Monday, September 24, 2012

album review: 'the brilliancy (two song demo)' by the brilliancy AND live set

In my review of the new album by The Killers (Battle Born), I was asked whether or not I could provide a break-down of the trends in indie rock over the past eight years, perhaps providing some insight into why the genre never really took off outside of its niche until fairly recently (this does link to the review, I promise). And while I'm sure it would be of great interest for everyone for me to dissect the evolution of indie rock over the past eight years outside of the mainstream, it's also the sort of project that would prove rather difficult.

The first major problem you run into is that you immediately don't have a defined metric to measure the influence/popularity of the music. The Billboard Charts, flawed as they are, do a fairly decent job of charting what's popular in the US, even if they don't always provide good reasons why said songs are popular. But given that the indie scene has never really had coherent, organized charts, determining the trends and ideas that indie rock adopts over time is significantly more difficult to track. It also doesn't help matters that indie rock as a genre is so varied and eclectic (particularly with some of the weirder, underground bands) and (generally) more intelligent that the sphere of influences and trends aren't as defined and static as those in the mainstream. There isn't the same 'producer-driven' archetypes (like the prevalence of the Neptunes in the early-to-mid 2000s) in indie rock, simply because those widespread 'indie producers' weren't nearly as prominent and powerful as those in the pop or hip-hop scenes.

In fact, if we're going to be completely blunt, the lack of success of indie rock seemed to cause the scene to mutate even further, some segments becoming more and more inaccessible. Outside of isolated points, it's taken indie rock eight years to be relevant on the charts again, and in that time, some acts completely gave up on mainstream airplay and became so inaccessible that even Pitchfork had a difficult time puzzling out what the fuck the act was doing.

And even taking all of that in mind, it would be inaccurate to say the indie bands failed, per se. The majority of them kept on making music, mostly within their own purview. If anything, the indie acts didn't disappear, they just dropped out of sight of the pop charts. Now, there are all sorts of theories why this happened, and I have three that I'll share before I begin the review (trust me, these are both relevant).

The first point is that from a sonic basis, the indie rock acts that had mainstream success were building on the work of their predecessors - but it's key to note what 'scene' was most reminiscent of these acts - and in that case, we don't need to look any further than the underground scene of the 1980s. Having recently revisited Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the '80s Underground (a four-album box set sampling the underground scene of the 1980s that I highly recommend for a crash course on being a music hipster). I mean, let's be honest - Green Day's always built upon the legacy of earlier punks, and it's not hard to spot the similarities between them and the punk acts of the era. For another example, The Killers' embrace of New Wave with rock is such an apt sequel to the bands of the previous era that it's kind of astounding. 

So now that the similarities are there, let's ask the question why they didn't stick around - and if I were to hazard a guess, it'd be that all of the indie acts of 2004 weren't exactly ready-made for pop radio. Now to be fair, nor were their influences, and you'd be hard-pressed to find those underground hits on the actual charts of the decade. But then again, maybe that's the point - if you're going to base your act off of others that didn't succeed in the mainstream, you can't just expect mainstream success now.

Now let's take 2012 in comparison. What are the influences of bands like fun. and Gotye? Well, anyone who's listened to any fun in depth can clearly hear the Queen influence - and while it was a rock act, Queen has had the staying power to easily cement itself in the cultural consciousness. Gotye's influences are a little tougher to pin down (and I'd argue that Glee did more than anything to catapult him to the top of the charts), but I'd say there's more than a little of Peter Gabriel and Genesis in his sound - and that band charted very successfully in the mid-to-late 80s. The point is that these acts fit pop radio a bit better than those of 2004 - but that's not the only reason.

The second theory I have is related to the level of 'intellect' and 'maturity' that the pop charts have at certain points. Now, both of these are highly relative, but it's interesting to observe how these oscillate over time. The dumb fun of hair metal in the late 80s was replaced with the sober, serious, 'smarter' grunge and alternative rock of the 90s. 

So let's hop back to 2004. You have to understand that throughout the previous three years, in the aftermath of 9/11 (I could write an entire essay on the drastic shift in pop trends triggered by this event), pop music had gotten a little darker, a little more serious, and a little more intelligent. The bubblegum princesses of the late 90s were replaced with pop singers that at least pretended to have a little more maturity and insight (acts like Pink, and Avril Lavigne and Kelly Clarkson). Gangsta rap returned with a vengeance from the relative lighter tone of the late 90s, driven by acts like Ja Rule and Ludacris and 50 Cent, and it took itself very seriously. This was an era where country hits (and political ones at that) landed on the pop charts, an era when Nelly would collaborate with Tim McGraw of all people. 

But the darkness and seriousness wasn't going to last - this stuff tends to be cyclical - so the obvious question arose regarding what would take its place. And for a brief second, there was the hope that indie rock was going to step in and take that slot. But upon furthe reflection, it seemed to be fighting against the tide. Hip-hop and rap were getting stupider and sillier, rock and pop rock were tending lighter, nu metal was dying, and overall pop music was generally getting a little less thoughtful and a little more dumb. Indie rock, built on underground trends and a generally more cerebral approach to songwriting, wasn't a direction that the growing immaturity and stupidity of pop music was willing to tolerate.

Now let's flash forward to now. Over the past four years, pop radio has been dominated by club music - a genre 'mature' in material (you have to be old enough to get into the goddamn club, after all),  but certainly not all that intelligent with only few exceptions. But this trend is in its final throes, and it's interesting to see how pop music is changing now, with diverging shifts both in maturity and intellect. The maturity of the subject matter is dropping again, and thus you're seeing a lot more of the cutesy garbage by acts like Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen, and even that fucking imbecilic Taylor Swift song. This music is dumb and ephemeral, and it knows it, and as much as some people would say we should take it 'ironically', you can't deny that the majority of the audience for these songs are taking them very straight.

But on the other hand, there are a lot of people who are stepping out of the club trends and looking for other, smarter options that maintain the same level of maturity - and this is a spot where the success of indie rock (and other smarter acts, like Adele, Cee-Lo Green, and Lupe Fiasco) makes a lot of sense. And this time, it's riding the trend, not fighting it, which could be another reason why it's sticking around a bit better.

But of course, we have to talk about my final theory which flows directly into the review itself: the rise (and fall) of pop rock.

I've talked about pop rock in the past, but let me give you a refresher. These bands tend to have shorter mainstream shelf lives as 'pop acts', or they reappear on the radio whenever the trend comes back. They tend to show up when mainstream radio gets lighter and a little less mature - even though the actual subject matter in said music might be significantly deeper than most give credit. The pop rock explosion of the late 90s (linked with that of ska), and the dominance of pop rock in the mid-2000s are clear evidence of this, and both eras are lined with bands and acts that charted major hits.

But as of recently, pop rock has been in a bit of a fallow period. The old stalwarts are looking more and more tired, and the few attempts to get the genre sputtering back to life on mainstream radio are often done by worthless little shits that are only copying trends of the past (see: Hot Chelle Rae, Down With Webster, etc.). Something needs to get the genre kicking again.

And with that, let's (finally) talk about The Brilliancy, a Windsor-based pop rock act that is stepping into this fallow period at the best possible time and who has the skill and charisma to make it work.

My first impressions of the band are good - The Brilliancy has a polished pop rock sound most reminiscent of late-period Jimmy Eat World, and that's only a good thing, but they also are loud and rough enough to not come across like a studio act (hi there, Maroon 5!). Lead singer Austen Leadley has a honesty and emotional authenticity that immediately elevates him over the majority of his modern peers, and unlike those peers, he doesn't need to rely upon autotune. The man has natural talent, and is easily as good live as he is on a studio track, and while I would appreciate a bit more rawness in his delivery, I can acknowledge talent when I see it. It's also definitely radio-friendly, and while his voice doesn't always reach the soaring, Freddie Mercury-esque notes Nate Ruess of fun. goes for, he's not trying for it and failing either. And while this might just be my personal preference, I do like that Leadley sounds legitimately honest when he sings, with real passion and feeling. He's not phoning it in by any stretch, and that's always appreciated.

But instead of trying to coast by on Leadley's excellent vocals, The Brilliancy instead goes for potent, soaring melodies driven by Brenden Friel's solid guitar, Rob Raco's powerful drumming, and Brad Merryfield's assertive bass. They bring a level of musical complexity and instrumental excellence to the table you don't typically see with most modern pop rock acts, which gives the band a real flavour of their own. They're also not an act heavily dependent upon technical flourishes in production or heavy backing instrumentation - by adhering to a very simple, well-trod formula and excelling, the Brilliancy elevate of the material they provide. 

Like The Killers, at this point The Brilliancy fit best into the role of a pop rock 'singles act', as I can't really spot any defining overarching theme in their songs besides the standard pop rock templates - but then again, at this stage in the game, this isn't a bad thing. Where an act like Fountains of Wayne chose to elevate their music with intriguing, heart-felt storytelling and lyrics, The Brilliancy at this point seem to be working with polishing their instrumental trade-craft to a mirror shine. This particularly comes out in their live set, the strongest tracks being 'With You' (produced by Gavin Brown), 'Can't Take It Away', and 'Stay', the last song easily their best, as it shows a lyrical complexity that compliments their strong instrumental tracks. 'Can't Take It Away' is definitely a second highlight, though, as it features what might be one of the best drum bridges in mainstream radio right now. Both of these tracks aren't on their EP (which contains 'With You' and 'Better Than Me'), but are a definite highlight of their live set and I'm looking forward to seeing what further production might add to the songs.

And on the topic of their live set, The Brilliancy are one of the few acts that perform... well, brilliantly (excuse the bad pun, but it had to be made somewhere). The band has a natural, easy-going chemistry on stage, all of the performers have a great deal of rapport and camaraderie with each other, and their songs are never let down by mistakes or lack of drive. They also sound great in a live environment, with a polish and ease to their instrumentation that make it very clear that the band is capable of even better riffs and stylistic improvisations. Given they're a pop rock band, I'm not sure how that side of their performance will evolve, but it's good to see the potential there.

If I were to make an observation (not precisely a criticism, but something they could easily work with for their album debut if they desired), it would be that sometimes the lyrics fall into the established a little too easily. Don't get me wrong, the band has a natural feel for lyrical meter and a gift for catchy, addictive hooks, but sometimes it does feel like the lyrics could be made a little more interesting or thought-provoking. The most problematic part of their live set, 'Don't Give Up' (which is exactly what it sounds like), isn't a bad pop song by any stretch of the mind, but the less-complex instrumentation, slower cadence, and somewhat bland lyrics make it more forgettable than it should be. I'd still say it's better than 'Firework' by Katy Perry in terms of self-esteem anthems, simply on the virtue of having better performers and no egregiously bad lyrical choices, but I think it would need a different spin on the topic, either lyrically or instrumentally, to make it really captivating.

But even with that observation in mind, the band still has a talent for writing catchy, memorable hooks and very good pop rock music that could definitely get airplay. The songwriting is easily head-and-shoulders above most of their modern counterparts, and while it might not be entirely as thought-provoking or potent as I might prefer, it's still rock-solid, and when the instrumentation is there behind them, The Brilliancy is certainly one of the easiest acts to like. It's radio-friendly, but the tracks are far from stupid both in lyrics and instrumentation, which immediately elevates them above competing acts like Hedley, Simple Plan, and These Kids Wear Crowns. Furthermore, there seems to be a complete lack of irony in their delivery, a very welcome change from other acts that seem entirely too satisfied with themselves. 

So I'll throw down a recommendation here for The Brilliancy, and I can't wait to hear their new material. Their website is here:, and I recommend you check it out. There's a lot of raw talent here, and I'd like to see some more great music come of it. They're a band that deserves airplay a hell of a lot more than most of the garbage on the radio right now, and odds are, they'll get it.


  1. I saw these guys in Toronto at The Hard Rock - could not believe my eyes or ears! And they are alllll soooo gorgeous ;)!!!

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