Friday, November 3, 2017

album review: 'five' by hollywood undead

So if it isn't unbelievably obvious, I didn't want to cover this. More importantly, I have no idea why anybody wanted me to cover this - I'd like to think my Patrons watch my reviews and aren't just adding records to fill space on the schedule, and the fact that this consistently got so many votes utterly baffles me.

But I don't want to mince words here with this: Hollywood Undead sucks. As someone who likes good metal and good hip-hop and can tolerate some crossover between the two and even appreciates a good horrorcore gimmick, this is the sort of group I would have avoided like the plague, because, as I keep on saying, I never had an angry white boy phase! And after I listened through all of their last albums, that's really the only demographic I can see somewhat appreciating this, even ironically. The best way to describe their first record was trying to split the difference between Eminem and Linkin Park, but the rapping was nowhere close to as good, the clean singing was a poor imitation of Chester Bennington at best, and the production has aged particularly badly. They got a bit heavier on their second record, but the clean singing and rapping somehow got worse and I found their blend of meat-headed flexing and flimsy shock tactics to almost reach the point of parody. To someone who listens to far nastier hip-hop and metal, this doesn't shock me, but unlike Marilyn Manson or Eminem, there was no depth or skill or potent fire to outlast the shock tactics, and the ballads might be some of the most embarrassing music I've heard all year - how anyone can justify a song like 'Bullet', I have no idea. And from there... look, no matter how many bargain-barrel Skrillex-ripoff effects you add to subsequent records, it doesn't make the writing any less walking cringe! The best thing is that if you completely tune out anything these guys are saying, the production can go in a somewhat interesting direction with a decent hook or groove, but that's not saying much. So forgive me when I say I had no expectations for this new record, which reportedly was taking things in a completely new direction... yeah, I'll believe it when I hear it. So what happened on Five?

Okay, so it shouldn't shock any of you that this is pretty bad, but at five records in, I think I'm starting to get a clearer picture of Hollywood Undead's 'appeal', for lack of better terms. But in coming to understand this and any nebulous strengths the group might have, their weaknesses are all the more stark: a profoundly confused and unfocused group that tries to balance increasingly flimsy but earnest angst with aggro macho posturing that just does not have the muscle or edge to be remotely convincing. Thematically, it's analogous to nu-metal, but without real heft and instead relying on bad hip-hop cliches, you wind up with music trying to balance a half dozen different ideas and tones and failing at nearly all of them.

And really, it should be enough to stop there, but let's start with our MCs and singers... and look, let me start by saying I can appreciate energy or attempts to structure a halfway decent hook - Danny working his Chester Bennington impression really does provide more of a foundation to these songs than he probably gets credit, on songs like 'Nobody's Watching' he proves he's got chops when he's not being buried beneath effects and autotune. And I'll even accept that Johnny 3 Tears' Eminem-circa-1999 impression can ride a beat halfway decently, and that Charlie Scene can show off some dramatic range in switching from bars to singing. But there's no way around it, the flows on this record are embarrassingly basic, stringing together obvious rhymes and rarely going for any metaphors or ideas that haven't been beaten to death by dozens of acts ahead of them - hell, scratch that, that we haven't already seen on other Hollywood Undead records! I'm definitely not crazy about B-Real of Cypress Hill showing up on 'Black Cadillac' - dude, do you know what record you're even on, none of this is 'for the kids' - but there's more going on in his lyrical construction than what we get on many of the songs here! And when your MCs don't have a distinct lyrical personality five albums in, you've done your group a serious disservice by neglecting those characters. And that's before we get to whenever these guys try to embrace a singing voice that's closer to a baritone that none of them can make sound remotely intimidating, which tilts the tracks into something damn close to self-parody. Seriously, as much as I might dig the flow behind 'Whatever It Takes', when Charlie Scene talks about pulling out the nine so you can wave bye-bye it's just so damn silly.

And now we've moved to the part of this review where I make fun of the stupid-as-hell lyrics - and here's the first pointer: maybe if you're trying to sound tough you don't want to talk about your 'haters getting shook', or that your 'loneliness is the only bitch that holds me', or how 'exes meet my hoes it's like tic tac toe' that comes right after that stupid Gucci bottoms repeated rhyme, or how despite Johnny 3 Tears raging that he can't go back to look in what he wrote in his diary on 'Broken Record', he's then going to show everyone anyway on 'Pray (Put Em In The Dirt)'! And that showcases the fundamental problem: a total lack of lyrical consistency across this record. Because from song to song this wants to be a record of party bangers and flexing, the most underwritten brand of forgettable angst, some stabs at horror imagery that comes somewhat close to working with the werewolf content on 'Bad Moon' and fails utterly on 'Pray (Put Em In The Dirt)', a half-hearted tribute to California where on songs like 'Ghost Beach' Danny complains how it's changed despite Hollywood Undead representing so much of the shallow hedonism they rail against, and - most hilariously - an attempt to speak to their fans to quell their raging angst on songs like 'Nobody's Watching' and 'Your Life', to reinforce that they're 'Young Renegades' and to, you know, not die. And that got me thinking: if you're looking to a fundamentally white male adolescent worldview, the mess of contradictions that is Hollywood Undead could make sense on an emotional level - the problem is that once you're satiated by it - or you just grow up a bit - you realize that the writing and detail is painfully thin and shows no real internal logic as a whole record. I might not like that last Marilyn Manson record, but there's more lyrical imagination than this, which goes for cheap sloganeering and nothing that feels remotely intimidating or potent.

And a huge part of that is the production, which might be one of the most slapdash 'fusions' of modern trap production with grinding metal that I've heard in some time. If you're expecting those chunky riffs devoid of melody to carry a thicker low-end you're going to be disappointed, and that's before you pile on the tinkling keys, the blaring, pseudo-Skrillex synthesizers, gated drum machines, gang vocals and autotune! And it's not surprising that by trying to fuse the sounds together it ends up feeling watered down overall - what threw me off was how utterly one-dimensional the mood could feel, particularly on the back half of the record. Yeah, the pivots to obvious, major-key pop choruses on 'Broken Record' and 'Nobody's Watching' were goofy, but they felt a lot more memorable than so much unconvincing threats of violence against whirring synth tones, trap hi-hats, and a painfully neglected melodic guitar line! And while I could point at some hysterical moments like Johnny 3 Tears saying the bells would herald my demise on 'Black Cadillac' when there were no bells in the mix, or the cheap autotune drizzled all over the ridiculous bridge on 'Riot', or how 'Your Life' treads dangerously close to parody with the shouting over the end of the verses, or those distracting synth additions into 'Renegade' or the fake horns and pitch-shifting on 'Cashed Out', the larger problem is that there's no greater sense of atmosphere or menace that's allowed to build on these songs. There's little modulation in delivery and intensity between the hedonism and aggression, passive or otherwise, and without the patience to cultivate this, none of it can truly get under my skin. That said, if I were to point at two songs that are fine enough for mindless headbanging, it'd be 'Whatever It Takes' and 'Bang Bang' - again, Marilyn Manson was far more convincing on similar industrial-leaning grooves, but these are okay efforts, especially the latter in sounding like an off-brand Doomtree instrumental, even if the lyrics remain pretty embarrassing.

So in the end... look, you don't have to tell me that I'm not the audience for this - I already said I never had an angry white boy phase as a teenager, and that's really the only demographic I can see enjoying this unironically. But even if you are part of that group, there is rock and metal and hip-hop with so much more intensity and edge than this, to say nothing of cohesive lyrics or some actual narrative complexity. To me, this is painfully basic and ultimately just kind of tedious when it's not hilariously bad - as much as Hollywood Undead want to give the finger to online critics, I'm not so much intimidated as I am faintly amused that anyone takes this seriously. As such, this is a 3/10 and I cannot recommend this... or really anything Hollywood Undead has ever released. Do yourselves a favor and skip this and go listen to, I dunno, Idles' Brutalism or KNIVES' Boy Thursday or even that last Yelawolf record Trial By Fire, it had a few solid rap rock joints with detail and texture and intensity. Trust me, in five years or even five months, you'll be glad you did.

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