Thursday, November 17, 2016

album review: 'layers' by kungs

So it's been fairly well established that the flavour of electronic dance music that was popular this year was tropical house. Reggae lilts in the guitars, hollow synths, textured percussion, a very breezy, languid vibe, it was all over the place this year. And since most of it seemed to forget that adding some actual colour to your instrumental tones help them stand out, it also led to a listless haze that did nothing for me for the majority of the year.

Now it wasn't all bad, especially if you drifted away from the United States where brighter tones managed to seep through - hell, look at Kygo - but there was one song that fell into interesting territory: 'This Girl', a collaboration with French DJ Kungs with an Australian funk band called Cookin' On 3 Burners. And while I definitely liked the song, one thing I noticed is that it really was on the border of tropical if that - despite sandy percussion, the guitar rollick, the soulful vocals and blend of horns reminded me more of the house trends that crossed over throughout the 90s. Some have called it a leftover of the deep house that dominated 2014, but the tones here were nowhere as saturated and dark. In other words, it was a good song, and it really should have done better on the Hot 100, but it seems like nobody wanted flair in their music in 2016, so other EDM songs that should have done well, it had momentum and then crashed pretty hard.

But I was still curious - after all, Kungs hadn't even reached twenty yet and he had a hit that had been huge worldwide, I was curious if he had more up his sleeve. So I checked out his full-length debut album Layers - what did we get?

Honestly, both more and less than what I was hoping. I'll admit right out of the gate that Kungs' Layers is short-changed by being released in November instead of mid-August, where it would have likely gotten a warmer reception - or at least more excuses for being this ephemeral - but the truth is that even if it had, I'm not sure how much I would have embraced it. The record it reminded me most of was Kygo's Cloud Nine in terms of tone and vibe, and just like that record, it's certainly pleasant for the most part... but it's also pretty thin across the board, not quite able to pay off all of the good ideas that are here beneath the surface.

And let me stress, there are good ideas here, mostly when you consider the instrumentation and production on the first half of this record. While Kungs never aims for the sense of immediacy and punch that made the 90s a fruitful time for electronic music and house, tonally he's not far removed, drawing on horns and plenty of real guitar licks to anchor melodies that vary between pleasantly and maddeningly catchy, and while I would not call the production precisely organic, there is a depth and swell to these tunes that doesn't seem overblown. Take songs like 'Melody' or 'You Remain' or 'Freedom' or 'I Feel So Bad' or the big hit 'This Girl' - when this record builds to its warm gentle grooves with all of that guitar texture both electric and acoustic, coupled with blasts of trumpets, there's a breezy flavour that almost lets you ignore how fake the snaps and handclaps feel, or how all of these songs would be more interesting with live drums instead of that beat that always feels too close to the front of the mix and too staccato. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but you can't tell me that live snares, kickdrums and cymbals wouldn't have worked here - for as loose and free-flowing as this record is trying to be, I'm stunned they didn't at least try. Unfortunately, that's only about half of the record - the other half is significantly less interesting, mostly because it finds Kungs outside of an established sound and identity that he can at least control, and when you get songs like the stab at deep house on the sole instrumental 'Wild Church' or the DJ Snake imitation of 'Bangalore Streets' or most frustrating of all the discordant modern pop pileup that is 'Trust' that ends the record - not a good note to end things, at all. And that's before you get that synth line on 'Tripping Off' - I appreciate mirroring the vocal melody, but that tone was somehow hollow, nasal, and also annoying as hell!

Granted, that inconsistency is also present in the singers, of which we've got a range in quality that's all over the map in terms of sound and style. In some cases it's just a matter of range and ability - I really like 'Melody' as a song, but Luke Pritchard's weak falsetto is the weak point of that track, as is the very strong nasal tone from Richard Judge on 'Crazy Enough' or the limp performances from Lune on 'Tripping Off' or Rae Morris on 'Trust'. Kungs seems to have better luck when he gets more of a raw, soulful delivery, like Wolfgang on 'Freedom' or Kylie Auldist on 'This Girl or especially Ephemerals' more raw performance on 'I Feel So Bad'. Hell, even though his delivery is pretty restrained I actually liked RITUAL on 'You Remain' - it's subtle, it captures his pained melancholy quite well. But then you have the cases where the singer is just miscast, like the biggest name Jamie N Commons on 'Don't You Know' - this guy can bring real firepower, and he's got nowhere near the swagger to make this stick. Or you have tones of which I'm just not a fan, like Freia on 'Bangalore Streets' - she's a good singer, but her style of singing has never really worked for me. I do prefer it to Tillie on 'When You're Gone', which matches that insufferably catchy whistle with perhaps the most brittle twang of acoustics yet and there are points where she goes sharp... yeah, she's easily the weakest part of that song.

That leaves the lyrics... and really, they're barely worth mentioning, even by the standards of dance music, less good or bad and more just irrelevant. The most emotional complexity we get is on 'You Remain' in its restrained melancholy, with RITUAL hoping against hope the wild girl won't leave him behind, or on the lingering memories of 'When You're Gone', or the apology from Ephemerals on 'I Feel So Bad', where he's actually credible in selling the relationship failing and his own regret that he didn't end it sooner when they were growing apart. Beyond that, the most I can really say are a few sloppy lyrics, like on 'Tipping Off', where the girl looking for that deeper connection says to 'show yourself there's nobody else' - uh, wouldn't he know that already? Or take 'Trust', which clinches the worst song here in your standard anti-authority anthem that then is asking for 'trust' that they'll go in the right direction... it kind of undercuts the spirit of your rebellion to be asking like this, stand up for yourself!

But that's nitpicking... really, there isn't much here that's worth caring about more to dig deeper. Don't get me wrong, for a debut Kungs did fine with Layers, and he at least is starting to push songs that have more single potential, but when nearly half your record is filler, it's not really a good sign that Kungs has firmly defined his identity going forward. Now there are seeds of potential here, and I can definitely see Kungs delivering on his promise if he refines the workable melodies, but as a whole with this, I'm thinking a very light 6/10 for this debut and only a recommendation if you're curious. I'm not sure the Hot 100 in 2016 would have been objectively better with more Kungs - maybe just the good singles - but it might have been a little brighter, and at the very least, I can endorse that.

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