REVIEW ROUND-UP: The Killers, The Front Bottoms, blackbear

The Killers – Imploding The Mirage

Does anything more really need to be added to the narrative around The Killers? Or rather, can anything else be added? They’ve got one of the most recognisable styles in modern rock that’s barely changed since inception, and through a combination of flagrant Springsteen worship, indie sleekness and melodramatic heartland fairytales, they’ve ridden it out to become one of the biggest bands around. They reached the level of arena-rock indestructibility years ago, and that’s why they’ve barely faltered even after Battle Born was generally lukewarm in 2012, and Wonderful Wonderful couldn’t even scratch that in 2017. In the long run though, that doesn’t matter; The Killers have always been a singles band, and they’ve always had stellar instincts for choosing the individual cuts that work for them. It’s why Mr. Brightside has become the most overplayed song in existence that still no one’s tired of, and why Runaways and Run For Cover still stand high above their respective middling albums. With that in mind, even though Caution was a great lead single and about as concentrated as the concept of The Killers comes, history has shown that doesn’t necessarily mean Imploding The Mirage is going to match up as a whole. Except it really does, and the fact that The Killers still have something like this in their locker is mind-blowing in its own right. Because, to be perfectly frank, The Killers haven’t changed much of anything, but this is the tightest and leanest they’ve felt in many years, perhaps ever. Even with indie darlings like Weyes Blood, Alex Cameron and k.d. lang all having presences here, none of that feels like a vain attempt for The Killers to snap up some hipster like so many would, instead having them bend to their will and doubling down on what’s become their definitive sound. There’s still the tremendous, sweeping, Eagles-meets-Spandau Ballet size on Caution and Running Towards A Place, but that’s also been accentuated by clearer nods to Springsteen in the gleaming keys and beating, breathless pace of Dying Breed and the title track, along with new wave and synthpop touches they’ve often flirted with but have never been as well-integrated as they are here. The jerky plunk of Fire In Bone aside, Imploding The Mirage feels impassioned and liberated, and even if Brandon Flowers’ vocals aren’t the strongest they’ve ever been (just look at the first part of Dying Breed), he’s constantly got the power and showmanship that’s made him such a talismanic frontman for years.

There’s no deeper plan to make inroads into cooler, trendier scenes, because The Killers aren’t a cool or trendy band, and they’ve fully embraced that this time around. The clout that both k.d. lang and Weyes Blood could bring is significant, and yet they’re brought on as effectively garnish for a pair of towering choral hook-machines on Lightning Fields and My God that are among the least subtle moments on here. It’s the arena-rock shot in the arm that’s always been necessary for The Killers to make use of, even if they seldom have, but for the sort of band they are, it makes total sense. From a lyrical standpoint, they’re reaching Red Hot Chili Peppers territory in terms of milking the same thematic sources album on album – tales of love and heartbreak from the desert and rural America given a Golden Age of Hollywood gloss – but Imploding The Mirage makes the drama and romance feel so much more bracing. The scale is a lot greater and more elemental, particularly with the huge swells of vocals on Lightning Fields and My God or glorious expanse of the title track. It’s far from experimental, but it manages to encompass adventurousness in a completely different way than mixing up the sound or trying new things. Rather, Imploding The Mirage is impressively unbound in its visions, going bigger and making those extra jumps that The Killers have often made out to be behind them. They feel, quite simply, like a much younger, hungrier band, willing to hit those heights and soar with more conviction, even though they have no real need to, and it’s certainly paid off here. Even for an album that refuses to push any boundaries or shake off its distinctly mainstream trappings, Imploding The Mirage has a lot more than just another run-of-the-mill offering in focus and hook-craft alone. It’s easily the most concentrated display of The Killers’ strengths to date, and it might just be the best.

8/10

For fans of: Bruce Springsteen, U2, Spandau Ballet

‘Imploding The Mirage’ by The Killers is out now on Island Records.


The Front Bottoms – In Sickness & In Flames

It can be hard to feel any sort of excitement about The Front Bottoms anymore. Once upon a time, they had the energy of an indie-punk band brimming with charm and quirk that could stand defiantly as its own thing; nowadays, they’ve been engulfed by the Fueled By Ramen machine, to the point where 2017’s Going Grey felt almost determined to blast away anything that had once made them cool and unique. Some of that might’ve been rectified on their Ann EP a year later, but it’s not like that made a difference given that its consigning to the annals of their extensive back catalogue shows how steadfastly The Front Bottoms’ reputation of pop-rock clout-chasers has held. Thankfully In Sickness & In Flames serves as proof that Ann was more than just a fluke and The Front Bottoms are heading back to some form of equilibrium, albeit one that’s still a bit more polished and refined than it might once have been. There’s still a prominent acoustic foundation and Brian Sella’s unmistakable vocals cutting through the mix, but the production job from Mike Sapone has the big-budget feel he tends to lend to albums like this, leaning heavily on the emo and alt-rock sound in what’s richer and fuller overall. It’s no surprise that a headfirst leap hasn’t landed them back on their feet immediately, especially if the wince-worthy electronics that open jerk are anything to go by, but it’s generally a much more solid foundation than what might have transpired last time. Particularly on tracks like leaf pile or bus beat, there’s a confidence in sound that, even on their earlier, more well-received albums, might not have been present, as the band draw more from the likes of Say Anything in their overall approach. The amount of flab is palpable and an album like this doesn’t need to run for almost an hour in any circumstances, but with a good number of standouts and relatively lower cuts that don’t detract from the overall experience, there’s generally a warmth and likability to In Sickness & In Flames that works.

Familiarity is also very much a driving factor here, as the general irreverence that’s become something of a killer app within The Front Bottoms’ arsenal is very much back in action, and in full power. For as often as Sella might indeed by playing to character archetypes beyond anything else on a track like montgomery forever, he’s definitely good at it, and hitting those touchstone emo topics with a wordiness and rambling awkwardness feels almost humble in a way, like a band knowingly returning to their roots despite the bigger platform they currently have. They aren’t a stupid band, and with Sella’s unkempt yelp of a vocal and the gallons of self-awareness slathered all over it (“I’m taking lessons, I’m gonna learn how to sing,” he bleats out on bus beat), they’re clearly tracking the most direct path away from a pivot that was undoubtedly not working for them. That was always easy to see, and while In Sickness & In Flames can sometimes feel like overcompensation, it’s without question a better album and territory that The Front Bottoms are a lot more comfortable in. On top of that though, there’s definitely signs of a band shooting for more and not just retreating back to safety where they know they’ll be fine; as a closer, make way’s elegant, poised composition shows a band who can do a broader, more mainstream alt-rock style, and do it on their own terms. That generally feels like the M.O. with In Sickness & In Flames, and there’s a good amount of regularity in which The Front Bottoms pull it off. They’re doing what they do best but aiming a bit higher and wider with it, and right now, this is probably the ideal middle ground for those goals to intersect in.

7/10

For fans of: Say Anything, The Wonder Years, Modern Baseball

‘In Sickness & In Flames’ by The Front Bottoms is out now on Fueled By Ramen.


blackbear – everything means nothing

Of all the artists in the current emo-rap / alt-trap wave making legitimate mainstream plays, blackbear’s unfortunately makes the most sense. He’s never been a likable artist (typically ignorable at best and insufferable at worst), but between his co-opting of fashionable Gen Z sourness at everything and a depression-as-an-aesthetic style, he’s set all the pieces in motion to appeal to a young audience in the most naked way possible, and that’s never sat well. He’s probably never produced one single lyric that’s genuine or as though it’s come from a place other than commercial gerrymandering, and it’s the weaponising of that exact rancid artifice that makes his appeal so horrendously easy to understand. And now that it’s been moulded into it’s most undoubtedly pop context to date on everything means nothing, the whole thing just feels so much worse and deserving of even less respect. It lends such a phoniness to material that’s already being painted with impossibly broad strokes, and considering blackbear is deliberately trying to emphasise post-breakup depression and mental turmoil on songs like me & ur ghost and i felt that, it’s not believable or even remotely cathartic. At the risk of unknowingly dismissing or diminishing potential mental illness, it feels like an act; the unprovoked contempt for everyone and everything on hot girl bummer and queen of broken hearts reeks of the same sort of put-on dejection, and when that’s fed into the money-making sham that is blackbear’s career, it honestly doesn’t seem out of the question for everything means nothing to go to those lengths, if only to give his audience the most basic, surface-level approximation of something they can or want to relate to. It’s honestly revolting and quite manipulative, and the lack of any deeper engagement with that subject matter makes blackbear’s uselessness come across as all the more stark.

What’s even worse is that he clearly knows what he’s doing (songs like hot girl bummer have the sort of distressingly catchy choruses that you don’t just happen upon), but it doesn’t change that at the centre of it all is still blackbear, the Instagrammable emo dunce prioritising that image over any vocal passion or firepower, and even drawing attention to it by bringing in Lauv and Trevor Daniel to complete the trifecta of sadbois with woefully inadequate vocal skills on if i were you and clown respectively. It’s all there for marketability purposes, of course; the melodrama on display never has any real weight behind it, and pairing it with such blatant pop instrumentals ensures that blackbear has all his bases covered when it comes to profit, even if it makes no contextual sense. Considering they’re supposed to be wallowing in despondency, there’s no real reason for sobbing in cabo to have an upbeat synthpop glisten, nor is there one for half alive to have a taut, lively bassline and disco-funk rollick. None of this actually sounds incompetent – indeed, when there’s an appropriate tone on the misty, downbeat i feel 2 much, it’s honestly not that bad – but it doesn’t feel like the product of creative drive as much as a clear aptitude for discerning what will do well in a mainstream space, and tailoring any and all efforts to hit that target as squarely as possible. As such, there’s no possible way that everything means nothing, or indeed blackbear himself, can be reasonably endorsed; other than the fact that he’s occupying the exact same space as the majority of other worthless alt-trap artists, there’s something that’s so much more inherently slimy about far within the mainstream he’s positioning his efforts when he’s selling the kids what they want to hear and nothing else. For the sort of content he’s delivering, there’s not a sincere or genuine thing across the board here, and the fact that blackbear is effectively acknowledging that with the platform he’s manipulating himself feels indicative of an artist getting away with so much more than he should be able to.

3/10

For fans of: gnash, Trevor Daniel, Jon Bellion

‘everything means nothing’ by blackbear is out now on Alamo Records / Interscope Records.


Seether – Si Vis Pacem Para Bellum

There are certain expectations that come along with a Seether album. They’re usually too long and a bit slow, but compared to a good chunk of 2000s post-grunge and alt-metal that was roughly about as interchangeable as they come, Seether have a modicum of individuality to them. There’s not much of it, mind, and it’s not even nearly enough to deem Seether as an essential band, but within the admittedly narrow degradation of quality that scene has, there’s usually some form of reliability to be found. But even then, it’s not like Seether are a notably vital or impactful band, and where that was felt in earnest on 2017’s Poison The Parish is replicated almost exactly on Si Vis Pacem Para Bellum. They’ve settled into a groove at this stage that’s indicative of a band who know their biggest days are behind them yet still want to keep the wheels rolling, and if there was a phrase that embodied everything this album does, it would be that. It’s nice to hear some screaming of Dead And Done and Beg, but anything visceral that could be gleaned from that is a distinct minority on what’s a disappointingly one-paced album. The guitar tone is almost universally sludgy and implacable, clear evidence that bringing in Stuck Mojo’s Cory Lowery as an additional guitarist adds volume but little else, particularly when Seether aren’t doing anything with the extra resources they have. This is another slow, ponderously trudging album, and the fact that Shaun Morgan’s oversold grind in his vocals makes this seem like the hardest of work only highlights that further. Add to that that it’s also far too long and lacks a solid foundation for hooks that don’t degrade remarkably quickly, and Si Vis Pacem Para Bellum rarely comes across as an entertaining listen.

At the same time though, there’s nothing that’s notably awful here; it’s a Seether album that pulls out all the same tricks they’ve made use of for years now, and it only feels more tired because they’ve barely strayed from it in all that time. From a lyrical perspective if nothing else, Seether can pack in more interesting word choices than plenty of their contemporaries and that definitely counts for something, but they’re only used to mark out the same angsty outlines that have always been this band’s forte. There really is nothing new here, and it isn’t long before the slow, textureless plodding really does start to get boring. Even more so than a lot of Seether’s later material, Si Vis Pacem Para Bellum feels like it has decidedly little to offer, even in the vein of sticky choruses that, even up to their last album, could always be counted on. This just feels like a respin of the wheel coming out of obligation, indicative of a band burning out what little inspiration they actually had and ending up as the stock product at the centre, pushing out material that’ll meet expectations and probably please fans, but simply refuse to stick around. It’s just a shame that had to happen to Seether; they regularly seemed like a band that were better than that and were more capable of exhibiting actual effort in their music, and while that hasn’t totally drained here, they sound like they aren’t far off that.

4/10

For fans of: Chevelle, Staind, Breaking Benjamin

‘Si Vis Pacem Para Bellum’ by Seether is released on 28th August on Fantasy Records.


Narrow Head – 12th House Rock

After what felt like a moment of stalling out, the grunge revival looks to continuing with Narrow Head picking up the slack, albeit in a slightly different form. They often forwent the emo that the genre had become locked into on their 2016 debut Satisfaction, instead trending towards shades of punk that made for a denser and more formidable sound, something that a signing to Holy Roar for this second full-length could easily facilitate more. 12th House Rock is a bigger and more powerful album as it is, not only sonically but in what it could represent for Narrow Head as flagbearers for modern grunge, and the right amount of traction is imperative for really moving ahead. As such, it’s impressive to see what that leverage has subsequently yielded on 12th House Rock, as Narrow Head take cues from the emo and shoegaze revivals they might have initially run parallel to, but morph them both into a headier, more visceral experience. The gnarled bass thuds of Night Tryst and the undercurrents of dread and discomfort on Delano Door are especially potent, and show how the terse darkness that Narrow Head weave in can really elevate the grunge context. It also makes songs like Nodding Off feel a bit listless by comparison, where the floatier grunge progressions are less grounded and dense overall, and don’t hit with the same power that a song like Hard To Swallow does by augmenting effectively the same sound with a harsher guitar. If there’s a main fault to find with 12th House Rock, it would be here, in how Narrow Head can occasionally lose themselves in the breadth of their own soundscapes and stumble upon some less exhilarating territory. It’s not often to really disrupt things, and the ability to make six- and eight-minute songs engaging with such a sound is a huge credit to them already even amongst that, but it can make the album feel a little long and maybe not as focused as it otherwise could be.

Relatively though, 12th House Rock feels like the final product to do justice to Narrow Head’s vision overall, in which nocturnal spectres and demons of mental anguish and self-loathing hang over frontman Jacob Duarte, and open up the black labyrinths of his own mind with a semblance of light visible on the other side of the treachery. It’s a perfect fit for an album this sprawling and cavernous, and Duarte as a presence, while not exactly a master singer (and when placed further forward in the mix like on Stuttering Stanley, even more obviously so), has the dejected, wounded drawl that’s the ideal fit for an album that can be this oppressive. At the same time though, there’s a kernel of poppiness buried within 12th House Rock that signifies that light, and that creates a really solid balance that’s similar to the more melodic work of bands like Basement or Seahaven. The production remains gruff and imposing, but it also eases itself back slightly on tracks like Ponderosa Sun Club and Emmadazey for some better pacing. It’s the sort of album that needs time to unravel but really becomes worth it when it hits, and Narrow Head’s progression overall feels considerable, but also measured and natural. The issues to be ironed out can make it feel a bit less gripping than it should, but 12th House Rock is absolutely worth the time to explore and become lost in. When they hit their stride, Narrow Head can be utterly spellbinding, and that alone is a key factor in why this album is as good as it is.

7/10

For fans of: Balance And Composure, Superheaven, Higher Power

’12th House Rock’ by Narrow Head is released on 28th August on Holy Roar Records.


WACO – Hope Rituals

No one can cast aspersions on WACO for what happened with their debut. The tragic passing of bassist Chris Crowley at the end of 2018 put a halt on the release of Human Magic for what felt like an indefinite period of time, with it finally seeing the light of day almost a year later in November last year. The rapid turnaround time of Hope Rituals is somewhat telling then, not only serving as a triumphant vehicle through catharsis created in the midst of still-fresh wounds, but as a way for WACO to bounce back and barrel out of tragedy ready to move on and heal. And move on, they certainly do, as Hope Rituals sees WACO start at finding some form of closure and regaining happiness and normalcy, and end with a Golden Age space-opera about flying to another planet to find solutions for the wrongs on Earth. It’s a journey and a half, and one that might blitz by with a bit too much speed for WACO to do what’s properly necessary with it. When they’re on a human level, there’s a cogent emotional punch there, and a line like “There’s nothing like finding your friend dead in his bedroom” on Wrecking Ball have that unfiltered, honest spirit that WACO could honestly pull off well if kept at that scale. It’s not mawkish or overwrought in sentiments of moving on from grief on Good Days and Learn To Live Again, while still acknowledging that it’s not a straight process, and the negativity and overwhelming noise of the rest of the world can really have an effect on that on Barracuda and Physio. But as the field of view gets wider, there’s definitely a hint of WACO spreading themselves too thinly; Dark Before The Dawn is certainly a rousing wake-up call and easily the best example of what the band can achieve through this route, but Watch The Skies and A New Future seem to lose sight of the human core at the album’s roots, blowing themselves up to global and cosmic scales and feeling a lot thinner as a result.

It’s not all that surprising that’s the case though; WACO are a scatterbrained band that seem to want to cover as much territory as they can, towing the line between vivacious grandeur and knowingly stepping out of their depth. There’s more of the former with the instrumentation thankfully, with indie-punk, gonzo pop-rock and classic rock swagger meeting in the middle for a surprisingly tasty cocktail on the whole. There’s a good command of energy throughout the whole thing, almost quantising with Jak Hutchcraft’s bug-eyed shouts on the alt-rock surge of Good Days or the rough-hewn garage-rock collage of Dark Before The Dawn. On top of that, it’s all polished and tightened to let WACO’s anthemic sensibilities really fly, like when the Queen-esque vamping of Busy Livin’ breaks through an otherwise likable but standard pop-rock mould, or when A New Future embraces prog-pop camp as a sprawling seven-minute closer. There’s no question about WACO’s ambition, even if a bit of restraint would do them some good, though their capability is incredibly evident to see. Hope Rituals is rarely not enjoyable for as off-its-leash as it can be, but it’s also an example of how overextending can ultimately dilute a much stronger album. The first half of this album is undoubtedly stronger than its second, because it’s where focus comes into play the most; that’s about as telling as it gets that WACO are at their best when doubling down on that side of their work, rather than playing fast and loose with greater concepts and not giving them the greater space or care they need to hit the same heights.

6/10

For fans of: The Hives, Vukovi, Puppy

‘Hope Rituals’ by WACO is released on 28th August on Venn Records.


CLT DRP – Without The Eyes

CLT DRP are the sort of band who look to intrinsically have a wide sphere of reach in their sights, though that never feels like a factor they’re inherently playing up. Rather, it’s more a result of their dramatic concoction of sounds and appeal, with a cacophonous, harsh slamming together of punk and discordant electronic noise that’s just as ferocious as it is sonically flammable. They’re a band who’ve already mastered the art of presence, though Without The Eyes also finds them dipping into more diverse tactics than the initial prospect of clashing sounds might imply. That’s certainly there, and there’s a definitely a thrill to how the industrialised blasts of distortion ram through I Don’t Want To Go To The Gym and Like Father, but there’s a slow-burning aspect to CLT DRP that holds some of their greatest tricks. There’s a ticking, mechanical creep to Zoom 20 that builds and grows phenomenally, while the deliberate progressions of Skin Remover and Speak To My find their sources of aggression through spasms of digitised noise-rock. It almost feels like post-punk in how it’s constructed, only CLT DRP find themselves trading more insidious underplaying for blunt force, personified excellently by Annie Dorrett with a vocal range that encompasses everything from leather-lunged belting to slightly unhinged, Manson-esque creaks. She’s got the fluidity to pull it off too, acting as the defiantly human nucleus within the juddering, caustic landscape around her, and simultaneously defying it and assimilating within it.

That feels like an important quality for this band specifically to have as well, as Without The Eyes pulls no punches in extolling CLT DRP’s viciously feminist message. They’re not afraid to be provocative (the intro track alone makes that clear), but it’s all linked to how exhausting and frustrating Dorrett find the culture of policing women for everything they do, and how, on a track like I Don’t Want To Go The Gym, her attempts at self-love and positivity about who she is still get undercut by the self-criticism that’s been imposed upon her. There’s also the snark and biting wit that’s imperative for this sort of thing too, and that factors into the general snarl of Where The Boys Are and the volleys of derision towards the misogynistic traits that have survived through generations on Like Father. They’re the sort of profoundly modern and progressive statements that connect wholly with a band like CLT DRP, and that combined with the raucous, clattering abrasion of it all feels like contemporary punk in the truest sense. Without The Eyes is a great album in some obvious ways, but that doesn’t diminish what CLT DRP achieve; if anything, that kind of makes this work more, establishing a foundation that the band are more than happy to mangle whenever necessary. It’s forward-thinking to a fault, and that’s worth a great deal here.

8/10

For fans of: Nova Twins, Ho99o9, Haggard Cat

‘Without The Eyes’ by CLT DRP is released on 28th August on Small Pond Recordings.


Lucy Feliz – Last Of The Sun

While a potted profile of Lucy Feliz might place her in the same shadow as so many others in her lane – another atmosphere-driven indie-folk artist with a very poised, delicate voice – there’s clearly effort being made to distance herself and carve out something a bit more unique. The self-appointed label of ‘celestial-folk’ bears that heavy weight on Last Of The Sun, where the textures are grander and more expansive, though without completely removing the exhaling demureness that typically characterises this type of music. Vibe-wise, it’s akin to the more fey, sylvan fare of Florence + The Machine or maybe Hozier, only with a much tighter focus on Feliz herself and the imagery she creates. This is where Last Of The Sun really excels, as Feliz ruminates on her own formative years exploring her identity through an incredibly stark, watercolour palette of images. The encapsulation of distinct archetypes on Cowgirl and Werewolf have their place, but it’s the soft-focus stillness of Paradise or the dreamlike romanticism of Angie that leave the greatest impact. Feliz has a lyrical style that’s very poetic in a more traditional sense, meaning that drawing on nature and greater elemental forces has a powerful resonance to it, and leaves the drifting through these tableaux feeling more meditative and weary than listless.

That’s without question a useful quality to have, especially on this album where, to be honest, it isn’t the most dynamic listen. It’s not supposed to be either, though, and even with that being an inherent criticism of indie-folk rather than anything specifically directed at Feliz (though the rumbling country guitars on Silhouette are definitely appreciated as a gutsier turn), Last Of The Sun doesn’t feel barebones or deliberately rickety in a way similar albums can. It might be restrained but the production is full and gleaming throughout, as guitars ripple and reverberate alongside airy touches of synth, and Feliz’s equally glittering vocals serve as an anchoring presence that’s stark but never harsh within the mix. It’s not an album that swings for the fences terribly often, and that can result in it being a bit samey across the board, but there’s a richness here that’s undeniable, and the dreamier, country-leaning tones that Feliz favours facilitate that atmosphere excellently. It all feels very peaceful and reflectively melancholic, the sort of music whose greatest strength is how deeply its layers run and how much there is to examine within it. As such, it’s not for everyone, but Feliz’s particular style of indie-folk has wonder and a handful of qualities the genre typically doesn’t possess, and to see them mesh so effortlessly makes for a blissful yet poignant and passionate listen.

7/10

For fans of: Laura Marling, Ellis, Anna Burch

‘Last Of The Sun’ by Lucy Feliz is released on 28th August on OK Pal Records.


Words by Luke Nuttall

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