REVIEW ROUND-UP: The Blue Stones, Asylums, Cherie Amour, Sugar Horse

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The Blue Stones

Pretty Monster

Almost by design, The Blue Stones feel as though they’re behind the times. It’s hard to ignore how noticeable that is too, as a rock duo playing deliberately stripped-back music at a time when that approach is all but extinct. Of course, focus then turns to their spin that’s rooted more in hip-hop grooves, though often, that too can be just as tied to the mid-2010s in what amounts to Royal Blood being fed through Twenty One Pilots’ filter. It’s limiting for them, not in a way that inspires a rise from rudimentary raw materials, but where they feel cold and hollow, like there are conspicuous holes that should be filled but aren’t.

As such, Pretty Monster finds The Blue Stones in the unenviable position of making something from that, a task which never fully comes to fruition but where they give it a good try nonetheless. It’s more on a case-by-case basis whether or not something connects, as opposed to any trends or patterns. Stronger melodies poke out on Stay With Me and No Angels, while Camera Roll is the clear standout as a more spacious ballad, free from the confinement of much of The Blue Stones’ music. It’s not all so fortunate though, as Justin Tessier’s drumming locks everything up and serves as the primary source of sound that emphasises its stiffness.

Most of the time, they bear the hallmarks of a power-duo stripped of most power, something which the more percussive element does a valiant job at carrying, but simply can’t all the way. Sadly, there isn’t much more to help either, as Tarek Jafar doesn’t have a voice exuding much charisma or personality. The same can be said of the writing—which, let’s be honest, is par for the course for bands like this anyway—though what’s more distracting is how inconsistent any guitar presence is. Between the drastically weakened shredding across Cards Are Down and the weedy scratches masquerading as a riff on Good Ideas (both held behind some of the most gated percussion on the entire album), it’s another highlight towards how drained and empty The Blue Stones can feel.

It’s to the point where the mixes are bare enough the effectively hear the machinations behind cranking away, trying to make something out of percussive groove alone. It’s true that they can get there, but not to the level where that’s suitable for an entire album. It leaves Pretty Monster feeling pared-back in a different way than is often attributed to duos like this, as they lack even the volume or imposing sonic muscle to rope a listener in through force of will alone. The Blue Stones are often just making a bland, basic sound blander and more basic, and that should speak for itself.

For fans of: The Glorious Suns, Highly Suspect, Twenty One Pilots

‘Pretty Monster’ by The Blue Stones is released on 4th November on MNRK.

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Signs Of Life

It’s not a radical opinion to say that Asylums serve as a clear parallel to the Britrock of the ‘90s and 2000s, but it is the correct one. They’ve got purpose and no compunctions about not following trends; they’re just looking to make great music, an ethos which has threaded together a consistently strong run of albums up to now. That run continues with Signs Of Life, though it perhaps represents a notable uptick in Asylums’ style. On repeated listens especially, this feels like their ‘big album’, the one where everything slots into place and pushes Asylums towards the recognition they’ve always deserved.

At least, that’s how it should be on paper. The halcyon days of Britrock waves past aren’t sitting pretty among the upper tiers of alternative music’s hierarchies these days, though that’s not Asylums’ fault whatsoever. If anything, they’re breaking through the arbitrary boundaries set in front of them, evidenced right from the opener Scatterbrain and it’s gigantic indie-rock rollick that’s as undeniable as they come. They’ve got shades of Feeder at their peak in how powerful Understand The Psychology or Say Goodbye Before You Die are; meanwhile, Instant Coffee and Everybody Has A Space To Fill carry seeds of Manic Street Preachers-esque opulence in their tastefully layered strings.

The Manics comparison isn’t accidental either, with Dave Eringa behind the production desk and the know-how he’s brought to almost every Manics album since This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours in 1998, but also Asylums’ ever-sharp songwriting that continues to raise their weight class. The ‘modern technology’ angle is nowhere near as overwrought as it could be, and when framed with intelligence and wit like on Crypto Klepto, it’s considerably less thudding. In general, Asylums are just far more attuned to making this sort of thing work, be that in Luke Branch’s magnetic frontman presence, or just the way that Signs Of Life stands as much more toned and sturdy, while ultimately going bigger than they ever have before.

It’s the best representation of how Asylums can move forward while fundamentally staying the same. They’ve not lost anything or replaced what illuminated them so clearly; rather, they’ve thrown in new additions to simply put in more work. And that’s exactly what a band like this would do, to really embolden themselves and put out what’s in contention for their best album yet. They’re invigorated and determined, the clear signposts of a band gunning to take themselves to the next level.

For fans of: Feeder, Manic Street Preachers, Hundred Reasons

‘Signs Of Life’ by Asylums is released on 28th October on Cool Thing Records.

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Cherie Amour

Spiritual Ascension

As Cherie Amour continue to stir the pop-punk pot on their debut full-length, they’re offering a lot more evidence of a band who know the optimal way to balance ingenuity with conciseness. Spiritual Ascension is just shy of a half-hour, yet does enough within that to be a filling listen; in tandem, it’s a pop-punk album at heart that knows how to balance and weave its ancillary elements to avoid the clunky, haphazard splurges of similar endeavours. It’s honestly a nice change of pace for a band like this, where ‘nu-punk’ measures out tangible goals for itself instead of coasting on nebulous individuality.

In other words, hip-hop flows and peppered-in breakdowns contribute to Cherie Amour’s holistic vision, which has only been reined in tighter since their debut EP. As a sleek, hyper-modern variant of pop-punk, they’ve encompassed all they need—super-dense guitars and high-grade production gloss rule the roost, as well as the pop and hip-hop sensibilities to punch it up even further. Frontman Trey Miller is the shining light in that regard, in that he’s so clearly position as the breakout star that it might as well be him beaming up to the heavens on the cover. He’s got an effortless charisma to ward off pop-punk vocalists’ habit of over-performing, meaning that the hooks of Sin City or Letting Go fall into that comfortable, ear-candy territory nice and neatly.

Not only that, but it’s a handy palette-cleanser when Cherie Amour’s sound can be so loud and booming. That’s by design, certainly, but you do lose a bit of that cool factor when the wall of sound drops in to pulverise a more flavourful mix. Because other than the drums which almost universally are placed a tad too close to the front, Spiritual Ascension generally impresses in what it brings. The explicit polish that can so often be a crutch serves as the complete opposite here, on Low N Lean or God Be A Woman where there’s a good sense of breathing room among them. Within that, the colours fizzle within the synths and programmed beats, a more effective way to contrast with the overall full-frontal nature elsewhere.

It just works better than it does for most, given that Cherie Amour have the creative instincts to manage what they want to throw in. The best still appears yet to come for them—a bit of adjusting in the engineering side will push them even further, guaranteed—but this is exceptionally competent for what they’re trying to do. At a time when this end of pop-punk rises on the commercial side but severely droops in quality, Cherie Amour are the bringers of equilibrium whose mere existence is much appreciated. The fact they’re actually pretty good to boot is just icing on the cake.

For fans of: Magnolia Park, Point North, nightlife

‘Spiritual Ascension’ by Cherie Amour is released on 4th November on Rude Records / Equal Vision Records.

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Sugar Horse

Waterloo Teeth

Everyone loves releases like this. There’s always an inherent giddiness that comes from chucking a load of artists together to see what happens, and it’s no different on Sugar Horse’s new EP. If anything, it might be even more true given the murderer’s row of guests they’ve assembled, spanning genres and styles through acts like Heriot, Black Peaks, Conjurer, Pupil Slicer, and even Idles and Biffy Clyro, but all united under the banner of unmistakable creativity. It’s why, even though it’s only four tracks long, there’s a density to how much is packed in Waterloo Teeth, even more so when Sugar Horse have loosened their usual prog-metal boundaries to welcome pretty much anything and everything else.

That’s represented the most on the opener Disco Loadout, in which Heriot’s Debbie Gough and Mclusky’s Damien Sayell scream bloody murder over the atonal sounds of heads being caved in, in perhaps Sugar Horse’s least melodic moment to date. Their fingerprints are still all over it though, as a towering monolith of sound that heaves and groans thanks to its own weight, only much more concise that usual.

That said, it’s hard to deny that Sugar Horse come into their own the most when they do open up more, and packing as many additional bodies into these songs as they do only enhances the size of these sounds. Gutted strikes the hardest in that regard, wading through the sludge provided by three-quarters of Conjurer, before the operatic vocals of Nuala Honan herald a more grandiose post-metal side. The title track and Super Army Soldiers don’t go as far in their explorations (though the mournful saxophone and final collapse into darkness on the former is fantastically executed), but it’s the degree of composition that makes this work so well. There’s never a point where these songs lack the room to breathe or feel as though they’re touting names above legitimate creative intent.

You could maybe say that the lyric-writing doesn’t exactly pop, but that’s not a rarity in metal like this, nor do Sugar Horse serve any worse than anyone else. It’s just not a priority most of the time, understandably so when there’s so much else going on, and when it’s arranged with barely a hiccup in sight, it’s hard to really complain. Between opening new avenues for themselves and pulling off a project this highly curated and collaborative, it’s an undeniably tall ask for anyone; that what makes Sugar Horse’s first-time nailing of it so impressive.

For fans of: Bossk, Heriot, Her Name Is Calla

‘Waterloo Teeth’ by Sugar Horse is released on 28th October on Small Pond Recordings.

Words by Luke Nuttall

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