ALBUM REVIEW: Joe Appleford – ‘Dystopian Dreams, Utopian Nightmares’

A figure with their left hand against an orange pane

If you don’t know Joe Appleford yet, you hopefully should do soon. Ideally that should’ve come long before this point though, with his old band Bad Sign being criminally underrated within UK hardcore with their single album Live & Learn in 2017. They were the sort of band who had talent far too precious to just dissipate away, so to see Appleford refocusing his efforts for this solo venture is encouraging right from the jump.

Even in the realms of straightforward alt-rock that this debut is held in, having a real creative force at the helm staves off what could otherwise just be ordinary coming from most others. And even when most of Dystopian Dreams, Utopian Nightmares is indeed the riff-heavy, hook-focused brand of rock casting out into Royal Blood or a good amount of Britrock, the shine of a higher grade is undeniable. Really, it turns out more like latter-day Thrice than anything, in which the spirit of big, beefy post-hardcore is filtered through a deeply accessible lens, and punched up by Appleford’s reverberating vocals that drive the strength of choruses on Aeonian Fever or Sweet Teeth.

The grit in the presentation is what pushes …Nightmares right over the top; designed as a soundtrack to modern life’s ever-prevalent turbulence, Appleford arrives with the weight of someone who’s experienced both the beatdown and the uplift with equal force. There’s noteworthy anger to a song like Love And War, but also the unfettered anthemic hugeness to make its hit that much swifter. When that can effectively be applied to the whole album, it’s remarkably potent stuff.

Of course, the sound being as consistently great as it is really doesn’t hurt either. It’s actually quite something that Appleford can supercharge what’s otherwise been pretty rote and normal in mainstream rock for the past decade-plus, and give it some real teeth this time. You feel that in the Britrock leanings of Leech and The Escapist that could otherwise be co-opted by modern incarnations of You Me At Six, or the Royal Blood-esque clatters of Green and Sweet Teeth, all of which are suitably galvanised and rebuilt to match the quaking tension in Appleford’s voice.

The guitars are turned up to a far greater level, really capturing the seismic rumble that’s always a presence beneath the surface. Again, it’s that Thrice comparison coming back up, only from a standpoint that owes more to British reference points on the whole, even if the end result remains consistent. A lot is owed to the production in that regard too, which remains sweeping and maximalist to fill in all available space without teetering into lumbering of overstuffed levels. It’s the exact right kind of alt-rock enormity that an album like this needs, perhaps siphoning a bit of the power from Appleford’s voice sometimes, but never to where he’s actively underpowered by it.

It’s actually a good balance that’s maintained throughout and it keeps what can sometimes feel like a mammoth weight chugging along nicely. There is modulation in moments, most notably the guazy twinkle of Last Orders, though it speaks to Appleford’s strengths as a composer that, even in full-blast rock mode, the album never feels bricked-out or inflexible.

Put simply, it’s exactly what you’d want from this kind of accessible, relatively no-frills listen, an approach that’s often shorn of the excitement its creators so desperately want but is actually done full justice this time around. Hopefully this is the beginning of Appleford’s resurgence and bigger breakthrough; he’s always deserved something like that, but it’s perhaps never felt more warranted than on this album.

For fans of: Thrice, Manchester Orchestra, Royal Blood

‘Dystopian Dreams, Utopian Nightmares’ by Joe Appleford is released on 19th August.

Words by Luke Nuttall

Leave a Reply