Monday, September 11, 2017

album review: 'broken machine' by nothing but thieves

Of all of the albums that have landed on my schedule this year, this is among the more perplexing additions. And the funny thing is that you wouldn't think that if you knew anything about the group, but I'm perplexed all the same... mostly surrounding why anyone would want me to cover this. Let's get real here, I may have gone off on a rant on Twitter how modern hard rock frustrates me with its embrace of distorted blocky tuneless masses instead of actual melodic hooks, but the truth is that all of modern rock radio frustrates me these days, because on the flipside of the breakdown-obsessed chunks of riff we have the sleeper hold of reverb-soaked indie rock with lyrics that in a better era would be laughed off stage. And while of course there are exceptions - hell, I can't stop listening to that last Deaf Havana album which in retrospect defied entirely too many expectations and deserves a lot more attention - the rule is that once we tread into what's now defined by major labels as 'alternative rock', I have a hard time staying awake, especially if I spot the acts who obviously inspired them.

Enter Nothing But Thieves, another British alt-rock group that has toured with your trendy staples on rock radio that are hard to describe as rock, like AWOLNATION and twenty one pilots. Yes, they toured with Muse - their most blatant inspiration, especially for frontman Conor Mason - but they are a poor man's Muse at best, with nowhere near the progressive compositional chops and a penchant for theatricality that didn't always stick the landing. I don't think they're a bad group - good guitar and bass interplay can redeem a lot, and in terms of ballads they stuck the landing - but that self-titled debut in 2015 just didn't resonate much with me - not bad but not particularly remarkable. But apparently their sophomore album is a lot better and is even picking up a bit of critical acclaim, and my Patreon supporters wanted me to cover this before The National or Alvvays - indie rock groups I was very much interested in exploring - so what the hell: how is Broken Machine?

Folks, I hate to disappoint you here, but I got pretty much exactly what I was expecting with Nothing But Thieves' Broken Machine: a completely underwhelming alt-rock record that I couldn't help but find painfully derivative and basic across the board. And what blows my mind is that more people don't seem to be hearing this! Maybe it's the benefit of time and distance, because I can guarantee if this had been released fifteen or twenty years ago, critics would have rightly lambasted this as a barely adequate Radiohead rip-off the same way they wrongly did early Elbow and Porcupine Tree or rightly did with early Travis and Coldplay. 

But in good conscience I can't even say this rises to the level of Parachutes or The Man Who, the latter of which at least had the decency to get Nigel Godrich on production to flesh out the sound, so let's start there. And like with their debut, the basslines and melodic grooves on guitar tend to at least have some decent interplay, even if the loud-soft, restrained-bass-to-exploding chorus tends to get worked to death. The problem is, well, everything else, and this goes from tonal choice to production blending, with the absolute worst case coming in the drums and percussion. How anyone thinks that flat, slappy pickup right at the front of the mix on 'I Was Just A Kid' is excusable is beyond me, reflecting a rubbery stiffness and weird clipping around some cymbal pickups that does damage to any hope of a consistent groove, but it's another case of trying to awkwardly blend drum machines with real drums and showing no consideration for properly matching fidelity and mix placement - it's most egregious on the title track but it happens whenever they try to fuse a handclap somewhere into the mix. What's alarming is that producer Mike Crossey has proven plenty capable of managing this balance in the past with The 1975 and the Arctic Monkeys, and you can tell many of the pickups do pick up real texture, but the choice to flatten so many of the electric guitars into weedy strips - which reaches its worst with the pseudo reggae tones of 'Soda' - or completely neglect any sort of guitar solo or progressive element is utterly beyond me - Muse might have been nakedly imitating Radiohead early on, but you knew those guys could shred. And while I get colourless, dreary melancholy is part of the point, Nigel Godrich was a smart enough producer to utilize sharper guitar pick-ups in the 90s to flesh out the tone or give the mix a deeper sense of atmosphere for contrast - Steven Wilson did this as well. Nothing But Thieves, meanwhile, seem to embrace the worst parts of modern production as well as that sound - blocky chunks of guitar with more texture than tone, and desperately needing an atmosphere it doesn't have, no matter how many ugly watery layers you dump on top.

Now that's not saying there aren't hooks here, because there are - mostly courtesy of guitars that pick up a little more momentum and snarl on 'Amsterdam' and 'Not Made By Design' or the bounce that comes behind 'Live Like Animals' - but the larger credit has to go to Conor Mason, who is working his ass off to sell these tracks with delivery that really owes more to Matt Bellamy than it does Thom Yorke... which may not have been the best choice, in retrospect. Let's get real, Muse is at their best tilting into progressively grandiose but often utterly ridiculous swell, in both the writing and delivery, which Yorke has always had too much dignity to embrace. And yet Mason falls into a weird dead zone where he's belting and tilting into an admittedly good falsetto, but neither his content or production can fully get him all the way there to truly explode or deliver any sort of raw intensity, which leads to a feeling of theatricality and drama being oversold - or conversely, melodrama that just can't get all the way there.

Maybe this could have been saved with sharper writing... and yet sadly if I'm going to point to the area where Nothing But Thieves falls even more short, it's here. I'll restate what I said a year ago in that I'm no huge Radiohead fan, but you can tell Yorke's writing, especially in the 90s, could capture a brand of tighter introspection with nuance and depth. Or say in the case of Muse - sure, it was over the top and ridiculous, but it also took the opportunity to go for broke with big ideas... mostly to mixed results, but it was the right approach for the most part. The big problem with Nothing But Thieves, again, is that they're trying to split the difference: all of the cynical angst but none of the deeper nuance to back it up. Take a song like 'Amsterdam' - good concept in the frustration of trying to force originality when it might not be possible to achieve, but it never asks the follow-up question and ends up feeling very surface level. Or take 'Sorry', an apology song which overexplains everything he supposedly did and ultimately can't help but feel accusatory in the second verse - even despite the girl pointing it out in the song it's his alcohol abuse that's the problem! But again, this record is much more interested in wallowing in its depressed nihilism, from the title track to the painfully generic 'Creep' riff that is 'Soda' to 'Hell Yeah', where apparently the world is so bad that the Nine Hells aren't such a bad alternative after all! Of course, that assertion feels a bit awkward next to the atheistic screeds that fill up the other half of this record, from a string of letdowns on 'I Was Just A Kid' to 'I'm Not Made By Design' to the closer 'Afterlife', where apparently he's so broken now why would he go through a second life of this and oh dear god, this sounds like something that would have been rejected from XXXTENTACION's debut! And I'll say it again: nihilistic themes can get really damn boring if you're not going to say anything new with them, or at least embrace poetry that showcases some sort of dramatic arc or color. Here, the writing just feels painfully bland and obvious, from the internal instability of 'Get Better' to the seductive addiction of 'Particles' to the painfully flimsy political commentary on 'Live Like Animals' - at least when Trent Reznor wrote 'Hurt', its raw basic language came from an album full of sadomasochism and nightmares, a stark moment of reality at the lonely core behind waves of aggression. This, it doesn't even come close to earning that sort of arc.

But at the end of the day, I don't know what I was expecting, because on some level, Broken Machine by Nothing But Thieves will likely do just fine on modern rock radio - production that alternatively feels blocky, sloppily mixed or just derivative, writing that feels almost impressively impersonal and by-the-numbers, only saved from outright badness by a frontman whose voice deserves better songs. In other words, I'm thinking a light 5/10 and only really recommended if for some reason you haven't heard all the 90s records this album cribs from generously, or you're ignoring all the alternative and progressive rock groups that are doing similar sounds much better. Hell, from this year when you have new albums from Elbow, Deaf Havana, and especially Steven Wilson, there isn't much of an excuse for this, so for the most part, I'd probably pass.

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