Signing to the legendary Fueled By Ramen record label and building up a sizable presence on TikTok, everything is aligning for genre-bending and experimental pop-punk outfit Waterparks. Not only, of course, are the general public’s tastes not only welcoming back the style at their core, but they’re also becoming increasingly open to hyperpop-style blasts of nostalgic, quirky chaos that add a sense of goofy fun to everything that the band is bringing to the table on their latest. INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY is the band’s fifth studio album, and over the course of a brief 31 minutes Awsten Knight and his bandmates infuse the typically bright and anthemic melodies associated with their genre with elements of metal, synthpop, trap and impressively plucked acoustic riffs, all while delivering some lyrics that range from tongue-in-cheek to genuinely poignant takes on religious guilt. While there are a couple left-field moments that showcase why some listeners are treating the band like a giant punchline, Waterparks is inviting us to have a little fun.
I’ve seen the opening track, ST*RF**KER – some of the asterisks mine, some the band’s – described as a litmus test for how much listeners are willing to indulge in the band’s madness, and with its brief runtime it’s well-placed to be exactly that. A high-speed, high-energy track with a syncopated bassline and a drum n’ bass percussion section, it combines with Knight’s typical tenor and inflections of a tried and true pop punk singer in a curiously infectious way that would appeal to any hyperpop fan. As the band adds in some twinkling, high-pitched synth cascades on the back end, the impressive part is how wild and busy the song is, but never to an overwhelming degree. It leads into “REAL SUPER DARK,” one of the heavier songs on the project. If you haven’t completely bought into the Waterparks ethos yet, I could see how the distorted, half-rapped verses as Knight pushes his voice to its limits would be a little much for you. The chorus, however, featuring some low guitar revs reminiscent of early Muse and some paranoid, belted triplet flows, should be undeniable. One of the biggest manifestations of the band’s spirit is actually in the transitions between the tracks – many of them just start immediately on beat 1, and because they sound so different, the sudden switch-up to the cheery acoustic riff of “FUNERAL GREY” is cause for hilarity. The song, as well, might genuinely might have one of the year’s best hooks so far. Like the best pop-punk choruses, it’s in-your-face when it needs to be and soft when it needs to be as well as Knight sings about a missed connection. The melody when he unexpectedly descends the scale on “I didn’t get her name” is the real earworm.
The track “BRAINWASHED” actually has an even better acoustic riff, containing an impressively speedy fingerpicked moment that rounds out an incredibly nostalgic sound – it’s reminiscent of the peak Disnified pop-rock era when a song like Hot Chelle Rae’s “Tonight Tonight” was at the top of the charts. A bubbly and happy feeling with some crunchy guitars in the back, Knight sings about feeling like he’s going insane in the early stages of an exciting relationship and recounting staying over longer than he expected with a frenetic delivery. The deliciously rhythmic “symmetrical feelings match best when we’re staring at the ceiling” has to be the best pop lyric that someone like Carly Rae Jepsen never wrote. If you remove the expletives and the fact that it’s about a wild night out, “2 BEST FRIENDS” is a bouncy 2-minute track that sounds like it’s from a kids’ TV show. With a unique echoey synth tone making up the hook, the band continues to prove they have some untapped 100 gecs-style energy. “END OF THE WATER (FEEL),” on the other hand, is the biggest swing and a miss when it comes to their experimental attitude. With an appropriately washed-out and watery vibe, Knight’s reach up to his blaring upper register feels highly unearned, and one of the hooks that doesn’t land as immediately at the others wasn’t the time to try it out. Returning to the hook’s ethereal sound so quickly throughout kills the constant uptempo drive that colours the rest of the project as well.
Another one that’s in the same ballpark as “FUNERAL GREY” hook-wise is the track “SELF-SABOTAGE,” and the most infectious part about it has to be Knight ascending about two octaves in the space of about two seconds. A relatively standard pop-rock track by Waterparks standards, it still throws an experimental twist at listeners by the end when the typical guitar backdrop shifts into an 8-bit digitized synth territory while Knight sings about being unable to settle in and let himself be happy in a relationship. “RITUAL,” however, has to be the most chaotic track on the entire project. With eerie melodies and a relentless drum machine in the back, Knight tries to reach out to his religiously traumatized inner child through a tongue twister of lyrics that only hit harder when a heavy trap beat drops behind them in the second verse. It’s all centred by a chorus with some raging guitars – mixed a lot better than you typically hear these days – and Knight using some of his most metal-adjacent inflections.
While one of the best things about INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY is how much it defies the trendy Travis Barker-ified model of moder pop-punk, one of his biggest collaborators in blackbear still appears on the project, lending a guest verse to “F**K ABOUT IT.” But when we’ve come to expect twists on the formula, it’s actually kind of cool to hear his Auto-tuned cadence coming in as he duets with Knight on another catchy hook about relationship dysfunction – the two do everything they can to avoid real conversation. Before the super-sized closer, a different “CLOSER” offers a slower and more tender tune. The standard rock beat and the distinct lack of any madness or whimsy on this one does make it sink into the background, but its definitely competently made. Finally, “A NIGHT OUT ON EARTH” extends the runtime as Knight dives into some more specific and important themes about the struggles he faced growing up in Texas as a bit of a non-conformist and grappling with his faith as he went out to have fun.
As the drum n’ bass vibes return and the final track even shifts into a bit of a drill section, Waterparks leave a lasting impression as experimentalists to look out for. Seemingly gaining more recognition and connections rapidly despite being five albums in, the revitalized pop-punk scene might be getting its biggest disruptor.
Favourite Tracks: FUNERAL GREY, RITUAL, BRAINWASHED, SELF-SABOTAGE, 2 BEST FRIENDS
Least Favourite Track: END OF THE WATER (FEEL)