Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Science Fiction - Brand New

The long awaited release.

Science Fiction marks the first full-length release from Brand New since 2009's Daisy, and what is supposedly the last release from the band for their career. With that in mind, it feels a little more special, a little more sacred to listen to this album and know it's the last new Brand New music we're going to get. This release sees the band exploring a lot of ground, in terms of sounds and lyrical content, that is not quite what we're used to.

"Lit Me Up" opens the album with a dark, unsettling intro of recordings describing the dream of a patient in therapy. It eventually opens up into an actual song, which is brooding and creeping in the composition and vibe created. The bass line for the chorus is subtle and smooth, yet captivating; quite possibly my favorite aspect of the song.

"Can't Get It Out" feels a bit more like the Brand New of 2006, a mix of acoustic and electric angst that gets you nodding along but also deep in thought. This is something the band has done well in the past, and something they're still able to pull off well. It does feel different than before, given it's been 11 years since The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me hit the scene. It feels not as full of rage, of pure youthful rage as they try to discover where they belong and who they truly are. The quest for self discovery, for the right words and right sounds that the band has struggled with before is still there, but it's less intense, a hint of resignation creeping into the tone of this and the other songs.

"Waste" and "Could Never Be Heaven" leans away from the rage and more into the sorrowful, thought-provoking territory. The former has a bit of a sweeping sense to it, building up a bit more with the help of the entire band. The combination of the sharp drums with the almost lazy, lethargic-sounding acoustic guitar gives a subtly contrasting instrumental for lyrics that are a contrasting in of themselves, a conversation of sorts between lead singer Jesse Lacey and his past self. It reflects on who he used to be, who he has become, and the imminent end of Brand New that the band has referenced multiple times in the build up to this album. The later takes a quieter approach, simply comprising of finger-picked acoustic guitar and vocals that sing of heaven, love, and what those things mean together for Lacey. It's got some very pretty moments, with the vocals and harmonies, acoustic guitar, and very faint electric guitar all working together to enchant the listener in this dark, fairy tale sound.

"Same Logic/Teeth" begins with these push and pull phrases, going from vocals and guitar to drums and a guitar riff, back and forth, all the while building the sounds up as they begin coming together till the chorus brings some of Lacey's screamiest vocals on the album. Contrast is a very well used tool on this song in particular, with the pre-chorus having an almost dreamy quality to it, whereas the the chorus features Lacey's angst and this picked acoustic guitar line that somehow stands out amongst the distortion. The highlight is the bridge, which grows into this roaring moment where the whole band is going at it with a fury, yet throws it in reverse moments later for the outro that ends the song like it began; vocals and acoustic guitar.

"137" broods in its beginning, simply a guitar line and low vocals. It's a fitting setting for lyrics that discuss the notion of nuclear warfare and the consequences that path holds. The real highlight of the song is the shift at about 3:40 into the song, from acoustic guitar soloing to the gritty electric guitar and crashing drums. It's an incredibly intense moment, giving the song a whole new depth and epic feeling to it, and especially feeding into the lyrical content.

"Out of Mana" continues to revive the angsty tone, especially in the guitar lines, both lead and rhythm. It mixes this interesting lyrical content of subtle fantasy and video game themes with issues in real life, giving reference perhaps to the title of the album, Science Fiction. The most memorable part of the song is the guitar line that pops up throughout the track. The outro of the song is somewhat odd, with random ringing chimes that lead into a simple and short song comprised of acoustic guitar and vocals that's slightly compressed in terms of the sound.

"In The Water" has this slow and somber sense to it, with a hint of southern twang in the guitar parts throughout. It feels very different from a lot of Brand New's material that we've seen previously, with a desperate sense filling the listener up as the song goes on, especially during the vulnerability of the chorus as the band cries out, through voice and through instrument, with lines like "Drowning in the grace".  The harmonica near the end of the song really finalizes the southern vibe of the track. The song also ends with an outro like "Out of Mana", this time with someone saying

"And we sing this morning that wonderful and grand ol' message
And I don't know about you, I never get tired of it"

and then a voice saying "Seven years" exactly seven times over very dissonant sounds. A chilling way to end the song.

"Desert" continues the southern feeling, with a bit of a gospel vibe as well during the chorus.  Lyrically, it is very critical of hypocritical Christians who practice hatred towards those of the LGBT community and towards immigrants. Whether the combination of the southern and gospel tone with the lyrical content was intention of the band or not, it seems pretty purposeful. The ending line of the song really brings together the contradictory nature of the Christians the song addresses; "God is love", really evoking strong imagery with the listener. It's a powerful, not-so-subtle song.

"No Control" has a bit of a '90's, somewhat more acoustic Weezer feel to it. It comes off as a bit carefree, not being quite as heavy as some of the previous tracks in terms of instrumentation of lyrics. The actual song ends a bit before the 3 minute mark and is followed by yet another outro, this one consisting of a heavier, punk-ish instrumental and a distorted recording of someone singing. It's quite creepy, as the person in the recordings begins speaking nonsensically and just laughing insanely.

"451" picks up the pace a bit and brings back the southern feel, this time mostly from the twang in the guitars and the driving beat that brings galloping horses to mind. It builds well, growing from a more subdued intro and verse into an almost thunderous chorus, lead by the drum beat in particular and the southern rock influenced guitar riffs. The bridge showcases some really great simultaneous guitar solos that eventually lead into the key change and the final chorus.

The album ends on the final, eight and a half minute long song, "Batter Up". A simple picked guitar line sets the stage for the vocals, layered with echos and harmonies that give it a surreal quality. It stretches on, the type of song you listen to as you lay in bed and stare at the ceiling, lost deep in thought. Lacey seems to be reflecting on the life of Brand New with this song, especially the chorus:

It's never going to stop
Batter up
Give me your best shot
Batter up
Never gets forgot
Batter up"

which could reference the notion that despite the band dismantling next year, their music will still exist and will still live on without them. It's a bittersweet ending, especially knowing it's the last song, of the last album from the band. The song ends with some very sci-fi sounding noises, almost bringing some sort of alien encounter to mind, which feels a fitting way to end an album named Science Fiction.

Overall, this album is intense. It's not an easy album to listen to, it carries such weight to it. The entirety of the band's career has been squeezed into the album, all the regrets and disappointments and anger and bitter feelings that have been evident within the band's music throughout their time together. It is most definitely a work of art; something that takes time to pick apart and appreciate, and something that isn't going to settle quite right with everyone. It's honest and vulnerable, as music should be, and something that Brand New has done an excellent job of over the years.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended: "Lit Me Up", "Same Logic/Teeth", "137", "451"

Related: Taking Back Sunday, Balance and Composure, Manchester Orchestra

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Peace and the Panic - Neck Deep

I've always thought of Neck Deep, State Champs, and Knuckle Puck as the golden trio of pop-punk, each band showcasing their own take on what is "pop-punk". Neck Deep has been on the heavier, punk spectrum for me, with their first few EP's being very raw and full of angst. However, especially with their latest release, The Peace and the Panic, they're revealing the ways in which the band has grown up over the years since they began, both personally and musically. Since the release of their last album, Life's Not Out to Get You, two of the band members lost their fathers, and this and other factors like the current political climate influenced the direction of the new record.

There's a big variety in terms of the tones expressed throughout the songs of this album. You have heavier, more politically based songs like "Don't Wait" and "Happy Judgement Day", while the band explores a softer, more vulnerable  side that hasn't come out as much in previous records with songs like "In Bloom" and "Wish You Were Here". There are plenty of great pop-punk moments as well too, like opening track "Motion Sickness", where the opening riff brings to mind The Story So Far's earlier days. "The Grand Delusion"and "Parachute" both remind me of Simple Plan, back in their heyday. The former is high energy and fun, while the later is a little more of a love song and has a tenderness to it while still being full of distorted guitars and driving drums.

One of the things that stuck out to me throughout this album is the obvious growth in Ben Barlow's vocals. In some of their first releases, his voice felt more strained, showing more influences from the hardcore/punk scenes than from pop sources. The shift towards a focus on melody and clarity really shows, with Barlow's vocals being a real highlight on every song. "Parachute" and "In Bloom" are two of the best songs for his voice, really showing off the lows and highs of his range and allowing him to express vulnerability in a softer way than the raging vocals of past.

Lyrically, the album straddles the line between honesty and obviousness. For other genres or bands, that approach wouldn't work as well; however, pop-punk has never been a place where complexity and subtleness have really thrived. "Don't Wait" really feeds off political angst and frustration, with lines like

"The government is lying,
I'm not going to be a Pharisee of this society,
turn off your TV station,
that's not real information"

and the opening line of the chorus

"Don't wait for anyone
Say it for you
Say it for yourself".

The inclusion of Sam Carter, vocalist for Architects, really adds to the raging aspect of the song, the apprehensive feeling that the future is unsure and the present is unstable. "Happy Judgement Day" also plays on the feelings of helplessness that are prevalent, with the first verse feeling very, very accurate, playing on the common phrase "Oh what a time to be alive", but not in a positive manner:

"Oh what a time to be alive
Wake up and smell the dynamite
And keep your eyes locked tight to that screen
And don't believe everything that you see
You will find modern life's a catastrophe".

Other songs touch on the loss the band has experienced, with songs like "Wish You Were Here" and "19 Seventy Sumthin'". The former deals with it in a more broad sense, encompassing the loss of fathers and friends that is easily relatable to, while the later goes into the story of how Barlows' parents met and fell in love. "Wish You Were Here" goes with the acoustic approach, while "19 Seventy Sumthin'" has a more laid-back vibe up until the end, where the tone shifts as Barlow sings about his father passing and the band comes in full force to create a really moving moment. One of the lines that really stuck out to me was in that emotional moment near the end:

"And though he's gone, I know he's gone
He lives on in all of us
And I will hold you when you cry
'Cause that's what he would have done"

It reveals a lot of the personal experience Barlow had with his father's passing, and allows the listener to grieve with him through the climax of the song.

There's also plenty of songs about relationships and girls throughout the album. "Heavy Lies", "Critical Mistakes", "In Bloom", and "Parachute" all deal with these subjects in different ways. "Parachute" shows the struggle to deal with the struggles of life while maintaining a relationship and being there for the other person. "Critical Mistake" goes through the process of someone trying to move past a mistake, with their partner having difficulty forgiving them. "Heavy Lies" has Barlow begging for the subject of the song to be honest and real with him, not to hide behind lies as many people have done in his life before. "In Bloom" reveals a person who wants to get better, but can't partially due to the efforts of someone constantly trying to fix a relationship.

The shift from the punk to the pop side of the spectrum is not truly surprising; considering it's the third release from the band, it makes sense for them to have become a bit more influenced by poppier sounds as they continue to move further into the spotlight. This is not to say, however, that they have sold out in any way, shape, or form. The band retains the same spirit they've displayed through their music, both recorded and live, while giving it a new spin. Definitely an album you won't want to miss this year.

Rating: 3.5/5

Recommended: Parachute, In Bloom, Judgement Day

Related: State Champs, Neck Deep, Real Friends