The Wonder Years take you on a journey with their latest LP ‘Sister Cities’

by will sexton (@willshesleeps)rating 9

Raw emotion and wearing your heart on your sleeve in music can be very much a make or break for some bands. You can miss the mark slightly or, in The Wonder Years’ case, you can execute it expertly and continue to impress with hard-hitting, gorgeous lyricism that will never get old. One of the most impressive and consistently evolving pop-punk/alternative rock bands in recent times returns with their sixth album Sister Cities, an album whose opening riffs and drums sends goosebumps down your spine straight off the bat. Strap yourself in for a whirlwind tour of the past couple years of frontman and singer Dan Campbell’s life.

The album as a whole is very much based on travel, the effects of touring and being away from friends and family for a prolonged amount of time. Campbell himself even states that this album was “a record about distance, or maybe how little the distance matters anymore. It’s a record about how big we all thought it all was, and how much closer to everyone we really are.” The writing process included Campbell keeping a journal throughout their 2015 world tour and circling the most important and stand-out moments, which eventually became the songs you hear today.

Business gets underway on an incredibly strong note with the heart-wrenching Raining in Kyoto, a song written about Campbell’s late grandfather who sadly passed away while they were on tour; a song subject that, even on paper, is heartbreaking. The lyrics are something that you can never mention enough when it comes to The Wonder Years because the band have perfected this transparent songwriting when you can really feel and can almost see the emotion on Campbell’s face while recording the vocals. What makes this song so evocative is that this subject of ‘being away on tour while someone important to you is hurting/ill’ has been approached as a fear of Campbell’s already in the song Dismantling Summer from their 2013 album The Greatest Generation, which only adds to the sorrow. It’s this transparency that really ranks this band highly in the scene they’re in. It’s relatable to some and everyone who hears Campbell singing at the VERY least feels empathy.

On the other side of evoking emotion, Flowers Where Your Face Should Be (Considered You In January [Part 2] from their 2015 album No Closer To Heaven) is about Campbell’s now-wife and about preparing for their wedding day. It was influenced by seeing some blue Hydrangeas on tour, resulting in the most impressively affecting writing he has ever done. Aided by some incredibly soft instrumentation, it builds up to be one of the most romantic pieces of work they have put out. It’s a nice emotion shift from the other heavier songs. Some of the lyrics are nostalgic and sad, creating a lovely contradiction within the song itself, finally building up into that last line sung mostly in gorgeous falsetto: “I’m gonna marry you underneath driftwood from Crescent City”, a link to the arch that Campbell built himself for his own wedding. Having light and dark sides is very important for albums of this timbre.

The instrumentation is mostly the same compared to their older albums; however, there have been some defining genre changing moments, further solidifying their sound into alt-rock. These changes include some spacey electronic bass on the intro to their (not-technically official) second single Pyramids of Salt, which adds an element of eeriness. It could do with a little perfection, though – it’s pretty much a one-off throughout the record, so it feels like it sticks out a bit. That being said, on Flower Where Your Face Should Be they’ve utilised some different guitar pedals that haven’t featured much previously, which is refreshing to hear.

Two tracks that dictate a shift in subject matter are When the Blue Finally Came and We Look Like Lightning. When the Blue Finally Came is written about a moment on tour when the band went cliff diving in Sydney, Australia. It’s such a simple subject matter but somehow becomes a breath of fresh air in the album, while the instrumental relief relaxes you. In comparison to this ode to the exciting rush and celebration of life, We Look Like Lightning is written about the fears of death while flying in planes. The Wonder Years as a band flew on up to 40 flights around the world supporting their last album cycle in one year, so Campbell writes about the increasing chance of the plane crashing and “what song you’d wanna die to”. Still very much connected to the overall theme of traveling and touring these two juxtaposing song subjects add to the overall space that this album was born in.

Very specific highlights of this album also include the chords changes and vocal performance in the chorus of The Ghosts of Right Now, a song which is interpreted as being about wanting to spend time with the people you’re no longer able to, whether it be because of them passing or just not being around. The “wanting to see how the light collects in the high desert heat” is so specific and evoking. The second highlight is the connection of the soft and spacious When the Blue Finally Came to The Orange Grove. The transition is so seamless; like the calm before the storm. While WTBFC celebrates the feeling of enjoying somewhere new and exciting, The Orange Grove is the feeling of yearning for places you know and wanting to be back in time with the people you used to be around. The third and final of these highlights is the chorus of Sister Cities, the massive title track and lead single of the album. It is the song that will be screamed back at the band in live performances and the raw power from the vocals is another home run for The Wonder Years.

Every song on this album deserves its spotlight, which is the most powerful thing about this album. The Wonder Years have been on some serious journeys over the last two years and Campbell is able to take you on those journeys with them so easily through his incredible lyricism and storytelling. The absolute pinnacle of the album comes in the form of the end track The Ocean Grew Hands To Hold Me. You’ve been on this adventure with the band and finally pull up to the last, incredibly emotional track which explores the idea that all of the people you have ever met and made a connection with are an ‘ocean’; an ocean that you wish you could drown yourself in when you feel cut off and far away from home. After the final slamming of drums and aggressive strumming of guitars, you feel complete empathy. An excellent piece of work. Congratulations, boys.

Gig Review: Bon Iver @ Eventim Apolo, London

by will sexton (@willshesleeps)

It’s not often you’ll find a gig review that starts off with the writer in question stressing how nervous he is yet here we are: I was nervous about tonight’s gig. Each to their own but I enjoy looking up setlists before I see bands in order to get super hyped, in addition to stopping myself getting disappointed when one of the deeper cuts I adore no doubt gets left out, inadvertently tainting the night.

So seeing Bon Iver was even more of a Russian roulette: the long-awaited first night they played in London this year (their first English gig since 2012) Bon Iver played their whole new album start to finish in one set, had an interval and then some big hits. The second night was their self-titled second album, an interval and, again, a handful of big hits. Yet nothing was the same order or guaranteed to be played, the only pattern was them going through their discography backwards, (hell they didn’t even play Skinny Love on the first night). So my favourite band of all time could actually not play some of my favourite songs and I could go home heartbroken.

Turns out I had no reason to be worried.

Bon Iver’s gig last night was, to put it simply, an utterly perfect piece of live music that I’ve ever seen. Everyone in the band was on point from start to finish but the gorgeous drumming and brass section definitely deserves to be commended for how impressive they were. Opening with Flume from their debut For Emma, Forever Ago, there was a sudden complete silence to let Justin Vernon fully unfold on stage to the sold-out Apollo theatre. The sound mixing was perfect, his voice soaring above and through the rafters, especially the chorus which went completely through me and I stood in awe and tears. 

Yet, somehow, the gig got even better: Bon Iver decided to play tracks from all their albums and, more importantly, Blood Bank EP, further cementing the point about the alt-rock outfit cycling back through their catalogue. The moment Beach Baby started was when I really transcended, ultimately coming down to the importance the song holds for me and has done for years so seeing that performed as beautifully as it was made it all the better. A speech about love followed it up making it all the more hard-hitting.

Unsuspecting gems came in the forms of the songs __45___, with the most gorgeous saxophone solo, Woods where Vernon really showed off his electronic technical ability with his vocoder and looping and Wolves (Act I and II) with the most epic, goosebumps ending of the whole show. Strobe lights, massive drums hits and raw emotion.

After waiting for 7 years to see my favourite band, I can finally say I’ve seen Bon Iver. The best musical experience. As the gig wound to an end, the band played 22 (OVER SOON), and through my last set of tears, I really felt that yes, the gig was over way too soon.

Album Review: Underworld by Tonight Alive

by will sexton (@willshesleeps)rating 7

A band that has gone through some style changes over the course of their career, from pop-punk to pop to alternative-rock, Australian act Tonight Alive have sprung back onto the scene with the new album Underworld. Does it does succeed to please, especially fans of their older sound? Or have they lost track of what they’re going for?

Yes and no – Underworld is another push into Tonight Alive finding their own sound. After establishing themselves as a pop-punk from their first couple of releases, it really feels like the band has finally found something to call theirs. This album sounds more confident and is, on the whole, a more solid release which is evident from the album opener Book of Love. Explosive, it sets a real tone for the rest of the record, with punchy guitars and an underlining electronic feel with synths and other electronic noise coming from deeper in the mix.

Lyrics have always been the forefront of Tonight Alive and something that Jenna McDougall has always prided herself with, allowing a great deal of transparency to be shown via her words and managing to express both the distresses and triumphs in her life. The song Temple (the first single from the Underworld) is a good example of this where McDougall is singing about her “body being a temple” and the idea of being out-of-control with her life, but being able to come back from it. It’s this honesty that allows the band to come off as more well-meaning than artificial.

Something that Underworld does quite well is keeping the energy up throughout. The emotional imagery from the lyrics is well accompanied by the bright instrumentation. Songs like For You, Burning On and My Underworld (which has an interesting feature from  Corey Taylor of Slipknot and Stone Sour fame) exemplify this and really show that Tonight Alive can be affectionate with their delivery without losing the audience’s attention. McDougall brings that energy down fully however on the song Looking For Heaven, where she’s given the opportunity to show off her impressive pipes, whether it’s in front of a full band, or in this case, just a piano.

Tonight Alive aren’t alone in the transformation from pop-punk and trying to broaden their horizons; bands like The Wonder Years and You Me At Six have also made the transition from pop-punk to alternative rock very successfully. Pop-punk is considered quite a restricted genre and it’s nice to hear bands who have found a sound they work well with and develop it, exactly as Tonight Alive do on this album. Female fronted pop-punk/alt-rock bands have always had a problem with constantly being compared to Paramore, an act who have themselves evolved into something more than their origins, so to see Tonight Alive continue the trend is refreshing.

Most of the songs are quite predictable in nature but a couple of the tracks on the album surprise you, whether because of an interesting drum pattern or new instrument tone/instrument. If there’s one major downfall of this album, however, it’s the predictability. The lyrical content is rich and the mixing is much better on this album but you can guess where Underworld is going to go next. The Corey Taylor feature on the last track is a nice addition but doesn’t add too much to the track other than a male voice and harmony, and with his name on the track, you presume it would come with some power but it’s sold short.

Despite this, Underworld is still an all-around strong effort: Jenna’s vocals are always a pleasure to hear and sound better than ever. There are some exceptional tracks to be found on here like Disappear (featuring Lyn Gunn from PVRIS fame), Crack My Heart and The Other which will hopefully be added to their performances as they would sound excellent in the rawness of a live show. It’s a very cohesive album and the style is very well grounded and translated well across all the tracks, even if the journey itself doesn’t majorly surprise you.

All in all, Underworld is definitely worth a listen if you’re into alternative-rock. You can hear that lead singles from the albums such as Temple will become big anthems for fans of the band. It’s a strong start to the year and hopefully the start of some more excellent music in 2018.

 

Album Review: Revelations by Shamir

By Will Sexton (@willshesleepsrating 6

Sharing a whole new side of himself, Shamir is back with his 3rd album Revelations. Right from the start, you can tell the difference in direction with the style of his music. From the bright, eclectic electro-pop to the lo-fi and raw. It’s not been an easy journey for Shamir, being dropped from his record label and unfortunately dealing with some personal demons, which is shown through this more personal and intimate addition to his discography.

Instantly from listening to the first track, Games you can tell that Shamir was in a different place when he wrote this album, drawing a likeness to more underground lo-fi artists with the small instrumentation of the electric piano. Fast lyrics and wordplay have been a big feature of his older music, and while there is no difference in the quality of lyrics, there is in speed and density. The dissonance played throughout the track, maybe for artistic style, is unsettling and not entirely enjoyable, however it’s a memorable start nonetheless.

Revelations does get better, though, and feels like the most drawn back Shamir album yet. Lyrics on the song 90’s Kids might be relatable for a lot of people at this age, where adults ask so much of you and expect full co-operation and not much reciprocation. Musically the song is more spacious than the first two tracks, maybe coming from a different part of Shamir, where the song feels more confident than it does vulnerable, being a stand-up and ‘fuck you’ to the people he is referring to.

The smooth transition between the songs Cloudy and Float is very pleasant to the point of being unnoticeable. In direct relation to the song titles, both songs make you feel like you’re ‘floating’ with airy instrumentation and their very drawn-back style. The lyrics in Cloudy approach the concept of stress and stress killing you. Also touching upon loving everyone as equals: “Because when you die you end up having all the same problems, which is incredibly true. Float is both a confident punch and a vulnerable cry for help. Shamir doesn’t want to have to lose what he wants because of other people and doesn’t want to be “left behind” because of someone else’s beliefs. The “finish line” might be a metaphor for equality and let’s hope we aren’t far off of it.

Minimalism within Shamir’s music has always been quite a strong point, creating something catching that you can really enjoy but with half the instruments than your regular album. That’s not lost here at all, but it’s somehow a different type of minimalism. The messages in this album don’t need a massive layer of synth this time around and they don’t need fast lyrics. The songs in this album really embrace more of Shamir’s influences which are deep-rooted in Country and Rock.

The album as a whole doesn’t feel overly cohesive, regardless of the individual songs. Maybe in mirror image to how Shamir feels, being broken and thrown about by record companies and being centered upon by media for him being queer and black, neither of which should affect the standard or reception of music. However, the social pressure of such issues are reflected in this album and it’s nice to hear that, through the song Blooming he is “too strong to just lay down and die.” The album cover feels like it’s a message in itself. The closed eyes and mouth represent Shamir’s feeling he is stuck inside a stereotype and can’t be a human being. Straight Boy perfectly shows this, where Shamir shares vague experiences of having insecurities of other people taken out on him which is completely unfair.

Revelations starts oddly and kind of just… finishes. The messages shared and troubles expressed will resonate with listeners, especially big fans of Shamir, and it’s nice he is enjoying taking on the producer role as well as the singing and writing, but the album doesn’t feel entirely complete. People who were fans of Shamir’s debut Rachet will be slightly shocked with the change of pace and instrumentation, but it’s still an interesting listen. Revelations feels like a sudden outburst of feeling rather than a long thought, which is effective but not fully gripping.

 

Album Review: As You Please by Citizen

By Will Sexton (@willshesleeps)

Very strong lyrically and melodically, the latest album from Citizen is their darkest and most solemn yet. The grunge band from Ohio really shine through the darkness with their latest addition to their discography – regardless of the wordier lyricism, you can still imagine crowds screaming the words to all the songs at one of their concerts.

The album itself is overall moody. It’s moody because it feels like a cathartic release. It feels more mature though the pop-punk/post-hardcore elements aren’t lost entirely, proven on the almost scream-like singing from the chorus of Jet. The album opener really sets the mood of the album which explores a lot of self doubt, some of the lyrics that best explore this theme go: “All of our ears to the floorboards / My eyes are falling everywhere / I know who is in the backyard / But who’s that living in our home?”, playing with the idea that we pay so much attention to others and what their doing that we lose sight on the ones closest to us and even ourselves.

Mat Kerekes sings about being on the receiving end of the lack of attention in Ugly Luck, talking about how he feels like “a fly on the wall” and being isolated enough that crowds don’t bother him. This can also be interpreted as the fame he found through the band isn’t what he wants or needs. This is also displayed in the song Fever Days: “Room of many bodies, still no one that I could talk to / A million faces here, but I can only pick out a few”. This is certainly a record that displays sometimes the deep psychological damage fame can really do.

The instrumentation from the rest of the band on As You Please is more low-key and melodic than other releases from Citizen in the past. Possibly following the nature of the lyrics, they explore a different style of grunge, a more ‘emo’ approach with slower tempos, more piano and layered vocals. This is all very well displayed in the slow-burner Discrete Routine. The theme of watching people and following other people’s lives is apparent here also which drives this album.

However, with the lyrics on As You Please have more of an ‘outsider’ and ‘isolated’ viewpoint, the album feels intimate. Citizen have nailed the balance between sharing stories and problems but also letting you into a world that may have been shut off from the rest of the world for a long time. Depression and mentally straining illnesses are getting a lot more understood worldwide and sharing experiences or feelings for other people to relate to it something that music does so well. Whether it’s dancing around in your room to your favorite songs or balling your eyes out at songs that you relate to so much it hurts.

Where Kerekes sings about how he feels like he “can’t give anything” and how he only feels like a “fleeting thought” is a brilliant example of where he really is giving something to the world. People will be able to relate to these songs and could mean a lot to someone. Coming hand in hand with the fear of the fame he might be feeling it’s a dangerous combo, but still positive.

What’s so beautiful about music is that it is thought provoking and pushes you to analyse and go deeper than the surface level. This album does exactly that and through analysis you can relate deeper and deeper. Chorus’ and melodies will stick with you for days after listening and it’s then do you realise it’s an album you do really enjoy. Citizen really feel like they’re progressing and it feels like they’re going to progress into something greater still. A band to seriously watch out for.

rating 8

Album Review: Arcane Roots – Melancholia Hymns

By Will Sexton  (@willshesleeps)rating 9

An almost cinematic epic, filled to the brim with an ever-evolving sound and beautiful elements, Arcane Roots return with their sophomore album Melancholia Hymns after a long 4 years, the album being written over the course of two of those years. The immediate change you’ll notice from their debut album is the large incorporation of electronic elements including drums, synths and pads. Andrew Groves (lead singer and keyboards) learned how to play the piano especially for this album to add an ambiance that had never been heard in their music before, and with some of the songs in the album being demoed more than 50 times, it shows the band has a dedication to their art. Learning new instruments and changing a band’s sound can affect bands greatly, and for the most part, the better, and in this case it’s for the better. Melancholia Hymns is one of the most cohesive and instrumentally rich albums that has been released this year.

Right from the start of the album you’re hit with a wall of synth, gradually building that fills your ears with beautiful chords. It’s an exciting beginning, anticipating the next move. Groves’ voice souring over this synth half way through the track reinvigorates you as the rest of the band kick in and bring a punch. The emotion and power are evident in this album, something that people are always attracted to. Something that people will reflect off of, especially in a live environment. Arcane Roots have been known for their energetic performances and amazing stage presence and with this album under their belt, it won’t be surprising if they start to make some serious noise.

Every song on this album leads into the next, mostly through synth interludes on the end of the tracks, a motif that carries through the album and it’s an appealing feature as the album feels like a continuing and growing art-form rather than individual songs about different things. Matter ends with the aforementioned interlude and the product that follows is the softer Indigo. The song starts with soft, clean vocals and it’s welcoming and warm. The climax of the 6-minute song is 3 minutes in with string sections and layered-synth to which it changes again and it seems like a whole different song which isn’t easily done so seamlessly.

There isn’t a moment on this album where you’re bored. It’s either gorgeous synths or a math-rock inspired breakdown and it’s really something to behold. The song Matter is truly something else. Incredible vocals and instrumentation give you this 5-minute masterpiece. A song that was written in anger about the mistreatment of the Earth, the passion of the song really shows the talent the whole band has: a talent for song writing and performing. The post-hardcore element of Arcane Roots really shines through this song.  For example, Groves’ screams, which only adds to the epic, emotional nature of the song. The big moments on this album stem from the layered instrumentation, whether it be the climax of Curtains, after being crooned at for 3 minutes it explodes and it’s a real goosebumps moment. There is also a hint of an indie-rock influence in the song Off The Floor with the guitar picking, and the post-hardcore style shows its head again with riff after riff after riff and a key-changed chorus.

Arp is the song that shows off Arcane Roots the most as an entire band. It shows their influences, their styles and most importantly that they are a band that deserves your attention. Gorgeous vocals and the growing and climaxing instrumentation are again features of this song, the breakdown at the end, showing a possible influence of Biffy Clyro, blows you away with this all out gorgeous wall of noise. Again, however, it’s the slick and easy transition into the next song that is the most impressive aspect. Fireflies croons away to you and you accept it willing into your ears and mind.

However, with all of this change and mastering other styles, the song Everything (All at Once) sticks to their roots the most and displays that they’re still masters on their guitars and drums. The alt-rock song is one of the most impressive on the album, again showing their math-rock prowess. Finally, it would be offensive to not mention the 7 minute epic that is Half the World, the song that closes off Melancholia Hymns. It’s emotional, as the band haven’t stopped indulging you into their world and their vision, that when the acoustic guitar is heard in the track, it does feel like it’s coming to an end. The song is uplifting, and closes this album with grace. This album can not be recommended enough, especially for anyone who likes alternative rock: it’s one of the most important albums of the year, without a doubt.

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Album Review: Blondes – Warmth

By Will Sexton (@willshesleeps)

Not so much an album but a vivid experience, Blondes’ Warmth feels more like a futuristic journey than it does just a set of songs. All of the metallic sounds mould together to create a landscape and paints an image in your head.

This album isn’t exactly light listening. To some, it may be but it’s sharp, it’s attacking with its high-end taps and hi-hats that almost wake you up from a slumber and not the other way around. The consistent theme through the album is the metallic noise and the interesting percussion, which is a contradiction of the title of the album – the sounds are frosty and chilling, leaving your ears in a hypodermic state. The additional layer of what can only be described as machinery gives off the feeling of a record being a tapestry of overpowering and claustrophobic blips and bops that have been submerged in sub zero temperatures.

The atmosphere is very important to an album like this and Blondes definitely deliver -lots of reverb and effects have been applied, making the listener feel as if they’re drifting through the galaxies. The song Trust starts small and builds and synth-pads make you feel like you’re floating, a harsh lead synth that sounds like an alarm accompanies it and brings you right back down to earth. Quality of Life has aspects of old-school video game soundtracks, down to the 8-bit effects on the synths and the distortion applied: you’ll swear someone had shrunk you and chucked you inside an NES cartridge. 

The jarring sounds at the beginning of Clipse shows the electronic-duo in a slightly different light, at least to start with. The calming repetitive pattern on the bells at the start is a harsh contrast to the manufactured noise of some of the other tracks, especially the intensity of the song Cleo. Like many other songs on the album, Clipse grows and grows up into something larger than itself, with new rhythms and sounds appearing every 8-bars almost like an unstoppale planet eating star. The moments of less intensity on the album are still a great listen. Songs like Tens where the song again, builds up to reach a climax but the climax isn’t as intense nor is it as harsh.

This is where the ‘warmth‘ comes from, the songs following a certain theme but never being too much or too little, never verging into style over substance.  For people who don’t listen to techno all the time, sometimes you can get bored of the repetitive beats and repeated patterns, but the constant morphing sound of Warmth keeps you interested.

The song lengths are a continuation of that. With music like this generally you’re going to be getting long songs, and this album doesn’t shy away from that at all. The 10-track album comes in at just over an hour with the shortest song being nearly 6 minutes long so it’s understandable how you can get lost in the world that this album creates, no doubt being the duo’s intention with their hypnotic abilities being ever present.

Warmth is a very interesting release, even for someone who isn’t heavily into techno/electro music, and something that does show off Blondes’ power for experimenting and showing what they can do. Warmth is an album that is further showing the capabilities of electronic music and art itself with the use of technology and further showing that it’s something to embrace and not shy away from.

8/10

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