REVIEW ROUND-UP: Rag’n’Bone Man, The Devil Wears Prada, Salem, Pop Evil

Rag’n’Bone Man

Life By Misadventure

In a lot of ways, Rag’n’Bone Man’s career trajectory feels a lot like Ed Sheeran’s. Both got started around UK hip-hop before breaking out with singles that were decidedly far removed from that, and proceeded to gain a level of ubiquity that, honestly, sees them wear out their welcome more than they otherwise might. In Rory Graham’s case though, the fact that that’s been exclusively tied to the success of Human has produced a much weaker base overall, instead heralding something more akin to the omnipresent ad fodder of Alex Clare or X Ambassadors. It’s not like Human is too bad of a song either, and Graham’s taste for soul and blues and a tremendous voice can elevate quite a lot, but it’s put him in the position of a pop culture figure rather than a musician for whom there’s real groundswell behind. Especially on Life By Misadventure and its rather snug ‘difficult second album’ fit, you get the impression of an artist playing it safe with middle-brow adult-alternative fare that’ll gel well with increased radio exposure rather than anything particularly transgressive or creative. Its palette of indie-rock, pop, folk and soul is clearly fixated to the middle of the road, where thrills come dead last to a very tasteful, mature arrangement befitting of an artist on this trajectory. The closest to excitement that Graham gets – his Castle On The Hill moment, if you will – is the pulsating indie thrum of All You Ever Wanted, where the sound might be kind of derivative of bands from over a decade ago, but the strong, well-balanced mix and quicker pace are pretty likable overall. As a constant factor, Life By Misadventure is pretty difficult to outright hate; Graham’s consistently good and emotive delivery and a pretty warm, organic mix are enough to fend off bad creative decisions, even if they rarely open up for many exceptional ones to come through. That’s the issue that utterly kneecaps this album, where there’s no real dynamism as a means of fostering accessibility, only to come across as very dry and unrewarding as a result. It would be a heftier blow if Graham wasn’t as strong of a singer as he is, and there’s such genuinely impactfuly emotionality in delivery alongside P!nk on Anywhere Away From Here, but the bloated runtime and trundling concessions to outward-facing maturity rarely feel redemptive.

That becomes stacked on the reality that this is a mainstream-goading Rag’n’Bone Man album, where the writing is all but guaranteed to lack equal flair to the artist delivering it. And again, most of this is fine and well-written, but that makes for an exciting experience, let alone one worth actively revisiting when, across fifteen tracks, things start to blend and obscure themselves. Resting on maturity and stability will generally do that, painted in broad strokes and muted, agreeable colours, in the vein of a painting that’s been proficiently made with none of the artist’s stamp to give it personality. There’s Graham’s voice, the factor that seems to serve as a damage buffer across this album more than anything else, though it isn’t given much work when soft-edged emotionality on Fall In Love Again or something bolder skewed towards triumph on Changing Of The Guard seem like its most comfortable extremities. It’s how far down the plainness goes which makes Life By Misadventure feel so hollow, especially when the ease with which Graham could find a powerful, exciting lane for himself seems so obvious but underused. This definitely feels like a collection of abilities that have been severely downplayed, perfect for down-the-middle radio play but in terms of artistic fulfillment or progression, there’s precious little to work with. At the same time though, its harmlessness is neither or positive or negative observation, but rather the foundation upon which Life By Misadventure bases itself on. There was never going to be a tremendous idea emerging from a canvas this beige and light, and to be perfectly honest, this is probably the best that could’ve been achieved from it. That’s not a glowing mark of quality, but it’s something, no matter how miniscule or insignificant.

5/10

For fans of: Tom Grennan, Emili Sandé, Tom Walker

‘Life By Misadventure’ by Rag’n’Bone Man is out now on Sony Music Entertainment.


The Devil Wears Prada

ZII

It’s a wonder The Devil Wears Prada chose to make something like this, given how pivotal the original Zombie EP was for them, and still is to this day. That’s often considered their best body of work to date, and an important milestone when it came to the evolution from another scene metalcore band with stupid song titles (and a band name that continues to haunt them) into serious players in the metalcore conversation. At least ten years feels like an ample amount of time to wait before making a sequel, but it’s the hefty shadow that looms over ZII by design that can put in in precarious straits right from the start. But really, the reason why it’s not as impressive is quite simple – this is the sort of music that The Devil Wears Prada make now, meaning that there isn’t a surprising or noteworthy leap to elevate it as highly. But they’re also a much better band now than they used to be, so while ZII isn’t the huge shot in the arm the first installment was, it’s still a remarkably solid continuation, both of it and The Devil Wears Prada’s current path as a whole. The scream-sing template is wisely eschewed once again to feel more fluid and natural, where Mike Hranica’s abilities as a screamer are put towards something more purposeful than stylistic. It’s the best way to accentuate the danger and dread of zombie outbreak spoke about in the lyrics, now as the horde gain strength and overcome everything in their wake. The specific references to outbreaks and contagions add a few more knowing nods to the current climate, but it’s not dwelled on so much that it’s obvious, nor does it break what’s a pretty immersive lyrical sentiment overall. There’s never too much amped-up melodrama or horror schlock; it comes across as dark and destitute as it needs to, and it’s entirely to the band’s credit that they can keep up the weighty tone that’s prevailed for them for so long.

It’s not as though their credentials within metalcore are being doubted, certainly not this far in, but it always remains impressive to see the extent in which The Devil Wears Prada reinvented themselves back in the day, and how they’re still yet to slouch. They’re definitely more dynamic in their heaviness than most of their immediate peers, where a song like Nightfall undergoes significant peaks and troughs in its runtime that don’t feel stilted or too micromanaged. There’s a comparative rawness that this EP, and the band themselves by extension, pride themselves with, whether that’s in the nervy, juddering guitars on Forlorn that don’t sound too far removed from a band like Refused, or the combination of Giuseppe Capolupo’s percussion and Jonathan Gering’s synths on Nora, where the ominous wails of atmosphere proceed to be smashed about by a truly ravenous drum tone. The steely, smooth production is really the only carryover from the most modern permutation of the scene, and even then it’s far less of a hindrance than in other circumstances, given the lengths that The Devil Wears Prada go to to sound necessarily vicious and heavy. That’s been their M.O. pretty much since the first Zombie EP, and ZII remains just as consistent and fresh-sounding for keeping it up. Of the five tracks here, there isn’t a bad one, and while it’s very much indicative of The Devil Wears Prada stylistically, what they’ve got isn’t exactly something to complain about. While it most likely won’t hold the same longstanding esteem as the original, ZII is the reaffirmation of this band’s talents that wasn’t really needed but is definitely appreciated. They’ve come a long way since they started out, and after all this time, they’re still all the better for it.

7/10

For fans of: Miss May I, August Burns Red, The Ghost Inside

‘ZII’ by The Devil Wears Prada is released on 21st May on Solid State Records.


Salem

Salem II

For what originally felt like a side-project for Will Gould to get down his ideas that wouldn’t necessarily fit with the bigger scope of Creeper anymore, Salem have been utterly steamrolling ahead. Their debut EP only came out at the end of October and was already the sort of accomplished, deeply satisfying melodic punk indicative of seasoned professionals blowing off some steam. As for this sequel EP however, it’s just as good in most respects, but hasn’t shied away from the rapid advancement that just seems to come part and parcel with Gould’s musical output. It makes the notion of being a Creeper spin-off even harder to ignore when Salem are now actively catching up, but another dose of material that has the galloping, big-hearted intensity and swirling melodrama to fit on Eternity, In Your Arms is far from a bad thing. A line like “Anton LaVey on our wedding day / I’ll be Crowley in the sack” on the excellently-titled DRACULADS is almost the perfect encapsulation of where Salem will take this particular thread, with all the romanticised occultism and theatricality blended smoothly together, but with less of the portentous weight that makes Creeper feel that bit more important. It’s not like any of the grandeur has been diminished though; for a side-project, it’s impressive how one-for-one the likes of William, It Was Really Something and Sweet Tooth can be, though they serve more as additions to the running themes rather than retreads. It’s also short enough to avoid any fatigue that might bring on, which honestly feels like the perfect decision for how entrenched in their theming these songs are.

But the proximity of those similarities, at this stage, reveals itself to be the hidden beauty of Salem. Obviously there’s not the magnitude of a surge forward, but they don’t undercut what came before either, in that Salem still sound purposeful and driven in their execution. Even if you were to mark the sonic closeness as a complaint, there’s no denying that the sweeping, sweltering drama of William, It Was Really Something or DRACULADS sounds incredible, as does the bracing punk of Keep The Thorns and Heaven Help Me as a vehicle of embedding the older Alkaline Trio influence with Gould’s current musical mindset. Speaking of Gould, he’s just as good as ever, as a combination of some of the all-time great frontmen melded into a package that excels at gothic vamping just as much as it does with electrified, pronounced senses of melody. There’s honestly enough here to make this feel like a step up from its predecessor; it’s got the excitement factor that Creeper really grew into further down the line, magnified and cultivated into a smaller package that’s not as earth-shaking but hits all the right notes unfailingly. When the only real problem is that Salem on the exact same track as their main band can lack a bit of variety, that’s indicative of just how immense this creative strain is, and how a winning streak greater than any side-project is liable to produce can continue uninhibited.

8/10

For fans of: Creeper, Alkaline Trio, Miss Vincent

‘Salem II’ by Salem is out now on Roadrunner Records / Warner Music.


Pop Evil

Versatile

It’s actually quite funny that this band have opted to call themselves Pop Evil, as if to inherently rail against the homogenous mainstream even though they’ve subsequently fenced themselves in with the most formulaic and boring of the radio-ready hard rock crowd. In truth, Pop Evil are more inessential within their scene than offensive or bad, and that’s always been the case. On each cycle they’ll have the convention-mandated single that’s a bit more memorable, and leave everything else to fall away into the background forevermore, just like all the other faceless, B-tier nobodies inextricably linked to. Now granted, calling this album Versatile is at least enough to illicit a chuckle, given how everything they’ve done in the past has made it clear that versatility is in no way on the table, and it’s indeed short-lived when it reveals itself as the usual flavourless, commercialised gunk that Pop Evil albums always consist of. Well, maybe that’s not entirely fair; there is Work after all, though to suggest that moving from cookie-cutter hard rock to a lumbering, drunken mishmash of Imagine Dragons and a dubstep preset is preferable would be supremely incorrect. The rest is more of the expected, in cold, clinical production that saps any life or vigour from every angle, and which makes a typically unimpressive style of hard rock playing even more so. It creates such a cheap and empty feel to this album that regularly draws attention to itself, like how the wispy background tone will subsume everything around it on Inferno and Stronger (The Time Is Now), or how flat and plastic the drums sound on Raise Your Flag. There’s mercifully a bit of heavier tone brought to the nu-metal crunch of Let The Chaos Reign, Worst In Me and Same Blood, even if the latter two remain very sludgy and suffer from the same compression as so much else on this album. The one genuinely solid instrumental comes in Survivor, which might morph into another drained alt-metal shambler, but spends most of its time in a ‘90s alt-rock lane that’s actually quite well-balanced overall.

Past that, the only real noteworthy positive that Pop Evil has is Leigh Kakaty as a vocalist, and that’s almost entirely him as a performer rather than exactly what he’s doing. When he isn’t being crippled by unnecessary filters on Work or forced into a truly painful upper register on Raise Your Flag, he does have a booming, clear voice and general expressiveness that makes the likes of Breathe Again and Same Blood feel earnest, if not particularly engaging through it. That’s because Pop Evil’s lyrics are, once again, fresh out the meat grinder of radio-rock, with nothing interesting to say and the pretensions towards grandeur and importance that they can’t reasonably live up to. It’s the sort of stuff that this scene just eats up most days, and it’s not even current in what it’s doing most of the time; Worst In Me follows the oh-so-exhausted template of Kakaty describing how much of an unrepentant shithead he is but how he’s still thankful for the partner who sticks by his side and puts up with him, the sort of unwarrantedly aggrandised toxicity that brings up unwanted flashbacks of post-grunge dregs like Saving Abel’s Addicted, or the majority of Theory Of A Deadman’s catalogue. It’s all loosely tied into a very tenuous theme of perseverance, even if Set Me Free and Stronger (The Time Is Now) could be literally any song about overcoming adversity, and Same Blood is an expectedly heavy-handed call for equality. With songs like this, Pop Evil at least give off more of a vibe of their hearts being in the right place, but it doesn’t change how basic and churned-out they feel, as if they want to move away from the lowest common denominator but don’t have the fortitude to actually follow through with it. It just makes Versatile such a nothing product of an album, hitting all exceedingly low expectations with aplomb, and utterly floundering when it comes to doing literally anything else. It’s not ineptitude here, but Pop Evil wind up delivering a messy, unfulfilling album with pretty much every step taken off the beaten path, all while falling into the worst of radio-rock conventionality and cynicism at the same time. It’s just another one of these at the end of the day, slightly worse than average but just as inconsequential to anything outside of its own circle.

3/10

For fans of: Shinedown, Adelitas Way, Through Fire

‘Versatile’ by Pop Evil is released on 21st May on eOne.


Iceage

Seek Shelter

It’s about time that Iceage began to capitalise on the current post-punk boom. They’ve been scene stars for years now with how frenetic and incendiary they can be, to where they’d easily be able to carve out one of the more left-of-centre niches occupied by the likes of Protomartyr or The Murder Capital. That’s the purpose of Seek Shelter to an extent, but this is a far more steady and explorative album than Iceage have made in the past, and it’s to their credit at that. There’s a dichotomy between a more ‘approachable’ sound and an obtuse vibe that runs through it, where lyrics composed from frontman Elias Rønnenfelt‘s journals are placed against scenes set of trying to find some form of positivity or peace, retroactively fitted with the leaky studio that this album was created in. Those images come to a head most concisely in the opening title track, but the unfolding imagery of Drink Rain and Dear Saint Cecilia bring forward that intrigue that’s always good to have in a post-punk album, where the aloofness of the singer will ultimately compliment the layers upon layers of dense detail that comprises it. It’s where Iceage will drift into the impenetrable side of post-punk that flirts with great pretentiousness, and for an album like Seek Shelter that can be a bit of a slow burn and an acquired taste in itself, that can stick in a negative way. That’s not to say that perseverance doesn’t pay off though, where the results mightn’t yield a masterclass in songwriting, but the usual grading of intelligence in this genre is there regardless.

That said, if Iceage don’t gel for everyone, that’s understandable. Seek Shelter especially feels more weighty and unwieldy at times, given that the band have clearly taken all manner of new routes to assemble a much wider selection of sounds to move away from the punk of their earlier material. But, thanks to Spaceman 3’s Paul Kember on production, they find ways of tapping into psychedelic and drone instincts that can be made to sound a lot bigger and more imposing through the post-punk lens. High & Hurt and Gold City will wind through their strolling basslines and sharper guitar work, where they’ll glance at the indie-rock tones that colour so much of the genre’s modern output without fully drawing them in. Meanwhile, the whirling, hurling haze of Vendetta is probably the loosest that Iceage sound here but unquestionably in a good way, and closer The Holding Hand finds a way to split the difference between the blackened post-punk finish and what almost feels like a Britpop lilt. It’s a weird little concoction of sounds that this album mixes that doesn’t always seem to have a clear direction, but achieves a result where leaning into that does the most for Iceage on the whole. It’s not an album that demands to be sought out regularly – through a combination of its own density and post-punk’s growing issue with saturation – but for a pretty sizable step forward that barely even looks back at what it left behind, Seek Shelter is impressive just on the basis of vision alone. Five albums deep, Iceage continue to justify both their own longevity and prolificness, and Seek Shelter might be one of their most defining statements yet.

7/10

For fans of: Ought, Shame, Protomartyr

‘Seek Shelter’ by Iceage is out now on Mexican Summer.


Belvedere

Hindsight Is The Sixth Sense

As a veteran skate-punk band still making new music, any speculation of what a new Belvedere album will entail can easily be satisfied by going back and listening to any amount of their old stuff. 2016’s Revenge Of The Fifth showed a band for whom rust was barely a factor even after a twelve-year hiatus, and Hindsight Is The Sixth Sense is just about as reliable when it comes to continuously getting all the old tricks right. They’re still blisteringly fast and technical, albeit in a form that’s a fair bit more predictable when they’ve been at it for so long. It’s hardly the band’s fault, more so the ceiling that often finds itself placed above punk bands of this particular generation, meaning that there’s an overall limit to how impressed you can really be. At the same time though, there’s a level of quality that Belvedere strive to in how volatile and wiry the guitars are, and how Casey Lewis’ drumming is just the right amount of unhinged and chaotic. It says a lot when this is the first album to feature new guitarist Dan Wollach and bassist Ryan Mumby, and they fit into the fold with barely a wrinkle in what remains a definitive, recognisable Belvedere sound. Beyond that, the major key choruses on Camera Obscura and Retina work to streamline the white-hot energy that sees this album bound forth at a rate of knots, and while defined hooks aren’t too much of a factor across the board here, that perpetual forward motion is an enticing factor by itself. Belvedere never sound old or past it on this album, even if the velocity is more or less a substitute for trying anything new or attempting to diversify.

Really though, that’s not totally necessary when there’s still mileage to be gotten from what they already have. The political bent of Belvedere is pretty unmistakable, after all, and there’s no shortage of sources to draw from on Hindsight Is A Sixth Sense when it comes to channelling that intensity forward. ‘Intensity’ is definitely the operative word rather than rage, largely down to where Steve Rawles’ vocal range lies, but on songs like Good Grief Retreat or Comrade – and really any track here that finds Belvedere standing up for the disenfranchised who, in a pandemic-stricken, capitalist world, find any efforts to live sufficiently stymied by those on top – they’re more or less interchangeable. There’s a very keen melodic focus to what Belvedere do, to yield a sharper, more fine-tuned approach to drilling in their message that does feel specifically theirs. It’s yet another element that’s been honed and crafted to perfection over the years, where that can be greatly appreciated despite the wow factor not being as prominent. Though, thinking about it, Belvedere have lost less than others of a similar vintage, purely through how vital they are by design. Where the classification of ‘just another old-school punk album’ is prescient to new material from so many, Hindsight Is The Sixth Sense still feels like its own thing and is tied more to Belvedere as a band than than a wider, more nebulous punk scene. It’s what gives this album a bit more life despite its lack of novelty, but that’s a stipulation that isn’t make or break for Belvedere; they’re doing just fine with what they’ve built for themselves, and this one not quite being a major standout in their catalog won’t diminish that whatsoever.

6/10

For fans of: Strike Anywhere, A Wilhelm Scream, Strung Out

‘Hindsight Is The Sixth Sense’ by Belvedere is released on 14th May on Lockjaw Records.


SeeYouSpaceCowboy & If I Die First

A Sure Disaster

Well, if MySpace screamo is the next scene to make its comeback among the wave of 2000s nostalgia, who better to lead the charge than one of the best bands currently doing it? That, of course, is SeeYouSpaceCowboy, but the band they’re facilitating on this split EP is an interesting case too, not only with alumni featuring From First To Last’s Travis Richter, but also emo-rappers Lil Lotus and Lil Zubin, and members of Ghostemane’s backing band. It draws attention to the inherent similarities the two scenes have – both are primarily Internet-driven and reliant on unfiltered, often ugly emotions from their performers – but placed next to each other on a release like this, there’s a real legitimacy from both parties that’s so impressive and genuinely exciting. It’s not just a case of replicating the sound either, which both bands do basically flawlessly, but also bringing it forward and shaking off any of the particular dated affectations carried over from the early 2000s. And again, there’s arguably nothing to complain about too much; apart from some iffy vocal mixing for Connie Sgarbossa on Modernizing The Myth Of Sisyphus, SeeYouSpaceCowboy throw in an angular mathcore gnashing to give their post-hardcore even more teeth, while If I Die First are more melodic in how the soaring, Pierce The Veil-esque cleans are more regular, but without sidelining the menace that looms over in a surprisingly heavy set of guitars and drums. Even on bloodstainedeyes, the collaborative track that endeavours to have both bands meet in the middle sonically, it’s nowhere near as cluttered as that might seem and actually shows how deeply the malleability runs for both.

It’s probably also worth mentioning the writing, if only for clarity’s sake in how neither band are really breaking the mould here. It’s probably more glaring in If I Die First’s case, where the deliriously emo melodrama is more pronounced thanks to the cleans, but that really only adds to flavour in how over-the-top they already are. In what might otherwise be seen as a flaw, a track like My Nightmares Would Do Numbers As Horror Movies will hit such a defined sweet spot between blatant nostalgia farming and a genuinely killer soundscape in just how vicious it sounds, and that’s where the beauty of all of this lies. It’s a bit different with SeeYouSpaceCowboy’s contributions given that they’re a lot more rabid by design, but as a package, A Sure Disaster works as a platform for both bands to fully commit to both authenticity of the craft, and a genuine, unceasing hunger to move it forward. In a sound that’ll blow its own cobwebs off by means of its own enmity, having that drive to do more is important to really survive, and on this evidence alone, both SeeYouSpaceCowboy and If I Die First bring it in spades. This is truly great stuff from front to back, the sort of thing that could easily spark that perceived scene revival if it catches on well enough. Take the right cues and there’s no reason that it can’t all be this good.

8/10

For fans of: Year Of The Knife, Wristmeetsrazor, Kaonashi

‘A Sure Disaster’ by SeeYouSpaceCowboy & If I Die First is released on 14th May on Pure Noise Records.


Throat

Smile Less

Throat’s brand of miserablism is hardly kept secretive on this new album, but their efforts at ensuring it’s engulfing are much more noteworthy. They might have started out in noise-rock, but Smile Less puts forth what can almost be described as a sense of poise to break through it, as post-punk and industrial rock collide and are subsequently punctured by the destructive malevolence that still sits within. It works especially well in the deliberate slow burn of Home Is Where Your Hurt Is, where the regimented smacks of percussion build into walls of noise that so compelling to witness evolve, even over an eight-minute period of time. Elsewhere, there’s a more traditional punk abrasiveness to Shots and Vanilla Cuts, and the collapsing scenery of closer Hospice is the ideal way to wrap an album like this up, namely by razing everything to ground under its own nihilistic impulses. The snarling bass and cold, chromed atmosphere are such a natural fit here, and especially on a track like Deadpan that’s built around a shattering low end almost entirely, that claustrophobic sensation is where a lot of Throat’s edge stems from. In this current form, Throat feel much more refined and sharp in what they’re doing, where the way that Smile Less shunts itself forward is entirely in-keeping with the sort of harshness that band have picked up.

That’s not to say that this entirely great, mostly because the sonic innovations aren’t totally balanced with a pretty so-so lyrical set. There’s less of an edginess factor as opposed to the darker intents that would pivot towards Nine Inch Nails’ fare, but rarely does the writing stand out as the most interesting part of a Thoat song, and a track like Grounding is even less powerful when J Mattila’s thick deadpan sounds like he’s doing a Ron Burgundy impression. Even so though, it’s not like that really feels important, not when Throat are a lot more about the mood they bring, with lyrics being an auxiliary measure to shape some elements around, at best. Plus, Mattila usually has the presence to front songs like these in a more comfortable register, or when he’s drenched in feedback and distortion like on Home Is Where Your Hurt Is to effectively contribute as another brick in the wall of sound. On that basis, Throat really do hit what they set out to achieve, in the darkness of their sound that’s unrelenting and omnipresent without being too forced or overwhelming. Along with a very dense sound that can actually do a whole lot with a rather succinct setup, Smile Less hits pretty much every goal it needs to with impressive consistency. Strong stuff overall.

7/10

For fans of: Nine Inch Nails, Killing Joke, Swans

‘Smile Less’ by Throat is released on 14th May on Svart Records.


Fightmilk

Contender

Chronicling Fightmilk’s work over the course of their lifetime is an interesting exercise, mostly because it highlights how Contender is quite the different animal by comparison to anything they may have started with. Their early EPs (and to some degree, their 2018 full-length Not With That Attitude) were based around a fuzzy, Britpop-flavoured brand of indie-pop, but that’s ballooned heavily into the sort of bold, anthemic power-pop that connects with such force on every level. That is to say, Contender is by far the peak of Fightmilk’s catalogue, and would be simply on musical strength alone. They do pull from the current indie-punk pool in terms of guitar tones and basslines, but they also fashion them into far more robust compositions, to the point where the likes of The Absolute State Of Me and Banger #4 have melodies that could’ve been alt-rock classics since at least the ‘90s. They’re remarkably consistent at it too; detours mightn’t come often, but even on the shimmering new wave of Girls Don’t Want To Have Fun (which has another infuriatingly familiar melody) and the acoustic jangle-pop of Maybe, the same bar of quality is there. Maybe it’s not quite as tightly constructed as an album, seeing as stylistically it doesn’t lend itself to a longer release like this, but that’s a monumental nitpick for a release that barely puts a foot wrong otherwise.

That also comes as a big boost for splitting the difference between a more direct alt-rock sound and lyrics that are nestled firmly in the indie-punk pool of themes, though subsequently elevating both as a result. It helps that vocalist Lily has a bit of a lower, throatier tone that lends some measured maturity to what can often lack it, but from a purely songwriting perspective, Contender hits some real high marks in terms of how much will actually stick. There’s an excitability tempered with reservation on Hey Annabelle! that’s appealing, as is the more solemn self-reflection on The Absolute State Of Me and the slightly snarky self-love of Cool Cool Girl. Couple that with the usual solid imagery that accentuates the grounded, human feel of I’m Starting To Think You Don’t Even Want To Go To Space and Overbite, and Contender sits as what might be one of the uniformly strong and likable variants of this branch of indie-punk and power-pop to come around in a while. Simply through taking all the usual components and polishing them to a brilliant sheen, Fightmilk stand out against the competition to a marked degree, and makes for a great album that hits everything it needs to and more. Especially considering the sameness the afflicts the proliferation of indie-punk bands, Fightmilk are certainly not one to sleep on.

8/10

For fans of: Martha, Fresh, Superchunk

‘Contender’ by Fightmilk is released on 14th May on Reckless Yes.


Never Loved

Over It

There’s definitely something to commend Never Loved for about being innovative, even if it doesn’t entirely pay off for them. They categorically don’t sound like any other singular band, where they’ll take the base of pop-rock fixed with buzzy synths and heavy production in a way that’s reminiscent of older Waterparks, and bring in the thick guitar molasses of grunge to louden the sound considerably more. Yes, it’s unfortunately another case of volume over dexterity and ductility, and when Over It isn’t as immobile is similar cases, the blocky, low-hanging riffs feel overpowering in an experiment that isn’t all that compatible. The whole slacker-pop skew doesn’t help either, as the guitars and bass just become meatier and more regimented, and the likes of the title track and You’re Killin’ Me feel as though they’re simultaneously trying to be slow and rough around the edges, but feed in a pop-rock brightness that never has a comfortable home. It’s not an impossible task for Never Loved to manage, as Sunshine proves rather excellently in its interpolation of Nine Inch Nails’ Head Like A Hole to platform some more energy and tumultuous anger, but too often and too conspicuously, Over It just feels unworkably sluggish in what it’s trying to do. At least the pop hooks and melodies can prevail through the noise, but that doesn’t make it feel less misguided as a whole.

It severely lowers any impetus to revisit this album, even though, underneath all the crushing density and tone, Never Loved aren’t exactly awful. Cameron Knopp’s voice might be a bit of an acquired taste (particularly when he’s glugging down filters and vocal effects) and the reliance on gang vocals for choruses highlights some frayed edges that aren’t too flattering, but in inhabiting a recognisable pop-punk mould, this isn’t the worst example of that. It’s more generic than anything, as lyrics will flit from apathetic slacker fare earlier on into more traditional pop-rock and emo territory, including the compulsory saccharine ballad in Autumn that, in all fairness, isn’t too awful. The sonic barrier to entry really is where Never Loved take their greatest tumble; without it, they’re derivative but generally harmless, and with it, they stand out more but for a lot of the wrong reasons. Credit where it’s due, it makes for something to talk about, but that can also be seen as an indictment on how hit-or-miss this is on the whole.

5/10

For fans of: Waterparks, Crooked Teeth, Super Whatevr

‘Over It’ by Never Loved is released on 14th May on Equal Vision Records / Rude Records.


Bala

Maleza

The good thing about Bala right out of the gate is, in the stakes of power duos, they’re far away from the mire that’s clogged the reputation of the term. The similar hints of grunge in their sound are there, but they’re also interwoven with punk, stoner-rock and alt-metal for something more directly heavy. The big difference, however, is that Bala will often sing in their native Spanish, which admittedly contributes more to an intrigue factor on Maleza rather than adding too much distinct flavour. Contextually there’s enough to tracks like Agitar and X to hone in on a fury, even without translating the lyrics, and Anxela Baltar has that paint-stripping metal shriek to her that’s only an extra asset. It’s the distribution and efficiency of their own power that feels like Bala’s greatest strength overall, be that in scorching stoner-punk riffage like on Hoy No and Rituais, or something slower that might even flirt with crossing into doom on Quieres Entrar and Bessie. It falls under the go-to adage of two-pieces in that it ‘sounds bigger’, but there’s less of a glibness to that statement towards Bala; in terms of a sonic profile, they’re able to sidestep most potential limitations rather swiftly.

That said though, there’s something about the general sound of Maleza that does still show where those limitations are. They’re masked through sheer volume well enough, but that comes with the impression that Bala don’t have a lot to advance with besides what they’ve got here. That in itself isn’t bad, and the wise decision of limiting themselves to nine songs and not even 25 minutes does pay dividends when it comes to how well this album hits, but it also means the impression it leaves it quite short-lived. It’s probably appropriate for a band whose name translates to ‘bullet’, but simply being loud and riff-heavy doesn’t guarantee something long-term. That’s where Maleza ultimately falls down; it’s good while it’s around and never outstays its welcome, even slightly, but the fundamentals that Bala comprise effective their entire sound from aren’t built to last. That won’t overshadow that fact that it is still good and worth the brief amount of time it takes to give it a listen, but it might dampen it just a small bit.

6/10

For fans of: Nirvana, Queens Of The Stone Age, Helmet

‘Maleza’ by Bala is released on 14th May on Century Media Records.


Words by Luke Nuttall

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