Mark is a twenty-something guy with a love for virtually things all music, having been brought up with the likes of Deep Purple to Fleetwood Mac, and through the golden era of early 2000s rock. With this in mind, an obsession with finding new and wonderfully cathartic soundscapes has led to looking for what delightfully captivates, while always looking ahead for the next amazing artist.
View all posts by Mark Stoneman →
Having had the absolute pleasure of speaking with frontman and now sole member Brandon Smith earlier this year, we here at AltWire are proud to premiere ‘Wasteland’: a brand new track from electronic rock artist The Anix!
Leaning more heavily into the experimental pulsing electronics to contrast the anthemic rock choruses of ‘Fight The Future’ and ‘This Machine’, ‘Wasteland’ presents a sprawling electronic soundscape to Smith’s crooning vocal delivery, and offering another excellent new track to the upcoming album Shadow_Movement (due for release October 19th via FiXT Music).
With easily justified comparisons to the likes of early Thirty Seconds to Mars, flavors of Depeche Mode, and a wonderfully prominent influence of The Cure thrown into the mix, The Anix’s own brand of ethereal electronic rock has always seemed a project ultimately finding itself in slightly older roots stylistically.
Sure, frontman and sole member Brandon Smith does of course still fully take advantage of the crisp, clear production values that modern technology allows, and the likes of Sleepwalker’s ‘Resident One’ perhaps being a little more The Killers than the album’s cover of Gerard McMahon/McMann’s ‘Cry Little Sister’ would have you believe, but in the end The Anix always seemed to feel best at home in the dripping atmosphere of 80s-90s electronic rock. An Illusion of Time might have had a lot more of the aggressive Nine Inch Nails influence to say about itself, but if a singular song were to be chosen that summarizes the best of The Anix’s work, it could easily be The Cure’s ‘Burn’ (this itself being a delightfully appropriate result, considering that the track was also covered on the secondary Sleepwalker disk).
With this all in mind, being welcomed into the ranks of electronic rock-focused label FiXT certainly struck as a completely natural move forward to greener pastures: in being surrounded by similarly minded label-mates stylistically, Smith’s project feels entirely within its comfort zone for a brand new chapter, quickly bringing forward his latest effort, Shadow_Movement.
While incorporating an overarching dystopian and cyberpunk theme, and anthemic singles ‘Fight The Future’ and ‘This Machine’ already clearly displaying a chosen stylistic direction somewhere between the more rock-orientated Sleepwalker and far more electronically-infused 2017 effort Ephemeral, Shadow_Movement immediately kicks things off on a high, with The Anix feeling plenty prepared to deliver another batch of energized, euphoric electronic rock tracks. Production-wise, it could be argued that this is the best Smith’s project has ever sounded, be it either due to further growth in personal experience, or experienced label support having had a particularly positive influence throughout the record’s conception: it all sounds crisper, cleaner, and ready to go.
Continuing onwards, ‘Open Fire’ immediately stands out as an album highlight, a catchy, piercing guitar melody and Smith’s crooning vocal performance charging forward triumphantly, while elsewhere the beautifully introduced ‘Overdrive’ immediately seizes attention: through a trickling, delayed melody and gorgeous atmosphere that washes over the track completely, ‘Overdrive’ borders on being something of a romantic ballad, yet with sombre undertones rooting things in darker territory: “Every time I breathe I feel you light my flame”/”nothing else can be as violent as this game.” Indeed, much of the album’s lyricism can be similarly compared, keeping in line with Smith’s established dystopian concept of Shadow_Movement, and presenting a generally consistent theme of both desperate hope, yet foreboding wariness throughout a desolate cyberpunk setting: “Lonely stranger, who are you?”
“Interchanger – passing through.”
As such, most of Shadow_Movement is geared towards the mood of its chosen concept: ‘Come Back Down’ (while sharing notable similarities to Thirty Seconds to Mars’ ‘Echelon’ in structure and sound) delivers a competently written offering of hesitancy in the face of possible hope (“I won’t come down, unless you’re bulletproof”), and the synth-heavy ‘Clouds’ could easily insert itself into any cyberpunk soundtrack and feel right at home in doing so (while also leading neatly into the pulsing electronics of ‘Wasteland’). “I’ve been waiting for you in the night – that’s the only place I know.”
Ultimately, Shadow_Movement sounds good. In fact, at times it sounds very good: the instrumental backbone of the album is excellent, the songwriting confidently stands up in the face of Smith’s ambitious chosen dystopian concept, and vocally Smith’s range suits the direction of the music. Truthfully, Shadow_Movement only suffers on one note: digesting the album’s 15 track odyssey in its entirety.
You see, in rooting itself so firmly in such an overarching concept, musically this is where a few tracks can start to blur together, losing their identity somewhat in the runtime and being overshadowed by others that better utilize the material at hand. As such, the only truthful criticism would perhaps be a simple matter of quantity over quality: in losing 2-3 tracks, and extending 1-2 to incorporate longer instrumental sections, Shadow_Movement would feel a far more interconnected and engaging experience, despite the clear ambition seen within the already existing body of work.
Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that The Anix has delivered another batch of euphoric, electronic rock tracks that perfectly suit Smith’s stylistic range. It may not be perfect, but as a reintroduction to the project following a restructure of members and moving into a brand new label, Shadow_Movement is a commendable effort.
It’s perhaps too easy to forget that taking steps in the right direction isn’t always the simplest task. There’s a shrewd shred of self-awareness in that knowledge: the realization that maybe it just isn’t going the way you had in mind. Maybe it isn’t going to be okay.
But it’s also easy to forget that one day, someday, it’s going to be.
In a review that seems a very long time ago, a statement was made that William Ryan Key’s THIRTEEN was “a body of work that benefited beautifully from the past”, a medley of growth and meditation that encapsulated in itself a sense of self-awareness. While eyeing Key’s younger self with a mixture of both weariness and something close to nostalgia for much of its duration, the majority of THIRTEEN directed its attention inwardly, feeding off the memories and mistakes of a different life – and taking steps forward to move past them. Maybe at one point or another it wasn’t okay, but THIRTEEN represented the ever elusive light at the end of the tunnel, or the very first dizzying breath of fresh air upon resurfacing from beneath the water after staying down for far too long.
With this in mind, it’s rather fitting to note just how naturally Virtue continues this growth, with ‘The Bowery’ and ‘Mortar and Stone’ both picking up perfectly where ‘Great Unknown’ stylistically left off, while also fleshing out the barer acoustics of THIRTEEN with greater depth of instrumentation through the inclusion of piano and percussive elements. With these implemented, Key’s catharsis sees itself shifted far more noticeably into the realms of a moodier, intoxicatingly textured Daughter-esque indie rock direction, or perhaps somewhat akin to the likes of Of Monsters and Men’s hauntingly poignant Beneath The Skin.
Take for example the EP’s title track: while beginning in a similar vein to THIRTEEN’s ‘Old Friends’ through quietly pacing itself with gentle acoustic guitar, and Key’s sombre croon of “I could wait on an answered prayer, if I believed there was someone there”, the track soon crescendos into huge swathes of reverb-laced percussion (and the kind of piercing guitar work that would be right at home on Daughter’s Not To Disappear), and in doing so becomes something so much more entrancing to behold.
Elsewhere, ‘Downtown (Up North)’ easily displays the closest example of Key almost completely replicating the stripped back aesthetics of THIRTEEN, and this is where a subtle juxtaposition in Key’s choice of stylistic direction becomes a little more noticeable. With the beautifully ambient introductory ‘The Same Direction’ compared to the more “THIRTEEN-esque” ‘Downtown (Up North), it’s easy enough to highlight Virtue’s very deliberate inclusion of more ambitious instrumentation and songwriting. And in doing so, Virtue not only represents a further example of William Ryan Key’s “post-Yellowcard-solo-career”, but also represents plenty of Key’s own inner monologue and internal debate on just what exactly he wants this new material to be.
The shining, spectacular example of this ambition easily finds itself explored throughout Virtue’s clearest and most defining moment: the concluding ‘No More, No Less’. While structurally remaining generally reserved for the majority of its 5 minute run time, focusing on a simple repeating melody and Key’s synthesized, vocoder-enhanced vocals, ‘No More, No Less’ nevertheless sees William Ryan Key at his finest. If it wasn’t the gorgeously textured crescendos that appear throughout the middle and ending sections of the track, then it would be the raw and openhearted nature of Key’s lyricism, such as “I’ve found a home, I’ll drift alone – it doesn’t matter what you say”, or “am I gonna survive when I’m out in the wild, am I gonna belong?”
To once again touch on the words of a previous review, it was highlighted that William Ryan Key’s THIRTEEN “stared it all in the face admirably” when taking into account the personal hardships and rediscovery of musical identity over recent years, and Virtue is no different in this regard. If anything, Virtue establishes Key’s foothold as an exceptionally honest songwriter with a far greater sense of self-confidence, completely without hesitancy to put out into the world what most would prefer remain hidden away. It’s hardly the simplest task taking steps in the right direction stylistically when half the time you yourself are perhaps unsure of what exactly the end goal is going to be, but it’s in this journey that William RyanKey finds himself displaying some fantastically poignant songwriting.
As for what may come next, it’s simply one more step.
Let’s take a moment to be completely honest here: we’re probably never getting that sixth System of a Down album.
It’s just not happening. If the recent open dispute between lead guitarist/vocalist Daron Malakian and vocalist/keyboardist Serj Tankian has confirmed anything, it’s that there has been an abundance of issues under the surface throughout the quartet’s lengthy hiatus and following reunion, and not just simply due to a little creative disparity between members. Ranging from financial disputes to heavily imbalanced creative control, the group’s members have (on several occasions) displayed a growing tension and frustration with one another, with the latest dispute acting as a clear final nail in the coffin for many disheartened fans of the eclectic alt-metal group.
With this in mind, it’s a fair assessment to assume it was no coincidence that Serj Tankian’s most “System of a Down-esque” 2012 solo album Harakiri (and the cancelled 2012 release of Scars on Broadway’s sophomore album) occurred so soon after the long-anticipated 2011 System of a Down reunion: both projects were effectively two halves of the same coin, material written in the anticipation of possibly being needed for the band’s first release in over six years. Unfortunately, what transpired clearly didn’t go according to expectations. Be it due to the prior issues that led to the band’s initial hiatus, or differences in creative opinion following the reunion, only touring occurred, and the sixth album never materialised. As for what had already been written, the only difference between the two vocalists was that Tankian simply decided to just release the material he had created – Malakian did not and Scars on Broadway entered a six year period of complete radio silence, the planned sophomore release (and accompanying EP) all but forgotten about in the years to come. That is, until now.
Having openly admitted that the album had been completed for years, yet held back in the possibility of material being added to a new System of a Down release, Malakian eventually resurrected/rebranded the project as Daron Malakian and Scars on Broadway in April 2018, and after six years “in the making” Dictator finally came to light. The only question now is rather simple: was it worth the wait?
Well, in opening the album with the bouncy, crunchy guitar tones of the politically infused ‘Lives’, the first impression of Dictator is that by all accounts it seems to be comfortably following the template set by the project’s debut Scars on Broadway. While perhaps a little overlong, it’s a straight-up fun, head-bobbing rock track, with Malakian’s chanting mantra of “everybody dance, when you dance, when you wanna dance – when you wanna dance, you will get in a trance” acting as a celebratory juxtaposition to the track’s far more serious dedication to the victims (and survivors) of the Armenian Genocide. Unfortunately, this is then completely uprooted by the following ‘Angry Guru’. Following in the footsteps of the ridiculously obscene lyricism of ‘Chemicals’, and perhaps taking certain inspiration from the more “quirky” System of a Down offerings of ‘Chic ‘N’ Stu’ or ‘Cigaro’, ‘Angry Guru’ seizes whatever seriousness ‘Lives’ had attempted to establish and promptly proceeds to violently beat it within an inch of its life. Indeed, between recycling half of the guitarwork of ‘Nüguns’ to some of the most grating lyrical choices of Malakian’s entire career (“poo poo” is actually used here, and more than once) ‘Angry Guru’ effectively proves itself both absurdly satirical, yet woefully awful.
Thankfully, while certainly a misstep, ‘Angry Guru’ does not necessarily act as the crippling Achilles heel of Dictator. Although blatantly reusing the bridge guitar riff of ‘Serious’, at its heart the titular ‘Dictator’ stands as a fun and infectious ride of political aggression, while ‘Fuck and Kill’s cocky guitarwork and roar of “oh, I think I love you, I think I love you like I never loved before” proves ridiculously catchy. Elsewhere, ‘Never Forget’s peculiar (and admittedly somewhat irritating) 50s sci-fi synthesizer lead has a certain unusual appeal whenever seen throughout the track, while the fast-paced thrash metal guitar tones of ‘We Won’t Obey’ and ‘Sickening Wars’ cannot help but feel fondly reminiscent of earlier System of a Down material.
Where the album truly hits its stride, however, is in the few moments where Malakian allows a moment or two to breathe: the slow, ominous build-up of ‘Guns Are Loaded’s twangy guitarwork, alongside a rather sombre vocal delivery of “all the guns are loaded close by you”, feel both genuine and effective. When the track does finally breach the surface nearly two minutes in, with a huge guitar riff and thunderous percussion, it all suddenly carries far more weight behind it and acts as an extremely satisfying second half to the track. Close by, ‘Talkin’ Shit’ surprises in being much more meditative than the title may have you believe, lyrically seeing Malakian pondering the likes of “maybe you’re lazy, sitting hazy in the sun – anticipating, maybe waiting just for fun.” While a good portion of the track dedicates itself to exploring a patient, mid-tempo hard rock soundscape, it soon fully lets loose into a catchy, flanged-out guitar lead and accompanying solo, a hint of ‘Psycho’ in the air and standing as one of Dictator’s finest moments.
Unfortunately, in viewing some of the album’s greatest strengths, some of the more evident weaknesses begin to take form: while plenty of Dictator can easily be described as enjoyable, the album certainly feels a little rushed at times (something of a shock, considering how long it has technically had to be worked on), and the repeated recycling of riffs and chord progressions of former System of a Down/Scars on Broadway material is… disappointing. Especially considering Malakian’s infamous 2005 declaration of “I could release 10 solo records tomorrow.” Now sure, this may have been a simple moment of bravado, but when boasting such an abundance of material, Dictator’s tendency to feel just a little too familiar at times certainly doesn’t help but question exactly how much of that material is actually new material.
And yet, regardless of this nit-pick, Dictator is still fun. It’s hard not to relish in the delightfully aggressive build-up of ‘Fuck and Kill’s introductory guitar riff, before feeling the surging impulse to launch yourself into the air the moment the chorus kicks in, and the likes of ‘We Won’t Obey’ and ‘Dictator’ are likely to prove themselves extremely welcome live performances. Like the original Scars on Broadway album, Dictator is something of a mixed bag at times, but enjoyable enough to warrant more than a few listens. Was it worth the wait of what has essentially been a decade? Maybe, maybe not, but simply (finally) having full studio versions of ‘Guns Are Loaded’ and ‘Talkin Shit’ renders this question somewhat irrelevant. Ultimately, Dictator does a damn good job of being an infectiously aggressive ride for much of its duration, and while it may not be the most fleshed out material of Daron Malakian’s career, it’s certainly a welcome addition to it.
Anyone familiar with my writing style may have noted that I refrain from being too personal. Observation and commentating objectively on what lays before me has been something I’ve held close as a crucial part of my writing for a long time. Yes, something can sound amazing – but why? What it is that evokes that reaction from me? Sure, I like it. Now I have to prove why.
But here’s the thing: today’s an important day, not only for me, but for a lot of people. For family, for friends, all of us across the world. And it’s on this particular day that I can’t help but remember hearing ‘The Catalyst’ for the very first time. I remember my younger self sitting in my room on a chilly August afternoon so vividly and hearing the exact representation of the ethos of a band exhausted with their own sound: “We were not making an album. For months, we’d been destroying and rebuilding our band.” Of course, this attitude polarized, as it was always going to. With cinematic, aggressive synthesizers, and being far more driven by the kind of electronic backbone only ‘Breaking The Habit’ had hinted at, ‘The Catalyst’ saw a completely restructured Linkin Park stepping forward with only one objective: to create something different.
A Thousand Suns will always be the album that polarized the most for the band. Sure, One More Light certainly drew its fair share of criticism after its May 2017 release, but compared to the “love-it or hate-it” reception of A Thousand Suns, One More Light’s criticism at times was unfortunately far more one-sided, with much of this being primarily attributed to the band’s decision to pursue an ultimately pop-driven direction. Whether or not that reception was valid remains entirely down to each and every individual listener, but it’s hard to ignore One More Light’s emphasis on being a personal and emotionally driven record, displaying vulnerability and lyricism that was well-suited to the album’s aesthetic direction and style. While A Thousand Suns shared some similar criticisms for a drastic change in direction, where A Thousand Suns managed to succeed was in portraying that very same vulnerability on a far grander scale.
Take for example the ambient and electronically distorted introductory ‘The Requiem’/’The Radiance’: a lonely, dissonant piano key distantly heard throughout the mix, while Mike Shinoda’s haunting and strangely manipulated vocals drift hazily forward: “God, save us – everyone. Will we burn inside the fires of a thousand suns?” Combined with a sampled J. Robert Oppenheimer uttering his famous reflection on the cataclysmic nature of nuclear destruction, the memory of what the band used to represent stylistically is completely and utterly decimated, with A Thousand Suns’ leading single being the appropriate catalyst, and its introductory tracks following suit. Gone are the far simpler structures and direction of the ever-controversial nu-metal era, with A Thousand Suns instead seeing the band embracing a sound far more akin to the likes of progressive and experimental rock.
Even the moments found throughout the album that share some resemblance to Linkin Park’s former material still retain the identity of what the album represents: ‘Burning In The Skies’ gentle instrumentation and blistering octave-heavy guitar solo easily compares to the likes of Minutes to Midnight’s ‘Shadow of the Day’. But while ‘Shadow of the Day’ lyrically revolves around the idea of accepting a certain situation, even retaining the slightest hint of optimism in moving forward from something broken, the solemn tone of ‘Burning In the Skies’ and the late Chester Bennington’s mournful delivery of “I’m swimming in the smoke, of bridges I have burned” sees only the perspective of a quiet realization that damage has been caused that can never be undone.
Now sure, Linkin Park have never been known to shy away from emotive, angst-driven lyrical content, but when considering the more meditative writings of “I filled my cup with the rising of the sea, and poured it out in an ocean of debris”, or the politically charged sampling of Mario Savio or Martin Luther King (on ‘Wretches and Kings’ and ‘Wisdom, Justice and Love’ respectively), ‘Somewhere I Belong’s far simpler statement of “I wanna heal, I wanna feel, what I thought was never real” almost seems trivial by comparison. Instead, much of A Thousand Suns delves into the deeply rooted (and entirely rational) societal fear of a world on the potential brink of nuclear devastation, something captured particularly poignantly through ‘Iridescent’: “And with the cataclysm raining down – insides crying, “Save me now!” You were there, impossibly alone.” For a band that began its journey with the likes of the iconic radio friendly hits ‘Crawling’ and ‘In The End’, the sheer scope of A Thousand Suns’ intended message is undeniably ambitious, and of course, those that disagreed with the band’s new direction needed look no further than Mike Shinoda’s wisely chosen words throughout the tribal and middle-eastern influenced ‘When They Come For Me’, or Bennington’s controversial comments following the release of One More Light years later.
In fact, on the subject of One More Light, it’s also well-worth noting exactly how much A Thousand Suns actually influenced the band’s later works: ‘Waiting For The End’s soaring vocals, up-tempo instrumentation, and even somewhat reggae influenced direction easily laid groundwork for the likes of One More Light’s ‘Good Goodbye’ and ‘Invisible’, while ballad ‘Iridescent’s glittering synthesizers and climactic arena rock bridge easily sees itself revisited in Living Things’ ‘Powerless’, or ‘Roads Untraveled’. Even The Hunting Party, an album nearly completely devoid of the band’s signature polished electronics, in favor of a raw, heavier rock sound, sees ‘Fallout’s ambiance and ‘The Catalyst’s iconic synthesizer lead very nearly recreated through the introductory sombre tones of ‘A Line In The Sand’.
At its heart, A Thousand Suns represented a band on the brink of complete and total creative self-destruction, except this happened to be exactly what the group was looking for, and in doing so stumbled upon some of the best material of their entire career. Take for example the sprawling, gorgeous sonic landscapes of ‘Jornada Del Muerto’, or the fact that the spectacular ‘Robot Boy’ synthesizer solo easily stands as one of the most competently written sections of a lead instrument of the band’s entire career. It may not be overly complex by nature, but it captures the track’s emotionally driven direction perfectly. As for the vocal side of things, alongside ‘Wretches and Kings’ snarling, industrial hip hop backbone, the track sees Mike Shinoda’s flow completely stepped up from the likes of ‘Points of Authority’, opting for a more aggressively delivered approach, and far more exhilarating lyricism as a result: “The front of the attack is exactly where I’m at – somewhere in between the kick and the hi hat. The pen and the contract, the pitch and the contact, so get with the combat.”
In a complete shift in direction, and focusing more directly on Chester Bennington, album finale ‘The Messenger’ stands as both the most optimistic track of A Thousand Suns, while also one of the band’s most stripped-back of their entire discography: featuring a simple acoustic chord progression and Shinoda’s gentle piano-work, Bennington desperately calls for those in need of help to remember to “listen to your heart, those angel voices – they’ll see you to you, they’ll be your guide, back home…” It’s a surprising, abrupt change of pace, seeing Bennington offer a genuinely beautiful vocal performance, and ending the album in extreme contrast to its entirety proves itself a hauntingly powerful final moment.
As a whole, A Thousand Suns is a standout representation of the ability of a band that many had written off as simplistic “same old, same old.” The negative stigma of nu-metal proves itself a tough one to crack, but where the band chose to tread throughout A Thousand Suns didn’t just surprise their audience: it completely shattered their expectations, for better or worse. As I mentioned previously, this was Linkin Park at their most polarizing, and this still stands true. By One More Light, fans were familiar with the band’s tendency to approach each post-Meteora album differently to the last, but the headstrong determination to completely disregard the sound that had ultimately granted them their success proved to be a fantastic example of putting creative integrity first over risk of alienating those that may actually purchase the material. Even the album’s leading single, a track noted through the Meeting of A Thousand Suns documentary as having been produced with the overbearing intent of being exactly that – a leading single – displays the band’s complete and unflinching resolve to ensure that this was something different. Something special. Sure, it was a case of being either critically acclaimed or receiving scathingly negative reception, but in truly embracing an ethos of music not being “a pattern to be followed”, A Thousand Suns will always be what I can’t help hearing on days like today. And for that, it will always have my respect.
For Chester Bennington, 1976-2017
“Love keeps us kind.”
If there ever was a more appropriate description for the music of Bret Autrey’s Blue Stahli, it would have to be the easiest: fun. In endlessly toying with genres and always offering something new and improved over the last, the music of Blue Stahli roots itself deeply in simply wanting to make you feel the groove and embrace the energy, and it’s not over “’til we say so.”
Opening Blue Stahli’s The Devil (Remixes) with Rabbit Junk’s reinvigorated remix of ‘Not Over ‘Til We Say So’, the track immediately takes advantage of isolating Emma Anzai’s haunting backing vocals and entering the ring with a far more ethereal tone. That is, until the track’s catchy thrash metal guitar riff weighs in on the action and immediately thrusts the first few minutes of The Devil (Remixes) into an infectious bobbing back and forth energy. Gydra’s re-engineered ‘Enemy’ continues this with barely a moment to breath: while generally staying true to the original track, it nevertheless allows room for the electronic rock backbone to instead be traded out for a more relentless drum and bass beat, and if the objective of The Devil (Remixes) wasn’t clear enough, it is now: we’re here to have fun.
While the remixes of Circle of Dust’s alt_Machines perhaps retained some of the more serious undertones of the original material, The Devil (Remixes) takes (as is fitting of the music of Blue Stahli) full advantage of simply being as chaotic as possible. An easy example of this would be ANX’s ‘Devil’ remix, opening with some Mick Gordon ‘BFG Division’-esque drop-tuned riffage before leaping forward into gnarly, abrasive instrumentation that completely uproots the original, and thus the track fully embraces its own chaos, save for some fantastically effective use of the mellow vocal delivery midway through the track (a moment that so jarringly contrasts the former pulsing electronics, yet fits the mood of the remix perfectly).
Speaking of jarring contrasts, Thomas Vent’s rock ‘n’ roll-infused incarnation of ‘Shoot Em Up’ is quite possibly one of the most bizarre remixes of anyFiXT remix album, and alongside the fuzzy bass stabs that crop up throughout the track feels almost strangely entertaining considering just how much of a departure from the original it actually is. Elsewhere (on the subject of completely departing the original material), you need look little further than Wildpuppet’s chirpy remix of ‘Enemy’, the 8-bit infected ‘Ready Aim Fire’ Animatronic Chiptune cover, or Pythius’ truly aggressive dubstep reimagining of ‘The Fall’ (with a slight hint of 80s movie synthesizers thrown in for good measure).
Of course, while not necessarily a criticism, it’s worth noting that while most perhaps often find the tones of Blue Stahli to be far more grounded in the heavier electronic rock side of things, this certainly seems to have taken something of a backseat throughout The Devil (Remixes). While Entropy Zero’s ‘Armageddon’ or Rave the Reqviem’s ‘Down In Flames’ remixes both retain a heavier rock vibe while still adding their own flavors into the mix, much of The Devil (Remixes) leans far more towards the likes of Indo’s gritty, bass-heavy ‘Demon’, or the bouncy electronics of JaySounds ‘Rockstar’ remix.
Overall, Blue Stahli’s The Devil (Remixes) delivers another round of the FiXT remix album fun successfully enough to be well worth your time, albeit perhaps not 100% what fans were hoping for considering the palpable anticipation in the wake of Bret Autrey’s upcoming vocal album. Of course, this is actually a compliment by nature, and this being said, The Devil (Remixes) still embodies everything about Blue Stahli’s wonderfully chaotic repertoire, with much of the artist roster clearly having an absolute blast while working on the material and living up to the Blue Stahli ethos: “it’s not over ‘til we say so.”
Those who remember the best years of pop-punk will no doubt remember the distinctive and enthralling tones of Yellowcard.
Across 10 studio albums and an incredibly recognizable sound (in particular owed to the band’s signature use of a violin), the group proved themselves a hugely successful and influential participant of the last two decades of pop-punk, until finally disbanding in 2017 after the release of a swan song tenth act, Yellowcard.
Now with Yellowcard having been laid to rest, frontman/vocalist William Ryan Key has since busied himself with performing intimate acoustic sets and taking on the responsibilities of producer throughout recent founding of the Lone Tree Recordings studio, while also taking the time to release the debut solo EP THIRTEEN.
Despite such a busy schedule, William Ryan Key was kind enough to discuss the latest developments of his career with us here at AltWire!
AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: Hi Ryan! First off, massive congratulations on the recent release of THIRTEEN, and a huge ‘thank you’ from us for taking the time to answer our questions! Just to kick things off, there’s so far been a hugely positive reaction toward the EP. Prior to its release, how did you feel the music of THIRTEEN might be received? Did the reception of fans surprise you at all considering how it differs from the style of Yellowcard?
William Ryan Key: I honestly had no idea. I went with my instincts when I was writing and recording and I knew I wanted to do something completely new and different from Yellowcard. As far as the fans’ reception, yes, I’m really surprised. It’s not that I didn’t think they would support me, or that they wouldn’t love the music, it’s just so different from what people are used to hearing from me I didn’t know what to expect. I’m amazed by all of the support I’ve received. In a sense the fans have been my marketing team. So much of the success has come from people just spreading the word and sharing the music with others.
AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: While also acting as the opening track for the EP, ‘Old Friends’ felt like a perfect reintroduction to your identity musically, with the lyrical direction definitely having a lot to say. Would you mind talking a little about the writing of ‘Old Friends’, and perhaps what the track represents to you?
William Ryan Key: I had the line, “Went looking for a river of gold when my hometown was catching on fire. Left everyone I love in the smoke while I got lost becoming a liar”, for days and couldn’t find anything to go with it, but really loved the idea. Like so much of my songwriting lyrically though, once I did find the ending, “Now I’m upstream, I’m getting tired”, it was like the flood gates opened and the rest of the song just came rushing out. I wanted to face my mistakes head on with this one. With these songs being so stripped down, the lyrical content is obviously such a major focal point. It was important to me to be open and honest, and ‘Old Friends’ is probably one of the best examples of that I feel I’ve ever written.
AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: You’ve mentioned previously that one of the main catalysts for writing the EP was a desire to stop playing Yellowcard material live, and the writing process being a relatively short one compared to the “slick” and “shiny” production of previous releases. How did it feel opting for such a raw approach by comparison?
William Ryan Key: Well when I reference the “slick, shiny” production I’m not so much talking about the writing process. With that I mean as a producer I have found myself making those types of rock records mostly. With Thirteen I really wanted to take a more raw, organic approach. That is why I brought in my friend Arun Bali (Saves the Day) to co-produce the EP. His production style is very much in the vein of the artists and records that inspired Thirteen, and he really helped me forge this new sound.
AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: The rawer approach definitely felt that it enhanced how the material translated, with there being a lot of lyrical content throughout the EP that felt incredibly intimate. When reviewing the EP, we touched on the fact that it’s been an extremely difficult period for the world of music lately, with the loss of some amazing artists and losing some far too soon. Was this something that perhaps played its part in the writing of THIRTEEN?
William Ryan Key: The concept of loss was extremely present during the writing of Thirteen. The past several years have been very hard on my family and many people I love. We have dealt with a lot of loss on many different levels. I also feel an obvious sense of loss with regards to Yellowcard disbanding after nearly 20 years. The idea of “loss” was, and probably still will be a difficult topic to avoid when I’m writing.
AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews some of the influences that fed into the sound of the EP stylistically, such as Mogwai, or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I’d like to flip this on its head a little: Yellowcard has been hugely influential throughout the years, with this influence of course now extending to your work as a solo artist. When you hear young musicians that directly associate their passion for writing music with your music, how does that feel?
William Ryan Key: It is amazing. The scope and reach that Yellowcard had and continues to have blows me away. To think that I’ve played a part in a young artist’s development by way of inspiring them musically is just so cool.
AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: I think it can certainly be agreed that your many fans across the world would love to hear your solo material live, have there been any plans of touring outside the US?
William Ryan Key: There are many plans! We are currently working on tours in Australia, Asia, and Europe for later this year and early 2019. I’m so excited to get back on tour full time. We should have some more information to release soon.
AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: On a slightly different topic, would you mind talking about the Lone Tree Recordings studio a little, and how you found the journey in building the project?
William Ryan Key: The idea sparked for me when I knew Yellowcard was ending. Even though we hadn’t released the news, I wanted to start preparing for the next chapter of my life right away when the decision was made. I love making records. I love working with artists on their songs. It seemed like a natural next step for me. The coolest part is that it was a fan funded creative endeavor. I was very tentative at first to do a crowdfunding campaign. I worked really hard to provide worthwhile reward levels for fans and they responded, as always, with an unbelievable amount of support. Now I have a space that I can create in every day. I’m a lucky dude.
AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: Also on the subject of the Lone Tree Recordings, you’ve been working closely with Like Torches for some time now, also mentioning that the track ‘Live On’ will be a part of the next Like Torches album. How has it felt taking on the role of producer compared to being on the other side of the writing process?
William Ryan Key: With Like Torches I actually get to be pretty involved in the writing process. I love working with them. They are incredible songwriters and have become some of my closest friends in the world. As far as wearing the producer’s hat, I enjoy it immensely. There’s nothing quite like the first listen through of an album I produced. It’s extremely rewarding.
AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: Once again, a massive thank you for taking the time to chat with us here at AltWire! On one last note, is there anything at all you would want to say to your fans or our readers regarding your newest music?
William Ryan Key: I would just extend a huge thank you to those that have already supported it, and ask those that haven’t heard it to listen with open ears and open minds. I’m so lucky to still be making music and traveling all over the world. I can’t wait to see where this takes me.
Check out the latest William Ryan Key music video ‘Form and Figure’ here!:
If the definition of insanity is “doing something over and over again and expecting a different result”, then musically you need look little further than the career of Bullet For My Valentine. Of course, it certainly didn’t seem that this was going to be the case at first: with the band’s hugely successful debut The Poison and equally enjoyable sophomore effort Scream Aim Fire both proving themselves massively entertaining (albeit perhaps a little too angst-ridden at times to be taken 100% seriously), the band established a sound and style that built neatly upon the metalcore and thrash metal influences that they so clearly embraced. And in raw technical skill alone clearly had more than a competent amount of ability.
Unfortunately, while the band’s third effort Fever certainly saw something of a quiet shift in focus to lean more heavily on the thrash metal side of things, by the release of Temper Temper and the group’s 2015 Venom, it was becoming all too clear that Bullet For My Valentine were running out of steam. And running out very quickly. Sure, the blistering guitar solo crescendos were still prominent and the technical ability of the band easily remained, but from Temper Temper-onwards an ominous feeling of perhaps having already heard this all before was very rapidly seeping in. The group’s dedication to their craft was always admirable – this cannot be ignored, but it unfortunately came down to the actual song writing where things were often at their worst.
Be it the awkward delivery of “temper, temper – time to explode, feels good when I lose control”, or perhaps the dreadfully dull ‘Worthless’ (“you can keep all your apologies, those words are worthless to me”), the simple issue with much of the band’s post-Scream Aim Fire material is abundantly clear: while competent, it’s also undeniably bland at times, insipidly masquerading under the guise of something far better and often falling flat as a result. With all this in mind, the fact that Gravity has been heavily promoted as a drastic (or rather, “drastic” in the context of Bullet For My Valentine) departure from the group’s former style immediately proves itself interesting, but perhaps too late in the game: this is a stylistic shift that should have occurred a literal decade ago, following the release of Scream Aim Fire as an attempt to expand their sound for better or worse, instead of insisting on doing the same thing over and over again for a decade and simply just expecting things to change by themselves.
Now sure, it’s obvious from a mere glance that Gravity is finally an indication of change in the repertoire of Bullet For My Valentine, but before this decision can even be comprehended it’s also well worth noting that in the group’s decision to utilise far simpler riffs and rid themselves of the spectacular thrash metal guitar solos of Michael Paget, Gravity isn’t a step forward: it’s a huge leap backwards into the nu-metal sound of the band’s earliest incarnation (Jeff Killed John), albeit with the shiny production values that money and success brings to the table. In short, in stripping things down to a far more simplistic structure and emphasizing on anthemic, catchy choruses, Gravity very much resembles something in between Papa Roach’s F.E.A.R and Bring Me The Horizon’s That’s The Spirit. And this unfortunately isn’t a very good thing.
There’s a certain irony to the fact that Gravity’s debut single ‘Don’t Need You’ (released almost two years prior to the actual album) also happened to be the album’s heaviest track: it’s easily the most scream-heavy, features some thrashy instrumental-work that has an energetic bounce throughout, and the 50-seconds-or-so of introductory ambiance genuinely intrigues before the wall of guitar distortion slams into your face. As a matter of fact, there’s nothing that especially stands out to be complained about when regarding ‘Don’t Need You’ – it’s still essentially the same thing once again, but enough fun to be enjoyable. Of course, this was then followed up with second single ‘Over It’, which immediately delights in recycling the introductory guitar riff of Bring Me The Horizon’s ‘Happy Song’, before the track promptly proceeds to display exactly the attitude that has fed into much of the sound of Gravity: being simplistic and catchy, and essentially rehashing the sound of the last two decades of nu-metal, “breathe in, breathe out – just stop ‘cause I’m about to break.”
Elsewhere, ‘Leap of Faith’ opens the album in a fairly self-explanatory fashion: it essentially re-treads the same territory as the following ‘Over It’, albeit with a slightly more cinematic approach, while ‘Letting You Go’s Breaking Benjamin-esque riffage and aesthetics make for a half-decent instrumental side of things, but the lyricism is woefully generic throughout much of the track (“first you wanna hate me, then you wanna love me, this is how I’m feelin’, I’m just letting you know.”)
In fact, it’s not at all that much of a stretch to state that this is easily Bullet For My Valentine at their most uninspired lyrically: ‘Piece of Me’s horrendously bored offering of “you lost my sympathy” and “let it sink or swim” do little to evoke anything other than irritability, while ‘Gravity’s gang-vocal delivery of “am I falling to pieces” and endless “whoa-oh”’s are the same-old, same-old of an era’s worth of angsty radio rock. Also ironically, ‘Over It’ actually proves itself to be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy right from the very first line: “after all this time, you still couldn’t recognize that your problem lies in a vicious circle.”
And that is exactly what Gravity ends up being: a vicious circle. There’s notable effort in making the album as entertaining as possible, but this ends up being to a fault – in sacrificing the technical ability often displayed throughout the band’s career (in an attempt to keep things casually enjoyable), what you are essentially left with is your standard everyday metalcore/nu-metal act. There’s nothing that particularly stands out as new or even slightly innovative throughout Gravity, it’s just bland. However, had the group decided to proceed with just another Venom/Temper Temper, the odds that this would have actually produced anything interesting after repeating the formula for five records straight is extremely unlikely.
Of course, the most glaringly frustrating thing here is actually incredibly simple: Bullet For My Valentine are (and always have been) a band with a huge amount of technical proficiency and ability, and in being so have always had the capability of producing fantastic material. True, technical ability does not always equal good or even solid material, but there’s certainly enough effort and heart within Bullet For My Valentine to argue their case. This is a band that clearly puts in a huge amount of work and devotion to their craft, but if Gravity does anything else, it renders that effort extremely questionable in how unforgivably uninspired the album feels. In short, Bullet For My Valentine have succeeded in breaking their mold enough to provide an album that is catchy and accessible, but in doing so have risked giving the band’s following exactly the right kind of anthem that could prove all-too self-fulfilling: “I’m over it – so over it.”
Like the Busted’s and Mcfly’s of the early 2000s, 5 Seconds of Summer’s sound and style has always been a calculated and consciously safe one. In implementing casual lyricism with playful melodic hooks, the direction taken by the Australian pop-rock quartet ultimately often boiled down to being as easily digestible and mathematically marketable as possible, reaching the intended demographic with ease and (as seen with the group’s previous material) huge success. It may not have been the most in-depth, quality material ever produced, but the band’s undeniably charismatic approach to their material suited their targeted audience enough to keep the wheels turning long after their 2014 debut.
In approaching the group’s third studio effort, it would be easy enough to assume that Youngblood just intends to stand as another proud notch in the bedpost of being a rather generic Top 10 pop-rock record, but the group’s stated intention to at least offer something different can’t help but intrigue slightly. After all, “different” can mean a great many things. And for the sake of artistic integrity, could be worth at least a chance. Take Charlie Simpson’s complete disregard of the former Busted to instead pursue the post-hardcore tones of Fightstar, for example: the group’s sound and style easily proved a huge surprise for those all too familiar with the ‘Year 3000’, with the group’s latest effort Behind The Devil’s Back receiving widespread critical acclaim. As previously stated, “different” can mean a great many things, so what does it mean here?
Well, compared to the teen heartthrob clichés of ‘She Looks So Perfect’, the most obvious observation to be found when glancing over Youngblood’s glossy, perfectly produced assortment of tracks is rather simple: like Busted’s Night Driver or Fall Out Boy’s Mania, Youngblood sees 5 Seconds of Summer eagerly joining the ranks of their many contemporaries currently enjoying the resurgence of synth-pop/rock.
Indeed, from the popping, bouncy ‘Better Man’, to the funky clean guitar riffage of ‘Want You Back’, Youngblood essentially sees 5 Seconds of Summer’s usual formula copied-and-pasted into the radio friendly aesthetics of the 80s, and for the most part the results are just as you would assume: the easily digestible lyricism and fun melodic hooks remain, but in joining the party far too late, the uneasy feeling that this might just be a desperate grab for attention and attempt at staying relevant hangs ominously in the air. Of course, let’s not forget that this has been a huge part of the band’s prerogative ever since their inception: in borrowing from the likes of Blink-182 to Mcfly, 5 Seconds of Summer’s debut and following record Sounds Good Feels Good essentially do everything in their power to relive the clichés of the early 2000s boyband pop-rock scene, and in doing so achieved virtually nothing new as a result.
Youngblood shares this agenda, but it is worth noting just how close the band sometimes comes to succeeding in offering something more interesting throughout their third studio effort: album opener ‘Youngblood’ immediately sets the stage with a far moodier vibe compared to the group’s former material, a hint of Ben Howard or Ed Sheeran’s ‘Bloodstream’ lingering in the background while the track’s thumping, galloping heartbeat of a backbone and snappy instrumentation easily results in one of the group’s best offerings of their career. Elsewhere, ‘More’ essentially takes a stab at replicating the delightfully fun aesthetics of Jungle’s ‘Busy Earnin’, while dialing things up to a far bassier level. Considering how eclectic the track actually proves instrumentally, from moody clean guitar arpeggios to huge, thick synthesizers that dominate the choruses, it actually proves a rather fun ride.
Also taking inspiration from others, ‘Talk Fast’ takes a Police-inspired route in implementing a clean, Andy Summers-esque guitar riff, before quickly leaping into glittering synthesizers and all manner of catchiness, while ‘Valentine’ proves itself a near-blatant rip off of Echosmith’s gorgeous ‘Over My Head’, albeit slower and (considering there being only a month’s difference in release date between the two) a possible unhappy coincidence.
Unfortunately, despite there being some clear moments where the group steps into more interesting territory, much of Youngblood just can’t help but stay rooted in the tried-and-tested clichés of old, and ultimately falls rather flat: ‘Moving Along’ displays a shallow, bored attempt at replicating the group’s former pop-rock hits, while the synth-heavy ‘Why Won’t You Love Me’ is as dreary and meanderingly dull as its title would imply. Elsewhere, ‘Ghost of You’ does its best at being the lovesick, gut-wrenching ballad intent on pulling on the heartstrings of the band’s teen heartthrob audience, and while well produced, it’s nothing new compared to the hundreds of other ballads that have already stamped through this extremely familiar ground.
And in the end, this is exactly where Youngblood’s greatest weakness is on full display: familiar ground. As previously mentioned, this is an album that sees the Australian quartet diving right in on an already increasingly over-saturated resurging genre, where there are already some far superior acts making far better use of it. If not the acclaimed upcoming Pale Waves, then look no further than Paramore’s After Laughter. It can be appreciated when an artist chooses to follow new territory for the sake of artistic integrity, but 5 Seconds of Summer’s all-too coincidental decision to join the ever-popular synth-pop ranks of many others in recent years displays, once again, a calculated and mathematically marketable approach to their material. In short: it will sell well and the wheels will keep on turning.