Review: Imagine Dragons – Evolve

This article was first published by The Edge on 15th July 2017

Can it really be only four and a half years since Imagine Dragons’ debut album Night Visions took our world by storm? The band that future historians will cite as the biggest influence on the soundtracking and promotion of films and TV in the 2010s (perhaps next to only Lana Del Rey) will neither go away nor succeed in proving that they matter. Be honest with yourself – did you know there was a third Imagine Dragons album released in June? Did you know that in the last year they had released songs other than disposable made-for-movie-soundtrack singles like ‘Sucker For Pain’ and ‘Levitate’? Did you know they are the 10th most popular act worldwide on Spotify, with nearly double the monthly listens of cited “Similar Artist” OneRepublic?

By now, lamentably, they have cemented themselves as the foremost stadium rock act both of this decade and of the generations Y and Z. Evolve brings nothing new to the table, not that we would expect such a thing. These guys weren’t new when they arrived, they were just appropriately timed to strike a cultural nerve – no matter the sincerity behind the adolescent defiance of ‘It’s Time’, the adolescent joy of ‘On Top Of The World’, the adolescent angst of ‘Demons’, or the adolescent rebirth in ‘Radioactive’, there’s not a note in any song which speaks to a specific experience. They’re broad in all manner of ways: instrumentation, genre traditions, and lyrical vagueness. Whatever they look like in retrospect, something about these songs, from this band, at that time, connected. But you can’t manufacture magic, and there isn’t a single song on Evolve that fakes sincerity as well as any of the band’s debut material did.

As with anything pleasantly average, the most interesting parts of Evolve are where it works despite itself. Say goodbye to the dull piano balladising (‘Dream’) or ugly Prodigy-ous sound collisions (‘Friction’) of their sophomore record; here their unilateral, anthemic aim won’t allow for such detours. ‘Start Over’, a poor mixture between Cher’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ and several recent steel-drum centred dancehall imitators is the record’s penultimate song. Sickening as its musical inspirations are, it’s also the second to function as vocalist Dan Reynold’s plea for reconciliation with his partner. And exactly like the first (‘I’ll Make It Up To You’), the calculated focus on making as grandiose and marketable a pop song as possible seems to have given way to a sociopathic lack of self-reflection in the lyrics. The former pares the lyrics right down to the bare minimum of four lines per verse/pre-chorus/chorus/bridge and the latter three sections are all the same – the chorus repeats “Can we start over?” an astonishing six times, and the bridge obstinately sticks to the line “Come alive, come alive, come alive again”. What’s worse, ‘I’ll Make It Up To You’ sounds more like the disingenuous plea of an abusive partner, rather than an acknowledgement of fault. The melody frames the lyrical dialogue in honest and humble tones, however a second listen can’t cover it up:

“I know you don’t understand/The vices that follow a man/And in your eyes I can see/The places that you’d rather be/’Cause honey it’s been a hard year/It seems like we’re going nowhere/You’re crying inside your bedroom/Baby, I know it’s not fair”

There’s not an ounce of guilt in these words, nor any admission of fault, but Reynold’s delivery gives the pretence of humility and sacrifice – the only action he owns up to is ‘knowing’ his partner, whilst constantly re-iterating her acts in an all too personal ‘you’. It’s her desire to be elsewhere, her tears, her feminine lack of understanding of pesky manly vices that are at fault. This isn’t just patronising, it’s disturbing.

Yet it’s because of their consistent optimism, through the power-chords, power-drums, power-power anthem structures that Imagine Dragons can so effectively mask this insincerity. They don’t so much make songs about events, people, or experiences, as they do pick a trending topic in the meta-narrative of their own lives, and extrapolate that ever further backwards, into the most broadly-applicable version of that idea. It’s why the songs approaching personal tales are so empty and cruel. In addition, pairing Mad Max war drums and synths with a glorification of individual struggle and the personification of ‘PAIN!’ you get a legitimately skin-crawling earworm like ‘Believer’. Subtle as a ten-tonne war rig headlined by a flamethrower-twin-neck-guitar to the face, sure, and that chaotic fusion works.

Sometimes they even approach a real human’s heart. ‘Walking The Wire’ is essentially the antithesis to ‘I’ll Make It Up To You’: a great, big ode to a partnership that works in spite of a few remarkable obstacles thrown in its path. There’s the obvious symbol of a ‘storm’ for a ‘difficult period’, but its use is minor, and sets up the positivity of the pre-chorus’ line “Feel the wind in your hair/Feel the rush way up here”. It leads to an eponymous chorus where the imagery and anthemic reach of the song is earned by deservedly unrestrained vocals.

Imagine Dragons are now so set in their ways that they’re almost past the point of genuine criticism. They’re the Transformers of music, a comparison made all the more appropriate given that a bonus track from their 2015 album Smoke & Mirrorsappeared in Trans4mers’ soundtrack (‘Battle Cry’, if you cared to know, is terrible). You know what you’re getting, and you know if it’ll work for you. For what it’s worth, this is far from the most tiresome Pop/Rock album released this year; yet it’s quite possibly the most forgettable and anodyne. Once again, these guys are the 10thmost streamed act worldwide on Spotify. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

Evolve is available now via Interscope Records

Interview: The Big Moon

This article was first published by The National Student on 7th July 2017

A few weeks after their show at Radio 1’s Big Weekend, The Big Moon are taking a break. Glastonbury is ahead (though now behind), and in the middle of the summer is a U.S. tour with Marika Hackman. So how do the four girls take a break?The Big Moon 3

“I like to do normal stuff, since being in a band isn’t really normal, it’s a bubble life. When I’m back I just like do DIY, lots of projects, being outside, gardening, building shit. So, to just do normal stuff, because I feel like I’m cheating life sometimes. If I build a shed I feel better about it.” 

This sincere and plain desire of drummer Fern to do something useful and quietly impressive out of very little isn’t a surprise when it’s coming from anyone involved with The Big Moon – a band whose entire musical catalogue and live reputation is about taking sincere lyrics high energy performances and producing something we’ll always need: great pop/rock jams. This London 4-piece are part of a slowly resurgent mainstream rock scene, and for these girls, whilst it appears from the outside to have caught fire very quickly, there’s been more waiting around behind-the-scenes.

“We did lock ourselves away for a good six months before we did anything. We changed members as well, as people left to focus on other bands and stuff, so we had to replace [them], the usual bandy stuff. We didn’t want to show anyone until we were ready, and it felt right. And then when we did we just had all our ducks in a row, if you will… So it was me first [to join Juliette, vocals and guitar], and we kind of chipped away, and we were going to have another guitarist and then she couldn’t do it. And then we found Soph [Lead guitar] … by the time we found Celia we were just ready to crack on. I think it was two weeks after that we recorded our first demos and played our first gig.”

That slow work was present in the run up to releasing their debut Love In The 4th Dimension. Not only was its April release postponed from February (for ‘just cuz’ reasons, says Fern), the whole thing was actually recorded in August of 2016, and mastered by the end of October. A solid 6 month wait to unveil what is, in its way, a mission statement for the band – to bottle their live show magic and share it with the world. And the woman to bring this to the public was Catherine Marks, the Grammy nominated (for Wolf Alice’s ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’) producer. Having worked with The Killers, Foals, and The Amazons, Marks clicked with them after seeing a gig.

“Catherine came to a show, saw what we sound like live, and was one of the only ones who was very keen on not really messing with us. [She said] “This is what [you] sound like live, we should make your record sound like it… because we don’t want to dress it up to make you guys sound like something you aren’t.” Everything we just played together in the room, except for like extra guitars on top, and the vocals. Everything else was just in the room, and she stuck to that.”  

Keeping that energy through live playing, rather than through tracking the individual instruments one at a time, has the advantage of generating the band’s vibe – it’s the same process that they took for playing their parts on their friend Marika Hackman’s recent sophomore album I’m Not Your Man. But there are mistakes and changes to their album’s tracks, hard as they may be to notice, which have now become the new parts:

“We kept [the mistakes] because it just sounds like you’re in a room and you’re playing, and the feeling’s right so just fuck it, leave the[m]… We almost stuck with the recording of Sucker that was like 3bpm slower, which sounds like nothing. 3bpm slower, and 3bpm faster. And it’s mad how one feels completely rushed like “Fuck! Slow down!”, and the other just feels like it’s dragging. So we just sat on that for like ages, and we re-recorded just as Catherine was leaving to do another session, just “Fuck it, this is the tempo”.

From the mixing up of tempos, to the long band gestation process, The Big Moon both throw themselves at challenges until they get them right, but don’t like getting stressed over mistakes. This extended to the slightly fraught band naming process: Fern abandoned the effort near the end, leaving Soph, “Crossword Queen” Celia, and lead singer Juliette to figure it out.

“Jules is one of those people that doesn’t write a sentence, she writes a few words in a text, and then writes a few more words in another text… She’d be like “toaster”… “micro“ “-wave”. I’m like “Jules get out of your kitchen”, and she’d ask “what do you mean?” and I’d have to say “These are not band names, you’re just in your kitchen and you don’t know what to say so you’re just looking around… So, we had “The Moon” and then we had to add a word, so I was just like “Right, come back to me when you’ve got a list, because I’m out. I can’t deal with this it’s so stressful”. 

Meanwhile, Soph was part of her own figurative near disaster during Big Weekend. Playing guitar in another band (named Our Girl), also scheduled for the same day that weekend, meant the girls had their first real scheduling issue before a show – Soph’s other group didn’t finish until five minutes before she, Fern, Celia, and Jules were all due onstage themselves

“They were on two bands before us, and we left an hour after they did, and we still got in before them, and they managed to end it like five minutes before [we] were due onstage She was pretty stressed… she’s just always busy, she doesn’t take time off well, so she just completely stacked her diary. If she has a spare half hour and somebody asks her “Hey d’you mind being in my band for ½ an hour”, she’ll be like “Yeah!”. 

It’s rather ironic that the band’s creation process, arrival on-scene, album release, and recent live shows can be characterised by near-misses, lucky encounters, and almost haphazard decisions; their debut couldn’t sound more alive, nor as crisp and ready-for-release as the latest pop sensation from chart favourites like Dua Lipa, or Ed Sheeran even, but with rock-star personality in lyrics and performance that has been underappreciated in recent years. That personality even appears on the band’s own website – on June 7th, a stunningly youthful photo of a half-naked Jeremy Corbyn was posted, with the band making a clear plea to optimism for his side. So before I left the band, I wanted to know if a) that really was Corbyn and b) how they reacted to the results.

“I never thought he was going to win, but I’m really glad that it caused the upset that it did. And y’know, I just think it was a really successful campaign. Just galvanised the youth like we haven’t seen in such a long time. Our future has kind of been dictated and determined by people who are, at the moment, just so fucking out of touch with everyone else’s reality. So yeah it’s good that people are seeing that they completely do get a say if they choose to… For the first time in ages, a little bit of hope.” 

Which, is funnily enough, exactly what The Big Moon are offering the British Pop/Rock genre – that you don’t need to get moody to play successful guitar rock music, or even be a white guy. You just need your mates; above all, that’s who they are.

Album Review: MisterWives – Connect The Dots

This article was first published by The National Student on 5th June 2017

There must be a German word which expresses the feeling of listening to Connect The Dots, the sophomore album from New York-based, indie quintet MisterWives.Source: Stitched Sound
Unfortunately the rough translation would need to be something like “the sick feeling of disappointment when you realise you’ve either grown out of sparkly, colourful instrumentation and imagery laden lyrics, or this band was always an Imagine Dragons-esque embarrassment waiting to happen”. Place your bets on the latter.
It’s hard to recall a recent album where the frequent self-promoting cries for ‘individuality’ and vague ‘weirdness’ in music, have at once felt so sincere, yet so flimsy and disingenuous.
How this album has a song called ‘Out Of Tune Piano’, which neither uses an out of tune piano, nor places any piano playing particularly prominently in the mix, I’ll never know nor care to understand.
It’s the seventh track on the album, yet it feels like the 1000th which lead singer Mandy Lee has directed to an unidentified object person, demanding (on a spritely chorus) that they “Love yourself my dear, la la la/Love yourself my dear/Do I make myself clear?”. Yet there’s little to no specificity here, so what little imagery and metaphor falls flat, and comes off as platitudinous.
What’s worse, it doesn’t distinguish itself strongly from the other songs with the same topic on the same album, never mind the rest of 2017’s pop music repertoire.
The only new trick that the following track brings is to combine the ‘individual and proud’ stance with the almost sickeningly happy, loved-up-ness of ‘Drummer Boy’. That’s not as impressive a trick as the chorus’ lyric “Open my eyes/Saturated sunrise/Doesn’t seem as bright/When we’re colouring outside the lines”, which exhibits a fundamental, wilful misunderstanding of saturation.
Speaking of ‘Drummer Boy’, even worse are the Genius.com annotations which seem determined to make it a deeper song about a dead partner, when the most miniscule hints of that in the lyrics are exactly that – miniscule.
So, the lyrics are vague and poorly juxtaposed clichés; however, the band’s previously shown affinity for an expressionist form of music, involving throwing any available instrumentation at the carefully arranged structures, and seeing what sticks, that’s still fun right? Perhaps not…
The album is wildly over-instrumented, every inch of the mix beefed up with different melodies, seemingly at random, and it ultimately lends itself poorly to creating memorable pop moments.
When they’re not overloading the mix, they’re creating jarring tonal shifts by choosing blatantly wrong instruments. Why open ‘Machine’ with summery tropical percussion when the rest of the song goes far brassier and bassier with its tone? Who on earth thought any part, least of all the falsely affected dark and edgy distorted synths, of ‘Revolution’ was a good idea? The tonal jar between the first verse, pre-chorus, and chorus is full of agonised screams – it’s a truly awful, stupid and sudden shift from something brooding and ugly, into something hopeful and ugly.
For all the defiant shouts about individuality, and “Colouring outside the lines”, ‘Connect The Dots’ is almost depressingly disappointing in how it seems to have been calculated at every point. The melodies aren’t bad, and the song construction is solid throughout – even though it’s head-bangingly dull that the best parts of every song come at the post-chorus – whilst the band do, thanks to Mandy Lee’s undeniably excellent vocal work, come across exactly as sincere as they want to. But the sloppiness of the arrangements and lyrics hampers the entire album, and doesn’t do anything to show that this band is as unique as they want everyone to believe.

Review: Tove Styrke – ‘Say My Name’

This article was first published by The Edge on 25th May 2017

Simplicity is the modern-day hallmark of a good summer song – just look at ‘Closer‘ by The Chainsmokers, ‘This Girl’ by Kungs, and, going back a little further, Felix Jaehn‘s remix of ‘Cheerleader’ by OMI. Swedish pop star Tove Styrke(because all the hot young female stars are Scandinavian these days) has certainly got one eye on sun-soaked structural simplicity with the addictive melody of ‘Say My Name,’ but it’s the combination of sparse arrangement and eye-catching sounds that make this so smoothly explosive.

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Review: Harry Styles – Harry Styles

This article was first published by The Edge on 23rd May 2017

It would be the act of an ignoramus to say that a singer fresh from boyband megastardom would be looking to break a few rules and taboos in beginning a solo career – didn’t we discuss this last year, with ZAYN’s almost embarrassingly smouldering Mind Of Mine? One can assume that former bandmate Harry Styles, as a real human being and not a simple marketing device, wants to do the same. And that’s exactly what he’s done, but his aim’s somewhere far left of the R&B favoured by Malik. Continue reading

On Edge: Anticipating Iron Fist

This article was first published by The Edge on 14th March 2017

Despite its arrival on the 17th of March, less than a week away, the excitement surrounding Iron Fist has long been wanting. I’m very unsure of what this show will be*. We’re four seasons into the Netflix-Marvel experiment, which shows no signs of slowing down, despite some obvious flaws. Two seasons of Daredevil, one apiece for Jessica Jonesand Luke Cage (the last of which debuted just last September) have brought us to 2017, with the last of the Defenders set for his own show, before their coalescence in the summer. So, what do we know, and what might we expect from the debut of Danny Rand? Continue reading