Declan McKenna – Zeros
Honestly, the fact that Declan McKenna is releasing a second album at all is a minor miracle. When he released his debut What Do You Think About The Car? in 2017, he exhibited all the telltale signs of an indie-rock flash-in-the-pan, insomuch as he was a young, new indie soloist that could pen lyrics that punched higher than his tender years would lead many to believe. A new one comes around like clockwork every few months to a year, and they’re rarely given follow-up opportunities that amount to much. But in essence, it seems as though McKenna has used that averted spotlight to his advantage on Zeros, as this looks to be a much different beast to its predecessor. The production credits belong to Jay Joyce for a start, a producer whose background in country makes him seem distinctly at odds from indie wunderkinds like Rostam Batmanglij and James Ford, and lead single Beautiful Faces hinted at a noticeably more rugged and grown-up sound than what could feel a bit naive last time. That’s to be expected, of course – McKenna was only 18 when his debut was released and certain songs on it dated even further back than that – but Zeros is surprisingly self-assured in the sound it’s adopted. There’s a lot here that has a very David Bowie-esque energy to it, in which a glam-rock sound forms the basis but has various genre-bending perspectives coaxed through it. It’s all done with a good amount of robustness and classical acumen, too; Be An Astronaut has the exact glitzy sway that a lot of ‘70s glam made great use of, while Beautiful Faces and Daniel, You’re Still A Child flex a lot of their classic rock chops in just how loud and packed-in yet expansive their sound is. Zeros is an album that sounds massive, especially buoyed by being the recipient of one of Joyce’s most well-rounded rock production jobs to date. There isn’t a lot that particularly vaults this material past other backwards-focusing indie-rock, and the passages of blown-out noise that come as climaxes on tracks like Twice Your Size aren’t the grand, satisfying conclusions they’re presumably supposed to be, but it’s easy to like this sound overall when the density isn’t at the expense of greater refinement. There’s a great pronounced bass tone that lends more tangible groove to Rapture and Sagittarius A* than is frequently acknowledged, and the ever-evolving collage of sounds of Emily comes together rather neatly in a way that isn’t a million miles from something The Beatles might’ve come out with on their mid-period material. There’s clearly care and creativity embedded in McKenna’s throwback sound; the amount of bulking up that his work has undergone in the interim between his debut and now makes that evident, and the fact that’s encompassed more flexibility than simply a louder variation sees a lot of that wider vision coalesce well.
McKenna has always had that greater viewpoint though, and it only seems bigger on Zeros because the execution can now match it in terms of forcefulness and populist intention. Granted, that can cause a bit of a snag when McKenna’s outlooks on modern society can lack a certain flavour when boiled down to their general ideals. It’s not his fault that the subsection of indie songwriters peddling a ‘wise-beyond-their-years’ narrative has grown around him, but there’s definitely a touch of Sam Fender-esque myopia that can squeeze through a track like Sagittarius A*, something that can be even more disappointing when a similar examination of modern working class environments is done so much better earlier on with The Key To Life On Earth. McKenna is definitely the more accomplished songwriter though, both in lyrical detail and overall thematic depth, and Zeros generally makes it clear to see why that aspect of him as an artist has been held to such high esteem. For an album that’s yet another run-through of the ills of technology spiel, there’s a more abstract edge placed on it, right from the opener You Better Believe!!! in sentiments that have a futurism to them without neglecting ties to the present, all the way to Eventually, Darling, the moment of departure and finality that, reflected by the digital world around it, still feels fraught with anxieties and isolation. The way McKenna fronts it all feels notably human but simultaneously elevated in attempts to emulate rock’s grand history of persona-driven auteurs, a decision that may be slightly above his station at this level, but by no means is out of place on an album attempting to be as bold and sweeping as Zeros is. It’s definitely not perfect and could still do with tightening up to make the most of what it has, but this is exactly the sort of step forward that McKenna really needed to make to keep his momentum within the industry building. He feels a lot closer to finding an identity of his own, and for as much of that comes from some blatant glances towards his genre’s history, he pulls it off with individual flair and panache that distances his greatly from being just another face in the revival-rock crowd. His profile is a bit too solidified for that to realistically be the case, but nevertheless, this is a confident effort whose impact can’t be avoided, particularly in a scene that might not have even given him this second chance in the first place. • LN
For fans of: David Bowie, The Kinks, Roxy Music
‘Zeros’ by Declan McKenna is released on 4th September on Sony Music Entertainment.
Dream Nails – Dream Nails
At the very end of Dream Nails’ self-titled debut, there’s a hidden track called Big Dyke Energy, in which the band lay out their staunch ethos of feminism and equality with consummate efficiency over a ramshackle acoustic line and the mashed-up melodies of Mama’s Gonna Knock You Out and Oops Upside Your Head. That’s a pretty succinct image to define what Dream Girls are all about, a punk band in the truest sense of the word with regards to how biting and no-nonsense they when it comes to social change, but who also have a distinct sense of humour and are more than liable to bring some levity to the table whenever they can. It places the brighter indie-pop edge that’s affixed to their very sharp, classicist punk mindset into a context that does a great deal, and they already cover a lot of ground with it on this debut. Apart from the abundance of interludes that, honesty, don’t amount to a whole lot, there’s an expert amount of tightness on this album, in which the punk tempos are kept high and sharp to shave off any unnecessary filler or fat. Even with the interludes, this is still a remarkably lean album, buoyed even further in that direction by the production, in which the indie-pop angle rings the clearest and adds a lot of dimension to the sound. There’s a profound amount of focus here, even within an album that doesn’t tend to stick to one rigid sound and likes to show just how flexible it can be, with the results being almost always great. Mimi Jasson’s bass presence stands as a clear and consistent highlight throughout, but there’s honesty not a weak link among Dream Nails, a trait that makes a more open palette of sounds – be that scuzzy, adrenalised punk on Vagina Police, sharper, brighter indie-pop on Swimming Pool or even what feels like their take on a hardcore groove on Payback – gel with such ease.
They definitely establish themselves as a band that have a broad creative scope, but the skill set to ensure that doesn’t feel fragmented or disparate. Every progression within this album makes sense in its wider context, and when factoring in the lyrics that take a similar approach in wide-firing but pointed dissections of various parts of society, the scale that Dream Nails operate on still feels rather concise. It’s their firebrand side that leaves the most lasting impression, taking aim at invasive strains of capitalism on Corporate Realness, the justice that isn’t awarded to survivors of sexual violence on Payback and the fetishisation of female homosexuality on Kiss My Fist. Fronted by Janey Starling’s pointed vocal delivery, they’ve already got the makings a great punk band through all the necessary avenues, but it’s the aforementioned humour and human perspective that takes Dream Nails over the top and really makes them stand out. There’s an inherent levity and humanity to having a sexual awakening spurred on by workout DVDs on Jillian, or the pangs of anxiety at being left on read on Text Me Back (Chirpse Degree Burns), and while these moments never overshadow the wider, more pertinent topics, they’re a perfect accompaniment and do a lot to flesh out Dream Nails as people rather than just a political mouthpiece. That’s a factor that often goes overlooked in punk, and to see Dream Nails take to it so naturally feels so impressively accomplished and fully-formed already. There’s a crucially modern sensibility to them that pairs so well with the fast, frenetic edge of classic punk, topped off by an indie chaser for a sharper and slightly more palatable taste. It’s a great combination that rarely, if ever, falters, held together by an abundance of heart and passion that makes a very punch listen hit even harder. Brought together, it makes Dream Nails seem like one of the most relevant names in punk today, both in vision and exceptional quality. • LN
For fans of: Dream Wife, The Regrettes, Petrol Girls
‘Dream Nails’ by Dream Nails is out now on Alcopop! Records.
Cold Years – Paradise
Cold Years’ career so far might be short, but they’ve already undergone one hell of an evolution. Their first couple of EPs felt shamelessly indebted to the gruff, heartfelt punk of Hot Water Music and The Menzingers without much of an identity of its own, something that came to light more on their Northern Blue EP in 2018. That saw the band heading in a more confident alt-rock direction without totally displacing the foundations they’d already set, now more in line with the upper tiers of Britrock holding bands like The Xcerts and Deaf Havana. That’s a fair leap from a couple of relatively disappointing early works, but one that isn’t without merit for how powerfully Paradise clicks at almost every turn. In fact, The Xcerts and Deaf Havana probably serve as the best reference points for Cold Years’ intent, with the towering, distinctly Scottish take on melody of the former mixed with the lyrical heft of disenfranchisement and ennui of the latter. There’s definitely a significant dose of snark baked into that album title, as frontman Ross Gordon makes his way through the crushing mental landscape that his hometown of Aberdeen has forged, in which disaffection is rife and bleakness abounds. He establishes his own sense of placelessness early on with 31, something that’s heavily come about through political division that prevents any positive opportunities from arising – even within his own generation on 62 (My Generation’s Falling Apart) – and while there’s undoubtedly a sense of hope that something could happen for the better on Life With A View and Burn The House Down, the unmistakable frustration in his voice almost seems reluctant to even dream. It’s a very grounded sentiment overall, and one that has the frustration that feels so natural in times like these, delivered with a combination of punk gusto and alt-rock tension that make an absolutely perfect blend with Gordon’s gnarled vocal style. The punk spirit most certainly isn’t lost with Cold Years; it’s augmented and melodic, sure, but also given the beefiness and fist-in-the-air anthemic punch to consistently hit across the board.
That isn’t hurt at all by the fact that Paradise is, by an absolute mile, the most refined that Cold Years’ style has been to date. Gordon’s voice rests at a far more comfortable range, for one (especially compared to their earlier EPs), but bringing that together with mid-paced alt-punk just feels so natural and capable of exhibiting that exact tone the band are looking for. In terms of raw execution, Paradise sounds tremendous with production that’s warm and organic as well as being unafraid to let the guitars and bass bristle more, but it sounds huge on top of all of that as well. Night Like This and Electricity have the sort of world-class hooks that’ll no doubt see this band hit their stride in alt-rock, and the rumble and tone that’s baked into them lends a grit whose effectiveness can’t be overstated. This still feels like a punk album despite the radio-rock turns it can take, though even then, they’re never to its detriment. Rather, Paradise sees Cold Years tapping into their melodic zenith and wringing every drop of potential out of it, to the point where they’ve honestly never sounded better or more like a truly scene-stealing band. When the only real weak patch comes at the very end with Hunter, an acoustic closer whose worst crime is that it’s just a bit flaccid and not all the memorable, that places Paradise in some rather high esteem, something that it wholeheartedly deserves, at that. Cold Years might never have made the biggest mark in the past, but this achieves exactly what a debut full-length of this stripe should – it collates the best of the material that came before it, and refines it down even further to hit the peak of its power. That’s the case here, and it couldn’t be more satisfying to see. • LN
For fans of: Deaf Havana, Hot Water Music, The Xcerts
‘Paradise’ by Cold Years is released on 4th September on eOne / Inside Out Records.
Oceans Of Slumber – Oceans Of Slumber
Oceans Of Slumber’s sound is inherently intertwined with exploring human emotions. Combining heavy instrumentation with gothic and ethereal elements, they produce powerfully dynamic music. The new album is no exception to this, but it also sees the band evolve through new soundscapes. Following their latest 2018 album, The Banished Heart, Oceans Of Slumber deliver a reinvented sound that feels more emotionally exposed than before. Soundtrack To My Last Day opens the self-titled album with a dark, almost melancholy tone with ideas of the end being explored, somewhat ironically, at the beginning. The instrumentation explores a range of tone and textures – setting the scene for the rest of the tracks to follow. The lyrical delivery feels somewhat ethereal. The soaring elements of the track give a sense of grandeur, something higher, even divine; their use of instrumentation enhances this immensely. The human sense of emotion still remains. It goes onto to contrast Pray For Fire which feels much more down to earth, with raw emotional vocals and a sound that focuses more, stylistically, around melodic hard rock. The build up into heavier instrumentation and harsh vocals not only plays with the dynamics of the track but also presents darker ideas in a dramatic manner. The sudden change to a haunting backing melody in symphonic style vocals, and a spoken word section from Cammie, takes this track in an unexpected direction.
As the album progresses, they explore more and more genre influences. The vast variety across the tracks, which is fantastically executed, just shows how versatile Oceans Of Slumber are. I Mourn These Yellowed Leaves draws in black metal influences with epic machine-gun double pedal drumming, intense harsh vocals and heavy instrumentation. In usual Oceans of Slumber fashion, it is contrasted with soaring vocals from Cammie, an uplifting soundscape, and intricate melodies on lead guitars. They explore darkness in all its forms, and never forget to balance with presence of the light. At over eight minutes long, this track goes through a number of seasons. Before long the track changes to a hauntingly beautiful piano melody with accompanying vocals and a guitar lead enhancing the melody’s accents. As with all of the tracks on this album, it takes you on a journey. As Cammie had stated, “We’re dark southern souls. We’re passionate and emotive, violent and starkly beautiful.” This description summarises their new able aptly. The new album is incredibly powerful and really shows off Ocean Of Slumber’s developments in their sound and songwriting. • HR
For fans of: Ne Obliviscaris, Enslaved, Winterscape
‘Oceans Of Slumber’ by Oceans Of Slumber is released on 4th September on Century Media Records.
From Ashes To New – Panic
It’s hard to know what to really say about From Ashes To New anymore, mostly because any predictions about them tend to result in the complete opposite happening. Releasing your rap-rock / nu-metal debut album in 2016 should’ve been dead in the water, but they were ultimately picked up by the radio-rock crowd and wheeled out by the next big thing; continuing down the same trail for a weaker second album should’ve exposed how much of their initial success was a fluke, but it just made them bigger than ever. Add onto that that new album Panic is being positioned in the same lane led by Hollywood Undead’s equally baffling newest wave of success, and it doesn’t look like From Ashes To New are going away anytime soon. More’s the pity too, because just like Hollywood Undead, radio-rock complacency has become pretty much the only factor in From Ashes To New. As such, Panic doesn’t feel like much of anything beyond the newest rollout of the mainstream nu-metal wagon; it’s all very big and made for airplay, with slick, shiny production that ensures not a hair is out of place and an instrumental palette limited to various flavours of mid-paced, scrubbed-clean chugging. It’s about as bog-standard and basic as it gets, nailed down by Danny Case’s shamelessly blatant Chester Bennington impression and Matt Brandyberry’s rather pedestrian rap flows that are evident of a band trying their absolute hardest to be Linkin Park.
But where Linkin Park had intensity and firepower, From Ashes To New find themselves piggybacking off a very marketable flavour of angst that incorporates the usual limited lexicon of depression, inner demons and the like that this scene loves to milk for all it’s worth. It’s incredible how little ingenuity has gone into any of the writing here, and how comfortable the band are at just leaning into its overwroughtness. Granted, it can be a bit hit-or-miss on the odd occasions they do try; Sidefx isn’t exactly a polemic but has suitably enough to say about prescription drug addiction, but the attempt of tacking school shootings on Bulletproof can feel a bit misguided when it feels as though they’re sympathising with the shooter until about halfway through. It screams of a carelessness and a lack of aptitude when it comes to moving out of the safest space possible that plagues Panic, and leads to there being so little to talk about. This is effectively the exact same album that’s been churned out time and time again, only now with some sub-par rapping to balance out the sanitised butt-rock allergic to change or evolution. Even from the song titles alone, it’s so easy to work out exactly what From Ashes To New are saying on this album and the exact ways they choose to say it, and a level of predictability that aggressive is never conducive with an album worth listening to. • LN
For fans of: Hollywood Undead, I Prevail, Through Fire
‘Panic’ by From Ashes To New is out now on Better Noise Records.
Fame On Fire – Levels
The fact that Fame On Fire even exist is a hefty indictment on them. They’ve become known for their metalcore covers over pop songs above all else (they’re the ones responsible for that horrendous XO Tour Llif3 cover from a few years ago, for the record), but when there’s already Our Last Night doing the exact same shtick – and most of the time, no one wants them either – the level of redundancy that this band emanate really is unparalleled, especially now that they’re making their own music and still don’t have an original idea in their collective heads. They might try and refute that with the tongue-in-cheekly titled intro Cover Band, but one derivative, stock metalcore breakdown later (in the very first minute of the album, no less) is enough to show how Fame On Fire’s opinions of themselves are considerably more generous than the reality. This is metalcore that would’ve sounded dated and out of fashion five years ago, let alone today, with the only inkling of distinction being the odd trap beat wedged into colourless overproduction and an excruciating lack of variety in pace and tone. There’s the acoustic R&B of Scars Of Love, but that’s the last song here, and it’s the only tangible example of Fame On Fire moving away from a comfort zone that had been wrung dry half a decade ago. Honestly, it’s amazing how little evolution seems to have been given a thought when crafting these songs, when Bryan Kuznitz could pass for literally any other C-league vocalist, and the tepid, mid-paced instrumentation suffers from the exact same fate. Even their guest vocalists bring nothing; Poorstacy just sounds like an own-brand Juice WRLD on Headspace, and giving Our Last Night’s Trevor Wentworth the chance to phone in a spot on Now And Forever feels like Fame On Fire are drawing more attention to their similarities than they can reasonably maintain.
Not that it matters all that much, because Levels could’ve been lifted wholesale from the catalogues of a vast number of metalcore non-starters and it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference. It’s just a nondescript lyrically as all the others, flickering between inner demons and toxic relationships, rarely elaborating beyond the bare minimum and rarely sticking as a result. Even when they do hit, Fame On Fire are hardly poets – Crazy For Your Crazy might go down a slightly different path but still reads like a mediocre nu-metal song – and that just makes the straight-up bad moments like So Sad feel outright insipid. To claw together some vestige of an upside, Show You at least has a vaguely catchy chorus when compared to everything else, but to say that peaks out above the sea of blasé disinterest that Levels cultivates would be clutching at straws entirely too tightly. And thus, what’s left is another cold, faceless metalcore husk to toss onto the landfill, though at least a lot of the ones already there came at a time when it was reasonable. For Fame On Fire, there’s absolutely no excuse to be releasing an album like this in 2020, nor is there one for them to give themselves the tag of ‘genre-defying’ when they’re so clearly boxed within outdated metalcore mediocrity. The chances are this’ll get forgotten as soon as it drops and Fame On Fire will go back to doing the covers they became known for, though whether that’s a wholly preferable alternative is still up in the air. • LN
For fans of: Our Last Night, Memphis May Fire, The Word Alive
‘Levels’ by Fame On Fire is released on 4th September on Hopeless Records.
lovelytheband – conversations with myself about you
Look, if AJR are going to continue to blight existence then their wannabes sure aren’t going to fold, even though there’s really no reason for a band like lovelytheband to stick around at all. They’ve got the Imagine Dragons problem where they’re safe and secure enough to ensure a pop crossover if necessary, but so far their only example of that has been Broken, the sort of inconsequential whiff of a song that any similar ‘indie’-pop band could pump out with minimal effort and would probably end up being tossed aside just as easily. Especially given that their album Finding It Hard To Smile has just as little going for it, conversations with myself about you (with its canny adoption of lower-case stylisation to really seem current) seems to have whatever inertia is left from that solitary single to thank for its entire existence, given that it’s a pretty safe bet that no one cared about lovelytheband long enough to want it. But despite those preconceptions and the shriekingly self-indulgent length of the thing, conversations… isn’t too bad. It’s not exactly good either, but if anything was going to inspire hope that lovelytheband would become a more refined indie-pop prospect and not hold fast to the asinine modern scene, it would be this. It’s still synthetic, but there’s an ‘80s-inspired lushness in the glittery production of waste and drive that’s a tremendous improvement, and loneliness for love and emo feel a lot more measured as candidates for hits than these bands tend to produce. There’s something slightly more mature about the overall sound that can really click when done right; lovelytheband move away from the grating cheapness and suffocating desire to be as contemporary as possible, and while there’s still an underdeveloped quality to Mitch Collins’ vocals that doesn’t match that intent, the best moments on conversations… remain far more digestible.
But bear in mind those come in moments; as an entire body of work, lovelytheband continue to fall into the traps their scene is notorious for getting caught in, be that a chronic lack of momentum to carry full projects to the end of their already-inflated runtimes, or a dearth of consistency that could really help. conversations… is a banner example of that too, especially when reverting back to old habits in over-broad Gen Z insularity on i hate myself and i should be happy (although the latter is still better than most of its kind). It’s nothing stellar even when they do get it right, but for as well-trodden as ruminations on love, relationships and Collins’ views on himself go, they’re rather standard but not too bad. Honestly this could’ve been far worse than it actually is, especially taking into account where lovelytheband came from and the climate they broke through it, but conversations…, if nothing else, has a handful of moments that are definitely worth revising. The same definitely cannot be said for the album as a whole, but even that’s a massive improvement on their debut, and for a band from a scene that rarely even entertains that idea, it’s worth noticing. • LN
For fans of: AJR, Vinyl Theatre, Night Riots
‘conversations with myself about you’ by lovelytheband is out now on The Century Family.
Chloe Lilac – Douchebag
The biggest shortcoming of artists like Chloe Lilac is that they just don’t feel built to last. It’s the same criticism that used to be levelled at a lot of disposable teen-pop, but at least artists like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus have grown up with their audiences, even if it isn’t with much grace or tact; Lilac, meanwhile, falls into the bracket of the bedroom-pop camp that’s so entrenched in an unshakably contemporary, TikTok-friendly formula that’s a lot harder to break out of. She might have amassed a significant number of fans off the back of singles and her debut EP Manic Pixie Dream, but hers is a sound that, by design, doesn’t leave much room to evolve beyond the rigid boundaries it finds itself held in. And while there’s definitely a conversation to be had about the longer-lasting impact of artists choosing to put all of their eggs in that one basket, Lilac clearly couldn’t care less about those ramifications given that Douchebag barely even entertains the idea of trying to be more. This is glazed-over Zoomer alt-pop with few concessions made, the only notable differentiating factor being that Lilac seems to be taking advantage of her major label backing a bit more in some of the more elegant production on Obvious and Who Is Emily. With a vocal timbre and vibrato that’s not a million miles away from Ariana Grande, Lilac feels at least a bit more raring from prime time than some of her peers, though that isn’t a consistent observation. The compressed GarageBand facade overlaying Moderation doesn’t sound good at all when the chugging guitars and synths clatter haphazardly with each other, and the focus on the clunky, swampy bass hits on Here’s Your Song and the title track seem to want to emulate a raggedness and homegrown sensibility, only to make the songs feel unceasingly slow and plodding. That’s only exacerbated by the grainy production filter draped over pretty much everything, the tactic du jour of bedroom-pop artists looking to make themselves appear on a ground level that just ends up sounding consistently fake. For as much as an artist like Billie Eilish wants to embody a similar headspace, it at least comes with a unique style, instead of rehashing the same stream of techniques that everyone before has used without much success.
The same notion can easily be applied to Lilac herself, at that. She writes herself as a tiresomely stereotypical character in the mould of the edgy, too-cool-to-care alt-girl, accompanied by guys who seem just as lacking in dimensionality as dejected, rebellious dickheads, rattling off all the usual pieces of imagery to fully nail down how little more than archetypes these people are. And of course, all the necessary beats are hit with tedious succession; it’s not as outwardly embarrassing as the worst of someone like Hey Violet (though Moderation does give them a run for their money), but Lilac’s writing has barely anything to distinguish it as hers and hers alone. The familiarity of these narratives saps them of any significant appeal, instead feeling built around the concepts that a young audience (and, indeed, Lilac herself) would gravitate towards within these circles. It doesn’t help that Lilac is yet another artist for whom any greater vocal drive or passion is seen as optional, and it gives a casualness to songs like Here’s Your Song and Who Is Emily that, while ugly and imperfect by design, feel ashamed to embrace that lest it risk cracking the veneer or make them seem less cool. It’s how gearing it explicitly to a younger audience allows music like this to thrive, given that the danger of seeing how blatantly fake it is is greatly reduced, and thus making the chance of appeal easier. And while it might seem pointless to chide pop music for being fake, Lilac has every opportunity to do something much grander with that artifice, but chooses not to for the purpose of feeding and furthering the culture. She isn’t the sole proprietor of this issue, nor is she even the worst – there are far worse artists than her operating in the exact same lane – but when she’s just as uninteresting and pedestrian as all the others, it’s hard to see where that appeal actually comes from, or how, for those who can see it, it can be made to last. • LN
For fans of: L Devine, Beabadoobee, Hey Violet
‘Douchebag’ by Chloe Lilac is out now on RCA Records.
Young Knives – Barbarians
The Young Knives of 2020 are a far different beast than when they first started. Their brand of post-punk revivalism has always placed more of an onus on the post-punk side, going right back to their 2006 debut Voices Of Animals And Men, but even then, it still had enough in common with the indie of the time to be nominated for a Mercury Prize and to make support slots with The Futureheads and the Kaiser Chiefs make sense. Barbarians, meanwhile, feels unashamedly hostile and prickly, throwing the majority of indie accessibility to the side and burying into contorting experimental post-punk all centred around how brutally awful humankind can be. In terms of grasping that angle, it’s clear that a lot of Young Knives’ efforts connect phenomenally; Henry Dartnall has the sort of sonorous voice that’s dripping with as much misanthropy as needed for something like this, the galvanising force that embeds so much darkness and ugliness into the likes of Society For Cutting Up Men and the title track with its roughened sample of a fight to open up. It’s all very deliberately harsh and hardscrabble with the grime left on serving as a distinct feature, also highlight how starkly Young Knives as a band come across. The well-known Gang Of Four influence feels extremely pronounced, especially in what feels like a more incendiary and volatile tone overall.
At the same time though, there’s a rather high barrier to entry when it comes to what Young Knives are doing here, and that can make Barbarians a rather difficult album to get to grips with. As can easily be assumed, hooks or conventionally cogent melodies aren’t much of a factor, and having that combined with cold, relentless production and an instrumental canvas driven by a similar implacable harshness can make it difficult to really enjoy in any traditional fashion. In the vein of a lot of post-punk, that unflinching mood is most definitely the point, and it’s not like Young Knives can be faulted for it, especially with the stone-faced yet irreverent lyrics and delivery that link back to a lot of the acts that clearly form the bedrock of their musical identity. But where a band like Fontaines D.C. are looking towards a similar stripe of post-punk and giving it a more clearly defined vision, the deliberately fractured and unstable sound that Young Knives lay down just doesn’t feel as fully formed, and less intuitive tracks like Jenny Haniver and Holy Name ‘68 don’t do much to improve upon that. Of course, anyone who’s willing to take the plunge into the ragged, destructive hole that’s created on Barbarians is likely to find a good amount to dig into – it’s certainly an album that benefits from multiple listens – but there’s also the suspicion that Young Knives might have built their walls up a bit too high with this one. Even as one of the more interesting-in-concept post-punk releases of the year, it’s difficult to imagine a lot of what Young Knives doing with it sticking for the majority of people, and even if that might be the point to some extent, it’s not wrong to have hoped for a bit more. • LN
For fans of: Gang Of Four, The Fall, Public Image Ltd.
‘Barbarians’ by Young Knives is released on 18th September on Gadzook Records.
Honey Joy – II
On the surface, Honey Joy seem like just another indie-punk band. Their self-titled debut in 2017 didn’t do much to dissuade from that notion either, but II definitely feels like something a bit different, even from just a casual glance. What stands out the most is just how short it is – nine tracks long, five of which don’t even break two minutes and a total run length of less than twenty – that at least implies a change from the unwavering norm. Granted, any immediate thoughts are rather polar, be it as a chance to cut back on what might be seen as unnecessary baggage and perhaps err more towards their punk side, or do the bare minimum while continuing to rake in praise from a DIY scene that generally seems scared to criticise their own. In the end, they wind up a lot closer to the first, though that was never going to be up for dispute; there’s a street-level intergrity and sticktoitiveness to Honey Joy that they share with so many of their contemporaries, with that general mood is carried over to II and the predictions of loosening the indie-punk boundaries generally holding some water. They toy with quicker, sharper punk tempos on Acute On Chronic and Saluting Magpies and bass-heavy post-punk reverberations on Part One – The Contagion and Raising Boys, but it’s Queen Ray that shines the most, in its jubilant classic rock riffing that’s bright and towering, but also feels like a natural inclusion on this album. There’s an immaculate tightness to the overall composition that’s basically in perfect equilibrium throughout, and the natty garage-rock production keeps each individual piece in line without subduing moments that have a good amount of individuality to them.
On the whole, II suffers a lot less of the fatigue that tends to plague indie-punk albums like this nowadays, largely a result of the aforementioned tightness that packs everything in without being slight or anaemic. It’s not out of turn to say that, after hearing so many albums like this, the more standard cuts of this sound can lose a bit of their luster, but the taut, fidgety energy in Honey Joy ensures they don’t drag or dwell on that sameness for too long. It also lends a certain amount of kick to Meg Tinsley’s writing, transitioning from poor mental health to striving for a place of self-love and the experience and thought processes that characterise that journey. There’s a snappiness to it that the inherently quick pace of the album does a lot to foster, and really only stalls by some less-than-stellar vocal mixing that can lead Tinsley a bit too flat and deep within the mix to hit with similar sharpness. That’s honestly the biggest issue here though, and for an album that initially doesn’t seem to promise a whole lot even within the admittedly restrictive limits of its genre, that’s undoubtedly a positive result. Honey Joy could still afford to be a bit more adventurous but what they’ve done feels stylish and robust, and doing it all so compactly is possibly the best way to make the most of what they have. On top of being strong stuff from front to back, it feels more fresh, and among the flood of indie-punk over the past couple of years, that’s the most anyone can ask for. • LN
For fans of: Happy Accidents, Martha, Fresh
‘II’ by Honey Joy is released on 4th September on Everything Sucks Records.
Snow Coats – Pool Girl
Snow Coats aren’t a band that sound like they should rightfully exist in 2020. Where the rest indie-pop has taken up either ponderous dejection or a roundabout aping of The 1975, there’s something so pure and nostalgic about a band making the most of organic sincerity, with a mastery of twee that would’ve made it a soundtrack staple for indie comedies about a decade-and-a-half ago. It’s really only after such a lengthy absence that it becomes clear how much this sound has been missed, and how Snow Coats hit all the sweet spots with incredible ease on their new EP. The big selling point for that is the heavy use of acoustic guitar and mandolin to create a folkier, breezier sound, and alongside Anouk van der Kemp’s incredibly light and poised vocals, there’s a great sense of buoyancy given to the title track and Set And Replay that, again, feels worlds away from most of modern indie-pop. It helps that Snow Coats aren’t trying to pretend they’re something they aren’t either; there’s not a rough edge to be found on this thing, and by leaning into the summery pop sway they’ve cultivated, it makes for some nice lush moments that benefit greatly from how layered the instrumentation and production is. It’s a bit one-note, all things considered though, and even when Daan Ebbers’ electric guitar is given a more prominent role on Navy Blue, the overall mood doesn’t really change. It doesn’t help that Snow Coats don’t have a lot about them that can be extrapolated going forward either, and the sound that they foster for themselves on Pool Girl gives the impression that this is where they’ll be grounded from now on.
If that is the case though, at least Snow Coats prove they can do something with it. The blissful tone of the music creates that backdrop of long, youthful summers, and while there’s definitely a sense of easing into that shimmer in van der Kemp’s writing, there’s still a lot of anxiety and overthinking to create that human element among an otherwise faultless tableau. Snow Coats aren’t looking to sanitise themselves in every respect, and the niggling, gnawing thoughts that pervade the title track and Jersey Weather are the necessary ties to a more traditional indie spirit. Again, it’s very reminiscent of indie-pop with even shades of emo from times gone by, and that’s a good scene to work in, simply for how many opportunities it offers. There’s real potential to do great things for Snow Coats by building on what they have; it’s not as to-the-minute as what might be going on in the mainstream, but Pool Girl already sees a band bristling with charm and likability that will only skyrocket even further with a bit more growth and refinement. • LN
For fans of: The Spinto Band, Cavetown, The Moldy Peaches
‘Pool Girl’ by Snow Coats is released on 11th September on Alcopop! Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall (LN) and Holly Royle (HR)