REVIEW ROUND-UP: Lucero, Crazy Arm, Tribulation

Lucero
When You Found Me

Like the country music that forms such an integral component of their sound, Lucero feel as though they’ve been around forever, never being the biggest band around but feeling prominent all the same. Their blend of country and Americana with punk has always been distinct, and the commonalities that the two genres pride themselves with – a focus on authenticity and reality grounded in emotion – have kept Lucero steady and stable for almost two-and-a-half decades. But also like a lot of modern country, Lucero are undergoing a bit of a change on When You Found Me, similarly attributed to the use of synths and a liberal dose of polish. That’s not the cause for alarm it might sound on paper, mind, given that Lucero’s angling towards ‘80s soft-rock and gothic Americana is immediately a better palette of sounds, but it’s also not without its teething problems either. For one, Ben Nichols is obviously not a new wave heartthrob, and his stonier vocal timbre doesn’t really sit well when dealing with longer or more fluid syllables like on Outrun The Moon. Similarly, the slinkier, more low-key tone of the music can sometimes feel difficult for Lucero to get to grips with, especially on songs like Have You Lost Your Way and All My Life which exhibit a bit more clunk in the arrangements than they should. That being said though, weak moments like that are in the minority, and there’s an impressive amount of conciseness with which Lucero can craft a more spacious mix while still sounding organic. They’re at their best on shadowed country haunting of Coffin Nails or the Springsteen-esque oomph of The Match and Back In Ohio, but their synth-driven prominence works just as well for swirling ballads like Pull Me Close Don’t Let Go, or the Eagles / Cutting Crew hybrid of Good As Gone which taps into the best kind of watery ‘80s new wave tones. Obviously the production has been cleaned up for a lot of it which does remove some of the gristle that used to be such an appealing factor in Lucero’s work, but overall When You Found Me can do a good amount with what it gives itself, particularly for a more enclosed and shimmering listen like this is.

It also helps that there’s a certain amount of ease when it comes to translating a storytelling lyrical style to more open-ended compositions like this, and the almost ghostly feel of it all amplifies the sense of darkness in Nichols’ tales really effectively. There’s almost a horror vibe in how quietly insidious and lonely Have You Lost Your Way and Outrun The Moon are, and the stories of deathly omens and banshees on Coffin Nails are perfectly suited to the rickety guitars and low-end thrum in the mix. There isn’t quite as much vividness in some of these songs as would be liked (Coffin Nails, The Match and maybe Back In Ohio are the only ones that find themselves anchored in truly stark images), but Nichols remains such a talented songwriter that he’s able to pull a real sense of resonance and well-worn personality from effectively every well he dips into. Even the more fluid ballads of Pull Me Close Don’t Let Go and the title track, while a bit more direct in their love song intentions, have the earnestness of great country songs, something which is most important when considering this album as a whole. For all the changes it’s undergone, this still feels like a Lucero album in how it heaves and churns below the surface, and captures a rawness and reality through doing so. It’s a bit more understated than some of their past efforts, but it’s also sharper and the immediate appeal is slightly clearer, to where this feels like easily their most distinct album in a while. Perhaps some won’t see it that way and feel as though this is a betrayal of the band’s earthier roots, but that honestly couldn’t be further from what this is; it’s an expansion in a way that’s still respectful of what came before it, and viewed on a wider scale of country music, that’s pretty rare to find.

7/10

For fans of: Tom Petty, The Cars, The Eagles

‘When You Found Me’ by Lucero is released on 29th January on Thirty Tigers.


Crazy Arm
Dark Hands, Thunderbolts

There was a time when the UK punk scene excelled in producing bands like Crazy Arm, where they’d be phenomenally populist and forward-thinking and accumulate dedicated fanbases, but rarely find their way out into the wider world. That unfortunate reality has meant that a good deal of those bands have since called it a day, but you really only need to look at the response around it to see how strongly its influence still holds. When Crazy Arm played 2000 Trees in 2019, it was to give their 2009 debut Born To Ruin a front-to-back airing, the sort of distinction that few would give a band as outside of the mainstream bubble as them without good reason. And so, when considering an album like Dark Hands, Thunderbolts, an album released over seven years after its predecessor and with predictably little fanfare around it, it’s worth noting just how full-throttle Crazy Arm have gone with it. This is an album with zero concessions made, darting through various strains of punk and embracing the creativity that’s allowed on their smaller level. At the same time though, not once do Crazy Arm fly off the handle; as vibrant as this album is, it’s very sharply executed, to where the need for some slight pruning of the fourteen-song tracklist is really the biggest ‘fault’ to be found. There’s a heaviness to Crazy Arm’s sound that sets them apart, with guitars that’ll roar and crash across The Golden Hind and Howl Of The Heart that’s reminiscent of a band like Rise Against, and the sort of thick bass tone from Jon Dailey, especially on the fantastic Loose Lips, that’s utterly imperative for music like this. Add in the violins and trumpets that enrich the overall sound even more, and Dark Hands, Thunderbolts simply feels pound for pound like a great album, for just all the ways that it succeeds. It’s bold and creative without ever deviating from the usual amazing hooks, and Darren Johns fits the role of full-throated journeyman vocalist while still having a tone that’s unique to him.

At the centre of it all, there’s a homespun, human quality that acts as the engine running on overdrive that gives Crazy Arm such a wonderful sense of populism. Even on a surface level, the likes of Brave Starts Here and Mow The Sward having the rousing folk-punk swell that’s an automatic crowd-pleaser, but across the board, Crazy Arm are so adept at fostering a sense of universality in their music, while never defaulting to clichés or triteness. Like all good punk albums, the empathy and anger throughout is palpable and understandable, and there’s a real intelligence to Johns’ lyrics in the way he tackles working-class uprising and power struggles on Fear Up and subversions of harmfully gendered language on Health Is In You!. He’s equally as skilled when turning things back on himself too, addressing mental struggles and anxieties on And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Meds and Epicurean Firestorm with vulnerability and erudition. On a purely lyrical basis, the word choices alone give this album far more personality, but there’s such a swelling heart beneath them to push it all over the top into real greatness. It’s totally visceral and vital as well, the sort of punk that knows how to perfectly balance its rough-and-tumble intention with the voice to amplify it so much more. On the whole, it’s just everything that modern punk should be, extrapolated to the nth degree and allowed to soar without limit. It’s exemplary stuff from front to back, and emblematic of the unearthed skill of Crazy Arm that so many never clued into, and are still yet to. There’s a reason they’re so beloved, and Dark Hands, Thunderbolts shows exactly why and then some.

9/10

For fans of: Hot Water Music, The Arteries, The Flatliners

‘Dark Hands, Thunderbolts’ by Crazy Arm is released on 29th January on Xtra Mile Recordings.


Tribulation
Where The Gloom Becomes Sound

As much as some people might baulk at the mere thought of it, Tribulation have been developing a lot of similarities to Ghost lately. They’re both bands who began in heavier metal, but have sought to move further and further away from that, instead finding more inspiration within more traditional metal with a theatrical bent. The difference with Tribulation is that the ties to their roots remain pretty stable; 2018’s Down Below was more gothic on the whole, but that wasn’t at the expense of a vibe and tone that remained synonymous with metal. On Where The Gloom Becomes Sound then, it feels as though Tribulation have continued to advance that side of themselves in particular, making for not just another great album, but the sort of album that could serve as the perfect gateway for more extreme music. For what it is, this is a shockingly accessible listen, with the roiling trad-metal tones having a real warmth in the production, as audacious solos sweep across practically every inch of it among touches of organ on Elementals and strings on Funeral Pyre. It’s a remarkably catchy listen when it wants to be, overloading on bravado and bombast that turns songs like Leviathans and Daughter Of The Djinn into truly towering anthems and giving a pounding sizzle to slower moments like Dirge Of A Dying Soul that’s still just as impactful. Musically there’s very little to fault here, as Tribulation distill their breadth of work into the sort of tight, consistently punchy metal album that never feels as though it’s overextending or running out of steam. It’s a surprisingly quick listen for the sort of album it is, and that’s entirely to Tribulation’s credit when they’re able to keep going so readily.

Even then though, the fact that the band aren’t watering themselves down in any way is what ties together how great When The Gloom Becomes Sound is. Johannes Andersson still carries noticeable black-metal energy in how ragged and scraping his screams are, and that’s balanced out by diction that’s a lot clearer but never at the expense of real fire. It’s not like the writing is toned down all that much either, in their stories of the occult and the supernatural that are deliberately overblown to match the album’s theatrics, but also still have their darkness and mystery weaved through them. The extent to which Tribulation are able to tightly walk the line between the two camps is consistently impressive, and it’s not something they falter on too often either. Maybe the closest they come is the piano interlude Lethe, but even that’s as well-produced in its solemnity as it really needs to be. And for a band with over fifteen years of experience under their belts, a progression like on When The Gloom Becomes Sound is undoubtedly exciting, in how it continues to bring a freshness to an approach that, by this point, a lot of bands would find becoming stale. There isn’t a whole lot to go in depth with – Tribulation’s approach remains straightforward almost to a fault – but they’re always on the ball when it comes to making this sound exciting and fun, and that’s something that plenty of metal bands will neglect to do. This will probably be one of the most underrated and underappreciated metal releases of the year, and it truly, wholeheartedly shouldn’t be.

8/10

For fans of: Ghost, Candlemass, Baroness

‘Where The Gloom Becomes Sound’ by Tribulation is released on 29th January on Century Media Records.


Ashnikko
Demidevil

Ashnikko’s status as a crossover artist is incredibly tangential at best, and really always has been. Her breakout Stupid slotted her among the rougher, more obnoxious coterie of SoundCloud rappers that the alternative scene just loves to saunter towards, but even then, the weaponised TikTok potential of her output was blatant, with very little to actually set her apart. She might run in weirder hyperpop circles on occasion, but Ashnikko really just comes across as another brash Gen Z pop star, a persona that Demidevil latches onto without fail and refuses to deviate from. And again, it’s not like Ashnikko is really innovating within that or doing a lot to define herself; the empowered, provocatively explicit mould is fine on its own, but ramping that up to an even more sexually charged degree is the closest she gets to real identifiability. Even then, the lack of modulation can make this feel really one note, to where moving to perfectly valid takedowns of chauvinistic, condescending men on Little Boy sends the album grinding awkwardly into that new direction. It also makes blatant pop concessions on Daisy, Toxic and Deal With It easier to spot in how some of the more hammering imagery has been turned down, but they also feel a bit more fully-formed and imbued with wider artistic vision. Otherwise, Ashnikko just doesn’t feel that developed as an artist, especially when she leans into a deliberately tart, childlike voice, and how word choices like “hentai boobies” on Slumber Party only seem to compound some discomforting quasi-infantilisation.

The artistic confusion isn’t exclusive to the writing either, as the further down its own rabbit hole that Demidevil goes, the impression of Ashnikko becomes one of an artist whose musical rubric is to cover as many TikTok bases as possible with little else to back it up. The command of its variety remains rather limited, rarely striking upon a nexus that feels convincing to Ashnikko as an artist and even more seldom doing it well. Of course the pulls from nu-metal and pop-punk are here on Cry and L8r Boi respectively (even if the latter’s interpolation of Avril Lavigne’s Sk8r Boi is pretty well done), and when rubbing shoulders with glassy DIY hip-hop beats on Slumber Party, a watered-down Charli XCX impression complete with glugging AutoTune on Drunk With My Friends and a wispy acoustic trap ballad in Good While It Lasted, among others, it’s just kind of mess that believes the solution to that is stacking more and more upon itself. Again, Ashnikko’s best face comes when she just embraces pop like on Daisy or Deal With It; they’re less weird and off-kilter than the hyperpop worming its way to the mainstream fringes, but they feel the most complete, and indicative of an artist trying to break onto a bigger stage. Demidevil has a lot of instances where it feels cheaper and more cobbled together than it rightly should, presumably to rope in a TikTok audience enamoured by how homespun and ‘punk’ it all is, when it’s more a case of lacking real development. There’s a smattering of solid ideas scattered around Demidevil, but rarely do they come together in a satisfying manner, instead preferring to stay fragmented and unwilling to truly form. That’s only going to hurt Ashnikko in the long run, especially when she herself isn’t exactly a wealth of individual personality, and when the musical space she occupies has proven itself to be as fickle as it is. It’s all emblematic of the sort of ‘hype’ artist that has a pretty obvious shelf life, and Ashnikko makes it easier than most to see hers.

4/10

For fans of: Princess Nokia, Bree Runway, Shygirl

‘Demidevil’ by Ashnikko is out now on Parlophone Records.


Cheap Meat
People Are The Worst

To say that Cheap Meat might be one of the easiest bands working for whom their most specific influences can be identified sounds a lot more like a pejorative than it actually is. Truth be told, there’s always room for big-hearted, big-riffed power-pop in the vein of Motion City Soundtrack or early Weezer, and it’s almost unbelievably impressive how dead-on People Are The Worst hits that mark, without being a total copycat. At heart, Cheap Meat are a combination of more-charming-than-charming nerd-rockers and all-conquering guitar heroes, liable to open out an already enormous guitar tone into passages of shredding that’s about as close to unfettered joy as it comes. Admittedly, there’s something of a familiarity to the bones of Cheap Meat’s sound, but it really can soar on the likes of Pasodoble and Love Song Reject, the latter of which channels its inner Oasis for a spiralling, seven-and-a-half minute epic that only gets bigger and bigger to ramp up the climax wonderfully. There’s a keenness in how the balance between power-pop and classic rock is preserved here, especially in the opening run of Spoons & Other Cultery, Pretzels & Poptarts and Eddie & Valerie, though that can set up some inflated expectations that aren’t entirely met throughout. This is an album without an outright bad song, but a track like Blasé just doesn’t quite hit the heights of what’s around it, even if the driving grunge tone is still strong. It’s a testament to how powerful the wall-of-sound production style is, and how it can sound so mountainous without swamping out the key sense of melody. There’s still bass presence and drum texture here, and they contribute to the might of the sound instead of fighting against it.

It goes without saying, then, that Cheap Meat’s grasp on an unshakable melody is pretty watertight, where the shades of power-pop heroes come to a head and really make this album shine. Wisely, Ross Drummond’s vocals are right at the front of the mix, not only making the most of his unique voice but allowing the charm and sparkle in his writing to really pour out. For an album primarily centred on trying to grasp onto moments of love and happiness in a world that seems all too hostile to such concepts, it makes sense for Cheap Meat to place a lot of the focus on those big declarations and turns of phrase, something which might be another factor of slightly uneven weight distribution on this album, but makes the good moments really good. There’s an unfailing likability to how pure the mundanity of Spoons & Other Cutlery is, and how Eddie & Valerie centres its romance around singing Van Halen at karaoke, with all that wonderfulness condensed into the single line “I don’t care if you’re pro-Dave or Sammy”. It’s definitely a bit corny and reliant on its overt nerd-rock tendencies, but there’s such sincerity and earnestness here that’s so hard to come down on, particularly when Cheap Meat have such a diamond-encrusted knack for pop songcraft. It’s a shame that People Are The Worst doesn’t hit as highly for the entirety of its runtime, but again, there really isn’t a bad song here, and its best moments are genuinely wonderful in almost every way. It’s honestly worth a listen for those first three tracks alone, but the flashes of excellence that Cheap Meat display all across this album are what make it all the more exciting. This is a band to pay attention to; this is only their debut full-length, but greatness is closer in their grasp than for many at this stage.

7/10

For fans of: Weezer, Motion City Soundtrack, Puppy

‘People Are The Worst’ by Cheap Meat is released on 29th January on Jerk Store Records.


The Dead Daisies
Holy Ground

On one hand, you might look at The Dead Daisies’ frankly stupid number of notable alumni and feel encouraged for what this project can be; on the other, you might also realise that lead guitarist David Lowy is the son of Australian billionaire Frank Lowy, and that networking capability feels a lot more cold and corporate. As well as the fact that this is yet another classic rock throwback, the only thing separating The Dead Daisies from the rest of the midlife crisis brigade is, effectively, the financial stim-pack to feel justified in what they’re doing. It’s probably the reason that, in all honesty, Holy Ground does sound better than this type of album usually does; the guitars are heavier across the board, and it’s produced in a way that gives flourishes like the bass solo on Like No Other (Bassline) or the softer strings on Far Away a bit more body and pronouncement. Peel that back though, and it’s basically retro-rock business as usual, right down to how ill-equipped The Dead Daisies are for any sort of contemporary format. This feels like a rockstar fantasy in almost every sense, where Lowy can rope together a few of his friends to relive their glory days with few concessions made, and while it’s a more competent version of that than so many deliver, none of it’s all that exciting or even fun. Former Deep Purple frontman Glenn Hughes provides vocals here, with a combination of a voice shredded by age and some egregious over-singing doing nothing for anyone, and rounding out the lineup with Burning Rain’s Doug Aldrich and Journey’s Deen Castronovo (y’know, some real A-list talent…) winds up being about as rote as you’d expect.

Even then though, it’s not like The Dead Daisies are exceptionally bad or even objectionable, but they do so little to differentiate themselves from the swathes of other classic rock facsimiles that it’s barely worth paying attention half the time. They might land upon some more novel word choices, but the writing is just the same overblown, barrel-chested bluster this stuff usually is, right down to a cover of Humble Pie’s 30 Days In The Hole that might be the most distinct song here, but still slots in line just as uniformly. After so many of these albums, it all just starts to blur together, and that’s where Holy Ground emphatically is. The Dead Daisies rest in their box to the extent that their revolving door lineup essentially has no bearing on the music they make, and while that might serve them well in terms of raw numbers (this is somehow their fifth album, after all), it makes them no less of a chore to get through. Again, there are far worse bands than this operating in the same circles, but not a valid reason to be as unilaterally average and unremarkable as this, and that only makes Holy Ground stand out so much less. And ultimately, that’s something that no amount of business clout or financial goosing can suitably rectify.

4/10

For fans of: Thunder, Black Star Riders, Massive Wagons

‘Holy Ground’ by The Dead Daisies is out now.


TV Priest
Uppers

Looking at some up-and-coming post-punk bands, it can be difficult to work out what their plan of action is. Especially now when the genre finds itself with an influx of new acts almost perpetually finding a spotlight for themselves, the potential for oversaturation (that, honestly, has already started to happen) isn’t hard to see, particularly on the part of the acts that really struggle to stand out. It’s almost too easy a statement to apply to TV Priest on their debut Uppers, occupying the oft-filled slot of post-punk that’s enjoyable in the moment but doesn’t have much for itself to facilitate staying power. They might be a bit thornier in tone than most, but generally, Uppers doesn’t deviate to get a discernible identity of its own. Charlie Drinkwater has the arch, laconic drawl of so many others around him, to where he sounds like he’s doing an impression of the others sometimes, while the forceful thrum and drone that a lot of these songs pick up feel like attempts at replicating the same atmosphere without the tight songcraft. Right now, TV Priest aren’t putting the same amount of stock in hooks or sticky melodies, and it cane make this album feel like it’s cycling through the general mood of modern post-punk without the same application, particularly in the second half. They at least capture the sound well enough, in how matte and stark the production is to give weight to Alex Sprogis’ guitars and Nic Bueth’s bass, but rarely does it solidify to a greater extent than that.

To be fair though, for as much as TV Priest appear to be biting from what the rest of the scene is doing, it’s a style that’s still enjoyable and their approximation is no exception. It’s a very forceful sound that they’ve got, as songs like Leg Room and Slideshow will clatter and rumble with the verve that this sound always captures well. It definitely feels like more of a live album in how there’s less tightness overall, but the punched-out motorik rhythms still batter their way across it regardless. It’s a similar case lyrically too, in a lot of examinations about culture and politics painted with a distinctly British grubbiness on the likes of Press Gang and Decoration, made all the more hard-edged and weathered by Drinkwater’s spat-out vocals and the bleakness of the canvas behind it. That’s all good, and it’s executed to a degree where TV Priest can display both the grim exterior and the pervasive intelligence that the modern wave of post-punk has made so important. But beyond that, there’s not much here to really work with, or at least to comfortably slot TV Priest in their own niche. They fall in a slightly uncomfortable middle between the punchiness of Fontaines D.C. and the desire for more atmospheric abstraction in the vein of The Murder Capital, though struggling to really make use of what that could potentially offer for them. That’s really what lets Uppers down more than anything – an idea that isn’t fully realised or perfected that just ends up pretty middling as a result.

6/10

For fans of: Fontaines D.C., Silverbacks, Talk Show

‘Uppers’ by TV Priest is released on 5th February on Sub Pop Records.


Colin Macleod
Hold Fast

It’s easy to see why Colin Macleod’s debut Bloodlines earned him so much acclaim and support slots for the likes of Robert Plant and Sheryl Crow. As a hybridised version of Scottish indie-rock and American folk-rock, his is a sound that manages to cover all bases, while being largely accessible and inoffensive enough to appeal to an expectedly older crowd. Hell, with a pair of features on this album from Crow herself, Macleod isn’t that far away from slotting into the Americana crowd for good, especially given how far he’s leaning on big emotions, wistful tones and unflinching mass appeal. It leads to an unavoidable broadness on Hold Fast, where intimacy is generally swapped out for grand sentiments that are easy to imprint upon; it’s probably most evident on both of Crow’s appearances on Old Soul and 33, but between those, The Long Road, Runaway and others, it’s clear that Macleod is shooting for that rushing universality overall. It can make this album feel a bit toothless overall, where conflict is generally pared back in favour of just letting it all wash over. That’s not to say that can’t work, but there’s no real characterisation on Macleod’s part to become invested in that feels unique to him. In all honesty, he’s a rather blank representation of this sort of musician, old in taste but still young at heart, and though he asserts his presence well, there’s very little present here that could immediately delineate a Colin Macleod song compared to someone similar.

For what he’s trying to do though, there is a quality to Hold Fast that shines through, mostly in how adept Macleod is at capturing the emotional rushes that drive the bulk of this album. Nowhere is stronger than the opener Queen Of The Highlands, where the strings section ripping through the windswept folk-rock bombast sounds genuinely incredible, but there’s also a decent bit of muscle in the classic rock influences on Sleep and Runaway (even if they are a bit overmixed), and the album in general feels very open and easily enjoyable for what it’s doing. Sonically as well as lyrically, Macleod leans towards the more mainstream side of folk-rock, which means that a lot of blurred textures and whooshing tones replace grit or rawness, though vocally he’s got the gravelly, burly timbre that’s the right blend of American and Scottish brogues to see him through. His presence too is a testament for how well these elements click together by simple virtue of getting swept up and being allowed to run with it, and that’s really where Hold Fast gets the most right. It’s the right kind of middle-of-the-road to be impossible to actively dislike, with a good command of festival-friendly choruses that’ll most likely go down a treat in the right environment. At the same time though, Macleod is the sort of artist who knows his audience, and tailoring it to avoid alienating them in the slightest does make it a bit less interesting than it could potentially be. Even so, this is really not bad; for an easy listen that you probably won’t mind not sticking for very long, this is definitely worth a go.

6/10

For fans of: Fatherson, Passenger, Gavin DeGraw

‘Hold Fast’ by Colin Macleod is released on 29th January on SO Recordings / Silva Screen Records.


Words by Luke Nuttall

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