REVIEW ROUND-UP: The Hell, Ihsahn, Semisonic

The Hell
JORIS (A Hardcore Opera) – Part 1

The best thing about The Hell is that they seem to realise that their particular trick works best in small doses. It’s probably the only reason they’ve managed to keep up what they do as long as they have, especially from the inherent fatigue that comes from their whole persona of a revolving door cast of bandana-clad anons doling out belligerent, loutish hardcore. As such, when their EP Doosh was released earlier this year, it came after about five years of silence, arguably the ideal amount of time for a concept whose thrills are so knowingly one-dimensional to regain its necessary energy once again. It’s the main reason why that EP was as good as it was, the brusque boot to the face that The Hell can always be relied on, only now with the benefit of time to revitalise it. Thus, on comes the arrival of JORIS (A Hardcore Opera), what looks to be the collective’s next big project while they have the floor again, and the sort of exercise in drilling their collective tongues into their cheek that’s come to be expected from them by now. And with this first part, those expectations pretty much come to pass, with The Hell’s narrative about the titular hardware store worker looking to escape his workaday mundanity and follow his dreams filled with the blunt irreverence that’s always been their calling card, but also a chronic lack of longevity that prevents it from being outwardly great. It’s mostly down to overall structure the band have looked to inhabit here, in what effectively equates to the pilot episode of a TV series that looks to set up further action than provide much of its own, and a rather short runtime coupled with a tracklist packed with skits and vocal interludes means that there isn’t a whole lot of actual music on this album. It’s not something that altogether warrants repeat listens from a purely musical perspective, mostly because The Hell’s overall goal extends beyond that, even going past the typical boundaries of a concept album in what essentially fails to function if not experienced in its entirety. It’s short enough to where that isn’t too much of an issue on paper, but with this being the first episode of their bigger saga, it can make this album in isolation feel a bit pointless if revisiting it without the greater context to come.

It’s a problem that multi-part releases can typically circumvent, but JORIS feels explicitly designed to only work in tandem with however many pieces are due down the line; it even ends with a fake ‘next time’ trailer that itself admits doesn’t represent what’s to come in further installments, but its existence at least hints that there’s more. And it’s a shame that The Hell have painted themselves into such a corner, because the composite parts of this album really do work, even in isolation. The Hell have always been good at a modern British style of comedy, and the sitcom premise alongside characters that are fleshed-out well and the sort of timing and left turns in the integrated music feel like their abilities used to their best. As for that music, it’s generally the meat-and-potatoes hardcore that’s formed the basis of The Hell’s existence – heavy, downtuned and expertly walking the tightrope between a parody of this style and genuine, sincere effort – but the rap-metal of Your Dicks Are Mine and the scagged-up, bass-driven soul of Daydreamer are played just as well with the exact same conviction (or lack thereof) that makes The Hell more than just a comedy band. There’s always a reason behind whatever The Hell do, and the sense that they’re fully aware that none of this should be taken seriously or given that much depth, but still show real creative intent in its execution, is where they shine. Compared to an album like Tenacious D’s woeful Post-Apocalypto, an album that tried to instigate a similar narrative execution but utterly faceplanted in how disposably-formed and lacking in real humour and effort it was, JORIS actually comes across like its creators know what they’re doing, with awareness that something of that style can be done well. And yes, this is done well throughout, but at what amounts to a prologue or an opening scene of whatever story The Hell are trying to tell, it’s not one that leaves much of an impression of its own beyond the greater implications of what it’ll lead up to. Perhaps the entire story of Joris would’ve been better released as a self-contained story rather than breaking it up into episodes like this; at least then the true hidden genius of The Hell could make itself known in full, rather than showing a glimpse that might well be forgotten again by the time the next part comes around.


For fans of: TRC, Gallows, Feed The Rhino

‘JORIS (A Hardcore Opera) – Part 1’ by The Hell is released on 11th September on Black Mist Records.


At this point, there’s no need for Ihsahn to play it even remotely safe. He’s as close to a bona fide legend as black-metal has, both in his work with Emperor and in a surprisingly prolific solo career, and there’s definitely a case to say that his double EP project this year has him seeing what he can get away with within those realms. Perhaps that’s less the case with February’s Telemark, a return to purer black-metal whose only real expansion to his oeuvre came from Ihsahn singing in his native Norwegian for the first time, but Pharos reportedly serving as its lighter, even hopeful counterpart is a far more intriguing prospect. There’s a sense that Ihsahn knows this too; one of the key pillars in Pharos’ marketing has been a cover of a-ha’s Manhattan Skyline, the sort of move almost designed to raise the hackles of less-than-open metal fans and stir up intrigue about what exactly this is among everyone else. It definitely isn’t metal, but it’s not metal in the same vein as Ghost (albeit not spoken as disparagingly as some may participate in), in which its DNA has recognisable strains of heavy music, but centralised around a pop core. There’s the swooping elegance of latter-day Opeth with even touches of HIM on Losing Altitude and Spectre At The Feast, while the glistening keys and frankly gorgeous vocals from Leprous’ Einar Solberg on Manhattan Skyline feels indebted greatly to a lot of ‘80s new wave and New Romantics. It all sounds phenomenal to boot, with the live strings and crystalline guitars bring that sense of grace in spades, while coated in production gloss that obtains its sheen by letting the light run through, as opposed to piling on layers to lose what’s still a deeply organic presence.

Admittedly that compositional acumen can overshadow the actual minute-by-minute music; it’s all immaculately, scientifically crafted, but that doesn’t always translate to a listening experience that vigourously connects. It’s probably incorrect to suggest that’s the point though, especially when Pharos uses its sweeping, widescreen approach to convey the lighter side that Ihsahn intended, both in the sound and the soaring, opulent hope in the writing. It brings those two sides together remarkably well too, and makes for a listen that has an understated emotional power that makes up greatly for a lack of directness. The cover of Portishead’s Roads might be a bit more listless by comparison, but even then it’s not awful thanks to a very clear and refined creation process that’s gone into it, not to mention Ihsahn’s bell-clear clean vocals that don’t ever falter whatsoever. It’s just wholly solid across the board, both as a companion piece to highlight the dichotomy between itself and Telemark, and as an EP on entirely its own merits. It might be the most out-of-element that Ihsahn’s creativity has been, but that can be worth a lot more when it feels so complete and attentive about what it’s doing. Honestly it’d be good to see more like this, if only to see how far Ihsahn’s creativity and acumen can really go.


For fans of: Opeth, Leprous, Porcupine Tree

‘Pharos’ by Ihsahn is released on 11th September on Candlelight Records.

You’re Not Alone

It’s common knowledge that any one-hit wonder brave enough to release new music will always have it irascibly judged next to that hit, but Semisonic might be hit even harder than most in that case. Not only does You’re Not Alone come a full 22 years after Closing Time saw them etch their name among the other forgotten gems of ‘90s power-pop, but it’s their first lot of new music at all since 2001. What’s more, the fact their last album All About Chemistry was received pretty averagely at best makes it a bit difficult to anticipate exactly how Semisonic plan to make an impact in 2020, particularly when all of their stock is being put into a brief five-track EP. At the end of the day though, the biggest problem with evaluating You’re Not Alone is discerning what exactly that stock is, because it’s not like Semisonic’s return has tremendous power or creative impetus behind it. Rather, they comfortably slip into the mould of an earnest, middle-aged power-pop band who continue to be passable, but pale when put under even the slightest amount of duress. There’s no real indication that advancement is on the table, especially with how light and middle-of-the-road almost every facet of this EP is. Dan Wilson is a perfectly pleasant vocalist, almost to the point of meekness with how little commanding presence he has, while the jangly, easygoing instrumentation behind him is almost as carefree. The best way to describe what Semisonic are on this EP is ‘listenable’; everything is played and produced incredibly tastefully and reminiscent of their mid-ranged ‘90s alt-rock with a modern coat of paint, and a few decent hooks like Basement Tapes and Lightning has singalong potential in the moment, but not so much that they might actually last beyond that.

From a different perspective, it all feels like the natural transition of this latter-day incarnation of Semisonic moving to a reasonable role as a side-project. After all, Wilson has more than proven himself as an in-demand songwriter for a while now (he’s partly responsible for a song called Someone Like You by that little-known artist Adele), and so it’s clear to see that he’s not on his A-game here. It’s never outright bad, but the unspecific optimism within the darkness of the world on the title track or the hopes to rekindle an old relationship on Don’t Make Up Your Mind aren’t prime cuts either. Basement Tapes fares a little better with some nice detail, and it honestly would’ve been preferable to see Semisonic go a bit more in that lane for more impressive results, but it’s hard to begrudge them of any of this too much. There’s no way their return or this EP was conceived with the goal of winning over a new, young audience in mind, and so for a few tracks that are remarkably easy to listen to and that will sate the diehards, You’re Not Alone is fine at what it does. As a herald of more to come though, that might be more of a stretch, and while there’s no guarantee, this distinctly middling level probably represents the ceiling that this Semisonic reunion is going to hit.


For fans of: The Goo Goo Dolls, Matchbox Twenty, Five For Fighting

‘You’re Not Alone’ by Semisonic is released on 18th September on Pleasuresonic Records.

Home Remedy

Going into Sundressed’s new album, there’s a danger that wanting to like it might come stronger than actually doing so. They’ve been going for a little while now, but Home Remedy arrives as something of a breakout for them outside of any pop-punk wave, which means that there’s not much in the most contemporary branch of the scene to stack them against. It’s good to have that gap filled by something, but there’s always the chance that Sundressed looking to slot into a rare fallow period for a position that’s historically been overstuffed can do more for them than what they actually bring. Thankfully Home Remedy already feels like a rather complete, quality pop-punk package, albeit one in which its reference points are easy to focus in on. Generally, Sundressed are pulling from a combination of the emo-tinged material of Real Friends or earlier Boston Manor with the poppier-leaning side of that sound from As It Is, particularly in a song like Sensitive Motherfucker, the unwelcome return of the saccharine, acoustic pop-punk ballad that could preferably have been left out. There isn’t a tremendously original spin put on the overall sound either, but Sundressed aren’t exactly bad at what they’re doing, and they’re more than capable of holding fast when it comes to melody, earnestness and catchiness. No Thanks and Oh Please show they’ve got plenty of skill at writing a hook or a vocal refrain, and for what might otherwise fall into the pretty standard presentation of this sound, the likes of Size Of My Heart and Your Frequency have a bit more oomph to them than just scraping by with the bare minimum. It might sound sharp and clean, but Sundressed definitely don’t slouch at making their sound organic, and Home Remedy shows how easily that can nudge a band up to the next level.

It’s clear pretty quickly that Sundressed aren’t looking to coast, and to see Home Remedy actively looking to align itself with some of the more thought-provoking and grounded acts in pop-punk immediately gives the impression of something more substantial. Indeed, for as well-trodden as themes of mental health and inner chaos reciprocated and exacerbated by the rest of the world are, it’s not Trevor Hedges falls back on lazy tropes, nor does he shy away from the details needed to make writing like this hit. He gives the impression of buying into the societal norm of men having to repress their emotions on the opening title track, and finding it increasingly difficult to cope when that grows into putting others’ needs before his own mental health on Size Of My Heart and succumbing to how relaxation has been demonised on Your Frequency. It falls into the camp of pop-punk that’s a bit more weary and strained, and while competing with the likes of Knuckle Puck in that standing does put Sundressed’s relative inexperience into perspective, it’s still impressive to see the determination that they bring on this album, pretty much from front to back. There’s a lot more than just complacency or taking the easy route, something that already gives Sundressed the edge against a lot of fledgling pop-punk bands, and the fact they’ve already got a genuinely strong body of work here is a good sign moving forward. The lack of immediate competition on their level becomes less of a caveat and more of factor in Sundressed’s favour with every listen; it would honestly be great to see a band like this pick up the steam and the attention within the wider scene that, off the back of this album, they definitely deserve.


For fans of: Real Friends, As It Is, Knuckle Puck

‘Home Remedy’ by Sundressed is released on 18th September on Rude Records.

A. Swayze & The Ghosts
Paid Salvation

A. Swayze & The Ghosts may come from Tasmania, but it’s not something that’s easy to tell from listening to them. Theirs is a sound that’s pulling so deeply from the current wave of post-punk that they could easily come across as British, especially when there’s more than a bit of that affectation seeping through from Andrew Swayze himself in his voice. The vastly increased distance doesn’t mean they can’t pull it off though, and interweaving it with hints of the fuzz-laden garage-rock that’s closer to home for them lends Paid Salvation the sort of confrontational edge it ultimately requires. Swayze is the keenest source of that manic, convulsing energy, and it’s replicated well through the scratched-up guitars and propulsive quakes of the bass for a very volatile, unstable sound throughout. It’s the sort of belligerence with a purpose that would come from Idles or maybe Sports Team in places, built around classic rock and punk tempos on Nothing Left To Do or News for the presence and bravado that bands like this need. The production has just as much of a natural fit as well; perhaps the vocals don’t have the body that they should, but keeping the guitars suitably blown-out and scuzzy and refining the bass and drums for a firmer backbone (especially when going full post-punk like on the title track) feels like a worthy trade-off for material this rough-hewn. There’s definitely the spirit of an underground band within A. Swayze & The Ghosts, and the unwillingness they display to deviate from that works to their credit a lot.

That in turn feeds into the writing, in which Swayze’s broad but indelibly raucous are able to hold their own without totally wowing. The attempts to replicate the humour of Idles or the snark of Fontaines D.C. are there, but they aren’t quite up to scratch, and that leaves a set of lyrics with plenty to say and the power with which to say them, but not the executional flair to make them really sting. The negative effects are found most in a track like Connect To Consume in which the screed against modern technology and the current generation’s use of it feels extremely oversold and just missing an ‘antisocial media’ drop to tip into outright embarrassment. More often though, A. Swayze & The Ghosts can get by just fine on volume and stampeding force, all while thankfully avoiding some similarly awful pitfalls. It helps that Swayze’s particular snarl is pliable enough to meet all of his songwriting needs, whether that’s in vicious lashings towards misogynists and abusers on It’s Not Alright and Suddenly, sneering indictments of those who use status by birthright as an excuse to mistreat others on Rich, and even a splash of emotionality around the anxiety stemming from childhood poverty on Mess Of Me. As an album, Paid Salvation certainly has all the big ideas and wide range of fire of a band looking to make their mark, and A. Swayze & The Ghosts generally do a good job here. With a bit of necessary work done, this could be a worthy addition to a scene that’s not exactly short of talent at the moment, though it says a lot that Paid Salvation has the makings of something that could definitely stand out. There’s a bit more raggedness and chaos in A. Swayze & The Ghosts, and the potential for that to serve as a noticeable foil to the norm is evident, something that feels more a case of when rather than if.


For fans of: Idles, Violent Soho, Polish Club

‘Paid Salvation’ by A. Swayze & The Ghosts is released on 18th September on Ivy League Records.

Fight The Fight

Yes, that is a terrible band name, and a singer who opts to call himself Lars Vegas doesn’t set up the best first impression for Fight The Fight. Rather than a heavily outdated and schlocky hair-metal band though, Fight The Fight lean closer towards melodeath with a bit more pomp and variety in sound, almost as a halfway house between Avatar and System Of A Down. And just like Avatar, Fight The Fight seem to have a bit of a problem when it comes to hitting a consistent stride, such is the case with Deliverance. They’re easily at their best when they stick to a more traditional melodeath sound looking back to the 2000s like on the title track or Pitbull, and while the more intense, closed-in production style lessens the scale of that sound by a considerable amount (it honestly comes close to a tilt towards hardcore at times, which is certainly interesting), there’s definitely a heft to what Fight The Fight are doing that feels authentic. Similarly, tracks like Dying and Love hone in on the bigger radio-metal melodies buried within, occasionally even being reminiscent of later In Flames but with a lot more bite, and closing with Paradigm highlights what could be all of Fight The Fight’s key strengths in one great song.

The problem is that there’s more going on than all of that, and while the lack of focus in itself could be cause for concern, the simple fact is that Deliverance feels really patchy and unstable as a result. Fight The Fight have a tendency to lean towards nu-metal tones at points, and not only does the production style they favour not work nearly as well against choppier instrumentals, but it leads to a number of really stilted moments like on the stop-start clunk of Ritual, or the just plain insipid Triggerfinger. Vegas also doesn’t fare too greatly as a frontman in all that’s asked of him; he’s serviceable as a growler, but when transitioning into more rough-edged screams or clean vocals, it really begins to show how tight the margin of error is here. The fairly standard set of metal lyrics doesn’t leave much room for deviation as it is (and when they try for larger-than-life or tongue-in-cheek fare, it shows), and that greatly limits how much Fight The Fight can actually achieve, especially when their myriad of attempts to pull themselves in different directions only seems to have one that’s locked in as reliably workable. It could definitely use some tightening up, first and foremost, if only to keep everything in line with where Fight The Fight actually go right, because that’s not currently what Deliverance is offering. It might be worth a listen for the curious, but the replay value doesn’t appear to be terribly high for this one, an extra devastating blow considering how clear the aims were.


For fans of: Avatar, Wovenwar, System Of A Down

‘Deliverance’ by Fight The Fight is released on 18th September on Indie Recordings.

Haiku Hands
Haiku Hands

For an act to be described as a hybrid of Charli XCX and the Beastie Boys and to be signed to Diplo’s Mad Decent label comes laden with some certain expectations, namely an act using its brashness and brattiness in tandem with raw volume to flout many of the conventions associated with modern electronic and dance music. That’s a pretty fair assessment of Australia’s Haiku Hands on their self-titled album, the sort of trashy, sassy listen sporting some hefty indie energy that wouldn’t be out of place coming from the likes of Sofi Tukker or, indeed, Diplo himself on some days. It’s that pounding energy that’s the driving force here as well, instigated by opener All About You with its ragged, thumping percussion and three-headed vocal shouts brandishing a fem-punk brusqueness not unlike The Ting Tings in their heyday. As such, there isn’t a great deal of depth in what Haiku Hands are doing (and trying to factor some in utterly murders the momentum on the solemn grunge-pop of Car Crash), but it’s not all that necessary when they’ve got firepower in abundance. They’ve also got the edge of self-awareness on tracks like Manbitch and Fashion Model Art that revel in a certain degree of anti-glamour that Haiku Hands give so much charm, and it’s that off-kilter wit that ultimately carries a lot of this album.

At least, it’s what makes it more interesting, even though this sort of clattering, unpolished dance music already excels in the dirtier, homegrown appeal of it all. This is the antithesis to big festival EDM, where the scale is a lot smaller and grottier, and the sound has a lack of polish to fully reflect that. Of course, that’s something that Haiku Hands are more than capable of replicating, and through a number of pretty distinct stylistic templates. They toy around with pounding moombahton on Onset, a blown-out Basement Jaxx impression on Eat This Bass and even some glassy trap on Mechanical Animals, all with a pretty robust knowledge of how to incorporate their own ragged musical personality to get the best and most distinct results. On the other hand, they aren’t averse to overreaching (as Car Crash shows), and there’s something about the summery EDM-pop of Sunride or the attempt at disco on Jupiter that doesn’t quite match what they’re going for elsewhere. As an act whose source of energy comes from their performance, they aren’t in a position where brighter tones really pay dividends, and there’s definitely an unevenness to this album because of that. Still, the good far outweighs the bad, and in terms of an act with a lot of potential for exciting and diverse things within electronic music, Haiku Hands are making a lot of worthwhile moves here. It’s the sort of thing that has a noticeably live verve to it, and it’s their command of that distinct lane where Haiku Hands really shine the most.


For fans of: The Ting Tings, Sofi Tukker, Confidence Man

‘Haiku Hands’ by Haiku Hands is released on 10th September on Mad Decent Records / Because Music.

The Roly Mo

Evidently a stupid band name isn’t enough to stave off success within indie-rock (after all, Catfish And The Bottlemen are headlining Reading & Leeds next year), so despite being named after a mole from the children’s TV show The Fimbles, The Roly Mo could actually see some of their slowly-building hype coalesce into something more. That in itself is far from guaranteed, mind, something the band themselves might be wise to take heed of when this debut EP really hasn’t gotten them started on the best foot. Clearly The Roly Mo are heading towards the scuzzy, punk-adjacent garage-rock that seems to radiate the most danger and rock ‘n’ roll coolness within indie circles, but they still fall into the same traps as so many others before them, namely a blaring, dense mix that’s always too loud and messy to realistically make something work from it. At least on a track like I’ll Be Happy When You Die, there’s a hard-edged riff that can be parsed out of it, whereas the likes of Diamond Doll and Count To Ten might be just as loud but are nowhere near as robust. This isn’t a very long EP but it doesn’t even make that much of an impression while it’s around; The Roly Mo simply fall into swaggering, rampaging walls of sound above anything else, and it’s hard to get much out of that when the natural avenues don’t make themselves available. It doesn’t help that Joe Morton doesn’t have a particularly strong voice – he actually sounds like a more nasal Van McCann at a number of instances, only really allowing his natural Scottish accent to break through on Stuck In A Rut – which makes it all the more likely that TRM’s blaring execution is simply to compensate for shortcomings elsewhere.

Of course, to simply gloss over those shortcomings would feel incredibly disingenuous, especially when the enormous, throbbing exclamation mark over the lyrics here couldn’t make it clear that this is still a new and inexperienced band. To put it simply, there isn’t much that really gives a sense of who Morton is as a lyricist, nor does much of it make him seem all that likable, particularly on the opening two tracks She’s So Hot and Diamond Doll which, for the supposedly romantic and gallant intentions under the surface, read like myopic student rantings that would ideally be disposed of after getting back in a clear headspace. Beyond that, there’s the bluster and confrontationalism that’s just as one-note as the brazen sound its paired with on Count To Ten and I’ll Be Happy When You Die, and the usual sense of workaday ennui on Stuck In A Rut that doesn’t amount to much anymore. Honestly, the general thinness and lack of precision this EP boasts doesn’t make that feel too surprising, but at the same time, it’s just as disappointing to see a new band fail to rise above any of it. It’s not like The Roly Mo couldn’t do that, but when you’re scrambling to find evidence of that among an EP that doesn’t offer much to work with, it just seems a bit of a lost cause. Perhaps it’ll go down well with some, but The Roly Mo need to do a lot more if they’re planning on sticking around.


For fans of: Catfish And The Bottlemen, Strange Bones, Lady Bird

‘TRM’ by The Roly Mo is released on 11th September on 7 West Music.

The Brothers Keg
Folklore, Myths & Legends Of The Brothers Keg

With as inherently ridiculous as stoner-metal as a genre can be (case in point: the name), it’s good to see how much the current generation have come to embrace that lightness of tone to contrast with how monolithic and heavy the sound as a whole can be. A good amount of that can be attributed to Mastodon who’ve effectively made their career in stoner-metal through enormous, fantastical concept albums, and to bring the closest possible parallels surging forward to the present day, there’s The Brothers Keg. Admittedly they belong on the further end of the stoner spectrum, in the vein of Sleep or the genre’s more doom-oriented offerings, and thus their origin story on Folklore, Myths & Legends… feels a lot slower to unfurl. They try to circumvent that with dedicated narrative interludes, but that just breaks the album up even more, and makes it feel like a weirdly off-balance listen. It isn’t that gripping of a storyline on the whole, hitting stable but slightly rote medieval fantasy beats on Moorsmen and Castle Keg without taking the more daring turns that it could definitely do with. It certainly swings for the fences sonically and in sheer stoner-metal implacability, but whether or not the album as a complete body of work matches up is a lot less resolute.

Still, The Brothers Keg have very little to worry about in the realms of the music itself, or at least when it comes to living up to what their genre expects of them overall. They’ve already got the slow, titanic grooves on lock, coupled with the knowledge of how to make that sizzle and sear across nine- and thirteen-minute runtimes on Moorsmen and Brahman respectively. Additionally, all the hoary, guttural vocals and quakingly dense production hit that same sweet spot with ease, and prove that when The Brothers Keg hit their stride, there’s some definite potential here that’s worth fostering. The lack of real ingenuity can be chalked up to the fact that this is a debut (and that the only real bit of material the band had prior to this was a two-track demo), and when factoring that in, what’s left is a perfectly solid stoner-metal album that anoraks should have no qualms in slotting into their collection. For anyone outside that quota though, it’s a bit harder to recommend as vigorously; right now, the growing pains with The Brothers Keg still remain evident, and taking into account how quickly they’re acting to assimilate into the wider genre, there’s definitely better examples to find elsewhere. For the time being though, this is still decent.


For fans of: Sleep, Monster Magnet, Electric Wizard

‘Folklore, Myths & Legends Of The Brothers Keg’ by The Brothers Keg is released on 11th September on APF Records.

Words by Luke Nuttall

Leave a Reply