So did anyone actually remember that Derek Sanders had this solo thing going on? Not only did his My Rock And Roll Heart EP come out at in early 2020—which might as well be a million years ago, as far as anyone is concerned—but it wasn’t all that memorable either. Essentially it felt like a more stripped-down, maudlin version of his usual fare with Mayday Parade, a band who’ve really faded into the background in recent years, and who can be pretty maudlin themselves at the best of times. To Sanders’ credit though, his acoustic pop pivot seems rather clearly defined a side-venture instead of anything designed with real mileage behind it. Otherwise, this second EP would’ve probably come a lot sooner than it has, and would likely at least attempt to deviate from the rigid track it’s already on.
The roots of this solo endeavour—a cover of a Goodbye Love song as a Valentine’s gift from Sanders to his wife—are yet to be covered over all that much. Hell, the fact that that band’s frontman Mike Hanson features on this EP on With You On The Ground means they’re arguably even more exposed. The sound might be small but so too is the ambition, built almost exclusively around Sanders’ gooey hyper-earnestness and prostrating that would be completely intolerable if this were more than just five tracks. It’s the cloying emo-pop delivery that kills it here. At least in Mayday Parade, there’s some more exuberance and pop-rock bombast that at least reshape it; The Heavy Box, meanwhile, leaves nothing to the imagination in terms of treacly, saccharine intent, culminating in For Dear Life, in which Sanders reunites with ex-Mayday Parade co-vocalist Jason Lancaster on a song that easily just be Miserable At Best Pt. 2.
Admittedly, that’ll probably be enough to satisfy some, but it’s also not substantial enough to go any distance further. Where most of the umbrage towards something like this comes from is how Sanders is fixated on a side of his musical repertoire that’s desperately missing some accompaniment. In Mayday Parade, it can work thanks to being one part of a whole, something rejected on The Heavy Box despite clearly wanting to evoke the same reactions as said part. It’s most prevalent on For Dear Life, a veritable nostalgia bomb that—to its credit—goes some way to justify its existence by being tonally cohesive, but can’t escape the feeling that it’s trying to cultivate a reaction akin to its forebears circa 2007. With that in mind, the logic of Lancaster’s featuring credit is as conspicuous as it comes.
At least it’s all fairly innocent, rather than constantly cranking the wheel of 15-year-old music to elicit a more vigorous response. That’s not the kind of scheming mind that really fits a persona like Sanders, especially on a collection of songs where ‘innocent’ is the operative word. The closest that The Heavy Box gets to some harder, rougher edges is in Sanders’ vocal production on With You On The Ground, though that’s more a result of them sounding like a phone recording than any deliberate means. Otherwise, Home is comprised of sweetened acoustic guitar and piano, while Howell Canyon wedges in a stiffer, popping beat behind them to feign something closer to propulsion. It’s the natural order of how this kind of pivot goes, doubly so when Sanders is perfectly fine with leaving the most saccharine of textures (or lack thereof) unimpeded. It’s really only True Story Of The Boy Whose Exploits Panicked A Nation that gets more actively explorative, when it’s built on a capella hums and vocal layers that achieve the same result with a bit more distinction.
‘Distinction’ is an entirely relative term, mind. It’s applied to The Heavy Box inasmuch as its omnipresent echoes of Mayday Parade are something to latch onto, instead of diving face-first into the pop-rock soloist quagmire and sinking immediately. But even then, buoyancy isn’t a strong suit either. More than anything, Sanders captures inoffensiveness with the force that should be used to avoid it, as a desire to sand down any edge or hint of grit is basically all that this EP has to its name. It’s far from the worst thing ever, but that’s because there just isn’t enough of anything here to justify such a claim. More likely than not, it’ll just drift away thanks to its own profound weightlessness.
For fans of: Mayday Parade, Nevershoutnever, SayWeCanFly
‘The Heavy Box’ by Derek Sanders is released on 14th April on Rise Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall