Drenge embrace the weird and uneasy on Strange Creatures

Drenge have made their grand return to the UK rock scene with their latest album Strange Creatures. This latest effort arrives after a relatively quiet few years for the band, whose last full studio album was released back in 2015. After the success of their self-titled debut and its follow-up Undertow, this period of absence has left a very particular itch unscratched for many fans. Known for their dark and blues-inspired grunge sound, the Loveless brothers usually kept their songs concise and direct, delivering memorable riffs and fast-paced action throughout their previous two albums. The usual distorted and heart-racing sound of their prior efforts have been largely left in the past by Drenge, who on this latest album deliver some of their most haunting and intricate work to date.

Some of the longer form and lyric-driven tracks from Undertow are the standout remains of the Drenge that fans had come to love, as their new sound often combines pulsating synthesisers and hyper-realistic lyrics to create an eerie soundscape that is often used by Eoin Loveless to explore deeper lyrical themes than on previous releases. This is not to say that the album has a slow pace overall, as some of the most pop-sounding songs of theirs to date can also be found on Strange Creatures. The two main cases of this are “This Dance” and “Autonomy,” which were both released amongst the flurry of singles that culminated in the build-up to the band’s comeback. The tracks take on more of a New Wave sound, yet still feature a certain edge from Eoin’s songwriting, particularly on “Autonomy,” where he delivers some of his most skeptical and witty commentary on the album. This new approach to writing catchy songs relies on a certain contrast between the upbeat instrumentals and the creeping vocals and backing synths, which make for an excellent addition to the band’s arsenal.

It has to be said that after the album’s introduction from three of the singles, Strange Creatures really does come into its own. “Teenage Love” provides an infectiously stirring track, with flat-out creepy lyrics that fit with the overarching theme of the record. This continues through to “Prom Night,” which is most definitely one of the standout tracks, featuring some of the most visceral and evocative storytelling that Eoin has produced over the course of all three albums. The merging of the classic Drenge guitar sound and some particularly spooky synths has been immaculately pulled off by the Loveless brothers. The shift away from guitar driven songs does not ever feel forced or alien, but more that it was the natural projection for the band’s evolving sound. This can be heard yet again on “No Flesh Road,” which feels alienating and estranged, which are themes that have always been found in Drenge’s own twisted musical stylings.

Without a doubt, the anthem of the album in “Never See The Signs,” which offers all of the aforementioned qualities in one blow. The track has all the catchiness of some of the new-wave elements of the record whilst simultaneously incorporating the dark undertones that give the album an overall eerie feel. The two closing tracks then seem to follow the apparent theme from Drenge’s previous two albums, giving the album a grandiose, almost ballad-like close. “Avalanches” offers a slow and distortion-induced shoegaze trip featuring some reverberated vocals from Eoin that combine with some isolated keys that add to the reflective tone of the track.

This is a nice change of pace that slows down nicely as the album comes to a close on the final song “When I Look Into Your Eyes.” The track definitely stands out as the most ‘out there’ and different from the Drenge of past years. The symphony of chanting vocals, acoustic guitar and prog-type synths is truly different to anything that Drenge fans will be used to, but the experimental sound seems to work for the brothers, with a solid vocal performance yet again, leaving the closing track sounding reminiscent of a Nick Cave song. This could also be said for the new role that Eoin appears to be taking in the band as he takes up the full-time job of a frontman by ditching his guitar during live shows. Although the two may not be correlated, it feels as though this change, or perhaps the maturing of the brothers, has led to a revitalised approach to songwriting, one that sees some of the band’s best written songs to date on the record, along with some of the most captivating vocal performances.

With Strange Creatures, Drenge have created an uncomfortably different yet enthralling soundscape that strays far from their simple two-piece roots. It seems that the band have abandoned the simple guitar and drums grunge combo and have opted for a more complex and moody sound that tends to deliver some haunting moments. It is great to see the Loveless brothers back in action after a four-year absence, and even better to see that they have remained consistent in their delivery of solid records. The disturbing world of Strange Creatures is almost incomparable to their previous studio albums, yet it contains songs of an equally great nature. – Ewan Blacklaw (@ewanblacklaw)

rating 8

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Deerhunter Never Lose Sight of Their Identity on “Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?”

Atlanta indie veterans Deerhunter have kicked off  2019 with their much-anticipated comeback album after a relatively quiet few years by their prolific standards. The band, led by cult figure Bradford Cox, amassed a large underground following after a consistent string of stellar releases ever since their 2007 full-length studio debut Cryptograms. From there, the band went on to pioneer many new sounds during the height of the indie revival, introducing noise, art and psychedelic sounds that drew on the sprawling soundtracks of the 60s and some of the more experimental releases of the 90s. During this experimentation, Deerhunter produced some of the finest indie rock albums since the boom of new releases in the early 2000s, including both Halcyon Digest and Microcastle, both of which garnered critical acclaim and established a loyal following.

During the band’s hiatus, there was no lack of side projects and other artistic endeavours from the members, but with the turn of 2019 approaching, it was very quickly looking like it could be a four year wait for new music, leaving fans pondering the next release. Just as hope may have been diminishing for any new Deerhunter music in 2018, the band released singles “Death in Midsummer” and “Element” whilst also announcing a new album to be released in early 2019, much to the joy of the indie community and their fans. The singles did have that signature quality present across all of the bands work, the combination of beautifully atmospheric soundscapes and winding and sedate vocals from Cox, yet did seem to possess more of a softer pop feel than some of the more experimental work in their discography.

Upon the release of Why Hasn’t Everything Disappeared Already?, it was clear that this new sound was to be carried across the entire album. The themes and inspirations for the new release seem to be more focused on synth pop and ambient sounds, rather than some of the rougher garage cuts that would maybe be expected from the Deerhunter of last decade. This could be seen as a move away from the past sounds that could leave the band drowning in a pool of nostalgia, and also as a conscious effort to move forward in their careers and continue to revamp sounds of the past with their own Deerhunter touch that brings each album into the future. On this latest release, looking forward seems to be a recurring theme, which flows effortlessly in the dream like atmosphere of the songs. Tracks such as “Futurism” and “What Happens to People?” really highlight this theme and give a glimpse into the mind of Bradford Cox, who always seems to be setting trends in his own weird and wonderful world. These tracks are also the finest examples of this new sound finding the perfect balance between the future and past from the perspective of a fan. Stylistically, these tracks are reaching into the realm of pop with catchy melodies and light, upbeat jingles feathered throughout, but maintaining the poetic nature of Cox’s lyrics and his unique and unflinching delivery that soars with the backing instrumentals.

Some of the more experimental and artsy takes on the album such as “Détournement” are definitely a step in a new direction, although the futuristic prose delivery does feel like a cut from a sci-fi dystopian movie and drags on a bit in the already short album run-time. It would be nice to hear more interesting sounds like those present on “Tarnung” and “Greenpoint Gothic,” which feature a very dense and layered soundtrack that could really bring the album to the next level if developed and interwoven. This is not to say, however, that the album ever feels disjointed, in fact there is a solid flow back and forth from these synth-heavy soundscapes and indie pop choruses and versus that make for very easy listening.

On the whole, Why Hasn’t Everything Disappeared Already? feels like a step away from the overbearing madness of modern life, and a look back at the simpler things that hold beauty. The ever-poetic Bradford Cox is back on winning form with another collection of abstract lyrics that are carried by some of the most interesting and detailed instrumental accompaniments heard from Deerhunter in some time. It’s great to see the Atlanta idols deliver yet again, particularly after the death of long-time bassist Josh Fauver, who passed away in November of last year. Despite a change in sound, Deerhunter remain sharp and on-point, constantly on the edge of their own innovation, in their own world and detached from the rest of indie rock. The band never compromise themselves or go for the conventional or easy routes. In doing so, they have delivered yet another unique and deeply interesting album that will no doubt capture the attention and hearts of their cult following, whose wait for new music is finally over. – Ewan Blacklaw (@ewanblacklaw)

rating 7

Mac Miller flows with the tide on Swimming

words fae Ewan Blacklaw (@ewanblacklawrating 8

Malcom McCormick, better known as his stage name Mac Miller, is back with a new full-length album to add to his somewhat inconsistent discography. In the past Mac has gone through several changes in both sound and general persona, as he has now been in the spotlight for the best part of eight years. In this time Mac has gone through a lot, from being a pretty typical ‘swag’ rapper appealing to frats and stoners to creating some more serious and focused projects with some big-name features, like on his 2013 release Watching Movies With The Sound Off, which was perhaps one of the first moments that showed that he could really hold his own as a decent rapper. Since those earlier releases Mac has had a strange past few years, including reported drug addiction and an incredibly publicised relationship with pop superstar Ariana Grande which ended earlier this year, leading to Mac’s infamous DUI. After this tumultuous time in Mac’s life he took a step away from the spotlight and social media to work on a new project, titled Swimming.

On this new release Mac Miller is at his most introspective and put-together, making some of the most memorable and professional tracks in his discography thus far. It is clear that the years of spotlight have taken their toll on Mac and he is only now learning how to handle his fame. This is evident on songs such as the lead single, Self Care, which deals with how he needs to focus on himself sometimes, and dealing with his own underlying mental health issues. This sentiment follows on throughout the album, as well as being addressed from the get-go with the opening track Come Back to Earth, as well as the following track Hurt Feelings, which also happens to feature one of the catchiest hooks on the project. This makes the album overall feel almost like a diary of this tough time in Miller’s life, highlighting the highs and lows of this turbulent period. These tracks, or diary entries, are accompanied by some truly beautiful instrumentals on songs like 2009, which begins with an orchestral arrangement, or on What’s the Use?, which features an iconic grooving Thundercat baseline.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGzhlLCdAVo]

Swimming really feels like the first Mac Miller album that flows from front to back and is a fully cohesive project, which can sometimes appear rare in hip hop albums of the past few years. On this album, there is far less reliance on features and rapping about the celebrity lifestyle that were present on previous projects from the Pittsburgh native. In fact, for the most part Mac’s is the only voice heard on Swimming, which could make the project slightly stale sounding, but with all of the personal themes and experiences talked about on the album it feels appropriate that the listener is forced to focus on Mac.

Although the tracklist does flow nicely, with there being fewer weaker sounding moments on the album than previous projects, there are still some stand out moments where Mac seems to come into his own and show a new side to himself musically. The change in tempo on Ladders and the beautiful sounding 2009 show Miller evolving into a more well-rounded musician and songwriter, with some deeper themes and more interesting production than he has produced so far in his career. The tracklisting is far more consistent than the usual from Mac Miller, especially considering his shaky previous release, The Divine Feminine, which seems so dull and lifeless in comparison to this new project. Despite this, there is still a minor lull in the album following Small Worlds, which is definitely one of the better tracks on the project. In this lull nothing really new is said in the next three songs, with some pretty averagely moody instrumentals and some more introspective lyrics that don’t add anything to the narrative of the album.

On Swimming, there is a balance of songwriting and instrumentation that lends itself to Mac Miller that allows him to narrate a tough time in his life, looking at the good and the bad from his past couple of years. The moody atmosphere of the lows and the hopeful optimism of the highs are captured in a way never before accomplished by Mac, who seems that he might have found his new sound after years of identity crisis. The project acts as a diary for Miller’s own personal emotions and experiences, making it one of the more unique albums released by a hip hop artist this year.

Parquet Courts get “woke” on their latest LP ‘Wide Awake’

words fae Ewan Blacklaw (@EwanBlacklaw)rating 9

Wide Awake is the sixth full-length studio album from the unique voices of modern punk, Parquet Courts. This newest release shows that the band have by no means run out of ideas, and continue to improve on their already impressive track record. Ever since bursting on to the alt-rock scene in 2012 with Light Up Gold, the native Texan band have been releasing a pretty consistent stream of great records, apart from a couple of stranger moments such as 2015’s Monastic Living or their more recent collaboration with Daniele Luppi. Apart from these blips in the band’s discography, Parquet Courts have produced some of the standout indie rock albums of the past few years, hitting out with a sound that no other band is currently bringing to the scene. The combination of the guitar-based stoner garage rock and the abstract song writing from the minds of Andrew Savage and Austin Brown has seen the band gain critical acclaim over the years, with much anticipation for each of their past few releases.

Since moving to Brooklyn and being signed to Rough Trade, the sound of Parquet Courts seems to have evolved from their Texan origins. On their last record, Human Performance, there seemed to be more slow moments contemplating different subject matter, showing personal growth from within the group as well as a habit of switching up musical stylings between albums. This growth has continued, and with Wide Awake they have yet again switched up their style.

While the new sound is definitely not a massive change for fans of their older material, it brings a fresh new approach to the unique sound they’ve built on so far. The new album is often driven mainly by the drums and bass, rather than by the catchy guitar hooks like on some of their earlier work. This is not to say that the album isn’t guitar heavy, as some of the most punk-influenced tracks from Parquet Courts can be found on this record. Tracks such as Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience, Normalization and NYC Observation take clear influence from 80s punk, particularly the New York scene, which makes sense considering the new setting for the band.

Wide Awake is also the most focused and concise project from Parquet Courts to date, with fewer rambling tracks that sometimes feel as if they overstay their welcome on some of the bands older albums. The subject matter and lyrics also feel like this, with less personal, small-minded issues being discussed; instead, it features more punk-influenced social commentary. The commentary doesn’t come across as whining and complaining or preaching to the listener, but rather feels like a discussion that doesn’t treat you like an idiot. The opening two tracks speak on American issues, setting the pace for the rest of the album. Topics such as national identity and gun control are touched upon in a very Parquet Courts way, infusing witty anecdotes and pop culture references to form great tracks.

In the past, some of the songwriting felt reminiscent of bands such as Pavement, but could occasionally come off as random. On this record, though, it feels that Savage and Brown have reached a new high point with their lyrics, and have found their true identity as musicians. In particular, Andrew Savage seems to take the lead on the record with his signature style but has started to decode some of his cryptic lyrical habits in order to speak out on issues, which gives the album more of a sense of purpose.

To contrast with the punk side of the album, there is also a distinct feature of funk and soul that feature more prominently than any other Parquet Courts album. Numbers like Tenderness and title track Wide Awake bring a completely new dimension to their music, which feels like yet another advancement for the band. This new side hasn’t been seen on any of the previous albums, at least not to this extent, and it really does work incredibly well. The new ‘punk and fun’ approach has allowed Parquet Courts to create their most in-depth album yet.

The commentary offered on the current state of the USA feels like a breath of fresh air to the music world, just when it seemed that it kept getting worse. The punk spirit of the album is as prominent as Andrew Savage’s brilliant songwriting and the infatuating instrumentals from the rest of the band that are about as catchy as any other album in 2018 so far. The album really doesn’t have a dull moment, which has been an issue on some of the earlier releases from the band, showing that the band just keeps on improving. Parquet Courts continue their growth and continue to impress with the latest and greatest addition to their discography.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra swing effortlessly between genres on ‘Sex and Food’

words fae ewan blacklaw (@ewanblacklaw)rating 8

On their newest release, Unknown Mortal Orchestra hone in on the best aspects from each of their previous projects and produce some of their best work yet. The album swings from 80s pop to the psychedelic rock of the 60s and 70s so effortlessly and constantly applies a modern spin to each song, whether it be from the lyrics or production. On ‘Sex and Food’ an excellent mix between a vintage sound and modern ideas if found, as UMO refine their sound and deliver a cleaner than usual selection tracks that may be some of their best yet.

One of the songs that stands out from the project, and could very well be the best song released by the band so far is ‘American Guilt’. The track is one of the heaviest sounding in all of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s discography, featuring that simple yet powerful riff and Ruban Nielson’s distorted vocals, which have become a UMO staple after the previous three releases. The song sound like a track from earlier in the band’s career on steroids, as both the delivery and production have been refined and perfected from earlier projects, as well as taking inspiration from the likes of psych rock icon, Jimi Hendrix. On the opposite end of the spectrum, ‘Honeybee’ sees Neilson calm things down and draw inspiration from artists such as Prince to deliver a beautiful song about his daughter. This track is one of the most innocent and joyous tracks from Unknown Mortal Orchestra, offering some emotional diversity to the album, as well as musical diversity with funk and soul inspired instrumentals carrying the track.

On this record UMO mastermind, Ruban Nielson speaks out on anything from world issues such as the general political distrust and uncertainty felt nowadays to some of his more personal matters such as family and his love life. It is, however, the way that he speaks about these problems and concerns that we as a society can face that makes the songwriting on this project special. Nielson puts a personal touch in his lyrics, even when speaking on a more general issue, like on ‘Ministry of Alienation’. This, combined with the way that he handles the issues, trying to see the good and bad in everything provides a fresh outlook on songwriting. This also saves the album from feeling preachy and crazily pessimistic which could be a criticism of other songwriters when talking about similar issues. Despite this, Nielson also keeps quite a hopeful feel to the album and doesn’t come off as portraying the stereotype of another millennial complaining about everything for no reason.

One criticism of the album could be that is a little bit top heavy, as there are less memorable moments towards the end of Sex and Food, but that is not to say that the tracks are worse. If anything, the latter part of the album is just more subtle and really plays into that funk and soul aspect of UMO more so than the more heavy side that is seen on tracks like American Guilt. Despite the fact that many of the best moments on the album happen within the first couple of tracks, or mid-way through, the ending still feels cohesive and offers a more introspective sound, which wraps up the record very nicely. Featuring some bittersweet lyrics of Ruban Nielson’s stories of relationships the ending tracks act as a sombre yet optimistic final touch to a great record.

The brilliant songwriting and interesting production of Unknown Mortal Orchestra are sounding as good as ever with this latest project. Sex and Food sees new inspirations emerge and blend with the signature sound of UMO to continue the great track record that the band have formed since 2011. The album also finds more of a cohesive and clean sound than some of the distortion-heavy releases prior to this, which works well with the grooving baselines and beautiful melodies that can be heard throughout the project. Overall, it seems that Unknown Mortal Orchestra have matched, if not exceeded, the quality of Multi-Love, and continue to add to their already intricate and unique sound with a great album that continues to impress.

The Garden continue to search for the perfect balance on latest LP ‘Mirror Might Steal Your Charm’

by ewan blacklaw (@ewanblacklaw)rating 6

The Garden, two twins from Orange County, California, have to be one of the most unique musical acts performing today. In the past, they have made an album of very quick, basic and catchy punk rock songs and created their own genre that they have titled ‘Vada Vada’. On their previous album haha, the duo took a different approach to their music that featured more synths and drum machines, adding a new dimension to their songs which had previously been largely just bass guitar and drums. Whilst the simple approach was catchy, it did not provide much substance; however, on haha it paid off and resulted in one of the most interesting albums of 2015.

Since then, The Garden have been releasing strange singles as well as an EP titled U Want The Scoop? which, for the most part, sees them take on the persona of jesters. This is reflected in much of the single artwork and music videos, as well as their ever-evolving sound which seems to become more theatrical with each release. These releases built up anticipation to see what direction their next record would take. In short, they have followed the over-the-top and theatrical direction and seem to be continuing to play the role of jesters. The experimental and unique tone of haha does shine through every so often and reminds the listener of the musical talent and potential possessed by the twins, as well as the occasional punk moment crashing through the theatrics, such as the second half of the track ‘😦‘ which sounds like a weird Black Flag cover.

Lead singer Wyatt Shears is known for having a very animated vocal style, fairly uncommon in other music releases in recent years. It’s not for everyone – at times, it can become a bit tiresome and overly cartoon sounding like on Bad News, but this is nothing new for a Garden track. Those who have listened previously will be acquainted with the style and will have decided if it is for them or not. On Mirror Might Steal Your Charm, the vocal performances are at their most animated and can range from sounding great to overly-animated whiny shouting, which is one of the inconsistencies heard throughout their albums. The same could be said for the lyrics, which can blend in with the quirky instrumentals but do sometimes come off as ridiculous and over-the-top.

This album is also the most electronic of their releases so far, with songs like Banana Peel and A Message For Myself featuring electronic beats that sound inspired by drum & bass. While the combination of genres is great to hear and has been executed in a new and interesting way, there are moments on this album where it begins to sound excessive and overly indulgent. A prime example of this is the first half of “😦“ where some of the puerile sound effects are comparable to silly keyboard effects used in high school music classes to annoy teachers; this is where these effects should be left. Sometimes, though, the addition of synths and other electronic sounds can create a more atmospheric and moody tone like on Make a Wish or Shameless Shadow, in which the electronic sounds and synths add another dimension to the song rather than side-tracking the listener’s focus.

Some of the better moments off this album come from The Garden twins finding the right balance of old and new. Using their punk roots and experimental drive they can create some great songs that sound nothing like anything you’ll be able to find anywhere else. On opening track Stallion, The Garden put their spin on an old punk sound that works really well. They sound as though they are truly in their own genre of ‘Vada Vada’, where they have no contemporaries and embrace their differences to create unique music. This can be heard on tracks like Who Am I Going To Share All Of This Wine With and the closing track No Destination, which both use a punk-sounding aggressive baseline and the great drumming of Fletcher Shears and combine it with the more theatrical side of their personalities. These tracks also provide examples of where the lyrics and vocal performances reach their peak, such as the chorus of No Destination where the vocal effects perfectly complement the tone of the track, merging well with the instrumentals.

Mirror Might Steal Your Charm sees The Garden continue to push themselves out into unknown territory, risking losing fans of their old material and coming off as gimmicky. Luckily for them, their musical talent is enough reason to still listen to their music, but there are times where they can sound over-the-top and seem to focus on excessive weirdness rather than quality, as well as coming off as all over the place and lacking a cohesive structure. The albums often feels closer to being a collection of show tunes than the punk rock that got the band their start, however it is interesting to see where this direction will continue to push them and, indeed, if it is sustainable. Whilst this newest release may not strike a chord like haha did, there are still some good tracks and solid moments throughout the album. Hopefully with their next release, The Garden can hone in on the special moments from this album and search for the perfect balance.

I Feel Fine are doing well with an EP wrapped in emo influences

words fae ewan blacklaw (@ewanblacklaw)

The debut EP from up-and-coming Brighton indie/emo band I Feel Fine acts as an rating 6attempt for the band to start gaining some real recognition for their efforts. The release features five tracks, with the opening being an introduction as opposed to an actual song. At this length, you get a real feel for what this band is all about, which is hard and fast songs that are also catchy enough to stick in the listener’s mind. The inspiration for I Feel Fine is fairly apparent from the get-go with the all-American emo punk rock sound taking its place front and centre on the EP. Popular bands such as Modern Baseball and Remo Drive can be heard in moments throughout the release, which makes a nice change from the regurgitated sounds that many promising British bands seem to take on.

One highlight from Long Distance Celebration is the playing and instrumentation. Nearly every aspect of the instrumentation is solid, with the band playing both loud and quiet equally well and going back and forth between the two effortlessly. The songwriting on the project is good enough but doesn’t stand out, in part due to the vocal performances. The vocals on this EP are one of the major issues, with the mixing occasionally leaving the vocals feeling lost and washed out. The whole group shouting thing also gets a bit repetitive and generally feels distant, not offering a personal feel during the songs, for the most part. Exceptions to this do occur, as sometimes the vocals do work, like at the beginning of Everyday Safari, where the vocal almost give a Modest Mouse type effect, which is obviously great.

The closing track, Pan For Gold also has that more personal feel, but it would have been nicer to have that kind of sentiment on other tracks. That is not to say that the tracks that feel less personal are bad at all, in fact, they are good, upbeat and catchy indie rock songs. Already mixing catchy melodies and transitioning between different intensities shows the talent from I Feel Fine, which is impressive considering this is the band’s debut EP. In terms of the tightness of the playing on the EP, there aren’t any bad moments and it would be hard to tell that this was the first release of any band, with some moments sounding like cuts off of albums by well-established bands that have likely provided inspiration for this project.

Overall Long Distance Celebration is really good for a debut EP but could really use a more personal touch. While I Feel Fine sound different from many of their British contemporaries, in the grand scheme of things they do blend in amongst other up-and-coming emo/punk indie bands and their inspiration maybe shines through a bit too bright sometimes. However, managing to blend into a sound and holding your own is great for a first release and provides a solid foundation to improve on. With such a solid collection of songs released on a debut, it’s clear that this band have potential: now they just need focus on what they’re strongest at and incorporate it to make their own personal sound, whether it be switching up the vocals are adding more interesting features to the instrumentation and production.