The Soundboard Stereo – February 2021

February this year has definitely felt busier than usual, and not just on the release front. There finally looks to be a light at the end of the tunnel with shows and festivals returning this summer, and even if nothing is set in stone, it’s nice to have the buzz of excitement to look forward to regardless, if only to take the edge off the dourness elsewhere. In terms of music though, a lot of it has come out, and a lot of it has been good, to be perfectly honest, clearly following in the footsteps of 2020 in a lot of strong releases coming in quick succession. March looks to be a bit lighter on the whole, but the stuff to look forward to still seems to be there, which is still encouraging. Before that though, here’s what’s been on The Soundboard Stereo in February 2021…

System Of A Down
Toxicity

There isn’t much more that can be said about Toxicity that hasn’t already, or indeed System Of A Down on the whole. They were among the distinct and joyfully creative metal bands of the 2000s, thrust into nu-metal basically on technicality but felt so much bigger and more daring in their scope and vision. They clearly aren’t interested in trying to recapture that magic, as they’ve shown numerous times – spotty-at-best live performances; a body of work over the past 15 years that’s consisted of two songs; drummer John Dolmayan looking to burn whatever bridges he can with his political views – but Toxicity is still the magnum opus of this band’s career that just about makes it all worthwhile. For a start, you’ve got Chop Suey!, the title track and Aerials, staples of 21st Century rock and metal forevermore, but that’s just the surface of why this album of so beloved. At pretty much every juncture, it still feels incredibly prescient in its messaging and forward-thinking in its execution; there’s an almost overwhelming, manic energy to the way the likes of Prison Song and Deer Dance sound, but the quality of Serj Tankian’s voice makes that feel entirely the case. He’s always been a very charismatic vocalist and this album is no different, but probably more so than anyone else, he’s able to get more impact from choppy, rapid-fire delivery beyond simple power. That’s still there in an enormous quantity, but there’s a certain rubberiness and almost cartoonishness to the likes of X or Forest which some bands have strived to replicate but none have really succeeded. Even now, twenty years after it was initially released, Toxicity still feels like an album ahead of its time, with ideas that are yet to be topped (even by the band themselves on subsequent albums, mostly) and a sense of urgency that, at the specific moment in time this came out, was a serious shot in the arm for metal of all stripes. It’s the sort of album that needs to be cherished, especially when we’re probably never getting another like it. • LN


Harry Styles
Harry Styles

Finding the perfect example of a pop band member turned solo star would be something extremely difficult to quantify, but Harry Styles is certainly one of the meatier prospects when it comes to arguing his case. Influenced openly by rock acts of the ’70s and ’80s, his is an evolution seemingly designed to transcend pop, particularly on his self-titled debut. In retrospect, Styles’ debut is definitely in the shadow of its successor Fine Line. Even though Fine Line pushes the more expansive aspects of Styles’ Bowie / Stones / Fleetwood Mac worship much further, it exudes pop irresistibility and a sense of fun that’s not quite as present on his first outing. Harry Styles was a record released with one purpose in mind – to establish the singer as an artist in his own right, with more mature inspirations and authentic quality being more important than sales to a boyband. Choosing Sign Of The Times, a five-and-a-half minute ballad, as the lead single speaks volumes, with Styles never dropping the ball, always showing he has chops to carry off such demanding undertakings. His charisma prevents the double act of of Two Ghosts and Sweet Creature from becoming ballad quicksand like many other artists (or even his previous One Direction bandmates) would deliver them, while the explosive Kiwi. Of course there are plenty of highlights on Harry Styles’ tracklisting, but it feels like a record more preoccupied with showing that Styles can actually pull off this kind of material; the songs here don’t really give enough wiggle room for the singer to show too much of his own personality aside from the music he’s influenced by. Songs like Kiwi and Sign Of The Times might forever be irreplaceable mainstays in Styles’ catalogue, but the true best representation of him as an artist so far isn’t his debut. • GJ


Maroon 5
Songs About Jane

It almost seems inconceivable to claim nowadays that Maroon 5 were once a rock band, given that basically an entire generation know them solely as a stiff pop vehicle for Adam Levine to screech over. But it’s true, and in those prehistoric times of 2002, Songs About Jane was the debut full-length that primed the band for superstar status, albeit one that they’d break off into a completely different direction. Still, Songs About Jane generally holds up overall, mostly in terms of a melodic foundation that the onus on grooves and funk flourishes is more capable of handling. You’ll never hear a Maroon 5 song nowadays with a bassline like on Harder To Breathe or The Sun, given how much of the simmer and sizzle under the hood has been leeched out, but it all feeds into the easygoing nature that still makes Songs About Jane such a solid listen. In their current form, the flash and garish volume takes up the bulk of Maroon 5’s mix; here, there’s smoothness and flow, taking the lounging, adult-contemporary style and making the most of it. Even if huge rock moments aren’t their forte, even back then, there’s still drive to songs like This Love and Not Going Home that feels completely uncharacteristic of them now, but is much more preferable. There’s a reason why She Will Be Loved, This Love and Sunday Morning have prevailed as singles almost two decades later, because it’s the best possible approximation of where Maroon 5 can go, and how their blatant pop impulses can be tempered with a rock foundation. That’s why it’s so baffling to see the extent to which they’ve ditched that now, and have done for a long time; this version of them is so much richer and more vibrant than stale, trend-chasing pop that rarely lasts, and yet Songs About Jane is still the albatross around Maroon 5’s neck that they’re never going to top, or probably even attempt to. It’s a shame, if only to think about how different things could’ve been if they’d have stuck like this. • LN


M83.
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

It’s easy to boil down M83’s career to their handful of advert-soundtracking synthpop tracks and be done with it. But dig deeper and you’ll find a whole world of electric possibilities. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, the French band’s most proficient release, is a double album with a 73-minute runtime (still the longest M83 album to date) which explores all then-30 years of M83 mastermind Anthony Gonzalez’s life. It’s an album with an immense amount of caring and thought put into it, designed to be consumed in-depth, in its entirety at least once. Each track on the record’s first side has a ‘sibling’ on the second (though there’s never been any confirmation as to the exact structure of this), the pure joy of creating them able to be felt in every bar. Hurry Up… is more funneled through a pop approach (fitting with the band’s career trajectory at this point), leaving behind the in-your-face vibrancy of albums like Before The Dawn Heals Us in favour of warm synth bleedouts and more obvious full band contributions. M83 have a wonderful ability to encapsulate rushes of wide-eyed emotion in a super pure form, on this record This Bright Flash, My Tears Are Becoming a Sea and of course, Midnight City, come to mind as standouts. (You might hurl out the word ‘overplayed’ with an eyeroll, but the triumph of Midnight City’s climactic sax solo still feels unbeatable, and even more so following the perfect scene-setting Intro.) These tracks fall among the more traditional M83-style tracks which allow the full band to have their moments at the forefront of the mix (Reunion, Claudia Lewis). Many of these 22 songs probably wouldn’t be revisited after a full listen, but Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming invokes nothing but joy as an experience. • GJ


The Kid LAROI
FUCK LOVE (SAVAGE)

If there’s a way to describe The Kid LAROI, it’d probably be inescapable in a way that doesn’t necessarily correlate with talent. The push behind him as the new face of emo-rap in the mainstream has been blatant – with the added boon of being the protégé of the late Juice WRLD – but like a lot of the artists in his lane who are probably vying for the same crown, there isn’t much about him that stands out beyond immense marketability. It’s very telling in that regard that WITHOUT YOU is the big single pushed off this debut album, the prostrating acoustic ballad that’s deeply ingrained in the sort of emo that’s coming from a young voice, embracing of its toxic undertones, and seems designed to court a male audience in particular. It’s not like The Kid LAROI’s version of that does much to differentiate between his contemporaries either; he might be Australian but the American accent he puts on doesn’t let on to that much, and while there’s a pulling power on this album that’s impressive (in NBA YoungBoy, Machine Gun Kelly, Marshmello and Juice WRLD himself), at the end of the day, it ends up being another one of these albums, where the intent is clear among a flimsy execution that doesn’t do enough to really stick. It’s not like The Kid LAROI doesn’t have potential, especially as a crossover artist (even if SO DONE is a terrible song that should never have been his contingency hit), but as with a lot of trap and emo-rap in this lane, FUCK LOVE (SAVAGE) is more content with laying down the broad strokes of what it has to offer. The intensity of the buzz suggests that he isn’t just another one-and-done, but that ultimately remains to be seen. • LN


Britney Spears
Blackout

With a trial and protests to end Britney Spears’ conservatorship at the very centre of pop culture discourse at the moment, it feels apt to revisit the singer’s 2007 record Blackout. Post her infamous 2007, Blackout marked Spears’ first real unapologetic statement in her career, melding together Europop, dirty bass wubs and vocal manipulation galore, telling the ‘comeback’ story of one of the most media-dissected celebrities on her own terms. On this record, the rulebook was well and truly thrown out. If Britney was going to be massacred for her innocent, uber-manicured image, why not pole dance in a studded leather vest and fishnets and sing the most overtly sexual lyrics of her career so far? The biggest rule – not directly talking about her personal life in her music – had a sledgehammer taken to it with the iconic Piece Of Me, which hit back at media vultures for everything from jibes about her weight to comments on her parenting. Musically, Blackout can feel like its own world. Get Naked (I Got a Plan) is a fever dream meant for a sweaty dancefloor, and the mismash of synths, pounding drums and bass wubs along almost all of these tracks can justifiably be adored or dry-heaved at depending on the mood of the listener. It has to be said that a lot of Blackout’s admirable qualities come from context and retrospect. Musically there is a lot going on – wanting to stick on Hot As Ice or Freakshow at any given moment is probably something that comes naturally to a very small amount of people – but as a commentary on Britney Spears’ own career and something of a phoenix moment from such a dark time, Blackout’s lasting legacy is a symbolic one. • GJ


Words by Luke Nuttall (LN) and Georgia Jackson (GJ)

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