Monday, March 23, 2015

album review: 'run' by awolnation

There are bands that you can put on any album in their discography and immediately know the group. You can put on an AC/DC album or a Foo Fighters record and there's a sort of comfort in knowing nearly exactly what you're getting - there'll be slight differentiating factors, but you'll know what's coming. Then there are the groups that'll switch things up with every record - sometimes they'll make it subtle, sometimes they'll work in broad strokes, sometimes they'll throw curveballs into the mix that only hardcore fans will see coming.

And then there's AWOLNATION, a band that no matter how many times I've listened to their debut record, I still have a hard time pinning down what the hell they're doing. After a well-received EP in 2010, they burst onto the scene with the messy, cacophonous electronic rock Megalithic Symphony in 2011, that pulled from a half-dozen styles, bands, and added plenty of their own fuzz-saturated and semi-demented flavour. Part punk, part U2-inspired rock, part genre-breaking digression, the album showed a wealth of ideas and most of them were pretty compelling. But it's definitely a record that works better in pieces than as a whole, especially in the case of its haphazard production, and it's hard to ignore that the lyrics often feel thinly sketched and underweight for the big ideas they're trying to tackle. And while 'Sail' landed on my Honourable Mentions list of my favourite hits of 2013 - because that's how long the mainstream took to catch up with the style that AWOLNATION was pushing, for better or worse - I was curious how long the band could push their ideas and whether they could develop some cohesion on the way.

In other words, I was looking forward to reviewing this album - not because I expected it to be a great or classic album, but because it would be interesting. Was I rewarded here?

Well, I got some of what I wanted, because Run by AWOLNATION is an interesting listen - but I need to stress that interesting isn't the same thing as good, because AWOLNATION has not gotten more cohesive and with this record trying to strip things back from the grandiose experiments of their debut, the seams are showing all the more plainly. I do hesitate to call it a sophomore slump, because it's less of that and more simply revealing of problems AWOLNATION have had since the very beginning - which if anything, is even worse.

So those are some pretty harsh claims, and to start, we need to look to where the biggest changes have taken place: instrumentation and production. I'll give AWOLNATION this, in terms of melodic composition they can string together a pretty solid hook off of a basic yet catchy sing-song style, and while they do feature some heavier percussion, the melodies do remain in the forefront. But while the melody is there, the band's choice to go for something with smaller scope means that the dramatic potency that came with the walls of fuzz and lead singer-songwriter Aaron Bruno's wild howls is significantly weaker. For as much as the band said they were trying to create a rougher, more 'aggro' record, Run doesn't come remotely close to this, instead stripping away the symphonic bombast and replacing it with no rough edges in guitar, synthesizers, noise, or even explosive drum progressions! There are points where you can tell Aaron Bruno wanted the guitars to sizzle and kick a little harder, but with the bass guitar mixed so low in the mix and the choice to leave so much guitar sizzle in the background instead to the forefront, I'm reminded less of hard-edged electronic rock and more of Hebrews, the experimental record from Say Anything last year that tried to create a hard-hitting record by stripping out guitars entirely. Where's the punk edge and energy that inflamed the more unsteady moments of their last record? What's worse is that by mixing the bass so low, any grooves that do materialize have little rollicking energy or momentum, instead relying on stiff drum progressions that surprisingly don't pop nearly as well as you'd expect in modern rock. And when you couple it with the fact that there's fewer experimental interludes or real guitar solos and few dramatic crescendos, it feels like most of the dramatic fire of the record is gone. That's not saying there aren't some good instrumental moments - the strings progression on the title track adds some good menace that could have developed real heaviness on the back half if there was anything to the drums or bass, the one solid groove on 'Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)' that did manage some momentum, the Fall Out Boy-esque energy of 'Kookseverywhere!!' that really needed a more propulsive chorus, the rubbery fuzz that at least had some weight on 'I Am', the oversaturated 'Dreamers' that's trying to be a mosh-ready dance track and has a good plinking keyboard line but nothing that Devin Townsend couldn't do in his sleep - but most of this album is terminally underweight ballads anchored by keyboards, a bit of acoustic guitar, some minimal drums, background fuzz, and little else. And that's not counting the songs that just feel unfinished, barely clocking past the two minute mark and desperately needing more meat to really flesh them out, or with transitions that feel like two songs inelegantly mashed together, especially on the back half of this album, or with tinkling underweight production like on 'Windows' where even DJ Mustard has a richer mix.

And this is where we run into our second major problem: Aaron Bruno's vocals. Now here's the thing, he's a fine enough singer - he's emotive, he's charismatic, he has range, and for the most part I can brush it aside when his fuzz-covered howls go flat or sharp. But aggressive vocals like that usually are grounded in instrumentation that has a thicker foundation to support them. But more often than not, he's trying to place both his quieter, smoother vocals, even supported with some pretty damn good multi-tracking, in the same track with his howls, and it's rare the songs have enough energy or groove to back them up. And this leads to the awkward moments where Bruno has to shove his louder vocals back in the mix so they don't come across too obtrusive, and we lose even more of the punch.  But even in the points where he's going for more of a croon, the heavier usage of reverb means that I get no sense of intimacy or more raw connection - which you kind of need if you're stripping back the instrumentation to the bare bones.

Of course, this is also where we get more focus on the songwriting - which is the last thing this album needs, because while rock lyrics can be broadly sketched or vague, AWOLNATION go broader than most and it hasn't always been to their detriment. Which of course means we don't get a lot of actual detail in the writing, but if anything it gets worse when you look at the writing and flow, which is forced to clumsily crowbar in words or phrases that make less sense the more you think about it or are simply there to fill up space. And that's before we get to the actual content, which seems to be trying to sketch out one of the more toxic relationships I've seen on a record in a while - and to be fair to AWOLNATION, they aren't glorifying their protagonist, who can come across as a manic-depressive, self-obsessed dick who can come across as more than a little pathetic as he constantly re-enters a relationship he clearly can't stand. We're not actually getting commentary or details why he does this or why I should like or empathize with this guy, but I can at least appreciate framing that doesn't paint him as flattering.

But here's the problem: at some point with all unlikeable protagonists, we need to find that moment that humanizes them or at least renders them interesting enough to follow - and really, the more Aaron Bruno sketches out this album, the less likeable he becomes, and not even in a way that's compelling. The desperation of the title track and 'Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)' is at least understandable, but as the album continues, we get the petty sniping at 'friends' on 'I Am' or the wild paranoia of 'Kookseverywhere!!', and there's a limit to how much of the love/hate relationship our narrator has with love that I can take. And what I find least attractive is how disingenuous it feels - we get broad statements and confessions of love that are more than a little melodramatic, but then we get songs like 'Lie Love Live Love' where it's implied the relationship is consuming both of their lives or 'Like People, Like Plastic' where it's made very evident both are miserable. But the absolute worst song on this album is 'Drinking Lightning', and it's mostly for the chorus, a petty stab at an ex, the assumption she will come back in a year, and that 'you don't fare well without me'. Not only is it presumptuous and condescending as hell, but it's also a complete lie, because it's our narrator who has gone to incredible lengths across this album to profess his 'love' time and time again. And if the album was framed as capturing that thrill of a wild on-and-off relationship, or that self-awareness had implied this guy's plan would backfire, it might have worked - but it's played straight, especially with the inclusion of a voice mail message to bookend the album, from a friend inviting the frontman to a birthday party.

And believe it or not, it was this moment that really soured me on Run by AWOLNATION, because it is one hell of an ego trip. The lyrical self-obsession, the framing that allows the narrator to lash out and behave badly and yet avoid the consequences and remain the center of the album's universe. And considering the album was intended to show a journey into maturity, admitting one's own flaws and growing, it falls flat on its face because our narrator does not change or evolve or mature - if anything, he gets worse, perhaps developing more confidence but still being in a toxic back-and-forth relationship at the album's end presuming it'll all fall in his favour in the end. And pair it with haphazard production and mixing, a real lack of groove, vocals that rarely fit their song well, and only a few songs that can claw together some form of cohesion... no, this record is a light 5/10 and barely a recommendation, only if you're a hardcore fan of AWOLNATION. But even with that, given how much they've stripped away the experimentation and scope of Megalithic Symphony, it can't help but feel like a disappointment. As I said, interesting doesn't always mean good.

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