Monday, August 14, 2017

album review: 'oh, yuck' by so much light

So I'm sure at this point many of you have seen a certain piece of bad writing at The Atlantic making the rounds with a particularly ugly clickbait title called 'Progressive Rock Is The Whitest Music Ever'. And yeah, the article lives down to the title, the sort of piece that reflects an uncanny lack of knowledge surrounding the genre and really a general disinterest in writing about it altogether. But aside from an easy opportunity to bag on awful music journalism, the article did get me thinking why people dislike the genre, because there are some points in calling out prog for its pretentiousness wankery, its underweight concept record with bloated orchestration, and complexity for its own sake.

Here's my point: there is a genre of music where this sort of thing bothers me... and progressive rock and metal is not really that genre. No, it's the more obscure and for me much more frustrating genre of math rock, known for complex time signatures and rigidly over-designed melodic and rhythm sections. And with less of a focus on lyricism, you can bet that I'm not really a fan - but it's also a relatively obscure subgenre and people don't tend to request it...

Until today, which takes us to So Much Light, a Sacramento-based project for Damien Verrett where on first listen you could definitely see traces of math rock in the complex, shifting time signatures and knotted melodies of his debut Supine/Spellbound in 2012. But the overall genre of the music proved to be tougher to follow: anchored almost entirely in acoustic guitar and with a pretty impressive backing list of musicians to flesh out the sound, it'd be easier to slot this towards acoustic-leaning indie rock... and then you get our frontman with a remarkably timid and thin vocal delivery and lyrics that would not be far removed from the weirder side of emo. So I'll be blunt and say I wasn't crazy about that debut at all - a couple fascinating arrangements, but little else that gripped me... but we would not see another full-length So Much Light record for another five years - an EP in 2015 and a few scattered singles, but then he signed to ANTI- and we now have a follow-up called Oh, Yuck. So okay, how did it turn out?

Man alive, I need to stop writing these introductions before I dig into the new project - because all that math rock and intricacy I was talking about pretty much goes out the window with Oh, Yuck. Now to be fair if you had listened to Verrett's 2015 EP and singles you might have seen this coming, but even still, the shift was pretty drastic, shifting into what sounds like alternative R&B by way of mainstream-leaning but very plucky indie pop. I'd say that it reminds me a bit of How To Dress Well's forays into pop... but unfortunately So Much Light is much less successful across the board, as problems from his previous work aren't resolved and are indeed augmented with brand new issues!

So let's start with the most obvious make-or-break point: Damien Verrett's singing. And while I'll give him points for marginally better vocal production and showing a little more expressive range in comparison with the debut... I'm sorry, but his voice just doesn't work for me. The artist he seems to be trying to emulate the most on this project is The Weeknd, and yet like most Weeknd imitators he forgets the tightness and intensity that makes his work so potent at its best. Verrett's voice is even thinner - although some of the trembling vibrato emphasizes that more - and while he does occasionally pull out filters to add a little weight on songs like 'Deep Down', he just doesn't have the presence or groove to make this tremulous crooning have weight for me. I might not be crazy about when he brings Nnambi Ogbonnaya on for 'Be Afraid' - the multi-tracking feels a bit muddy all across this project - but at least he's got a vocal tone with presence and soul, whereas Verrett sticks with a tone that ends up clashing with entirely too much in the mix.

Granted, that's more because there's entirely too much going on in these songs, which takes us to the production. Now credit where it's due, you can often tell where Verrett is bringing his math rock leanings into the composition, because there is a level of complexity and overdesign to the melodies on the opening tracks that you rarely see in this sort of indie pop and alternative R&B... and yet I'd be hard-pressed to say it all works. A big part of this comes in the choice of tone placement within the mix: shrill woodwinds and flutes, nasal chiptune synths, oily wells of tapping bassy beats that skirt the edges of trap with the hi-hats, all assembled with a jittery fussiness that has nothing close to a solid groove, and when you tap on Verrett's higher vocals you get a low-end that's swamped out, an upper-end that's cluttered to the point of distraction, and no solid melodic throughline in the midrange to anchor the songs - or if it is there, it's coming in guitar or synth lines with ugly oily layers that are all gurgling texture and nothing that flatters or matches Verrett's crooning, like on 'Little Fanfare' or 'Love That Never Fades' - and that's before you tack on the chipmunk vocal fragments! And that's before you realize that many of these songs don't have much in terms of depth or body, especially when it comes to the pluckier guitar and harpsichord elements shoved right to the front of the mix like on 'Full Body Mirror' or 'Love That Never Fades' or 'Artificial Sweetener' - at least 'Stomping Ground' tacks on some oscillating deeper synth layers that helps flesh out something of a groove, but with so much so close it builds an uncomfortably tight feeling of intimacy that I'm not sure is always appropriate. Of course, that's when the composition bother to get that complex - on the flip side we get the relatively sparse and painfully dreary concession to modern alternative R&B with drippy synths and trap-adjacent percussion like on 'Idiot Soul or hints of faded horns on 'Deep Down' - thank god the version of the record I got tacks on 'Let It Absorb You', which feels like a modern trap-influenced pop song was imported to the 80s and actually assembles a halfway decent hook... but that's the thing, this record does have some hooks and melodic progressions that if assembled to emphasize flow or groove could have worked far better. I might not be crazy about the more garish synths on 'Be Afraid', which feel imported from the mid-to-late 2000s, but they at least bring some bombast, and the hooks behind 'Stomping Grounds', 'Full Body Mirror' and the unstable creaking flute/trap fusion of 'Flagship' do stick out...

But we now have to get to the writing and lyrics on this record... and this is where delivery becomes important, because while I might appreciate some of the detail and metaphor used in these songs, the stories and situations Verrett is trying to present require someone who can convincingly deliver them, or do so in a way that isn't utterly insufferable. The most prominent example of this is 'Stomping Ground', which plays out like a possible hookup which seems to show the guy plainly not getting the hint about how his intentions are perceived... but without a noticeable distinction in his vocal tone, the double-sided nature of the song can be easily missed and regardless of that, nobody looks good on it. Granted, most of this record is overloaded with self-flagellating insecurity, which is plainly framed to show badly Verrett looks, but on songs like 'Be Afraid' or the whining fear that comes on the failed meetup of 'Summoner', it doesn't exactly provide insight so much as a wallow that can get grating fast. And it's not helped by tracks where Verrett can tread right up to the line of good taste, where he's trying to push for a hookup on 'Little Fanfare' and is so thoroughly unconvincing before we get lines like 'I'm feeling guilty for ambition / like I forgot to ask for permission' - uh, if you're not asking, there should be justifiable guilt here, buddy! And then you get the sour songs like 'Love That Never Fades', that seems at least partially driven by mobile hookup culture in its tinder and instagram references and the line that 'can't find nobody who could love yourself as much as you do', but it's not like a record like this is any less self-obsessed, especially on the musings of 'Full Body Mirror' where the reason this girl ghosted on him was his own projections. And sure, you can go on 'Artificial Sweeteners' and brand even the music as saccharine masturbation even as he's going through the motions, but as a whole the delivery of this album is nowhere near detached enough to sell this convincingly without coming across as whiny or borderline creepy, like on 'Flagship' where he wants the girl to be his flagship because he's so enamored over her, or on 'Love That Never Fades' where talks about how he'll 'loot that booty'. And look, there's a way to sell this sort of self-deprecating style effectively in R&B, but you need a bigger underlying idea or insight or at the very least some sort of swagger to draw you in, and from the writing and delivery, I'm just not hearing it here.

So yeah, I didn't care for this much at all on any level. The delivery has some trembling range, but none of the tight grooves of The Weeknd or the charismatic core of Mike Hadreas, and when you pair it with production that feels either overdesigned and hopelessly dull, and writing that splits the unfortunate difference between self-pitying, self-absorbed, and sour, it just makes for an overall a listening experience that I can't recommend. There are a few moments that are passable - 'Let It Absorb You' is a decently balanced indie pop song, and the barebones piano and flutes of 'Ultra Sunrise' were pretty enough - but to me this is an extremely light 5/10 and I can't really recommend it all that much. If the sound and style which I described seems intriguing, check it out, and I'll admit that some of this fidgety indie pop R&B does have its fans - as does math rock - but I can't call myself one of them - sorry.

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