REVIEW ROUND-UP: Ultra Q, Sicksense, Riyah

Artwork for Ultra Q’s ‘My Guardian Angel’ - a collage of assorted objects emerging from a woman’s head

Ultra Q

My Guardian Angel

You never want to go into a band expecting nepotism, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Especially when there’s precedent within the family; without the ‘featuring the son of Billie Joe Armstrong’ branding across their foreheads, SWMRS would never have passed their embryonic Emily’s Army stage. Ultra Q, meanwhile, comes led by Jakob Armstrong, fielding plenty of the same cues as his brother—some Green Day genetics; a desire for indie-rock variegation; and an inability to avoid being harder to like than it should.

To be totally fair though, My Guardian Angel does have its moments that handily surpass SWMRS, if you want to keep the direct comparisons going. Both VR Sex and Klepto are extremely obvious singles in how much more condensed and punchy they are, as the pinnacle of a sweeping, Drums-esque indie sound that Ultra Q seem to be aiming for on a consistent basis. Similarly, dalliances with rattling post-punk á la The Strokes on So Very Emo and Teether embolden the scrappiness that’s another parallel, and feels a lot more controlled here. At their best, Ultra Q act as SWMRS’ tighter, more refined counterpart, though that’s very seldom a consistent phenomenon.

It’s where My Guardian Angel begins to show its strain, namely in an unevenness that’s hard to turn a blind eye towards. It’s a casualty of where their sound lands, doused in synth textures and a penchant for understated ‘90s worship that make for a number of slow-burns that yield little payoff. And when that extends all the way from glittery dream-pop with little grip on Rocket, to similarly forgettable shoegaze on Wrip, to tippy-tappy indie shuffling on I Wanna Lose, the window for success seems pretty narrow. Even on a song like I Watched Them Go that strives for a big, glossy alt-pop finish over its collage of breakbeats and choppy effects—think a more indie-leaning Waterparks and you’re basically there—it’s overkill in a way that Ultra Q can’t reasonably pull off. They give off the impression of simultaneously courting TikTok appeal and a more ‘traditional’ indie framework, and thus neglecting a lot what they’re best at.

There’s also the fact that Armstrong isn’t the most impressive singer in the world, nor does the writing really move in a way that it should. As such, Ultra Q’s debut ends up as a rather fragmented, piecemeal listen. It’s certainly consistent with the modern output of the Armstrong clan in that respect, but shooting higher is never a bad thing. Particularly when the end product would feel more complete and gratifying, something with My Guardian Angel is severely lacking. Its best moments and good qualities pull it back somewhat, but not to where any uptick is truly significant.

For fans of: SWMRS, The Strokes, The Drums

‘My Guardian Angel’ by Ultra Q is released on 9th June on Royal Mountain Records.

Artwork for Sicksense’s ‘Fools Tomorrow’ - paintings of two sad clowns with elongated bodies


Fools Tomorrow

Let’s be perfectly blunt—if there weren’t already established names in Sicksense, this project would’ve been dead in the water before it even get started. Even then, The Agonist’s Vicky Psarakis and Stuck Mojo’s Robby J. Fonts hardly make for a banner lineup; it’s about enough to keep their name out there to warrant this second EP be made. Even then that’s a stretch, given the throwback nu-metal stylings that were already out of breath last time on Kings Today. It’s about as clear-cut as side-projects get, where Psarakis and Fonts can throw it back and adopt the respective pseudonyms of Killer V and Rob The Ripper (ugh…), but to what end?

It’s a question that’s no easier to answer on Fools Tomorrow. Sicksense are still yet to find a proper identity or something to do with the nu-metal building blocks, other than rotely regurgitate what was already saturated about two decades ago. Even the potential male / female vocal dynamic goes squandered, as Psarakis primarily takes up cleaner choruses while Fonts is more of a lead as the rapper. He’s not a good rapper either, unable to extend beyond basic flows and rhyme schemes that clear personality and enjoyment can only fill the gaps of so much. At least Sicksense do sound committed to what they’re doing, under clear realisation that none of this is cool or unique in the slightest, and instead throwing themselves in out of pure desire.

But that doesn’t exactly excuse this, does it? Musically, they still leave a lot to be desired, with a two-pronged yoke of being supremely dated and inoffensive hanging around their neck at all times. The attempts to be swaggering or adrenalised or confessional don’t amount to much; there’s a bit of bounce on Feed Them To The Wolves that sees some connections begin to be formed, but it all dissipates in earnest soon after. There’s no grandeur here, or emotional response deeper than your usual generations-removed nu-metal act. Sicksense simply rumble on by with blocks of downtuned riffs in the adequate place, before Erase, Rewind ends on an acoustic note with all the predictability in the world. It all circles back to the total lack of identity that Sicksense have. They aren’t reshaping or reconstituting what nu-metal can be in 2023, as much as dredging up a barely-even-twitching corpse and leading with the illusion that there’s still a bit of life in it yet.

Not that the majority of people would buy that. Some will, and the narrative around Sicksense ‘revitalising nu-metal’ already has some seeds planted, but on the whole, it’s hard to see this going very far. With nothing fresh among it, how can it? Even in the vein of infiltrating some form of nostalgia cycle, they’re about a decade too late to make the impact they’d like, a fact which seems all too fitting for a band as routinely rear-of-the-pack as this. Sicksense simply feel like stragglers, and rarely does that impression ever yield anything tremendous. Or even all that good.

For fans of: Korn, Soil, Drowning Pool

‘Fools Tomorrow’ by Sicksense is released on 11th June on Sound Escape.

Artwork for Riyah’s ‘Ripped Jeans’ - Riyah wearing all black and crouching down


Ripped Jeans

In the age of the rock soloist finding more success than ever before, Riyah choosing to strike while the iron is scorching is far from shocking. If anything, you could easily see her positioned as a breath of fresh air amongst that crowd, as she handily sidesteps the pop-punk that’s currently dominating that artistic profile for something more informed by hard rock. It’s still very simplistic in execution, but it’s something, right? And even though a lot of the themes are the same, it can still stand out, yeah? And even though there’s still a healthy amount of pop in it, it still works as something new, huh? …oh…

Yeah, it’s probably worth coming clean to say right away that, with a few pretty ancillary tweaks, Riyah pretty much falls in line with the rest of them. Though to chastise her too viciously for that can feel a bit harsh, not just because it’s a hard yardstick to step too far away from without having to do something entirely different, but also, Ripped Jeans is still solid. It’s certainly got a bigger feel than those other artists tend to have; there’s no skimping on production budgets to vainly sound ‘punk’ going on. Outset opens to set the tone nicely, verging on Within Temptation’s more modern fare while keeping the pop-rock framework rigid and steadfast. Elsewhere, Dead Rose brings some greater surge and churn to traditional pop-rock scope, and Perfect takes the dark-pop route that pairs with crashing, clattering hard rock surprisingly cleanly.

In truth, it’s all rather tried-and-true, especially considering the course that a lot of symphonic metal has tracked over the years, and Riyah really isn’t revolutionising within it. She’s assimilating well though, with a big voice with a European curl that can handle the belting hooks that intend to scrape as high a ceiling as possible. A bit more training wouldn’t go amiss—if only to reach the next steps of gargantuan might and bombast—but she’s doing well right now. There’s a youth to it at the minute, and especially on songs like Speechless and Perfect that are coated in relationship melodrama, it’s buyable from Riyah. She’s clearly not just playing the game like you can so easily accuse plenty of others of; if she is, she’s way better at hiding it.

And that’s really where Riyah is doing her best at the minute. While there’s not much artistic depth or versatility, there’s a certainty that’s doing a lot of heavy lifting in solidifying how she knows what she’s doing. A full album will inevitably be the real litmus test, but Ripped Jeans does instill a solid amount of faith in Riyah on its own. The route of high accessibility with good production and a widescreen vision will do that, and added proficiency only sweetens it even further. With a bit more experience to widen her palette, Riyah could be making some serious moves soon.

For fans of: Within Temptation, Evanescence, Pryti

‘Ripped Jeans’ by Riyah is released on 9th June on Prime Collective.

Words by Luke Nuttall

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