Sunday, October 6, 2013

album review: 'bad blood' by bastille (RETRO REVIEW)

Here's something that you might not know about me: I'm a huge follower of the Billboard Hot 100 charts. I find them surprisingly fascinating in a perverse sort of way, watching what gets airplay and mainstream success thanks to a nebulous ranking which is plagued by changes in policy, odd editorial direction, or outright mistakes. The funny thing is that the music industry has had something of a love/hate relationship with Billboard throughout the decades, particularly in the mid-to-late 90s, where the record industry manipulated the charts through carefully timed single releases (to abuse the policy where a single had to be released to chart, neglecting album cuts, so the label would wait until a song had peak radio airplay then release the single to maximize chart position). And then you have cases like earlier this year, where Billboard finally decided to include YouTube streams in response to 'Gangnam Style' being blocked for weeks by a lousy Maroon 5 song ('One More Night') - and then the goddamn Harlem Shake went to #1 for five weeks.

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that every week, I make a point of going through the Hot 100 and checking out what I've been missing - as I've said, I've got a populist streak, and it makes sense to be engaged. And in the course of doing so, I've noticed a few anomalies on the charts, songs that sound a little out-of-place - intriguingly so, in a way. And one of those songs comes from the act I'm going to talk about today: Bastille.

Bastille is a band that falls into an intriguing category for me: indie rock bands that most music critics don't want to cover and yet are widely liked by the mainstream, otherwise known as 'silent majority' acts. This year, the acts that fit the bill are bands like The 1975, or Bastille, or The Neighborhood (who I'll be covering a little later) - and it often seems like music critics only review these bands with the strongest of trepidation. And to be fair, it's not hard to see why: these are acts that are being pushed towards the mainstream by the label, and with the right single or Glee cover, they can rapidly become massive hits. This happened in 2011 with Foster The People, it happened in 2012 with fun., and now it's clear the labels are looking to recreate that success this year - and some critics resent this because they feel these bands are shallow facsimiles of what 'authentic' indie music is. Now the whole argument regarding what is artistically 'authentic' or 'underground' these days with the rise of the internet has gotten insanely convoluted and more than a little stupid, so let me drop my solitary opinion here: I'm going to be making my authenticity judgement based on the music and the lyrics, not some hypothetical indie criteria or whether or not Pitchfork slobbers all over them. And I since I've got a stronger pop sensibility than some - and because I still need more time to get through Dream Theater's discography - I'm going to take a look at Bastille's debut album Bad Blood. Does it rise above its 'silent majority' status?

Eh, a little, maybe. To be honest, this album was a little better than I expected, but I wasn't really blown away by Bastille's Bad Blood. Don't get me wrong, it's not bad or offensive, but it's not the kind of album that I can really recommend without a lot of qualifications either. To be honest, the first band that jumped to my mind when I started listening to Bastille wasn't any of the silent majority acts that I already mentioned, but Mumford & Sons, the impressively mediocre folk act that I've already railed against in a previous video. I mean, booming production, hook-friendly instrumentation, male choral vocals with just enough charisma to be listenable, and lyrics that really are a lot less interesting than you'd think they are at first glance, it's almost a perfect comparison! Of course the label wants to push Bastille - with the success of Mumford & Sons, who wouldn't want a younger, presumably 'hipper' version of that band?

Now to be fair to Bastille, as a band they have a very different sound than Mumford & Sons, with a lot more electronic synths and heavier acapella elements - where Mumford & Sons was attempting to be very organic (and failing), Bastille is proudly touting the indielectronica genre, which at least strikes me as more honest than their predecessors, but this is also where we run into the first big issue of this album: the electronic elements feel glaringly out-of-place when set against the organic instrumentation and especially the choirs. At best, the thick, lumbering backbeats aren't that obtrusive, but some of the more beats closer to the top on the mix just don't meld very well. It's no surprise that my favourite songs on this album are much closer to the richer, more orchestral, more 'chamber-pop' stylings of songs like 'Pompeii' and 'Daniel In The Den' and 'Laura Palmer' and even 'Icarus'. Honestly, I think this album could have been much stronger as a indie folk acapella record in comparison with what they did here, especially considering some numskull thought Autotune would be a good idea here on tracks like 'Get Home' (it's not).

As for the vocals, I don't have many complaints - the multi-tracking and choral vocals are often very strong and lead singer Dan Smith has a rich voice with a fair amount of charisma and personality. However, his voice is definitely weak in his upper range, and I had to wince any time he jumped into his falsetto - it just didn't sound clean getting that high, as if he hadn't had a lot of practice singing those notes. For the most part, though, his vocals were never all that grating (minus the autotune, of course), and while I did find the dour seriousness of the band a little grating at points, it was never offensive.

If anything, I kind of wish it was - because despite the multi-tracked vocals and wall of sound that Bastille attempts to create, with pounding beats and the heavy choirs that sound imported from a fantasy movie soundtrack, Bastille renders itself a surprisingly anonymous band, and this takes us to the lyrics. Make no mistake, they aren't bad by any stretch on a technical level, but they are bland, lacking wit and flair or any sense of humour. The best thing I can say is that there are a few interesting references throughout some of the songs - I liked the Icarus metaphor for alcohol abuse, I was amused by the willful deflection in 'Pompeii', and as a fan of Twin Peaks, I definitely liked the tribute song 'Laura Palmer'. But outside of those, this album does not stand out lyrically.

Part of the problem comes into the choice of subject matter, because the album title wasn't lying: Bad Blood is, for the most part, an album about ruined relationships and all of the toxic feelings that come with them. And while I don't object to the choice of this topic (I will question its choice for a debut album), I don't think Bastille really handles it all that well, mostly because the band sounds entirely too reserved and proper, as if they're above the very emotions they're singing about. And sure, the logical part of me can appreciate this approach, but you also feel that a certain amount of emotional nuance is lost. Considering Dan Smith doesn't really show much vulnerability or deeper emotion beyond the bare minimum, plus the bombast of the choral vocals... well, it makes the album come across more than a bit pompous and a little obnoxious. It's also no surprise here that the songs I liked on Bad Blood were stepping away from this theme and in other subject areas entirely, which I think Bastille handle a fair bit better.

So with that in mind, do I recommend Bad Blood by Bastille? To be honest, I find it really hard to recommend this album. Don't get me wrong, there are elements that are aesthetically impressive - the vocals have a lot of energy, the hooks are decent enough - but the poor choices in terms of electronica, the lackluster lyrics, and the poorly executed choice of subject matter just leeches a lot of personality from this album. It's not a particularly long album, but it feels a lot heavier, slower, and longer than it should, and that's not a good sign. Look, I know why this band is appealing, and if everything I talked about above was enough to hook you, you'll probably like Bad Blood by Bastille, but really, it's not an album I'm going to remember or one that I can see playing in a week's time. It's a 6/10 for me, and even that feels generous. If you're interested, take a look, but if you're not, you're not missing anything all that special.

1 comment:

  1. Only two of the songs of the album are concerned with relationships or what you might call romantic love.