Who Am I?
Often it feels easier to be a Pale Waves apologist than an actual fan. Their debut My Mind Makes Noises was riddled with issues – it was samey and overlong, and the writing could really feel basic – but the passage of time has uncovered a certain likability to them regardless. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re tapping into an inherently appealing brand of tight pop-rock that initially made their de facto mentors The 1975 so ear-catching, and a foundation that strong is hard to look past, even when adorned by something a bit more questionable. That’s really the strongest positive reaction that could’ve been gleaned from Pale Waves’ debut – they have undeniable potential, but it’s being channelled through avenues that don’t flatter them whatsoever. At least Who Am I? seeks to somewhat rectify that, through the lens of early Avril Lavigne that couldn’t be easier to identify if this was a covers album. If the artwork being effectively a reshoot of Let Go wasn’t a dead giveaway (plus the fact that Heather Baron-Gracie has picked up the same trills and upward inflections in her voice), Pale Waves’ sound has really changed to mirror that sound, where the pop-rock side is a bit more downbeat and open to some lilting acoustic texture to achieve that. It’s most evident – and successful – on the likes of Change and Fall To Pieces, with the charged quality in Baron-Gracie’s voice feeling its most natural and robust. It might be an almost total sonic overhaul from a lot of their finer indie-pop roots, but there’s definitely strength here that runs deeper than just nostalgia. The brighter jangling tone behind Wish U Were Here and I Just Needed You has the easygoing, summery vibe that can make music like this so enjoyable, then and now, and the pop focus across the board, while not as tightly constructed, gives the inherent likability within Pale Waves a greater platform to shine. This is a significantly shorter album than My Mind Makes Noises, and as such, there isn’t the extent to which the band are spreading themselves thinly. That’s not to say there are great moments of experimentation here either, but it’s a median where the band’s sound is at its most comfortable.
That said, the comparisons to early 2000s pop-rock will also materialise for worse as well as for better, and when Pale Waves have always had a problem with writing compelling lyrics, compounding that within an era in which that was endemic isn’t exactly strong. To be fair, they get away with a lot more because of the sources they’re drawing from, where the angst on Changes and Fall To Pieces is well articulated, and a love song like Easy has enough sweetness in its details to stick the landing. That’s unquestionably where Pale Waves are at their most successful; Baron-Gracie’s voice is more strident than it is outright powerful, and for capturing big emotions where subtle subtext isn’t all that necessary, that’s absolutely fine. But there’s a limit to how far that command of big emotions can work before it can feel reductive or simplistic, and Who Am I? tows that line much more than it should. Tomorrow is the first example, in how it paints a message of how being different is okay in the broadest possible strokes which, honestly, feel as though they’ve been done in this exact way countless times before. It’s the same for the self-empowerment of You Don’t Own Me and the ‘money can’t buy happiness’ ethos of I Just Needed You; the sentiments in themselves are sound, but there’s such a thin, flimsy execution that basically the entire second half of this album succumbs to, and badly sags as a result. Run To might be an exception, in the reassurance to a parent that the narrator will always need them that’s an anthem-in-waiting for indie girls moving away for uni for the foreseeable future, but otherwise, it’s hard to see what unique personality Pale Waves are trying to cultivate across a lot of this album. Even My Mind Makes Noises did that better, and while Who Am I? does average out as the stronger release overall, by virtue of performance and a better sound, but it’s an incremental advance at best that isn’t pushing Pale Waves into the higher tiers to want to, and rightfully should, be in. Still, this is far from a bad album; its staying power on the whole can be brought into question, but at its best, it’s probably the most likable that Pale Waves have ever been. Maybe that in itself is a sign of even better things to come, at least if they keep going in the right direction. • LN
For fans of: Avril Lavigne, Wolf Alice, The Hunna
‘Who Am I?’ by Pale Waves is out now on Dirty Hit.
slowthai’s recent heel turn is rather noteworthy, given that it’s the sort of thing that could really taint an artist’s career and yet hasn’t had nearly the effect on him in the public eye. Perhaps it’s the angle of the volatile, conscious rapper that’s underscored him pretty much since the start that’s given him leverage, but it’s one that can really crack when put under any amount of scrutiny. Of course, that’s in reference to his boorish, lecherous outburst at last year’s NME Awards, which might have largely been swept away by now, but still stands present, not least when his new album actively draws attention to it. CANCELLED might be largely outsourced to Skepta here, but there’s clearly an anti-hero element that’s been drawn into slowthai’s persona that he’s revelling in, especially when an album titled after his own first name implies some kind of honest, realistic portrayal. It’s at odds with the vaunted ‘progressive’ streak that he’s still trying to embody, and any kind of verisimilitude that TYRON subsequently wants to have feels a lot less weighty as a result. It’s all well and good to have those moments that further display a vulnerability, but when the album is deliberately organised to split apart the side of slowthai that’s liable to get more pensive from a rowdier, brasher alternative that wallows in its own controversy, it makes those moments feel like bad faith progressivism above all else. There’s definitely an argument to be made for embracing a less clean-cut image, but when it’s at the expense of a platform that’s supposed to elicit sympathy and encompass moving forward, it can feel like lampshading on a bit that slowthai himself can’t even be bothered to commit to. The thing is, if this album focused on just one of its two sides for the duration, it would be probably be fine; there’s enough visceral punch to songs like VEX and WOT to carry a full album in the same way as the emotion and introspection on terms and adhd. Put together though, you never really get a clear picture of what slowthai is trying to be said, and as ideas will bleed over between both sides in a way that doesn’t really fit (nhs’ general ‘we’re all flawed’ message feels like a cop-out considering how deeply it falls in the introspective side, and it how tries to rationalise a lot of the negative energy brought earlier on with CANCELLED), TYRON desperately feels like an exercise in placating or playing towards everyone, but rarely hitting that mark.
It’s not like slowthai doesn’t have the means in which that could work, either; again, just by breaking up these two halves on looking at their individual merits, it’s evident that he’s got the means of working within both fields. At the front end, his yammering, manic voice has the punk energy needed to make the most of production that’s noisier and will take a lot of glances at grime; simultaneously, he can slow down over more pensive moments, where collaborations with Dominic Fike and James Blake yield a more vulnerable and emotional mood that he can also ride effectively. Of the two, it’s probably the former that’s the best, simply for the more tightly-packed thrills it offers that slowthai is better equipped to embrace, and it does avoid a sense of mawkishness that songs like focus and push will cast glancing blows upon, if only in how deliberately they’re trying to be small-scale and brittle in their execution. At least on a song like MAZZA, while the droning whistle that constantly cuts through can distract, it at least makes an attempt to capture a lucidity and psychedelic vibe that actually pairs quite well with the rattling, roiling beat. It should also be said that slowthai’s production, across the board, clearly has more of a budged behind it, and though that can make these songs feel bigger or more opulent when necessary, it does lose some of the hardscrabble grit that he tries to work back in with his delivery. It’s not the album’s worst quality, but it’s evident of the dichotomy that’s trying to be fostered across the board that doesn’t entirely play out to his advantage. Yes, the lyrical angle is obviously flawed, but to the bones, TYRON feels less like a concise statement about slowthai as an individual, and more like a collection of songs jammed together in the hope that some throughline will materialise. Perhaps it does at times, but not enough to really matter, and not enough to pave over the obvious rifts in themes and sequencing that leave TYRON as messy in a less endearing way than anticipated. Ultimately, its big picture just doesn’t come together that well in any sense. • LN
For fans of: Denzel Curry, Brockhampton, Loyle Carner
‘TYRON’ by slowthai is out now on Method Records / Interscope Records.
Dark & Beautiful Secrets
It’s easy to be skeptical about the increasing success of Normandie. It was even easier near the beginning, where their 2016 debut Inguz felt like just another hyper-polished post-hardcore album, and reaped all the rewards those releases tended to get on birthright alone. But as they’ve progressed, Normandie have revealed themselves as a band who aren’t exactly pushing the sound in any transgressive way, but who can do it better than most in the vein of Hands Like Houses or That’s The Spirit-era Bring Me The Horizon. With Normandie though, the appeal is a bit harder to qualify overall; after all, they aren’t as lyrically vibrant as the former can be, nor do they have the creativity displayed in the latter. It’s more akin to Dream State in how focused and direct the polished punch is, but even then, Normandie have it more in moments than across the entirety of Dark & Beautiful Secrets. It’s more of a top-heavy album than anything else, as Babylon and Hostage bring a thoroughly modern stomp and soaring width right out of the gate, a template which the album as a whole will follow to varying effect. The spacey, EDM-adjacent Mission Control makes good use of it, as does the nu-metal grind laced on Thrown In The Gutter, but it’s just as easy to see where the approach isn’t fully honed. Atmosphere is the most obvious culprit, the floaty ballad that leans too heavily on the unflinchingly slick pop progressions at the core of Normandie’s sound, and highlights just how easy it is to slip into that less effective territory. There’s barely a blemish on this album across the board production-wise, and while that certainly aids in the huge sound that, on its own, has the streamrolling power to really grip, it follows the common trend of Normandie’s albums lacking some necessary grit to make them hit harder. It certainly isn’t the worst that this sound has to offer – in terms of a hook, Normandie’s ratio of hits to misses far and away surpasses this scene’s lesser prospects – but they’re still missing a spark in their overall makeup that could take them further.
Thankfully, what Normandie lack in sonic rawness is made up for in lyrical honesty, doing away with a lot of the tropes and ambiguities that can make albums like this such a slog to get through. The odd one does slip through the net (and unfortunately, it’s quite noticeable when it does), but Philip Strand is able to make the tried-and-true ground of mental turmoil and anguish feel fresh and raw here. His voice is nowhere near as preened as some of his peers, and though it’d be nice to see him dip into his screams a bit more often like on Renegade, there’s a welcome raggedness that’s a lot more effective overall. It gives his writing a greater urgency, and again, when it’s touching on a well of topics that isn’t exactly new, that provides a notable boost. That can also come from centralised themes of religion, with Strand recollecting on leaving the church he grew up at age 14, and when that’s informed by a number of song titles here (Babylon, Jericho, Holy Water and the like), it lends depth and stakes to what could otherwise be another by-the-numbers exercise in catharsis. It’s in instances like this where Normandie come so close to realising their full potential, simply by taking what the scene around them has given them and sharpening it to as fine a point as they can. None of Dark & Beautiful Secrets is particularly revolutionary, but it’s verging on the power and potential to go over the usual threshold on simple momentum alone. It’ll just take a bit more work to really make that final push; the evidence is here in pieces, but yet to coalesce across a whole body of work. Still, those pieces are probably among Normandie’s strongest to date, and that would imply that their big break is coming sooner rather than later. • LN
For fans of: Bring Me The Horizon, Hands Like Houses, Dream State
‘Dark & Beautiful Secrets’ by Normandie is released on 19th February on Easy Life Records.
The Hold Steady
Open Door Policy
The Hold Steady are unquestionably a cult band, and perhaps more than most, it’s easy to see why they’ve stayed that way. As intrinsic within the DNA of many heartland and indie-punk bands as they are, their older presentation and dense wordy writing style can make them a bit more difficult to get a hold of. At the same time though, it’s still incredibly easy to appreciate what they’ve done, as a band who’ve been as influential as they are without really slowing down, even despite solo projects from both frontman Craig Finn and keyboardist Franz Nicolay. Open Door Policy feels like a continuation in a direction that’s solely theirs, too; now eight albums deep, they’ve become well entrenched in their approach without the need to cut back or change to fit crossover expectations. Across the board, this is definitively The Hold Steady, as Finn’s haggard, rickety voice wrestles through stark, detailled images and scenes that are no less vivid even this far down the line. It’s the clear benefit of being an older band, where the hangdog trudges through modernity in all its oppressive forms will weigh down, but there’s the insight to dissect it to pick up on individual pieces and symbols, not necessarily solving the problems but finding life within them. As dense as songs like Lanyards and Riptown are in their tapestries of broken down Americana, they’re fascinating to watch unfold, and Finn’s generally unassuming nature amplifies the mundanities and regularities within them. Him not being an emotive powerhouse of a vocalist ultimately feels like the point, as scenes will play out for him to observe and piece together with a stunning attention to detail and literacy.
They hold onto a more grounded, wizened style of making music, where any thrills or bravado play a much less important role to crafting scenes and narratives. It makes for a slower and more measured album overall, as sawdust-coated guitars will ring out but not fill the wider mix, instead giving more room to bass and pianos and, like on the Britpop-flavoured shuffle of Unpleasant Breakfast, a welcome splash of horns. It’s a sound that goes past the usual sepia filter that tends to accompany albums like this, instead seeing what it can do with explicitly shades of beige and darker greens that create an altogether earthier palette. Again, it’s not a particularly forceful sound, and dialing back on some heartland-rock rollick might make the combination of a slower pace and stuffed lyrical content feel a bit unwieldy, but the charm of The Hold Steady is how earnest and sincere it all comes across. Minus the programmed beat that sneaks through on Unpleasant Breakfast that just isn’t needed, there’s a real human personality that surges through this album, where plenty of the creative decisions reflect just how open this album is. There’s an inherently enticing quality to that, and when paired with the big-hearted swell of Family Farm or the slinky, smoky closer Hanover Camera (among plenty others), it’s a great album to just get lost in and let unfurl. Of course, that won’t be to everyone’s taste, and The Hold Steady embracing this slower, methodical approach to songcraft makes for an album that probably won’t be on any sort of permanent rotation, but when it hits at the precise right moment, this comes ridiculously close to being a gem. Otherwise, it’s another fine example of a band growing with their music, and that’s still nothing to sniff at. • LN
For fans of: The Replacements, The Weakerthans, The Thermals
‘Open Door Policy’ by The Hold Steady is released on 19th February on Thirty Tigers.
Internet Killed The Rockstar
It goes without saying that Machine Gun Kelly’s rebranding as a pop-punk artist has empowered plenty of other rappers who – for some reason – think the same career path is a good move, so it only makes sense that a hanger-on like MOD SUN will snap up the opportunity when it presents itself. To be fair, he’s got a more intrinsic link to the scene as the former drummer for Four Letter Lie and Scary Kid Scaring Kids, but his more recent career as a rapper and previous collaborations with artists like G-Eazy, blackbear and, the man himself, MGK make the predictability of Internet Killed The Rockstar coming now feel all the more depressing. At least Avril Lavigne is a different name to have in his corner for Flames than the usual cadre of emo-trap clones, but it’s a small mercy when the majority of what’s here is effectively the same as everyone else, or markedly worse. The single big positive is that MOD SUN is a better singer, though again, that matters very little given how much of this album fails so royally. Even in the spurious boundaries of pop-punk that so many in this ilk have co-opted, MOD SUN’s is among the very most cynically-minded and useless at achieving any sort of impact, being universally watered down with precious little in the way of appealing ideas among it. At its best, Flames might have some size, but in the slappy squelch that drives Karma or the deboned approximation of the genre on Betterman and Annoying, it rapidly feels like this is an album that wants to maximise a pop crossover in a way that feels more forced than usual. That’s even quicker to glean in the Christian-pop clandestinity of Prayer or the blaring Metro Station impression of TwentyNUMB, the moments where MOD SUN’s true colours as a man in his thirties trying so fervently to appeal to young kids are revealed.
What makes it even more embarrassing is that the kids who are also making these pivots that are nearly half MOD SUN’s age are nowhere near as cringey in their attempts as he is. They at least seem to be capable of exuding a brashness that this album is terrified to even acknowledge, so resorts to co-opting the most formulaic and age-inappropriate pop-punk clichés imaginable just so MOD SUN can feign not being completely out of touch. What that means is you’ll get a 33-year-old man spewing out lines like “I hope you choke on every word you said to me” on the opening track Karma, and claims how his own redeemable quality is how he fucks his partner like a pornstar on the titular track (and subsequently diminishes any sincerity previously shown on Betterman or Annoying). It’s reminiscent of Makeout’s album from a few years ago, where stereotypical pop-punk mindsets are played up on the pretenses of being ‘funny’ or ‘relatable’, only to have nothing below the surface that could suitably hold them up. And thus, MOD SUN just feels impossibly out-of-touch, providing his own underline for the sentiment on the closing title track, as he kisses off the scenes that have dismissed him and who are more focused on their online personalities, only to seemingly not realise that this entire bid for success is dependent on shamelessly aping the career paths of other artists who, more often than not, are doing it for similarly clout-based reasons. It just reinforces how much of a faded copy of a copy Internet Killed The Rockstar is, made by a has-been who clearly has no idea of what can make this sound work, but proceeds to do it anywhere. It says a lot that Travis Barker, a man who has previously been comfortable with whoring himself out for any rapper-turned-pop-punk-chancer under the sun, is nowhere to be seen here, as a rather damning indictment of how little of worth MOD SUN has to bring. On the bright side though, this might hopefully signal the decline and death of this whole trend that’s already gone on too long; if that’s the case, play on, MOD SUN. • LN
For fans of: Metro Station, blackbear, Makeout
‘Internet Killed The Rockstar’ by MOD SUN is out now on Big Noise Music Group.
Love And Death
Normally, a band like Love And Death would be ignored by everyone except the crowd actively trying to keep this sort of downtuned, rock-radio alt-metal alive. In this case, Love And Death’s leverage comes from being fronted by Korn guitarist Brian ‘Head’ Welch, and for deliberately building up a cover of DJ Snake and Justin Bieber’s Let Me Love You that’s at least enough to pique some interest. That actually turns out to be the standout moment on Perfectly Preserved, thanks to a brighter melody and energy that transposes rather well to metal, and serves as a break from what can otherwise be pretty monotonous. Given the sort of music Love And Death are making, it’s not entirely a shock, but this doesn’t grab the attention either, as it’ll generally default to the one pace and yield a run of songs that just blur together more often than not. To be fair, they aren’t entirely bad at what they’re doing, given that there’s some production heft here that’s refreshing enough to not scrub away any interest immediately, but they’re far from an ear-catching band, and they aren’t pushing any boundaries or wholly defining themselves as such. There’s the expected low-hung, grinding texture that seldom lets up, and it’s hard for identifiable elements to break through that; hell, Lo Lamento was originally released in 2016, and taking into account everything that surrounds it on this album, it feels like very little progress has been made since.
Welch himself isn’t a bad vocalist, to be fair, drawing rather liberally from the Jonathan Davis playbook at times but ultimately having the nu-metal style to fall back on rather regularly. Affixed to choruses on Down and Death Of Us is where it thrives the most, with a more sinister slither that, if nothing else, breaks apart how crushingly dense some of this instrumentation can be. There’s probably enough here to say that Love And Death do ultimately succeed at what they’re trying to do; it’s just that what they are trying to do isn’t all that interesting, or has been done plenty of times before in much greater capacity. As mentioned before, if this was just another band without the connections they have, Love And Death probably wouldn’t have the legs they current do. They aren’t exactly diverse musically, and the writing goes through the same phases of dour, destructive turmoil that the vast majority of alt-metal in the vein will cling onto. It might also be worth bringing up that Love And Death are an openly Christian band, but outside of a few moments of subtext here and there, even that doesn’t define them on this album or help elevate them to something different. It’s just another one of these albums at the end of the day, that’ll play well to its target audience but make next to no noise anywhere else. It’s not bad enough to be openly derided, but that’s about as strong as any reaction to Perfectly Preserved can be mustered. • LN
For fans of: Korn, Breaking Benjamin, Chevelle
‘Perfectly Preserved’ by Love And Death is out now on Earache Records.
John The Ghost
I Only Want To Live Once
With the ever-beloved nature of The Maine, it’s a wonder that John The Ghost hasn’t received that much attention. Saying that, it’s not really designed for that, as frontman John O’Callaghan’s small-scale side-project that’s a lot more sporadic in its output. Even this debut album adheres to that, as a pretty brisk listen that only runs across nine tracks, but is still able to pack enough in to be enjoyable without seeming all that short-changing. O’Callaghan has a dented command of the alt-pop formula than most, meaning that while a lot of the airy, synthetic atmosphere remains the same, it’s without the stiffness and blocky progressions that can make the sound so tiresome. As such, the likes of Drive and Rolled Down Window are a lot breezier and more effervescent, and threading strut of Y is a bit sharper and free of cheaper rubberiness. In terms of production overall, there’s a pretty nice sheen that coats this album, especially for a side-project; sure, 8 might overdo it with piling on the layers to compensate for a lack of real progression, but the pop glossiness feels well-balanced (without tipping into overt ‘80s worship, as well), and O’Callaghan’s expressive vocals are regularly layered to find a lot to do within it. More so, there’s variety here that’s still easy to pick up on, most of which does pay homage to The Maine in indie-rock and pop-rock sensibilities, but does feel like its own thing overall. It hits the exact middle ground that’s always good for a side-project to be at, where there’s still the creative spark of the artist’s main venture without it being just a blatant extension of that.
Instead, that extension is probably more prevalent in the writing, where the boundaries are looser and more pliable enough for O’Callaghan to get away with it for the most part. It casts the sort of positive, big-hearted silhouette that The Maine can sometimes have, and on a song like Drive where the image of getting away from the noise of modern life is so centralised, it’s not like those comparisons can be avoided. It’s to be expected that here, they aren’t as fleshed-out or purely catchy as The Maine’s best work either, but that isn’t to be held against O’Callaghan here, at the same time. There’s still a hope to Live Once and a sweetness to The Patterns that’s nice to see, and while DE’WAYNE’s verse on HERE/GONE can feel a bit by-the-numbers for this sort of motivational, carpe diem song, it fits the tone if nothing else. That’s probably the most concrete summation that can be made about I Only Want To Live Once – in everything it offers, it feels as though it has a place, and it’s held together tightly enough to make a package that doesn’t grip on a deeply visceral or emotional level, but is pleasant enough while it’s around. True, it’s a result of moving goalposts to accommodate a smaller, deliberately less ambitious side-project, but that’s generally fine when this is still good regardless. • LN
For fans of: The Maine, Grayscale, Beach Weather
‘I Only Want To Live Once’ by John The Ghost is out now on 8123.
Humanity’s Last Breath
Swedish black-death outfit Humanity’s Last Breath have gained huge popularity with their intense and utterly guttural sound. They have made a very clear mark in the extreme metal scene. Stupendous break downs, demonic growls and eerie soundscapes are key aspects of their sound, and the new album delivers plenty of all three. The album doesn’t hold back at any point. Each track has a unique feel to it, whilst complementing the other tracks. Spectre brings in a powerful combination of rhythmic guitar sections, non-standard times in their breakdowns interspersed with frightfully energetic fast shredding sections. There’s a truly disturbing aspect to their sound, despite this they also manage to deliver a soaring vocal melody line and darkly anthemic chorus to conclude the track. Dehumanize delivers an epic sound with the dramatic choral section. It contributes to the dystopian atmosphere created through the music – it’s incredibly powerful. Humanity’s Last Breath have a skill of manifesting and portraying deep emotional moods through their sound. The soaring clean vocals in Tide add a wonderfully ethereal soundscape into the mix. The entire sound combined is immense and incredibly haunting. These snippets of lighter sounds amongst the dark and heavy give a wonderful contrast.
The opening plucked string in Väldet create an interesting build up. There’s a sense of horror but also of something a little theatrical. The ‘foghorn’ actually fits really well – the space given to the sound produces the feeling that something is coming. And when that something hits, it really hits! Sirens continues the intense dramatics. The slower tempo emphasises the enormity of the sound. It almost feels like a slow-motion attack scene from a horror film. The ridiculous levels of energy don’t falter at any point. The final tracks of the album hit as hard as the rest. Vittring concludes the album with a final visit to the depths with demonic vocals, eerie instrumentation and haunting soundscapes. Humanity’s Last Breath are known for being one of the most stonkingly (technical term) heavy, extreme metal bands out there, and they are certainly maintaining this with the new album. In each track the guitars, bass and percussion are all cleverly written to produce a powerful punch, but also accentuate different parts of the rhythm to give that disturbing, chaotic effect. It’s the dark, chaotic nature of their sound that is so enticing. • HR
For fans of: Meshuggah, Ulver, Oceano
‘Välde’ by Humanity’s Last Breath is out now on Unique Leader Records.
A Billion Little Lights
It isn’t really too surprising to see the acclaim for 2018’s Yolk In The Fur, given that, with an ‘80s-inspired gloss overlaid on coursing heartland-rock, the parallels to similar critical darlings The War On Drugs was fairly easy to draw. It’s not a bad comparison point to have either, given how that band can have a bracing power that can be really impactful, but for some reason, A Billion Little Lights sees Wild Pink dial back on it, perhaps a bit more than they should. The tones are gentler and more rooted in watery synth passages, and John Ross’ voice comes across as more waifish and whispery in a John Mayer vein. It isn’t precisely forceful, and while the sound is frequently pleasant, the meandering pace really doesn’t do a lot, unsurprisingly finding its greatest pickup when the guitars get a bit jauntier on Oversharers Anonymous and You Can Have It Back. It’s almost constantly on a simmer, a sensation that’s nice for allowing the atmosphere to wash over, but it struggles to pick up a strong sense of foundation, particularly with the prominence of blurred-over tones in the mix, followed by slide guitar on top of them towards the album’s end to make it even less defined.
The funny thing is though, A Billion Little Lights isn’t as much of a drag as it could be. It very rarely rises past just being pleasant, but even that’s a decent sensation to have around, given when there’s a nice mix balance throughout to complement how well-layered some of these compositions are. It certainly helps that there’s a wide, windswept quality in the writing to help it out, drawing on broader images and vibes of literature and vistas of Americana in a similar manner to The Killers, only a lot more tamped back. In fact, with a lot of the polish ramped up, Wild Pink feel quite at home with that parallel on this album, like a toned-down variation that finds its footing in the scenery around the whirlwind romances rather than being inside them. It’s naturally less gripping because of that, but it’s a mood that Wild Pink are appropriately leaning into and the results are pretty solid as a result. It’s more indebted to that mood than anything else, and that ultimately limits just how much can really be gotten from it, but it’s fine for what it’s trying to do. For something more airy and relaxed, you could definitely do worse. • LN
For fans of: The War On Drugs, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Tomberlin
‘A Billion Little Lights’ by Wild Pink is released on 19th February on Royal Mountain Records.
It feels like ages since a band like Dizzy Bats has come around and really made an impact. These sorts of grittier, more grounded pop-punk bands used to be all over the place, but the genre as a whole being in a bit of a slump means that Dizzy Bats are really only boasting some attention on their third full-length. Even then, this is still a very small band, but it’s the fact that they carry themselves like so much more that makes this self-titled album as enjoyable as it is. They’ve definitely got the backing in production from Such Gold’s Jon Markson (another perennially underrated but excellent pop-punk band), but the attention shouldn’t be taken too far off Dizzy Bats themselves, because there’s an unavoidable knack for melody-crafting in a way that feels substantive. There’s definitely more an alt-rock slant below the hood, in the generally rougher guitar tone and Dave Ma’s chunkier bass presence, but that’s affixed to the buoyant hooks and stickiness that’s often the standout feature in more standard pop-punk. Even then, that isn’t particularly reinventing the wheel, but songs like Alone and Choir benefit greatly from the injection of oomph, and even trending into surging, moodier territory like on Southern Town isn’t out of the question. Factor in the surprising abundance of violin riding through the background that can really catch you off guard in how much it elevates a song like That Night (and without opening itself up to the inevitable Yellowcard comparisons, at that), and there is a good amount to like about how potent Dizzy Bats’ sound actually is, especially among modern pop-punk.
Of course, it is still pop-punk at the end of the day, and you really can prize a good melody about all else and still come out on top. There’s definitely an element of that to Dizzy Bats that can bring up a bit of roteness to subject matter like failing relationships or depression on Cut Me Loose and Freezing respectively (though neither is a bad song, for the record), but it’s the seeds of swinging for the fences a bit more readily that catches the eye the most. They tackle posters of racist or offensive rhetoric getting their comeuppance on Not Like You and gun violence as a result of upholding ‘traditional American values’ on Southern Town, the sorts of topics that would seem out of a pop-punk band’s depth but are given plenty of vigour and weight here. They’re carried on energy above all else, but that works when Connor Frost can be a bit more hard-edged in his vocal delivery, if only to highlight a gravity that feels pleasingly measured here. It’s another strong inroad to that particular stripe of pop-punk that Dizzy Bats hark back to, where they’re a lot better equipped to tackle it than most of their stature nowadays. That mightn’t be saying much with as thin on the ground as it can be, but that’s not to discount a tangible good that Dizzy Bats are doing regardless. There’s something incredibly solid here that their unfortunately small profile might be hiding – let’s hope it doesn’t stay that way for much longer. • LN
For fans of: Man Overboard, Such Gold, A Loss For Words
‘Dizzy Bats’ by Dizzy Bats is released on 19th February.
Glitter & Gore
Stretch Panic share their name with a weird little PS2 game from 2001, and while probably coincidental, there’s a couple of notable commonalities between the two. They’re both very quirky and cartoonish for one, and while that can yield some neat ideas, in both cases the final product is a bit of a mixed bag. At its best though, it’s easy to see where Glitter & Gore works very well, in how much charm and quaintness that Stretch Panic bring into these lovestruck power-pop songs with more of a cutesy horror aesthetic. There’s definitely a twisted undercurrent to songs like Vampire Love and Psycho Mama that give them more replayability, but even just on the surface, there’s a snappiness to the writing in how it makes use of its aesthetic. MJ Haha has a great voice for this sort of thing, being noticeably twee but not distractingly so, and even when there’s a shortage of bigger pop hooks, moments like the mid-song skit on Vampire Love or the general charm of I Can’t Help It, I’m A Zombie do close the gap fairly well.
That being said, it still feels like Stretch Panic are still getting a hand on what they’re doing here, and the looseness that afflicts some of these songs isn’t always the most compelling. It’s most noticeable in longer songs, where the ambition of Symphony Of The Night and At The Ball is more commendable but than the rather fragmented execution, but in general, Glitter & Gore can lack a bit of sharpness that would ultimately benefit it. It’s hard to deny that the focus on basslines and keeping them high and prominent makes for a pleasantly lithe listen, and the chintzy synths sprinkled around contribute to the cheap-and-cheerful horror aesthetic in a good way, but this is also an album that’s crying out for the pace or tone to be ramped up a bit. It feels as though the band get close with the likes of Batibat and Surf Song, but they’re also missing a bit more power to really drive themselves in. Right now, Stretch Panic feel like a band defined by their concept and their ability to project it, with a keener focus on making it stick being the only missing piece keeping them from being a really cool little power-pop band. Even then though, Glitter & Gore is still worth a try; it’s a fun time almost all around, and even the need for some tightening and tweaking can’t distract from that too much. • LN
For fans of: The B-52’s, The Go-Go’s, The Dollyrots
‘Glitter & Gore’ by Stretch Panic is released on 19th February.
Words by Luke Nuttall (LN) and Holly Royle (HR)