REVIEW ROUND-UP: The Smashing Pumpkins, Gama Bomb, Dave Jakes

The Smashing Pumpkins
Cyr

The Smashing Pumpkins may be a legendary, important band within rock, but even then, there’s a line to what they can get away with. Right from the start, Cyr looks to be stressing the fortitude of that line, not only as the second installment of their Shiny And Oh So Bright series (the first of which was only okay to begin with), but as the second double album in their catalogue after their unanimously agreed-upon high-point Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. It’s difficult to see how they can really make this work, especially when The Smashing Pumpkins are currently in the state they’re in where no one has a lot of faith in them anymore and, more than ever, they’re more a vehicle for Billy Corgan’s tremendous ego. Yes, James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlain are still here, but there’s been no impression given up to now that Cyr won’t be the self-indulgent mess that all signs have pointed towards. It’s why any pretension towards this being the modern Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘accessible’ album is kind of laughable, not just because Corgan’s esoteric writing style very quickly becomes more effort to decipher than it’s actually worth, but because its general one-pacedness combined with a length comfortable crossing the hour mark gives the suspicion that this would be even longer if the band could get away with it. For as much raw content as this album has, so little of it actively feels meaningful or as though it serves a purpose greater than padding out the runtime; when your album has ten pre-release tracks, and still none of them are able to stick, there’s a fundamental question posed there about how much is being offered. It doesn’t help that Cyr rests in its plodding, mid-paced mould for so much of its runtime, and with lyrics that seemingly seek to tie themselves in knots for the sake of it, it feels like an album artificially lengthening itself when it does a fine job of being long and over-bloated on its own. Even after multiple listens, the fact that barely a single hook or chorus holds tight – and when they do like on The Colour Of Love and Ramona, it feels totally by chance – is, frankly, terrible, especially for an album that’s trying to be poppier.

That’s the overall impression that Cyr gives from its sound anyway, and if there’s any instance where The Smashing Pumpkins deserve credit, it would be how they’ve gone about positioning that goal. Wisely, they kept the synths sharp and bright, and when they’re the primary instrument across this album, there’s at least a sonic presence that pops out more because of that. It doesn’t improve the pace by any workable amount, but there’s at least something nice about hearing these brighter tones place to the front, if only because they can somewhat boon up Corgan’s nasal voice which continues to sound a deflating balloon more and more. But for what was clearly designed to feel triumphant and uplifting rarely pans out, because, again, the focus is placed on how needlessly overwrought this album is. Modulation is very much a rarity here, meaning that everything bleeds together even more than it would have already, and when the band do actually strive for something marginally different like on the classic rock throwback on Wyttch, the production is so muddy and ugly that it’s worth wondering whether the attempt was even worth it. It’s an issue at directly transposing production with an inherent lack of balance over to a sound that doesn’t benefit from it; it’s at least tolerable on clean, synth-led alt-rock given the scaled-back nature of the sound, but even then, limiting themselves to that feels even more like The Smashing Pumpkins painting themselves into a corner that a twenty-song album shouldn’t have to indulge in. It really is just a mess that’s barely worth even paying attention to; hell, the band themselves seem to have made gravitating towards this album at all seemingly impossible, with how drab and lifeless so many of these songs are, to the point where it’s worth considering what the point in even trying was. This isn’t some grand forwarding move for The Smashing Pumpkins, but rather a go at clocking in and bloating up a legacy that’s already got a pretty dense shadow over it to many. Cyr isn’t really helping in that regard either; if anything, it might the greatest example of waste within The Smashing Pumpkins’ catalogue to date.

4/10

For fans of: Bush, The Smiths, Ulver

‘Cyr’ by The Smashing Pumpkins is out now on Sumerian Records.


Gama Bomb
Sea Savage

Gama Bomb just seem to be making their own uphill battle even steeper. Thrash already isn’t fashion within metal at this moment in time, and even when Gama Bomb already aren’t the cream of the crop when it comes to the genre’s modern acts, leaning into sillier, broad humour can only be seen to water down what they little they do have. As a result, Sea Savage feels like the work of a band riding on the hopes of hitting a real galvanised creative stride, only to do just as little as they had in the past. It’s the most pronounced in the overall lyrical thesis of the album, as a quasi-concept about sailing to find the Yeti before succumbing to madness on the seas, in what feels like a thinly-veiled excuse for a lot of film references and ‘random’ humour. It’s more hit-or-miss than consistently terrible, but it definitely leans further towards the misses, in the likes of Miami Supercops or especially She’s Not My Mother, Todd, the cringeworthy nadir of the album that at least has the good graces to get itself out of the way early. Beyond that, there’s something of a likable quality to Sheer Khan and Monsterizer, if only because their particular brands of thrash excess are more closely related to that of the genre’s heyday, and the overstimulated, cartoonish presentation of it all does fit and allows everything to click in place as it should. But even so, there’s a thinness that Gama Bomb’s overall intent that’s borderline impossible to miss or look past, and they aren’t doing much with it that gives it a lot of life or real drive. It’s not lazy, per se, but there’s also not much in the way of a fleshed-out presence that could make these songs stick (though, even then, it’s uncertain to see if that would even work given the subject matter).

All of that might as well apply to the music itself too, where Gama Bomb are still yet to break out of the crossover-thrash doldrums in a way that feels as exciting as they clearly believe it to be. It’s great that they’re as fixated on speed and hammering metal power as they are, but when that marginalises a lot of the real melody that could drive these songs further beyond being just shredding foundries, the thinness and lack of development begins to creep in again. After all, for a band who clearly idolises Judas Priest to the extent that Gama Bomb do (see the insane ranges that Philly Byrne regularly cranks his vocals up to), it would be nice to see some of that band’s tunefulness come through as well, rather than just a technicality that’s definitely good but doesn’t really stand on its own. It makes Sea Savage a remarkably unmemorable listen considering how full-throttle it insists on being; there’s rarely a chorus or a hook that stands out among the pyrotechnics, and that only deepens the feeling of hollowness that this album already bears. It’s a bad sign when the album’s most enduringly present feature is some shoddy vocal production that gives Byrne a rather muddy mix whenever he’s not in his highest register, and it turns a sound that should be a tight and visceral as possible into one that has a lot of loose skin on it. It’s not the absolute worst example of what this sort of thing can be, given that Gama Bomb are as technically sound as they’ve always been, but it’s hard to know what they actually look to accomplish with albums like this, beyond given an existing fanbase a tiny bit more gratification. They’re not making any huge waves with anything they’re doing, nor are they furthering the genre in any way; if anything they just sound like a more truncated version of those who came before, taking the base ideas that might have some enjoyment factor on their own, but pairing it with their own sensibilities that really just balance it out to a pure neutral. It doesn’t leave an impact, but that’s hardly a new phenomenon when it comes to Gama Bomb.

5/10

For fans of: Municipal Waste, Toxic Holocaust, Havok

‘Sea Savage’ by Gama Bomb is released on 4th December on Prosthetic Records.


Dave Jakes
Dave Jakes

There was never really a point where a solo project from Dave Jakes could’ve been expected. As the frontman for Lonely The Brave, there was always a distance and aloofness to his presence, especially live, and his exit from the band when they were at a considerably high stature felt like the move of a man whose discomfort with the spotlight began to show more explicitly. To an extent, that’s still correct here – a very low-key release in mid-December isn’t exactly a prime time release strategy – but new music at all is still something of surprise. In hindsight though, if Jakes was to release his own music, this would probably be a good approximation of it, scaling back Lonely The Brave’s expansive alt-rock to where his hoarse vocals have a more condensed environment to swoon and reverberate in. It’s a tad clumsier in its construction and arrangement than Lonely The Brave – see the percussion on Silhouettes or the too-deep vocal mixing of Echelon – but this is a solid next step overall, particularly in how Jakes manages to balance being in his comfort zone without it feeling complacent or predictable. He does a lot of that heavy lifting as a performer, with a voice that radiates a haggard, world-weary honesty at every turn, and when really pushed to its anthemic limit like on Caterwaul, it captures the mood that earmarked him as such a special vocalist in the first place. He’s retained the instrumental palette that clicks the most with that as well, as tense alt-rock is embellished with strings and atmospheric layers, but keeping a contemplative pace and tone. It’s anthemic without that being conducive to bright, uplifting bombast, the sort of lane that Jakes’ pressured delivery fits with remarkably well, and ultimately means that there isn’t an outright bad moment on this mini-album, if only in terms of power.

Once again, Jakes’ prime asset remains the nuance that comes embedded in his work, even if that is mainly how damaged his emotionality can be, with a stoic, unflinching performance serving as the mask behind which it all festers. A song like Caterwaul sees it emerge at its rawest, where a doomed relationship manifests itself in his bellows, but there’s the underplayed sonder of Been In My Dreams and the lilting loneliness of Diggy’s Pushing Holes Out that might not always been explicit, but has a presence regardless. The weight of the subtext and the punch behind the eyes easily makes up for a lack of true, standout lyrics, and that’s honestly fine; Jakes can capture these emotions with an almost impossible effectiveness simply in his voice, and with a space that’s not effectively his own to let them swill and fester, it feels even more real and human than previously. That’s not to say that his work with Lonely The Brave was ever bad, or even that this is a better version of that – neither are really true – but this release serves more as an accompaniment or an addendum that’s just as worthwhile. As an attempt for Jakes to break out as an artist in his own right, there’s the reticence to bare all that’s emblematic of him, but that’s what makes him so compelling as an artist. It leads to a response that feels both decidedly close and closed-off, a shift in direction from the forthrightness that the singer-songwriter format typically offers, but one that Jakes can sell with real dogged intensity and passion.

7/10

For fans of: Lonely The Brave, Biffy Clyro, Bright Eyes

‘Dave Jakes’ by Dave Jakes is released on 11th December on By The Time It Gets Dark.


VRSTY
Cloud City

It’s rather telling that VRSTY have been releasing music since 2015, and yet still feel like a pretty small-time prospect. Back then, not that long in the wake of Issues’ debut full-length, blending metalcore with R&B vocals might’ve seemed like a novel idea, but the drop that scene has undergone only gives the indication that VRSTY are better at holding on than most. They certainly haven’t lasted an extra half-a-decade through musical adaptability or diversity; Cloud City is yet another attempt to jolt the zombified corpse of overproduced metalcore back to life, and proves just as futile as all the others. To VRSTY’s credit, they’re more capable in terms of a bracing hook; there’s at least a catchiness to the likes of Dig and Shameless that goes beyond just a poppy execution, and actually have marginally more of an earworm quality. On top of that, Joey Varela mightn’t be a distinct singer, but he’s got the technical flourishes and smoothness to accomplish what’s ultimately being set out here. Within their scene, VRSTY are far from the worst example, but that generally feels like a boon they aren’t taking advantage of. Cloud City is already pretty short – six songs and a reworking of one attached to the end – and that runtime is generally spent doubling down on conventions of this style rather than explicitly trying to do more, especially in the writing spanning fuckboy-metalcore swagger which is incredibly tired at this point, and on Pathos, the blanked, detail-free ‘dealing with demons’ song that’s even more so.

But in the grand scheme of this EP, that’s where the vast majority of VRSTY’s creativity lies. That already sounds like a pretty dicey proposition, but Cloud City’s immobility within ultra-polished metalcore does absolutely nothing to benefit VRSTY, given how generic it all feels. Alternating between clean, understated pop verses and chugging breakdowns is a tactic whose appeal has been worn down to nubs, and when there are multiple occasions where vocal runs and melodies sound borderline identical to existing lines from far bigger bands, it’s hard to see what’s really being done to define VRSTY as their own thing. They’re not all that technically minded, and the blocked-out production turns an already rigid formula into a completely impregnable one, which never benefits in any conceivable way. The choruses might come somewhat close to an out at times (they’re really the only factor that prevent Cloud City from being far worse), but when that’s the sole reliance for quality, it really just feels like another example of a metalcore band trying to juice out a trend for whatever last drops remain, regardless of how empty it might be. For anyone who’s still dying for a fix of this sort of thing, it might be worth questioning why your musical tastes have been comatose for half a decade, but this will probably fit the bill; otherwise, it’s a dead relic with precious little to offer.

4/10

For fans of: The Word Alive, Issues, Awaken I Am

‘Cloud City’ by VRSTY is released on 4th December on Spinefarm Records.


Babyteeth
Knock Yourself Out

It seems like it’s been a while since Babyteeth released their singles, at least when considering that this debut EP is coming out over a year after the last one. That’s a result of very nearly being another casualty of 2020 making music seem exponentially less viable, but there’s definitely strength that’s come out of the other side. With a title like Knock Yourself Out that’s certainly an easy assumption to make, but for what’s a pretty no-frills rock experience, Babyteeth have hit the ground running pretty much across the board. Sure, the cover of Ariana Grande’s God Is A Woman to close out is a little bloated, but as far as their own original music goes, there’s a tightness and vigour that really stands out. That generally comes from a base of power-pop construction, augmented with elements of grunge and early-wave Britrock for a sound that’s not necessarily contemporary, but only in the sense of not being too tied down by a time period. It allows Look Like Death and Lies to place their entire focus on a chunky, raucous approach to melody-crafting, while Lies opens out as a great little slow burn for another string to Babyteeth’s bow. Maybe the production could afford to go a little bit harder – it can feel a bit soft around the edges, especially on Samantha Lubin’s drums – but otherwise, there’s a rock-solid foundation that this sort of music always has to thrive upon.

It’s indicative of how Babyteeth have established a real personality for themselves almost right from the jump, and it’s kept to a fairly high standard throughout. The comparisons to Skunk Anansie are pretty notable even from just a cursory listen, but it definitely bleeds further down in just how much defiance Babyteeth display. In terms of vocalist Camilla Roholm, she’s not exactly a firebrand, but there’s a simmering frustration that comes from societal crutches of female body standards on Look Like Death, or being constantly strung along in relationships on Worst Case Scenario. There’s definitely a ‘90s standard to her delivery that’s executed really well, with a snideness that doesn’t quite cross over into outright snottiness (even when punk is used as a clearer focal point on Cut It), but with an edge that feels reliably self-assured. It just rounds out an all-around solid package, the sort of rock music that doesn’t really dwell on being pigeonholed into particular subgenres, but impresses on its own merits regardless. The teething problems are present but never distracting, and Babyteeth already have a good amount of firepower and melodic instincts to go pretty far. It’s worth paying attention even now, because this is already some really good stuff.

7/10

For fans of: Skunk Anansie, Foo Fighters, Feeder

‘Knock Yourself Out’ by Babyteeth is released on 4th December on 7 West Music.


Yumi And The Weather
Some Days

It’s a weird, little cross-section of modern music that Yumi And The Weather inhabit, taking the small, rough-around-the-edges scale of bedroom-pop and executing it with a sharper, glittery palette more reminiscent of modern alt-pop, or even the more low-key side of ‘80s synthpop at times. There’s not much else like it to be honest, and it comes together really well, especially on new EP Some Days where the context of lockdown and a future that’s being mapped out on a day-by-day basis naturally inform this more ramshackle final product. That’s to its credit though, especially when it places project mastermind Ruby Taylor at the front for the sort of honesty and bareness that bedroom-pop tends to thrive on. There’s palpable disappointment in how a return to normality is being promoted with little to back it up on The More I Hear The Less I Believe, to the point where perennial uncertainty has usurped that as the new normal on I Will Never Know. There’s a lot of the built-in distance of an artist channelling her own dejection and aloofness within the music, and it makes for the sort of thing that’s almost deliberately lacking in immediacy. They’re thoughts designed to ruminate, and the more open-ended nature of this EP gives them more of a suitable platform to do so.

Of course, for pop in this vein, it can feel as though things aren’t as easy to snap into place, especially when the more recognisable indie-pop and synthpop flourishes have been notably dulled. The likes of No More and What Will Become Of The Wishing Well are both doused in shimmering waves of keys, but they serve more as garnish for melancholic undercurrents that are brought out more readily, and it’s not a combination that tends to be explored a lot. On Some Days though, Taylor seems to find a way to make it all work, where the production is more enclosed and the typical sweeping progressions of the synthpop approach are filled in by shuffling bass and percussion. Among bedroom-pop, it’s easily one of the more likable deviations the sound has taken, if only because it actually fills in what can be a profoundly empty and hollow sound. There’s still the understated nature of it all, particularly in Taylor’s sweeter, more equable vocal delivery – and even more prominently on the distant echoes of Just This One Thing – but there’s a comparative richness and flavour that makes this a lot more enjoyable on the whole. Honestly, it’s the sort of unique shift that indie-pop of this stripe has been crying out for for a while, where the auteur-driven nature isn’t lost, but there’s more of spark that keeps engagement up overall. On top of that, Some Days is just a really well-crafted collection of songs in its own right; it sounds great with a lot of distinction and uniqueness, and as a prelude for a full-length coming next year, this standard means that can’t come soon enough.

7/10

For fans of: All We Are, Gengahr, Beabadoobee

‘Some Days’ by Yumi And The Weather is released on 4th December on Small Pond Recordings.


Hello Cosmos
Dream Harder

There’s definitely something about Hello Cosmos being described more as a ‘collection of creatives’ than a band that can raise a few skeptical eyebrows. For one, it’s not like there’s even been an attempt to hide the screeching pretension baked into that phrase, and future plans including an extensive remix album and an augmented reality experience scream of the sort of act whose ideas are vastly above their station, and whose abilities can’t possibly live up to their own expectations. It’s certainly emblematic of an album called Dream Harder, and it’s something that Hello Cosmos can find it expectedly difficult to navigate round. It’s hard to see how they’d even attempt it, mind, with an arsenal of over twenty collaborators at their disposal and Ben Robinson’s wordy, sprechgesang ramblings that encompass a lot of dense modern commentary while still finding a way to obfuscate itself even further. All of that is crammed into a post-punk-ish dance-rock setting that practically creaks under its own weight; there’ll occasionally be a propulsive bassline like on Fuse, or a nice pulpy tone used for progression, but this is a very bloated and heavily packed listen, and that can make it hard to get through at times. There’s a briskness that albums like this should ideally have, and Hello Cosmos just can’t carve that out from the sheer amount they have.

But even among that, there’s a certain amount of intrigue that Dream Harder, simply through the extent of what it’s trying to do. There’s definitely creativity here, especially when there’s a clear degree of experimentation that makes for a wide sonic breadth, and when that can funnelled down into an almost Britpop-esque jangle on Frequency Fields or a tighter, buzzier synth passage on the title track, it yields some strong moments. Indeed, Dream Harder is an album with a lot of those strong moments, but it’s so frequently weighed down that it becomes difficult to identify them, and the whole thing can really lose its way as it goes. It’s an issue that similarly broad and pliable bands have avoided by ensuring a core of strength remains throughout, but Hello Cosmos don’t really have that. They seem to have prioritised their grand visions above making sure that the bedrock of those visions is solid to build them on, and Dream Harder just doesn’t feel that solid on the whole. It has potential, definitely, but that involves seriously paring back what’s on offer in order to make for a more direct and palatable listen. Right now, it’s just unavoidably clumsy, without much of a truly memorable core on show amidst it all.

5/10

For fans of: The Fall, The Cooper Temple Clause, Working Men’s Club

‘Dream Harder’ by Hello Cosmos is released on 4th December on Cosmic Glue Records.


JSA
Fool’s Empire

It’s hard to really know what to say about a band like JSA. In the wider world of alternative music, they aren’t exactly capturing the lightning in a bottle that could see them truly excel as of yet, but in terms of what their sound is – jumpy indie-rock that comes across like a more accessible Sports Team – they at least fit in pretty well. It doesn’t help that this new EP doesn’t give much to go on either, with just three tracks that paint the broad strokes of their sound without going into much depth. That’s really where Fool’s Empire falls; it’s more a limited release than an outright bad one, especially in writing that has some of the quirks of their indie contemporaries (as well as David Marley’s vocals occupying the same roundabout space as Alex Rice’s in its electrified flourishes), but is yet to explore that more. The hooks are solid enough for now, but even then, JSA aren’t really an incisive presence at the minute, and that’s ultimately what holds them back.

At least in terms of sound, there’s a solid amount of potential that’s here already, even if the narrow scope of it all perhaps doesn’t show the breadth of their abilities just yet. Still, it’s well-produced, with a generally sharp and organic feel that balances out a homegrown scale with something more professional and refined. The likes of the title track and Orange Juice do it well, with the guitars having a crispness to them against well-placed bass and percussion, without defaulting to the more rote indie-rock playbook. With a bit more material, it’s not hard to see JSA doing well for themselves, at least within an indie circuit that’ll be receptive to this sort of thing that’s familiar, but just about pushing forward into territory that’s its own. Admittedly it isn’t much, but for what it is, there’s not a great deal to complain about for the time being, given that Fool’s Empire is generally well-executed with the verve and energy that it needs. Even for as truncated as it is, and for the development that JSA are still yet to fully undergo, this is worth the time to take a look at, if nothing else; it’s about ten minutes long anyway, so it’s not as though it’s some great commitment regardless.

6/10

For fans of: Sports Team, The Pale White, Yonaka

‘Fool’s Empire’ by JSA is out now on Undead Collective Records.


Words by Luke Nuttall

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