Thursday, October 18, 2018

album review: 'afterlife' by alterity

So just so you all understand my point of reference, let me describe how I handle artists who are more of a Bandcamp/independent stripe that wind up on my schedule. Most of it would seem self-explanatory: unless they absolutely blow me away or I literally have nothing else to talk about on my schedule - like in early January - I typically put these artists on the Trailing Edge. And for the most part folks have been fine with this: the acts are just starting out or are very underground, after all, and sometimes bringing down my full critical scrutiny can be a lot to handle, and while there's often a consideration on my part when it comes to traffic, there's also the acknowledgement that a lot of these acts don't exactly give me a ton to say.

Of course, there are exceptions where I do have a little bit more - I'm sure some of you are familiar with my Eric Taxxon reviews by now - but Alterity is a bit of a different case. A duo of producers who also happen to contribute to my Patreon - no guarantee of a positive review or not winding up on the Trailing Edge, for the record - they've patiently voted this up the schedule and I'll freely admit after checking out their debut EP I was pretty sure this was going to wind up on the Trailing Edge too. Not that it was bad, but more that I was generally a little underwhelmed by their sound and approach, of which I'm very familiar and have some pretty strong tastes on what I like in this collection of subgenres. But okay, what then is there to say about their follow-up Afterlife?

Well, I'll tell you: this was more interesting than I was expecting. Not precisely better, and I still have plenty of strong opinions around where they could take their sound, but there was enough here that I thought could make for a full review and a point of where to guide the project going forward. Call it a teachable moment, but many of the issues I encountered with Afterlife I've heard on a lot of indie projects in this lane, and I figured I might as well use this as an object lesson, albeit less of a full recommendation - although I do want to say for the record this is promising and actually winds up on the decent part of the spectrum after a number of relistens.

And I've beaten around the bush long enough surrounding the the genre of this project... mostly because it fits more under an aesthetic rather than a straightforward definition, specifically the brand of early-to-mid 80s synthpop that would mutate into darkwave as the decade proceeded, with a heavier focus on chilly atmosphere, drums that will sound increasingly programmed, murky synth tones, and guitar leads that have sizzle and bite but not a lot of distortion or feedback. But the first thing you notice going through this album is that even that description doesn't quite feel adequate - there was a part of me that really wanted to flag this album as 'gothic', but in truth it doesn't have the tightness or edge that characterized the post-punk and new wave that was in this territory, and it often feels a little too restrained to pick up how that genre mutated in the late 80s. But I'd struggle to call it a modern sensibility either - sure, there's what might sound like a trap progression on 'Welcome To The Dark Side', but it doesn't last, and as a whole this record rarely approaches the orchestral bombast that characterized the morbid iconography that persists in the genre to this day - yes, 'Marian' gets close, but I'd put more of that up to the vocals delivery from guest star Maverick than anything else.

And if it sounds like I'm struggling here to contextualize this album, it's because I am, and because the album is better suited to capturing a very specific atmosphere and vibe than any larger consistency in production, which results in transitions across this album that feel like they should make more sense than they do. Part of this comes from the first third of this album playing itself very straight and very cold, almost reminiscent of what a Lacuna Coil wannabe would have sounded like without the metal in the early-2000s, but by the time we get the melancholic synths and bells on the reverb-saturated 'Most Love Songs Are An Attempt At Commercial Exploitation (Lately)' with the husky male vocals from DeLive, and it's a distinctive mood shift from the more nakedly sexual first third. But then after an extended instrumental interlude we get a series of cuts that have a lot more momentum with quicker low-end grooves, more prominent guitar leads, more aggressive vocals from Maverick, they feel like songs that Pat Benatar could have cut in the early 80s if she was willing to play to darker tones and subject matter. And then yet after one even faster pulsating groove with 'Black Roses, Red Dresses, and a Bad Idea That Demands You To Dance', we get a reverb-touched piano ballad with the final guest star Ghostnote Lab who is easily the most potent and convincing singer on the project with her throatier, more theatrical timbre - hell, it sounds like something Lady Gaga would have made for A Star Is Born except better!

And this leads to my big issue with this project: consistency, especially in production. I get that they're working with four distinct singers, but the vocal production and layering isn't even consistent between them, and it feels less like differing viewpoints and more like their vocal recording setups were not up to the same level. And this really hurts Sandra Bullet in particular - she's nestled more deeply into the mix, her vocal track is certainly not as prominent as her peers, and when she has the pipes and presence the production inconsistency marginalizes her - at the very least a thicker vocal arrangement could have helped. And sadly this is true about a lot of the electric guitar she contributes as well - yeah, I'm not personally crazy about the weedier tone and if overdubs were necessary to flesh out the low end they should have been done, but the focus on cleaner, electronic grooves, synths, and drums means that guitar edge is pushed aside - and considering how seedy parts of this album want to be, that's about the last thing you want to do! Then there's an open question of sequencing, because the album really doesn't build momentum until its back half, which might be good for setting a mood but you do need at least a melodic hook to entice the audience into this environment if you're not going to rely on filthier production or provocative lyricism or any sense of rawness. As It is, the album starts off listless and moody and might kick into gear too late to grab listeners. And I'm not sure the lyrics help here either - again, this might be a factor of this genre and style being overexposed to me, but the poetry didn't really stand out as all that distinctive or punchy, a little too heavily reliant on goth cliches and abstraction, with really only the vampiric 'The Looks That Kill' really standing out in terms of storytelling. 

But at the end of the day... look, I'll give this project points for creating a pretty effective sense of atmosphere, and I do think the component elements are here to make a pretty damn solid retro-leaning darkwave project, just with a little more care in the execution. Keep the vocal mixing and mastering consistent, punch up the guitars, maybe take a second or third draft of the lyrics for something beyond cliche, maybe find some slightly more appropriate vocal melody lines - the juxtaposition between progressions that originated in different eras of goth music did get distracting - and sequence the project to hold consistent momentum and you'd have something special. As it is, I'm giving this a 6/10 and a recommendation, but a qualified one, because if you are familiar with this sort of sound you will have heard a lot of this done better elsewhere. At the same time, though, I see a lot of potential, so if you're curious, Alterity will be an act to watch.

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