Ocean merge a smoother, more elegant modern prog sound with tones closer to ‘80s pop and soft-rock to distance themselves even further from the wider scene. It’s just a shame that none of it really pans out, and The Remnants… becomes a real chore to get through rather quickly. A good amount of that is down to the pace, and how Glass Ocean seem to drop any notion of a propulsive, engaging album in order to let themselves brood and simmer in track after track plodding, drawn-out tedium that’s never all that memorable. It doesn’t even feel as though it tries to be, in all honesty, when the hooks needed for a pop pivot like this are so inconsequential, and the lyrics generally fall into the same sort of lucidity that makes everything else just drift by. As for Atkins, the supposed trump card that this band has up their sleeve, he does definitely have a good voice that’s reminiscent of Greg Puciato in his lower, borderline seductive croon, but with all the filters and compression grafted onto it almost at all times, he sounds more robotic than anything with flashes of that talent being a precious rarity.

The production issues don’t end there either, but at least when you squint at it, Glass Ocean are taking more creative liberties with the hyper-polished prog-rock formula than a lot of bands of their ilk do. The guitars can be more watery and tactile like on Burn, and the glossy synthwave tones of Soul Slumber and Bolero lend an inherent openness that’s well-realised to be paired with prog-leaning material like this. Compositionally, Glass Ocean’s ideas are in the right place, but they too fall victim to heavy production density that makes an already slow crop of songs feel sluggish and overweight. There’s none of the airy euphoria they’re clearly looking towards, and in fact the opposite effect is achieved when the sound can be so crushed and overwhelming, where everything is thrown right to the front of the mix. It’s not an engaging thing to listen to, and the fact that could’ve been mitigated somewhat with just a bit more room to breathe is evidence that Glass Ocean at least have the seeds of a good idea going for them. This could be as good as they and everyone around them are hoping for it to be, but the glut of misfires and bad decisions instead turns The Remnants… into a work where there’s wasted potential at almost every turn, and that truly is disappointing to see. They can definitely rectify that, but it’s going to take a lot of work to make that jump from this starting position.

4/10

For fans of: Sleep Token, Good Tiger, In Colour

‘The Remnants Of Losing Yourself In Someone Else’ by Glass Ocean is released on 21st August on Wild Thing Records.


The Vigil – Hypervigilance

Of all the bands that The Vigil are reminiscent of – and as a grungy, riff-heavy garage-rock band, there’s plenty of them – the one that stands out the most is probably Dinosaur Pile-Up. It’s a very distinct phase of Dinosaur Pile-Up though, pre-Celebrity Mansions where they hadn’t fully found their feet and felt as though they were unfortunately treading water more than they should. With that in mind, Hypervigilance sits in a distinctively mid-level tier, where there’s most definitely talent that perhaps isn’t being used in the most efficient way. The rough, rumbling tone of it all is easily The Vigil’s strongest trait at this stage, and on the basis of pure raw materials, there’s a bite to songs like Sink Or Swim and Skeleton Crew that’s evident of a band capable of crafting the raucous, ‘90s-flavoured energy they’re trending towards. Indeed, it’s all produced with the same careful balance of heft and tight melodies that would be found in bands like Silverchair or 3 Colours Red, only with a modern sharpness that really sets its wheels in motion. As a no-nonsense rock album, Hypervigilance is definitely good to listen to, even if it is hampered by some really shaky vocal production for Olly Smith who frequently sounds buried within the mix.

The flashes of inexperience like that are where The Vigil ultimately fall down, and what turn this album into less of a solid product than it might otherwise be. The riffs are strong, but there isn’t many distinct hooks carved out of them that matches the size that The Vigil are looking to capture, nor is it all that catchy for what is supposed to be the premier stock of a band like this. It’s not terrible by any means, although, to keep the Dinosaur Pile-Up comparisons going, there’s a similar amount of meandering here that’s hard to really gravitate towards when it’s honestly not all that stimulating or memorable. It’s a similar story to the writing too; it isn’t wretched but The Vigil aren’t doing anything that lets them stand out or make a mark beyond being a vaguely pleasant but unavoidably derivative band for whom that’s a real crutch for them. This is the kind of the album that goes in one ear and right back out the other, and that’s sad to see; there’s definitely a spark to The Vigil, but they really could afford to go for broke more than they do and really let it burn bright. Hopefully the Dinosaur Pile-Up similarities will continue and The Vigil can build on what they have to turn out with a real stormer in a few years’ time. Right now though, they’ve still got a fair way to go.

5/10

For fans of: Dinosaur Pile-Up, Blood Red Shoes, Silverchair

‘Hypervigilance’ by The Vigil is released on 21st August on Fever Dog Records.


Words by Luke Nuttall

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