Synthpop

Love Gloom – Night Riots

Release Year: 2016

Rating: 8/10

Night Riots stole my heart when I saw them live with Blaqk Audio earlier this year. Their fusion of synth pop, rock, and electronic made their music irresistible. I picked up their 2015 EP Howl right away and impatiently waited for their debut album, Love Gloom. I was a bit surprised when I finally got my hands on it; it has a different vibe, mood, and feel than their previous release. It’s not drastically different, but there are some changes.

For one thing, Howl is upbeat, fun, and danceable the whole way through. But Love Gloom allows the band to explore other sounds and avenues. There are still insanely catchy jams like the popular “Contagious” and “Work It.” The latter isn’t Travis Hawley’s best singing effort, he sounds a bit too stained, but the song is still bouncy and fun. “Nothing Personal” is another catchy track blistering with lust and desire. Hawley has a vampiric presence and this comes out best on this song when he sings lines like “Numb yourself and think of me” or “I’ll be the king, you’ll be the filth/I’ll wash away.” It sounds like he’s trying to hypnotize us. It’s one of the most gripping and catchy songs on the album.

Aside from this, the rest of the album is kind of slow and melancholic. Previously, the band described their music as “pop gloom” and that’s exactly what it is. “Fangs” is pretty upbeat, but steeped in darkness and the macabre. The hook pleads “So stick your fangs, fangs, fangs/into me” bringing up images of vampires, albeit sexy ones. Similar to their other songs, this one also drips with lust and desire – it’s something Night Riots effortlessly convey in a good chunk of their songs. It’s a sort of dark romanticism they explore on this track.

The excellent “Don’t Kill the Messenger” might as well be their love letter to Depeche Mode. The shuddering bass, booming drums, and somber guitars makes it sound like it was written for the iconic band. It also has a brooding nature that plays into their melancholic side. The track stands out for its more aggressive tone and heavy hitting nature. Everything gets more intense as the track continues. It has a big sound making it one of the most satisfying songs on the record. Plus, it’s pretty catchy. After one listen, the song will burrow itself in your head.

Breaking Free” is where we start to hear the band’s softer side on the album. It’s another stellar track filled with lush tones and atmospheric music that makes it feel like you’re under water. The rolling drums that occasionally pop up give it some extra flair. It’s another brooding track talking about breaking out of a relationship. Something about it is warm and relaxing even though the lyrics aren’t exactly the most uplifting: It’s beautiful, yet haunting quality makes it one of the highlights of the album.

As previous songs have shown, Night Riots take great inspiration from 80s music. It was all over their EP and it’s all over this album, but they use the New Wave influences in a subtle way. The ballad “All for You” has this big, 80s anthem vibe to it. The dreamy guitars, far away sound, and relaxing melody makes you think of Tears for Fears, who they’ve covered in concert. To keep the song from getting too dull, the bridge comes alive, bursting with guitar and drums. It’s a soft, sweet song about being there for one another. “Tear Me Apart” starts with a weird, stuttering synth that instantly grabs your attention. This song feels directly tied to the title: the mood is somber and gloomy as Hawley laments the end of a relationship. Some of it is cliché, like the lyric “Where does it start/where does it end/I’m losing my best friend/tear me apart,” but it’s pretty forgivable. The track also has this ghostly vibe to it with ethereal singing, other world music, and a cold vibe infiltrating the entire song.

This slow, doom-laden mood continues on tracks “Pull Me Down,” which has a Gothic quality to the lyrics and “Everything Will be Alright,” which is haunting and a little eerie as Hawley sings “lately I feel undone.” Though the songs are slower, the 80s synth elements aren’t abandoned. Rather they play smaller roles in the music popping in the background or playing softly to make the song come alive. Instead of being the focal point, they’re used to add to the song’s flavor and sound. Listeners get a break from the constant wave of gloom with the upbeat “End of the World,” which starts with more attention-grabbing synth that’ll get stuck in your head.

The closing track, “As You Are,” has elements that are likable along with some questionable bits. The opening is too slow and sappy for my tastes. Lines like “Don’t change for me/you got nothing to fix/you’re not broken” end up sounding a bit corny. But what saves the song is the beautiful, symphonic quality to it. As Hawley sings, strings swell up around him making the song pretty and heartbreaking. This paired with the way he croons “Meet me as you are” is enough to give you chills. It’s a somber song; Hawley sounds like he’s at the end of his rope, which makes the final line “I let you down/ betrayed you” hit even harder. It’s not the best track on the album, but it’s a fitting close.

Love Gloom wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. There weren’t as many upbeat, catchy, danceable songs as on their previous release. Yet, it remains a strong, thoughtful debut. The upbeat songs are still there, showing Night Riots know how to make you dance. But the slower tracks laden with darkness and of course, gloom, show another side of the band. The album is a melancholic affair; something you put on when the sky is grey and leaves start to fall. Some of it is brooding, some of it is fun, but the whole thing is honest. That’s part of what makes it so appealing. Many of the songs may not grip you right away, but if you give it a chance, you’ll find a great debut that’s not afraid of the darkness, which we all need to embrace from time to time.

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You’ll Pay for This – Bear Hands

Release Year: 2016

Rating: 8.5/10

I first heard of Bear Hands when I saw them open for Cage the Elephant in 2014. I really dug their revolving musical styles and upbeat songs, so I quickly became a fan. I was pumped to hear about their upcoming album, looking for more infectious synth and unique tunes. And I was not disappointed.

The band has a knack for mixing synth with indie rock and it’s no different on this album. It opens with the 80s tinged “I Won’t Pay,” which starts out soft and mellow with falsetto vocals by Dylan Rau until it amps up for a bigger sound. When the guitar takes over during the bridge, it gives the song a rock edge. It’s catchy, which is a running theme for most of the album. Next comes their current single “2AM.” Though it describes partying until the early morning, the music is surprisingly chill. The mood is very soft and kind of atmospheric as it explores trying to stay out even though you’re too old. Lyrics like “All I want is/to forget how old I am” and “I put my best dress on/crawl back in bed” brings up images of being stuck at a party feeling miserable. It’s not the most grabbing song on the record, but it grows on you after repeated listens.

The band continues exploring getting older on “Too Young,” which sounds like a lounge song from the 70s at times. It’s not the strongest song on the album, but it’s not horrible. It manages to be interesting with it’s subject of being too immature for a relationship. The song does boast the memorable line “Youth is overrated,” which goes against the grain of common thought. Things are tuned down for the dreamy “The Shallows.” It begins with soothing sounds of rain and continues the calming theme with falsetto vocals and light surf rock guitars. It’s not necessarily a high point on the album, but the relaxing nature of it allows listeners to catch their breath.

Similar to their previous release, most of the songs on the album are fun, memorable, and made to get you dancing. “Like me Like That” has a simple hook and is another song taken straight from the 80s and “Chin Ups” is a synth pop, energetic ride with a hint of rock. Bear Hands let’s their old school influences run wild on the catchy “I See You.” With even more raucous synth and spacey sound effects, it sounds like it was taken straight from their favorite era. It sticks with their established style, but it’s another upbeat hit for the band.

The mellow, tropical opening of “Boss” seems unfitting at first, but once the hook kicks in the song comes alive. The guitar has a Southern rock flavor giving the song a boost. The track gets stuck in your head from the memorable hook of “I’m the bitch and you’re the boss.” The 80s feel returns on the bouncy and infectious “Deja Vu.” As soon as the bright synth riff kicks in, it makes you feel good. This is mixed with Rau’s rapid rap-like flow to make an irresistible track. The mood gets even better when brassy horns come in towards the end and amps up the feel good mood.

The most forgettable track is the closer “Purpose Filled Life.” Even though it’s dreamy, atmospheric, and has heart behind it, it’s buried under the stronger songs. The music is innocent, sounding like something from a simple Casio keyboard. The song itself seems to deal with making sure your life has meaning to it, which is a universal feeling. It’s kind of a depressing way to end a thrilling album.

What makes Bear Hands’ music so appealing is how exciting, different, and fun it is. Fans will be happy to know there’s more of the same on this album. It doesn’t really stray away from their beloved electric, synthpop, rock vibe, but it cranks up everything they did on their last effort and makes it better. The theme of the album is at least different and will be relatable to fans in their late 20s and older. It seems the longer Bear Hands around, their output gets stronger.