XXXTENTACION – SKINS

XXXTentacion – Skins.pngSince his death this past June, it’s becoming much more evident just how much of an incredible impact XXXTENTACION had on the direction of music and culture. While his projects were uneven and his career was mired in endless controversies, there was always a clear creative spark and an urge to put out something different, something uniquely him. SKINS is his first posthumous release, and standing at only 19 minutes in length, it’s clearly unfinished, most of these songs having issues with mixing and mastering or instances where X was recording a demo vocal to be replaced with something more substantial later. Although there are definitely a few issues with putting this out so quickly to capitalize on his name, looking back at how much the genre he kickstarted has grown has honestly made me appreciate the ideas presented on this tape for what they are – I can tell that if these were turned into full songs, it’d be a huge step forward from 17 and ?. If I’m evaluating this just on the music presented though, this barely qualifies as an album.

It’s immediately evident just how little new material we’re actually going to get here when the instrumental of the first full track, “Guardian angel”, starts playing – it’s just the beat of one of his biggest hits, “Jocelyn Flores”, reversed. X’s rapping on the track is honestly some of the best I’ve ever heard him, urgent and powerful, but the track ends before it even begins – this is just a tiny chunk of something he recorded. I always enjoyed his calmer raps, without the overuse of distortion, the most out of any of his wide variety of styles, and it continues on the next track “Train food” which sees X do something new and put together a full narrative and concrete idea – at almost 3 minutes, it’s an unusually long track for him. X’s lyrics are vivid as he paints the picture of encountering the figure of Death while walking home, enhanced by the sound effect of a punch before he wakes up tied to a railroad track. The repeated lyrics and very minimal instrumental suggest that this could have been even more powerful than it already is – that last verse is chilling and prophetic, as X raises his voice to a shout.

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The track “STARING AT THE SKY”, standing at under a minute and a half in length, sees X revert back to his full-voiced distorted yells and heavy metal production style interspersed with acoustic emo-folk delivery. It’s the kind of material that really made me worried for him on his previous projects, but the addition of a sinister whisper under his repeated yells of “WE’RE GONNA BREAK” is an absolutely terrifying touch that shocked me. It’s not something I’d ever want to return to, but it definitely made me feel something.

The heavy guitars continue to much better effect on “One Minute”, which recruits Kanye West and Travis Barker. Despite some seriously questionable lyrics, West absolutely demolishes his verse, the distorted guitars behind him injecting his confident and charismatic flow and delivery with some serious energy before X enters with a bloodcurdling scream – even if his part is minimal and clearly looped, it’s a pretty mindblowing track all in all.

It’s strange to accuse a 19-minute album of having filler tracks, but some of these songs are blatantly unfinished and it makes me worried that X’s team are suggesting that there is more to come if this is all they could muster to put on his first posthumous release. The tracks “whoa (mind in awe)” and “what are you so afraid of” are painfully repetitive and consist of little more than X’s whoa-ohs, suggesting that they were demos he recorded before adding actual lyrics. Most of the time, it doesn’t sound like he’s fully present in recording, like these were obviously nothing close to the final takes he was going to record.

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A track like “BAD!” sounds like it would have been an obvious hit if it were actually put together with some more effort – X’s words are barely clear, like he was unsure if he’d replace them later. The studio wizardry throughout is so clear, constructing tracks out of bits and pieces that it might not have ever been his intention to fit together. “I don’t let go” is another track that I can see coming together with more work – the glitchy instrumental from Cubeatz reminds me of “Moonlight” and X’s falsetto chorus is pretty enjoyable, despite its repetition without much else to switch up the energy of the track. Like everything else here, the idea is there, but the execution is far from complete.

Most of what I enjoyed from this project is simply from my fascination with the creative processes of one of the most culturally influential artists in recent memory – hearing X’s ideas in their bare-bones form gives me hope that he was moving in a more positive artistic direction, and that some of these tracks could have been a lot better than his previous work. There are a lot of things to like here, but the fact that we never really get to hear them come to fruition makes this a seriously underwhelming release that makes me nervous for just how long we’re likely going to be milking X’s work after he’s gone.

Favourite Tracks: One Minute, Train food, I don’t let go

Least Favourite Track: whoa (mind in awe)

Score: 4/10

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Rapid Fire Reviews (Takeoff, Imagine Dragons, Muse)

Image result for takeoff the last rocketTakeoff – The Last Rocket

The second of three solo albums from the members of ultra-popular rap trio Migos, Takeoff’s project is thankfully shorter than most of the rap odysseys his label drops all too often and is easily more enjoyable than the preceding album from Quavo. Takeoff is perhaps the Migo with the most technical ability, but the least personality. The latter certainly shows here with some repetitive and uncreative bars at times, but getting to hear just how well Takeoff can use that rapid-fire triplet flow that we usually get as a brief cap to a Migos track across a full album and some fun instrumentals is enough to establish himself as a threat on the level of his two more well-known counterparts.

The project kicks off with “Martian” after some recordings of a literal rocket ship takeoff, a more minimal track that introduces us well to Takeoff’s rhythmic ability well early on. A surprisingly hard-hitting beat despite not being much more than a creeping, menacing bassline and traditional trap hi-hats, Takeoff’s flow doesn’t stop, and it’s exciting each time the beat hits and kicks off another run of speedy triplets. Takeoff has a great rap voice, a huskier low tone that always serves as a great counterpart to the more hyperactive members of his group, and it both fits in well with some darker instrumentals than usual here and makes it endearing when we finally get to see him inject some personality and emotion of his own onto these tracks. A track like “Vacation” is a lot of fun for the first reason, featuring a slightly orchestral minor-key instrumental and chilling piano from Murda Beatz as Takeoff’s energy is at its peak for the emphatic hook, stretching out the song’s title for hilarious effect. “Casper”, on the other hand, sees him break from the Migos tough-guy persona for a second and actually sound like he’s having fun. Hearing him deliver a line like “Decided what I’m gonna do today!” with genuine mirth and inspiration and just as much technical skill as the other tracks makes me want to return to it more, just as a break from the endless barrage of Migos material we typically get.

The closing few tracks are some of the best, demonstrating Takeoff’s consistency delivering track after track of technical trap showcases. Buddah Bless is quickly becoming one of my favourite new producers with his trademark flute style, and his “Insomnia” stands out here. “Infatuation”, though, is something completely unexpected – an energetic, upbeat fully synthpop track mostly featuring unknown singer Dayytona Fox. These poppy, bouncy tracks always accommodate the Migos flow better than you’d expect, and everything about this track comes together into a dancefloor-ready standout.

The Quavo-assisted “She Gon Wink” is one of the weaker tracks here, further demonstrating just how well Takeoff actually manages to excel on his own. Takeoff adapts more to Quavo’s slower, melodic style on the track and it just makes me wonder why it wasn’t on Quavo’s album. It’s not something I want to be hearing after waiting for Takeoff to get his opportunity to shine for a while, after being a highlight in so many Migos tracks. “None to Me” is another track where he puts a little more of a sing-song angle into his flows which doesn’t land particularly well, actually sending him off the beat a little in a few areas of the track. The purest rapper of the group, he doesn’t seem to realize that adherence to the Migos formula isn’t necessary at all times to make a good track – this should be an opportunity to exhibit his own style first and foremost, especially with the smaller number of tracks here. A track like “I Remember”, as well, is where we see him get laziest with the lyricism here, the hook, consisting only of those two words, taking up most of the space of the song.

With so much similar, uninspired content coming this year from the Quality Control label, I enjoyed The Last Rocket a lot more than I expected to, reminding me that half the reason we were all so drawn to Migos in the first place was that they can actually rap pretty well. I’m glad Takeoff finally got his time in the spotlight.

Favourite Tracks: Casper, Infatuation, Vacation, Insomnia, Lead The Wave

Least Favourite Track: I Remember

Score: 7/10

Origins cover.pngImagine Dragons – Origins

For the last little while now, pop-rock band Imagine Dragons have been some of the only people who manage to score high-charting hits with any semblance of a guitar in their music. With their fourth studio album, Origins, they continue to sell well after diluting the sound into something so easily consumable that they’ve become just about the only option in the eyes of most people who aren’t completely immersed in the genre. The band exploded back onto the scene last year with “Believer” after the sales dropped off for their 2nd album, and haven’t looked back since, adhering to the same painful formulas over and over. You know how it goes: some sweeping, contemplative and slightly soul-oriented chords as Reynolds begins quietly, then throws in a complete tonal shift and suddenly starts yelling. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but Origins might be even more obnoxious than their last project, Evolve.

Opening track and lead single “Natural” is honestly not too bad – much like their lead last year being one of the better songs on the album. It’s almost as if they structure an entire album around their lead single, creating 10 more imitations of it that never measure up. It’s one of the only tracks here that has a build-up to the loud part that genuinely works, Reynolds’ vocals gradually getting more intense before the chorus drops. I really do like the way they incorporate that rhythmic minor-key guitar riff that backs the quieter intro into the chorus as the song goes on as well. It’s all downhill from there.

I’m never quite sure what to make of Reynolds’ vocals – sometimes, it seems like he could be a genuine rock frontman with the rasp and passion he naturally possesses, but other times it just sounds awful and strained when he reaches up into his upper register. It might be the fact that he takes it too far for the calmer instrumentals that pop up more often than usual across this album, like on the chorus for “Boomerang”. Don’t get me started on that half-time trap hi-hat beat that shows up out of nowhere for the final chorus. Then again, from there we transition into “Machine”, a more industrial number where Reynolds uses almost exclusively his louder, angry tone that sounds like he’s painfully forcing the sounds out of him, distorting his vowels and really throwing off my enjoyment of the track. You’d think with all of the experienced pop producers they bring on board now that they would be able to find a way to hit on more catchy choruses than they actually do. Most of these sound like they’re making them up on the spot, the weird deviations in melody reminding me of something like Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”. “Bad Liar” is another track like this, the longest one on the album, so clearly, they thought they had something here. One of the calmest tracks the band’s ever made, it’s built on this delicate synth pattern and Reynolds’ falsetto before the energy shifts abruptly through two more phases in the chorus and pre-chorus, Reynolds drawing out his voice awkwardly on the “eye” sound of “Liar” on a strained higher note.

Imagine Dragons honestly stick a track from a movie soundtrack in the middle of their album here, not even tacked on at the end, which shows how much care went into the construction of the project as a deliberately sequenced album. Most movie soundtrack songs are clearly made with less effort into song structure with more of a general tone in mind, and this is no exception. “Zero”, from Wreck-It Ralph 2, might honestly be the worst song I’ve heard this year. An obnoxiously high-octane chorus is contrasted with a sluggish bridge where the track grinds to a halt on Reynolds’ contemplative falsetto, and immediately catapults back into the madness of the chorus. It’s pretty comical.

The rest of the back half of the album is full of ill-informed genre hopping and capitalization on long-dead trends. “West Coast” sounds like every 2011 indie-folk track, “Bullet In A Gun” a weirdly computerized EDM-esque track, “Only” oversaturated dance-pop, “Digital” is … my god … a drum ‘n’ bass pseudo-rap track … and all of them involve Reynolds yelling in my ear. There’s so much nonsense I could mention but this review is already getting way too long.

Origins is the sound of a band along for the ride, saying yes to whatever all the people who have come in to manage their immense popularity tell them to do and losing all semblance of artistic identity in the process. They’ve fully embraced their role as the new Nickelback.

Favourite Tracks: Natural, Cool Out

Least Favourite Track: Zero

Score: 2/10

A neon-coloured portrait of the members of the band in 80s-style dystopian-themed costumes, with themed electronic imagery surrounding them.Muse – Simulation Theory

Frequently evolving veteran rock band Muse undergoes yet another shift in sound from their previous harder-rock effort Drones to a more digitized electro-rock and synthpop direction. There’s always been a lot of influence from bands like Queen on frontman Matt Bellamy’s almost operatic vocal delivery, but the arena-sized ambitions of an album like Simulation Theory take it a little bit further. While Muse can often tend to go over the top into a territory of excessive cheese with their overwrought lyrical themes and melodramatics – this project being no exception – the majority of these tracks are smartly constructed pop melodies, and a more modernized sound that works a lot better for them than their last sonic experiment – all the sci-fi elements are a lot of fun too!

Opening track “Algorithm” is straight out of a Tron movie, opening with an extended instrumental featuring a driving beat that switches from a string orchestra to a fuzzy synth tone, cascading piano arpeggios and a straight-up synthesizer solo on top before Bellamy’s warm and capable vocals kick in, making everything sound immediately more intense and important in the way that only he can. This is all incredible guilty pleasure kind of stuff. “This means war – with your creator”, Bellamy emotes, because of course he does. The next track “The Dark Side” kicks the tempo up a notch, the guitar riff slightly reminiscent of their older material (think a digitized version of “Knights of Cydonia”). I really love the combinations of live drums and the more frivolous noises from a drum machine – it’s like Muse is finally learning to not take themselves so seriously. “Pressure” is a pretty incredible, dynamic track, Bellamy switching in an out of a panicked falsetto backed up by a syncopated guitar line modified to sound almost like a horn section before the track explodes into a rapid-fire melodic rock track with poppy backing vocals and a menacing, repeated whisper – “pressure building”. The band links up with Timbaland of all people for the weird and wonderful track “Propaganda”, a minimal track that sees Bellamy go full Prince with his vocal inflections over some sparse snaps, while a distorted vocal sample yelling the title fights to break into the mix. The harmonies here are fantastic.

There’s not much that measures up to the first 4 tracks in quality here, and it wouldn’t be a Muse album without a couple ambitious ideas that swing for the fence and completely fall flat. The band still insists on using the dubstep wubs they picked up when the genre exploded in popularity, and their combination with a guitar toned off-key for ominous effect on “Break It To Me” is pretty grating, especially as the track shifts through a few sections rapidly, Bellamy switching to his tender delivery for the chorus before the track turns into a Rage Against the Machine song at the end. The wubs show up to somewhat better effect on “Dig Down” later on. “Get Up and Fight” is Muse indulging their absolute worst tendencies, and while at times it’s easy to get caught up in their rousing calls to action and resistance set to a driving guitar melody, this one goes way too far into try-hard inspirational territory. This might be the most overly dramatic track they’ve ever written, and that’s saying a lot. “Something Human”, as well, is almost too poppy, with a campfire-side folksy quality to it that doesn’t fit Bellamy’s grandiose voice.

Single “Thought Contagion” pops up later in the tracklisting, and this is the closest thing we get to a classic, impossibly catchy Muse track. The main riff and stadium-sized singalong chorus are immediately memorable, juxtaposed with verses that have an almost hip-hop angle with some skittering hi-hats and a more rhythmic, syncopated flow from Bellamy. I can already tell it’ll be incredible live.

Simulation Theory is easily one of the band’s most enjoyable albums, now that they’re just essentially making fun music and not going overboard with some political theme. The 80s nostalgia is a great sound for them, even with a few missteps here and there.

Favourite Tracks: Pressure, Propaganda, Thought Contagion, Algorithm, The Dark Side

Least Favourite Track: Break It To Me

Score: 7/10

Twenty One Pilots – Trench

TOP Trench Album Cover.jpgUncategorizable alternative duo Twenty One Pilots release their fifth studio album, and first after becoming household names with 2015’s uneven but hugely successful Blurryface. While I’ve often struggled with the duo’s consistency in the past, as they seemingly mashed disparate styles together for no reason other than the fact that they could, Trench sees them take better control of their more outlandish artistic impulses, combining it with the catchy pop songwriting and heart-wrenchingly descriptive and personal lyrics that made them such a success previously. While their mid-song transitions could still use some work, Trench is the best kind of wildly versatile project that somehow works cohesively, and it’s likely their best work yet.

Kicking the project off with their heaviest song in years, we’re immediately dropped into the droning guitars of single “Jumpsuit”, which introduces just how great the production across the board is going to be on the project – there are so many little details that enhance the world of the song, especially as it ties into the conceptual landscape of the fictional city of Dema that each song is tied to. Something like cutting back to just the menacing bassline for a second in the paranoid second verse works wonders. One of the most consistently engaging things here is how well they’ve fit their more commercially oriented pop choruses so well onto the darker, heavier instrumentals of their past. Writing an inescapably catchy chorus is still one of frontman Tyler Joseph’s greatest strengths, a few of these tracks drawing on 80s synthpop in their most pop-oriented moments. Not many of them stay in that mode for the whole song, but “My Blood” does, and it’s a pretty euphoric experience.

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“Chlorine” might be the catchiest hook of all here, though. A more low-key track, the cascading piano embellishments and major-key fanfare of a bassline add to its memorability. The back-to-back tracks “Nico and the Niners” and “Cut My Lip” both dive back into the subtle reggae influence the band has borrowed from in the past and do it better than ever before. The way the vocal modulations on “Nico” frame the drop into the final, speedy rap verse on the track makes my heart skip a beat every single time, while “Cut My Lip” features a final, repeated refrain built for an arena to sing along to. It’s one of the most emotionally sung tracks here as well, Joseph reaching into his upper register. “Pet Cheetah” is just … absolute madness. The glitchy, lurching synth-bass collides with in-your-face hip-hop production for a track that quickly switches back and forth between the panic-inducing hellscape (in the absolute best way!) of the former and the softer, sung sections of chorus.

As usual, Joseph addresses some pretty heavy topics across the board here as well. On the track “Neon Gravestones”, he muses on the romanticizing of celebrity suicide over a somber piano loop and skittering drumbeat, acknowledging how much more famous he’d get if he killed himself. As he’s acknowledged having these thoughts in the past, he bluntly sings that if the worst does happen, he doesn’t want his fans to feed into the culture of celebrity and move on. At the end, he switches the narrative, saying to celebrate grandparents who have lived a full and accomplished life instead – the dedication is particularly poignant due to the death of Joseph’s own grandfather, who appears on the cover of the duo’s 2013 album Vessel. The track “Legend” here is a heartfelt dedication to him, featuring a final verse where Joseph outright states that he recorded it on the day of his passing.

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In an album that goes to so many interesting and diverse places so well, a track like “The Hype” feels far too one-note, essentially just structured like an everyday pop song. The falsetto delivery almost reminds me of an older song from a band like Foster the People. As well, Joseph’s rapping has always sounded a little off to me, and while he’s certainly improved here there are a still a few moments where it sounds like it’s just not something he should be doing at the time. On tracks like “Pet Cheetah” and “Levitate” something about the places he emphasizes his syllables throws the rhythm off slightly. “Levitate”, especially, has a pretty great throwback hip-hop percussion groove with the off-kilter Twenty One Pilots edge, but Joseph’s higher-pitched delivery doesn’t fit right with the tone of the track. Follow-up track “Morph”, on the other hand, sees him settle in perfectly. Another exquisitely produced track, the emotion creeps into his delivery over the chilling synth-piano eerie carnival ride of an instrumental. I love how many different places the track goes without losing its essence – through the almost future bass swells, the falsetto pop chorus, the tropical house synths at the end … it’s boundless creativity at work.

Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun have essentially done the best possible thing they could do here after skyrocketing to fame, taking some of the greatest elements of what the general public were drawn to and combining it with some of the greatest elements of what made them unique in the first place. I’m sure their diehard fans are getting even more enjoyment out of the complicated lore behind the project as well. Another contender for the Most Improved Award.

Favourite Tracks: Morph, Neon Gravestones, Nico And The Niners, Pet Cheetah, My Blood

Least Favourite Track: The Hype

Score: 8/10

Meg Myers – Take Me To The Disco

Image result for meg myers take me to the discoPop-rock singer-songwriter Meg Myers’ sophomore album, Take Me To The Disco, sees the singer discover a middle ground between the upbeat, poppier melodic approach of her debut Sorry and the abrasive, almost grunge edge that coloured her earlier EPs. 4 years after her breakout single “Desire”, Myers still exists in her own lane as a completely unique artist and one of my personal favourite singers who is still moderately lesser-known, blending heavy guitar work and haunting, tortured rock vocal abilities with some aspects that could easily fit on pop radio. However, while still possessing the infectious qualities of songwriting and song structure that knows just how to highlight the greatest parts of her voice, Take Me To The Disco sounds more subdued than Myers ever should be. She never quite recaptures the snarl that accompanied her early delivery, or commits fully to the experimental, pop-oriented angle that appeared on Sorry. Still, Myers delivers another strong body of work.

The title track which opens the album essentially acts as an introductory preface to the explosive lead single “Numb”, one of the greatest tracks here. Myers’ voice on the opening track is featured more due to the more minimal instrumental constructed of orchestral strings and a light, poppier percussion section, but you can still hear the intensity and emotion in her every note, her voice catching and stopping up on certain notes, even if she takes her vocals to a more breathy place than usual. I always find myself wanting her to return to the full-voiced early-90s grunge scream and aggressive, disdainful tone that surprised me so much the first time I heard her – and she comes closest to it on the chorus of “Numb”. The deafening lead guitar roars in after a verse with a delightfully off-putting childlike nursery rhyme melody (“I don’t wanna grow up, la la la la la”, she sings), catching the listener off guard with some serious vocal ability with a huge slide up to an impressive note that she hits at full power, bringing back her catchy pop songwriting that she expresses in the most intense, contradictory way possible that works perfectly regardless.

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“Tear Me To Pieces” is another equally chilling track. I love how she over-enunciates each one of her words, making me feel the anger behind each. Her expletive-laden accusations of her partner’s lies remind me of her older songwriting, and the demonic, distorted lower supporting vocals and the way the song cuts out to highlight her most emotional vocal moments make it a standout. The juxtaposition of the quiet piano section before the final, screaming conclusion never fails to give me goosebumps. “The Death Of Me” reminds me of the pop half of Sorry more than anything here, a much brighter piano riff colouring the track that provides the perfect contrast to the pessimistic and anxious lyricism of the chorus that acts as the biggest artistic risk on the project. Main co-writer Leggy Langdon lends his vocals to the track as well, providing a distinctive, unique lower voice that provides great support for Myers. “Little Black Death” is another pretty flawless marriage of the two styles, the upbeat track taking on an almost disco flavour due to the syncopated rhythm of the chorus melody. It’s a lot of fun to hear a distorted guitar emulating this kind of upbeat instrumental, and Myers taking the final chorus an octave up is a pretty stunning vocal moment.

“Tourniquet”, on the other hand, feels emptier and more underwritten than anything here, the melody too quick and choppy for the quieter, acoustic guitar pattern that dominates the instrumental space, most of the chorus just involving an “ay-ay-ay” extension of the titular word – it’s missing the sharp, often terrifying songwriting that I’ve come to know Myers by over the years, and it feels like she’s trying to play into more of a marketable angle here for the first time. It’s one of her least shocking songs and easily has crossover potential.

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Looking at the larger picture, a few of these tracks do feel like older Myers tropes that just aren’t taken as far as they used to be, exhibiting a few similarities across the tracklist. “Some People” is a slower, orchestral, more introspective track that doesn’t really pick itself off the ground due to Myers relegating her vocal power until a final, explosive section that comes too late and feels repetitive after the similar structure of the preceding tracks. “I’m Not Sorry”, as well, features yet another juxtaposition of a quieter refrain, Myers repeating a strained, breathy “stay”, with a briefly abrasive section that isn’t executed as well as other tracks here.

All things considered, Myers at her least interesting is still pretty incredible and refreshing. There’s nobody else in the current musical conversation coming anywhere close to emulating the combination of sounds that she does, and her song structures are always electrifyingly clean and well thought out. Now moving forward as an independent artist, she should hopefully regain some creativity once again.

Favourite Tracks: Tear Me To Pieces, Numb, The Death Of Me, Little Black Death, Done

Least Favourite Track: I’m Not Sorry

Score: 7/10

Panic! at the Disco – Pray For The Wicked

Veteran pop-rock “band” Panic! at the Disco, down to its final member in multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Brendon Urie, releases its second studio album as a solo act which greatly improves on predecessor “Death of a Bachelor”. Fresh from a stint on Broadway, Urie elevates his usual flair for the dramatic here and delivers some impressively dynamic vocal lines. Most importantly though, Panic! pulls somewhat of a Paramore here and modernizes their sound, joining the current musical conversation without losing what made them unique in the first place. Their sixth studio album is potentially their poppiest, but roaring guitar underscores and Urie’s theatricality remains to ground these triumphant pop hooks in the darker, baroque atmosphere that’s always coloured their work. There are a few awkward moments of transition here and there, but Pray for the Wicked is one of their best.

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Urie immediately floors the gas pedal on his huge voice when the first anthemic chorus of opening track “(F**k A) Silver Lining” explodes in listeners’ earphones, and he doesn’t let go for the rest of the project. He’s a true rock-and-roll frontman delivering some of the most pop-oriented and melodic hooks of his career, and the result is unique and refreshing. The singles across the board are some of the strongest in their career, carried by a constant, driving energy and smartly written melodies. The fast-paced and frenetic “Silver Lining” sees Urie hitting some seriously impressive high notes over a blaring horn section and a sample from a 1950s R&B track before leading into “Say Amen (Saturday Night)”, which is quintessential Panic! material with a modern update. The guitars in the background are accompanied by a chopped-up vocal sample and clacking percussion verging on a hip-hop sound, providing the perfect backdrop of crackling energy for the chorus, delivered through layered vocals and a deafening guitar pattern that Urie somehow manages to overpower.

“High Hopes” is another great single choice – I love the melody in the pre-chorus that builds up to the marching-band percussion and yet another immediately catchy chorus from Urie, which shows just how effective it is near the end of the track when the instrumental starts to strategically drop out. Urie sells all of this perfectly – his voice is built for Broadway – it’s one of the most capable male vocals in mainstream music right now. The very strong first half continues with “Roaring 20s”, which belongs in a legitimate rock musical (that half-time breakdown!) and “Dancing’s Not A Crime”, which wraps the listener in a very full sound with some warm, old-school funk pop chords. Quite a few of these tracks are great for similar reasons: an energetic horn section, music that cuts out at just the right time, a shouted anthemic chorus, but Urie sounds like he’s having so much fun, and it’s such a welcome change from the band, that it really doesn’t matter. He nods to a personal shift in character on “Old Fashioned”, believing to have been stuck in the persona of the 17-year old who initially formed the band until this album.

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Panic!’s journey crossing over into the more culturally relevant styles of pop, hip-hop and EDM production doesn’t come without a few hitches, one of which is their team-up with electronic DJ Dillon Francis on “Hey Look Ma, I Made It”. Like most featured vocalists in modern EDM tracks, Francis buries Urie’s vocals in the mix a little bit more than usual, his chopped-up horn samples dominating the poppiest song on the whole project. Urie’s voice is not something that should ever be restrained. By the time a trap beat drops near the end of the project and the chanting group vocals are at their peak, it feels like we’re listening to an average Galantis track. The second half of the album is noticeably weaker than the frenetic opening 6-track run. On an album full of spectacular choruses, “One Of The Drunks” feels like it falls short, something about the sample in the back not quite clicking with the melody line. Urie’s lyrics can be periodically distracting as well, sometimes not maturing alongside the musical direction. “The Overpass” falls into clichés: we’ve heard about the “sketchy girls and lipstick boys, troubled love and high-speed noise” before. Panic! returns to familiar tropes that the audience who grew up on their pop-punk material will recognize a few times.

Pray for the Wicked is still a great return to form for a Brendon Urie who seems to be sitting comfortably on top of the world at the moment. His many successes continue with his most cohesive project yet, delivering 11 slick choruses that will be sung in arenas for years to come.

Favourite Tracks: Dancing’s Not A Crime, Say Amen (Saturday Night), Roaring 20s, (F**k A) Silver Lining, High Hopes

Least Favourite Track: The Overpass

Score: 8/10

5 Seconds of Summer – Youngblood

Image result for youngblood cover 5sosI really gotta listen to this huh? Look at those sales! These 5SOS fans are ridiculously loyal. Anyway, pop-punk band 5 Seconds of Summer release their third studio album and first since the disbanding of OneDirection, a major component of their rise to prominence. Working more closely with major producers and writers in the realm of pure pop, as the band grows older they grow out of the cringeworthy edge that coloured their earlier work, making some more polished and modern pop music. Even so, most of these tracks feel like they’re missing the soul and energy, as if they went too far in the new direction of sanitization. A few of these tracks connect surprisingly well, but for the most part they stand just on the edge of being good, each falling victim to an overused trope or a melody line that doesn’t quite line up.

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5SOS are less reliant on their unique status as a more abrasive punk band setting them apart from others here, making some pretty by-the-numbers pop music. Of course, some of the people they’re working with are absolute pros and manage to craft some pretty catchy tunes, but there isn’t much about the delivery of frontman Luke Hemmings to keep me wanting to return. The opening title track “Youngblood” is a strange juxtaposition of energy, the chorus dropping down to a minimalistic rhythmic bassline while Hemmings’ distorted vocal screams the words. Fellow single “Want You Back”, written by superproducer Steve Mac (who recently stuck “Shape Of You” in our heads permanently), fares slightly better, integrating the louder lead guitars of the band into the bouncy pop mix well with a decent falsetto chorus melody, but as the tracks go on, the repetition makes you realize that initial head nod wasn’t deserved – there are other people doing this kind of thing in a much more lasting and engaging way.

This is the issue with most of these tracks – they open in a promising way, and the logistics of the track slowly diminish its value to the end. A track like “Valentine” throws away its promising doo-wop intro immediately and becomes something completely different, the darker vocal tones not meshing with the bright synths and modern percussion. “Lie To Me” is a legitimately great track that shows that there is some potential here – this is classic boy band material, using the other members to create some genuinely stunning harmonies, the chorus melody line sounding like the kind of simple yet heartbreakingly expressive pop melodies of the 90s. The band’s two-track team-up with Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo and their frequent producer Jacob Sinclair on “Why Won’t You Love Me” and “Woke Up In Japan” yields some pretty fun results as well, Cuomo embracing the inherently cheesy nature of the band in the perfect way that only he could on the former, contributing some hilarious self-deprecating lyrics about rejection in a soaring chorus.

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The songs already start to feel obnoxiously derivative of each other around “Better Man”, track 8, which lifts the same syncopated rhythm in the main riff from most of the trop-pop hit songs that dominated the radio waves in 2017 – most of the album’s ending few tracks feel like diet versions of Ed Sheeran songs, not written as expressively as Sheeran can. The previous track “If Walls Could Talk” can’t be saved by Julia Michaels’ songwriting, falling into yet another build-up into a distorted singalong chorus as they attempt to display some kind of unique identity that can’t coordinate itself with the new sheen placed on the surrounding production. The most awkward tonal collision might come on “More”, however, a driving, buzzy and almost EDM synth line dominating most of the space of the track before a drop, also structured like an EDM song, stumbles clumsily into the most directly rock n’ roll guitars at the forefront of the mix.

Youngblood certainly sees the band grow up and better attempt to integrate themselves into the current musical landscape and conversation, but end up playing it far too safe, failing to place a distinctive mark on most of these songs. Quite a few of them could easily have been recorded by anyone else. The lyrics and Hemmings’ delivery frequently sell these mostly well-structured pop melodies just short.

Favourite Tracks: Lie To Me, Moving Along, Woke Up In Japan

Least Favourite Track: More

Score: 3/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (The Decemberists, Jack White, Diplo)

Image result for decemberists i'll be your girlThe Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl

The Decemberists return with a delightfully melodic and cynical take on the state of the world, taking a much more electronic path than their previous works and relying more on synths. The band named New Order as a major influence for the project and it definitely shows. While the project can prove to be meandering and unsure of its overall statement, the harmonies present and the humorous juxtaposition of joyful instrumentals and pessimistic lyrics make I’ll Be Your Girl an overall enjoyable listen.

I’ve seen quite a few people compare frontman Colin Meloy’s writing style across this project to the conventions of children’s music, and I can certainly see where they are coming from. There’s a degree of catchy simplicity to many of these tracks, with repetitive, easily remembered and sung along to hooks. The greatest part is, they use these juvenile sensibilities to deliver some quite cynical lyrical content, and the jubilant earnestness with which they sing about impending doom hits a degree of absurdism that I can’t help but love. The tracks “Everything Is Awful” and “We All Die Young” – which features a chorus of children yelling the title – in particular are structured like folksy childrens’ melodies. The layered ‘everything’s building up to that small break in the music before the first harmonized “EVERYTHING IS AWFULLLL” made me crack up immediately – because it is, and we’re trying our hardest to smile about as hard as Meloy’s joyful melody suggests anyway.

Meloy’s vocals are certainly coming more from the folk and Americana side of the Decemberists’ music, a matter-of-fact tenor delivery with trademark indie vocal inflections, and the addition of computerized synths that back up his acoustic guitar often give his sharp lyrics a bit more of a punch on tracks like “Severed”. He’s the main guitarist as well, delivering a great solo that emulates the synths on upbeat, theatrical track “Your Ghost”. One of the greatest parts of the album are the strong harmonies that make these simple and beautiful storytelling melodies even better. “Sucker’s Prayer” is the best track here, bringing a catchy piano hook running through the track that cuts out at just the right times. Meloy taps into his most soulful chorus yet and higher female harmonies back up his exasperated declaration – “I wanna love somebody but I don’t know how” as a drum fill reintroduces the calmer piano chords of the verses. It’s a pretty impossibly perfect song.

The band’s transition to a more electronic influence isn’t always seamless. The ascending and descending synth arpeggios that cascade through a track like “Cutting Stone”, which opens with the folksiest of acoustic chords, seem incredibly misplaced for the melody of the track, which is clearly influenced by the simplicity of Americana melodies. The instrumental is too busy for the beauty of Meloy’s stark vocal. The middle of the album becomes a bit similar, not possessing the energies that open and close the album, particularly on the one-note “Tripping Along”. The intersection of genres and trepidation towards a full commitment to making the album political shows a lack of direction, and nowhere is this better emphasized than the 8-minute “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes”, a slow and meandering track that sees Meloy, out of nowhere, begin describing a tale of some sort of Russian succubus mermaid. It doesn’t really serve a purpose here, either narrative or musical.

I’ll Be Your Girl is one of the calmest and most comforting albums about how, well, everything is awful that I’ve heard. The vocals are top notch across the board – enjoy a quirky mashup of electronica and indie-folk.

Favourite Tracks: Sucker’s Prayer, Everything Is Awful, Your Ghost, I’ll Be Your Girl, We All Die Young

Least Favourite Track: Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes

Score: 7/10

Image result for boarding house reachJack White – Boarding House Reach

Former White Stripes member and garage and blues rock guitarist Jack White drops his most polarizing and confusing work yet, hitting a degree of experimentation that will determine listeners’ enjoyment level based on their willingness to embrace White’s most theatrical and whimsical tendencies. White barely sings on Boarding House Reach at all, filling the project with spoken word pieces, extended bluesy instrumentals and distorted backing vocals. I fall onto the side of loving this project, as I simply haven’t heard something this sonically ambitious on a mainstream release in a long time. White throws song structure out the window and takes listeners on a consistently surprising electronic journey through the capitalist apocalypse.

As White’s career progresses, he’s adopted more and more of a flair for the melodramatic. Throughout the album White’s vocals are intentionally so passionate that they almost fall off the pitch, while his backing vocalists are always at full volume. Rock ballad “Connected By Love” opens up the album, the drums rolling and something like a rock organ pounding away as White relishes in the sonic misdirection of the clashing tones of the track, shouting his proclamations of love and thriving in the chaos before bringing it back down with the most mournful “what have I done” you’ll ever hear. The authenticity White brings to his delivery is always evident, sounding absolutely miserable on the philosophical “Why Walk A Dog?” as he contemplates his passive acceptance of his slavery to the music industry’s demands.

The theme of capitalism persists throughout the project. White adopts the voice of a commercial announcer on interlude “Everything You’ve Ever Learned”, suggesting that all information has a corporate attachment – “brought to you by…”, but the greatest culmination is outstanding track “Corporation”. The first half of the track is entirely instrumental, filled with interlocking punchy blues rock guitar hooks and a mad bongo drummer before White arrives with the ferocity and conviction of a deranged preacher, rhythmically rallying people to join him in starting a corporation, which he states is the only way to succeed today. The slight shifting of the basic instrumental motifs building up to White’s most wide-eyed declarations is an absolute experience. “Ice Station Zebra” feels almost like old-school hip-hop, a stuttering boom-bap beat backing White’s rapped vocals and some catchy blues piano riffs, while “Over and Over and Over” is classic White Stripes with some intense rock vocals and chilling, horrific pitch shifted vocals signifying futility. There are too many great tracks to acknowledge here, but “What’s Done Is Done” is hilarious – White harmonizes a somber country ballad with full acknowledgement of his own ridiculousness, resorting to ending the life of one of the two in a failed relationship – “and it won’t be me”, the female voice closes the track.

White himself has acknowledged how annoying this album has the potential to get on tracks like “Hypermisophoniac”, in which he was apparently actively trying to create something listenable out of the most annoying sounds possible, starting with the beeps and whirs of his son’s toys. It doesn’t line up on purpose, and this is the track where this idea is pushed too far to the point of unlistenability. “I don’t think we succeeded, but we definitely got the annoying part down.”, White said. The title of the track refers to an affliction causing extreme hatred of certain sounds. A few tracks at the end feel underwritten – I really want to hear White’s command of the mic more, but tracks like “Get In the Mind Shaft” and “Respect Commander” still have a great experimental garage rock feel.

Boarding House Reach is certainly not for everyone, and it is sure to be one of the most divisive recordings of the year – think Kanye’s “Yeezus”. White’s theatricality and social commentary turns the project into grandiose, intense performance art. It’s a daring and ambitious statement, and I think the risk paid off.

Favourite Tracks: Corporation, Over and Over and Over, Ice Station Zebra, Connected By Love, What’s Done Is Done

Least Favourite Track: Hypermisophoniac

Score: 9/10

Image result for diplo california epDiplo – California EP

EDM superstar and producer Diplo drops a brief, 6-track hip-hop leaning EP that shows him perfectly embracing summer sounds about as well as contemporary Calvin Harris did with his Funk Wav Bounces. Diplo brings his trademark influences of dancehall and trip-hop to a pulsating, gyrating mixture of fun synth lines – just enough to disguise the heartfelt emotional content lurking beneath. Diplo recruits an all-star crew of rap’s new insurgence of earnest goofballs and emotional crooners that believe every word they’re saying, including Lil Yachty, Lil Xan and Trippie Redd. It’s tough for Diplo to go wrong at this point – the man knows what he’s doing, and his take on new rap trends with his own signature electronic sound is another success.

Diplo plays directly into the strengths of his guests, providing the soundscape each can excel in while still maintaining the aspects that make these tracks easily identifiable as a Diplo song. We open with “Worry No More”, a track that plays into the carefree, childlike side of Lil Yachty and complements it with the high-pitched voice of Santigold. “I’m chasing after my dreams”, Yachty sings in an intoxicating melody over a beat that sounds like it comes from those Jimmy Fallon videos where he replicates a song with classroom instruments. “Look Back” is a much more cinematic track perfect for the gravitas of DRAM’s booming R&B singing voice. The track plays out like Diplo’s take on a Bond theme, orchestral synths swelling in the background to match DRAM’s theatrical and distressed wails at the top of his range.

The final 3 tracks on the project are where Diplo’s blend of his older style and the trends of today are fully realized. “Wish” immediately drops into an incredible 90s piano groove reminiscent of classic Diplo production, the upstart Trippie Redd opening with a catchy pop melody that quickly grows into the depressed proclamations and emo vocal inflections he is known for. It fits shockingly well, even as every musical sensibility is screaming that it shouldn’t. On “Color Blind” Lil Xan’s subdued, barely there delivery is played off of like its own instrument with the most aggressive instrumental on the project, hitting the listener with a barrage of synth triplets at the forefront of the mix. The closing track, a new remix of “Get It Right”, is simply classic pop Diplo. Set to triumphant and uplifting piano chords, Mo’s shouty prechorus kickstarts a huge buildup that drops into a glitchy chorus of pitched vocal samples and a soulful rap verse from GoldLink. It’s easily the most dancefloor-ready track here.

“Suicidal”, featuring Desiigner, is the only misstep here, a much emptier track in comparison. Diplo often specializes in crowding his tracks with an immersive wall of sound, and this track’s repetitive nature and Desiigner’s delivery doesn’t really command the more ethereal, spacey instrumental.

Now 40 years old, Diplo has been making hits for long enough that he’s reached the perfect place in which he has a complete command of a unique personal style, and yet can release a great EP like this that adapts to trends of today like it’s simple. The veteran producer keeps on rolling, and with a collaborative project with Sia and Labrinth in the works, it’s looking like another great year for him.

Favourite Tracks: Color Blind, Get It Right Remix, Wish

Least Favourite Track: Suicidal

Score: 8/10

 

Brand New – Science Fiction

Image result for brand new science fictionRock band Brand New, often credited with spearheading what became known as the emo genre in the early 2000s, release their first studio album in 8 years. Much more than the musical label frequently associated with them, Brand New use their final statement to look back on their career with a different sound.

While many of the band’s most well-known songs are loud and explosive, frontman Jesse Lacey analyzes his career at the forefront of a slower, somber soundscape. After all, most of the things he has to say are actually not all that positive. As we explore the deepest reaches of Lacey’s mind, we receive a project that makes up for its lack of exciting musical moments with some profound musings and anthemic hooks.

Science Fiction opens with a recording of a therapy session, as a woman describes having a dream where she feels overwhelmed and the relief she felt upon waking up. This paints the backdrop for most of Lacey’s words on the project, stating a sense of pride in his accomplishments but much more so contemplating what would have happened if he hadn’t devoted his life to the band. He became forever associated with one thing, and the pressures and expectations associated with it, rather than living a full life.

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Many of the lyrics on this project contain a similar juxtaposition, mostly somber and pessimistic but containing a glimmer acceptance, being at peace with their fate and making the most of it. This extends even past Lacey’s commentary on his own work, as some other tracks reference the state of the world.

“137”, a reference to an isotope created by nuclear warfare, imagines a world after a devastating war. Despite his obvious fears, the track also romanticizes the idea and calls it a “lovely way to die” – it happens so quickly, you don’t have to deal with the pain of saying goodbye. The track also contains sarcastic references to looking forward to entering Heaven, a common theme across a few tracks as Lacey shows his cynicism towards religion. “Desert” sees Lacey speaking in character as a hateful Christian, denouncing immigrants and homosexuals before the track ironically concludes “God is love”.

In a world quickly being dominated by mumble rap, lyrics like these are eye-opening and refreshing. Some of the most emotionally affecting are Lacey’s conversations with himself – on “Waste”, he muses on getting old, offering advice to his reckless younger self, while on closing track “Batter Up” he taunts younger bands “give me your best shot”. In the context of the album, it is both a genuine, hubristic challenge and a warning of all that comes with accepting it.

The band clearly has a talent for big anthemic hooks. I love that bridge on “In The Water” – the catchy melody states “I don’t want it enough, so everyone’ll wait”, likely referring to the album’s delay. The music cuts out for a second, before roaring back into a guitar solo. It’s a truly beautiful moment here. Most of these tracks have choruses that will be hard to forget – I can easily picture crowds singing along to the smartly written melodies on tracks like “Waste” or the call-and-response hook of “Desert”

I also really enjoy the bluesy guitar riff that backs “451”, the most unique song on the tracklist from a musical perspective. It’s great to hear some diversity near the tail end of the project, because it is mostly atmospheric, somber and repetitive.

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Outside of a few brief energetic explosions in vocal delivery, the project is rather one-note musically. It contains tracks like “Could Never Be Heaven”, which contains a quiet and repetitive acoustic riff and a monotone vocal delivery that never ventures outside of a comfortable range. The lyrics are frequently compelling, but don’t have as much passion behind them.

The album begins and ends with songs that each stretch beyond 6 minutes. Some of the quietest, they stretch on for too long attempting to capture a chilling effect as we wait for some semblance of emotion to appear. We know the band is more than capable of delivering this – see the refrain of “Same Logic/Teeth” here.

You might expect opener “Lit Me Up”, a song where Lacey envisions the freeing effect of being set on fire, to appear as more than a mumbled afterthought. But perhaps this is the point, as Lacey expresses his disillusionment with his music career. Is he breaking free by circumventing our expectations, finally creating something that is just for him?

Science Fiction is an endlessly thought out and dense work, which stands as an incredible way for a band to make a final statement. Lacey’s honesty about his issues and doubts make for some harrowing material that I won’t soon forget. Batter up, indeed.

Favourite Tracks: Desert, 137, Waste, No Control, In The Water

Least Favourite Track: Could Never Be Heaven

Score: 8/10

HAIM – Something To Tell You

Something to Tell You artworkCalifornia pop-rock sister trio HAIM unleash their sophomore album after a 4-year wait that felt much longer. After the spectacular debut Days Are Gone, and the many interviews the band gave where they stated that they were going to “tap into their inner Kanye” – that is, perfectionist – fans were expecting something big from this project. The band has also detailed a few instances of their writers’ block, and this plan may have suffered a bit.

Something To Tell You is still a strong project, but it is a clear step down from Days Are Gone for the amount of time it took to create. Luckily, the sisters’ music is still packed with rapid-fire rhythms, snappy harmonies and enough boundless confidence and charisma to keep me returning to the project multiple times. But as the genre of genreless pop they helped create expands ever wider, something a little more ambitious may have been needed to stand out from the pack.

The project was almost singlehandedly produced by Ariel Rechtshaid (Sky Ferreira, Carly Rae Jepsen), who also contributed heavily to Days Are Gone and has since entered a relationship with Danielle Haim. He also appears alongside the three sisters in the writing column on each track. Backing him up on a few tracks are frequent collaborators Dev Hynes (Tinashse, FKA twigs) and ex-Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij (Frank Ocean, Solange), so on paper there was absolutely nothing to worry about here. These are the best in the business.

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Something To Tell You opens with lead single “Want You Back”, which features a shimmering, glossy chorus as lead vocalist Danielle Haim deftly navigates through tongue-twisting phrases and her two sisters back her up with sugary sweet harmonies. It is everything that is great about HAIM, and many of the album’s opening tracks follow suit. All of the sisters are multi-instrumentalists, and it is nice to see the band leaning heavily on their own musical ability. Is any band with HAIM’s level of popularity still using this much guitar in their work?

The rhythms created by Este Haim’s slap bass and Alana Haim’s percussion drive all of these tracks, but HAIM’s greatest appeal of all might be hearing all three sisters come together in perfect harmony. It brings to mind some of Fleetwood Mac or Wilson Phillips’ best tracks. If anything, Something To Tell You brought this degree of their music even more. “Little Of Your Love”, the album’s best track, features an incredible moment in the bridge where most of the instrumentation drops out and the rapid-fire three-part harmony is brought directly to the forefront. The bouncy guitar hooks and pseudo-country flair of the track make it a unique gem on an album where many tracks slowly start to blend together.

Danielle Haim is still a rockstar in every sense of the word, and I love the way she quiets her voice down when she’s delivering her most passionate and heartfelt lines. The understated chorus of “You Never Knew” is one of the best here. “Walking Away”, the only solo Batmanglij track, is another standout due to its uniqueness, as HAIM drifts closer to R&B than they’ve ever been and build much of the instrumental through loops of their own vocals. HAIM’s live shows are always incredible, and I’m excited to see if they can pull the complexity of this one off.

There are some very strange musical decisions all over the project, and the lack of polish makes me think that the writers’ block may have been worse than we imagined. It feels like the band was rushing to finally get an album out in the world after so many years. What reason is there to suddenly snatch all of the building energy away from a great track like “Nothing’s Wrong” for a very quiet bridge and distorted vocals? “Right Now” was originally released as a beautiful, stripped-down version in order to promote the album, but now there is too much background clutter and white noise distracting from the simple but powerful melody of the track.

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One more than one occasion, a few transitions from verse to chorus never quite click the way they’re supposed to, which is strange for a band so focused on rhythm – “Ready For You” and “Walking Away” come to mind.

Ultimately, the most noticeable change from Days Are Gone is the new sparkling sheen of production that is placed over all of these tracks. Where their previous work felt so much more organic and real, like they simply put their raw recording session on the record, all of this just seems a little too perfect. HAIM is working with some of the greatest producers out – I can truly say I’ve almost never heard an idea that’s less than perfect from either Rechtshaid or Batmanglij. This decision, and the way these tracks seem to attempt to capture a big idea through repetition of one chorus line and never quite get there, is an uncharacteristic dip in the quality of their work.

HAIM has fallen head-over-heels into all of the pitfalls of a sophomore slump. Many of the aspects that made the band so great in the first place are still here in abundance, but the seemingly rushed nature of the logistics detract from what made Days Are Gone such a trailblazer.

Still – anyone who has seen the band live knows they are one of the most talented and exciting groups out there right now, and I hope I don’t have to wait another 4 years before they inevitably get back on track.

Favourite Tracks: Little Of Your Love, Walking Away, You Never Knew, Want You Back

Least Favourite Track: Found It In Silence

Score: 6/10

Imagine Dragons – Evolve

ImagineDragonsEvolve.jpgPop-rock band Imagine Dragons, 2 years removed from their sophomore album Smoke + Mirrors which failed to spawn any successful singles, hit back at the radio airwaves with their third full-length studio album, Evolve. Frontman Dan Reynolds has stated that the album’s title refers to a shift in their sound, which certainly hasn’t occurred to such a degree that I’d name an album after it.

These tracks are following the same formula that made “Radioactive” and “Demons” big hits. However, their newfound reliance on established pop producers, rather than producing their instrumentals themselves, sees them making an evolution of sorts to become more similar to modern-day Maroon 5. Ultimately, outside of a select few tracks which crackle with the energy that drew people to the band in the first place, Evolve is painfully generic and feels like a lifeless shell of the band.

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In the past, very little outside influence went into an Imagine Dragons album, the writing and production credits all being almost entirely handled by the members of the band. While they retain primary writing credit on each, they produce none of the tracks here, essentially restricting the non-Reynolds band members to play the simple pop charts that are handed to them, maybe trading something like a real drumset for an electronic one in the process. They bring in producers like Mattman & Robin, who take about half of the tracks here and are perhaps best known for producing DNCE’s “Cake By The Ocean”, which can tell you a lot about the direction Imagine Dragons are heading in here. Alex Da Kid (X Ambassadors, Skylar Grey) and Joel Little (Lorde, Broods), who is really too good for this, appear briefly as well.

Imagine Dragons have proven in the past that their driving, almost tribal rhythms are essential to their best tracks and this continues here, as the highlights of the project all have a strong focus on this. “Whatever It Takes”, Joel Little’s track, sees Reynolds delivering impressively quick vocals before an infectious beat and rapidly cascading synths kick in and the song explodes into its chorus. The song sees them bring back some semblance of musicality instead of blindly following the same structure of steadily building up to an overly dramatic chorus.

“Believer”, as well, is an above-average single for the band and it is easy to see why their mainstream viability has returned along with it. The drum pattern and the delivery of vocals in rapid triplets exude a kind of animalistic energy, and for once, that huge chorus is actually warranted. But after these two tracks, the album takes a huge nosedive.

Now that Imagine Dragons have swung in more of a pop direction than ever before, Reynolds’ powerful voice of a rock frontman sounds quite out of place at times. Opening track “I Don’t Know Why” features perhaps his loudest growls over a pretty synth pattern in the pre-chorus. It is far more than the track demands and crosses over into headache-inducing territory.

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Adherence to pop formulas is not a good look for them, and their decreased input into the creative process is quite evidence. A band like Maroon 5 always had underlying pop sensibilities, but at least Imagine Dragons were a little bit edgier for a commercially successful group. Many of these tracks feel like they are leftovers for pop artists’ albums, with cookie-cutter pop choruses copy and pasted onto each track. “Rise Up” literally feels like exactly this has happened. The abrupt shift in energy as the chorus comes back in after an uncharacteristically quiet bridge, Reynolds unexpectedly yelling in your ear, is so misplaced I broke out laughing in public.

These producers have boiled down the previous works of the band to their most basic defining aspects and spread them as thin as The Chainsmokers do, catering to the more oblivious members of their audience. The album is only 39 minutes long, but it feels like it takes much longer to get through as you endure copy after copy of the same song, essentially a very watered-down “Demons”.

“Yesterday” is a contender for the worst song I’ve heard all year, as the tempo slows down to a snail’s pace even as the massive drumbeats and Reynolds’ overblown vocal deliveries persist.

Imagine Dragons were never the most innovative or exciting act, but at least their artistic vision was clear. Now that they have lost that strong sense of selfhood, more and more voices guiding them on which way to go, the result just feels like lowest-common-denominator pablum for people who can’t quite make the jump to real rock music. This is not an evolution, but a reversion to a more primitive form.

Favourite Tracks: Whatever It Takes, Believer, I’ll Make It Up To You

Least Favourite Track: Yesterday

Score: 3/10