REVIEW ROUND-UP: Grave Pleasures, Black Orchid Empire, Through Fire, Picturesque

Artwork for Grave Pleasures’ ‘Plagueboys’ - two young boys painted blue with yellow hair standing near a dead tree

Grave Pleasures


It’s always a delight whenever Grave Pleasures choose to emerge from their foxhole to dance through their own bleakness. They’ve been responsible for setting the standard for current gothic post-punk practically singlehandedly, aided by having very little competition in terms of acts rising to their level. Not that there haven’t been contenders, but an album like 2017’s Motherblood is a hard line to cross, both in quality and the overall footprint it left. Even six years later, Grave Pleasures return with Plagueboys to a throne that’s gone unchallenged; that’s how easy it is for them to just swan back in and reclaim the top spot like it’s nothing.

And when that’s the case—and is so unmistakably so—there’s really no need to fiddle around with what’s proven to work. Plagueboys might be ostensibly more of the same, but it’s wrapped in that gloomy magic that Grave Pleasures often revel in. Valtteri Arino’s basslines chug away at the centre, equally fat and lithe to keep Disintegration Girl or High On Annihilation thudding, and the sidewinding Conspiracy Of Love unspooling away. The sideways glances at dance-punk are never too hard to spot, but the restraint taken to resist them always comes out on top. After all, the frigid nuclear winter of Grave Pleasure’s world still holds true, even when the beating human heart within keeps it alight.

It’s never dour, though. If dance-punk is held at arm’s length, new wave and glossy romanticism are being tightly embraced for all to see, albeit coated in suitably gothic sheen. That leaves the guitars and keys rippling away, with so much of the sonic light being bounced through the ice and fractals, and leaving a wonderful palette in their wake. It’s a beautifully produced album, not just on a purely musical level but in how agilely it meshes the feel of bleak austerity with its own melodrama and pomp. The volume of quotable lines speaks for itself in how they’ll leap off the page, and Mat McNerney is the perfect mouthpiece for them. He’ll emulate Robert Smith at one moment before sinking into deep, vampiric opulence the next, never breaking character but clearly having a terrific time chewing the musical scenery beneath his facade.

At the same time, nothing about Plagueboys crumples under any kind of artificiality. It clearly embraces it, but not in a way that’s oversold or too flamboyant. The balance and equilibrium kept is just that good, and Grave Pleasures never miss a step throughout. That’s what keeps them so routinely on top within their scene, and why Plagueboys only looks to extend that reign by another good long while. It’s a continuation of everything that Grave Pleasures keep getting right; they can slot as cleanly within the rankings of genre albums, and still eke out some real crossover mileage at the same time. Once again, the ‘pleasure’ part of their name couldn’t be more justified. • LN

For fans of: Ghost, The Cure, Echo & The Bunnymen

‘Plagueboys’ by Grave Pleasures is released on 21st April on Century Media Records.

Artwork for Black Orchid Empire’s ‘Tempus Veritas’ - two hands forming a circle. Flowers are growing from the fingertips of one; octopus tentacles from the other

Black Orchid Empire

Tempus Veritas

UK trio Black Orchid Empire are known for creating dynamic progressive rock with a heavy, savage edge. The new album journeys through complex fictional narratives exploring historical events for an alternative perspective. Musically, Tempus Veritas see the band push themselves further striving to achieve greater complexity in their instrumentation through an emotional delivery. They create an intriguing balance between compelling melodies and harsh sounds.

Opening with the delicate and serene title track, Tempus Veritas creates an immersive and alluring introduction. The atmospheric mood is suddenly transformed with the arrival of Hydrogen. Riffs thunder into life before leading into the narrative of the track. Hydrogen brings Black Orchid Empire’s distinctive use of oppositions with lighter soaring sections contrasting the fiercely heavy, all of which are enveloped in progressive styles. The Raven’s chorus is thrilling with guitars and percussion producing a wall of sound that manages to tie the ebbing and flowing instrumentation together, before crashing into a djent-esque breakdown. The performance of the chorus vocal hook from Paul Visser is just enchanting while the music below rushes along. Scarlet Haze ventures into ballad territories with beautiful vocal harmonies and gentle guitar chords forming the initial greeting. The percussion soon hits and the full band kicks into life. The slower pace and gentle nature of the track continues just with more textural elements as distorted tones arrive in the chorus. It’s a textural song that develops with interest as the second verse falls back to more minimal instrumental parts, but sees the bass and percussion introduce a powerful rhythm.

It’s around about the middle of Tempus Veritas’ track list that the heavy and progressive take a noticeably stronger lead. Deny The Sun brings explosive energy and leans much further into the technical realms. With heavier distorted guitars, it’s very rhythmic as a strong momentum runs throughout the track. Vocals soar in the enticing chorus while bass the guitars take on intricate technical melodies. The ballad-esque style returns in Glory To The King but with a prog twist. A dark heaviness purveys through the track manifesting through an array of instrumental and vocal melodies. Entering into a gentle bridge before the intense breakdown hits emphasises the mood of the track. Black Orchid Empire maintain the high intensity throughout the album. The penultimate Vesuvius unleashes a fury though it’s fast pace, harsh distortion, and thundering percussion. This power continues to the end with Latimer. The three-piece don’t let up with strong rhythms, fierce momentum all resulting in a heightened impact.

Black Orchid Empire have produced an extraordinary album that delves into both the profound and the musically compelling. There’s a commanding presence to their music and a sense of intrigue with each track to see where they go next. • HR

For fans of: Biffy Clyro, Tool, Deftones

‘Tempus Veritas’ by Black Orchid Empire is out now on Season Of Mist.

Artwork for Through Fire’s ‘Devil’s Got You Dreamin’’ - a bed floating above the Earth with various time pieces around it. It is on fire with a skeleton lying in it.

Through Fire

Devil’s Got You Dreamin’

There were precisely two memorable things about Through Fire’s last album All Animal—it had a cover of Roxette’s Listen To Your Heart on it, and it was a nakedly craven attempt to ‘modernise’ the radio-ready hard rock formula that only wound up heightening its laziest, most processed impulses. Comparatively, Devil’s Got You Dreamin’ only has one of those, and it ain’t another cover. Though that’s what you get from an album that’s undergone no evolution whatsoever, even as every laborious slog through Through Fire’s creatively scorched earth makes it evident how desperately it’s needed.

To be charitable, you can kind of see the endgame for this approach if you squint at it from a certain angle (and it’s under really, really bad lighting), as an emulation of a band like Starset, and how they can turn electronic, unfeasibly ginormous hard rock into an event on their albums. But Starset’s core idea has also ran its course pretty quickly, and at least they had an idea to begin with. Through Fire, meanwhile, are just a couple of extra synth presses removed from being another Skillet. They’re just as monotonous, in any case, unwilling to adhere to even the most basic rise-and-fall instinct that can give radio-rock something of a dynamic, as they ham-handedly churn through one interchangeable cut to the next with no semblance of firepower. By the time something is done about it on the brighter, more buoyant Satellites, the album’s on its penultimate track.

For as played-out as it is to harp on about albums like this lacking definition or colour, it’s never not true, or even there to a degree that’s ignorable. It’s all that Through Fire have, circling the drain with overworked production in one hand and underweight, character-bereft performances in the other. It’s most galling on Prevail with its flattened riffs and excessive vocal manipulation, which even then isn’t enough to make Grant Joshua Kendrick sound like he cares. He’s got a shockingly weak voice for music like this when that’s often the bare minimum for a frontman, even dragging down a lyric set that’s always saturated by radio-rock’s inherent lack of imagination. For The Last Time is supposed to be a fire-and-fury takedown of an ex, but Kendrick has nowhere near the gusto to reach those heights and settles for mealy-mouthed pissiness instead. Elsewhere, he makes Lose It and Devolution sound as perfunctory as humanly possible, more so than they already are when bands like this flick over to baseline social commentary. It’s honestly a wonder the phrase ‘antisocial media’ doesn’t pop up here; Through Fire would probably think that’s the smartest, most biting shit ever.

But at the end of the day, Devil’s Got You Dreamin’ remains as ignorable as they come. Through Fire are yet to make that many significant waves, even in a mainstream rock ecosystem that can force it at any juncture, which should really say it all as far as where this is going. That might also be the most damning indictment though; they aren’t even noteworthily bad enough to hold the dubious merits of embodying an absolute worst-case scenario. It’s entirely disposable from front to back, with not a single idea formulated or note played worth caring about to any extent. It’s as irrelevant as it gets. • LN

For fans of: Skillet, Breaking Benjamin, Pop Evil

‘Devil’s Got You Dreamin’’ by Tthough Fire is released on 21st April on Sumerian Records.

Artwork for Picturesque’s ‘IYKYK’ - the EP’s title in white impact font on a scuffed black background



Remember Picturesque? No one would blame you if you didn’t; they were one of the pop-inflected post-hardcore bands that came in the wake of Too Close To Touch that aimed for the same wide-reaching appeal, but struggled to find it. That’s probably because these bands had a tendency to really lean on the pop end of things, and sounded basically interchangeable—or utterly anonymous—as a result. But still, good on them for sticking it out this long where plenty of others haven’t, while also consciously looking to use pop to keep themselves fresh. If nothing else, it implies that Picturesque at least have ideas of their own, and aren’t just plumbing the depths of naked pop-rock cynicism like, say, Sleeping With Sirens’ Gossip.

That’s not to say that IYKYK is any kind of masterstroke either, though. It’s clearly a work of democratic genre fusion that’s trying to struggle through to the most optimal balance of the two. That’s why Dance With The Devil feels like a blatant cast-off glued to the end, as its lumpen percussion clatter and guitar rumble betray it as an effort with all the stodge and trans fats left in. More successful is when Picturesque approach something more steamy and slow-burning like Borrowing Problems or Waterson West; the cues from R&B in structure and vibe are actually a solid platform to build on, while the guitar sizzle of the former and slinkier atmosphere of the latter fill in any gaps. And of course there’s also a spry, neon pop song front-loaded with groove in Strange Habits, probably the EP’s most tonally obvious moment, but balanced out by its most immediate earworm of a hook.

All of this comes while, at their base level, Picturesque remain tied to their scene conventions. Kyle Hollis is another Kellin Quinn clone wheeled out to fit as a high-registered, mirror-sheened frontman (who has a tendency to scrape the limits of tolerance with how screechy he chooses to go like on Hopeless). Meanwhile, the writing, while inferring greater depth (see Hopeless again and the wild inspiration behind that one), doesn’t tend to leap out, other than Strange Habits’ use of the phrase “self-isolate” that sits leaden as likely a clumsy reminder of when it was written. Still, a good hook can pave over a lot of indiscretions like that, and if there’s one thing that Picturesque—and indeed, most of their ilk—can do with ease, it’s that. In terms of pop songwriting that gets the need for absolute vigour and punch so right, IYKYK really succeeds there.

That’s a good sign going forward on what’s a largely transitional EP, and the flashes of strength it has feel rather definitive if they can be paid off long-term. Whether that happens remains to be seen—once again, turn your attention to the number of bands in this exact lane who’ve fallen off in years past—but it’s refreshing that Picturesque are digging their heels in to try and make something work. Their pop-rock instincts aren’t bad at all; by no means game-changing, but falling on the right side of disposability to at least do something in their favour. • LN

For fans of: Sleeping With Sirens, Too Close To Touch, Awaken I Am

‘IYKYK’ by Picturesque is released on 21st April on Rude Records / Equal Vision Records.

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

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