REVIEW ROUND-UP: jxdn, DZ Deathrays, Halflives

jxdn

Tell Me About Tomorrow

People will undoubtedly bring up the ‘state of the industry’ when discussing jxdn, and honestly, it’s not entirely wrong. Where bands and artists who’ve been cutting their teeth for years can’t get a break, here’s a kid who’s sprung up to ride the wave of rappers reverse-engineering pop-punk, all off the back of TikTok clout and yet another Travis Barker co-sign. It’s a slightly different situation than many too, where jxdn started as a TikToker and parlayed his efforts into music, which automatically gives the impression of a built-in audience serving as the primary driving force, especially given how hard he’s drilled into a trend that’s blowing up right this second. And yet, with more thought given to it, jxdn just feels like another ephemeral presence in the scene, who, when the bubble bursts, his fleeting roars of hype aren’t going to be suitable insulation. At least Machine Gun Kelly had a musical following already; the closest jxdn has is e-boy leverage and Travis Barker, who’s getting dangerously close to spreading himself way too thinly in terms of where his mentorship efforts are going. And when that’s filtered into a full album, this is just Tickets To My Downfall again. The feckless pastiche of pop-punk instrumentals; the totally worthless writing; a frontman who’s chronically ill-equipped to sing, let alone carry an entire body of work; it’s all here, only jxdn’s copy-of-a-copy status doesn’t even allow for the slimmest morsel of good will that MGK had. That’s predominantly in how much like an act this feels, where jxdn’s engagement in his own genre feels cursory at best outside of obvious profiteering motives. The fact that Angels & Demons appears on this album, a much earlier song in jxdn’s musical lineage, is telling, with its darker trap-rock grumble that’s still too lumbering and shallow to be good, but it feels natural. He’s a bad singer, that much is obvious, but he’s rarely able to even feign the energy that can make this sort of commercialised pop-punk at least tolerable; he sort of gets there on So What!, but especially on a song like Tonight in which both he and iann dior sound truly awful, there’s no sense of what jxdn is trying to convey as an artist. And when he’s given the same boilerplate pop-punk instrumentation, that’s even more of an issue, as the compression and weightlessness is applied in all the predetermined places, along with the conspicuous trap rattles to place this neatly among the hypebeast set. Even by those standards though, the flat, slappy drums on Braindead and the lack of any sort of low end on Fucked Up sound unacceptably lazy, and outside of the aforementioned Angels & Demons, Tell Me About Tomorrow has a drastic shortage of moments that stand out for any sort of merit.

Even MGK got that right, but in seeking to recreate his already dubious credentials, Tell Me About Tomorrow ends up with the broadest, blurriest snapshot, where the most obvious details can be made out to be replicated and literally nothing else. Sure, that open-source appeal is common for pop-punk, but 18 tracks in which jxdn constantly repeats the same blunt, undeveloped points about being broken and depressed starts to feel like an artist tripling down on marketable intentions at record pace, rather than saying anything actually worth saying. It’s not glamourised per se, but it’s yet another case of music targeted so directly at kids trying to formulate the thinnest veneer of relatability possible, and thus inadvertently showing its own hand for how low its own stakes are. There’s something so unappealing about the nonchalance that comes with songs like Pills and Wanna Be, no doubt trying to tap into glazed-over Gen Z irony but feeling a lot more tiresome in doing so. At least MGK could convey self-destructiveness believably; jxdn, meanwhile, gives off even more of a clout-chasing vibe, and when that’s so universal across Tell Me About Tomorrow—not to mention how, on a simple level of word choice, this is pop-punk-by-numbers at very best—what is there really to get invested in? Tickets To My Downfall wasn’t good at all, but it was better than this; its blink-182 ripoffs were never quite as bold-faced as jacking the hook of Feeling This almost entirely for A Wasted Year, and at least MGK could remotely sell what he was delivering. By comparison, jxdn represents the absolute nadir of this wave of pop-punk culture vultures, where the style and look takes enormous precedence over doing anything remotely interesting, but will still find praise for ‘reviving the scene’ and ‘bridging the gap’ for kids looking to explore pop-punk as a whole. Even if all of that was true—and to the faintest extent, it is—we don’t have to blow this up to an exorbitant size just because it’s here; there are bands and artists doing far more to grow pop-punk than another TikTok chancer making a lucky jump onto the wave. Because that’s all this is, and when this already precarious bubble bursts and jxdn inevitably slinks off towards what’ll make the most money for him next, the wider world will never have to hear from him or care about him again.

2/10

For fans of: Machine Gun Kelly, blink-182, LILHUDDY

‘Tell Me About Tomorrow’ by jxdn is out now on DTA Records.


DZ Deathrays

Positive Rising: Part 2

There was always going to be some skepticism when this album rolled around. DZ Deathrays’ first Positive Rising album was a pleasant surprise in aiming higher than the Aussie garage-rock they’d previously been locked into, and succeeding pretty resoundingly. But as is the case with a lot of staggered double albums—especially coming from a scene as notoriously restrictive as this—there’s always reason to give pause and consider how good an idea this actually is. A band like DZ Deathrays really can’t afford to pull any punches with regards to what they’re presenting; a lot of their career has given off that impression, and translating it into their wider-reaching newer form is probably the least beneficial move they could make. Thankfully that isn’t the case though, and Part 2 ends up being the entirely solid companion piece that compounds on its predecessor rather than expands it. That doesn’t come as too much of a surprise when the central theme is positivity and cutting through the noise to find it—an idea that doesn’t lend itself to two albums’ worth of exploration—but there’s definitely merit to the approach that DZ Deathrays take here. They’re well aware of higher powers stoking hatred on Fear The Anchor and the doomscrolling that fans it from those who’ll buy that rhetoric on Make Yourself Mad, and looking to find a platform for their own positive rising isn’t necessary a groundbreaking ethos, but it’s a noble one. DZ Deathrays’ built-in lack of nuance feels most at home in a setting like this, where they can rev up big, adrenalised emotions like on Kerosene to make the most of what theyve got, and more often than not, they hit a rather potent blow.

A bit of specificity would certainly help, if only to really drive in a viewpoint that’s unique to the band, but that’s not really the creative path they’ve taken. As far as splitting the difference between garage-rock and Foo Fighters-esque arena-rock goes, it’s a less interesting sign by design, but one that opens up the possibilities for DZ Deathrays to be more explosive and expansive. The production is definitely cleaner here, which makes the throwbacks to scuzzier guitars on Run The Red feel a bit drained, but in general, prioritises a hookiness that benefits the likes of All Or Nothing or Make Yourself Mad. What they lack in experimentation, DZ Deathrays make up for in just how straightforwardly effective they can be, even down to the interlude Riff City which could easily be fleshed out into its own song with no major qualms to be had. Lachlan Ewbank also has the vocal style to benefit this sort of meat-and-potatoes rock, never being too polished and wearing a looser, more earnest emotional standpoint prominently. Nothing about this is hiding its broadness, right down to the six-and-a-half-minute closing title track designed to be the epic coda that albums like this just love to have, but at least DZ Deathrays are owning it. At least they aren’t pretending to be much more, and diving headfirst into straightforward rock music with gumption is no less reputable in the long run. You get the impression that DZ Deathrays are well aware of this, which is why the two halves of Positive Rising arguably make up their strongest body of work. It’s good stuff that probably won’t get an excess of attention, but at least deserves the recognition for how well it does what it does. • LN

7/10

For fans of: Foo Fighters, Dune Rats, Violent Soho

‘Positive Rising: Part 2’ by DZ Deathrays is released on 9th July on Alcopop! Records.


Halflives

V

It’s an unfortunate position that Halflives find themselves in, where they’ve got the determination to leap into the upper echelons of modern alt-pop, without the necessary magnitude of groundswell to do it. That’s not to say they’ve not had their moments in the past, but it’s also easy to see how a lot of their efforts have gone into sounding slick and expensive, without cultivating the necessary platform to get the most mileage from it. They’re arguably doing better at that now than ever before, but they still give off the impression of a band faking it until they make it, something which stands rather starkly when so many in their lane are getting an industry push that they simply don’t have. The gulf it creates is blatant too; place V next to a band like PVRIS, even at their most underwhelming, and it really stands out much that bigger backing achieves, when Halflives are trying to accomplish a similar goal but sound so much smaller and unfinished by comparison. At multiple instances do they feel as though they’re lacking a key element that could make these songs really hit with more force, rather than hang pretty flatly as they do here. The guitars could easily be cranked up on the choruses of Vibe and V (Psycho) to let them roar, or Victim and Villain could be less bottom-heavy overall. Valkyrie is really the only track that has everything balanced and modulated to the best degree; elsewhere, Halflives appear in the awkward middle ground between lumpen pop-rock and wispy evaporations of pop, never setting on either but feeling the ramifications of both. At least it fits with the more ominous tone from the monochrome synths, but again, that just brings up comparisons to PVRIS that Halflives simply can’t square up with positively.

It’s sort of a built-in issue with the scenes that Halflives are trying to inhabit, where an independent band is less likely to have the resources to shoot as highly as they’re aiming for. At least they’re trying, and the effort to hit that super-contemporary space is evident, but the risk of really crashing when it’s not completely right always seems to be in view across this EP. They never reach that point, thankfully, but the fact that V doesn’t feel like much of anything at the end of the day isn’t much of a consolation. It’s still rather flimsy in what it’s trying to do, be that in sound or lyrics surrounding toxic relationship melodrama that’s so played up it falls into the Joker x Harley Quinn bracket of lacking real verisimilitude. Linda Battilani is a strong enough vocalist to sell it, not tremendously forceful but with the swagger and smoulder to create a workable atmosphere. It’s just a shame that even when everything falls into its correct, assigned place, V still isn’t that filling of a listen, on any front. The seed of Halflives rocketing up to the same level as their pop-rock idols and influences isn’t out of the question, but with an EP like this that feels as though it’s running in circles as opposed to making real strides towards that, you start to wonder how far they actually have to go. It’s not horrendous by any means, and it takes a certain amount of confidence for what’s still a small band to even give this a go, but payoff comes more as a result of good faith than actual results.

4/10

For fans of: PVRIS, Against The Current, Vista

‘V’ by Halflives is out now.


Lord Of The Lost

Judas

Lord Of The Lost return with their seventh studio album Judas. The gothic metallers have developed from strength to strength with each release, demonstrating their ability to deliver the hauntingly beautiful and their heavy demonic sound. Judas feels epic from the off. This album is clearly another significant milestone in their career. The double album divided into CD I: Damnation and CD II: Salvation and is a dramatic exploration of the old age fight: good versus evil. Lord of the Lost “tell of this conflict from the perception of the character of Judas Iscariot, known as highly diverse, and the so-called Gospel of Judas, a paper that’s said to consist of conversations between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot and casts a different light on religious history as it’s told in the Bible’s New Testament”.

Damnation has a dark gothic mood that runs throughout. Delving into a humanised perspective of sin through the lyrics, the musicality of the tracks aptly reflect the way Lord Of The Lost are delivering their narrative. From the haunting yet powerful Priest to the dramatic and yet touching Born With A Broken Heart, to the ballad that is Death Is Just a Kiss Away. Salvation brings an equally compelling atmosphere with a somewhat darker undertone. The Ashes Of Flowers, for example, explores some interesting progressive elements across the instrumentation whilst conveying a morbid mood. Lord Of The Lost always produce high quality music. Their new album elevates their sound and shows off their abilities to an even greater extent. The instrumental composition is incredible, and the lyrical and thematic narrative is artfully executed. • HR

9/10

For fans of: The 69 Eyes, Dommin, Herr Nox

‘Judas’ by Lord Of The Lost is out now on Napalm Records.


Justin Courtney Pierre

The Price Of Salt

This is Justin Courtney Pierre’s second EP of 2021, and to be honest, it’s hard to see what the overall game plan behind them is. Even if An Anthropologist On Mars was good, it hasn’t really stuck too much, and given that Motion City Soundtrack are currently active, it’s hard not to see small, frequent releases like this as time-killers, or a way to polish up some castoffs for wider consumption. To be clear, neither of those are bad things, but they’ve been a bit more noticeable than perhaps they should be, and The Price Of Salt maybe falls even deeper in that territory than its predecessor. The DNA this one shares with Motion City Soundtrack feels even greater, particularly in its lyricism that sees Pierre’s wordy, tangled writing style parsing through his own mental haze and perceived shortcomings. From a technical perspective, he’s still absolutely a great writer, with a lot of detail and interesting word choices crammed into a power-pop framework that a lot would be hesitant to attempt, but placing it alongside his main work doesn’t reveal much that makes this stand out, probably more so than An Anthropologist…. On that EP, there was at least a bit of a smaller, singer-songwriter-ish scope; here, Pierre’s voice still has the quivering, slightly awkward edge that makes it well suited to a more condensed scale, but not a whole lot goes beyond that.

It’s probably worth stressing that The Price Of Salt is still good despite that. New music reminiscent of Motion City Soundtrack is never a bad thing, and coming directly from the genuine article is even better. It gives a sonic authenticity to songs like Firehawk and Get Out Of The Woods that’s good to have, even if the songs themselves aren’t quite to that normal high standard. Still, it’s not like any of these five tracks are outright bad; The Hunter is probably the best of them for how deeply in taps into that rich pop-rock well, but there’s also a good amount of tension to the buildup of Oxygen Tank, and At Least It’s Over is pretty much as well-rounded as this sort of rough-yet-sugary power-pop goes. As far as production goes, it’s hard to complain on that front either, with everything balanced and prominent as it should be, and Pierre being placed right at the front to accentuate the sweeter quality of his voice. It’s another fine EP to tide over anyone clamouring for some proper new Motion City Soundtrack music, but that’s also all it is. When that time comes, it’s hard to imagine The Price Of Salt will appreciate in value, or yield some greater longevity; of the two EPs, it’s feels like the clearest stopgap. Again, that isn’t a bad thing in itself, but going into it with some tempered expectations is definitely recommended. • LN

6/10

For fans of: Motion City Soundtrack, Weezer, Say Anything

‘The Price Of Salt’ by Justin Courtney Pierre is released on 9th July on Epitaph Records.


Graduating Life

II

Between a recording process that seemed defined by attrition and the oh-so-common reality of having plans for their first tour scuppered by the pandemic, it’s no wonder that Graduating Life’s new album feels defined by its ability to roll with the punches and rise above them. That emotional resilience is nothing new for frontman Bart Thompson, mind, given his role as guitarist in Mom Jeans., but where that band have never resonated too greatly in an emo-by-numbers way, Graduating Life prove to be way more compelling on II. There’s more to latch onto in Thompson’s writing here, for a start, particularly as songs like Photo Album and Black Skinny Jeans spiral through thoughts and ruminations on finding that inner stability that have a distinctly personal sphere of influence to them. There’s no indication that the emo beats are being hit outside of the broadest thematic strokes, which manifests in the frustration sung through gritted teeth on Crushed & Smothered, and the melancholy tint that can cloud moving forward on Not That Bad. It’s honestly surprising how full-force a lot of this material feels, no doubt held to that level by Thompson’s stark vocal delivery that’s comfortably in the emo register and delivery, but feels flecked with some notable intensity. Furthermore, there’s an accessibility here that’s simultaneously uncompromised but also very natural for this sort of thing; the focus on hooks is apparent, but to see that bumped into into legitimate anthemia on Let’s Make A Scene and Black Skinny Jeans yields such an overwhelmingly satisfying response.

Then there’s the fact that II is rather loose and flexible with its musical decisions, but that in no way feels like a negative or as though Graduating Life are unfocused. Emo still serves as the base throughout, built on by warmer alt-rock tones to facilitate that bigger sound, and then again by flourishes of synthesised emo-pop on In The Back and 19 Stars, or even sounds leaning towards the grittier end of a band like Silverstein on Crushed & Smothered. What’s impressive is how none of this feels too fragmented for its own good, or as if Graduating Life are taking advantage of the pick-and-choose approach to cover a lack of spark. Especially in the case of the second, that couldn’t be further from the truth, given how sonically vibrant II feels and how so much of its progression seems to make sense musically. The production doesn’t necessarily leap off the page, but the guitars and bass are rugged when needed while also being able to dip back without causing too much of a jerk. What could be an issue when the lighter or more synth-heavy moments come in feels neatly circumvented, simply through how consistent Graduating Life are in tone. Songs like that usually glare out as deviations, but on II, they flesh out the scene that’s already there, and that’s not something to just lightly overlook. That shows a breadth of creativity that’s unbroken to an extent that a lot of acts would like to flaunt but never get there all the way, and yet for Graduating Life, it all feels so natural and free-flowing here. As far as this alt-rock-skewed emo goes, they’re already great at it, but the extra spices and flavours they bring make so much of a difference just on their own. It makes for one of those great instances when the side-project handily eclipses the main band, and in this case, by a considerable amount too. • LN

8/10

For fans of: The Wonder Years, Modern Baseball, Say Anything

‘II’ by Graduating Life is released on 9th July on Pure Noise Records.


Phobophobes

Modern Medicine

One of the first things that tends to come about Phobophobes is how their start came from the same Brixton scene that spawned the likes of Fat White Family and Goat Girl, almost as a preemptive justification that this is some ‘good’ post-punk, instead of the crossover brand that’s becoming more tiresome with each page ripped out of Idles’ playbook. Modern Medicine makes it quickly known that it’s far away from that as well, in hefty dollops of gothic rock, new wave and even synthpop that’ll take the kinetic elements of that more mainstream sound, but fully rework them. It’s definitely a more lithe overall compositional style, full of taut basslines and percussion that’ll give what’s almost a clattering dance beat to Lick The Lid, while Moustache Mike and The Negative Space play more with their greater assembled sleekness. Topped off with the synths and organs that wind through the mix and create a surprisingly diverse selection of tones, Modern Medicine certainly gives the impression of leaning into its poppier compositional style more so than Phobophobes’ peers otherwise might. It may even be one of the poppiest albums to come from this current wave of post-punk, at least in sound, even though some of deviations into lucidity like on I Mean It All really struggle to give off that same mood. Even so, Modern Medicine is at least more memorable that a good deal of modern post-punk can be, not necessarily in the sense of being daring but just because there’s a bit more going underneath for a better cumulative result.

Hell, the way it plays out, there’s a borderline theatricality to Modern Medicine that’s a welcome addition to the sound, even if Phobophobes give the impression that they can’t decide whether to play it up or steer clear of it. There’s a lot of the latter in the writing, in the oblique hipster musings that colour Moustache Mike and the title track, and exacerbated by Jamie Bardolph Taylor’s disaffected baritone, but his tone is so pronounced that it tips right back almost into opulent, vampiric camp that’s an inexplicably great fit. Any other performance would make the likes of Blind Muscle or Mono Into Stereo so much weaker than they are; there’s such a rich vein of creative synergy within them that clicks in such an odd way, but it’s unmistakable. It’s another instance where Phobophobes actually have their own thing going for them, and where they handily avoid a position of being graded on a curve against others who sound borderline identical to themselves. That’s what a lot of modern post-punk has become, and so a bit of colour and flair that Modern Medicine brings couldn’t be more welcome when it’s so much livelier and more infectious. Phobophobes are avoiding the conventions of their genre for the better, and making the sort of music with the potential to last longer and resonate deeper as a result. • LN

7/10

For fans of: The Jam, The Wants, Hotel Lux

‘Modern Medicine’ by Phobophobes is out now on Modern Sky Entertainment.


Words by Luke Nuttall (LN) and Holly Royle (HR)

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