Oh yeah…Gunship are a thing, aren’t they? You’d think they’d be more memorable overall, given how ready their fanbase was to pounce on any assertions that Dark All Day wasn’t a good album (which it wasn’t), but maybe that’s just how it goes when there’s so little musical nutrition to go on. That album came out five years ago now, and the single prevailing memory of Gunship is their slavish desire to ‘80s synthwave, in a way that subsumed anything approaching a cogent idea or identity in favour of laying that devotion bare. It doesn’t matter how airtight your stylistic recreations are, or how many big-name guests you can bring onboard; without the songs to keep it all steady, you’re just going to sink.
And with half a decade now to process that, you’d think that Unicorn might seek to redress the balance. But if anything, nothing has moved. Gunship still seem fit to bore into the ideals of ‘80s nostalgia for basically everything they do with no concession to what they themselves can add, and once again, Unicorn suffers immensely for it. To be kind, it’s a display of how limited and inflexible Gunship’s ‘80s palette truly is; to be not-so-kind, it’s a chore to get through that burns through its best ideas in the first half (charitably), and sees fit to crater any and all creative impulses for the remainder of this hour-long brick of synth buzz.
It’s the consequence of caring so much for aesthetic to true musical inspiration is cast so far aside, it’s barely on the board anymore. If that’s the intent, then obviously Unicorn is a roaring success, but empty-calorie nostalgia-baiting with nothing beneath the shiny, neon veneer is obviously not a good outcome. It just leads to an album that drags incessantly, not helped by how little variation there is the chugging synth progressions. It’s not as propulsive or weighty as Gunship clearly believe it to be; if anything, it’s just tiresome, big and expensive in a way that loses its luster remarkable quickly, and with basically no resistance. If Zack Snyder were making films in the ‘80s, this would be the audio equivalent.
It’s not even worth singling out individual tracks for the most part, either; there’s barely anything to single out! As far as highlights go, Empress Of The Damned is head-and-shoulders the best song here, partly for its industrialised dance-pop throb, and partly because Lights is such an engaging vocalist that carrying a song like this requires little effort. There’s also some cool bits of The Prodigy-esque styling to crop up on Blood For The Blood God and Nuclear Date Night, and in general, the front half that’s loaded with guest stars makes for the most appealing fare, if only to see how they’re all used and arranged. Granted, there’s not a ton that comes from that, seeing as most don’t get to show much of themselves off, instead falling into Gunship’s maw to be spat out as a nominal vocaloid fit for purpose. Between Wargasm’s Milkie Way, Busted’s Charlie Simpson and Bush’s Gavin Rossdale, there’s barely an inkling of personality among them. They’re simply just parts of an objectively impressive array of guests, plugged into place with barely a thought given to what uniqueness they could possibly bring.
It’d likely be more preferable than Alex Westaway, though he’s barely a presence here in his own right. He’s got a voice that’s fit for Britrock—fine for a tenure as co-vocalist in Fightstar—but against the tide of incessant cinematics in which maximalism is the default setting, he doesn’t stand a chance. And so, when he’s left to fend for himself as a singer here, there’s a distinct lack of awareness among Gunship of how prominent that weakness can be. It’s one of the reasons why Unicorn’s last leg is such a drag, where Westaway’s use as a functional mouthpiece just doesn’t gel with the overall intentions. On top of that, pretty much from Ghost onwards, Gunship begin to cycle through their bag in tricks in even more obvious fashions, and it becomes so easy to lose interest when it’s padded to that extent.
And that says a lot on an album that’s already not too shy about boxed-in its supply of ideas is. It’s all incredibly similar stuff all over the place, from the analogue synths to the gated percussion, to the saxophone that trails through about half-a-dozen songs here, and sounds more perfunctory every single time. At least Gunship’s affinity for this sort of thing shows; they’re aware of what beats are the right ones needed to sound ‘genuine’ (to where the drum pad stings on Weaponized Love are almost identical to those on New Order’s Blue Monday). But where’s the humanity behind that? It’s the thing that’s always made Gunship felt like such a sterile product, an act built on the presence of references than any greater application of them. They’re nothing close to interesting lyrically, and when each immobile musical monolith might as well just be another standardised stop on the vaporwave grid, is there any excitement to be gleaned from that? Really?
And thus, it’s telling how much backup on Unicorn comes from those established names in ‘80s—or ‘80s-replicating—synthwave work. Here, you’ve got John Carpenter, Tim Cappello, Tyler Bates and Carpenter Brut, the appearance of all of whom feel like a roundabout way of Gunship legitimising what they’re doing without the need to stake much of a claim themselves. It’s a borderline genius tactic, circumventing any accusations of laziness to where the defenders will now believe there’s empirical evidence for why this is good. And while that’s more on those loud, isolated voices who’ll spend their time screaming at the defence of an act they have no more personal stake in than said act themselves, you have to believe that Gunship are aware of that. It’ll keep them around, after all, despite how short their runway would otherwise be. Without it, there’s no way an act running this short of ideas would have accumulated the reach they have, and broken out beyond an occasional side-project at best. What’s most telling, though, is how, regardless of that reach or the budget they’ve got or the big names they’ll align themselves with, Gunship never cease to be utterly forgettable.
For fans of: John Carpenter, Carpenter Brut, the concept of an ‘80s film score
‘Unicorn’ by Gunship is released on 29th September.
Words by Luke Nuttall